Arctic Hike: No Path to Follow

Trekking through Auyuittuq National Park on Baffin Island takes visitors across the Arctic Circle and to the Penny Ice Cap, a Remnant of the Last Ice Age

AUYUITTUQ NATIONAL PARK, N.T. – Caribou Glacier flows imperceptibly down the cleavage between snow-covered peaks.

At one side is Mount Asgard, which tops out at 2,015 meters (6,611 feet) – and that’s no big deal, really, as far as elevation goes. What brings climbers with their nimble toes and fingertips from Europe, Asia and other parts of North America is the cylindrical shape of this flat-topped hunk of rock.

At the top of the glacier is the Penny Ice Cap, a massive chunk of ice up to 300 meters (1,000 feet) thick in places and covering 5,100 square kilometers – 10 times the area of Montreal.

In its glory days, about 18,000 years ago, it formed part of the Laurentian ice sheet which landscaped most of Canada east of the Rockies and crossed – unimpeded, you can be sure – into the northern United States.

And here we are in all our insignificance at the foot of Caribou Glacier taking part in a small drama. Six sleepy-eyed hikers stand beside a small orange emergency hut staring at a patch of ground. It is covered with instant coffee.

Spilled coffee

Somebody has fumbled a plastic container, spilling all our coffee – and we still have three more days of hiking in Akshayuk Pass in Auyuittuq National Park, which straddles the Arctic Circle on Baffin Island, 2,400 kilometers north of Montreal.

The Inuit word Auyuittuq means the land that never melts, in deference to the ice cap. As I looked at the spilled coffee powder I wonder whether the Inuit have a word for butterfingers. There would be no more morning coffee for the daily kick in the rear of our Gore-Tex pants.

Our hike began seven days earlier at the north end of the pass after a three-hour boat ride on mirror-smooth water from the Inuit community of Broughton Island, now Qikiqtarjuaq. Our first steps on the soft tundra were shaky and unsteady as we staggered under packs weighing about 30 kilograms.

Those steps had taken us back in time, back to the last ice age. So much moisture had accumulated in the ice sheets that oceans were lowered by up to 90 meters (300 feet), exposing a land bridge between Asia and North America.

It is believed the forebears of North America’s aboriginal people arrived on this continent via that land bridge and established themselves by hunting and fishing at the edge of the glaciers.

We lived for 10 days as they did – give or take a few freeze-dried dinners – at the edge of the Penny Ice Cap and its outlet glaciers, which reach like fingers between the mountains into the starkly beautiful Akshayuk Pass, seven kilometers long.

Highest mountains

We were Don Prokosh, a teacher and Dorval, Qc, resident, David Murphy, a Halifax oral surgeon, three teachers from Ottawa – Bob Johnston, Les Joliffe and David Burton – and I, also a resident of Montreal’s West Island.

Some of the mountains that hem the valley soar more than 2,100 meters (7,000 feet) into the northern sky and are the highest between Ellesmere Island, farther north, and the Carolinas in the U.S. But they are so new on the itineraries of mountaineers that many have been climbed for the first time only recently, in the past 30 years.

Our plan was to hike through the pass and leave the climbing to the experts. We’d have enough trouble following the Owl and Weasel rivers, clambering up and down the moraines – huge piles of rocks left behind as the glaciers retreated – and keeping warm

The temperature in summer ranges from freezing to about 10 degrees Celsius. The weather can be reasonably warm, when the sun is shining, or it can be cold and raining. A snowfall is no surprise.

These are prime conditions for hypothermia, when cold and exhaustion can cause body temperature to drop rapidly, leading to death. And it’s always windy in the pass. It usually blows north to south, so we had it at our backs most of the time.

We trudged for six days beside the Owl River and saw no one else. There was no path to follow as we squished through the spongy moss, strode easily across sand packed hard b and rumbled over fields of boulders.

Cold water

On several occasions we slipped off our boots and donned running shoes to wade awkwardly through streams of numbingly cold water flowing from the glaciers.

The terrain took its toll. By the end of the fourth day, four people were hobbling. Altogether we had four heel blisters, six toe blisters (three unbroken), three strained achilles tendons and a strained back. The pain and the constant physical exertion led to sporadic bouts of bitching.

Some of the lads got grouchy at the end of the third day because we didn’t stop for lunch, snacking only on peanuts and dried fruit.

Later, others moaned because some guys weren’t doing their share of washing pots or fetching water. One guy never said please and thank you and another snored so loudly that his tent mates had missed a couple of nights of sleep.

To keep a lid on our emotions, we decided to stop for a rest every half-hour and keep snacks easily accessible to maintain energy levels and alleviate cranky outbursts.

The plan worked – until the next morning, when we argued over which direction to take. Should we go up the hill toward a break in the mountains or would we put on our running shoes to cross the cold, rushing river?

Voices rose

The map seemed to indicate the latter, but instinct and the sight of blue sky beyond the hill had one guy leaning in that direction. Voices rose as the discussion heated up. “Burn the map,” said the guy who favored going up the hill. Finally, he climbed to get a better perspective and after looking around, agreed to cross the river. Above the roar of the river you could hear the faint gritting of teeth.

But our instances of irritability were really picayune and paled beside our good fortune at being in this part of the Arctic for a close-up look at the natural history of our continent. We were in good humor most of the time with Murphy, a stand-up comedian manqué, telling a joke just about every time we stopped for a breather. The glorious scenery and wonderful air also kept our spirits buoyed.

The next two days heading for Summit Lake and Caribou Glacier were the toughest. We grunted, puffed, skinned our shins and sweated as we pulled ourselves over and around boulders the size of trucks.

We moved slowly up and down the moraines encircling Glacier Lake until we made camp late in the day in a bay at the north end of adjacent Summit Lake.

The route around Summit Lake was made a little easier by inukshuks (traditional Inuit signposts made of rocks) that helped us find our way through the boulders.

Cable chair

We crossed the raging Weasel River on a cable chair, winching everyone over one at a time, and arrived at Summit Lake camp, where two couples were already ensconced. They were Doug and Claudia of Lethbridge, Alta., and Herb and Helme, of Brampton, Ont. They were the first people outside of our own crew that we’d seen in six days.

After a couple of days of rain mixed with a bit of snow, constant wind and overcast skies, Day 7 brought a welcome break in the weather, with brilliant sunshine.

Roped together like kids at a daycare centre, we leaped over small crevasses and streams as we climbed about 900 meters (2,700 feet) up Caribou Glacier to get a good view of Mount Asgard and a closer look at the Penny Ice Cap.

During our descent we stumbled over a family of ptarmigan. Thy didn’t seem to fly and you could see them only when they moved because of their excellent camouflage. They looked like little soldiers skittering around the rocks and moss.

The ptarmigan are one of the hardy species that have made themselves at home in the pass. We also saw plenty of lemmings and geese and at one point we were dive-bombed by a couple of feisty gulls when we passed too close to their nest.

Lemming fur

We also saw much evidence of one of the Arctic’s great predators, the snowy owl. We didn’t see the owls themselves, but we did see the remains of their dinners – balls of lemming fur and bone. A couple of hares, decked out in their brown summer coats, hopped among the rocks at Summit Lake camp.

We spent another night at the camp and then snuggled up to our packs for the last three days of hiking. Even without the coffee, the trekking was a piece of cake because the trails were well marked and well trodden.

Small wooden bridges with handrails took us across swift streams. At one point, we again crossed the Weasel River, this time on a suspension bridge anchored to huge wire cradles filled with rocks.

Our second-last night was spent opposite Mount Thor, 1,6750 meters (5,495 feet) high and first climbed in 1965. It has the longest sheer cliff face in the world – 1,250 meters (1,000 feet) high.

On our last day of hiking, we left Windy Lake and moved past Schwartzenbach Falls, which tumbles and splashes down more than 600 meters (2,000 feet) of rock to the Weasel River. This is the point where we crossed the Arctic Circle going from north to south.

Stop for pictures

A rock cairn with a carved wooden sign marks the spot on the trail and we stopped for pictures in heavy rain.

We descended from the hills as the valley broadened and marched along the flats, crossing stream after stream.

All seemed to be going smoothly on our last day of hiking until Johnston slipped on a rock and lost his balance. The weight of his pack propelled him forward and his face smashed into a rock.

There was a large gash on his left cheek and blood trickled from his nose. He stuffed tissue up his nostrils to stem the bleeding and broke a piece of ice off a nearby snowbank to press over the cut.

Moments later we were on the move again. The bleeding eventually stopped and we reached the emergency hut at Overlord, the southern entrance to the park.

Medical kit

Murphy broke out his medical kit when he arrived and went to work on Johnston.

Standing on the steps outside the hut, Murphy sewed the gash with seven stitches – with no anesthetic and little sympathy from the rest of us, who stood gawking at the operation.

Even more sobering was a brutal reminder of an ever-present danger. There’s a small brass plaque on the emergency hut that reads “In memoriam, Horst Werner Pfaus; Born Aug. 8, 1943, Biberach, W. Germany; Died in this shelter of hypothermia, Aug. 25, 1985. Erected by friends from Almonte, Ont., Canada.”

Even in summer, the climate can be unforgiving. Other conditions also change rapidly. When we started this trip 10 days earlier we had been in 24-hour daylight. By the time we arrived in Pangnirtung at 9:30 p.m. on Aug. 20, after another boat ride, it was pitch black outside.

We were due to leave for Iqaluit the next day, but stiff crosswinds prevented the regular flight from landing, so we lounged around for an extra day.

It was a reminder that in this land, you must always bow to the supreme forces of nature.

Good to Go

First Air will fly you from Montreal or Ottawa to Iqaluit, where you transfer to another flight to Qikiqtarjuaq. You can also fly to Pangnirtung, take a boat to Overlord, the southern entrance to the park, and hike to the foot of the Penny Ice Cap.

Auyuittuq National Park is at this link and contains a Visitor Information Package. Boat service can be arranged through the park office.

Wilderness trips to remote parts of Canada including Auyuittaq are offered by Black Feather

3 comments on “Arctic Hike: No Path to Follow
  1. Jamie says:

    Well done Dave and Bob! You are to be commended on this adventure. I can’t imagine what you would have done if you had had a more serious accident or illness. Wow.

  2. Ross McAdam says:

    David, Your “stuff” is always interesting and in this case truly amazing. I admire your spirit of adventure and the determination it requires! Your American cousin, Ross

  3. Martin says:

    Really enjoyed this, I’ve long had a fascination with Baffin Island, cheers!

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