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Sunday, 3 April 2016

Wilderness Trekking in Erik the Red’s Land: Qassiarsuk to Narsaq, Greenland

The Stuff of Sagas

The boat that had carried us the short hop across the icy turquoise waters from Narsarsuaq to Qassiarsuk recedes across the fjord, weaving its way past icebergs, leaving a faint white wake. It’s so quiet, the sound of its engine humming like an angry hornet takes ages to fade. The mid-August sun is hot on my shoulders as we make our way up the small jetty of this sleepy sheep farming community to begin a six day trek across a peninsula called Erik the Red’s Land to the fishing port of Narsaq, which a prominently placed sign states is 50 kilometres away. A traverse across the peninsula is marked on the 1:100,000 scale map of the area. However, as we found out during trekking in Klosterdalen, Tasermiut Fjord, this map, like the one we used there, is unlikely to be very accurate, and navigating in poor weather would be a challenge to say the least. We are well prepared, and are carrying a satellite phone and a DeLorme InReach satellite device that allows 2-way SMS and email messaging. 


The signpost also mentions ‘Ruiner’, which refer to some of the most interesting and important Norse remains in Greenland. Qassiarsuk is close to the late 10th century farmstead, Brattahlíð, which is mentioned in the Saga of Erik the Red. Supposedly founded by him, it is the first Viking settlement in Greenland and the first to be established in America by Europeans. Several archaeological excavations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries uncovered the foundations of late-medieval buildings, including a church with a rectangular churchyard containing human remains, and a well preserved long house. But in 1961, during the building of a school hostel around 200 metres away from the excavated church, several human skulls were unearthed, and in 1962 five excavations took place which revealed a small church with a stone floor and thin wooden walls banked by layers of turf surrounded by a circular churchyard containing 150 interments.


According to the Saga of Erik the Red, his son, Leif the Lucky, introduced Christianity to Greenland around the year 1000 by order of the Norwegian king, Olav Tryggvason. Erik did not renounce paganism for Christianity, but his wife, Thojdhild, did and she built a small church which was sited some distance from Erik’s farmstead so as not to antagonise him. The foundations of this tiny church is believed to be that referred to in Erik the Red’s Saga and probably served as the burial place for the earliest colonists before the larger church was built nearby. The disappearance of the Viking settlements such as Brattahlíð toward the end of the 15th century puzzles historians, but was likely the result of a combination of climate change due to the Little Ice Age, Inuit expansion, the loss of trade in furs and walrus tusks with Europe, and competition from the Hanseatic League.

In 2000, to celebrate the millennium of Norse settlement in Greenland, the Icelandic government funded a reconstruction of a long house and Thojdhild’s church, complete with period furnishings. For 50 kroner you can visit both of these buildings. There’s also a prominently placed statue of Erik’s son, Leif, not far from the jetty. Leif was allegedly the first European to cross the North Atlantic and discover the Americas, a region he named Vinland. It’s therefore not hard to see why the Narsaq Peninsula has been named Erik the Red’s Land in the Norseman’s honour, and the ‘ruins’ and reconstructions are worth an hour of anyone’s time before setting off along the unsealed road towards the sheep farming community of Sillisit some 14 km away.



Our feet kick up clouds of rust red dust which coat the surrounding grassland as we climb a rough track that runs through areas of scrubby grass above Qassiarsuk, its houses hugging the shore in a jumbled mass of brightly coloured dots. It’s harvest time and so precious is this grass as animal fodder that it has been mown round natural obstacles such as large boulders and rocky knolls, and much of it is lying in felled lines on the ground, or has already been baled in white plastic as silage to be fed to the flocks of sheep that will be kept indoors during the long Arctic winter. We are surprised at how parched the landscape is. Local farmers are bemoaning the weather; while in Ireland we have seen little of summer beneath leaden skies dampening our spirits with almost continual mist and rain, here it’s been hot since June with little rain after a brutally cold winter, and crop yields are down 20 per cent on last year. Agriculture here is marginal at the best of times and this long spell of dry weather is little short of a disaster.


The day is warm and muggy with thin cloud trapping the heat as we pass by a large lake with aquatic plants fringing its boggy shore, its still deep blue surface the perfect mirror to reflect some snowy peaks that rise behind it. Tiny blue gentian dot the scrubby grass and the haunting cries of white-tailed sea eagles, who put on a stunning aerial display, accompany us as we climb high above the fjord, its turquoise water peppered with icebergs. The track weaves its way past many lakes and I am pleased to discover that midges and mosquitoes are far less troublesome here than further south in Tasermiut Fjord. Indeed, mosquitoes appear to dislike land on which sheep are grazed, but there is still the odd one around and I have taken every precaution not to get bitten! A couple of farmers heading to and from the farmsteads near Sillisit pass by us in jeeps with friendly waves, but apart from a couple of dishevelled French day trippers who are struggling uphill like a pair of wind broken horses en route to Qassiarsuk, we see no one else. 


A long, undulating trackway now takes us down towards the fjord where masses of jagged icebergs, stranded on submerged glacial moraine, cluster at the entrance to the Qooqqut fjord having been calved from the Qooqqup glacier some 15 km away. We stop right at the shoreline where a huge shelf of gleaming grey granite riven by a deep black dyke, slips into the crystal clear water where ragged strands of brilliantly coloured seaweed float. In the shade of a large boulder, we sit awhile and listen to the melodic sound of small waves lapping against the rock. Every so often the air is rent with a sound like a musket shot, as ice splits and shears away from the huge glaciers a kilometre so so out in the fjord, each creating a mini tsunami.


A steep, dusty track climbs away from the shoreline to a small headland just before the farming community of Issormiut a few kilometres from Sillisit, which offers grandstand views down into the Tunulliarfik Fjord. Wanting to indulge in some time lapse photography, we decide to stop here to set up camp close to a small stream. Wood is particularly abundant and we gather armfuls of tinder dry, sun bleached branches of juniper, birch and willow. Using my fire stick to light the Honey stove, I watch as orange flames lick around the pencil sized pieces of wood inside, sending forth aromatic clouds of pale blue smoke. This lightweight titanium stove is a godsend, as the presence of abundant dead wood in most places allows us to heat water without the need to carry much liquid fuel which we save for the high mountain areas.



Indeed, there is something about fire that awakens the primordial in us. Source of light, heat, protection and means of cooking our food, fire is one of the fundamental things which makes us human. From the very first spark ever struck, all the way down to the coal fired machinery of the industrial revolution which catapulted us into the modern technological age; from the first simple languages uttered round a camp fire, to the sharing of ideas, telling of stories, and the creation of culture that enriches our lives, fire has been pivotal in human evolution and development. Unfortunately, in many places worldwide, fires on trekking trails or in parks aren't permitted, but here in Greenland there is no ban, so I am eagerly looking forward to sitting next to a roaring camp fire with Martin as the sun sets.


But ominous looking grey cloud boiling about the summit of Illerfissalik across the fjord suggests otherwise. We have each just consumed a delicious freeze dried chicken korma with rice (a high energy pack with 800 calorie serving) by Expedition Foods, a British company whose products we highly recommend, and are sipping hot mugs of spicy ginger tea when large raindrops begin to fall and the wind begins to gust. Safely inside our tent cocooned deep within our warm and cosy sleeping bags by the time the full force of the storm hits, we listen to the rain lashing against the canvas which is being buffeted noisily by the wind. Despite the din, I soon fall fast asleep. 

Of Scarps and Sheep

The rain of the night has long abated and I poke my head out of the tent to an unclouded periwinkle blue sky above a landscape flooded with brilliant sunshine. Last night’s wind has scattered the icebergs in the fjord; many smaller ones have been beached on the pebbly shore below our camp, while the larger ones have been pushed up the Tunulliarfik Fjord towards Narsarsuaq. The smell of wood smoke perfumes the air as Martin tends to the Honey stove, boiling water for a welcome mug of coffee.

The air is clean and fresh as we begin the descent along the unmade road down to the small farming community of Issormiut, comprised of a couple of wooden farmhouses, a small jetty and two large sheep sheds, one of which is disused. Rows of newly cut grass lying in a large meadow scent the air, but apart from one sheep dog lying in the dirt which rises silently to its feet and eyes us keenly as we pass by on the stony track, the place seems deserted.



Ahead I can see the faint outline of a mast standing proud of a prominent escarpment with columns of basalt sitting atop beds of sandstone like a thick pie crust. The route apparently passes to the right of the mast which looks a long way off and involves an ascent of over 700 metres. Below we can see the brightly painted farm houses of the small community of Sillisit. Upon approaching the settlement, it is unclear where the route goes. The road we’re on passes into a field in front of a property with a large tractor outside, but we are leery of opening the gate as the field contains a horse and a dog sleeping in the dust near the house. A child’s swing emits a periodic metallic squeak as it moves in the wind, breaking the somewhat unnerving silence. There isn’t a soul around to ask for directions, so we thread our way along a thin strip of land beyond the field above a pebbly beach, clambering over another makeshift fence into a neighbouring field, being careful not to collide with items of rusting farm machinery hidden in long grass. We eventually rejoin the road at the other side of the settlement. I wonder where all the people are? There is no sign of anyone working in the fields which have been recently mown and the huge bales of silage wrapped in white plastic gleam in the Arctic sun. Perhaps they are out at sea fishing?


Once past Sillisit, the road climbs steeply and becomes very rough underfoot before it peters out. Huge globular heads of angelica rise above the rest of the herbage at the side of the track. The day is hot and oppressive as white wispy cloud begins to stealthily cover the sky and we pause for lunch by a lake before climbing ever upwards over a series of small, rugged plateaus peppered with lakes. Huge leathery mushrooms dot the ground and scrubby bilberry bushes abound. Eventually the terrain steepens as we approach the final wall of basalt that will take us to the very top of the escarpment where we intend to camp. Fortunately a well defined sheep track appears which provides an easy ascent past patches of dirty snow, while ever improving views of the inland ice sheet and its glaciers that have unleashed a gigantic flotsam and jetsam of ice into the turquoise fjords, open before us. 


Atop the escarpment we select a camp site near a lake with grandstand views of the ice cap and the Sermiat Glacier spreading down towards the sea like a frigid finger. After scouring the area for some wood to light our Honey stove, we sit inside the open tent sipping Brennivín and watching the sky grow salmon pink behind the ice cap with its prominent nunataks, as the sun sets over the high ground behind us. The mercury quickly plummets, the night chill sending us scurrying into our sleeping bags with our freeze dried dinners.



The plateau of a hundred lakes

It’s another glorious day as I poke my head out of our tent, my nostrils assailed by the smell of wood smoke mingled with bog. I stroll down to the lake to sip my coffee on a ledge of rock overlooking it. The surface of the water is mirror flat and is such a deep blue, it looks as if it has swallowed the entire sky. The sun is warm on my back and it’s so quiet you could hear a pin drop. I might believe that we are the only two people left in the world, were it not for the white contrails that rent the sky, betraying the passage of countless jets en route to and from North America. They periodically disturb the deep silence with a grating roar. Even in the Greenland wilderness it’s impossible to truly escape the modern world. I smile as I think of the passengers availing of the drinks trolley aboard the A380 that is glinting in the fierce sunlight as it speeds high above me, while I struggle to swallow another mouthful of tasteless scrambled eggs with potatoes, the only packet of freeze dried food I dislike in the Expedition Foods range.

We break camp striding out over the paper dry green and black lichen interspersed with ankle high dwarf willow, crowberry and bilberry. Ahead we can finally see the snow streaked Ilímaussaq Mountains that we will pass through before we reach Narsaq. Looking at the map, today’s route seems to take us over easier terrain across a high plateau peppered with hundreds of lakes and ponds, before what appears to be a gradual 400 metre descent to an emergency hut, but knowing Greenland this is likely to be deceptive! After yesterday’s long slog up from Sillisit, the passage across the plateau is pleasant. The mid-morning reflections of snow capped Illerfissalik and neighbouring mountains across the Tunulliarfik Fjord reflected in a pan flat lake are truly enchanting. Cotton grass sways languidly above patches of sphagnum moss as soft as a cushion, and small sugar pink flowers peek out from amid the pale green foliage of dwarf willow.


Passing by a cluster of lakes, we begin to drop down off the plateau making for the bottom of a broad valley that eventually leads down towards the small settlement of Ipiutaq on the shore of Tunulliarfik Fjord. According to the map, the emergency hut is situated almost straight ahead of us across a river which we can see glinting in the sunlight. Try as we might, we can’t see the hut which appears to be camouflaged against the landscape. The river does not look very far, but a combination of the clear Arctic air which makes landmarks appear deceptively close, and the undulating landscape which entails continual climbing up and down over rocky knolls and outcrops, means it is several kilometres further than it looks.

We cross numerous small streams conveying snow melt from higher ground, stopping often to splash our faces with the cool, refreshing water and to pick large juicy bilberries which are abundant on the south facing sunny slopes. One of these streams has carved a tunnel through a patch of deep compacted snow stubbornly clinging to the shady side of a rocky outcrop. The walls and roof of the snow tunnel tinged turquoise, have been carved into scallop-shaped patterns by the passage of the running water. Dodging tiny rivulets of water cascading down over the entrance from the melting snow, I climb inside to see the shimmering reflections cast onto the roof by the water flowing beneath.

We finally spot the square outline of the hut perched on a hillock above the river and this spurs us on under the relentless late afternoon sun. As we approach the river we can hear it roaring over rocks and boulders and instinctively know that this will be a boots off crossing! The river is knee deep and fast flowing where it has formed channels around boulders, and we look for a place where it is shallow enough to cross safely. Donning our plastic crocs and with boots hanging round our necks, we enter the icy water, threading our way around and over boulders to the opposite bank. From here it’s about 100 metres to the hut.



Made of plywood painted a shade of rust that the brutal Arctic winters have weathered away leaving it distinctly piebald in places, the small hut with the number 1366, has a sloping flat roof with a door and a single square window. A crude fire ring with faint traces of dull grey ashes is sited not far from the door. Propped up nearby is the rather macabre sight of a sheep’s skull with an enormous pair of curved horns. A strange welcome indeed! The musty smelling hut is unoccupied and as we haven’t seen a soul since the first day, the chances of anyone else coming here tonight are slim.


Inside we are greeted by a plywood sleeping platform and a bare earthen floor, damp from water that has seeped under the walls. Below the sleeping platform, a faded tent caked in mud lies abandoned, and a pile of beer cans and rusting sardine tins have been discarded in a corner. There isn’t even a candle, a box of matches or any wood left here for emergency purposes and the sleeping platform is dusty and dirty. This emergency hut is obviously not well maintained and we debate whether to erect the tent rather than sleep in such unpleasant surroundings. After much discussion and prevaricating we make the fateful decision to stay in the hut.

I remain inside the hut to inflate our sleeping mats and make up our beds, away from the mosquitoes that have appeared to welcome us, while Martin goes down to the river to collect water for cooking. There’s plenty of dried wood in the vicinity for our stove and more than enough for a fire, but the sun has gone down behind the mountains opposite and a chill breeze is blowing up the valley from the fjord. Eschewing a camp fire, we retire to the hut with our freeze dried dinners and hip flasks of Brennivín, to settle in for the night.


I can’t remember passing a more uncomfortable night in a hut anywhere in the world. The plywood sleeping platform has a slight slope and being fairly smooth there isn’t sufficient friction to prevent my sleeping mat from sliding down towards the earthen floor. Several times I awake to reposition myself to grumbles from Martin who, finally exasperated at my periodic cursing, is even prepared to get up and erect our tent! Despite hardly moving a muscle, it’s impossible to prevent the inevitable downward slide. I sleep fitfully and can’t wait for the morning to come so we can leave this wretched hovel! 

Onward and Upward

My legs are dangling off the platform when I awake to a chorus of birdsong, and my yellow sleeping mat is now filthy from having migrated all night around its dirty surface. Escaping the musty hut to sit outside in the sun flooded landscape feeding the Honey stove with bits of wood is a real pleasure. It’s another glorious day with hardly a breath of wind, but the odd mosquito is already about making repellent a must. Following breakfast we break camp heading uphill to a rocky ramp that we will use to contour around the mountain opposite. The view of the hut from hell receding from view gives me a smug sense of satisfaction!

However, we soon run into thickets of waist high dwarf willow that we have to bushwhack through which is tedious to say the least, and the humidity makes the going tough. A sudden thrashing and whirl of brown and white feathers signals a startled ptarmigan which darts across our path on to some nearby rocks. We soon spy two more and give chase to try and capture them on video. But they’re far faster than us over this unforgiving terrain and we soon give up!


The willow finally gives way to a rocky track way so narrow it seems to have been made by a one legged sheep, which wends its way around the side of the mountain, and we make good speed at last. Panoramic views of Nunasarnaq Mountain and Tunulliarfik Fjord now open before us and we spot numerous wildflowers, including buttercups, hawkweed, cinquefoil and the rare white gentian. A gentle ascent from a boggy bowl brings us onto another plateau and Martin takes a bearing to ensure we are on the route crudely indicated on our map.


We soon pass a solitary cairn of basalt stone which seems to indicate we’re on the right track. The terrain hereabouts makes for easier trekking, comprised in the main of wiry grass and desiccated lichen, with patches of crowberry and bilberry sporting deep purple berries, and the few river crossings we have to negotiate are by and large simple, the torrent of the early summer snow-melt long dried up. We stop for a leisurely lunch above a lake fed by a small waterfall, its musical cadence the only sound save for the occasional chirping of meadow pipits and lapwing buntings. I gather the tinder dry sun bleached twigs and small branches of juniper and willow to light the Honey stove to boil water for spicy ginger tea and a packet of freeze dried Asian noodles with beef and vegetables. This is followed by a dessert of nature’s bounty: handfuls of foraged sweet bilberries.



Refreshed, we set off on the next part of the route which begins to climb towards higher ground. Fabulous views of the distinctive Killavaat Mountain Range come into view which we had admired from helicopter en route from Qaqortoq to Narsarsuaq a few days ago. Killavaat means ‘the Comb’ in Greenlandic, and the line of crested granite peaks do indeed resemble the teeth of a comb. After a couple of hours we meet a river cascading swiftly down over the Gardar lava from the high mountains to the north. It’s crystal clear and we stop to drink from it and to sit awhile by a series of waterfalls enjoying the cooling effect of the rushing water. Ahead of us we have a long steep climb to a lake around the 700 metre mark where we intend to camp tonight.



Bright pink patches of fireweed and other vegetation peters out as we commence our ascent. Sheep tracks now seem to be non-existent, so we pick our way tentatively around numerous boulders and up over shelves of rock. The views down into the valley we have just crossed are stupendous. After what seems like an eternity, the gradient begins to ease and we contour around a shelf of rock above a small stream that passes through a pronounced gap in the mountainside that is indicated on our map. Beyond should be the lake we are aiming to camp by.

Before long we spy the snow encrusted eastern shore of the lake which lies still and mysterious in the shadow of the mountain beyond. By now it’s Brennivín time and our shadows lie long across the ground as we climb away from the boulder strewn lake shore seeking a suitable place to pitch our tent. We soon find an absolutely perfect spot on a flat grassy ledge below a rocky outcrop that provides plenty of shelter, and a grandstand view down over the lake and the snow covered col that we will climb tomorrow morning.


Tent pitched and beds made, we fire up the MSR stove, erect our stools and sit outside to sip our Brennivín, watching the golden orb of the sun slip down behind the peaks of the Ilímaussaq Mountains. Martin is eagerly awaiting our traverse of this geologically significant landscape and spends some time reading up on what we will encounter en route to Narsaq. My belly full of macaroni cheese, Expedition Food’s best meal by a long chalk, I curl up inside my sleeping bag to listen to some music, before falling fast asleep. 

Walking in a Geological Wonderland

We are treated to a stunning tangerine orange sky at dawn before the rising sun erupts over the mountain peaks across the Tunulliarfik Fjord, bathing the landscape in a golden glow. Breakfasting on porridge with sultanas, we sit outside the tent enjoying the view down onto the lake now gleaming aquamarine in the sunlight. Up here there are virtually no mosquitoes, unlike down by the hut from hell. It’s too cold for them at this altitude, as we are not far from the 800m high point of the trek at the top of the col we will soon be climbing.

I’m quite sorry to leave such a perfect camping spot, but we have a long way to trek today through the Ilímaussaq Mountains to the Kvanefjeld Valley on the other side. We thread our way along the shore of the lake and begin the ascent up the col. Deep patches of snow cling stubbornly to the ground making the going far easier as we don’t have to traverse the angular boulders beneath. We don’t see any footprints or holes left by walking poles, and it looks as if we are the first to come this way this summer.


We finally reach the top of the col, still deep with compacted snow. We spend half an hour messing around throwing snowballs at each other and posing for the camera. Beyond, the landscape changes abruptly as the route enters a high mountainous area almost devoid of vegetation. This is the Ilímaussaq igneous complex – a series of rare intrusive igneous rocks - which once formed the cores of volcanoes resulting from continental rifting (much like the present day Eastern African Rift), and which have been exposed by subsequent erosion. The deep cores of volcanoes are rarely seen in the world and the Ilímaussaq complex is considered the best example.


For a geologist like Martin this is a wonderland, as it contains scores of exciting and unusual rock types and minerals. But it’s also of great economic interest, as uranium ores and several rare earth elements (REE) are present in economically viable quantities in some areas. At present China is the main source of REE, valuable minerals in the electronics industry, and has virtually monopolised the trade. At Kvanefjeld in the northwestern part of the Ilímaussaq complex, a deposit containing uranium and thorium in lujavrites was discovered in 1956 and subsequently investigated by drilling programmes. An exploratory mine was dug in the late-1970s’s, but was abandoned shortly after when Denmark (the colonial power) decided against utilising nuclear energy. We hope to be able to visit this mine tomorrow.

Greenland had a zero tolerance policy towards uranium mining for some 25 years, but a fiscal shortfall and a struggling economy saw this policy recently overturned. The issue has split Greenlandic society. On the one hand there are those who wish to promote mining and oil exploration in order to bring large profits to stimulate the country’s sluggish economy, deeply dependent on fisheries and tourism, which might pave the way to independence from Denmark. They are pitted against those who do not want possible contamination and landscape degradation from the mining of toxic minerals in the pristine Arctic environment, and a large and potentially destabilising influx of foreign workers.

Although all major political parties in Greenland support the development of a mining industry, the two main parties remain divided on the issue of uranium mining, with the leftist opposition party, Inuit Ataqatigiit, the main voice of those who say ‘Naamik’ (no) to uranium mining on environmental grounds. The current government is facing some difficult decisions. Some MPs are pushing for Southern Greenland to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site entitled Church ruin at Hvalsø, episcopal residence at Gardar and Brattahlid (A Norse/Eskimo cultural landscape) for its 1000 years of agriculture dating back to the time of Erik the Red. This was included in the World Heritage Tentative List in 2003.

But mining for the wealth of minerals - including uranium – in the area would preclude that designation. Large areas around Narsaq and Qaqortoq were included in the World Heritage bid, which unleashed protests from interested parties because the Raw Materials Directorate had already issued numerous drilling licences within those areas. Now the government is proposing that only five small ‘islands’ be included as a potential World Heritage Site to avoid conflict with the mining companies and other interested parties. One thing’s for sure – if the mining goes ahead, the route we are presently travelling will be inside some of the licensed areas and that will surely signal an end to trekking across Eric the Red's Land.


The descent from the col is very steep over compacted snow that then gives way to patchy grass covered scree. The nearby bare mountain slopes of Nakaalaaq contain rich shades of calamine pink and steel grey which contrast with the deep blue sky. Way off in the distance we can see the ridge we have to cross over to descend into a broad valley containing Lake Taseq above the Kvanefjeld Valley. To reach it we must contour round the head of the valley below Nakaalaaq, crossing a small river tumbling down from the mountain, and then ascend a steep scree covered slope. The sun beats down mercilessly and the heat radiates back off the bare rock making the slog up the scree slope very tiring indeed. We stop from time to time for Martin to examine rocks looking for the semi-precious, very rare, pink coloured mineral tugtupite. No luck with the tugtupite, but he finds good samples of augite, eudialyte and steenstrupine which disappear into his rucksack!

Atop the steadily rising ridge, the views down towards Tunulliarfik Fjord and the inlet below Nunasarnaq Mountain, said to be a great place to catch Arctic char, are spectacular. The fjord dotted with gleaming white icebergs is the most vivid shade of aquamarine imaginable, beyond which the comb-shaped granite peaks of Killavaat rise majestically into a speedwell blue sky. To the left, the snow-capped peaks of scores of smoky blue mountains retreat into the distance. We dump our packs and recline on a shelf of rock to savour the sheer beauty of southern Greenland.



The steep descent from the ridge into the Lake Taseq valley takes longer than anticipated due to the brutal nature of the terrain. We have to traverse several ravines, scramble over jagged boulders and contour loose scree above sheer drops. Mentally and physically fatigued, we pause for lunch in a ravine where a partially snow covered river tumbles down noisily from the mountains. The water is so cold it makes my head ache when I drink it! Suitably refreshed, we push on and eventually arrive safely on the gently sloping ground above two metallic green coloured lakes above Lake Taseq.


A series of cairns with red and white circular markings suddenly make an appearance as we head for Lake Taseq which occupies most of the bottom of the valley and is hemmed in by mountains on three sides. A river leads out of the far western end of the lake which the map shows flowing over a waterfall in a branch of the Narsaq Valley. The route does not take us near the falls, but round the northern shore across patches of sly bog where deep purple butterwort dance on slender stems. The lake is the largest we have encountered, about 2.5 km long, and is the reservoir for the town of Narsaq. As a result, no camping is permitted in its vicinity, not that this matters as I do not see one suitable camping spot, the ground sloping down to the shore being littered with boulders and stones. Apparently, if mining goes ahead at nearby Kvanefjeld, the waste materials left behind after flotation will be dewatered and stored in a tailings facility here at Lake Taseq, meaning this beautiful lake will be turned into a dump site. It’s hardly surprisingly that many local people are opposed to the uranium mine; it will totally and irretrievably alter this magnificent environment on their very doorstep.


A short ascent up a bank of moraine near the western end of the lake brings us to a ridge overlooking the Kvanefjeld Valley. There is no discernable trail, the descent is hideously steep in places and we have to cross several patches of compacted, treacherous snow. By now I’m feeling very tired and my left hip joint is beginning to throb due to the weight of my rucksack. Today has undoubtedly been the toughest of the trek and I’m mightily relieved when we finally decide to stop and make camp for the night. We find a flattish pitch close to a small stream of water that is fed by snow melt. It’s not a good idea to drink from a spring or seepage in this area due to the high levels of fluorine in the water emanating from the underlying bedrock.


Some 400 m away from our campsite is the Narsaq River which we can hear clearly, and across from this we can see a zig-zag road leading up to the abandoned Kvanefjeld uranium mine, betrayed by plumes of spoil that spill down the hillside. Near the start of the mine road are a series of black mineral piles which Martin is itching to inspect! From the porch of our tent we have a stunning view of the Narsaq Bay stuffed full of icebergs. Purple harebells nod in the gentle evening breeze as we eat our dinner and sip the last of our Brennivín, watching the setting sun turn the sky above the bay apricot, salmon pink and finally chalky mauve. Martin convinces me that tomorrow he will find a specimen of tugtupite at the mine. I hope he makes his discovery quickly as I do not relish the thought of spending all day fossicking for minerals!!

Searching for 'Reindeer Blood' 

We have been remarkably lucky with the weather on this trek so far, and unbelievably, another warm sunny day greets us as I poke my head out of the tent to see wall to wall blue sky. Martin is a man on a mission today and there is a sense of purpose in his actions. I’d like to think it’s because it’s the last day of the trek and he’s looking forward to returning to civilisation, but I know it’s really all about his eagerness to get up to the mine!!


We break camp for the last time, heading downhill towards the river. Swiftly flowing and deep, this could prove to be a real challenge to cross and we begin to scout the banks looking for a safe place. Fortunately, we spot a dilapidated plywood bridge where the river is braided. This traverses the main river channel, and we carefully make our way over some slimy rocks in a side channel to reach it. Once across, we make for a huge boulder where we conceal our packs and set off with just our valuables and some water for the hike up to the mine.

Having shed my 18 kilo plus rucksack, I feel like I’m floating on air as we make the 200 metre ascent up to the mine entrance. The 1.5 km road is in poor condition having been disused for almost 40 years, and has been washed out in places leaving deep channels, although a 4X4 would still be able to drive it. As we ascend, a view of the Narsaq glacier between the Ilímaussaq and Nakkaalaaq Mountains comes into view. This glacier, like many others in Greenland, is retreating at a very fast rate, so that in a couple of decades it will no longer exist.

After 20 minutes, we arrive at the entrance to the 970 metre long adit that has been driven through the central part of the Kvanefjeld deposit and which is sited some 100-150 metres below the surface of the plateau above. Unsurprisingly, the entrance has been blocked up and the metal door in the centre welded shut to prevent people accessing the workings and being exposed to harmful levels of radioactive air. Martin can’t resist the urge to scramble higher up onto the plateau area to inspect the geology looking for tugtupite, but comes back empty handed!


Reunited with our rucksacks, we head across to where approximately 15,000 tons of ore was placed in a series of piles awaiting shipment to Denmark, but never left the site after the country decided against the use of nuclear power. The piles of black ore bear all the hallmarks of being avidly picked over by mineral collectors seeking tugtupite and other specimens. Martin explains that the black rock is lujavrite which is composed mostly of black arfvedsonite amphibole. It also contains crystals of the mineral steenstrupine - a sodium silicate mineral which contains trace uranium, thorium and caesium. It also contains several REE which is why the license for the Kvanefjeld deposit is currently held by Australian mining company, Greenland Minerals and Energy Ltd. (GMEL), which, in collaboration with a Chinese company, wants to recommence mining here.

The sun is hot on my shoulders as I wander over the piles scanning the black rock for a flash of pink that might be tugtupite. The valley is eerily quiet, the only sound the rushing river and Martin chucking rocks about nearby. Suddenly my eye alights on a rose pink shade amid some black and grey crystals. I stroll over to Martin and show him. He casts me a sheepish look and mumbles, ‘well it might be tugtupite I suppose’, to which I let out a celebratory ‘yeah’ and punch the air with my fist. He does not look amused and spends the next 15 minutes ardently searching, before he has his own eureka moment!!



Tugtupite was first discovered in 1962 at Tugtup agtakôrfia and is derived from the Inuit word ‘tuttu’ (reindeer) meaning ‘reindeer blood’. This predominantly pink coloured mineral is extremely rare worldwide, being confirmed in two other locations in Quebec and Russia, and is therefore sought after by mineral and gemstone collectors. It is often polished and fashioned into items of jewellery, and is an interesting feature of the local economy. Our specimens aren’t fabulous, but we are contented with our finds as we set off down the dusty dirt road towards Narsaq Bay.

The dirt track slowly descends 300 metres back to sea level parallel to the Narsaq River and makes for monotonous, if far easier walking. We finally get a view of the falls at the end of Lake Tarsaq and the first signs of civilisation appear in the form of fences, mown fields and weather board farm houses and sheds. A jeep approaches us, its Inuit occupants waving cheerily as they pass us in a cloud of choking dust. We cross a rickety metal bridge over the Narsaq River which has obviously been patched up several times after being washed away in floods, and soon reach the coast where carpets of mauve harebells frame stupendous views of the bay crammed full of turquoise and white icebergs.




The pungent smell of sea and seaweed assails my nostrils and a refreshing breeze blows in off the bay where flocks of seagulls shriek nosily above the icebergs. Several of these have beached and warrant closer inspection. One almost as tall as me is mushroom shaped by the action of water when it was at sea. All are melting rapidly in the strong afternoon sun. Every so often a noise like a musket shot echoes round the bay as an iceberg calves. We sit awhile to soak in the tremendous atmosphere before hitting the outskirts of Narsaq.



A fishing settlement of just over 1,500 inhabitants, Narsaq is situated on a plain at the foot of a 685 metre mountain named Qaqqarsuaq which towers over the colourful weatherboard buildings which look like the spilled contents of a box of Quality Street. It’s a great feeling after slogging over some of the roughest terrain imaginable to finally walk on a tarmac road and we make good speed though the streets of brightly coloured houses looking for the Narsaq Hotel where we hope to get a room.

A mustard yellow building finally looms into view, the flags of Greenland, Demark and Iceland fluttering above it. Although there are no rooms available at the hotel, we are in luck as there’s room at the nearby hostel the hotel runs. A large turquoise well kept and well appointed building, we get a spacious room overlooking the harbour with great vistas of the iceberg strewn Narsaq Sound.


The hotel runs a café come restaurant which is quite bohemian, featuring white painted car tyres for tables, preserving jars turned into lamps, and benches strewn with colourful scatter cushions. We join a cosmopolitan crowd of tourists and locals for dinner as this seems to be the only joint in town where you can get an evening meal. A large beef steak, chips and salad, washed down by a cool beer, is much anticipated, but turns out to be something of a disappointment. The steak is overcooked for our liking, the chips dry, the salad limp and there are no Greenlandic beers available, only vapid Tuborg lager beer which is cold if nothing else. However, I’m delighted to learn from the owner that he is brewing his own craft ale named after Tugtupite, but galled to discover that I have missed the first batch by a mere fortnight!!!

The following day we catch a ferry back up the picturesque Tunulliarfik Fjord to Narsarsuaq which is the perfect end to a fabulous trip. From the water we have the opportunity to spot some of the landmarks we had trekked over and past during the last week. Although by no means easy, this 6-day 70 km trek was far less an ordeal than the one we did further south in Klosterdalen, Tasermiut Fjord, as it has less dwarf trees to bushwhack through and very few mosquitoes or midges. Moreover, it has fascinating history and geology and the scenery is just as ravishing. With the added bonus of being close to the international airport at Narsarsuaq which keeps the cost of helicopter travel and/or boat transfers down, this route is a must for those who wish to experience a truly memorable multi-day trek in the Greenland wilderness. 



Watch our video of this trek at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5fSwxha_wvg

7 comments:

  1. Hello.

    I like your trekking!!! Do you have the GPS track of your path?

    Thank you for your blog!

    Seb
    France.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Seb,

    Thanks for your message. The GPS track and description of our route can be found at Mountainviews.ie
    http://mountainviews.ie/track/report/3107/
    There is also a video of the trek at:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5fSwxha_wvg
    It's a great area for trekking and I hope you get there.

    Best Wishes,
    Sharron

    ReplyDelete
  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi Sharron!

    Thank you very much. I have see another your movie .... i like it!

    I go in Greenland in august 2016 with 3 childrens (15, 17 and 18 years old) for 10 days in Kayak and 5 days in this trek.

    Many thanks.
    Seb

    nb: I don't anderstand where i can download the track?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Click on this link for the GPS track and description of the route through Erik the Red's Land:
    http://mountainviews.ie/track/report/3107/

    ReplyDelete