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Greenland, Denmark, Sweden
Arctic Circle Trail
Updated October 25, 2010
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Greenland, Denmark, Sweden
Arctic Circle Trail Expedition
September 23 to October 8, 2008
© 2010 Aaron Linsdau
Exchange Rate: 5.5 Danish Krone (Dkk) to $1 USD
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
After several days of a mad dash to get ready, my parents took me to the San Diego Airport. I had only booked this trip one week ago and was still working out the details at the very last second. I was literally taking care of credit cards for international travel on the way to the airport. Putting together last minute trips is okay for an experience, but doing this for trekking travel is a different matter. Really, it's dumb. I won't do this again, given the choice.
I caught my flight out of San Diego and was off without a hitch.
The connection in Chicago O'Hare was fine, other than having to navigate the maze of buildings to make it to international terminal 5.
Having the aisle seat on the Airbus 340 was handy for getting up and moving around a bit, as 8 hours in a seat will catch up with your backside. I didn't get but an hour of sleep on the flight. Taking a Tylenol PM might have been a good idea, but my brain was racing so much that it might not have helped anyway. Self-doubt, crazy thoughts of bailing out due to too much snow, not being able to make it at all and the conditions being too rough spun through my head. It all flew through my mind fast, just like how a child thinks about Christmas in December.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
I arrived in Denmark without any problems, other than being dastardly tired. I found the luggage office and dropped my mega-backpack, the 45-50 pound Gregory behemoth full of food and supplies for 10 days of hard backpacking in the arctic.
The information desk was able to provide directions to the Zleep hotel, only one train stop away from the airport, toward the city. The helpful lady at the train station window set me up with a 3-zone, 24 hour pass, for 60 Danish krone (Dkk), $12US. This ticket allowed me to get to the city center, eat dinner and get back to the hotel and, ultimately, to the airport for the whole 18 hours I was to be here.
After a bit of wandering, I found the Zleep airport hotel and tried out the strange reservations from the GTAHotels.com site. It all worked out perfectly. The little piece of paper reservation was a life saver. A friend had saved me $40US by directing me to this reservation system. There was also the chance to hit Sweden today, on this leg of the journey. But, I opted out of it in lieu of getting a good meal and a full night's rest. My plan was to get over to Malmo on the way back, when more time was available and it was less risky.
Finding some grub
Getting to the hotel, I bedded down for a nap. The nap was fitful and I only got one hour of effective sleep. It wasn't completely refreshing, though it beat being a wandering Copenhagen like a zombie. The impersonal girl at the hotel front desk was able to provide some ideas of places to eat as well as sites to see in the evening. I was then off to the train.
The prescribed city walk suggested by the airport tourist map was along a well traveled pedestrian-only path, reducing the likelihood of running into any trouble. I now regretted not bringing any sort of camera strap for my Nikon D200. This was to save weight, but the risk and inconvenience of carrying the camera body in hand became irritating. A thin 1" neck strap would have done wonders.
The only place serving dinner at this late hour was 100Dkk/$22 US Italian shop. The food looked good, but I didn't come to Denmark to enjoy Italian. Knowing I'd regret passing up this obvious dinner location, I continued to walk on in search of something more Danish.
As anticipated, the only thing I learned that was real Danish fare was herring. And not much else. I ended up having the pleasure of paying 240Dkk/$45US for a plate of salmon and rice. It was good, but not for that price. The Italian place looked much better in hindsight. The lesson here was to eat at the first decent place that looks good when it's late. You never know what you'll come across, if anything. Each city is different.
Compared to $40US salmon, a plate of $20 pasta and a more full belly sounded really good at 10pm. This was a repeat lesson of my trip to Paris years ago - don't pass up good places while searching for a guidebook suggestion. If it's tasty looking and reasonable, enjoy it right there.
There were two British chaps next to me who I couldn't strike up a conversation with at all. They seemed to be lost in their own worlds, not speaking with each other as much as they wouldn't talk to others. A Russian woman sitting beside the Brits appeared like she would like conversation, but when the waiter came by to take the order, the Russian woman came off cold. Not rude, just not inviting. This ended up being a solo dinner venture.
The walk back to the Zleep hotel took less time than finding dinner, as I know knew the route to take - I was suffering from the dude horse effect. That's where it seems to take 2-3x as long to go some place as it does to return from it. After returning to the hotel, I repacked my gear, showered and bedded down for the night at 10:30pm, about 1:30am my time.
Thursday September 25, 2008
Early morning in Europe
As expected, I didn't sleep well from the jet lag. Wild thoughts ran through my head. Failure, bailout, what-if situations and the like filled my head after waking up around 2am. These thoughts, coupled with a slightly sore back from the plane ride, kept me tossing and turning, getting vague sleep until 4am. Then I fell asleep hard. 6am was my wake-up time and I bounced out of bed mentally, though the body was sluggish. Sleeping in was tempting. But, the schedule allowed only a small amount of time for leisure.
I showered and then enjoyed a 59Dkk/$12US European style breakfast buffet at the Zleep hotel. There was no need to suffer crappy airport food when a 30 second walk down the hallway afforded bread, cheese, apples, juice, cream cheese, honey, yogurt and the like. Eating to my stomach's content, I returned to the room to do a final cleanup and get back to the airport.
Getting to Greenland
Unlike last night's cranky female conductor checking tickets on a nearly empty train, this busy train had no one checking tickets.
Over at the airport, I decided to change all $1000US I was carrying to Danish Krones, since Kangerlussuaq (pronounced "kanger-lushwa") had no ATM and I didn't know what I would need in Greenland, especially in an emergency. And, I found that my REI Visa wasn't working at many places. Most required the European chipped credit card. I had notified REI Visa about the travel, but it seemed the computerized rejection system was stymieing me anyway. It was a 2.5% hit for the cash exchange. The change house had a purchase-sell split of 495Dkk to 520Dkk. This was far better than in the US with a 10-20% split.
The lines for the Air Greenland flight were much busier than expected. It was good I didn't sleep in. After changing money, getting the backpack checked in and making way through the long security lines, I almost left my passport, money and chapstick in an x-ray tub due to lack sleep. How I hate having to drop papers in buckets, as it's easy to lose things in the chaos. That's what some airports require. After all the chasing around, there were only 15 minutes before the plane began boarding.
The Airbus A330 was almost a nice as the A340 from Chicago to Copenhagen, as the only difference in coach was the lack of cup holders between the planes. We received notice that the safety instructions were only to be given in Danish and Greenlandic. Good thing I can read the little picture diagrams on the safety card.
Fly over inspection
My seat-mate's ear buds droned out heavy metal music loud that I was able to hum along with. Though that was irritating, ultimately he ended up being nice guy. He was courteous, smiled and offered to pawn my trash to the stewardess. Maybe there's something to the rumor of endless smiles of Greenlanders. All during the flight, I tried to catch a little sleep to rest up for the trek. Again, thoughts of danger, difficulty and failure haunted my cat-nap dreams.
On approach to Kangerlussuaq, the pilot does a steeply banked, right-hand, 180 degree turn to let passengers get a good look at the landscape. You tilt 45 degrees, allowing a direct look at the ground. It was scary to have the plane feel like it was on its side. The benefit was the direct look at the ground that assuaged my fears. I was glad to have a chance to investigate ground conditions from the air. The snow was sparse. The landscape was clear and I saw every detail. What a relief! All my fears drained away like a popped water balloon. Excitement of success filled my head. Having to stay in Kangerlussuaq for 10 days was the backup plan B. Now, seeing the landscape, the undesirable plan B was not longer needed.
"I will not fail. This will be tough but doable. It's not waist deep snow for 100 miles."
Kangerlussuaq airport has only stairs. No cozy jetways swing out to greet you. Instead, Greenland welcomes visitors with a blast of arctic air. As soon as the plane parked, everyone on the plane began donning their heavy parkas and gloves. Not a good sign for what looked to be a sunny day.
The digital thermometer in the airport read -7C or 10 deg F, a bit colder than I had hoped. Still, it's good. Luggage takes 25 minutes to travel 200 feet from the plane to the luggage rack. There was a customs officer and drug dog waiting near the carousel, presumably to pick off smugglers.
I spoke to Keeta at the tourism desk inside the airport and purchased the three topographic maps I needed for Dkk 80 / $16 US each. Good thing I brought lots of cash. There is no ATM here. These maps will be indispensible. It would have been safer to purchase them in advance if I knew how to get them. If the office was out of maps, I would have been in trouble. Keeta was also able to arrange the hostel for my last night in Greenland, 10 days in advance.
Prior to arrival in Greenland, I was able to contact Holger for securing white gas (20Dkk/$4 per liter) for my stove. It was a very fair price, considering the store wanted to charge 30Dkk or $6 per liter. Prior to departure, I looked up the Danish translation of white gas - "Rense Benzin", had I not been able to find Holger.
Getting geared up and ready
Holger brought much more fuel than I needed, as he didn't know I was traveling solo, so he had more than enough for me. He was kind enough to let me only purchase and pour what I needed. Holger was also surprised about the lateness of the season and the solo approach on top of that.
The airport rented lockers for 20Dkk/day, making it possible to leave a lot of gear not necessary for the trek. It is good to bring a spare lock to be self-contained, as that's what some people did. You also have the only key to the lock you rent. Don't lose it.
I walked over to the police station, marked Polize, to register for the trip as Keeta suggested. A surprised the young officer greeted me.
"You know the last person to go on this trip came through here a month ago?"
"No, but that's good to know."
"Do you have a radio? A group of Germans came through last month and called for information many times before calling for rescue when one broke his leg."
"No. No radio."
Both of my answers garnered a raised eyebrow.
The officer wrote down my contact and insurance information on a form specifically written for this trek.
Getting on the trail
It seemed as though the group of Germans wasn't quite up to snuff, as they had called via radio several times prior to their incident. They asked for directions and other questions that brought their preparedness into question.
It is a 16km ride out to the start of the main trail to bypass a full day of walking on a dusty road. The ride costs 320Dkk ($55US) to reach the hiking drop-off point near the Kelly Ville research station. Is was extremely expensive, but spending the extra money was well worth it. We only passed one vehicle the whole ride and there was nothing to see along the utility road. Part of the ride goes up a very steep grade as well. The only water around the road is tainted saline by the ocean, making a first day from Kangerlussuaq to the satellite station a waste.
As my driver only spoke a few words of English and I none Greenlandic, I did my best to thank him, shake his hand and pay his fare. Off into the arctic wilderness I went. At 3pm.
The start of the trail was icy and slick, immediately making me wish I had brought my Yak Tracks (boot chains), at least for the first few hundred yards. I started hiking at 3pm. The extra weight of the Yak Tracks would have been well offset by the decreased risk of slipping being injured. It didn't take long to wish I had brought them more than once.
Distances on the 100,000:1 maps were deceptively far for me, as I was used to 24,000:1 maps. It took a day or two to recalibrate my perception of scale. The wider maps cut down on the expense and number of items to keep track of.
About 1 mile into the trek, I heard and then saw reindeer (caribou) hunters near the abandoned trailer by the first small lake. As the day wore on, I moved through the hills and it was nearly sunset and 7pm before I found a leeward area to set up the tent. The temperature dropped frighteningly fast as the last vestiges of sunlight faded from the sky. With the tent set up, I rushed to cook, eat and brush my teeth to bed down by 830pm.
Oh…brr, brr, brr. It's cold. Thank goodness for the Western Mountaineering Antelope sleeping bag, rated at 5 deg F. I would have frozen had I only brought the Megalight bag, rated at 30 deg F.
A Nalgene bottle of boiling hot water was a great salvation for chilled toes. Boil the water, pour it in the Nalgene bottle, make sure the cap is secure and stuff it into the foot box of the bag makes for a comfy night. Hot water bottles make the arctic experience almost civilized.
I had hoped for an aurora that night but the sky didn't cooperate. At 2am, clouds obscured the sky which is not a good sign for weather.
Day 1 food
Friday, September 26, 2008
Dang it! Some time during the night, my down-insulated Exped air mattress began losing air. Hopefully it's just the warm air in the mattress cooling down and causing the shrinking or a stuck feather in the valve. Nothing could be worse for sleep than having no insulation from the arctic tundra.
There was no aurora visible due to the clouds, but the clouds reradiated warmth back to me. My biggest fear was waking up to a foot of snow in the morning. I also had a dream that hoofed animals were milling around me on the trail at night. It could have been true with the reindeer around here.
Waking up at 7am, my head was still foggy from the jet lag that retained a grip on me. I hope to shake that feeling after a good full day of walking today so I can get an earlier start. The white gas Dragonfly stove fired up easily and rapidly boiled my water for 290 calories of oatmeal, powdered milk and brown sugar.
Day of errors
While reheating the oatmeal, the pot boiled over, making a mess. That was not a good way to start out in Greenland.
Good thing I'd stocked up on Nalgene bottled water the night before, as the first pond I found was covered in an impenetrable 3 inches of ice. My small water bottle had frozen over during the night. That freezing caused condensation, getting my Antelope bag a little wet. It wasn't bad, just enough to teach me not to leave 0.5L bottles laying against my microfiber bag. After all this fooling around with water bottled and boiled over oatmeal, I didn't start walking until 830am, just when a few snowflakes began falling. This was my introduction to arctic weather. The snow was light, so there was no reason for me to turn back and make camp to wait out the weather. How long would I have to wait, anyway?
Down by the first lake, I saw 2 reindeer (caribou) at 200 yards, silhouetted in the blowing snow while resting. They moved out of sight silently, like ghosts. Only then did I see their bigger herd, about 300 yards off. After observing them for a few minutes, they bolted once I rose from my rock stoop.
The going started getting rough, as the snow started blowing hard. Ironically, the wind-whipped snow actually made following the trail easier, as it the trail rut was now better defined. But, the trail was now covered treacherous ice, as I learned by stumbling more than once. I reverted to walking on the tundra weeds when the trail looked like it was covered in solid ice. Marching in the growth was slower going, yet t prevented a dangerous fall. It was now snowing hard.
Inadvertent swimming in a blizzard
As I was traversing the snow-covered ice swamp created by Lake Qarlissuit, I partially broke through and took a little water in the boot. The Outdoor Research Croc gaiters prevented the boots from being inundated by water.
Trekking through the icy tundra is tougher than I anticipated. Also, in retrospect, printing the "what to expect" at each river crossing would have been good. The first crossing said, "Take off boots AND trousers."
The river crossing was deep and the bottom wasn't visible, so I stowed the camera and, while sitting on a rock to stay out of snow, pulled off my boots, socks and gaiters, then hiked up my shell pants up to mid-thigh. I thought about packing my boots so I had both hands free.
Wish I had.
Yelling into the wind from the searing pain of putting my bare feet on snowy, wet ground, I stood up. It was like stepping on hot coals as I walked to the edge of the river. Stepping in at first was okay, as the mush and rocks under the river surface were solid. Then, the next step into the marshy bottom introduced me to the arctic. I slipped, sinking nearly up to my waist in water. My boots and socks were dunked. I almost fell over with my pack. My pants were under water.
I regained my balance with two boots full of water.
I yelled, "NO!!", into the wind fruitlessly.
After a moment of stumbling on the grassy bottom, I avoided completely tumbling over. As I was now soaked, I just plowed forward, broke through the ˝ inch thick river ice with my bare feet and got to the other side. I was mad, scared and depressed all at once. Both socks and boots were soaked through and the snow was blasting hard enough to sting my now flushed cheeks. It was time for an evaluation.
Evaluation of expedition on day 2
Here I am, sitting on a rock, in a snow storm, soaked up to my thighs with drowned boots and socks in hand. The gaiters began to freeze solid from the merciless wind before my eyes. I needed to rapidly decide what to do.
Remembering a scene from, of all things, "Man versus Wild", I took handfuls of snow and quickly rubbed fluffy dry snow all over my wet legs. Doing this several times dried my legs up quickly. The dry snow absorbs the water. The only downside to this approach is the snow feels like broken glass on freezing wet skin. The shock of the cold snow on wet skin is head-spinning. But it worked. In less than a minute, my legs were completely dry.
Looking at my wet socks, I thought about grabbing a dry pair. My sloshing wet boots will rapidly soak the dry socks, doubling my problems. There was no reason to do this. Wool is supposed to keep warm when wet, right?
I wringed the socks, all while snow pelted my bare, wet feet with needle-like ferocity. Donning the damp socks, soggy boots and ice-covered gaiters took the pain of cutting wind and blowing snow off my legs.
This was the textbook circumstance for hypothermia and frostbite in a neat package.
After looking at the map, it looked like 3.5 miles to the first cabin. The only other option was to turn around and bail out. I didn't want to cross that river again, so there was no other option for me psychologically. I didn't want to swim the river during a near blizzard again. Going to the cabin, deeper into the Arctic wilderness, was my only choice.
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