There is something satisfying about following a thin red line across three maps. To walk for days, moving with the land, the wind, the sun. To be humbled by cold and rain, carrying only what is needed, chasing fleeting moments of warmth, sleep, ecstasy. Walking is my freedom, a way to reconnect with the ground beneath my feet and leave the world around me, if only for a moment. With the Arctic Circle Trail behind me, its silence still rings in my ears; crossing Western Greenland on two feet, as autumn set the tundra ablaze with crimson and gold, granted time to simply be. At one with the elements, the earth, and myself.
Words & photography by Emma Hart | @emhartova
A tiny ice cream parlour stands outside Kangerlussuaq airport. Hunting rifles lean against the carefully whitewashed wall and the frozen wind whistles against a bright blue sign reading ‘Ishuset’ in large white letters. I wonder at the irony of buying an ice cream here, only a few miles from the second largest body of ice in the world. For the second time, I sit down on the concrete block steps outside and watch all-terrain vehicles speed past on the dirt road a few metres away. I sat here 10 days ago too, in the same spot. Since then, Kangerlussuaq hasn’t changed; the air still smells of jet fuel, and the wind still dances with the dust on the road, weaving and falling. The Ishuset is still open for business.
There is something significant about following a thin red line across three maps. The Arctic Circle Trail stretches from Kangerlussuaq, a small settlement near the edge of the Greenlandic ice sheet, comprised of an airport and a cluster of partially abandoned scientific research labs, to Sisimiut, a colourful fishing town on the Western coast. In between, there is the only tundra; nowhere to resupply, no-one to call for help, and no option to stop and turn back. Rising from the steps outside the ice cream parlour, I walk to stand at the edge of the road. Looking to the left, the road stretches into the distance, to its end at Sondestrom port, from where to Arctic Circle Trail stretches all the way to Sisimiut. I could walk it again, I think to myself. Again and again, until the cold and darkness stopped me. Shaking the thought from my mind, I turn right. Tomorrow, I leave.
I do not travel for the comfort of far-away hotel rooms; instead seeking discomfort, long days of chapped lips and sore feet, all for the joy of waking up with the sunrise. To be alone, walking with eyes wide, racing the sun as it rolls across the sky. In the weeks before coming here, I would lay out paper maps across the living room floor, tracing contour lines with a finger, across rivers and through valleys, counting lakes and imagining reindeer roaming across the paper tundra beneath my hands. Now I had seen them in life, knees and heads raised high, appearing silently and melting away again into the land. I had seen a landscape of rock, carved by ice, rising and falling. Cradling pools of water which shone like silver and stretched for miles, tiny oceans with waves dancing in the wind. The wind which cuts like glass and goes where it pleases, snatching away the fleeting warmth of the sun. And the sun, my only companion; we rise together, move together across land and sky, until I watch the light fade, sinking slowly to sleep beyond the distant peaks. The sun is my only constant, and in my mind, I beg her to stay and grant some small refuge from the cold. For 9 days I live like this; cold air, cold water, frozen ground. Rising early to tent canvas covered with ice, following the trail as it widened and narrowed, across rivers and through valleys, still counting lakes as I pass them by. Removed from the noise of the world, here is silence, space, and time. Time to remember that we, humans, are nature, though we may often forget.
Arriving at the Kangerlussuaq Vandrehjem, I manage 10 minutes sitting on a dormitory bunk beneath halogen lights before swapping my heavy pack for Fraser, and yet again seeking out the open sky. Lighter now, I wander past empty shipping containers, once home to scientists researching the nearby ice, past primary-coloured houses, and abandoned children’s tricycles resting in the dust. There are a few hours of light left, and I will walk through them, as I have done every day. With no destination in mind, I follow the road out of town towards the icecap, pausing at a high point with a view across the fjord. The water below traces patterns across the dark plain, stretching in silver threads of glacial melt, all the way to the ocean. Like veins of the earth they carry life, shaping the land and those living upon it; from metres above, I can hear them, a low murmur which seems to grow ever louder. From my pocket, I take a pebble, scooped from the side of the road not far from here, after leaving Kangerlussuaq to begin walking the trail. I had carried it for 9 days and 165 kilometres, all the way to Sisimiut; I had carried it further than any glacier could in a century. Turning it over in my hand, I see more than rock. The land I stand upon is melting, and cradled in my palm is human hubris, a determination and defiance to be bolder, faster, greater. My own, and everyone else’s. The land I stand upon is melting, and my presence here is the reason why.
With eyes closed, I feel the warmth of the sun fall across my face; the sun I have travelled with for so many days, chasing its light across the tundra. I remember that I, too, am nature and that as the land falters, so do I. So do we. I let the pebble fall from my hand, and it tumbles down to rest in the water below, ready to repeat its journey, alone this time. Tomorrow, I leave, but I take nature with me. Within me. On the trail, I found freedom, in movement, silence, and solitude. Yet here, in this moment of stillness, I find resolution - to return to the earth the freedom I find within it, the strength I draw from it, and the life it has given me.