ALONE IN THE ARCTIC - My journey on the Arctic Circle Trail (Greenland) (Day 4)

September 5th, 2014

(Ikkattooq to Eqalugaarniarfik)

Miles Walked: 6.5

Ikkattooq Hut, Greenland (Arctic Circle Trail)

Ikkattooq Hut

     I woke up staring at rain on the hut windows.  Not a good sign!  I only had 6.5 miles to complete today but even that relatively short distance could be a problem if my rain gear became saturated again.  After spending the day before mostly soaking wet, cold, and hungry, I had really hoped to wake and gaze upon sunny skies.  Oh well, I guess it's true that the trips where something goes wrong are the ones you remember most.  I was in no rush to get started and took my time getting ready.  By the time I finally hit the trail the rain had thankfully eased to only a sprinkle.  

Inside the Ikkattooq Hut, Greenland (Arctic Circle Trail)

Inside the hut

Water Source, Ikkattooq Hut, Greenland (Arctic Circle Trail)

The hut water source

     I made good progress and the initial climb helped me warm up and dry out some additional layers of clothing.  Along the way I saw evidence of glaciers having advanced and retreated in the area, with both glacial striation and glacial erratics present along the route.  As I crested the ridge and looked down upon the valley of Itinneq (Ole's Lakseelv), I was greeted by several Arctic Hare that seemed entirely unfazed by my presence.  For almost four full days now I had been without not only human contact, but also largely avoided having to deal with significant amounts of mosquitoes or flies as well.  As I descended into the valley for what, depending on the recent rain and snow melt, could be the most dangerous stream crossing of the trip, swarms of flies began to appear all around me.  They weren't biting and at first I tried to ignore them and walk faster but they were truly everywhere.  Fortunately I'd been expecting this at some point and had brought along a head net.

Glacial Striations, Greenland (Arctic Circle Trail)

Glacial Striations

Glacial Erratics, Greenland (Arctic Circle Trail)

Glacial Erratics

Arctic Hare, Greenland (Arctic Circle Trail)

Arctic Hare at Center

Arctic Hare, Greenland (Arctic Circle Trail)

Closeup of another Arctic Hare

Head Net, Midge Net, Greenland (Arctic Circle Trail)

Head Net Required! 

    As I reached the valley floor and made way towards the deepest and  fastest flowing river of the journey to the coast, the flies cleared up and I was able to lift up my head net.  I fitted the net over my sun hat so that it was ready to be deployed quickly if needed.  As I examined the terrain I began having what I call "people mirages" where at first glance it seemed like another person was off in the distance but would inevitably turn out to be a boulder or some other feature of the landscape.  I'd had a few of these over the past few days and now, on day four without human contact, I'd been leaning towards a wager of "not a human" when a distant object appeared to give off the impression of human form. 

    As I drew nearer to the river I began scanning for any trace of a trail leading off to the bridge that lies about 1.5 miles to the South.  The bridge was installed back in 2007 to offer an alternate route across the river if the current is too strong for fording but also requires a bushwhack and extra miles.  You’re probably asking yourself why the bridge was installed so far from the “trail” and I’ve come up with several ideas, though I admit that I've never explored any of these theories with the locals.  First of all, the Arctic Circle Trail is often more of an idea and a general direction than a maintained hiking trail so it’s possible that those who installed the bridge thought the location was the best route for those trekking from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut.  Second, the river empties into the Maliaq Fjord, an area frequented by hunters arriving by boat from Sisimiut.  As such it sees more human activity then the rest of the trail so maybe it was put in for those wandering the area in search of reindeer and not meant to keep hikers from getting washed downstream.  Third, and in my opinion most likely, is that it was placed there since that might be where participants of Arctic Circle Race, a cross country ski race, cross the river each March.  In any event, I planned to check out the stream and hopefully cross without the bridge detour but wanted to keep an eye out for an easy path if the bridge turned out to be the best option.   

    As I neared the banks of the river I spotted another "people mirage" off in the distance.  This one even looked like it was carrying a backpack.  I thought it odd that backpack even appeared to be red.  There was definitely a strong presence of red in the brush of Arctic Fall but not at the height necessary to imitate a backpack.  As I drew closer I realized my mirage was moving and was in fact no mirage at all.  On day 4 of my journey in the Arctic I was finally going to meet another traveler who appeared to be heading in the opposite direction.  I wondered where they'd be from and what information (Trail Beta) they could give me about the four days or so that lay ahead.   I also began to search my memory for any important info that I could pass on to them about the stretch of tundra I had already explored.  Drawing still closer it was clear that it was a man, and when I took note of his pack I was surprised to see that he was not in fact carrying a pack on his back but rather part of an animal carcass that had already been skinned.  

     He was an Inuit man in his mid- to late 30's and I assumed he was probably from Sarfánguaq, a small settlement about 14 miles away.  We greeted each other and attempted conversation but since I only knew a few words and phrases in Greenlandic and had not heard the language spoken enough to pronounce even those few words correctly, the effort failed.  From the size of the carcass I assumed it was a Musk Oxen.  I hadn't yet learned the Greenlandic word for Musk Oxen (Umimmak) so I tried asking him if that was what he was carrying using the Danish word, Moskus.  He didn't understand what I was asking and just said "Captain" and gestured towards the river.  He agreed to let me take his picture and then he continued on his path and I on mine.  

Inuit Hunter with Reindeer Carcass, Greenland (Arctic Circle Trail)

Inuit Hunter - First Human Contact in 4 Days

Inuit Hunter with Reindeer Carcass, Greenland (Arctic Circle Trail)

    I soon encountered the other two hunters, including their “Captain” who it would later turn out is actually a fishing boat captain named Nikolai.  Nikolai spoke a little bit of English so we were able to carry on a broken conversation.  I learned that they had been hunting Reindeer (Tuttu in Greenlandic), not Musk Oxen, and that the reason two of the hunters were carrying parts of the carcass on their backs was that, this late in the year, well past the surge from melting snow, the river was too shallow in spots for boat to pass over with three men and a reindeer or two inside.  The solution was to field dress, skin, and then cut the carcass in half so that two men could carry it down river to where the water was deeper.  This had to mean that each man was carrying around 100 pounds without anything to support the weight other than the strength of their backs.  An impressive feat in any conditions but made more so by the fact that they were also trudging through mud, bogs, and water soaked tundra.  

    I tried asking if they were in fact from Sarfánguaq but didn't pronounce it correctly and it was clear Nikolai had no idea what I was asking him.  I then asked if they were from Sisimiut, the second largest city in Greenland and my destination on this trip.  It's also much easier to pronounce so I figured I had a better shot at being understood.  This question essentially took the form of me saying "Sisimiut?" with an inquisitive tone which led him to assume I was asking about transport to Sisimiut.  I waved him off and through a game of hand charades I explained that no, I was walking to Sisimiut and that I wanted to know where they were from.  They were in fact from Sisimiut and were enjoying a hunting trip while on a break from their jobs as commercial fishermen and before the Winter arrived in force.  They were incredibly friendly and welcoming and Nikolai even gave me his phone number in case I needed anything while in Sisimiut.  

Captain Nikolai, Inuit Fisherman, Inuit Hunter, Greenland (Arctic Circle Trail)

Captain Nikolai

     I finally reached the river bank and after checking the depth I realized that it would be about up to my mid-thigh so with pants off and crocks on I waded into the icy water and crossed to the other side.  The route on the other side was extremely muddy and the "trail" frequently disappeared.  My new fishermen friends were back in their boat now and our paths went in parallel as I made my way along the riverbank and around a mountain.  We were within voice range for about an hour or two so they would frequently call out directions when they thought there was a better path for me or when I paused when the trail disappeared into a bog.  I appreciated the help and enjoyed having my own local support team.  Our paths soon diverged and with a waive they were gone and I was once again alone in the Arctic, though not for long.  

Approaching Eqalugaarniarfik Hut (At center, up against the mountain), Greenland (Arctic Circle Trail)

Approaching Eqalugaarniarfik Hut (At center, up against the mountain)

     The Eqalugaarniarfik Hut soon came into view and I was happy that today was a short day given my long rain soaked journey the day before.  I didn't notice any activity around the hut and wondered if I'd have it to myself, as had become the norm, but as I drew closer I spotted two people walking towards the hut from the opposite direction.  The mantra with huts and shelters is that there's always room for one more but that didn't meant I didn't want first dibs on where I slept.  I quickened my pace without making it obvious and waved hello before climbing the steps to the doorway.  I noticed that the door had not been latched and remember thinking to myself, "what kind of inconsiderate prick forgets to latch the door when they leave" as doing so allows wildlife and insects to come and go as they please.  I opened the door and looked forward to choosing my bed for the night and was surprised to find an Inuit woman sitting at the hut's table who was just as surprised to see me.  The two people I had seen walking towards the hut entered shortly after, before I'd even taken off my pack.  They were a local Inuit family from Sisimiut, about thirty five miles to the West, and were staying at the hut while hunting Reindeer.  

    I took of my pack and lay it against the wall, not bothering to begin unpacking as is my custom.  I was thrilled to have the opportunity to meet a local family and learn more about Greenland and its culture.  Adding to my excitement was that, other than my brief interaction with the hunters at the river, I hadn't conversed with a human, or any animals or plant life for that matter, in nearly four days.  The woman's name was Inger and her husband Mikkel, joined by Jørgen, were the two men that followed me into the hut.  We were soon joined by Peter, Jørgen's stepfather, as well as Søren and his son Tuuma.  I learned that Mikkel works as a carpenter at the construction school in Sisimiut while Inger was a housewife.  They were planning to move to Denmark soon for a course of study in theology.  Peter works as a taxi driver and his stepson Jørgen is starting his senior year of high school.  Søren is a commercial fisherman on the large, ocean going trawlers and his son Tuuma was following in his dad's footsteps as a fisherman.  

Inuit extended family at Eqalugaarniarfik Hut, Greenland (Arctic Circle Trail)

Peter, Søren, Tuuma, Jørgen, Mikkel, and Inger (From Left to Right)

     Though all of them spoke English to a certain degree, Mikkel was by far the most fluent and often took on the role of translator.  Having been a colony of Denmark since the 18th century, and only gaining semi-autonomous home role in 1979, most native Greenlanders speak Danish to varying levels of fluency as well as their native Greenlandic.  The Greenlandic dialect that is spoken in the South and West is different from that spoken in the far North and also different from that spoken on the further isolated East Coast of Greenland.  With cultural, and occasionally family ties to the Inuit people of Canada, and with a steady U.S. Military presence in Greenland since the beginning of WWII, English is also spoken by many native Greenlanders.  I was eager to learn as much Greenlandic as I could retain and was especially interested in pronunciation.  Peter was particularly helpful with this mission and very patient as I amused the group with my butchered Greenlandic.  I'm just glad that I lost my Brooklyn accent decades ago or it would have been impossible.  Picture an Inuit 'My Cousin Vinny'!  We finally made some progress and I was beginning to understand the dialect a bit more which made it much easier to learn more of their language.  This soon led to food!

    They had come by boat from Sisimiut and anchored at the head of the fjord, walking the remaining mile or two.  As such they were well provisioned and were eager to share their food with me.  I'd been living on freeze dried meals, ramen, and salami so I was not going to say no, plus it wouldn't have been very diplomatic of me.  I indulged in bread and cake and offered them tortilla and Italian peppered salami.  They didn't seem very impressed by the tortilla and were definitely not fans of the pepper on the salami.  The highlight of this food exchange was the Reindeer they offered me.  It was rib meat from a deer they had brought down on this trip and it had been braising for several hours.  I took a small bite at first and was amazed at how tender it was.  It wasn't very gamey and reminded me of brisket, though that might have been owing more to Inger's culinary skills than anything else.  

View from Eqalugaarniarfik Hut of Maliaq, Greenland (Arctic Circle Trail)

View of the Fjord from in front of the hut

    We spent the evening drinking tea and exchanging stories.  They showed me tons of family photos and worked on my Greenlandic.  They were so warm and welcoming that I felt like I had wandered into their home and not a bare bones hut that was 50 miles or so North of the Arctic Circle and about 65 miles West of the Greenland Ice Sheet.  When Peter taught me the world for Polar Bear (Nanoq) I asked him, "There are no Nanoq here, right?"  When he answered yes, there were, I was both shocked and confused.  Follow up questions cleared up the matter and I learned that he meant during the Winter.  In fact during the Winter of 2013-2014 one had wandered so close to town that they had no choice but to kill it.  Polar Bears do not fear humans and will also hunt down a man if given the opportunity.  Apparently there is system of seniority among the fishermen and the next senior man that hadn't already taken a polar bear was allowed to take the shot and claim the bear.  So no polar bears on my journey but with climate change and drifting sea ice who knows what the future holds.  

    I tried to give them some family time and figured I would head outside to take in the scenery and some fresh air since it was a beautiful evening and the sun wouldn't set until closer to 9 pm.  I pictured myself sitting on a boulder enjoying the view and writing the day's notes in my journal but unfortunately the flies were back out and I was forced to retreat back inside after just a few minutes.  Since this hut was used extensively year round it was well stocked with fuel for the paraffin heater.  I'd never used one before so I asked Søren to give me a lesson in their use and maintenance.  The beds were taken so I inflated my sleeping pad, unpacked my sleeping bag and chose a patch of floor near the kitchen area and away from the door and the heater.  I then hung my wet clothes above the heater and got ready for bed.  We exchanged phone numbers and email addresses and made plans to get together in Sisimiut once I arrived there next week.  Ever the diplomat, I gifted them with ear plugs since I know that I snore and that so do most other men over 40, whether they admit it or not.  In stark contrast to the previous night where I had been alone, shivering, and worried about survival, tonight I drifted off to bed in warm, dry clothes, halfway to Sisimiut and thankful that I had met this extended family and been welcomed into their lives and culture.

Eqalugaarniarfik Hut, Greenland, (Arctic Circle Trail)

Home Sweet Home (At least for one night)

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