The Journey to 'Middle Land' Narsarsuaq, Greenland: Or There and Back Again

October 11, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Qooqqut Fjord, Middle LandQooqqut Fjord, Middle LandThe ice floes from the Qooqqup Glacier choking the Qooqqut Fjord

Our flight from Reykjavík to Narsarsuaq Airport took us spell-bindingly low over the immense Greenland ice cap and then down a narrow valley hemmed in by jagged snow covered mountains. Below lay Mellem Landet (Middle Land), a 30 km long and 6 km wide rocky peninsula pincered between two enormous glaciers containing vast volumes of water frozen aeons ago. The area screams remoteness; there are no roads out of Narsarsuaq, the small settlement at the far end of the deep turquoise Tunulliarfik Fjord, nothing but a vast white wilderness - the snowfall of millennia - all around.

Narsarsuaq AirportNarsarsuaq AirportThe airport at Narsarsuaq with Middle Land and the Kuussuup Glacier in the distance

As we set out from the Narsarsuaq Hotel on a late-August morning, the immensity of the landscape we had seen from the air is evident. We are walking along a vast out-wash plain created by the Kuussuup Glacier. Built on the flat terrain caused by its retreat is the Narsarsuaq Airport. This was originally constructed in WWII by the USA as a transit base (called Bluie West One) for flights to Europe. The base was superseded after the opening of the larger Thule air base in North Greenland which still operates as a US base today. Bluie West One closed in 1951 and reverted to Danish control in 1958. The population of Narsarsuaq is only about 160, with the airport and tourism being the main sources of employment. Not much happens in this place with a mere handful of weatherboard houses, a small supermarket and a couple of drab blocks of Soviet-style flats. Indeed, the largest building is the Narsarsuaq Hotel, with a façade like something out of 1960's communist Eastern Europe. When a flight is due in or out, Narsarsuaq temporarily buzzes with activity before sliding back into a state of torpor.

We are beginning a 2-day trek to Mellem Landet which we had spied from the airplane on our approach to Narsarsuaq Airport. Sounding for all the world like something straight from the pages of a Tolkien novel, 'Middle Land' is a popular area for a one day hike to see the Kuussuup Glacier which lies on its western flank. It is now a 'dead glacier' miles inland from the Tunulliarfik Fjord and it is possible to get right up close to its terminus. But we have opted to do a longer hike across to the eastern flank of the peninsula to view the Qooqqup Glacier which is a tidewater glacier actively calving into the Qooqqut Fjord, rather than visit a pile of dirty melting ice!

We stride out along an old tarmac road which takes us NE for several kilometres through an area named Hospital Valley. Here the US 188th Station Hospital was sited, betrayed now only by the sight of the gaunt and skeletal stone chimney breast of the Officer’s Club and some crumbling concrete foundations. After this we hit a rocky track. This passes through a picturesque out-wash plain named Blomsterdalen ‘the Flower Valley’, dominated by the chalky turquoise coils of the Kuusuaq River. The flowers are long past their prime; just a few straggly harebells and the withered stems of fireweed sporting fluffy seed pods line the side of the track. The hand of autumn lies quietly across the landscape and the bilberry, dwarf birch and grasses are turning eye-pleasing shades of gold, russet and red.

BlomersdalenBlomersdalenThe pathway leads down to the 'Flower Valley' before climbing up a rocky cliff face to the Middle Land Plateau

After weaving through golden fields where the hay has been mown, the route becomes a narrow path leading to the bottom of a wall of rock atop which is the Middle Land plateau. We are faced with a climb of 300 metres up this cliff face by the side of a small waterfall. The ascent via a rough pathway is quite steep in places and passes through dwarf trees and over rock worn to a fine polish by the passage of countless feet. On the steepest sections thick ropes have been fixed in place, presumably by the tour companies who take clients to visit the Kuussuup Glacier. From the top of the cliffs a magnificent view of the terrain we have just covered opens before us. There is indeed something almost Tolkienesque about this fantastical landscape of rock sliced in two by an icy behemoth that has spewed enormous quantities of gravel and sand onto the vast out-wash plain. This stretches for kilometres down to the jade coloured waters of the Tunulliarfik Fjord which is dotted with icebergs.

Feeling rather like a Hobbit leaving the Shire for stranger lands, we branch off the pathway that most day trippers take to see the Kuussuup Glacier, and strike out across the rocky shore of a lake and over the river which feeds the waterfall by the pathway we have just climbed. We then encounter a gradual 300 metre ascent over rugged slopes of russet, copper and yellow lichens and mosses, and brilliant swathes of late summer flowers, onto the wild spine of this rocky peninsula. The going is tough across the trackless rough ground, but we are distracted from our physical exertions by glorious views of the Kuussuup Glacier which unfold as we climb higher, and the large juicy bilberries which pepper the ground providing a refreshing snack.

Kuussuup GlacierKuussuup GlacierLate summer flowers on the slopes of Middle Land

Eventually the ground levels and we make good speed over the tundra which is so bouncy with lichen and moss it is as if we are walking on miles of mattress. We now pass a series of lakes, one of which is sited in a boggy amphitheatre that offers good protection from the wind and which has a perfectly dry level patch close to plenty of dried wood for our stove. A perfect place to set up camp.

We sit in the open tent sipping the Brennivín we have brought from Iceland, watching the sun slip behind the nearby mountains which are unexpectedly beautiful set against a magnificent sky in shades of russet, orange, pink and chalky mauve. The scene has all the exuberance and vitality of an Impressionist masterpiece. As twilight sets in (it does not get really dark here yet), we retire to our sleeping bags with our freeze dried dinners to escape the chill breeze blowing off the nearby lake. Tomorrow we have just a short 1.5 km walk to a viewpoint overlooking the Qooqqup Glacier. However, the maps available for Greenland are pretty poor and the colour graded trekking tracks indicated on them do not always reflect the topography, or the difficulty on the ground, and I've grown used to nothing being 'easy' in Greenland...  Technicolor sunsetTechnicolor sunsetThe spectacular sunset from our wild camp

It’s another glorious sunny day and following a quick breakfast, we leave our tent for the short hike to the viewpoint. A gentle climb uphill behind our camp takes us onto a ridge which we follow for a few hundred metres before descending towards a large lake glinting in the strong sunlight. We now face our first obstacle in the form of a 75 metre deep ravine with near vertical walls and a river that runs into the lake. We are making a right meal out of this and after much time wasting we manage to descend from the ridge into the ravine via a steep gully. We are then able to cross the river and pick up a path of sorts on the other side which gradually climbs towards the viewpoint. 

Wild camping in Middle Land, NarsarsuaqWild camping in Middle Land, NarsarsuaqWe found a perfect camping spot close to a lake

The ground hereabouts becomes a contorted mass of rock riven by small gullies dotted with metallic green pools which isn't really depicted on the map. Under an oppressive sun we pick our way slowly over obstacle after obstacle until we arrive at the foot of a scree slope beneath a 100 metre high rocky knoll. The viewpoint is at its summit. Our hearts sink. It’s an impenetrable fortress of sheer cliffs and crumbly outcrops which disintegrate the moment we place our hands on the rock. Not to be defeated after making it this far, Martin sets off to explore another way up. Unable to remain in one place for too long due to the swarms of midges and mosquitoes that have made an unwelcome appearance, I ramble amid the rocks, disturbing a lone ptarmigan. I don’t know which of us is more startled! It rises on whirring wings, letting out a visceral ‘ker-ker-ker’ cry which shatters the silence.

Lake below the glacier viewpointLake below the glacier viewpointThe lake has something of a Mediterranean feel to it

Martin suddenly bellows to me triumphantly from atop a ledge halfway up the western side of the knoll. He’s found a route. He directs me to climb up a precarious rock face followed by a scramble onto a sloping ledge thick with vegetation. From here its an easy stroll to the top of the knoll where a spectacular vista of the glacier, until now hidden from view, is finally revealed. Staring into the brilliant sunshine, I blink at the sight of the gnarled and shattered nose of the mighty glacier. It has completely choked the Qooqqut Fjord with a stream of icebergs, thousands of them, from the size of a suitcase to miniature floating islands, white and porcelain-smooth, or crinkled, cracked and tinted turquoise, complete with hillocks, gullies, cliffs and tiny waterfalls. This geological ejecta continues right to the end of the fjord, which appears to be only 3-4 km away but is in reality over 15 km. The Arctic air is so clear it makes it impossible to judge distances. Every so often the ice creaks and groans as it continues its inexorable journey towards the sea.

Qooqqup GlacierQooqqup GlacierA steam of icebergs calved from the Qooqqup Glacier choke the Qooqqut Fjord

Qooqqup GlacierQooqqup GlacierThe incredible view of the nose of the glacier was well worth the scramble up to the viewpoint

I could sit here forever taking in this stupendous geological spectacle, but we’re being bitten alive by armies of midges and mosquitoes which are doing battle with us like a horde of ferocious Orcs! Safely down from the rocky knoll, we make for our tent, finding a far easier route that takes us along a narrow beach on the SW side of the large lake which had been impossible to see on descent. The lake has something of a Mediterranean feel to it, its clear waters tinged aquamarine and turquoise, the arc of its pebble strewn shore glowing golden in the midday sunlight. We sit on the small beach fringed with cerise pink fireweed, splashing our faces with the cool lake water and listening to the melodic tinkle of minute waves rippling ashore. Eventually the insects make it impossible to remain any longer, and a far gentler climb up from the lake brings us onto the ridge above our camp. 

Chilling by a glacial lakeChilling by a glacial lakeThis scene looks picture postcard perfect until you look closely: there are scores of midges and mosquitoes!

After a quick lunch we break camp under a sky that is beginning to cloud over and the atmosphere turns oppressive. It's as if the Dark Lord of Mordor has cast his malevolent shadow across Middle Land and the intense silence becomes quite unnerving. Dark cloud rumbles around the snow streaked peaks of the mountains across the Kuussuup Glacier; the gray of rock and sky become deeper, more profound, and the white of the glacier is almost incandescent. The weather is changing and I sense the onset of winter.

View of the Kuussuup Glacier from Middle LandView of the Kuussuup Glacier from Middle LandThe weather is changing and the onset of winter draws near

At the top of the falls, we see great shards of sunlight radiating through gaps in the cloud down over Blomstersdalen causing the serpentine coils of the Kuusuaq River to gleam with an unreal lucidity. We make rapid progress down the pathway by the falls and are soon winding our way along the track above the river. We cast long shadows upon the ground in the late afternoon sun which shines straight into Blomstersdalen, making the rock of the steep cliff face we have just traversed glow like the walls of a gilded temple.

BlomersdalenBlomersdalenThe 'Flower Valley' with the tongue of Kuussuup Glacier just visible between the rocks where it turns into the Kuusuaq River. It is a so-called ‘dead glacier’ which melts before reaching the sea

The walk back to the Narsarsuaq Hotel along the stony track and then the tarmac road feels endless and my feet protest bitterly against the hard terrain. After what seems like an eternity we finally reach the outskirts of Narsarsuaq, as still and silent as a ghost town, its buildings bathed in the golden tones of the sinking sun. Glowing specks of candlelight illuminate the windows of the hotel's restaurant, and, like a moth to a naked flame, I'm instantly drawn to them. Famished, I salivate with anticipation at tucking into the musk ox steak that is sizzling on the restaurant grill and satiate my thirst with a cool pint of silky black Qaleralik, my favourite Greenlandic craft ale. Our two day 27 km trek to Middle Land to see the Qooqqup Glacier and back again has been like a journey straight from the pages of a Tolkien novel, one brim full of adventure through an epic and forbidding landscape which almost defies description. For gazing at the nose of the glacier was like staring straight into the Eye of Sauron; it is a sight that will remain indelibly etched in my mind's eye.


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