Narsarsuaq, Greenland

Narsarsuaq has a similar history to Kangerlussuaq in many ways. Like its northern neighbour, it only exists because of US intervention during World War II, when three airbases were built along the West Coast of Greenland (Thule being the third). Also like Kangerlussuaq, it only really exists these days to serve as a local airport hub thanks to the large runway. And, like many towns and settlements in Greenland, it being close to the ice cap can make for a great stopover for visitors.

Kangerlussuaq has some easy tourism. Volkswagen built a road from the town to the ice cap to allow them to test cars on the ice, and this road now supports a few options for day trips past the golf course to a couple of glacier and lakes all the way to the ice cap – all in the comfort of a vehicle. Narsarsuaq, however, needs a little more effort.

We arrived midday to glorious weather. There was barely a cloud in the sky and the views over the ice cap, the jagged mountain peaks and the glaciers were mesmerising as the plane descended. Narsarsuaq had peaked at 24C a couple of days earlier and when the wind died down it felt scorching hot.

There really isn’t much to the town. The population is around 150, and I imagine most are employed to keep the airport running. It’s the main hub for the south of Greenland, with regular helicopter flights to satellite towns – particularly Qaqortoq and Nanortalik, plus some flights to Nuuk and occasionally further afield. If you’re not in Narsarsuaq for work or to catch another flight, there is only one option: explore the local area.

Narsarsuaq is mainland Greenland but essentially sits on an island. To the north it’s surrounded by the ice cap and glaciers, and the remaining sides run to the sea. So walking in any direction for a few hours can’t get you lost, in theory. On day one, we took a walk up to Signal Hill, which is through some rare, Greenlandic forest to a viewpoint overlooking the fjord and the town. It was a good taster for what was to come.

The following day, we started on a long day-hike from the town, heading north along the road, past the airport to the end of the tarmac, onto a well-trodden path past some science experiments, continuing over the saddle to a small piece of farmland. This already felt like the middle of nowhere – no people, no sounds.

The weather was pretty cool at this point. It was cloudy, low cloud, but with the sun trying to break through. Given we had a long day ahead, this allowed us to keep the pace up for the first hour and a bit to make good time, but with the downside that the mosquitos were out in force. Trying to stop on the top of the saddle for a snack and to enjoy the view lasted just a few seconds before the hungry little bastards found us.

That set a theme for the day. When we were hiking and there was a bit of wind, it was pretty much okay. The mosquito spray kept the bites to a minimum despite swarms of what felt like hundreds of them buzzing around at all times. When we stopped, or when we were sheltered from the wind, it was pretty uncomfortable. This makes sense: we were very much in their territory after all. After turning off the farm road and climbing up a very steep path for a few hundred yards, we were walking through longer grass and scrubland which was home to millions of the little buggers. They sensed blood and came for us.

Mosquitos aside, the walk was spectacular. Passing a couple of lakes and climbing slightly higher, there was a magnificent view of the Narsarsuaq glacier. It continues into the distance for miles until it seamlessly becomes part of Greenland’s immense ice cap.

Our route continued directly east from here. There is meant to be some kind of path, and even a marker and a cairn every so often, but it isn’t helped by the fact that the markers are faded orange blobs painted on boulders, and these closely resemble an orange moss which grows on the side of rocks. We didn’t get lost but at times had to be confident that we were heading in the right general direction and hope we didn’t stray too far.

This was, at times, a tough hike. Without a path to follow and to keep reasonable time, we often took the direct route up a slope rather than winding around with a more comfortable gradient. That meant a few stops for water and a rest. Those stops meant the mosquitos caught us again. It was like a game we played with them for a few hours. A game that only one group of participants enjoyed.

We did lose the path at one point. A particularly frustrating point. There was a steep descent before a visibly steep climb ahead, and part-way down the hill we hit an impasse. Generally, it was possible to scramble down the slopes on this route but here we hit a sheer edge with a drop of around ten metres, which meant having to double-back through some of the tougher terrain to find a path down by the side of a lake. This added about 45 minutes to our walk, and at the end of this little detour, there was one of the larger river crossings of the day, with no easy way over…

…so the shoes and socks were off.

In hindsight, this was clearly the moment the mosquitos had been waiting for. Vulnerable, temporarily stuck (as our feet dried off), they swooped in on the unsprayed parts and savaged my ankles. But I didn’t know about that until the itching started in the evening and my ankle swelled up to cankle status.

But we pushed on. The steep climb on the other side of the river wasn’t as tough as it looked, continuing up to a saddle where we were sure the prize was waiting for us. Each time just… a… little… bit… further. Now over six hours in, we were feeling it. And at the top of the saddle was… more walking. It looked like another kilometre or so ahead, and over more uneven terrain.

We plodded on. And eventually it started to come into view. We picked a spot with just enough wind to keep the flies away and to relax for an hour or so, and it was utterly perfect.

The Qorooq fjord is phenomenal. High, steep sides rising up from the turquoise water into amazing mountains, continuing into the distance. Icebergs floating slowly through the fjord. And the terminal face of the Qorooq glacier. It is one of, if not the best view, I have ever seen. And suddenly the long trek felt entirely worth it.

Like most long hikes, the walk back was comparatively easy. The sun was beating down, feet were aching, blisters were pinching, and we took a bit of an unintentional detour which required some extra scrambling (but the view we had of the Narsarsuaq glacier made this very much worth it). The walk, largely downhill now, was straightforward. Even the ropes back down to the river near the farmland were easy, and the time flew by.

Days like this are what visiting Narsarsuaq is all about. The town is an airport hub, but is surrounded by the most stunning nature and it doesn’t need a long walk before it feels like being in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t see any people on our trip to the glacier – just us and the mosquitos for hours.

The day ended with a Greenlandic coffee at the Narsarsuaq hotel. That’s whiskey, Kahlua, strong coffee, a bit of cream, and flaming Grand Marnier. It symbolises the Greenlandic people, the land, the icebergs and the Northern Lights. And it almost made the pain from the hike go away.

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