Winter is coming.
George R. R. Martin

The world’s largest island

Yes, Australia is an island, but it’s considered a continent, making Greenland the world’s largest island. It’s also the third largest country in North America. Located east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, it’s considered geographically part of North America, culturally part of Europe and an autonomous country within the Danish Realm.

 The world’s largest national park

The Northeast Greenland National Park takes up 972 000 square kilometers of the island’s 2 166 086 square kilometers.  That’s over half of Greenland’s total area! It’s the world’s largest and most northern national park. It’s also bigger than 167 countries. Land based wildlife includes musk oxen, polar bears, Arctic fox, stoat, collared lemming and arctic hare. Walrus, ringed, bearded and hooded seals, narwhals and beluga whales inhabit the icy waters. The skies are filled with divers, geese, eider ducks, gryfalcons, snowy owls sanderlings, ptarmigans and ravens.

A shifting indigenous population

4 500 years ago, before Canada was called Canada, indigenous Arctic people migrated to Greenland. The Norse arrived in the 900’s, followed shortly after in 1200 by the Inuit, the Portuguese in 1499. The Norse, figuratively speaking, returned in 1700 when Denmark-Norway affirmed their sovereignty over Greenland and in 1814, Greenland became a Danish colony.

The highs and lows of the icy island

Gunnbjorn Fjeld is Greenland’s highest point, standing at 3 700m/12 139ft while the lowest point is under the ice sheet that covers the majority of land. So heavy is the ice sheet that it has pushed the centre of the island 300m/984ft below sea level. On average, Greenland is only 1500m/4921ft high.

Greenland dog sled stuck

Running on ice and snow

The plan had been to be the first team to run across the Greenland ice-cap. Things didn’t work out that way.

A Finnish friend I had met in the Antarctica and had run across the Kalahari with, Jukka Viljanen, and I headed off to Greenland in April 2013 to run from Isortoq on the east coast to Kangerlussuaq on the west. A journey of approximately 700km in temperatures that, as it happened, dropped to -30°C. We were supported by two dogsled teams – I never realised that would involve 34 dogs! – with local mushers, Hans and Salo. We also had a Danish guide.

Running through snow in gore-tex running shoes isn’t a stroll in the park at the best of times. When you add having to watch out for crevasses, and punching through and post-holing in the ice in -30°C, the going becomes a tad more challenging. Day 1 involved running across sea ice to get to the edge of the icecap before making our way up the steep ascent from the coast.

We had begun to get the hang of it by Day 5 when the weather turned nasty and soon the ice and the sky became one in a total white out. Not only was it hard to see which way to go, but running became interesting when we couldn’t make out ridges in the ice due to lack of contrast. That night our guide got carbon monoxide poisoning from the stove he was using to melt snow.

We were able to stabilise him and tried to arrange a helicopter evacuation, but this wasn’t possible due to the white out. The weather continued to worsen and by morning, outside the tents the wind was blowing at 120km per hour off the icecap. We were stuck for five days before there was enough of a lull for us to beat a retreat back to Isortoq.

We didn’t achieve our objective of running across the icecap, but despite some tough conditions we all made it out in one piece. And that is what counts more than anything else. Just being on the icecap with dogsled teams was incredible – a real old-school adventure!


Not all who wander are lost.

J. R. R. Tolkien