Cathy Harlow: Hiking in East Greenland Tour Highlights
In summer 2019, Wanderlust award-winning guide Cathy Harlow is travelling again to the wild and remote East Greenland coast to guide our nine-day ‘Hiking in East Greenland’ adventure. There’s so much about East Greenland that inspires Cathy but there are a few truly special experiences that make this trip stand out, read on to find out more…
Each year, I’ve been amazed at how people are captivated by Greenland and the effect that it has on them – one participant on the tour a few years back has since returned to Greenland to set up music masterclasses and creative workshops! I think that coming from our busy working and home lives, the experience of Greenland’s wild and remote landscapes helps you switch off from stress and plug into a gentle, uplifting life recharge.
The Ice Factor
The trip’s based in the Ammassalik area, lying adjacent to the Sermilik Fjord, where active calving glaciers give birth to scores of colossal icebergs. One of the highlights of our June/July trip is gazing over the pack ice from a mountain viewpoint. Huge icebergs jostle for space among the ice floes and sometimes drift ashore where they break up into smaller ‘bergy bits’. Walking among these beautiful stranded ice sculptures is unforgettable By August the pack ice has dispersed, leaving the giant icebergs free to drift in and out of the fjords and inlets with the wind and tide. At this time of year, you can admire the icebergs from shore and by boat, appreciating their beauty from all angles.
Big is Beautiful
I find it hard to grasp just how huge and wild Greenland is – the world’s largest island is 52 times the size of Denmark to be exact. Equally astonishing is that on the entire east coast, there are only 3000 people. Most of them live in the Ammassalik area, where the nearest neighbours are over 800km away! There are no roads to speak of and so we travel, as the locals do, by boat and helicopter but as this is a hiking trip, most of our exploring is on foot. We’ll find few trails and hardly any other hikers as we pick our way along the shoreline, following rivers, climbing summits and tracing easy ridges. The visibility is incredible as one craggy range of peaks follows another towards a distant horizon and the vast inland ice cap.
All Things Wild and Wonderful
Each year when the winter snow melts, there’s an explosion of colour as saxifrages, louseworts, moss campion, harebell, alpine catchfly and glacier buttercup burst into bloom. Snow bunting, Lapland Bunting, ringed plover and the great northern diver can be seen on the hikes and arctic foxes, though shy, are not uncommon. Occasionally seals can be spotted on the drift ice. August is the time for whales, especially humpbacks, as they gather to feed close to shore – and it’s quite something to go whale watching with a backdrop of huge icebergs!
Greenland Past and Present
It continues to amaze me that it’s only 130 years ago that Europeans first made contact with the Inuit of East Greenland, who at that time numbered just over 400. They found a hunting people who had acquired finely-tuned skills to live at the edge of the habitable world, and a special relationship with nature and the supernatural. During the trip, we witness different aspects of life in isolated communities, both historical and contemporary. Kulusuk is a very traditional village of around 260 inhabitants, many of whom live from hunting. In summer huskies are tethered around the brightly painted wooden cottages, taking a break from the rigours of hauling sledges across the winter pack ice. Tasiilaq with just under 2000 inhabitants is the regional centre and a town growing in size and prosperity.
Stalking the Aurora
Traditionally, Greenlanders believed that auroras were the spirits of their ancestors playing football with a walrus skull, though science tells us that solar particles colliding with gas molecules are at work. Whatever you believe, you’ll need a clear sky and as stable weather and starry nights are frequent in late August, there are reasonable chances of enjoying a display. In fact, most of our August groups have been lucky. The aurora season in East Greenland starts in the third week of August and because there is so little light pollution the northern lights are visible even when the sky is not totally dark.
As thrills go, few experiences match the exhilaration of taking off in a helicopter. You’ll speed over the rugged coastline flying over icebergs and breathtaking mountain ranges. The holiday includes two short helicopter rides but if you have an appetite for more, a longer optional excursion by helicopter to the Johan Petersen Fjord or mighty Helheim Glacier is the way to go.
How Tough is Hiking?
We do two full-day hikes of around 17-20km and several shorter two to five-hour hikes. Some of the terrains are on trails, some off-trail and there are short sections of ascent and descent. If there are snow patches on the ground it’s a little more challenging. The mountain viewpoint climb involves 550m of ascent and descent and is steep. The hikes may vary according to the weather. If you’re a regular, fit hiker and are comfortable in mountain terrain, this trip is for you. If you’re not sure, we’re happy to talk to you about it.
The Accommodation and Food
Given the remoteness of East Greenland, it’s actually remarkable that there are good hotels and great food on offer! So dismiss the stereotypic igloo and seal blubber concept as you’ll be staying in rooms with private facilities, enjoying meals with a view and a great choice of menu.
The trips run in late June / early July and again in August, each offering a slightly different experience
When To Go
In Late June / Early July
The pack ice is usually present but variable in recent years; boat trips through the pack ice are exciting but subject to ice conditions; large icebergs are found among the ice flows; there are 24 hours of daylight; expect some significant snow patches still on the ground making hiking a little more challenging; wildflowers are beginning to bloom.
In Late August
The pack ice has mostly dispersed, but large icebergs are still abundant; darker night skies permit aurora viewing; the winter snow has melted, making for easier hiking; whales gather to feed close to shore, present in large numbers over the last few years but this is nature so sightings can’t be guaranteed; early blooming wildflowers are over but later species still in flower.