Late on my fourth day hiking the 102-mile Arctic Circle Trail in western Greenland, smoke rose from the ground. White tendrils, sometimes columns, rose in all directions from charred soil and wisped out from an 800-foot-tall hummocky, granitic hillside to our left. To our right was the 14-mile-long, string-bean-shaped Lake Amitsorsuaq, the biggest of dozens of lakes we had hiked past. The smoldering ground extended to the shore and made the supersaturated blues of the water pop even more.
While it was plausible that we had wandered into an area dense with steaming thermal features, we hadn't. We had finally reached one of the wildfires that made international news a few weeks before our 2017 trip.
When friend Larry approached my boyfriend, Derek, and me about doing the long trek between the small community of Kangerlussuaq and Greenland's second-largest city, Sisimiut — population about 5,500 — we said yes at once. Larry had us at "Greenland," an island three times the size of Texas, 80 percent of which is covered by an ice sheet that's 400,000 to 1 million years old and almost 2 miles thick.
The trail starts near the ice cap's western edge and crosses one of the island's largest snow- and ice-free expanses to Sisimiut and the Davis Strait, which separates the Labrador Sea and Baffin Bay.
Researching the trail, I found images of rolling, domed mountains; open, craggy valleys; and Caribbean-blue lakes ringed with blooms of purplish willowherb, the national flower of Greenland. It was a mash-up of landscapes from "Game of Thrones" and "Lord of the Rings," only without the anthropomorphic Ents — or any trees, really, as Greenland is so far north.
I also started a list: "Things We Might Encounter When Hiking for Nine Days in the Middle of Nowhere in Greenland." As imaginative as many of the entries were — a rabid musk ox or reindeer, or an August blizzard — wildfires never made the list.
A week before we left, with family and friends emailing us links to wildfire articles, Derek called the Sisimiut fire chief and got a detailed description of the fire while Larry connected with an Arctic Circle Trail group on Facebook. We learned the trail was in the middle of the fire zone, but hikers had been safely walking through it.
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Under clear, blue skies, we set out from Kangerlussuaq, about 40 miles from the wildfire and home to about 500 people and Greenland's biggest airport. We each carried all of the supplies needed for nine days. (Hikers usually spend seven to 12 days on the trail; we had a nine-day itinerary.)
My research missed the fact that the "trail" from Kangerlussuaq itself is 10.5 miles of gravel road until it reaches the trail proper. Before 3 miles passed, I vowed that if I ever did this hike again, I'd pay Kangerlussuaq's sole taxi, a Creamsicle-colored compact car that had passed us three times, whatever its driver charged for a ride to the start of the actual trail.
Shortly after we hiked past a 105-foot-diameter radar antenna at the Sondrestrom Upper Atmospheric Research Facility, all signs of civilization disappeared. Almost. A couple of hundred yards in front of us, someone had painted a half-moon on the side of a boulder, in bright red, next to a well-worn dirt track lined with cottongrass. Finally, the Arctic Circle Trail.
Like many long treks, the trail has markers along its entire length. These are often atop a pile of rocks, called cairns, piled by hikers to be visible from afar. The trail's red half-moon markers are a nod to Greenland's flag.
Not far past the first half-moon, we were walking along the shore of a lake I thought I recognized from my research. We were too late in the season for the willowherb along its shores to be in bloom, but I didn't care. The water was bluer than Paul Newman's eyes.
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I never found a definitive history of the Arctic Circle Trail. But I did learn that in the early 1990s, Sisimiut resident Johanne Bech, now 65 and still hiking the trail, was one of a small group that erected the first cairns. In 2010, Cicerone published Paddy Dillon's "Trekking in Greenland: The Arctic Circle Trail." About 300 people hiked the trail every summer then. Last summer, when I hiked it, so did about 1,600 others.
Long before hikers discovered the trail, though, the Inuit (or Kalaallit in the Greenlandic language) used the route in winter, traveling on sledges pulled by dogs or snowmobiles. In June, an area of more than 1,500 square miles, including about half of the trail, was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its "rich and well-preserved material and intangible cultural heritage." The Aasivissuit - Nipisat Inuit Hunting Ground bears evidence of 4,200 years of human history.
The Hundeso Hunting Cabin, the first of nine huts along the trail, is just south of the World Heritage site. We spent our first night there. Hundeso is not a hut so much as a collection of campers haphazardly sewn together, with a wood deck of indeterminate structural integrity. It had a certain wild charm, and its bunks were unoccupied, but I was glad we had a tent.
We pitched it on a 100-yard-wide grassy strip between two lakes with surfaces as smooth as the sealskin I saw stretching on the side of a house in Kangerlussuaq. Because the magic sunset hour is about five hours long in Greenland in early to mid August (and sunset doesn't happen until 10 p.m.), while Derek and Larry cook and eat dinner, I stalk the shores of both lakes with my camera.
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Our days developed a rhythm. We tried to sleep as long as possible after sunrise, which happens about 2:30 a.m. (This was easier for me. I brought an eye mask.) When the sun got too bright and the symphony of birds — Greenland wheatears, Lapland longspurs and Greenland white-fronted geese, among others — became too loud to ignore, we emerged onto the shore of a lake every bit as glowy in morning light as it was at sunset. No other campers were in sight. The far shore appeared to be a gently sloping slab of gray-pink granite. We made breakfast, broke down and packed the tent, sterilized water and, finally, switched from camp slippers to hiking shoes and shouldered our packs of about 40 pounds each. Then we started walking into a landscape that kept us in a constant state of awe with its scale and emptiness.
We spent one entire day walking along the shore of one lake. Another day, we spent hours gradually climbing to the top of a valley only to reach a saddle that drops into an improbably longer and broader valley. Gawping at this new terrain, the only man-made structures we saw were cairns.
With so much daylight, we were never in a hurry. We took frequent breaks for water and snacks. Sometimes, we even took off our shoes and socks to soak our feet in a lake or creek. On the Arctic Circle Trail in August, we could set up camp at 9 p.m. and still have plenty of daylight.
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Our third morning started by hiking past the second hut, Katiffik. At the eastern end of Lake Amitsorsuaq, the hut was painted red and white on the outside and was bright and clean inside. (A note tacked onto one wall read: "YOUR MOM IS NOT HERE! So pick up your trash and take it with you - all the way.") Two hearts are carved into the sign above the hut's entrance. We took a snack break alongside a German father and son.
Katiffik was about 12 miles from the wildfire. Still, as we sat munching salami and cheese, no acrid smell was in the air, no haze on the horizon. It stayed that way all day. Seeing a reindeer nonchalantly munching on berries and grass and a ptarmigan comfortably nestled in a patch of crowberry bushes signaled that the fire was no longer an issue.
But when we set up camp and started to fix dinner, the wind picked up. By the time our food was ready, smoke and haze were so thick, we couldn't see more than a mile. We had no fear that the fire would reach us. The Sisimiut fire chief had said it was a peat fire, which burns slowly. But we still moved our camp 3 miles down the lake to elude the smoke.
At our new camp, rays from the setting sun ominously stretched out like a welcome mat for the horsemen of the Apocalypse, but the air no longer smelled of smoke. We went to bed hoping the wind would die down overnight and, combined with cooler night weather, would dampen the smoldering and smoke.
That's what happened. We made it within about a mile of the fire before we saw any evidence of it except the smoking ground.
The closer we got, the more the landscape resembled the aftermath of an epic battle between "Game of Thrones" dragons and "Lord of the Rings" Orcs. The days had been in the 70s, the hottest (and driest) summer on record in Greenland. I was ready to tie a wet T-shirt around my face to keep from inhaling smoke, but I had been in smokier bars and clubs. Still, the scene was dramatic.
That night, we named our camp "Mediterranean Beach" because that's how it looked and felt — but without crowds, and on the Arctic Circle.
Like wildfires, lake swimming was unexpected. But the way-above-average temperatures, combined with few clouds and a lack of shade trees, often made me feel as if I were being roasted. So most days, I cooled off in a lake.
Two nights later, we found "Reindeer Beach," a campsite with dozens of reindeer tracks.
The next evening was cool enough to finally wear one of two pairs of pants I'd been carrying. The next morning brought a misty rain. Because this was the weather I'd expected the whole time, I happily mined some Gore-Tex rain gear from the depths of my pack.
I was even better prepared for the next day, our last on the trail. We woke to the sound of driving rain and unzipped the tent to find that we were in a cloud, and snow was on a hillside not far above us. It wasn't rain lashing our tent, but sleet — an August blizzard — straight from my "Things We Might Encounter When Hiking for Nine Days in the Middle of Nowhere in Greenland" list.
For the final miles to Sisimiut, I wore both pairs of hiking pants, a hat, gloves and my Gore-Tex armor.
Four days later, our Air Greenland flight back to Kangerlussuaq almost exactly tracked the trail. Lake Amitsorsuaq is easy to pick out. And no smoke or even smoldering could be seen.