Who goes out hiking alone at 9:00pm? It’s way too risky, and I would never do it.
But then I did it, and it was incredible.
Of course, it helps that I was in Ilulissat, Greenland in early July, when the midnight sun means it never gets dark.
I’d just arrived in Ilulissat that day, already feeling like I’d won the lottery just by choosing this holiday. I’d been on a tundra safari on my layover in Kangerlussuaq and saw reindeer and muskox in addition to the dramatic views of hills and glaciers. I’d then flown to Ilulissat over a spectacular landscape punctuated by the ice cap, fjords leading to towering glaciers, tundra dotted with a million little lakes, and a winding coastline bordering blue, blue water speckled with icebergs.
Then we landed in Ilulissat, coming in over the icefjord and the harbour and the colourful houses of town and I simply couldn’t stop grinning.
My walk into town to find a supermarket instead found me sitting on a hilltop, gazing out at the most beautiful iceberg I’d ever seen (ok, this was one of the FIRST icebergs I’d ever seen, but would quickly become a ‘favourite’ during the next couple of days). I was ridiculously happy, and it was only the first day.
But it got better. After dinner I couldn’t stay still. I needed to explore, and the golden ‘hour’ that us photographers so love had started, but here it wasn’t an hour. It was basically all night. So despite fatigue and a headache from my early start and long day, I headed out for a hike on the Yellow Trail.
The Yellow Trail in Ilulissat begins at the heliport, and I hike up the path, past a cemetery to a summit that overlooks the Ilulissat Icefjord.
At times I find myself wondering if this was the smart thing to be doing. No one else is out here, but surely if this was a good thing to do, there would be others? Plus, even though my head KNOWS the sun isn’t going to set, I still can’t quite believe it. All of my past life experience tells me that at night, it gets dark.
I’m not really alone though. As I reach the top of the hill and the spectacular view of the icefjord, a young local man approaches from the other direction. He says a friendly hello and goes to sit some distance away from me at the top of the hill, admiring the view for a while before moving on.
I also sit and look, but for long enough that I have to put on my toque (er…beanie? Warm hat? …for you non-Canadians), scarf, and gloves. It’s not freezing, but maybe 5 or 6 degrees, and that’s plenty cold for this Middle East-acclimatized girl. I definitely feel the wind and the cold as soon as I stop, despite my layers of clothing.
The hilltop overlooks the icefjord straight ahead, where all I can see is white surfaces and peaks of icebergs in every size and shape, stretching across the entrance of the fjord and around into Disko Bay. Occasionally there is a sound like thunder as chunks break off the bergs, crashing into the water below. I never see them though, as by the time I hear them, it’s too late.
To my right the ‘setting’ sun casts pink and gold rays over the bay, including my favourite iceberg I saw from town earlier. I can’t stop looking at it. It’s massive, and its elegant arches have me captivated.
I look down the other side to the boardwalk that winds through tundra at the beginning of the Blue Trail, which I will hike another day. People are down there, tiny dots making their way towards the icefjord through the glowing golden light that seems to come from all around.
Just as I start continuing down the path I see a dog coming towards me, no owner in sight. Now, I’m a dog lover for sure, but I’ve had enough encounters with mean barking dogs while traveling that I am extra cautious around them. And I’ve read that you should leave the sled dogs here alone, because if they feel you are invading their territory they can get aggressive. And usually they’re tied up, so that’s no problem.
But this one is free. It sees me and stops, staring at me from a distance, while I try to keep it in the corner of my eye instead of staring back. I don’t want to seem threatening to it.
Why is it out here? Where is its owner? Why is it free? And most importantly, is it afraid of me, or is it going to attack me? I look around behind me, hoping the young man is still there, but he has gone on down the path out of sight.
I stay put. The dog approaches, bit by bit, occasionally ducking out of sight, then reappearing, each time a bit closer but always watching me. Finally, it gets close enough that we can circle around each other and pass without any confrontation, and as it moves on down the path I can see the length of chain it is dragging behind it. This is an escapee, a sled dog that found freedom, at least temporarily.
The path snakes down the hill and around the corner, winding between rocks and mossy grass, with a fantastic view of the bay formed between the land and the building-sized icebergs of the icefjord. The red boat of a midnight iceberg cruise comes around the corner, dwarfed by the giant icebergs it’s heading towards.
I hear a blowing noise and it startles me. What was that? Where did it come from? I stop and take a look around and notice below, down in the bay, the whale’s dorsal fin cresting the surface of the water. I watch in fascination as it comes up again and again, blowing and swimming, until finally the tail comes up out of the water as it dives deep.
I keep walking, stopping every few minutes, occasionally sitting a while to admire the enormous icebergs or watch a sightseeing boat.
The whale comes back, blowing and swimming again, closer to the icebergs this time. Then another, the black bodies cresting and diving in unison. Then I notice one more, and again, until there are at least four whales swimming around, right in front of me. I sit on a rock and watch for a long time, because how often do you get to sit and watch whales hunting, all alone under a glowing pink and orange sky? I can’t tear myself away.
I could have sat there all night. I would have, if I hadn’t been so very cold by then. My headache had disappeared and despite having been awake for nearly 24 hours straight, I wasn’t tired. Instead, I was grinning ear to ear, thinking about what an incredible first day in Greenland I’d had, and wondering if I really had brought enough memory cards for my camera. If every day was going to be like this, probably not.
I’ve experienced feelings of elation at the beginning of a trip many times before. The excitement as I make my way into a new city from the airport, the expectation of adventures and discoveries to come. But I have never, ever felt such eager anticipation and jubilation as I did that night, sitting on a rock overlooking the Ilulissat icefjord watching the whales under the midnight sun.
I finished the last bit of the hike in pure euphoria. I had never dreamed that coming to Greenland would provide experiences like this. That I would be so, so happy to be in such a cold place, that I would love the icebergs so much, or that I would get to see multiple whales swimming together next to those icebergs. That the sky would be so incredible, the warm pink and orange reflecting off the sea dotted with icebergs.
The trail ends at a set of stairs, and I was amazed to realize when I got there that there were lots of people out and about. A few sat on the rocks there, overlooking the sea. The light was changing, already brightening from the deep sunset colours to lighter yellows and golds. As I walked through town back to my guesthouse, I was surprised to see so many people out and about: on the front porch having a chat, working in their yards, and teenagers hanging out on their bikes. It was 2am. I guess when it doesn’t get dark, it doesn’t matter when you sleep.
Important Information about hiking the Yellow Trail in Ilulissat:
This is an easy trail and in my opinion is one of the best things to do in Ilulissat. And it’s free! I do recommend a decent pair of hiking boots as the ground is uneven in places.
The trail begins by the heliport and ends at the set of stairs at the end of Minnerup Aqq. (or vice versa). It’s only 2.7km long and should take about 1.5 – 2 hours, but I took much, much longer and I highly recommend taking your time! Just follow the yellow spots, and if you happen to lose them (I did at one point), just follow the coastline and you’ll probably find them again somewhere. But be aware that being very close to the coast on a low section can be very, very dangerous if one of those icebergs decides to flip.
Fun facts about the Ilulissat Icefjord*
- The Ilulissat Icefjord was inscribed on UNESCO world heritage list in 2004.
- The icebergs are calved from Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, which moves 40 metres per day. This makes it one of the fastest moving and most active glaciers in the world!
- Sermeq Kujalleq produces 46km3 of ice every year, which is 10% of all the icebergs in Greenland, and enough water for all of the USA for a year.
- The largest icebergs are up to 2km wide and 120m tall.
- It’s suspected that the iceberg which sank Titanic came from the Ilulissat Icefjord.
- The Ilulissat Icefjord is approximately 55km long and 6km wide. For those of you who like to measure things in football fields, that’s about 66,000 of them.
- The icefjord is up to 1000m deep, and has sort of a ‘lip’ underwater at the entrance where it is much, much shallower. This means the really big icebergs get stuck here, sometimes for years at a time, until they melt or calve off enough to make it out of the fjord.
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