Greenland & The Arctic Circle: Extreme Wonder and Uncharted Adventure

Greenland & The Arctic Circle: Extreme Wonder and Uncharted Adventure. Iceland flag flies in the wind aboard a sail boat cruising the Arctic Sea.

The Arctic is many things, but it is first and foremost a pleasantly vexing riddle

Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors / Spring 2019

"Why do we feel this strange attraction for these polar regions," wondered French scientist and doctor Jean-Baptiste Charcot, "a feeling so powerful and lasting that when we return home, we forget the mental and physical hardships and want nothing more than to go back?" If the Arctic were a novel, it would be Jack London's Call of the Wild, a spine-tingling mix of the primal and the complex. If it were a poem, it would be William Wordsworth's "Daffodils," a timeless paean to the power and beauty of the natural world. If it were a song, it would be Seal's "Kiss From a Rose," a spellbinding fusion of intrigue and melancholy. The Arctic is also vast, covering 5.5 million square miles, or 14.5 million square kilometers, and features a vast array of attractions, which include ice-sculpted landscapes, thundering waterfalls, awe-inspiring lagoons and cavorting polar bears. This captivating mélange serves as a backdrop - and, sometimes, the object of - many fascinating activities, ranging from Amundsen-style dog sledding to kayaking, snowmobiling and whale watching. While sampling everything the Arctic has to offer would require several lifetimes, a range of fascinating destinations make it possible for ordinary, adventurous people to explore the Arctic without breaking the bank. Whether you're Norwegian, American, European, or something in between, these four locations are sure to please. Grab a pen and add them to your bucket list.

Baffin Island

Blue glacial water sits at the base of jagged rocks rising into the fog on Baffin Island.

It is for a good reason that some refer to Baffin Island as the "jewel of the Arctic," while others call it "the grand wild landscape." Its considerable expanse - it is the largest island in Canada and the fifth largest in the world - is home to spectacular glaciers, yawning valleys, winding fjords, captivating cascades, fascinating wildlife, and many other attractions.

Located in Nunavut, Canada's northernmost territory, Baffin Island is home to just 11,000 people, most of whom live in Iqaluit, the capital. There are no roads outside the smallish city, so locals use snowmobiles and dogsleds to get around the island. This means that, right off the bat, you can start your Arctic adventure with snowmobiling and dogsledding. Other snow-based activities include tobogganing and cross-country skiing.

If you are an adrenaline junkie, the Auyuittuq National Park should be one of your first ports of call. A captivating mishmash of granite peaks, glaciers and tundra valleys, the park is full of opportunities for mountain climbing, hiking and skiing. If you are feeling particularly audacious, tackle a fjord wall at Clyde River, or take on Mount Thor, which has a 4,100-foot vertical cliff, the highest on the planet. Backcountry skiing or a hike at the Akshayuk pass, which links both sides of the park, are some of the best ways of rounding off your adventuring.

Prefer sea-based excursions? A number of tours offer kayaking, canoeing, rafting and boating on the frigid waters surrounding the island. Kayaking between ice floes at Sirmilik National Park is a particularly memorable experience, so do not forget to include that in your activity list.

Love sightseeing? A section of the famed Northwest Passage loops around the island, so consider signing up for a cruise, or go for a hike at the Katannilik Territorial Park. A stroll around Iqaluit, which is home to an igloo-shaped cathedral, museums, shops and other fascinating attractions, is a great way of learning about your temporarily adopted home.

If you are of an ornithological bent, the best time to visit the island is during the summer, when an impressive array of native and migratory bird species, which include snowy owls, rough-legged hawks, ptarmigans, puffins, falcons and gulls, flock in droves around the island. This jewel of the Arctic - and the sea around it - is also home to polar bears, ringed seals, walruses, beluga whales and the somewhat difficult-to-find unicorns of the sea, narwhals. Baffin Island is also one of the best places on earth to watch the northern lights (in addition to Lapland, Finland) because there is little to no light pollution, even in Iqaluit.

Your holiday will not be complete without a visit to museums and shops to learn about Inuit culture - and purchase a memento or two, of course. If you are visiting during the summer, find your way to the Toonik Tyme festival, a fascinating celebration of Inuit traditions and the return of spring, and the Alianait Arts festival, which features everything from indigenous art to music concerts.

Svalbard

Majestic sailboat cruises across the water with Svalbard, Norway in the background.

Whether you want to test your mettle, learn about Arctic flora and fauna, sample the local cuisine and culture, experience the midnight sun, or just shop till you drop, there is something for you in Svalbard. Located north of the Arctic circle, about midway between continental Norway/Finland and the North Pole, the archipelago features a breathtaking mix of vast glaciers, plunging valleys, spectacular fjords and imposing mountains.

If you are an adrenaline junkie, summiting the 400-meter high Plateau Mountain and other mountains, taking on the longish excursion across a glacier and moraine landscapes to Trollbein, kayaking in the numerous fjords, spelunking, dog sledding, snowshoeing across glaciers, and swimming should top your activity list. If you are of a studious bent, sign up for a fossil-hunting safari - the valleys around Svalbard have more than their fair share of 60-million year old remains - or visit the Svalbard Museum.

If you are the exploratory type, visit Longyearbyen, the largest settlement and administrative center of Svalbard; Pyramiden, which the National Geographic bills as one of the most interesting ghost towns in the world; the Russian settlement of Barentsburg; or go for a sightseeing tour. Nature lovers with an interest in photography should sign up for a photo safari or drop into the WildPhoto Gallery. Interested in the history of the Arctic's most famous airships? The North Pole Expedition Museum awaits. Longyearbyen and Barentsburg host a fascinating range of festivals and cultural events throughout the year. In addition, the two settlements are home to an array of shops selling a wide variety of wares at tax-free prices.

Greenland

Ship cruises around icy water and iceberg near Greenland.

Greenland, or Kalaallit Nunaat in Kalaallisut / Greenlandic, the official language, is a land of superlatives and not to be confused with its neighboring Iceland. Legend has it that the Norse Erik the Red discovered the island in the 10th century after being exiled from Iceland for manslaughter, although Paleo-Eskimos are believed to have lived in Northern Greenland and the Canadian Arctic as early as 2400 B.C.E. He named it Greenland in the hope that having a favorable name might attract more people to settle there.

The world's largest island, Greenland, which was rediscovered by Danish explorers in the 18th century, has an area of nearly 837,000 square miles, or about 2.2 million square kilometers, and in 1953 was made an equal part of the Kingdom of Denmark until home rule or self-government was granted in 1979. This near-continent size location is home to just under 60,000 people, largely descendants of the Thule people, making it the least populated territory on the globe. If you prefer your Arctic adventuring served with generous helpings of solitude, you cannot go wrong with Greenland.

If this is your first time to the island, you'll need to get acquainted with Greenland's ice. The Greenland ice sheet, as it's called, covers three-quarters of the island despite the threats from global warming, a feature found on only one other place on earth; Antarctica. Glaciers tend to flow straight from the ice caps to the coasts, so you will probably not be surprised to find out that Greenland is the spiritual home of heliskiing, a high-octane form of skiing. These glaciers add to the gritty charm of the landscape that flanks the 160-kilometer course of the Arctic Circle Race in Sisimiut, which is reputed to be the world's toughest cross-country race. In addition, these glaciers constantly carve the tall bedrock along the coast, in the process creating a landscape that is perfect for climbing and mountaineering.

Other made-for-adventure activities include cross-country skiing, backcountry ski touring, snowmobiling, dog sledding - mush! - kayaking, snowshoeing and diving. If you are the exploratory type, sign up for hiking excursions, sightseeing safaris, iceberg-watching tours, flightseeing, trophy-hunting trips, or a trip to the aforementioned permanent ice sheet. Love wildlife? Greenland's skies, coasts, hinterland and seas are home to polar bears, musk oxen, sea eagles, walruses, humpback whales, and more. Nature lovers - and the photogenic - should sign up for photo tours. Complete those grueling trips by taking a dip in a hot spring or watching the northern lights. Here are a few other points of interest:

  • Kangerlussuaq, a small town in western Greenland that is home to the island's major international airport
  • Ilulissat Icefjord, on the west coast of Greenland, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004
  • Northeast Greenland National Park, the world's largest national park
  • Qaqortoq, a town in southern Greenland that's home to 18th-century colonial buildings and a landmark fountain
  • Thule Air Base, the United States Air Force's northern-most base at 950 miles from the North Pole

No holiday is complete without sampling the island's history, Thule culture and cuisine. There are museums in all the larger towns with exhibitions on everything from the history of the Inuit to the evolution of communication methods in the island. This rich history is reflected in the cuisine, which is delectable mélange of ingredients from the land and the sea prepared using age-old techniques. Oh, and there are bars, restaurants and shops where you can purchase mementos and interact with Greenlanders. Whether you are audacious or retiring, Greenland has something uniquely superlative for you.

Despite being only a 5.5-hour flight from New York, there are no direct commercial flights from the United States to Greenland. Most flights connect through Copenhagen in Denmark or Reykjavik in Iceland. Go to visitgreenland.com for further information.

Wrangel Island

Sailboat cruises through frigid water with land nearby.

Of all the destinations on this list, Wrangel Island is arguably the most intriguing. This mist-soaked isle was the home of the last woolly mammoth on earth, and because it remained untouched by the frosty fingers of the last ice age, has continuously hosted plant life since the Pleistocene era. It is often referred to as the "polar bear maternity ward" because of the large number of dens on the island, which average between 300 and 350 per year; no other location on the planet has such a high density of polar bear dens.

Wrangel Island sits astride the 180-degree meridian, right between the East Siberian sea and the Chukchi Sea in the Arctic Ocean (north of Russia and northwest of Alaska). It is about 140 kilometers off the northeast coast of Siberia. In 1976, the-then Soviet government created a nature reserve on the island to protect the extraordinary animal and plant diversity, the richest in the high Arctic. The reserve is administered by the Russian government, which strictly limits access to invited guests and official personnel. The closest the island has one small village - Ushakovskoe - with a population of about 100 Chukchi and Eastern Siberian Yupik people. This settlement also acts as base camp for up to 30 seasonal staff.

Visitors are not allowed on Wrangel Island unless they have a special government permit, which is incredibly difficult to get. Finding your way to the island is just as, or perhaps even more, challenging. You now know why only a few hundred people have ever visited this remote isle.

The easiest way of getting to the island is via a tourist ship that visits the island at least thrice during the short summer on July and August. These excursions last about two weeks and start from the port of Anadyr, which is easily accessible by air from Moscow. The only other way of getting to Wrangel Island is by hitching a ride on a Russian ship working in the area, which is, as you can imagine, extremely difficult.

Is the challenge of getting there ultimately worth it? Yep! Apart from the aforementioned polar bears and their young 'uns, Wrangel Island is home to mammals such as musk oxen, wolves, wolverines, lemmings, Arctic foxes and reindeer. Over 169 native and migratory bird species, which include snow geese and snowy owls, and sea animals such as bearded seals, walruses, ring seals, and two whale species call the skies and the seas of the island home. In addition, Wrangel Island has over 400 plant species, many of which are found nowhere else.

There are other reasons why you should visit this island; its rugged, dramatic charm, the out-of-this-world experience of exploring the challenging terrain with a tundra vehicle, the mesmerizing sense of solitude, and the warmth of its residents, permanent and otherwise. The most important reason, however, is earning the right to brag that you got here, an honor that you will share with just a few hundred people.

Closing Thoughts

Polar bear swims with body submerged and nose, eyes, and ears above water.

From the day when the sun does not set on summer solstice to the shortest day on earth during the winter solstice, these four destinations allow you to sample the charms of Greenland and the Arctic Circle - the ruggedly charming terrain, the northern lights or aurora borealis, the unique flora and fauna, and the fascinating culture of its inhabitants - while indulging your sense of adventure.

While summer temperatures can be cold (14oF to 50oF) and winter temperatures are downright brutal (as low as -58oF), this imaginary line with its sea ice and beautiful polar nights is an enchanting place that's not to be missed. The sea levels may be rising and climate change may perhaps be having its effect, but this arctic tundra is still as majestic as ever.

Despite the challenges and cost of getting there from Europe or the United States, the Antarctic to the North Atlantic, the rewards - a sense of achievement, novel experiences, personal growth, and more - are more than worth it. Good luck as you plan your Arctic adventure!

Looking for more on Greenland and The Arctic Circle or other extreme adventures? Try these:

“The mountains are calling and I must go.”

— John Muir

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Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors / Spring 2019

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