Arctic Circle Trail Preamble – 2 Days in Kangerlussuaq

We flew in to Kangerlussuaq on Air Greenland’s sole airbus. Getting to Greenland effectively requires you to use the national airline and to fly from Copenhagen. Despite the early morning flight and the loss of four hours, we took advantage of the free drinks in-flight.

The plane flies in to the fjord from west to east, giving a glimpse of the ice cap ahead. It was a short walk from the plane to the terminal, where – as it was an international flight – we went through “security and customs”. This consisted of about four people standing around watching us file past.

The plane had been full, and the tiny baggage-claim room was crowded. The single short conveyor quickly delivered our bags, and we went upstairs to find the left luggage service. Run by the hotel in the airport, there are around 20 good-sized lockers next to the cafeteria. At 40DKR per day, they are not especially cheap, but this allows us to wear comfortable and clean clothes on our flights in and out of Greenland, and to protect our rucksacks from the rigours of baggage handlers by checking them in in large waterproof bags with fewer straps. The lockers are key-operated, allowing us to come and go as we needed.

We brought enough food to last us until we reach Sisimiut, so we didn’t need to pay Greenlandic prices for most supplies. The one thing we did need was fuel for the stove. We bought a Fire Maple petrol stove for this trip, as there had been a suggestion that gas cartridges could be hard to come by. There is a supermarket opposite the airport, so we went in to buy the 2.5l of petrol I’d calculated we’d need for the ten day trek.

I had made the assumption that it would be obvious which fuel we needed, but this was not to be the case. There were a few gas canisters of the pierceable variety, but the liquid fuels are actually all sold as cleaning fluids. There is paraffin, petrol and alcohol spirit but none are sold for use in stoves, and instead have pictures of cleaning applications or oil lamps on them. Asking for help from an employee and a Danish hiker we bought 3l of lampolie, which I was pretty sure was paraffin.

To have somewhere to put our bags, we walked the 2km to the old camp youth hostel. We paid for dorm beds, as they were much cheaper than private rooms. It turns out that all the rooms, at least in the building we were in, were 2-bed rooms so we didn’t have to share and saved ourselves a bunch of money. Worried about the fuel, I tested the stove but could not get it to burn. I suspect this is because I had nothing to preheat it with and no wick to use the paraffin itself to preheat. I tried for a while, using a match as a wick, but succeeded only in sooting up the stove and blocking the jet.

We wanted to cycle to the inner ice cap, so we decided to walk back to the main part of town, where we could swap the fuel and hire bikes. We checked the guidebook which told us that the Danish for petrol was benzin. Armed with this information, we found the correct fuel but there was only 1l available. By my calculations this was the absolute minimum we could take, but we’d have to skip some planned hot drinks and not do any clothes washing.

A light drizzle had started, and the group was losing interest in the plan to cycle to the icecap, but I insisted and we hired three bikes for the day from a small hut next to the supermarket for 300DKR. With the time zone shift, it was still only lunchtime, so we set off on the 40 mile+ round trip. The tarmac ended soon, and we started on the dirt road. We passed a golf course (the most northerly in the world), and then continued towards the “Sugarloaf”, a small hill that overlooks Kangerlussuaq.

Here the path started uphill, and there was some definite bike-pushing from Anna and Steve. My knee also started to ache, which was very concerning with a ten day hike ahead. We stopped for lunch next to a small lake, then moved on. At this point, the track started to rapidly deteriorate, turning into a bumpy and sandy mess that was very hard to make progress on. We pressed ahead, struggling on the rolling terrain with our wheels sinking into the sand.

At nearly 5 o’clock, after a long climb, the Russells glacier came into view. This glacier is the first stretch of ice that the road encounters, but is still miles from the end of the road and the icecap. There was no chance of us making it, and so we turned around and made the gruelling return journey, our spirits well dampened. The rain, which had abated after the first mile or two, again picked up to a light drizzle and we rode into the airport car park in waterproofs.

After a drink at the airport, we took advantage of having the bikes until the morning, and rode back to the hostel. We had a short shower, game and dinner and got an early night.

This morning dawned and we rose with a plan to get a tour to the icecap with the local operator “World of Greenland: Arctic Circle”, who also run the old camp hostel. This tour was not running yesterday, and is very expensive at around 600DKR per person, so our plan had been to cycle yesterday and start the trail today. There was enough space in the schedule, however, and we were all keen to make it to the ice after yesterday’s failure.

The tour doesn’t leave until lunchtime, so we returned the bikes and then spent the morning at the Kangerlussuaq museum. At 60DKR, including tea and coffee making facilities, the museum was a pleasant visit, focused largely on the town’s time as an American Air Force base. It also has the skin of the last polar bear seen in Kangerlussuaq, well over 10 years ago. We strolled back to town and had a last check of the supermarket, who by this time had restocked with a few more bottles of petrol. I bought three, giving us the originally planned 2.5l, but was prevented from buying a few local beers as it is a Sunday.

After a musk ox burger in the airport canteen (tastes like beef), the tour departed in a huge bus with gigantic tyres for the poor track. We rambled along, and the highly-knowledgable guide stopped at intervals to show us reindeer or an arctic fox. We got out a few times to see a plane wreck that we had cycled past yesterday, as well as a variety of local flora that the guide named for us.

We passed our farthest point, stopping for a look at the views and more plant-hunting. A reindeer leg, lying around for three or four years, illustrates the very slow rotting process here. We chatted to a Swiss couple on the tour who are also doing the ACT. They plan to take it slower than us, and get into Sisimiut a day later.

The road took us past the glacier, before stopping at a picnic area opposite a calving glacier. Shortly thereafter we reached the end of the road, and a short walk brought us out onto the icecap itself, stretching for miles and miles all the way to the east coast. We had a coffee and biscuit break overlooking another section of the ice and then returned to Kangerlussuaq, where we got dropped off back at the hostel. Although the tour was very expensive, it takes all afternoon and the guide is very knowledgeable. We thought it was very worthwhile, especially after previous defeat.

Tomorrow, the forecast is good, and we set off for Sisimiut, 100 miles away.

5 thoughts on “Arctic Circle Trail Preamble – 2 Days in Kangerlussuaq

  1. The “large waterproof bags” that you speak of for putting your backpack into for plain carriage protection, what were they? Do you have any links to anything?

    Very informative and helpful, so thanks for the blog!

  2. Hi Gavin,

    I am planning to do the ACT with friends later this year. Your comments were very informative and wanted to ask if we can we take it as read that if you leave items at the hotel left luggage there is no problem in accessing the lockers when transiting back through Kangerlussuaq airport if flying from Sismiut and onward to Copenhagen in one journey?
    Many thanks

  3. Late to reply, but we found that we could get bags out if we were super-quick between Sisimiut and our connection. Because you switch from internal to international flight, you get put into the lounge before security (where your bags are), so if you’re quick you can dash to the lockers.

    There was gas available in the shop when we were there.

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