A lone cyclist rides across a grassy slope at golden hour with mountains behind him.

Bikepacking the Arctic Circle

On paper, in the comfort of my living room, the idea seemed simple: move two wheels from point A to point B along the Arctic Circle.

From the Russell Glacier, a tongue of ice extending off the Greenland Icecap, I’d bike roughly 200km west to Sisimiut, the second-largest “city” in Greenland. I’d do my best to follow the creatively named Arctic Circle Route, scratched into the landscape by cloven caribou hooves and the Vibram soles of a few European hiking boots, but otherwise I’d be on my own among sparsely shrubbed tundra, scoured gneiss rock slabs and gigantic lakes.

I had little information about the route and had heard no accounts of it being attempted by bicycle. The challenge was set.

On paper, the route looked simple enough.

Getting to the start

Sure, I could have flown into Greenland, attempted the trail, and left – but where’s the adventure in that? Instead, I worked my way there aboard a vessel more like an iceberg than a ship, earning my keep with One Ocean Expeditions by driving zodiacs, interpreting the desolate landscape of the Northwest Passage, and keeping adventurous visitors safe in the land of Ursus maritimus, the polar bear.

A ship lowers a zodiac inflatable boat as another zodiac floats nearby.

Working my way to Greenland.

Ship life took some getting used to. Confined to a rigid schedule on a mere 113 metres of ship, without the freedom to pedal away my front door, I felt antsy. Surrounded by enthusiastic guests hungry for insight into all things Arctic, I had to be “on” all the time.

My lone reprieve was out on polar bear patrol. Four of us would head off in separate directions with rifles for self-defence, acting as a sort of bear bait while making sure no unseen bears were sleeping in gullies or foraging behind boulders, before we brought our passengers to shore. With tight living quarters aboard the ship, this solo time on the land made me long for more.

A bench inside a ship cabin holds an array of bike touring gear.

Prepping my gear aboard the ship.

After three weeks, we arrived in Greenland and I said goodbye to my passengers and fellow staff. After being surrounded by people 24/7 with few solitary moments, I expected the emptiness of the barren gravel road to be a welcome reprieve.

But the shift was too drastic, too quick and too complete. Almost instantaneously, my excitement was replaced by severe loneliness. Already, I longed for a companion who could share the burden of the unknown.

A lone cyclist rides across a grassy slope at golden hour with mountains behind him.

Alone in the barrens

Feeling under-confident, overwhelmed and nervous about the violent storm looming in the forecast, I took stock of my food and bought more fuel for my stove. Then, surrounded by swirling dust clouds, I anxiously took the first pedal strokes toward the Greenland Icecap. The trail ahead was cold and uninviting. Low shrubs scattered patches of dull colour across the barren landscape, which looked like it had been carved from stone by a sardonic wind.

A lone cyclist bikes across a gra
A cyclist sits on the porch of a red hut with his bike leaning next to him.

But towards the end of my second day, whether through a change in my mental state or a trick of the evening light, the hills burst to life with autumn colours. The bright reds and oranges of dwarf birch, scotch heather and blueberry bushes engulfed me. Tufts of cotton floated from the yellow leaves of miniature willow trees like a warm, gentle snowfall.

With a very short growing season, the flora in this part of the world put their energy into roots and leaves; century-old trees look like baby shrubs compared to their southern counterparts. I rode like a giant through the canopy of this pint-sized old-growth forest, lapping in a fast descent to my campsite for the night.

“I rode like a giant through the canopy of this pint-sized old-growth forest, lapping in a fast descent to my campsite for the night.”

A bike lies on its side next to a small tent, silhouetted against a bright sky.

Battling the land

The Inuit have no longstanding history of long-distance running or trekking, as most land travel in the Arctic occurs in winter – for good reason, as I was harshly discovering.

I measured my riding progress in ratios. A good day would have a 60/40 ratio of riding to hiking, or if I was lucky, 70/30. But I enjoyed the changes in movement. Hiking gave my lower back a reprieve from my heavy pack, and bike descents were an instant mood enhancer – that is, when the trail wasn’t frozen into an icy snake.

Pushing the bike came with its own set of challenges. Although it was only knee-high, the hearty tundra brush fought with a determined vengeance. Stout, rigid branches grabbed at my pedals, spokes and derailleurs.

Bog wrestling was even worse. Staring into sphagnum for hours on end tested my already strained sanity levels. Every slight depression in the ground bred thick, ruffled mounds of moss that sponged up every ounce of water – sometimes stretching for multiple kilometres. Every footstep was a game of Russian Roulette: would it end in firm footing and a sigh of relief, or a disagreeable, soggy squish?

A hand holds a bike shoe over the open flame of a camp stove, trying to dry it out.

Keeping my feet dry was an exercise in futility.

A bike stands next to a small hut, as the sun breaks over a mountain in the background

The final night

I’d been watching the lenticular clouds form ominously earlier in the day. Sculpted by high winds into alien spaceships, they hovered over the highest peaks, forecasting a violent storm. Hastily, I made for the hut marked at the edge of my map.

When the gale hit, I was grateful for the shelter, no matter how humble. As each violent blast of wind screamed down from the mountains, I knew it would have torn my ultralight one-person tent to shreds. The steel cables attached to the hut creaked and groaned under the strain of 100+ km/h gusts, and it sounded like the tin stove pipe would be torn out of the plywood roof at any moment. It might as well have, as there was no paraffin for the heater.

“The steel cables attached to the hut creaked and groaned under the strain of 100+ km/h gusts, and it sounded like the tin stove pipe would be torn out of the plywood roof at any moment.”

I cinched my sleeping bag up underneath my armpits and boiled my nearly tasteless teabag for the third time. There would be no going out today. Pinned down in this tiny refuge, I was down to half-rations – rations which were insufficient to begin with. Cold, hungry and bored, I stared out the small window at the steep cliffs hemming in the tight valley. Frozen streams criss-crossed their faces like icy spiderwebs. My journal provided only a little solace, so eventually, I slept.

 

A man holds a mug of tea and looks out the window of a dark hut.

Watching the storm.

A new dawn

As I forced open the top of the hut’s Dutch door in the faint blue glow of early morning, a thick sheet of rime released from the wall and crashed down onto the wooden steps. The storm had laid down 10cm of fresh snow, and the wind had sculpted it into long streaks and deep drifts. After cooking my last packet of oatmeal, I put on every stitch of clothing I had and waterproofed my feet with used zip-lock bags.

The sky was fearsome. Black streaks rippled among the grey cottonball clouds in the high winds. The rain came down in sheets, blowing sideways from the sea, but I didn’t care. I cinched my hood down, exhilarated by the weather.

Sliding, slipping and skidding my way down from the final pass, I grinned at the unpredictability of it all. And as I plowed through another tire-high snow drift, the colourful buildings of Sisimiut slowly appeared.

In September 2017, Ben Haggar completed a 200km solo bikepacking expedition along the Arctic Circle in Greenland. MEC was proud to support him with an expedition grant as well as an InReach SE, MEC Spark 1 Tent, MEC Talon -3 Sleeping Bag, Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm Sleeping Pad, and Power Traveller Powermonkey Extreme Solar Charger. Way to go, Ben!

 All photos by Ben Haggar.

Ben Haggar
Ben Haggar

Freelance photographer and writer from Squamish, BC. When he’s not searching for remote waves or singletrack, Ben hangs out with penguins or polar bears while guiding polar expeditions.