Hear about travel to Greenland as the Amateur Traveler talks to Matthew Karsten from expertvagabond.com about his recent visit to this remote island.
Matthew says, “I had heard about Greenland from a friend. When you think about Greenland I am sure, like a lot of people, you think it’s just a bunch of snow and ice. Why would you go there on a vacation? I learned that there’s actually a big portion of it in the south that is ice-free in the Summer and there’s a lot of cool things to do there.”
“If you want to be there for about a week. I did something called the Arctic Circle Trail. It’s a hike that lasts 7-12 days., depending on the route you take and your abilities.”
Even if you aren’t up for a hike across the tundra there are some small villages like Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut that you can visit by ferry, but getting into the countryside gave Matthew encounters with Reindeer, Musk Oxen, and arctic foxes. It did not give him a lot of encounters with other people on the trail. It brought him up close to glaciers and into tiny fishing villages where sled dogs provided the welcoming committee. There are wilderness huts along the way where you can stop and spend the night at for free.
Sam Oppenheim on Travel to the Aeolian Islands – Episode 493:
Love these islands – went on my honeymoon, some things to add:
1) Salina has resorts with incredible food, rooms, properties, pools, spas, massages, etc. It is AMAZING.
2) Salina has archaeology sites from the bronze age and stone age, you can hike up and see them. not much to see, but cool history.
3) on all these islands you can hire a scooter and ride all around
4) Wine tastings at each vineyard, rewarding and fun, olive oils too.
5) Stromboli is worth the hike to the top
6) Stromboli has black sand beaches.
7) You can take a ferry from Stromboli to Naples, but as Rick said – they can run slow, we missed out flight connection in Naples.
I’d recommend 1 week in Sicily and 1 week on these Islands with an open jaw ticket into Sicily and out of Naples. We actually started in Malta. Totally amazing islands, beautiful people, food, landscapes, and calm atmosphere. I think they are like Kauai or the Azores and other volcanic archipelagos in the Caribbean.
Correction: Il Postino is a 1994 movie, set in the year 1950. The famous beach scene in that movie is on Salina and is distant from the hotels, we went by scooter and were the only tourists there. it is AMAZING. Pollara beach. I have photos of the hotels and beaches on my website.
Chris: Amateur Traveler, episode 512. Today the Amateur Traveler talks about glaciers and reindeer, musk oxen, and the Arctic Circle Trail as we go to Greenland.
Welcome to the Amateur Traveler, I’m your host Chris Christensen. Before we get into the episode today on Greenland, I should tell you this is going to be an episode that you really ought to look at the pictures because our guest is a wonderful photographer, and I have been enjoying his work. So, either check out the show notes and the link to the articles that he wrote on Greenland or use the iTunes enhanced version of the show with pictures and links. And now, let’s hear about Greenland.
I’d like to welcome to the show Matthew Karsten from Expert Vagabond, who’s come to talk to us about Greenland. Matthew, welcome to the show.
Matthew: Thank you, Chris. It’s great to be here.
Chris: It seems a little odd to have the Expert Vagabond on the Amateur Traveler, but there’s something that also seems just right about that.
Matthew: I can’t wait to dive into this with you.
Chris: And, we just went to a conference together last week and Matthew was telling me about this trip, and I thought it would be something that you guys would like to hear also. So, why did you go to Greenland in the first place?
Matthew: I had heard about Greenland from a friend. When I think of Greenland, I’m sure like a lot of people, you think it’s just a bunch of snow and ice.
Chris: Ice sheets, yes.
Matthew: Why? Why would you go there on a vacation? I learned that there’s actually a big portion of it in the south that’s ice-free in the summer, and there’s a lot of cool things to do there.
Chris: So you went for the beaches?
Matthew: You know what? I did do some sunbathing on one day, but it’s more for the hiking, and the wilderness, that kind of thing, the animals.
Chris: Excellent, and what kind of itinerary would you recommend for someone who is following in your footsteps to Greenland?
Matthew: You want to be there for about a week. So, I did something called the Arctic Circle Trail. It’s a hike that lasts 7 to 12 days, depending on the route you take and your abilities. That’s why I was there, but there’s also other things to do. There’s a bunch of small villages on the southwest coast that you can visit. One of them’s called Kangerlussuaq. There’s an international airport there. It used to be a former US military Air Force Base. From there, once you get there, you can travel by passenger ferry up the coast, stopping at different villages along the way. Or, you can do something like I did and do this hike, which…It’s about 100-mile hike, but not super difficult, it’s more of, like, a hill walk with wilderness huts along the way that you can stop in and spend the night at for free. And…
Chris: And you did this completely independently? Did you bring in gear? Did you have a guide? How does one tackle this?
Matthew: I did it independently and brought my own gear, but you can also go with a guide if you’d like, if you don’t feel confident enough to go on your own. You do have to bring in all your own food or buy it there and hike with it for the 10 days. Water is not a problem, there’s hundreds of lakes along the way; lakes, ponds, and rivers, so you can fill up almost anywhere.
Chris: And you’re out in pristine wilderness, so drinking the water is not an issue, is what you’re saying?
Matthew: Exactly, yeah. When I was there I did not use a filter at all. Some people like to bring a filter anyway, but you don’t have to.
Chris: So, the huts are places I can sleep, but not, like, you know, say, the huts in Switzerland where I can get a hot meal or something like that. I’m still cooking my own meal?
Matthew: Correct. You’d bring your own cooking utensils, stove. The huts are super basic. There is probably…Most of them have four to six bunks in there and, now, if you go in high season, in the summer, there’s the off chance that the hut could be full. So it’s also good to maybe have a small tent as a backup, just in case.
Chris: When did you go?
Matthew: I was there in August of 2015. That’s actually a really good time to go, because Greenland has a little bit of a mosquito problem in the middle of the summer. They can get really nasty. But if you go in, kind of, mid-August, the first frost has come and it kills them off, most of them off. So, that’s a good time. In August, I know.
Chris: The first frost has come by August? Okay, well, that’s probably why I’m not going in December but, interesting.
Matthew: The temperature there in August, for me, it was between…it varies widely from about 32 Fahrenheit – it actually snowed one day for me – to 60 degrees there in the middle of the day. So it varies quite wildly.
Chris: Interesting. And I’m picturing since you’re about the same latitude as Iceland, we’re not talking about hiking through a forest.
Matthew: No, no, there’s really no trees at all up there. It reminded me a lot of hiking in Scotland, like, a lot of hill walking, kind of, experience.
Chris: And is it permafrost, or rock, or…what are you hiking on?
Matthew: It’s tundra so, yeah, rock and tundra. I mean, there’s hills and small mountains and lots of tundra. Occasionally you walk through some wet, boggy-type areas from the snowmelt. And there’s glaciers nearby, too, the ice cap is not too far away, so that’s where all the rivers and the lakes and the ponds come from. In the lower valleys, it can get a little bit marshy, but for the most part, yeah, it’s tundra that you’re walking through.
Chris: Describe to me what you’re seeing as you’re walking through here.
Matthew: Lots of rolling, rocky hills, valleys.
Chris: Vivid green, or…?
Matthew: Depending on the time of year, it can be, kind of, mossy greens, yellows, and got orange, too, orange-colored, like, lichen.
Chris: Interesting. And is August fall in Greenland?
Matthew: It is. So, the winter, kind of, hits around mid-September, is when the snow starts falling again. So, you know, depending on…you might get the occasional freak snow storm in August, in mid-August, but then it will melt off, you know, the next day.
Chris: Who did you meet out doing this hike? I mean, who else has decided that Greenland is a great place to go for a little jaunt?
Matthew: Well, it’s still a relatively new kind of travel destination. So on this hike, the hike sees about 200 hikers per season, and while I was there I ran across 10 other people in 10 days. So, that gives you an idea of how remote it is. All very friendly and outgoing adventurous types, mainly from Germany and Denmark. I met one other American on the trail, but a lot of Germans and the Danish love Greenland. I met…Actually, three of the hikers I met were over 70 years old, though, as well. Some people were in groups, you know, small groups, and you can…Another thing you can do, actually, on the trail is fish. So, you can get a fishing license in Kangerlussuaq, and fish along some of the lakes and rivers and supplement your diet that way.
Chris: Interesting. And are there any real points of interest or places to stop and see anything specific, or is it more, just, endless hills?
Matthew: Well, on the hike it’s more beautiful scenery, river crossings, camping. In the summer, the sun sets at, like, 11:00, 12:00 p.m. There’s a lot of daylight. But then, at the start of the hike in Kangerlussuaq, there is a really famous glacier that’s called Russell Glacier. You can hike up there. You actually have to go along a 4×4 road and there are tours that take you out to the glacier. And then once you get out there, you can watch huge, massive pieces of ice about the size of a school bus breaking off into the river below. So, you can kind of watch global warming happening right in front of you.
Chris: So, anything else we should cover on the hike before we start to get into some of the other sights, as things start to move in that direction?
Matthew: Yeah. One of the things I liked about the hike a lot is there are wild mushrooms and wild arctic berries everywhere spread out along the trail, and you can supplement your diet with that along the way. It’s kind of fun.
Chris: Now, eating wild mushrooms, one usually has to be fairly careful.
Matthew: Exactly. So, with the berries, from what I learned, most of…or, I’m sorry, all of the arctic berries are edible. Most of the mushrooms are, but you do have to do a little research.
Chris: The difference between ‘most’ and ‘all’ is really important when you’re talking about mushrooms.
Matthew: Exactly, especially when you’re hiking on your own in the wilderness, for sure. The other thing I wanted to bring up is the animals. There’s a lot of wildlife out there. So, there’s reindeer everywhere, there’s musk oxen, there’s arctic hares. And I even saw an arctic fox, which is this really small, little fox that can be difficult to see sometimes.
Chris: And what kind of color would it be the time of year you were there? I know in the winter it’d be more white.
Matthew: Correct. When I was there it was kind of a black, brownish color.
Chris: Excellent. Then let’s talk about the non-hike things, too. So, you flew into where?
Matthew: I flew into the international airport at Kangerlussuaq and…
Chris: Okay. And, how expensive…? I mean, Greenland is not a common destination. I’m thinking that you would pay for the privilege of flying into Greenland.
Matthew: Correct. There’s only a couple places you can fly into Greenland from: Reykjavik, Iceland, and Copenhagen, Denmark.
Chris: Oh, really? No place in North America?
Matthew: Nope. For a while you could fly in from Canada. I am not 100% sure if that’s still possible. The last I heard is you couldn’t anymore, but it sounds like that changes, kind of, on a regular basis. But, once you get yourself to one of those cities, then you can fly into Greenland. A round trip flight from Copenhagen, which is where I flew in from, cost me about $1,000.
Chris: Interesting. And so, you flew in there, and what did you do when you weren’t on your hike?
Matthew: So, Kangerlussuaq is, kind of, an old US Air Force Base that’s been turned into this international airport. So, there’s not a ton to do there. The town has about…the population is about 500 people, and other than doing a hike out onto the ice cap, which is one of the tours you can do there, there’s not a ton to do. It’s super small. The town is, kind of, there just to supply the airport. There’s a beautiful fjord that you fly into to get there, and you can take boat trips along the fjord and look for icebergs; do some whale watching, that’s also a possibility.
Chris: And when you’re in Greenland, you were talking about Vikings who settled the area, you know, coming over from the Scandinavian countries over to Iceland and then over to Greenland. Does it feel just like those countries, or does it feel very different in some ways?
Matthew: You know, I think it feels similar to Iceland but with even less people.
Chris: Because Iceland is really so crowded.
Matthew: It’s getting more and more popular. Sometimes, if you go in high season the roads can be packed with cars doing the Ring Road.
Chris: Sure. We’re still talking about a country that organizes its phone book by first names, so…
Matthew: Yeah, there’s even less. Greenland, I believe, is the size of about Mexico, but with only 50,000 people, to give you an idea.
Chris: Interesting. Not quite as large as it used to look on my map, I know, but it’s still a fairly large island. Did you have a chance to interact with the locals?
Matthew: Yes, a little bit. I believe it’s about 80% of the population of Greenland is Inuit, Greelandic Inuit. And so, yeah, in Kangerlussuaq not as much, but when I got to the destination at the end of my hike – it’s a fishing village called Sisimiut – and there I got more of a local experience, you know, colorful wooden homes. Outside of town there is where the locals keep their sled dogs. So you walk through town and there’s barking dogs and people come out to feed them every day with fresh fish. Because it’s a fishing community, you can go on little fishing excursions nearby, try to catch some Arctic Char, which is one of the food sources for the people there in Greenland.
Chris: What was the biggest surprise?
Matthew: I think the biggest surprise for me in Greenland was just how much you could actually do there. You know, like I was saying earlier, a lot of people just think it’s a slab of ice. If you’re into culture or adventure, there’s a lot to do. So, you can go hiking, you can go ocean kayaking in between the icebergs, you can go canoeing on the lakes there. There’s a lot of local delicacy type food: the musk ox, the reindeer. And from those…
Chris: How was musk ox?
Matthew: Oh, it was delicious. The musk ox was delicious. I highly recommend both that and the reindeer.
Chris: Reindeer, I assume, is like a venison in taste? I have no idea what musk ox would taste like.
Matthew: Exactly. Musk ox, I mean, it’s…I had a musk ox steak and it’s similar to, I mean, I guess it’s similar, you know, to a cow. I don’t know how…you know, it’s slightly different. I’m horrible at describing meals. But, it was good, I liked it.
Chris: Excellent. What’s one thing you should not forget to pack when you go to Greenland?
Matthew: Cold weather gear, because even if you get there and it’s summer and 60 degrees during the day, at night it can get really windy and really cold suddenly. The weather changes quickly, so having a wind-proof rain jacket of some kind is very helpful.
Chris: Excellent. It sounds like, I mean we don’t have as much to talk about…actually, no, you said culture, that you could get involved with things with adventure, which you talked about – kayaking with the icebergs – but you didn’t say anything about getting involved with cultural activities.
Matthew: Okay, well, there is a little bit of culture and adventure mixed in that you can do in Sisimiut. It’s possible to try out a local Greenlandic Inuit kayak, the traditional type.
Chris: With the skins?
Matthew: Exactly. Yep, and they’re very narrow and skinny and they look like they’re going to tip over very easily, and you get a wooden paddle. And that’s an activity you can try out on your own, you know, with help from some locals.
Chris: Did you try it out?
Matthew: No, I didn’t have time. I really wanted to, but I didn’t have time at the moment.
Chris: Anything else you want to mention in the cultural category?
Matthew: Well, dog sledding is a very important part of the culture there. And, I was there in the summer so, I mean, I got to hang out with the dogs and see how they lived and things. But if you’re visiting in the winter, that’s the time where you get to go on a trip with the dogs and learn how they handle them, maybe go for an overnight trip, and that’s something I’d like to do in the future, but during the summer it’s not really possible in the south.
Chris: Okay. Before we start to wrap this up and get to my last four questions, what else should we know before we head to Greenland?
Matthew: One thing I would add is if you’re not…if you don’t want to go to Greenland and do a long-distance hike like I did, you can jump on a ship and cruise along the coast, stopping from village to village along the way.
Chris: Is this like a mail ship, or?
Matthew: You can do both. You can do, kind of, a proper cruise with someone like Oceanwide Expeditions or Cork Expeditions. Or, there is a passenger ferry that locals use to get from town to town called the Arctic Umiaq Line, and that’s another option if you don’t want to do a long hike, because there really aren’t any roads that go around Greenland so you have to either travel by small plane or by ship.
Chris: I know they, basically, when we were talking about the Cork Expeditions or those sort of things, we’re talking about, you know, hundreds of dollars a day. I mean, they’re not cheap, although I imagine it’d be fantastic. How much is the ferry?
Matthew: You know, off the top of my head, I do not know.
Chris: Okay. Yeah, we’ll put a link to the ferry site then. Excellent. Well, our last four questions. You are standing at the prettiest spot you saw in Greenland. Where are you standing and what are you looking at?
Matthew: For me, that was at the foot of Russell Glacier, where I camped out for a night in my tent, and watching pieces of ice the size of a school bus fall 180 feet down into the river in front of me. Just, in the middle of the wilderness, and it was an amazing feeling.
Chris: One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in Greenland.”
Matthew: Going to the supermarket to find some dried fish to bring with me along the hike, and then learning later it was whale. It was Minke whale, because that’s a staple food for the people there, and I didn’t realize what I was buying. You know, it was in another language so I thought it was regular fish, but it ended up being Minke whale.
Chris: Finish this sentence. You really know you’re in Greenland when…what?
Matthew: You really know you’re in Greenland when you are setting up camp at 11 p.m. and the sun is still out.
Chris: Okay. And if you had to summarize Greenland in three words, what three words would you use?
Matthew: Remote, beautiful, and wild.
Chris: Excellent. Matthew, where can people read more about your travels?
Matthew: Well, I have an adventure travel blog called expertvagabond.com where I write about adventures like this all over the world.
Chris: Excellent. And, I’m hoping that as those of you who have been watching the show on the iTunes enhanced version may have been seeing some of Matthew’s photographs as well, as he is known for his photography as well. So, check that out. Do you have one post on Greenland that you would recommend to our listeners?
Matthew: Well, I have a whole series of articles dedicated to my Arctic Circle Trail trip with photos and about a five-minute video of the experience as well.
Chris: Excellent. Well, Matthew, thank you for coming on the Amateur Traveler and sharing with us your love for Greenland.
Matthew: Thank you for having me, Chris.
Chris: In news and community, I had a comment on the show that we did a while back on the Aeolian Islands. You may remember those are the islands just north of Sicily in Italy. I heard from Sam Oppenheim, who said, “Love these islands. Went on my honeymoon. Some things to add. Number one, Salina has resorts with incredible food, rooms, properties, pools, spas, massages, etc. It is amazing. Two, Salina has architectural sites from the Bronze Age and Stone Age. You can hike up and see them. Not much to see, but cool history. Number three, on all of these islands you can hire a scooter electrique and ride all around. Number four, wine tastings at each vineyard. Rewarding and fun. Olive oils, too. Number five, Stromboli is worth the hike to the top. I should say that is the volcano and not the type of pizza. Number six, Stromboli has black sand beaches. Number seven, you can take a ferry from Stromboli to Naples but, as Rick said, they can run slow. We missed our flight connections in Naples. I’d recommend one week in Sicily and one week on these islands with an open draw ticket into Sicily and out of Naples. We actually started in Malta. Totally amazing islands, beautiful people, food, landscapes, and calm atmosphere. I think they are like Kawaii or the Azores and other volcanic archipelagos in the Caribbean. One correction, Il Postano is a 1994 movie set in the year 1950. The famous beach scene in that movie is on Salina and is distant from the hotels. We went by scooter and were the only tourists there. It is amazing. Polara Beach. I have a photograph of the hotels and the beaches on my web site.” Sam’s comments can all be found on that episode, Episode 493 on the Aeolian Islands.
I’m gonna end this episode of Amateur Traveler here. Again, if you’re interested in going with us on one of the two trips we’re talking about next year, go to amateurtraveler.com/trips and join the private Facebook group. If you have any questions, send an email to host at amateurtraveler.com or, better yet, do what Sam did and leave a comment in this episode at amateurtraveler.com. You can follow me on Twitter, Pinterest, or Instagram as chris2x. And, as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.