New on Sidetracked:

Wilderness Backpacking in East Greenland

Steve Behaeghel

“Do not worry, it is very easy. You aim in direction of polar bear and just shoot in head or chest, and bear will go away or be dead”, laughs the Inuit hunter, while pushing a gun into our hands. He just dropped us at the head of the remote Tasiilaq Fjord. “See you in three weeks,” we cry, but the engine of his boat drowns the farewell. We’re 160 nautical miles from the nearest form of civilization.

The euphoria is great: pep talk and victory songs are chased by the wind into the fjord. The 4 of us are about to embark on a self-supporting wilderness cross-country thru-hike along the wild east coast of Greenland. The fjord transends into the huge glacial Tasilap Kua valley, which will lead us north in 3 days to the outer reaches of the iceberg-filled Sermilik fjord. The fjord is the last liquid boundary with the massive Greenland ice sheet, and marks the Arctic Circle. From the Sermilik Fjord we will hike southbound over 14 days back to where a warm shower awaits… hopefully.

Global warming is massively affecting the Inuit. Not only do the glaciers of the Greenlandic ice sheet melt at a hurlting speed, the annually increasing melting pack ice of the Arctic drifts southwards, bringing more polar bears into the region. Where these corners, during summer, used to be ”polar bear free”, in the last few years more and more polar bears are spotted in full summer along the fjords and around the Inuit villages. In Kulusuk, the village where we start our trek, we hear stories of polar bear incidents with expedition groups in recent weeks.

Our Inuit hunter gets us to haul a 4kg old Russian riffle. Luckily we can split it into 3 parts. There’s going to be straw drawing for the lucky rifle-free backpacker. Polar bears are easily sighted in this timberfree arctic tundra so we can give it a wide bend if necessary. No need for the rifle there. The danger lurks in at night. Mr. Fluffy could walk in camp and surprise us by night. A loaded gun lying next to you is your only chance of survival, according to Mr. Inuit.

Lightweight backpacking requires much preperation to keep the load as light as possible. Weeks of considering on necessary gear. Food rations are split into neat, small airless bags. During a logisitcs preparation meeting a couple of weeks before leaving, we we’re in heavy discussion on the the usefulness of a rifle in wild bear country. Hey, we have no experience in shooting or whatsoever. A gun would probably kill us earlier then a 1500 lbs bear would die from one of our bullets. I can see it happen. My wife going for a nightly pee, while me fighting through a polar bear encounter dream. Midnight. A sudden noise. Gun. Panic. Not paying attention that I am the only one left under the tarp. Bear. Load. Bang…

The fjord is the last liquid boundary with the massive Greenland ice sheet, and marks the Arctic Circle. From the Sermilik Fjord we will hike southbound over 14 days back to where a warm shower awaits… hopefully.
We arrive at the head of Tasilap Kua. Low clouds. A light drizzle. A small breeze. A wide open valley. A big grey river. Big azure blue glaciers touch the valley floor. They puke out flows of almost-freezing water. Did you bring neoprene socks for the wades? We have 7 days of food to reach the foodcache at the head of the Qinqertivaq Fjord. Feasible if the weather cooperates.

A couple of hours upstream our fear of meeting a polar bear is completely forgotten. We have millions of new friends. Crittering, zooming friends that must never have seen a human before. They attack. They sting. They suck our precious blood, leaving us with a burden skin. Headnets. Quick. An extra layer. Scratching our arms and neck. The mosquitos are ravenous. It must be their first blood for the summer. Arctic bugs. Huge mosquitos. No chance of spreading diseases here. Luckily.

It’s incredible how quickly we merge with our Arctic environment. Gone are all everyday worries, our rhythm is only determined by the essence: walking, eating, drinking, set up camp, sleep and, oh yes, glacial river wading.

Will you take that route? I think it’s better, easier walking over here. Look at the map, this will lead you onto the glaciar. Common, this is ridiculous, how can you make that up from such a large scale map. I walk over here. I go over there. We’ll see who’s right. Yeah, we’ll see about that, … Wiseacre.

We laugh a lot. We howl simple songs and classic hits with new interpreted lyrics, about glaciers, mountains, ice, mosquitos, guns, alcohol and accumulated odors. A high pressure sets in, dissolving the ever low clouds. We reach a pass and look back, our first contact with the arctic sun. Hairs arising. Is that the valley we went through? Heavy clouds had lingered for days, obscuring any view of the glacier-laden peaks. The physical challenge offers spiritual liberation. Is this heaven? Is this religion? It’s passion, I tell you. Passion for the unexpected. A new emotion. Into the wild.

We look over the pass. Ice chunks in the distance. One final push for reaching Ningerti, the upper reaches of the monstrous Sermilik fjord. The sun sets, but doesn’t want to. This is the Arctic. It never gets dark in summer. Your body wants to go on forever, but somehow you feel it’s time to rest. It get’s colder. Good night. Zip. The warm goose down doesn’t dissappoint.

A heavenly beautiful sunday afternoon with the arctic sun high above. There are less mosquitos – probably because they don’t like the ice in the fjord. A seal pops up. He likes the ice – a tiny animal, free in this immense fjord, filled with ice bergs and ice sheets the size of Camp Nou. It’s low tide so we walk on the beach as if in a fairytale. We zigzag through house-high icebergs. Sun rays. Azure blue drops on the rocks. We stand and breathe, sunken in our thoughts. What thoughts? I have no thoughts. We smile. We stop. Jaws dropped. How can this be so beautiful?

How are the beaches in the Arctic? Rocky? Yep. Sandy? Yep. Don’t ever talk to me about about sand again. We had enough of that. I hate quicksand!

The ice is silent. No wind and clear blue skies overhead. We climb higher, to bypass a rock band. Silence? A huge roar. What’s that? Look at Camp Nou! It’s breaking away! Backpacks go off. We run forward. Astoneshed must be the adjective for this. I have never used the F-word more in a 5 minute frame then on that Sunday afternoon in East-Greenland*. The rupture was one thing, but the overturn was massive. A 5m high tidal wave rammed into the coast that we were walking along half and hour previously. A gun would not have helped here. Our hearts were pounding, and it didn’t stop for over an hour. It took hours for the 10km wide fjord to calm down and forget about the Sunday afternoon ice horror.

Should I talk about the vast beauty of the landscape? I can’t. It’s indescribable. We must go back. At least to somewhere wild and open. Where only the silence roars.

Should I talk about the vast beauty of the landscape? I can’t. It’s indescribable. We must go back. At least to somewhere wild and open. Where only the silence roars.


Steve Behaeghel is a 33-year old Belgian outdoor fool (self proclaimed), having a fetish for Patagonia and the Arctic. He’s been on long-time hiking/backpacking trips into Patagonia (7 months in total), been on multiple (winter) trips to northern Scandinavia, hiked for 2 months in the Canadian Rockies and Alaska, explored some of the largest glaciers in the Karakorum mountains of Pakistan, climbed some 5000′ers and 6000′ers in the Central Andes of Peru and Bolivia, and recently lost himself on a wild trek on the eastern coast of Greenland…

Steve and Katrijn have recently completed a 13-month packrafting and thru-hiking trip looping Arctic Scandinavia, the great himalayan trail in Nepal, a thorough return to wild, remote corners of Central-Patagonia, Bolivia and South-East Alaska. You can follow their adventure on their website or follow them on Twitter @stevebehaeghel