On and Off the Arctic Circle Trail (2)

Arctic Litter Trail

Litter in hunting area, Itinneq (Ole's Lakseelv). © Lodewijk Muns 2017

Rocks and clouds, shrubs and moss. A minimalist landscape in endless variations. The arctic tundra has a melancholy quality, with autumnal colours in late summer.

A different kind of melancholy was on our minds when we booked our passage to Greenland. Melancholy, or rather anguish: about the fragility of its habitats, the melting icecap, the opening northwest passage, container ship pollution and small ports exploding into large commercial centres. The doom of progress pushed onward by a mentality of environmental disrespect.

A mentality that leaves its traces, on a small but disturbing scale, on the trail itself.

“Hiker” does not equal “nature lover”, is one lesson I learned on the ACT. But what motivates people to take the trouble and pay the expenses of travelling to a remote place, carrying a week’s necessities on their backs, and not care about the environment they’ve chosen to be in — I haven’t a clue.

arctic hareIf on the ACT you spot something white, chances are 0,5% that it’s an arctic hare, an animal smartly camouflaged for the snow, but playing sitting duck in summer. In 99,5% of the cases it’s toilet paper.

Burying your paper and excrement away from the trail and water is a generally recommended “leave no trace” practice, as should be the use of biodegradable recycled paper. It is often recommended to burn toilet paper, but in an area where much of the soil is fuel (peat) that’s a risky practice — and it seems to have been the cause of a wildfire near the Ikkattooq hut in 2016.

Looking back towards the burnt area on the west end of lake Amitsorsuaq. © Lodewijk Muns 2017

Wildfires became an issue just a few days before our departure, making part of the trail inaccessible. Their unusual severity made world headlines and caused worries about CO2 release and soot pollution. An exceptionally dry summer had made the peat soil highly combustible, possibly also due to degrading permafrost, and more indirectly, climate change.

The immediate causes are uncertain. Lightning is known to have sparked them off sometimes, but a trail-on-the-trail of cigarette butts all the way from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut raises different suspicions. Not only hikers are to blame for negligence and unsanitary habits. Some of the evidence (cartridge holders, animal remains, and probably the cardboard box in the picture above) points to hunters.

The amount of litter along the trail shows how popular it has become. We rarely encountered fewer than four fellow hikers on one day; and on a wilderness trail that’s almost a crowd. The total number per year was an estimated 300 according to Paddy Dillon’s 2010 guidebook, but a poster nailed to the wall of each of the huts along the trail speaks of nearly 1300. The poster is signed by Frieder Weiße, chairman of Polar-Routen eV – Association for the Promotion of Hiking and Conservation of Nature in Greenland. Weiße has carefully calculated the figure on the basis of his inspection of the entries in guest books in the huts and interviews. (He has kindly sent me his report by email, and hopefully it will soon be available on his website).

Weiße conducts a campaign for trail hygiene, calling upon hikers to collect garbage and document their work through an internet form. He is also campaigning against the ATV track that threatens to spoil the area between Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut, a project (as I wrote in my previous post) that is thought to bring greater prosperity to the Qeqqata community.

Compared to cruise tourists and trophy hunters, hikers may be a poor source of revenue. They import their own freez-dried food and sleep mostly for free in tents or in the huts. Still, by Weiße’s estimate the ACT contributes a revenue of 1.46 million euros (11 million DKK) to Greenland’s economy, at little cost.

Unfortunately there’s a limit to the popularity a wilderness trail can endure, without ceasing to be both trail and wilderness.

More photos on Flickr.