Text by Tony Jenkins
When someone describes the “trip of a lifetime,” you usually wouldn’t imagine travelling to a remote and unknown area located in the Arctic Circle to ride snowmobiles. This trip started just like most adventures I usually find myself in: In conversation with a fellow snowmobiler with a deep passion for exploring new areas. His name was Christian from Nuuk, Greenland. The only difference was this conversation lasted for about a year, had code name (Disko Fever) and culminated this spring with 16 rad dudes, our snowmobiles, a massive desire to adventure into the unknown, and one ice breaking ship.
Our riding destination was the village of Qeqertarsuaq, one of Greenland’s oldest towns founded in 1773, on Disko Island on the western coast of Greenland. Once there, we would ride some of the remaining glaciers from the last ice age. I immediately jumped on board, but how do you even begin to plan a trip like this?
In order to make it happen, we needed four licensed captains with many decades of experience sailing the North Atlantic and the Davis Straight. Our melting pot of riders included me (the only American), KJ Johansson of Sweden, one Icelander, one from Denmark, and the rest were native Greenlanders from Nuuk and the village of Maniitsoq. Every one of us knew the only way a trip like this could work is with a great group of individuals working together. And with that, the 16 of us were eager for the adventure and memories we knew would last a lifetime.
I’m a land shark from Idaho with zero experience with the open waters. In North America we use trailers or trucks with sled decks. In Greenland they don’t have many paved roads so their version of a 30-foot gooseneck trailer is more like a 50- to 100-foot vessel that can allow them to access riding areas. I left most of the planning to the locals. I just had to figure out how to get to Greenland and help prepare the ship with all our gear and food.
As my departure date grew closer, the nerves started to sneak in. One week before the trip my good friend Freyr from Iceland called me asking, “What the hell have we signed up for?”
After a good laugh I said, “Good question!”
All I knew is I wanted to ride where no one has ever been on snowmobiles. With the date finally here, I packed all my gear and headed to Greenland where we were greeted appropriately with a blizzard upon landing in Nukk. The rest of our crew met us with excited smiles.
After getting our gear we got to know each other a little better over a couple beverages. We had been talking online but never met in person. Later that night we were introduced to our home on water for the next 10 days – an old Dutch military ice breaking ship named “Tulu.” It was built in 1978 and powered by a 2-stroke diesel engine with a max rev limit of 350 RPM pushing 800 horses. All that really mattered was that “Tulu” was a structurally sound 100-foot ship that was designed to sail in the Arctic waters facing fierce storms and lots of ice.
We managed to navigate the dark, snow-covered docks to board “Tulu” with our riding gear. Each of us picked our own cabin situated below the water line of the vessel. In the morning, we’d load the rest of our supplies and sleds for the ultimate adventure.
Once daylight broke, it was time to load the ship with our supplies and 14 snowmobiles from across town. We went to the snowmobile clubhouse which consisted of a bunch of shipping containers built together so the club members could all have a private stall for their snowmobiles. I thought this was pretty cool, the whole sledding community got together and built this clubhouse allowing everyone to have a heated area to dry off sleds and to work on them. It looked like a fun place to escape to for the weekend nights with the boys.
After locating the snowmobiles, we found a little flatbed truck and started transferring sleds, fuel, parts and gear to the loading zone at the dock. After we loaded the sleds it was time to do some grocery shopping. After taking the day and getting the ship loaded it was time to hit the air horn and wave to everyone’s families as we set out of the harbor for the adventure.
Days at Sea
After 10 hours of sailing through some rough seas I quickly realized around 2:30 A.M. I needed to find my sea legs. I stumbled to the wheelhouse to remember which way was up and take in the view as we set sail into the dark sea heading north. After collecting my sea legs, I decided I wanted to stay up so I could see the sunrise coming up at which I didn’t want to miss.
After a nice morning of sailing the channels along the west coast I quickly realized how much I appreciated being at sea. After another 10 hours at sea we came another village named Sisimiut, which in my opinion, is the sled capitol of Greenland. Once we were docked, we were greeted by many people from the town. We happened to be here for an hour, so this was our chance to get off the boat and check things out. Once I stepped off the ship, I quickly realized my sea legs were better left on the boat!
After a quick tour of town and visiting the local Ski-Doo dealer, we took off for Disko Island. As “Tulu” started to sail the sea ice was also starting to move in from the north.
(Note: As we were planning this trip everyone was monitoring the ice maps and were very nervous because the sea ice is always moving and shifting between the tides and wind.)
Sailing from Sisimiut to Disko Island was probably going to be the most difficult area for “Tulu” to handle and would be our turning point of the trip if conditions were deemed unsafe. As we chugged north while listening to the ice scraping the sides of the boat like a tuna can the guys were up in the wheel house debating if they wanted to hit the ice or not. It was determined by be captain that we were headed north and there was no turning back.
At this point we had dinner on the table and were raising our glasses to each other that we were headed north. After dinner I had to go up and see what all this racket was, as I approached the wheel house I couldn’t believe the ice that we were sailing though. At this moment I was seriously questioning what I was doing. For someone who has never spent much time at sea, I was pretty nervous. After calming my nerves with a beverage, I headed for bed using ear plugs to silence the noise of the ice scrapping beside my bed.
Once we were late into the night, the ice decided to shift making it difficult to sail. Even with 800 horses “Tulu” was only doing one knot, not its usual 10 knots. As for the captain, he too was nervous because the ice was starting to control the ship not allowing him to navigate. All I could do was lie in bed listening to the propeller chew up chunks of ice as we kept the power on, ramming the ice.
Finally, a Snowmobile Ride
After 18 hours (Day 3) of being in the ice we hit cold Arctic water again and started to gain some speed. We were getting closer to Disko Island. Once you start approaching Disko you start to see icebergs ranging from the size of trucks to the size of islands that stood 300 feet tall. As we approached a small village, we were all excited to be getting off the boat and right onto our sleds for our first ride!
Once we got to the harbor there wasn't a place to park “Tulu”, so the captain backed the ship up and decided he was just going to park right into the solid frozen ice. As we rammed the ice you could watch the ship climb out of the water and onto the ice, then the ship would break through the ice and that’s where it stayed allowing us to unload all the snowmobiles and get ready for our first ride.
With blue skies and wind speeds near hurricane force I quickly realized all the new snow that had fallen the days previously was now blown away and made for high avalanche risk. With quick discussion we knew to make cautious decisions and started heading into the mountains. When planning this trip, I knew I wasn’t headed halfway around the world to ride the world’s best snow. I knew it was probably going to be terrible snow but, after all, we were on an expedition with mountain sleds so take what you can get.
For our first day of riding we did some exploring and went to some mountain tops to see the lay of the land. This is where we ran into some of the locals who were all very welcoming. Most of these areas all used utility sleds but, some had a few mountain sleds. The most common way of transportation or winter recreation is dog sledding. The natives are very prideful of their dog sledding and of their dogs.
Day 4 came, and we took the morning to ourselves and got a later start in the afternoon. We wanted to go ride further into Disko Island. We found the best snow was located on the glaciers, so we used the glaciers to navigate and cover more terrain quickly while not worrying about all the rocks that were exposed. Avalanche danger was still high, so we made cautious decisions when it came to navigating valleys and mountains.
Back at the ship, we loaded up to push further up the bay. We tied everything down and sailed further east. As we were pushing further through Disko Bay and navigating thousands of icebergs, the captain could see a light and couldn't believe his eyes when he saw the village we were destined for. In all his years of sailing he had never seen this area not frozen over. From there it was smooth sailing and we arrived after eight hours.
Riding the Arctic Circle
The next morning as the ship was anchored, we used a crane to hoist the sleds onto the small boat and started ferrying sleds back and forth to land. Everyone was hoping we would make it to Saqqaq to ride some very big mountain ranges. Once you get this far north into the Arctic circle (70 degrees north) the air becomes very dry as if you're in a high mountain desert, almost like dry Colorado snow. After a day of surveying the terrain we came back to the ship and got the maps out to see if we could make it through the mountain ranges and onto a massive glacier.
We woke up the next day to perfect conditions. This day was my most memorable ride of the trip with unbelievable views. It was still nerve racking because you couldn't trust the snow. It was sugar or ice, it wasn’t snow that you dare drop a ski in and give it full throttle. It was more like riding using brail, feeling everything you hit with the skis.
After navigating through some steep mountain passes and getting onto a glacier we made it to an area we could cover some serious ground. At this point it was full on enduro snowmobiling getting around boulders, frozen rivers and chunks of ice. We made it to the top of the glacier and kept riding until we could see the landmark of Uummannaq.
The views were unbelievable, not a cloud in the sky and you could see the Greenland Ice cap rising into the horizon. It’s a pretty humbling experience to be riding areas that are still part of the last Ice Age and to see terrain that is newly exposed to the environment. Having the use of mountain sleds, in my opinion, is the only way to explore areas like this. You needed the longer track to climb into valleys and mountains, but once we hit the flatter areas you could easily rely on the machine to get you through frozen areas with very minimal snowpack.
After we made our destination we turned and headed for the ship. It was the end of the day and we were all on empty. It’s easy to drain a tank of fuel when the terrain is so vast. You lose track of time and sense of how far you have traveled. Luckily, we all had extra fuel caddies to get us back. Total trip for this day was 180 km! After we loaded the sleds and took a tour of the village it was time for some celebrations with the crew and the start of our long journey home, but not without one more stop to ride!
Heading for Home
I awoke on Day 8 of our expedition to the ship smashing into ice. The captain was trying to park the ship into the ice so we could unload the snowmobiles. This area had some of the biggest mountain ranges and views that would go for hundreds of miles. After unloading and fueling of the machines we hit the hard-packed snow and headed for the mountains that rose from the sea.
Like most areas, we had to find a way to get onto the glacier and once we made it onto of the glacier we could started covering some serious terrain. You never really get comfortable riding on a glacier. Crevasses were an issue and you could see them everywhere. You knew in your mind that you had to be vigilant and aware of where you were at all times. At one point I was following one of the guys and suddenly I found a three-foot gap that had opened up. I instantly hit the throttle and lifted the skis over the gap and continued. I didn’t dare look back because I didn't want to find out how far down that hole went. The fruits of our slow, cautious ride were incredible views that I’ll never forget, and stories that I’ll retell for a lifetime. As we were exploring and climbing ice packed mountain tops, it was time to head back to the ship and start our final leg home.
For me, this trip is the most memorable snowmobile trip I have ever taken. It wasn’t just the riding, it was getting the chance to meet so many incredibly nice people and to use a ship to access many unique riding areas. Who does that?!
You couldn’t ask for a better group of guys. What made us all connect was our passion for riding and being able to push each other to keep exploring. Riding in Greenland gave me much more appreciation to what exploring, and freedom really is. The riding was very technical, in most places you were exposed to very high-risk areas that gave zero room for mistakes. They don’t necessarily have avalanche forecasting or the education that some of us might have here in the United States or in Canada, so we had to be very cautious with the changing snowpacks.
Having “Tulu” really gave us unlimited areas to ride. We could have easily spent a month riding each day in different locations and only cover a sliver of Greenland. We rode a total of six days and spent nearly 90 hours sailing in the icy waters of Greenland. What amazed me the most about Greenland was how vast of an area it really is. But still being able to see so many people living in small villages all long the ocean side and using the sea and land to survive. Most of the small towns didn’t even have electricity, the only way they had power was with a generator the whole community used. They don't have the accommodations like most of us have with restaurants and grocery stores. They completely live off sea life and what animals they can harvest. Snowmobiles and boats are truly a way of life in Greenland.
Once we made it back to Nuuk it was time for celebrations and a nice meal. It was our last night in Nuuk, or so we thought. A hurricane cancelled our flight out of Greenland, but I really didn’t mind one extra day of the best snowmobile trip I had ever taken.