Tracking the restless soul of the howling Arctic
Words & photos :: Ben Haggar.
The legend of Kiviuq is one of the few stories shared throughout the circumpolar Arctic, transcending cultures and geography. I first heard the tale from a female elder in Pond Inlet on the north coast of Baffin Island while working as a polar bear guide aboard a small ship traversing the North West Passage. As the symbol of adventure in Inuit culture, it’s believed that the spirit of Kiviuq inhabits all nomads of the tundra, whether they travel by dog team, kayak, foot, or what I hoped to accomplish—by bicycle.
I had always wanted to experience the far reaches of the Arctic, and despite covering a large area by ship, ultimately felt confined by the short day-excursions that didn’t allow for exploring distant mountain passes and listening to the wind blow through dwarf birch and stunted crowberry bushes—the kind of connection I sought. As another Arctic guiding contract landed on my calendar, the stage was set to write my own chapter in the story of Kiviuq.
My version would be a 200-kilometre point-to-point backcountry bike traverse along the Arctic Circle over one of the few ice-free sections of western Greenland. Sparsely vegetated tundra, scoured gneiss rock slabs, enormous lakes, and seemingly endless sphagnum bogs stretched between the coastal town of Sisimiut and my starting point, Kangerlussuaq, at the head of Greenland’s longest fjord. To make things slightly easier, a trail of sorts (perfunctorily dubbed the Arctic Circle route) was scratched into the landscape by reindeer hooves, and I hoped it would yield some beautiful singletrack. As an added bonus, a few snowmobile shacks in various states of disrepair and haphazardly strung along the route offered a modicum of dilapidated security as a hedge against the inevitability of poor weather.
In September 2017, after a month of guiding and being surrounded by people 24/7, I found myself at the end of a dusty road outside Kangerlussuaq, a mountain bike my lone companion. To keep the steel hardtail nimble on technical terrain, I packed as light as possible. Minimal food, an ultralight sleeping bag, air mattress, tent, and far too much camera gear stuffed in a backpack made up the bulk of the weight, keeping me uncomfortably hunched over in the saddle. A few extra layers for sub-zero evenings hung from my saddle in a waterproof bag; navigation, first aid, and snacks resided in a handlebar bag; and tools and spare tubes strapped to the bike rounded out the kit I envisioned being sufficient enough for 5–6 days.
Almost instantly, the excitement that had been steadily building—almost to the point of bursting—was replaced by severe loneliness. I expected the emptiness of barren gravel to be a welcome reprieve, but the shift was too sudden, too drastic, too complete. Already, I longed for a companion to share the experience of travelling through the Greenlandic backcountry.
My anxiety increased as I checked the weather. In three-days’ time, the forecast had a large storm striking the area with unseasonable fury, possibly obliterating whatever trail did exist with rain and snow. Struggling to conjure any enthusiasm, I took my first pedal strokes towards the Greenland Icecap. Doubt swirled around me like the dust clouds kicked up by the constant wind. Everything seemed cold and uninviting. Even the low shrubs responsible for the only colour on the barren landscape were sharp, brittle, and oddly intimidating. A few days earlier, a polar bear was spotted along the fjord I now pedaled beside, scanning for white dots.
In the north, seasonal opposites of perpetual day or night blend the perceived real and spiritual worlds into a single dreamlike state. The Inuit believe in Ijiraq—a form of shapeshifting in which a traveller can transform themselves into a more appropriate entity like a raven, reindeer, or polar bear, ditching the clumsy and inefficient human form. Such an ability would have been especially helpful while tilting into the wind perched atop a bicycle.
As the symbol of adventure in Inuit culture, it’s believed that the spirit of Kiviuq inhabits all nomads of the tundra, however they travel.
My second day offered a different leitmotif. I’d made little headway since leaving the gravel the previous day, the trail now frozen into an icy snake bisecting two lumpy mountains at the head of a wide valley. Eventually cresting the pass between them, I emerged from cold shadow to an expansive view that included a small herd of reindeer grazing in bright sunshine. Nibbling lichen and short grasses, they eyed me with caution, maintaining a comfortable distance. After appreciating the serene beauty of the scene for a few minutes, I lowered my seat and dropped eagerly into a long descent. Picking my way down a rocky ridge line, a dull, unfamiliar sound rose from behind. Only a few metres away, three large bulls galloped over the adjacent ridge. As they drew parallel, I made uneasy eye contact, but there wasn’t a hint of fear or aggression in these animals. I let off the brakes and shot forward, the bulls running by my side all the way to the valley. Did they suddenly see me as one of their own? Had I unknowingly shape-shifted, if only for a few minutes?
Though progress was slow, tedious, frequently awkward, and sometimes painful, all forward movement felt good. I measured it in riding/hiking ratios: a really good day would be a 70/30 mix, a bad day far below this. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the shifts in physical movement; hiking was a reprieve from the pressing load on my back, while the added boost of speed on descents was a definite mood enhancer. Though I’d originally planned on making 40–50 km per day, stretches of bushwhacking, talus, and bogs allowed for only half that, despite 10–12 hour days.
Pushing the bike came with its own set of challenges. The knee-high tundra brush fought against me with determined vengeance. Stout, rigid branches grabbed at spokes, chain rings and derailleurs; pedals scratched at exposed calves like an impatiently trailing wolverine. Avoidance techniques evolved and devolved depending on the situation.
Bogs were another beast entirely. Days spent staring into endless sphagnum tested my already strained sanity. Every low-lying area bred thick, wet, mounds of spongy moss that could stretch for kilometres. It was impossible to tell if any one step would end in firm footing and a sigh of relief, or a soggy demise. After a few hours of swamp-foot two-step, a plunge into icy water was inevitable—like playing Russian roulette with semi-dry feet.
Five days in I was down to half-rations of already insufficient food stores. Cold, hungry, and bored, I stared out the window at frozen streams crisscrossing like icy spiderwebs.
Still stressed over the impending storm brewing over the North Atlantic, I needed to spend every daylight hour moving, and so quickly came to terms with whatever the Arctic might throw at me. I befriended the constant winds and embraced the tundra’s subtle gifts of autumn colour—the red and orange hues of dwarf birch, Scotch heather, and blueberry. Cotton tufts floated off the yellow leaves of miniature willows like a warm, gentle snow. I rode like a giant through the canopy of this pint-sized, old-growth forest.
Depth of experience, I knew, was gained through hardship, a mantra hard to inculcate with aching and peeling feet. But if this was how I was meant to connect with the barren and unforgiving landscape, I was achieving my goal in spades.
Shivering in my inadequate sleeping bag awaiting dawn on the fourth day, the wind whipped intermittent raindrops at my equally inadequate ultralight one-person tent. Lenticular clouds encircled the surrounding peaks in long, ominous streaks as I hurriedly packed my gear and hit the trail.
The storm descended with unnerving violence. There was a hut marked on the edge of my map, so I raced towards shelter against the wind and rain. Though little more than a glorified garden shed, I was happy to have those humble walls between myself and a gale that would have surely torn my tent to shreds. I hung my saturated gear and tucked in for an early night. The fact that I was only two-thirds of the way to my destination when I expected to be nearly finished kept me awake that night as much as the beating rain.
Where I expected the emptiness of barren gravel to be a welcome reprieve, the shift was too sudden, too drastic, too complete. Already, I longed for a companion.
Next morning, the storm still raged. Pinned down in my tiny enclave, there would be no going out this day. I cinched my sleeping bag under my armpits and boiled a tea bag for the third time; five days in and I was down to half-rations of already insufficient food stores. Cold, hungry, and bored, I stared out the window at frozen streams crisscrossing the land like icy spiderwebs, the steel cables holding the roof groaning against wind that gusted over 100 kph. My journal was my only solace as the storm raged for two straight days.
I awoke in the cold blue glow of pre-dawn. Trying to cling to the warmth of my sleeping bag for as long as possible eventually made me antsy, so I resorted to packing and pacing, not wanting to leave the safety of the hut too early. With the day’s first task being the crossing of a frigid river now raging hard with precipitation, I waited for the sun.
The stream crossing wasn’t as bad as expected, but after bog-bashing for three hours afterward, I collapsed in a heap in the middle of yet another quagmire. Pulling my limp form onto the highest point of moss, I dropped my head into my hands; mentally and physically drained, this felt like the loneliest place I’d ever been—both inside and out. With a partner for commiseration, this situation would only have been laughable, but all I could register were dull, lifeless hills encasing me in harsh wilderness. I realized I was experiencing the emotional highs and lows that go along with any meaningful and worthwhile relationship. I raised my sodden form and made my way through the wetland towards the next modest hut.
Forcing open the top half of the Dutch door on my eighth and final morning, a thick sheet of rime peeled off to crash onto the wooden steps. Another storm had deposited 10 centimetres of wet snow in long ridges and deep drifts. Cooking my last packet of oatmeal, I donned every stitch of clothing I had and waterproofed my feet with used Ziploc bags. I packed quickly, cleaned the snow off my bike, and began picking my way along vague remnants of trail, the subtle features of the tundra obliterated by the sticky mass of snow.
The knee-high tundra brush fought me with determined vengeance. Branches grabbed at spokes, chain rings and derailleurs; pedals scratched at exposed calves like an impatiently trailing wolverine.
The sky was fearsome—black streaks rippling between grey cotton balls driven by high winds. Exhilarated by the intense weather I cinched my hood, alive with purpose again, my goal in sight and the will to keep going. Blowing in sideways from the sea, the rain came in sheets. Sliding, slipping, and skidding down the final pass, the unpredictability of the descent brought a huge smile that lasted the few hours until my tires hit gravel and, finally, pavement.
Greenland had sunk its icy teeth into me, yet now that it was over I sadistically wanted more. I wondered if Kiviuq felt this way whenever he returned to his original home—preferring to just walk on by, forever seeking adventure.
The smooth feeling beneath my tires was as alien as the colourful buildings and strange faces now surrounding me. There were stolen glances in my direction, but no one made eye contact. Never had someone arrived from this direction on a bicycle before. No one knew who this strange traveler could be.
Did they wonder if, as I fleetingly imagined, I was Kiviuq? —ML