“Wednesday, August 28, It has rained for the past two days. Most of my clothes are damp, not from the drizzle but from sweat. The temperature is 5 degrees and all I can think is thank goodness for the -10C degree rated sleeping bag.”
This is summer in Auyuittuq National Park, located in eastern Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. Auyuittuq (EYE-yu-tuk) is an Inuit word for “land that never melts” a fitting description for the home of the Penny Ice Cap. A remnant of the last ice age, it is the largest non – polar ice cap in the world. The glaciers spawned by the ice cap sculpted the U shaped Pangnirtung Pass which is the main trail for backpackers in the park. Only 800 people visited the park in 1989 including “daytrippers” who take the Inuit freighter canoe for the 1 hour journey from Pangnirtung to Overlord at the edge of the park. Fewer than 100 people hiked the entire pass from Pangnirtung to Broughton Island that year.
My group consisted of 8 other hikers and 2 guides. We were the last people registered to go into the park for the season. 30 others were already in the Pass at that time including a group of 18 from Britain, a lone hiker and a couple on their honeymoon. I had met the last three while flying from Iqaluit to Pangnirtung the previous day.
I met up with the group late the first evening, having missed the equipment check and registration into the park. It was worth it. I had been spent that day at Kekerton Historic Park 25 miles south of Pangnirtung, the sight of the first whaling station in the Baffin area. The park wasn’t the big story. An apartment sized iceberg floated off the coast of Kekerton Island waiting for me to photograph it in all its glory. We circled this ice island 4 times which allowed me to study it thoroughly. The boat was dwarfed by a “ceramic” ice wall which gently lowered into a right-angled plateau. The turqoise water a few feet from our side was like nothing I had seen before. A few moments later the “Matterhorn” would captivate me. The size of this ice monolith revealed the raw power that was the undoing of the Titanic. But a few large cracks exposed the iceberg’s fragility that would eventually result in it melting into the surrounding ocean. Even our Inuit boat guide hadn’t seen one that big in a few years.
We had the first meal in the cabin the guides were staying in. Curried vegetables and rice brought back memories of Nepal from last year. I was then informed that this was indicative of the fare for the next 9 days.
The next morning I awoke to brilliant sunshine at 4:30 am! I thought I must be crazy getting up this early with 9 miles to hike that day. But the scenery was too inviting – I couldn’t sleep with the panorama I had outside my tent. I went out with the camera to record the moment.
At 8:30 am we were on the boat making our way up Pangnirtung Fiord to Overlord camp, where the hike would begin. Our departure time was dictated by the tides because travel at low tide would add another mile of walking. The boat ride was breathtaking, the water reflecting the pristine scene, doubling its beauty. The serenity was disturbed only by the wake of the boat. With no familiar references – trees – I lost all sense of scale of the surroundings. The height of the mountains was left to the imagination.
Loaded up with gear, wearing shorts and a T shirt, I began the first mile of the 42 mile trek. I would experience physical pain and mental inspiration but at the end would feel that I had accomplished something that few other people would. The clear weather was the perfect impetus needed to carry me through that first day. The relatively easy walk along the mudflat, a few streams and two moraines lead us to Windy Lake. We reached the Arctic Circle shortly after lunch and took the requisite “I was there” photo. Marked by a concreted Inukshuk, crossing the imaginary line did convey a small degree of satisfaction for this neophyte tundra backpacker.
Windy Lake is located at the first bend in the Pass and gave us the first views of Thor – the 4000ft vertical wall we were to hike beside the following day. We established camp next to the emergency shelter and “Honey Pot” (out house), near some other backpackers. The gravel and lichen ground cover provided a soft floor for our tent and ensured a good night’s sleep. It was in the shelter that we had our first experience reading the Auyuittuq Journal (my title). Filled with stories of other people’s adventures in the Pass it provided light reading and deflated my vision of myself as a truly adventurous person. My favourite entry dealt with the winds present in the Pass. Entitled Murphy’s Law of Baffin Island: No matter which way you are walking the wind will be blowing from the opposite direction. I hadn’t yet encountered this but could verify it by the end of the trip.
We huddled around the wind break provided by the shelter and ate our dinner. Washing the dishes in the nearby stream was a numbing experience and not very effective at getting the plates clean. Where are the hot springs when you need them! We retired for the night hoping to see the famed Northern Lights but the clouds rolled in and prevented us from observing any cosmic activity.
Summit Lake (our goal) was 12 miles away, and would prove too much for the next day. A constantly changing terrain with huge moraines blocking the trail slowed the pace down considerably. Thor was our companion for the day. Its constant size added to the frustrating impression of going nowhere fast. Thor was a daunting sight but its magnificence wouldn’t be revealed until the following day when its north side was also visible. We made camp near Odin still another 7 km to Summit Lake. This campsite also had an emergency shelter and bathroom facilities.
A few people went for a 5 minute stroll up the scree toward Oden peak. I obliged them by taking their photo beneath the massif, where they practically disappeared into the rocky background.
Our campsite was shrouded in fog the following morning. I knew the weather was too good to last and I wondered if I had really prepared for the trip. Time would tell. But by 9 am. the fog had burned off revealing scattered cloud and another perfect day. Finally Thor began to fade into the background as we approached Summit Lake – our target. The trail went from lichen to moraine to lichen – parts of it were less than a foot wide on the side of a small hill. At one point the trail disappeared into a crevasse 3 ft deep! Half an hour before we reached Summit I stopped to absorb the scene, Two sides of Thor were visible revealing its conical character, carved by the glaciers many centuries before. The streaming clouds emanating from behind Fork Beard Glacier made this a divine scene. This was truly God’s Country.
A small orange speck appeared beyond the entrance to Summit Lake. It was a emergency shelter and a welcome sight. I would be there in time for lunch since this was the shortest hiking day of the trip. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and reading “The Economist”. The Persian Gulf crisis was the main item, but up here it seemed so far away. There was oil bubbling up along the trail, maybe Saddam would like to take over Baffin Island? For all we knew war might have broken out and we were the only people who didn’t know,
“Killer Arctic Bunny, I just saw the bunny, grab your camera!”, hollered my tent mate. I figured the rabbit was history after that cry, but I lumbered over the moraine to see it. I was too late but someone else verified that yes the Killer Arctic Rabbit was indeed there. Amazing! Mammalian life does exist in Auyuittuq. Later on the hare returned 20 ft from our camp oblivious to these two-legged animals gawking at him. His fur was starting to go white but most of the body was grey with a few black lines (to match the lichen). As quickly as he came he disappeared, His camouflage permitted him to melt into the background moraine, and prevented me from photographing him.
The next two days were very relaxing. With the visibility at 100 feet and a constant drizzle, we were confined to camp and the immediate area. I had great respect for the park now as I could imagine the misery that would have befallen me if the entire trip was like this. I understood now why the park brochure wrote that the first thing most people say when they finish a trek, is that they are glad to be alive. Luckily the weather co-operated and the remaining days were sunny and uneventful.
We left Summit and headed back to Odin. Knowledge of the path made the return trip seem to go by much faster. The two days of drizzle had a positive impact on the surroundings – the mountains were covered in fresh snow, gleaming in the brilliant sunshine. The beauty of the Arctic had been revitalized and I was not sorry that we had to retrace our steps. The scene did remind me of the high Himalaya but we didn’t have to contend with altitude problems, or parasites.
The stone foundations we had set up to anchor our tents were still intact so establishing camp was simple. We still had not had a clear night, so there wasn’t any “Aurora watching” or stargazing. The next day we headed for a flat area two hours beyond Windy Lake. It wasn’t an official camping area but it allowed us to have a short final day. This campsite was devoid of rocks, so we had to import some from the nearby moraine. Half an hour later the park warden happened to be strolling by on his way to Windy Lake. He told us that we could stay the night but we had to return all the rocks to their original place. And he wasn’t joking. I guess he didn’t want other people getting the idea that they could use this as a campsite. The environment is very fragile and human disturbance must be kept to a minimum if the ecological balance is to be preserved. The worn down path in the middle of the field of arctic flowers was a testimonial to this fragility.
The last night was clear, finally. A few of us stayed up until 11pm but no Aurora was seen. All the familiar constellations were spotted but not in their regular locations. Another reminder of the latitude that I was at.
The final day, a sense of relief and reluctance were felt. Relief at the thought of taking a shower and enjoying all the other creature comforts that we take for granted. Reluctance, thinking that it would be a while before I would be back in this splendid environment to experience the spiritual effect on my soul. The Arctic flora were out in their inch high splendor, seemingly laid out as a red carpet for my exit from their domain. We boarded the boat and headed down the fiord back to Pangnirtung.
The adventure was over but I will always have the memories, the photos and the knowledge that I could return.