Solo and Unsupported on the Arctic Circle Trail
Trying to outride a force-10 arctic storm or acting as polar-bear bait? How about both for Ben Haggar in a solo journey to bikepack Greenland’s Arctic Circle Trail.
The animated blue dot on the pixilated computer screen morphed into purple with an unholy black center as the storm increased in strength over the ice-choked waters of Baffin Bay. In two days’ time, this Beaufort force-10 storm with 100+ kilometer-an-hour winds and 30-foot seas would be right on top of the Akademik Ioffe before making landfall along the coast of Western Greenland. Although the situation onboard was unsettling, the expedition team thought only of me, their friend and co-worker who, only two days before, set off alone into the Greenland backcountry. And I had no idea that this brutal force of nature was headed directly toward me.
The idea was simple when viewed on a map from the comfort of my living room thousands of miles away: move two wheels from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ along the Arctic Circle by any means necessary. In this case, ‘point A’ would be the Russell Glacier, a tongue of ice extending off the Greenland Ice Sheet, and ‘point B,’ Sisimiut, the second largest ‘city’ in Greenland, roughly 200 kilometers (124 miles) to the west. Sparsely shrubbed tundra, scouredgneiss rock slabs and gigantic lakes lay between the two points. To simplify things, there was a route (not-so-creatively named the Arctic Circle Trail), scratched into the landscape by cloven caribou hooves and the Vibram soles of a few European hiking boots.
First, I had to get there. Sure, I could have flown into Greenland, attempted the trail and left, but where’s the adventure in that? Instead, I would earn my keep driving zodiacs, interpreting the northern landscape and keeping adventurous visitors safe in the land of Ursus maritimus aboard a vessel that had more likeness to an iceberg than a ship. I’d work as an assistant expedition leader, crossing the entirety of the Northwest Passage before setting tread knob to dirt on the Artic Circle Trail.
Adjusting to ship life wasn’t without its challenges. Being confined to a rigid schedule within 113 meters (370 feet) of ship without the freedom to pedal made me antsy. I had to be ‘on’ all the time, surrounded by enthusiastic guests hungry for insight into all things Arctic. My lone reprieve was on polar bear patrol. Four of us would head out in separate directions armed with rifles for self-defense, acting as bear bait to make sure there weren’t any errant bears sleeping in gullies or foraging behind boulders. Given my tight living quarters, this solo time on land made me long for more.
Moving through the Arctic is an exercise in patience. Dogs have historically been the quickest mode of transportation, and even with a keen arsenal of Greenlandic Huskies at your bridals, hillsides seemingly still take days to pass. Scale is distorted by the fata morgana, mirages of the north. Distance and time become irrelevant as duration stretches. You get there when you get there, one of the many lessons the Arctic teaches. Plants grow slowly—a fraction of a millimeter in a season, and with so much space, competition is non-existent. Greenlandic speech is polysynthetic, words regularly stretch 20-plus characters long, spoken in a low, easy tone as though a sentence could take all day to finish. Rushing is useless in a land of perpetual sun. In the ship, with a maximum speed of 12 knots, we were no exception to this naturally enforced law.
In Kangerlussuaq, I said goodbye to the passengers and fellow staff I had lived among for the past three weeks. Almost instantaneously my excitement was replaced by severe loneliness. After living unavoidably cramped, I expected the emptiness of a barren gravel road to be a welcome reprieve. But the shift was too drastic, too instantaneous and too complete. I longed for a companion to share the burden of the unknown.
Kangerlussuaq sits in dust at the start of a 190-kilometer long fjord in western Greenland. The former American military outpost boasts a poorly stocked grocery, small airport hotel and a handful of haphazard shops colorfully painted in an otherwise monochromatic backdrop. I half-managed a Skype call to my girlfriend, which promptly cut out before
I gained comfort from her familiar face. I struggled to find excitement. A large storm was to hit in three to four days. If I pushed hard, could I finish the 200 kilometers of unknown and potentially unrideable terrain in time?
Feeling under-confident and overwhelmed, I took stock of my food, bought more fuel for my stove and anxiously took the first pedal strokes toward the Greenland Ice Sheet as dust clouds swirled. I had 14 kilometers of gravel before the Arctic Circle Trail officially started. Everything was cold and uninviting. Low shrubs provided a dismal modicum of color across a barren landscape carved from stone by sardonic wind.
The next morning, I shivered inadequately until the sun hit my tent. Peregrine falcons dive-bombed small birds meters from where I cooked my meager ration of oatmeal. A poor night’s sleep left me lackluster. But as my tires left gravel and tasted Arctic Circle dirt, I felt progress and excitement that tempered my unease. I was actually on my way.
The hills burst with vibrant autumn color on the end of my second day. Deep reds and oranges of dwarf birch, Scotch heather and blueberry bushes engulfed me. Tufts of cotton floated from yellow miniature willow trees like a warm, gentle snowfall. With such a short growing season, the flora in this part of the world puts its energy into roots and leaves, so century-old trees look like baby shrubs compared to their southern counterparts. I rode like a giant through the canopy of this pint-sized old-growth forest, lapping in a fast descent to my campsite for the night.
I measured my riding progress in ratios. A good day meant a 60-40 riding to hiking ratio but even so, I enjoyed the changes in movement. Hiking gave my lower back some reprieve from the heavily loaded pack and the descents on the bike were an added boost of speed and an instant mood enhancer.
Pushing, meanwhile, came with its own set of unique challenges. The hearty tundra brush, although generally below knee height, fought with a determined vengeance. Stout, rigid branches grabbed at pedals, spokes and derailleurs. Techniques evolved and devolved depending on the situation. Occasionally, it seemed best to push the bike through the vegetation and walk on the trail while pulling excelled near creeks that fed bike-accosting tree limbs at eye level. Cliff sections required shouldering my fully loaded rig and very careful foot placements.
Bog wrestling was a daily, if not hourly, occurrence. Days spent staring into sphagnum tested my already-strained sanity levels. Any slight depression bred thick beds of moss in ruffled mounds sponging up every ounce of water, stretching occasionally for kilometers at a time. I played Russian roulette with semi-dry feet, it was impossible to tell if each footstep would end in
I measured my riding progress in ratios. A good day meant a 60-40 riding to hiking ratio
a relieving sigh of firm footing or a disagreeable, soggy demise. Pedaling didn’t help, often ending with a foot plunged within water, barely above freezing.
Five days into my journey and somehow without the impending storm, the frozen trail formed an icy snake dissecting two lumpy mountains creating a wide valley. Cresting the pass, I emerged from cold shadows greeted by a small herd of caribou grazing in bright sunshine. Nibbling on lichen and short grasses, they eyed me with caution keeping a comfortable distance. I admired their beauty, lowered my seat and dropped into a long, technical descent, giddy to quickly cover ground. Picking my way down a rocky ridgeline, I could hear a dull, unfamiliar sound coming from behind. Three massive bucks galloped over the ridge. I momentarily locked eyes but saw not a hint of fear or aggression in the foreign beasts. I let go of the brakes and shot forward with the bucks running at my side all the way to the valley below. Did they see me as one of their own? Had I unknowingly transformed if only for fleeting moments?
In a land of mirages and perpe- tuity, the spiritual and perceived ‘real’ world intermingle in a dreamlike existence. Shape-shifting, or ijiraq, emerged in Inuit culture for better travel—a raven or caribou compared to a clumsy, inefficient human form, not to mention one perched atop a bicycle. In folklore, a man would go hunting, shift into a polar bear, hunt seals and eventually return to the form of a man when deemed necessary. If only I could shape-shift.
Violent blasts of wind threatened to tear the tin stovepipe from its feeble plywood footing. It wouldn’t have mattered, I had no heater paraffin. I watched lenticular clouds maliciously build throughout the day. Storm imminent. Now I was in a hut that felt like little more than a lean-to.
This glorified garden shed was the only thing keeping me from the gale which would have surely torn my ultra-light solo tent to shreds. I cinched my sleeping bag beneath my armpits and boiled my tea bag for the third time. There would be no going out today. I was now on half rations of already insufficient portions. Cold, hungry and bored, I stared out of the small window at steep cliffs hemming in the narrow valley. Frozen streams crisscrossed like icy spider webs. Listening to steel cables creak and groan under the strain of 100-kilometer-per-hour winds, I was grateful for shelter, no matter how humble.
As the storm cleared the following day, schools of Arctic Char lined the icy river banks, so thick that I could nearly walk across their backs—a nicesounding alternative to further numbing my already aching, fragile and peeling feet. My big toes had lost feeling days ago from the icy dunkings. At first, I didn’t even notice the mangled toenail from the river crossing. The cold was triumphantly sunny, somehow difficult to enjoy. Terrain following the river was not bike-friendly. So I pushed. Pedals scratched exposed calves, an insatiable woodpecker of hurt. I crossed the river three more times before the valley opened up. Then I hit my ultimate low.
I collapsed in a crumpled heap, soaking the left side of my body in a shallow trough of frozen water. Flopping onto the highest point of moss, I grasped my head in hands.
Empty. This had to be the loneliest place, inside and out. I was mentally and physically drained. Looking up, I struggled to find beauty in untouched wilderness encasing me. Dull, lifeless hills were in front and behind me. This was not a safe place.
There was no easy way out of this demoralizing wetland. I had to keep going. With a partner for commiseration, the situation would’ve been laughable rather than agonizingly hopeless. Leafless twiggy branches and a large lake foaming at the edges surrounded me. This saturated wasteland of muted color made me sad. If I didn’t move, I’d be overcome by dire vegetation. Consumed like an insignificant drop of water and frozen in docile captivity.
I forced open the Dutch door of the hut in the faintblue outside glow of early morning as thick rime crashed, covering the outer steps. Ten centimeters of snow in long streaks and drifts, lay pasted to erratic boulders. Cooking my final packet of oatmeal, I wore every stitch of clothing with waterproofed feet courtesy of used Ziploc bags. I packed, cleaned hardened snow from my bike, and picked my way through vague hints of trail, obliterated by snow over subtly featured tundra. Whether from heightened anxiety, or an overwhelming drive to complete the route, I made good time.
The sky was fearsome. Black streaks rippled between a grey cotton-ball cloud ceiling of high winds. I cinched my hood down, exhilarated by the weather. I was alive again with purpose, a goal in sight, and the will to keep going. The rain came in sheets, blowing sideways from the sea but I didn’t care. Sliding, slipping and skidding my way from the pass, the unpredictability brought a huge smile to my face. The elation lasted hours until my wheels hit gravel and finally pavement. The speed and smooth feeling beneath my tires was as alien as the colorful buildings and strange faces that surrounded me. Surely they wondered who this strange wanderer emerging from the east was. Never had a bicycle come from my direction. Perhaps it was some shape-shifter, having chosen the wrong shape.