On and off the Arctic Circle Trail (1)

Two Towns, and What Lies between Them
Leaving Kangerlussuaq. © Lodewijk Muns 2017

The somewhat grandly named Arctic Circle Trail parallels a tiny 165 km segment of the Arctic Circle. It runs between two Greenlandic towns not connected by any road, Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut. What lies between them is rock, swamp, shrubland, an uncountable number of picturesque lakes, pools and puddles, and a trail increasingly trodden by walkers from all over the world.

With snow covering the land for most of the year, an overland connection should be of limited use. Under a snowmobile’s caterpillar tracks the hiker’s 7-12 days journey shrinks to one of less than two hours. A car should be nearly useless, I would think, when all you can do is drive some 35 km to the ice cap in the north-east, and 10 km to the harbour in the south-west.

For Kangerlussuaq, 500 souls, is little more than an airport and a small harbour. Established in 1941 as a US air base, it still is a settlement rather than a town, with the somewhat unsettled quality that the word implies. Its peculiar charm is mostly its lack of any, a certain casual harmony between its grim functional architecture and the bleak landscape, with a river of milky and undrinkable melting water that flows into a sandy fjord.

Smells of kerosene and gasoline fill the air. Considering the size of the town and its disconnectedness, the number of motorized vehicles on the road is stunning. Among them a large number of touring cars that transport tourists en masse from a cruise ship in the harbour to the end of the north-eastern road. There they can set foot upon a tip of the ice sheet that covers most of this gigantic island. Luckily we had completed that part of our walk before the ship’s arrival.

And among all these vehicles not a taxi is to be found. After walking all the way to the ice cap and back (with no regret), we decided to follow the guidebook advice and let a taxi take us to the end of the south-western road, where the trail ‘officially’ starts. The taxi stand is empty, the telephone is disconnected. When I make inquiries at the tourist information desk, a grumpy Danish giant mumbles something about a copper coloured car. A copperish car is parked outside the post office. The post office is closed.

Fifteen minutes later I watch the unhelpful Dane driving away, to be replaced — in my imagination — with a friendly Inuit lady. Returning to the desk I find a lady who looks formidable but is friendly enough, though not recognizably Inuit, and at least is able to explain the situation. If the telephone is disconnected, the taxi is at the harbour, 10 km down the road. Beyond range.

Faced with the choice of carrying our 25 kilo backpacks along the road and waiting indefinitely, we decide to walk. The weather is splendid (finally) and having set foot on the island three days ago we still excitedly remind each other and ourselves: We’re on Greenland!Sisimiut towards the Northwest.

Eleven days later, first glimpses of Sisimiut. Howling sledge dogs greet the wanderer from afar, but it takes a tantalizing 40 minutes to reach the first sheds and doghouses. Minutes during which the town seems to sink mysteriously between the rocks, as if it were a leaky ship. After that, fresh bread and coffee at the famous konditori, with a grand view of the cemetery.

With a population ten times that of Kangerlussuaq, Sisimiut is definitely a town, even though its uneven rocky basis produces an adventurous, chaotically surprising town plan. Traffic hardly quiets down during the night. And what surprises us most, after past experience: every second car is a taxi. A fisherman who has stepped out of his boat with a three foot halibut quickly wraps it in plastic, whistles a taxi, and puts it in the trunk. Out of another steps a lady with shopping bag, and lightfootedly climbs a pathless rocky slope towards her invisible house.

What lies in between these towns is rock, swamp, shrubland, lakes, pools and puddles — a walker’s paradise. Walkers, wanderers and hikers should pray and hope and fight that it will remain that way.

Marius Olsen, Chairman of the Living Resources Committee of the Municipality of Qeqqata, argues that “We can make better use of our living resources than we do now”. An ATV (or quad) track between Sisimiut and Kangerlussuaq “and later on a real road” would allow for the establishment of muskox and reindeer farms and transportation of seafood from Sisimiut to Kangerlussuaq.

What Mr Olsen and others fail to recognize is that this quad track will mean the end of the ACT. The end of silence, clean air and water, and untouched wilderness. The end of experiencing the landscape from the landscape.

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