Photo Story: Greenland Tundra Hike

I’ve long had a fascination with the far north.  This short hike near Qaqortoq, in southern Greenland, is a classic introduction to a tundra environment yet not too remote and challenging given the location, and ideal for a solo hike.  A circular route of around 12km, there are plenty of diversions to take in the tops of surrounding hills for outstanding views to the iceberg-littered outer fjord and inland, through rocky spires to the distant ice sheet.

Qaqortoq_0_smallThe colourful wooden cabins of Qaqortoq cluster around the harbour on the edge of the fjord, spreading up the surrounding hills where bare rock slices through thin vegetation. Beyond the city (in Greenlandic terms this settlement of around 3000 is still a city, and the largest in the southern part of the country) a hiking trail marked with cairns leads around Tasersuaq, the lake providing the settlement’s fresh water supply.

The pronunciation of Qaqortoq has been something of a debate with the others in my group, but eventually we’re coached towards something like Ha-HOR-tok, with a throaty  H sound, like that in loch or Javier.

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We will always be rewarded if we give the land credit for more than we imagine, and if we imagine it as being more complex even than language. In these ways we begin, I think, to find a home, to sense how to fit a place.

Barry Lopez

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The trail skirts a dusty road along the western shore of the lake to start, before crossing a rocky rise where ravens circled over me, then scrambling back down into the edge of a heathery bog.  This isn’t true tundra, as the relatively mild oceanic climate of the region prevents the earth from freezing in winter, but similar enough; like the vast mountain moors of the Cairngorms I’m familiar with at home in the UK.

At first glance the tundra is scant patches of dry grass and stunted shrubs sprouting from the thin crust of soil held in hollows of the bare rock. Not quite enough to draw your eye down, away from the epic scale of the surrounding landscape. Sweeping scree slopes rising to high peaks, the oldest rocks in the world, overlooking the slate grey waters of the fjord and the shattered fragments of a dying iceberg.

tundra_1_smallThere is another beauty here, but you must look more closely at the land. Bright green sprigs of crowberry, hiding glossy black berries beneath needle-like leaves. Gnarled and twisted wood of slow-growing, stunted shrubs. Delicate saxifrage, fast flowering in the brief Arctic summer. Sleek silver-grey creeping willow catkins and branching reindeer lichens. Sphagnum moss, crisply dried without recent rain.

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I stop on the edge of the lake and spot a school of tiny fish in the shallows. Fooled by the warmth of the summer sunshine on my back, I kick off my shoes and trousers and wade into the water. I endure the fierce cold of the water until I reach knee deep, then give up, wading quickly ashore. Lying on my back in the moss, I listen to the crackling calls and rippling whistles reveal the locations of snow buntings, redpolls, and wheatears feasting on the insect life in the tundra around me.

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