Greenland’s wildlife is accustomed to the seemingly endless, wide open spaces that characterise the country’s landscape. This means that animals are often shy and hard to spot. However, with at least a week out in the wilderness, you are bound to come across some creatures! The wildlife section of our hiking page provides a general overview of the different animals that you might encounter while hiking, while below you can read important information about the specific wildlife that you might see on the Arctic Circle Trail.
In general musk oxen are peaceful animals, although they are beginning to see humans as predators in Greenland so can sometimes become aggressive if they feel threatened. Here are some tips to avoid them charging:
When observing musk oxen, keep a minimum distance of 100 meters from the animals. If you accidentally come closer, by, for example, turning a corner in the terrain, slowly move away from the animals until there is a safe distance between you.
Always make sure that the animals have a way to escape. Musk oxen almost always want to flee, but if they feel cornered they might resort to the only option they feel they have left: to charge.
If you see a herd of musk oxen scattered across the terrain, do not pass between the bull and his herd. The bull is not always the biggest animal, but he is the one whose horns cover almost all of his forehead.
Sometimes a musk ox, with its poor eyesight, might think you are in fact a musk ox, as it can only see your silhouette. In this case, it might approach you. If this happens, do not retreat from the musk ox in a straight line. Instead, walk at a 90 degree angle to the line between you and the musk ox. This way, the musk ox will know that the silhouette it sees is not a musk ox, but a person, and will most often flee.
When hiking in areas with many musk oxen, consider whether it is safer to go with a local experienced guide, who is used to being in musk ox territory and knows about the behaviour of the animals and how to read them.
The main thing to be aware of about foxes is that they can get rabies and transfer the disease. Far into their illness, their fur gets patchy and they look very sick, but at the beginning it is not possible to see that they have rabies. The disease can be transferred to humans even at the beginning stages of a fox’s sickness, and treatment for the infected person is needed as soon as possible.
Rabid foxes are not afraid of people and can attack. If this happens, you must try to kill the fox by any means: kicking, throwing stones, hitting it with hiking poles, or any other method. Cover your lower legs with extra layers so the fox will have difficulty biting through your clothing.
If a rabid fox follows you at a distance, you must try to reach a populated place or a hut before nightfall, as you do not want to sleep in a tent with a rabid fox around. This very rarely happens, but a rabid fox could attack the tent, and you have little opportunity to defend yourself when lying in your sleeping bag.
Do not, under any circumstances, feed a fox. If the foxes are fed, they will begin to lose their fear of man, and it is impossible to determine if an approaching fox is sick. A normal, healthy fox will almost always flee when it sees people.
Reindeer are generally very frightened by man. However, there have been a few instances in which they have shown no fear and some aggression. This tends to happen in October; if it does, get out of sight or climb up a rock, where the reindeer cannot reach you.
In general, do not touch any animals, especially newborns (their mother may refuse to care for them if they have the smell of man). This goes for all animals.
You are highly unlikely to see a polar bear in this part of Greenland, as they prefer the cold and isolation of the north and east. However, it is not unheard of to see polar bears in this region, so just to make sure you are completely prepared, take a look at our infographic about encountering polar bears.
The broad-leaved willow-herb is Greenland’s national flower, and is found all over the country. It stands out against the muted greens and browns of the landscape with its deep pink petals. The cooked leaves of the plant have medicinal properties and are often used to ease arthritic limbs, back pain, sunburn and insect bites. In Greenlandic, the broad-leaved willowherb is known as niviarsiaq, which translates to “the young girl”.
tikiusaaq | sianiusat
The common harebell is widespread throughout the circumpolar region, and symbolises resilience in love. It grows to varying sizes, from 4-5 cm to 30-40cm tall. In Greenlandic, the flower has two names: tikiusaaq, meaning “the one that looks like the index finger”, and sianiusat, meaning “the one that looks like a bell”. As well as these, it also has many nicknames, including, in Danish, dame fingerbøl (ladies’ thimbles) and heksens fingerbøl (witch’s thimbles).
inneruulaq | seqiniusaaq
The dandelion is a striking yellow flower which has 24 different species in Greenland alone, several of which are endemic. The dandelion is rich in iron, containing more iron in its leaves than even spinach! The bitter, milky sap that can be found inside all parts of the plant can sometimes be used to alleviate mosquito bites, although some people can get an allergic reaction to it. In Greenlandic, the dandelion is known as inneruulaq (fire-like) or seqiniusaaq (sun-like).
The common juniper is the most widespread conifer in the world. It grows slowly and can live for more than 100 years. This tree is incredibly flammable, even when wet. The female plants produce blue-black berries which are too bitter to eat raw – they are often dried and used to flavour meat, sauces and alcohol. The juniper’s Greenlandic name, kikillarnaq, translates to “the very stinging plant”.
Bog Labrador Tea
Bog Labrador Tea is an evergreen dwarf shrub. Its name derives partly from the size of its leaves, and partly from the Inuit of Labrador, Canada, who used to use the plant to brew tea. Rubbing the leaves of the plant between your hands and then on your face and skin can sometimes help to keep mosquitoes at bay. The plant’s Greenlandic name, qajaasaq, means “what looks like a kayak”, and refers to the shape of its leaves.
The Arctic Poppy is one of the northernmost growing plants in the world (joint with Purple Saxifrage), having been found growing at 83º north on Kaffeklubben Island, off the northern coast of Greenland. You are most likely to find the Arctic Poppy growing amongst rocks, which provide protection for the roots. Depending on where you see the poppy, it could have either light yellow or white flowers, as the colour of its petals is dependant on the local weather conditions. The poppy symbolises beauty, fertility and eternal life, and its Greenlandic name, sungaartorsuaq, means “the big yellow”.
The crowberry, or blackberry, has a very interesting global distribution, being found across temperate parts of South America as well as in Greenland. Biologists have explained this as a result of migrating birds spreading seeds. These berries are a crucial food source for animals and people who live off the land, as they remain edible all year round, even when buried under the snow. Paarnaqutit translates to “the one who carries berries”.
Bog Bilberry | Arctic Blueberry
The bog bilberry is only found in Northern Europe, North America and in Greenland. Although it is also known as the arctic blueberry, it is not the same as the wild blueberry and the American blueberry, as it does not have the same flavour. As well as being used for cooking, the blueberry has historically been used in medicine and cosmetic products. The Greenlandic name for the plant is kigutaarnat nagguii, with kigutaarnat translating to “without a berry stone”.
Purple Saxifrage, together with the Arctic Poppy, holds the record as the northernmost growing flower. Because of its particularly hardy and reliable nature, it has been selected as the national flower for Nunavut, Canada. The plant’s Greenlandic name translates to “those with thorns”. This is slightly misleading, however, as purple saxifrage has no thorns.
Arctic Cottongrass is common throughout Greenland. Despite appearances, it is not a wool or cotton plant; it is actually closely related to grasses. The wool fibres that surround the flowers are designed to catch the sun’s rays and increase the internal temperature of the plant. These special flowers also have a use for local people, who use them in all sorts of clothing. Ukaliusaq, the plant’s Greenlandic name, means “the one that resembles a hare”.
nerlerite nerisassate | tuttut nerisaat
The Common Horsetail is related to the fern family. It has deep roots which makes it very tough to get rid of. Pictured is the spring plant – in summer, the plant sprouts green ‘branches’ which make it look more like a small pine tree. Historically, this plant has had many uses, from medicinal to culinary and even as a polish for metal surfaces and kitchen equipment. The Greenlandic name for the Common Horsetail translates as “something that reindeer eat”.
Wild thyme is an evergreen dwarf shrub in the mint family. It has been used from as early as 5,000 BC for all sorts of varied purposes, from embalming, as incense, and for superstitious reasons. Today, it is still used for medicinal reasons and perhaps most popularly as a herb for cooking. Thyme cream has proven to be an effective remedy for mosquitos. The plant’s Greenlandic name, tupaarnaaq, translates to “refreshing” or “stimulating”.
orpik | avaalaqiakulooq
Downy Birch is a deciduous tree in the birch family. In South Greenland, the trees can grow as tall as 10 metres; however, along the Arctic Circle Trail they are likely to be more shrubby. You can tell the difference between the male and female plants by their flowers, which sit closely together on the branches of the male plants, and further apart on the branches of the female plants. The Greenlandic name for Downy Birch translates to “the one with the big/long branches”.
Northern willow is a deciduous bush in the willow family. Most northern willow bushes are pioneer plants, which means that they are the first to colonise previously disrupted or damaged ecosystems. In Greenland, the branches of the northern willow were traditionally used as lamp sticks in blubber lamps, and today are still used for outdoor campfires. Their flexibility also means that they traditionally have been used to weave baskets and make bows and arrows as well as animal traps. The Greenlandic name orpigaq translates simply to “bush”.
Protecting the Trail
It’s hard to resist the solitude and serenity of the Arctic Circle Trail, and, inevitably, the number of people hiking the trail is increasing year by year. This is great, but it makes it more difficult and more costly to maintain the trail and to keep it pristine for everyone.
The most important thing you can do, on an individual level, to protect the trail, is to carry out what you carry in. This means that you need to keep all of your garbage and packaging with you throughout the hike and dispose of it properly when you reach Kangerlussuaq or Sisimiut. This includes empty gas canisters: while leaving behind canisters with gas still in them at the huts can definitely be a help for other hikers, dumping empty canisters is not only a waste of time for other hikers but, more importantly, litters the trail. It is also crucial that you do not pollute lakes or streams when going to the toilet and that all hikers carry out their toilet paper with them. The idea behind the Leave No Trace policy is that wilderness areas like Greenland’s backcountry can be enjoyed as untouched and unspoiled as possible by each and every hiker as the years go by.
Please don’t build your own cairns on the trail – those that are in place are important markers and some of them are ancient.
There have been instances of wildfires taking hold on the ACT and in the surrounding landscape. It is absolutely forbidden to light fires on the trail, and hikers should be very careful with stoves and cigarettes. Wildfires are incredibly difficult to control and can cause extensive damage.
In 2018, the Aasivissiut – Nipisat area was granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status, being recognised as a cultural landscape that has acted as an important hunting ground for settlers in the area throughout history. The site covers a huge area that stretches from the ice cap to the coast, and the Arctic Circle Trail passes through it.
If you have any comments on the condition of the trail or notice anything that should be made known, please get in touch with Destination Arctic Circle and let them know.
Gitte Lincke Ottosen
Greenland’s Small Miracles