Saturday August 19 day 8 Arctic Circle Trail.
TODAY, today was an epic day, full of long bog walks, river crossings, tundra walking, freezing rain, sleet, wind like I’ve never experienced, snow and fabulous epic expansive scenery. It was also the day we hiked 21 miles. We didn’t exactly plan to hike that far but the conditions were so unfavorable that in order to prevent hypothermia we had to keep moving. And because of THIS, this is a long post!
We were the first to leave the cozy, warm little hut in the valley at 7 am. Immediately we had to plunge our feet, our finally warm feet into the freezing cold shin deep river. This would be the first of 7 frigid water crossings, each getting progressively turbulent, wider and deeper and possibly colder as the rain continued and the temperature dropped.
Our boots were wet, actually soaked all the way through from the previous days of bog walking and rain. There was no point in attempting to dry our boots as we knew we would be walking through more bogs and willows that would continue to soak us. Fortunately we were both wearing seal skin socks that kept our feet moist instead of soaking wet and coldish instead of frozen like 5 little ice cubes.
We spent the first part of the day walking down in the valley surrounded by tall peaks dusted with snow like confectionery sugar. We crashed through willows, some waist high and others way above our heads. Finding the trail and staying on the trail in the willows was challenging because once you got in there you could only see two feet in front of you….it would be easy to spend the day walking in circles. It was a claustrophobic’s nightmare! The roots of the willows went every which way and if you didn’t watch your footing you soon would be examining the roots at close range. And because it had been raining and was raining the willows showered us with water as we crashed through. How generous of them! I have superb rain gear and am happy to report other than my feet being wet I was relatively dry.
When we weren’t walking through the willows we were walking through the bog. Actually we were walking in the bog. It was just one endless wet, muddy, soggy mess. Our boots would sink up to our heels and every once in a while we were lucky to have our boot completely submerged in the bog. Fortunately the bog always gave our boots back. It was slowww and tedious, challenging and exhausting. It was also a bit comical because it was so so so wet!
We slogged along the circumference of a lake stopping to eat wild Arctic blueberries. Delicious. We walked straight up hill searching for the trail in the tundra and mud. We discussed the odds of finding space in the small hut that accommodates 3 comfortably and 6 uncomfortably. Based on the four hikers we knew were ahead of us and not knowing who was hiking in the opposite direction we figured our odds were poor. The potential of getting out of the rain and cold was enticing and helped me move forward. We stopped to make soup in the rain in an attempt to warm up however stopping made us colder! It was a fine balance maintaining warmth and fuel in our bodies.
We arrived at the hut around 2 pm and as expected it was full. And the people filling it had spent the previous night in their tents outside the hut we were staying in….so I was happy they were warm and dry. We saw no point in stopping to camp because it was raining hard and we were cold and I knew if I stopped moving I would just get colder.
We continued hiking high above the fjord and watched a sail boat pass and eventually turn into a distant dot on the water. I wondered if I would prefer being in that boat feeling sea sick versus hiking in the cold rain. Tough decision.
The hiking was actually beautiful with many waterfalls. We came to one river crossing with a big waterfall and spent a long time walking up and down the bank looking for a safe place to cross. We debated hiking all the way down to where the water meets the sea to cross but even that looked dicey. Lisa calls walking up and down the river bank and searching for the trail “bonus miles.” We did a lot of bonus miles today.
As soon as we crossed the creek the trail went straight up hill climbing 1500 feet without one single solitary switchback. I think the trails in the U.S. are the only trails in the world that have switchbacks. It was here, while climbing up this hill that the wind began to howl and the temperature began to plummet and we started to get cold with a capital C! And then it started to snow. Not just a light little dusting of snow, more like a blizzard. The wind was blowing the snow directly into my face making it almost impossible to see where I was going. My gloves began to get wet and my hands started to get cold and my fingers stopped working. Every once in a while I would turn around and see Lisa, head bent down, hands stuffed in her pockets and trekking poles clasped under her arms, fighting the wind and trudging forward.
We debated whether, not weather, we could hike all the way to Sisimiut and the end of the trail. We figured we had hiked about 18 miles already and had another 7 or 8 to go. The thought and potential of getting out of the wind and snow and being dry kept us going for a while. We kept getting impeded by one river crossing after another, which made us colder. I began to feel seriously worried and concerned about hypothermia. We found a sheltered spot out of the wind, for about two seconds, and put more layers on. It was now 9pm, still light, and we had been hiking since 7am without a substantial rest.
We came to another river crossing and did more bonus miles looking for a good crossing. I became concerned about our decision making and thought it might be best to camp and tackle the river in the morning. But that meant spending the night in the freezing cold with the potential of more wind and snow. No decision seemed like the “right” or good decision. I became increasingly concerned about hypothermia.
We walked more bonus miles looking for a semi sheltered slightly level place to pitch two tents. A daunting task on a good day because it’s hard to find suitable places to pitch a tent, tonight the task was almost insurmountable. We found a soft lumpy, absorbent patch of tundra and quickly pitched our tents during the short break in the storm. The wind, my friend the wind, huffed and puffed and tried hard to take my tent away before I could securely pitch it. I, however used a few tricks of my own and got the tent up and secured diving into it just as the rain began to pound. My first task was to try and warm my feet up, followed by eating something warm. In order to do that I needed to take off my wet rain gear without getting my dry clothes or down sleeping bag wet. By 10pm I was inside my sleeping bag eating one of my favorite meals, bare burrito. It was so delicious and the warm food felt well, warm in my belly! Outside the rain had turned to sleet and the wind whipped in every direction pushing my tent poles almost to the ground on one side of the tent and then snapping back to the other side.
My feet were freezing, even in a pair of dry socks and my down booties…. and when that happens it’s so hard for the rest of me to warm up. On top I was wearing my short and long sleeve “5 day shirt”, I call it that because I haven’t taken it off in the last 5 days..(Nancy has her “yesterday pants” and I have my “5 day shirts.”) …my expedition thermal long sleeve shirt, my vest, my fleece hoody, my buff ( also a 5 day buff) and my rain jacket with the hood up. ( by this time my jacket had dried enough to put it inside my sleeping bag). On the bottom I was wearing my long underwear, my hiking pants, my rain pants and I wrapped my down jacket around my legs. The only clothing I wasn’t wearing were my wet gloves and beanie! I burrowed down into my sleeping bag and tried to get warm . I felt anxious about the wind, the rain, the potential snow and the river crossing. I tried to think about warm things. After an hour my feet were still cold so I came up with the brilliant idea of stuffing my feet inside my canvas food bag and then stuffing my down jacket inside of that. It was quite confining but finally my feet warmed up!
Between my anxiety about getting hypothermia, the wind snapping my tent poles in half and the snow building up on the outside of my tent I hardly slept.
What a day! Epic?