The Land That Never Melts

By |2018-06-18T15:45:06+00:00June 18th, 2018|Uncategorized|Comments Off on The Land That Never Melts

The smooth blue ice of the Owl River stretches out in front of me as my dog Buck and I haul heavily laden sledges across the Arctic wilderness of Baffin Island. The frozen river is flanked by jagged peaks of the Baffin Mountains on either side and they guide us towards the Arctic Circle, a significant milestone on the 18-day, 125-mile solo trek I’m in the midst of. I’m in Akshayuk Pass, a mountain shrouded passage that offers a direct route across Baffin Island’s Cumberland Peninsula, and is the focal point of aptly named Auyuittuq National Park, (Auyuittuq means “the land that never melts” in Inuktitut). But travel through this legendary pass only makes up half of my route. Nine days prior I left the eastern Baffin Island community of Qikitarjuaq, a small Inuit hamlet of about 550 people which developed around a DEW Line site in the 1950s when nomadic Inuit began establishing permanent communities.

Owl River in Auyuittuq National Park, Baffin Island.

Now it’s late April 2018, but this far north the average temperature is only 5 degrees Fahrenheit (not counting the wind chill factor), and it’s unseasonably cold. The previous two days had seen sustained winds of more than 50 mph that left me pinned down in my tent and unable to travel. Now with the weather on my side, I’m finally able to leave the sea ice behind, which I’d walked on for 53 miles. The sea ice is where polar bears rove, and at this time of year mother bears are coming out of hibernation with their cubs and can be hungry and aggressive. Luckily, all I’d seen of these majestic animals is their tracks. Moving deeper into the pass, I’m happy to leave the Polar Bear danger behind. Now, the main danger I face is high winds. The pass acts as a wind tunnel and winds of 150 mph have been recorded here, which is more concerning to me than the bears.

Atop the mountains to the north lies the Penney Ice Cap, the most southerly remnant of the massive Laurentide Ice Sheet that covered all of North America east of the Rockies 18,000 years ago. Indeed, I have traveled to the last Ice Age, and ice is prevalent in all forms. Research had told me icy conditions would become more constant as I moved deeper into the pass where I’d meet up with the Weasel River. There the wind blows so hard that it leaves little snow on the river, often creating a smooth skating rink for more than 20 miles. The ice can make travel dangerous for the unprepared, or, alternatively, it can make it a breeze if you have the right gear. Before I left Qikatarjuaq, I put a pair of Kahtoola MICROspikes® on my boots, that way I figured I’d be prepared for whatever lay in my path. With the grip they provide on the ice I’m able to travel much faster, hauling my heavy sledges with ease as they glide over the friction-free hard water. I even hooked Buck’s sledge up to me for the really icy stretches when he couldn’t get good traction.

Top: Buck ready to go on a bluebird morning. Bottom: Approaching a snow-blown and imposing Mount Thor.

It’s day 14 and I’d just finished walking down a totally frozen waterfall of smooth ice that drops more than 50 feet (up here everything freezes solid). Unhooking the sledges from Buck and I, I let them slide down in front of me as I walked behind them, trying not to build too much speed. A couple miles later and we’re standing in the shadow of Mount Thor, which boasts the largest vertical face in the world. This was one of the main reasons I’d decided to come to Baffin Island, and it doesn’t disappoint, but sights of a similar magnitude lay all around me. Dark, jagged mountains dusted with snow and dissected by deep glacial moraines are everywhere. At this point I’ve been constantly in awe for days, and at times I feel almost like I’m in a surreal fantasy land. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.

Back on the sea ice 30 miles after crossing the Arctic Circle, I grind out the final few miles of my trip to arrive in the community of Pangnirtung early on Day 18. Buck and I haul our sledges through an old Hudson’s Bay Co. blubber station and continue right up to the hotel in town. I check-in while receiving congratulations from a few bystanders, but I take off my MICROspikes® now that I’ll be walking indoors more often—I’d had them on for 18 days straight. Now, walking around town on snow and ice, I feel really unstable. I’d started to take for granted how much extra traction they provide. I even slip while walking down a flight of stairs, bruising my butt considerably.

The route from Qikitarjuaq to Pangnirtung.