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Trekking Greenland

The Kangerlussuaq-Sisimiut Trek, West Greenland
Greenland is a vast country. It covers 98% of the land area of the Kingdom of Denmark, to which it politically belongs. Geographically, it’s the world’s largest island, covering some 2175600km2. Yet only 15% of this area is not covered by ice and therefore available for permanent settlement, travel and trekking.

Deluxe accommodation available

The inland ice is pure wilderness, completely isolated, dramatic and uninhabitable. Apart from several ice-free zones around East Greenland’s settlements of Tassilaq and Daneborg, most of the population is dotted along the South-West Coast, stretching some 1500km from Disko Bay to Cape Farewell. Yet even this region, as crowded as it may seem in comparison with the rest of Greenland, offers endless opportunities for wilderness trekking, climbing and kayaking. The best known, and deservedly so, is the 165km long trek from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut just north of the Arctic Circle. The route traverses much of the 200km wide ice-free zone, the largest in Greenland, crossing wide mountainous plateaus, glacial rivers as well as broad valleys. Most people choose to follow the so-called Low Route from Kangerlussuaq to Kellyville, but only the hiker’s imagination restricts individual route planning.

Kangerlussuaq (Sondre Stromfjord)
Kangerlussuaq, at the eastern tip of Greenland’s third longest fjord, lies just north of the Arctic Circle and is typically regarded as the starting point of the K–>S trek. While the town itself may be seen as little more than a village, with its 500 or so inhabitants, the airport is the largest in Greenland and most international and domestic flights are routed through it. The relatively stable climate has attracted the US military forces, who, on 7 October 1941, founded the Sondrestrom airbase. With the exception of brief Danish control between 1950 and 1951, the town remained under American command until the 30th of September 1992. It’s no real wonder then, that most of the buildings, infrastructure and facilities are more American than Greenlandic. The architecture, while not beautiful, certainly merits a look. The warehouse-style buildings, which house the entertainment centre, the bakery as well as some residential flats, were clearly built to be efficient, not aesthetic. The effect of the continental climate is most pronounced in winter, when temperatures can drop to -50°C. An American sign still proclaims “no idling when temperature above -20°C”, adding a bit of humour into the long, cold and dark polar night. If you have time to spare in the region, or are confident that you can save a day or two on the trek to Sisimiut, several day hikes can be recommended. The Inland Ice, with the outlet Russell Glacier, is 25km distant, but the route follows a straightforward 4WD track, so navigation shouldn’t be a problem. If the weather is co-operative, the views from 400m high Sugar Loaf are worth the 20km day return hike. While strolling around the area, look out for reindeer, arctic fox and musk ox. There are over 5000 musk ox in the area, all of whom have descended from the original 27 who were imported into the region from the North-East Greenland National Park in the 1960s.

Sisimiut (Holsteinsborg)
The pleasant town of Sisimiut lies 75km north of the Arctic Circle and marks the western terminus of the Kangerlussuaq-Sisimiut trek. With over 5000 inhabitants, it’s Greenland’s second largest town. The open sea towards Canada has traditionally been rich in whales, walrus and shrimp and even today, the town is well known for its fish and shrimp processing plants. The Royal Greenland shrimp factory processes around 60 tonnes of shrimp daily.

Greenland’s not all green

The town’s Danish name, Holsteinsborg, honours Danish count Ludwig von Holstein. In 1756, the village was actually founded at Ukiivik, some 40km north of the present site to which the mission and adjacent buildings were relocated in 1764. The whalers, who comprised most of the inhabitants, lived through several epidemics of smallpox and influenza which, at times, decimated the local population by up to 60%. As the whaling industry began to decline in the second half of the 19th century, fishing and shrimping took its place. Modern-day Sisimiut is a typical Greenlandic town with all the amenities of an European town, centred around the picturesque harbour and old town. The Bethel Church, consecrated in 1775, is Greenland’s oldest church. The granitic massif Nasaasaaq provides a dramatic backdrop to the city. Its 784m high peak may be reached on a challenging day hike, but prepare for poor weather conditions and steep slopes. The views from the top are absolutely worth the climb.

An introduction to the trek
The trek typically begins in Kangerlussuaq, in fairly low-lying tundra regions rich in wildlife. Most people choose to hike from east to west, as this means covering the easiest part of the hike when the rucksack is heaviest. Hiking from Sisimiut is also possible, and variations are possible throughout. The village of Sarfanguit is the only settlement between the two towns, but lies a fair distance from the main route. All food supplies therefore need to be carried by the hikers. The classic route from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut measures 165km and can be done in anything from 6 to 14 days, depending on the group’s size, ability and endurance. Orientation is not always easy and hikers must be prepared for the worst the arctic has to offer weather-wise. With some careful planning, however, the trek doesn’t have to be completely exhausting. It certainly is worth the expense of getting there and provides a unique way to experience Greenlandic nature.

Terrain & Relief
The complete route follows the ice-free tundra typical of many sub-Arctic regions including Scandinavia, Siberia and Alaska. Much of the trek will take you through low-lying (<300m) valleys carved out by past glacial activity.

Musk Ox in the distance. Best place for them

Throughout the summer, hiking through these swampy valleys can prove a rather wet experience. Several plateaus of up to 450m need to be crossed. The highest point of the trek is the Qerrottusup Majoria pass, some 13km east of Sisimiut. You also have to pass several lakes, most notably the 25km-long Amitsorsuaq. The terrain does get a more alpine character on the rugged coastline around Sisimiut, where the highest peak Nasaasaaq reaches a height of 784m.
Fauna & Flora
As mentioned, the area around Kangerlussuaq is the prime wildlife watching destination in Greenland. While polar bears are completely absent, it boasts large populations of musk ox, reindeer and arctic fox. The musk ox are typically found in the area to the south-east of Kangerlussuaq, but have been seen along the trek further west. Some individuals have apparently completed the whole trek and have been sighted in Sisimiut. The musk ox look a bit like woolly mammoths, but don’t approach them too close (40m) or you may experience a rather unpleasant close encounter with a hairy cow. The reindeer, on the other hand, are fairly harmless. The local sort doesn’t seem to be too frightful and is typically very interested in trekkers. It may even follow you for a while. Arctic fox may look rather cute, but they carry rabies and should be avoided. If they get too close, or become too friendly, use trekking poles and stones to shoo them away. Remember to leave your cooking utensils inside the tent, as even a lick from an arctic fox can be dangerous and infectious.

Less deluxe accommodation

Plant wise, thanks to the sub-Arctic climate, Greenland is rather poor. There is nothing that even resembles trees along the way and most of the ground is covered by some variation of moss or lichen. The short growing season, reduced to several weeks, is used to its full potential by several plants.

Practical information
Maps & Navigation
All hikers will need 3 essential 1:100 000 maps covering the area between Russell Glacier in the east and the western coast. The maps labelled Kangerlussuaq, Pingu and Sisimiut are available from both Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut tourist offices, as well as by mail order from:
Experience with navigation in wilderness is needed, and a compass is another necessity. Note that the declination in the area was 38.5°W in 2000 and is decreasing by circa 1/4° annually. A narrow path follows the route at times and the majority is also marked with cairns. The path, however, deteriorates in places, especially in swampy areas, and cairns may be too distant to see. Consult your map to avoid getting lost.
Arctic Circle Race
A variation of the trek is this cross-country skiing race. This yearly event follows the trek’s route for a while but begins in Sisimiut. The three-day event is one of the toughest ski races in the world and competitors cover around 160km over its course. For more information, check out

Supplies & Cooking
Hikers need to carry all food supplies with them. Include some emergency rations as weather can confine you to a tent or a hut for some time. The Butikken at Kangerlussuaq and the Brugsen and Pisiffik supermarkets in Sisimiut all stock food, but prices are rather high. Dehydrated food is best brought from home. There’s also a small KNI shop at Sarfanguit which sells the usual assortment including biscuits, bread and basic food, but this is not accessible from the main route. Fresh water is available from streams and lakes and doesn’t need to be treated artificially. Be aware that lake Hundeso is a salt-water lake.

Rivers make your feet wet

Hikers can supplement their diet by fishing (permits available from Kangerlussuaq Tourism and post office). Hikers should carry adequate supplies including emergency rations. Chocolate and other high-energy foods are highly recommended. Dehydrated food, although expensive, will help to save weight and volume. Such products should be preferably bought before coming to Greenland, as specialised products may not be available and food is generally more expensive.
Butane stoves are of limited use in Greenland, as cartridges are quite hard to find. The Butikken in Kangerlussuaq and the Spar in Sisimiut’s harbour may stock some, but not all types will be available. A petrol-stove is a much better alternative. Petrol can be purchased at the petrol station in Sisimiut’s harbour or at the airport in Kangerlussuaq. A litre costs around 3DKK. Sprit is the local name for household ethanol and will probably work with trangias. Carry enough fuel for the duration of the trek.
All hikers need a tent. Camping is possible anywhere, but finding a dry and level spot may prove a bit troublesome at times. Avoid swampy land and river valleys, as these could be liable to flooding. Several campsites are marked on the maps, but note that these have no facilities. As a supplement to camping, several hiker’s huts are available for use, free of charge. They tend to offer space for 6-8 people but may prove to be a bit tight if the hut’s capacity is reached. Most cabins have an area set aside for cooking. There are also several private huts, most notably the caravan at Hundeso, which are left unlocked and may be used by hikers in an emergency. While it would be theoretically possible to complete the tent using huts only, carry a tent for safety. It also allows you to break the journey between cabins.

But sometimes it all seems worth it

A free camp site is located both in Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut. The one at Kangerlussuaq is adjacent to the airport hotel and visitors may use the airport’s facilities. You should check in at the Hotel’s reception desk for admittance to the showers. Team Arctic Youth Hostel at the Old Camp, some 2km west of the airport offers beds for 275DKK including breakfast and transfer to/from airport. In Sisimiut, the campsite is located about 2km east of town. There’s a dry toilet and the river water is okay. Accommodation is also available at the Knud Rasmussen school, the Seamen’s Home and the Youth Hostel. Ask at the tourist office for details.

The whole route lies north of the Arctic Circle and a harsh climate must be expected. The area around Kangerlussuaq experiences continental climate, which is fairly stable and typically fairly dry. Temperatures in mid-summer can reach 25°C but mid-winter, they may drop to -50°C. As you get further towards Sisimiut, the effects of the sea become more pronounced. The terrain is susceptible to relief rainfall and snow can be expected at higher altitudes (400m+) anytime from late August. Typically, temperatures range between 10°C and 15°C during the day, while these drop to 0°C-10°C during the nights. Hikers should be prepared for both precipitation and coolness but shouldn’t forget shorts should the temperature rise. Water levels in rivers will be highest in early summer, when snowmelt will increase the rivers’ discharge. For cross-country skiers, snow conditions are best in March and April and the days even start getting longer again. During summer, particularly around the 21st of June, the midnight sun will be experienced by hikers.
River Crossing
Along the route, you will undoubtedly meet several unbridged rivers. Fording will be necessary at least once and hikers may want to bring an extra pair of shoes for wading. The best fording place may differ depending on recent precipitation, the season and the river’s discharge and may not be exactly as marked on the map. Generally, the river is shallowest at its widest point. Places with vegetation may be the deepest of all, especially on the Itivneq. When crossing a river, unbuckle your waist strap and cross facing upstream. If crossing in pairs, couple shoulders for extra stability. Trekking poles may also prove helpful. After periods of rainfall or during spring snowmelts, rivers may be completely uncrossable. Allow sufficient time reserves for long detours or waits for the water level to drop. Swimming across a flooding river, even with the help of a Therm-a-Rest is suicidal, and should not be attempted. If you wish to avoid the highest water levels, try to trek in late-August when water level may be lower than in early summer.
Canoe Centre
On the western end of Amitsorsuaq lake lies the 30-person canoe centre. It’s by far the largest of the huts and provides a pleasant location for further exploration along the way. Staying here for some time is highly recommended. Hikers may use the centre free of charge, as with all the other huts. In addition to providing shelter, it also maintains a flotilla of canoes which are dotted around the lake. These may be used by hikers free of charge but it would be appreciated if they were returned to the Canoe Centre after use. As most people choose to hike from east to west, most of the canoes are strewn around the western end where they’re abandoned. If you find a canoe at the 8-person hut on Amitsorsuaq’s eastern end, use the chance and paddle across the 25km long lake. The recommended canoe route is marked on the map and it certainly is a pleasure to paddle rather than walk the distance.
Although there’s very limited transport possibilities along the trek (apart from hiking, naturally), both Kangerlussuaq and  Sisimiut are well served by domestic transport links and Kangerlussuaq has several weekly flights to Copenhagen. The village of Sarfanguit is linked to Sisimiut by a weekly RAB Cargo Boat, which may carry passengers. Booking in advance is recommended for all transport options, as places fill up quickly. Apart from hiking, you can also hitch the first 15km along the gravel track to Kelly Ville. A pre-arranged transfer bookable through the tourist office at Kangerlussuaq airport costs 500DKK for up to 4 people. While the route has been completed by some tough mountain bikers, hiking will always be your main transport option.
The airport at Kangerlussuaq is the largest in Greenland and serves as a hub for both domestic and international air travel. Several weekly connections by Greenlandair and SAS (these may cease in the near future, ask SAS for details) link the city to Copenhagen. In summer, Gronlandsfly has several weekly connections to other Greenlandic airports, including Nuuk, Sisimiut, Ilulissat, Qanaaq, Narsarsuaq and Kulusuk. Timetables change constantly, so contact Gronlandsfly directly for the latest fares and times. In summer, Kangerlussuaq is also linked to towns on the West Coast by ferry. Transfer from the town to the harbour is provided free of charge for passengers. Contact Arctic Umiaq Line for details on fares and timetables.
Sisimiut is well served by coastal ferries run by AUL, which connect it to Ilulissat and Nuuk amongst others. Being the northernmost all-year icefree port, it is served throughout both summer and winter. There’s at least 1 weekly ferry north- and southbound in the summer. AUL will provide fares, timetables and booking information. The newly constructed airport dates from 1998 and can handle aircraft up to Dash-7 size. There are regular flights to Kangerlussuaq (cca. 1150DKK one-way), Nuuk and Ilulissat. Connections can be made at Kangerlussuaq for onward flights. Gronlandsfly will provide details.

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