Cross-Country Skiing the Arctic Circle Trail
After three years of living in Greenland, I had finally convinced myself that I was ready to participate in the Arctic Circle Race (ACR), a 3-day, 160 km-long event known as the World’s toughest cross-country skiing race. I registered in winter 2020, but it got cancelled because of Covid-19. In 2021 it was cancelled again. I was hoping 2022 would be the year, but one day in late January, the ACR organizers announced that the race was cancelled one more time.
That day I decided to organize my own ski trip between Sisimiut and Kangerlussuaq, following the original ACR route. Indeed, in the first years after its foundation in 1995, the ACR went from Sisimiut to Kangerlussuaq, but the route was later modified due to logistical and weather challenges, and nowadays it is held relatively close to Sisimiut.
Organizing my dog-supported trip was relatively easy. With inspiration and advice from my friend Evi, who did a similar trip last year, and help from my friend Lisa at Destination Arctic Circle, I found a musher and we agreed on a trip starting in mid-March. My friend Eavan, who had a multi-day dog sledding tour on her list of things to do before leaving Greenland, soon became my first partner for that adventure.
Eavan has never cross-country skied. She would be with the dog team and would snowshoe around whenever possible. Meanwhile, I would be skiing the trail alone. I was preparing for that, getting a GPS with the route and visualizing myself alone in the wilderness for most of each day, with rare and brief meetings with the dog team.
Then just a week before the trip, my friends Laura and Mika accepted my invitation to join the trip. I was thrilled! From my experience during the NuukKap Extreme Running Race, I know that for this kind of journey into the unknown wilderness, being alone is nice, but having company is very nice! Laura and Mika are among the best endurance athletes in Greenland, and I like their mindset, so I was very confident we would have a successful and enjoyable trip! If the weather was with us…
In Greenland, Sila (the weather) always has the final say. You would think 45-min flights from Nuuk to Sisimiut are easy-peasy. Think again! Eavan managed to reach Sisimiut as planned, although in crazy weather conditions. My direct flight was delayed one day and then another one, and even worse Laura and Mika got stuck in Kangerlussuaq for 2 days, later changed to 1.5 days.
We were one day late on the original plan, but thankfully it was fine with our guides and our original schedule had an extra day built in before flying out of Kangerlussuaq to Nuuk at the end. Malene and her dog team left Sisimiut on Wednesday with Eavan, to reach a cabin at the end of the Kangerluarsuk Tulleq fjord. The plan was for us to ski from Sisimiut to this cabin on the Thursday, overnight there, and continue the trip altogether the next day.
However, a snowstorm was expected for the Friday in Sisimiut, so to escape the bad weather of the coast as fast as possible, we agreed to skip the first night at the fjord cabin and make it all the way to Innajuattoq on the first day. Considering the distance and elevation profile, that would have been an extremely demanding and long day, so we agreed to get a snowmobile ride to start on the Kangerluarsuk Tulleq fjord.
At my friend’s place where Laura, Mika and I spent the night before the trip, Mika was almost silent and eventually he said, looking at the floor: ‘’You know I’m very anxious about this trip, I’m always anxious about this kind of outdoor trip and I might have a panic attack if something unexpected happens.’’ At the start of the trip, I felt I didn’t know him very personally and that came as a surprise to me. I had similar stress about the trip, and I thought it was good that he shared this, but I couldn’t be in someone else’s head. I felt powerless at helping him. Laura and I could only say ‘’It will be fine. We’re all in it together.’’
Day 1. Sisimiut to Innajuattoq
After packing our gear and ourselves on snowmobiles and attached sleds (and a short delay due to mechanical problem), off we went for the start of this adventure! We had a nice blue sky and crisp cold, -23°C. We passed dog town, the ski lift, and the beautiful, mountainous landscape. By the time we were at our starting point on the fjord, my feet were very cold despite a double layer of thick woolen socks and Sorel boots. We removed our borrowed snowmobile clothes on the icy fjord and changed into our ski boots, which were frozen stiff, even mine, despite my attempt to keep them warmish by filling them with handwarmers before the ride.
And we started skiing. After a little 5 km warm-up, we arrived at the very warm cabin, where the dogs, the snowmobiles, coffee and lunch were waiting for us. We spot Eavan way up on a nearby hill. She doesn’t know we are leaving that day instead of the next. But down she came, and soon after, we the skiers were ready to go.
Our next stop would be the small cabin Nerumaq. In the meantime, the support team would pack all the gear on a sled carried by the snowmobile that our guide Salomon was driving, get the dogs and sled ready, and meet us somewhere on the trail. Salomon passed us not long before Nerumaq, and we met him there to fill our water bottles, grab a quick snack, and do some necessary ski waxing (not for me, thank you skin skis!). The dog team arrived at Nerumaq when we were ready to leave that cold cabin.
Just after Nerumaq we met a couple of not-so-young Estonians walking with pulks. They have skis but said that it was easier to just walk. They had been on the trail for many days already and told us they never managed to heat the cabins because there was no fuel. They look peaceful but pretty drained. Unfortunately at -20°C in sweaty cross-country clothes, conversations cannot extend for too long. So that’s all we know about the Estonians.
Orientation was easy. We just followed the snowmobile tracks, or snowmobile highway! The snow seemed a bit slow, maybe because it was so cold, or maybe because we were going slightly uphill. The dog team passed us in the late afternoon. Eavan, who knew the route very well from hiking the Arctic Circle Trail last summer, told us we are very close to the hut, just a downhill and then a lake. Yay! After a bit of time on the “lake”, we realised it was not a lake. Oh well, just one more lake, and eventually we saw the cabin at the end of the lake! First day, check! Ski: 36 km, 7.5 h.
Salomon arrived a few hours before us at Innajuattoq and lit the oven, but it was still freezing in there when we arrived! He took all of our bags inside the cabin and I grabbed mine and changed into dry (but cold) clothes, then tried to keep warm with instant noodles. But Laura couldn’t find her bag. We looked everywhere, inside the cabin, outside the cabin—it just wasn’t there!
At least we had extra clothes for Laura to change into, but we needed to find that bag! Maybe they forgot to pack it on the sled at the fjord cabin, or maybe someone brought it inside the cabin. Malene, the dog musher, drove the snowmobile back along the route trying to find it. Meanwhile we prepared dinner, eventually getting the cabin to warm enough to remove our down jackets, eat, wait, and wait.
Eavan talked about her dog-sledding experience so far. It seemed that it had been quite active with a lot of lifting, running, rope entanglement and sometimes stressful episodes when Malene would yell instructions at her: ‘’GET ON THE SLED, NOW!’’ Eavan, being an ever-optimistic person, and a diplomat too, takes these moments with more perplexity and good humor than anger or frustration. Malene is also a good person, and whenever she had outbursts of anger they would be brief, and she became nice again right after, cracking jokes and making the ride fun.
After a few hours, finally Malene came back… without the bag. She had gone all the way back to Sisimiut. Now we had a mystery to solve, and we discussed all sort of hypotheses and contingency plans. Poor Laura, this was stressful! Her bag was full of expensive gear and clothes, her wallet, and even her house keys! The bag had a tag with her name and phone number on it and we hoped to find it somehow. Malene’s husband, Steen, stayed in Sisimiut and would keep an eye open in case it popped up as a lost-and-found item in town or on Facebook.
The morning at Innajuattoq was white and a little windy. Not really snowing but frost crystals in the air. We changed the original plan, which was to reach Canoe Center on day 2, to a shorter day to the next cabin, Eqalugaarniarfik and then Canoe Center on day 3. But, by the time we finished our huge breakfast and started getting ready for a sporty day in the cold, the conditions had deteriorated into a mini white-out and we changed our plans once more. We would wait the weather out at Innajuattoq for the day!
During the nice rest day, we visited the sister-hut Innajuattooq I, learned about the dogs and mushing, pet the dogs, chatted, and played many rounds of Olsen. Malene showed us a place to get water from the creek without even breaking the ice. Yes, snow is incredibly insulating! Malene had loads of cool (or scary!) stories to share. Salomon was the quiet strength of the group. He speaks only Greenlandic, but it was nice to have him around and Mika sometimes acted as translator. Finally, our rest day passed quite fast.
Around 3 pm, Salomon spotted a bunch of polar explorers from the window, four of them, slowly approached in the blizzard with big pulks. We quickly made space for them, and suddenly we were 10 in the cabin. The new group of Danes seemed well prepared for their expedition with heavy-duty winter camping gear including tent heaters and more. They were planning 10-11 days to go from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut. On the day they came to Innajuattooq II, they had skiied 8 km.
Day 3. Innajuattoq to Canoe Center
For this day there was a steep downhill near a cliff that was challenging to pass with the dogs, so Mika volunteered to start the day on snowmobile to help Malene, Salomon, and Eavan with this part, and then he would change into skiing clothes at Eqalugaarniarfik.
Blue sky, no wind, crisp air, cold. Laura and I started the day with a good pace on a few small lakes, enjoying the landscape. We meet Mika and Salomon at the dam, where they waited for the dog team while we start going uphill. Gorgeous landscapes in this section! We saw many reindeer, a double snowbow (can’t be rainbow if it isn’t raining!) and navigated a few challenging downhills before arriving to Eqalugaarniarfik.
At Eqalugaarniarfik we learned that there has been some miscommunication among the dog and snowmobile group, that resulted in high-stress moment and the dog sled coming quite close to the cliff! The tension was palpable. Well, my sweat was getting cold and I needed to move. I guessed we would continue that discussion later!
After that the landscape changed and became largely flat with bushes sticking out of the snow. Eavan told us later that in the summer it’s a never-ending swamp. So happy I was on skis! After that was a very long lake that took us the rest of the day to cross. At some point, Steen and two other snowmobile drivers passed us with dog food (to replace bags that had been splashed with fuel during transport in the sled) and the bad news that Laura’s bag was still missing.
In the middle of a long flat stretch (another lake I’m guessing), Laura was dragging behind, which was unusual. Mika and I waited for her. When she caught up, there was a mini angry outburst moment. She was angry at Malene for having lost her bag and for the rough time she gave to Mika earlier about the snowmobile and the dog sledge on the cliff. I felt a bit uncomfortable and powerless again. I’m the one that had it the easiest. I didn’t lose my bag. I haven’t been yelled at by a stressed dog musher. I almost broke my back falling in the stairs that morning and although it was quite painful, it was very different.
We arrive at the Canoe Center around 5 pm, and I was happy to stay inside a warm cabin until the next day, but Laura and Malene immediately started getting ready to jump on the snowmobile to go to Kangerlussuaq in search of the bag. Ski: 54 km, 8.5 h.
At 8 pm, the group in the cabin could see Malene and Laura coming back on the snowmobile. Dinner was ready and candles brought some cozy ambience to the Canoe Center. We were nervously waiting for the news, looking at them through the window. We couldn’t see the bag and we tried to see if body language could tell us something about the mood…. Humm, they didn’t look joyful… But then, they came in with the good news that the bag was found! The fact that it was in Sisimiut appears as a minor detail after all that!!
Day 4. Canoe Center to Kangerlussuaq
On the last day, the dogs were not travelling. They needed a rest day before the return journey planned with a client Malene would pick up by snowmobile after our arrival in Kangerlussuaq. We said farewell and many thanks to Salomon and the dogs and started our day on the 18 km long Amitsorsuaq lake. Just after leaving we saw a hiker with a pulk crossing our way in the distance, too far for even waving hello. Not long after, we met his partner, and had a brief chat. He sounded like he might be from the UK and he seemed pretty upbeat about his journey.
Malene and Eavan catch us up with three dogs to pull us, one each for the skiers. That’s a lot of fun! I could have used some dog traction for skiing over the whole lake! But this was way too brief. This lake is endless, but each time I get a slight down in motivation, I think ‘’Thank God, I’m not walking this!’’ and my mood improved instantly. Finally, we arrived at the end of the lake at lunchtime. While Malene had returned our three dogs to the Canoe Center, Eavan walked the lake on foot, doing 10 km while she waited for the snowmobile to find her again. Together they drove the snowmobile to meet us up near the last cabin of the Arctic Circle Trail, Katiffik.
The last section was a long rollercoaster ride interspersed with lakes. We saw many reindeers and even a few people in a dune buggy driving up from Kangerlussuaq. One reindeer was so terrified by this machine that it ran down the mountain at light speed and crashed in the snow! At some point, I asked Laura which distance we had traveled (she had a GPS watch, not me) and from the number she said I thought “We must be close to Kellyville,” our end point. Some time later, we arrived on top of a hill with a great view of the area… and of the trail still going a loooong way! I had heard that we had done 41 instead of 31 kilometres! Ah well, we’d get there when we get there!
At the first signs of civilization, we started looking for Malene snowmobiling because we were not entirely sure of the meeting point. Then just past Camp Lloyd where the sun was setting behind a big parabolic antenna, there she was, congratulating us and guiding us to the bit of road where the taxi was coming to meet us. And quite suddenly, that’s the end! We made it! It was 5:30 pm, enough time to shower and enjoy the Greenlandic buffet at Roklubben! I can’t say for the others, but this adventure left me with the feeling that we were all in it together, the six of us. For sure, we all learned something about ourselves, each other, human nature and the nature around us. Ski: 45 km. 8h.
Read other hiking stories
- Best hiking trails around Sisimiut
- Arctic Circle Race in Greenland
- Hiking the Arctic Circle Trail in Greenland