The animated blue dot on the pixilated computer screen morphed into purple with an unholy black centre 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+ km/hr 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 on board was unsettling, the thoughts of the expedition team turned to 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 towards me.
My idea was simple when viewed on a map from the comforts of my living room: move two wheels from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ along the Arctic Circle by any means necessary. In my case, point A would be the Russell Glacier – a tongue of ice extending off the Greenland Icecap – with Sisimiut, the second largest ‘city’ in Greenland, as point B, roughly 200km to the west. Sparsely shrubbed tundra, scoured gneiss rock slabs, and gigantic lakes lay between the two points. To simplify things slightly, there was a route (not-so-creatively named the Arctic Circle Route), 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 in to Greenland, attempted the trail, and left – but where’s the adventure in that? Instead, I would earn my keep driving zodiacs, interpreting the northern Arctic landscape, and keeping adventurous visitors safe in the land of Ursus Maritimus aboard a vessel in more likeness to an iceberg than a ship.
Adjusting to ship life wasn’t without its challenges. Confined to a rigid schedule within 113 metres of ship, without the freedom to pedal made me antsy. The most drastic adjustment was having to be ‘on’ all the time, surrounded by enthusiastic guests hungry for insight into all things Arctic. My lone reprieve was out on polar bear patrol. Four of us would head off in separate directions with rifles for self-defense, acting as a sort of bear bait to make sure there weren’t any errant bears sleeping in gullies or foraging behind boulders before bringing our passengers to shore. Given my tight living quarters, this solo time on the land made me long for more.
Moving through the Arctic is an exercise in patience. Dogs have historically been exception to the rule, 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 – while distance and time seem irrelevant after a while. You get there when you get there – one of the many lessons the Arctic teaches. Plants grow slowly – a fraction of a millimetre in a season, competition is non-existent. Greenlandic speech is polysynthetic, with words regularly stretching 20-plus characters long, spoken with a low, easy tone as though a single sentence could take all day to finish. Rushing is useless in a land of perpetual sun. Our 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, which I had lived amongst for the past 3 weeks. Almost instantaneously, my excitement was replaced by a severe loneliness. After living unavoidably cramped, I expected the emptiness of the 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 dustily sits at the head of the longest fjord in the world. The former American military outpost boasts the longest runway in the Northern Hemisphere, a poorly stocked grocery store, small airport hotel, and a few haphazard shops colourfully 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 200km of unknown and potentially unridable 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 Icecap as dust clouds swirled. I had 14 kilometres of gravel before the Arctic Circle Trail officially started. Everything was cold and uninviting. Low shrubs provided a dismal modicum of colour across the barren landscape carved from stone by the sardonic wind.
The next morning, I shivered in my inadequate sleeping bag until the sun hit my tent. Peregrine Falcons dive-bombed small birds metres from where I cooked my meagre ration of oatmeal. A poor nights sleep left me lacklustre for my endeavour. But as my tires left the gravel road and tasted arctic circle dirt, I felt a sense of progress and excitement which tempered my unease.
The hills burst alive with autumn colours towards 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 a very short growing season, the flora in this part of the world put their energy into roots and leaves, so trees which are a century old look like baby shrubs compared with 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.
There is no longstanding history of long distance running or trekking in the Inuit spectre with the majority of land travel in the Arctic occurring in winter – for good reason as I was harshly discovering. I measured my riding progress in ratios. A good day would be a 60/40 riding/hiking ratio. Honestly though, I enjoyed the changes in movement. Hiking would give 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 pushing the bike through the vegetation and walk on the trail while pulling excelled where creeks fed bicycle accosting tree limbs growing up to eye level. Cliff sections required shouldering my fully loaded steel hardtail and very careful foot placements. Often requiring multiple trips.
Bog wrestling was a daily if not hourly occurrence. This was an unusually wet year. Days spent staring into sphagnum tested my already strained sanity levels. Any slight depression or low lying area bred thick beds of moss piled in ruffled mounds sponging up every ounce of water. Sometimes stretching for multiple kilometres at a time. I played Russian roulette with semi dry feet. It was impossible to tell if each footstep would end in firm footing and a sigh of relief or a disagreeable, soggy demise. Pedalling across sections was not much better and would often end with a foot planted in the deepest section of water, barely above freezing.
Five days into my journey and somehow without the impending storm, the trail had frozen into an icy snake dissecting two lumpy mountains at the head of a wide valley. Cresting the pass, I emerged out of the cold shadows and was greeted by an expansive view and a small herd of Caribou grazing in the bright sunshine. Nibbling on lichen and short grasses, they eyed me with caution and kept a comfortable distance. I admired their beauty, lowered my seat, and excitedly dropped into a long, technical descent. Picking my way down a rocky ridgeline, I could hear a dull, unfamiliar sound approaching. Only a few metres behid, 3 large bucks galloped over the adjacent ridge towards me. I momentary locked eyes and 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 a few minutes?
In a land of mirages and perpetual day or night depending on the season, the spiritual and perceived ‘real’ world intermingle in a dreamlike existence. Shape-shifting or ijiraq emerged in Inuit culture where a more appropriate form for travel could be a raven or caribou compared with the clumsy and inefficient human form, not to mention one perched atop a bicycle. In folklore, a man would go hunting, shift into the form of a polar bear to hunt seals, and eventually returning to the form of a man when deemed necessary. If only I could shape-shift on the difficult sections of the route.
Violent blasts of wind threatened to tear the tin stove pipe from its feeble plywood footing. It wouldn’t have mattered as I had no paraffin for the heater. I’d been watching the lenticular clouds ominously form earlier in the day. Storm imminent. I hastily made for the hut marked at the edge of the map – which now felt 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 up underneath 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 the steep cliffs hemming in the narrow valley. Frozen streams criss-crossed sheer cliffs like icy spider webs. Listening to the steel cables attached to the roof on creak and groan under the strain of 100-kilometre-per-hour winds, I was grateful for the shelter no matter how humble.
As the storm cleared the following day, the schools of Arctic Char lining the icy river were so thick that I could nearly walk across their backs – a nice sounding alternative to the numbing cold on my already aching, fragile, and peeling feet. My big toes had not had feeling in them 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, but somehow difficult to enjoy. Terrain following the river was not very bike friendly, so I pushed. Pedals scratched at my exposed calfs like an impatiently trailing wolverine. I was forced to cross the river three more times before the valley opened up into a vast quagmire where I hit my ultimate low.
I collapsed into 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 dropped my head into my hands. Empty. Mentally and physically drained, this had to be the loneliest place I had ever been both inside and out. Looking up, I struggled to find the beauty in this untouched wilderness encasing me. Dull, lifeless hills were the challenges both in front of 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, this situation would have been laughable instead of agonizingly hopeless. Twiggy branches stripped of their leaves and a large lake – foaming at the edges with the steadily increasing headwind surrounded me. This saturated wasteland of muted colours made me sad. I felt that if I didn’t start moving soon, I would be absorbed into this vegetative mess. Consumed like an insignificant drop of water and frozen in docile captivity. So up I got.
I forced open the top of the dutch door of the hut in the faint blue glow of early morning, a thick sheet of rime released from the wall and crashed down onto the wooden steps. Ten centimetres of fresh snow in long streaks and deep drifts was pasted to erratic boulders. Cooking my final packet of oatmeal, I put on every stitch of clothing I had brought with me and waterproofed my feet as best I could with used ziploc bags. I cleaned the plastered snow from my bike, and began picking my way along vague remnants of the trail, obliterated from sight by the sticky mass of snow amongst the subtly featured tundra. Without food, I had to finish today. Whether from the heightened anxiety of my situation, or my overwhelming drive to complete the route, I made good time given the conditions.
The sky was fearsome. Black streaks rippled between the grey cotton ball cloud ceiling in the 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 frigid rain came down in sheets blowing sideways from the sea but I didn’t care. Sliding, slipping, and skidding my way down 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 colourful buildings and strange faces which now surrounded me. Surely they wondered who this strange wanderer emerging from the east was. Never has a bicycle come from this direction. Perhaps it was some shape-shifter, having chosen the wrong shape.