Trekking in Greenland

A friend and I planned on spending the whole of September on a trekking tour of southern Greenland. Arriving at the small airport terminal of Narsarsuaq, things seemed pretty quiet. The last few tourists were just leaving the largest island in the world. But that is precisely why we chose to come in the autumn, even though we knew the nights were already bitterly cold and that the first snow could fall at any time.

glacier exploration

River crossing

We leave the relatively small town of Narsarsuaq early in the morning. Our goal is to reach Johan Dahl Land, where we can climb a mountain and view the Greenland ice sheet. There are no roads between the larger cities and villages in Greenland. Instead, people travel by boat or helicopter. As a result, you hardly see any cars, but lots of all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles. And everywhere you can see icebergs floating in the fjords. At first, that’s an unfamiliar sight, especially if you have never been to Greenland before.

We cross a wide river basin with waters flowing from the Greenland ice sheet. Unfortunately, the suspension bridge on the main stream has been torn by a flood, and we have to walk upstream for some time until we find a suitable place to cross the river. I’ve brought a pair of sneakers and a rope for just this eventuality. However, my travel companion did not pack any spare shoes and has to walk barefoot across the ice-cold river. He ties his trekking shoes together and slings them over his neck. While still in the water, he throws them the final few meters to the other shore. They slowly roll back down the bank into the river and are swept away by the strong current. I leap into the water after them and manage to salvage the shoes, but slip and fall, getting myself soaking wet.

polar lights
Copyright Wulf Bramesfeld

Polar lights

We decide to pitch our tent and dry our things over the camping stove. The temperature drops as soon as the sun sets, and we quickly burrow into our sleeping bags. We wake up half frozen in the middle of the night and suddenly see a light outside the tent. It is as if someone is lurking about with a flashlight. But we hear no sound. We turn our sleeping bags towards the tent entrance and carefully open the tent. What we then see in the heavens is unique. This is the first aurora we have ever experienced, and it spreads out across the whole sky. It includes every possible color, and we almost feel like we are in a discotheque – green and yellowish colors in all variations dance above us. Any description fails to do justice to the sight – it has to be experienced. The Vikings believed the aurora to be the dance of the gods in Valhalla, the final resting place of their warriors. We get up and enjoy the view for over an hour until fatigue drives us back into the tent. An absolutely unforgettable night!

Johan Dahl Land

For a few days, we follow a hiking trail through the bushy landscape, which basks in the autumn glow of the low-lying sun. It turns out to be narrow sheep trails, and if you choose the wrong turn, you end up at a dead-end and have to turn back to the last fork in the trail. The bushes are simply too high to enable you to walk straight through the countryside.

Later, we climb through a rocky mountain saddle and back down again. We then encounter a wide mountain stream and find a fantastic place to set up camp directly on its banks. The next day, we follow the stream against its current. Yet, at some point, we still have to get to the other side. Cold feet once again, but this time the shoes are safely tucked away in the backpack.

ice landscape greenland

View of the Greenland ice sheet

We move onwards through the countryside of Johan Dahl Land onto a kind of Inuit summer grassland. Large blocks of ice lie on the shore. They come from a calving glacier that pours into a vast lake. We set up camp here. The following day, we climb a mountain that offers us an impressive view of the Greenland ice sheet. It is a dreamlike panorama and is undoubtedly a worthwhile destination for any trip to Greenland. We have not met with a single soul on our way here and enjoy our view of the ice sheet completely alone. We travel back to Narsarsuaq almost the same way we came.

The Qaqortoq peninsula

The Qaqortoq peninsula, named after the largest city in southern Greenland, is bordered by the Tunaliarfik Fjord to the north and the Igalikup-Kangerlua Fjord to the south. The peninsula is very mountainous, featuring a range called the Redekammen (in Danish). East of Igaliku, there are small and larger glaciers, and the rock faces seem to grow almost alpine-like into the sky. We take a small fishing boat from Narsarsuaq across the fjord and continue our hike to Igaliku.

greenland playing chess
Copyright Dirk Apel

Erik the Red and the Vikings

In 986, Erik the Red came to Greenland from Iceland and settled precisely here in Igaliku. He successfully persuaded many of his countrymen to join him in the “green land.” Yet, only 14 of the 25 Viking ships that initially headed towards Greenland arrived at their destination. Some had turned back, while others suffered shipwreck. Here on the peninsula, he built his “Gardar,” his court, 15 years before the Vikings were obliged to adopt Christianity. In 1126, the site became the bishopric of Greenland.

In Igaliku, we climb to a plateau some 300 meters higher up and enjoy the view.

The next day, we return to the historic site and continue further in the direction of the Redekammen Mountain Range. We hike uphill all day long, and when we finally reach the top, we get to enjoy a panoramic view of the fjord landscape. It is only by the evening of the next day that we arrive at the imposing ruins of the Hvalsey Church.

greenland church ruins

Old church ruins

A cousin of Erik the Red had settled here. The church, however, was built sometime later, around 1300. Today, it is regarded as the most famous construction of this period in the whole of Greenland. It is a magical location, and the ruins seem to appear in the middle of nowhere. Around 16 meters long and 8 meters wide, the church features walls that are 1.5 meters thick and rise to a height of 5.7 meters. The few windows look like firing slits, with openings wider on the inside. The last known documented use of the church was a wedding that took place here in 1408. Shortly afterward, the Vikings appeared to have abandoned Greenland. Over 300 years passed until the next European, the missionary Hans Egede, again stepped foot upon the island. He came in 1721 in search of traces of the Vikings. However, he only found Inuit living here, who, in contrast to the Vikings, had adapted their lifestyle to the landscape over thousands of years.

Are there mosquitos in Greenland?

It takes another two days to reach Qaqortoq. On our way there, we have to cross a large wetland area. Suddenly we see them – mosquitos. The air appears to darken as the massive swarm approaches us. The tiny beasts descend upon all exposed skin surfaces, and they immediately creep into any opening they find. We had come prepared for just about everything for this time of year – including fierce gale force winds blowing from the ice sheet. But never did we imagine so many mosquitos. We have no choice but to run as fast as we can.

In Qaqortoq, we stock up on food, and the next day, we take the boat to Narsaq. From there, we hike for another week back to Narsarsuaq.

The first snow fell on the last night of our adventure. Our beautiful and solitary trekking tour seemed as if it was over much too fast. Southern Greenland in the autumn is truly worth a visit. The nights can be frosty, but you also have the best opportunities to see the polar lights.