Experience: I escaped an Arctic wildfire

나는엔 2014, my partner, Kia, and I left our jobs and went on a round-the‑world trip. I then carved out a career in travel writing and photography. 그만큼 Arctic Circle trail had been on my bucket list for 10 연령. I’d done high-altitude treks in Nepal and Pakistan, and relaxed day-hiking in Yorkshire, where I live. I love the outdoors and escaping into a simple routine of food, water and sleep.

In July 2019, I had two weeks to spare, so I booked the trip. I travelled 2,000 miles to west Greenland to see the 100 glacial lakes, tundra greenery and wilderness with moraine left behind by glaciers. Greenlanders spend weeks out there fishing and hunting, but this trek takes about 10 일. The 100-mile trail is one of the longest signposted and least trekked trails Greenland. You’re guided by red circles painted on stones and on the eight huts dotted across the trail.

Greenland is 80% ice sheet, but the trail is in the ice-free 20% in the summer, when there’s 24-hour daylight.

It was swelteringly hot, with brilliant sunshine, so I was drenched in factor 50 sunscreen. Sometimes it was cloudy with a kind of twilight about 7pm, when the sun is closest to setting but doesn’t.

There are no trees, which I found quite strange – mostly low bushes and brush, and domed mountains, like the Scottish Highlands but higher. The trail weaves through rocky valleys and small rivers. I’d never encountered such pure wilderness.

I’d prepared carefully. I was carrying all my food, maps, medical kit, satellite phone and equipment. 알아요, because of my travelling, I’m part of the problem when it comes to the climate crisis, so I try to leave no waste behind, follow a plant-based diet and carbon offset when I can. I stayed in locally run campsites, free huts and hostels. I even packed my thickest waterproofs. Wildfire never even crossed my mind: it wasn’t California, 아무튼.

By the seventh day of the trek, I was ahead of schedule and in a lush, green area between two huge, still lakes that reflected the mountains, cloudless blue sky and bright red huts. I stopped often, taking photos. I was heading for the next overnight hut and thinking about sleeping in a nice hotel at the end of the trail. It was so hot that I had my scarf tied bandana-style under my cap to keep the sweat from my eyes.

At about 3pm, I spotted wispy smoke ahead. Then I met two American hikers coming from that direction. They said a tiny peat fire had broken out. Completely unconcerned by what looked like the remnants of a small fire a couple of miles away, I carried on. The smoke got a bit thicker, but I didn’t think I’d need to deviate.

Then I bumped into a young hiker, going the same way, who was nervous as he couldn’t see the next hut through the now-thick white smoke. We put down our sleeping bags to wait it out but within minutes the smoke had engulfed us. Sweating and exhausted, we climbed a ridge, finding a plateau with a lake. Below, the valley we had just been in was blanketed in silvery-grey smoke. I’d never seen anything like it. We pulled our scarves over our mouths to stop the taste of a bonfire in our throats. It was early evening but it wasn’t going to get dark. We walked across the plateau for an hour and a half, took water from the lake, and saw that the next valley was also impassable.

We were in trouble. We tried to pitch our tents but within 15 minutes we were coughing uncontrollably, and thought we might not wake up again if we stayed. We both had GPS locator phones, so we hit the red button to send our location to the emergency services. It was a blow to my pride to ask for my first-ever evacuation. We quickly got pinged that a Joint Arctic Command helicopter would be with us within the hour – a helicopter ride had also been on my adventuring bucket list, but not like this. We picked up two more stranded hikers on the way back.

Rather than being put off by the experience, 그러나, the next day I went back out there and started another solo trek on a glacier.

I later learned that the dry Arctic was perfect for zombie peat fires, in which a fire burns underground, smouldering for months under the ice. There’s no real rain during the summer, only some snow, and I had gone there in one of the driest summers on record. There’s no denying the environment in Greenland is changing. This is currently the only ice-free trail throughout the summer, but in a decade there may be more trails with less ice, and more severe and frequent fires that burn for longer.

As told to Anna Derrig

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