Kayak Nunavut ’99, Part 8

Button Point, Bylot Island, tent, rough seas, Nunavut.

Kayak Nunavut 99
Published August 29, 1999
Dispatch 8

We were trapped. We had spent almost a week at Niaqunnguut 'the land shaped like a human head' (Cape Graham Moore). Undispersed ice on both sides of the promontory where we camped (a finger of land 40 metres wide and pointing 150 unprotected metres out into the water) precluded movement both forward and backward. Changing tides would draw the ice out a bit then jam it back into the bights and bays of eastern Bylot and north Baffin and the inlet between them. Twice daily the icy meringues frosting over the blue of Baffin Bay would parade back and forth. But consistent east winds prevented it from scattering any further out to sea and allowing us passage with our kayaks. We were frustrated yet comfortable, disappointed yet content. Prior to starting the expedition we knew we were at nature's mercy and since we began we had been up against weather that had, for the most part, not worked in our favour. At the same time, an incredible stage of sights was set before us and we had box seats.

Offshore from our camp, no longer gridlocked in the ice pack, Greenlandic icebergs made their way south. These massive bergs are spit into the ocean at calving grounds such as Illulisat, the most prolific glacier in the Arctic. It moves 20 metres per day in the summer and gives birth to as many as 1300 bergs annually. Because 7/8ths of a berg's infrastructure is hidden below the water surface they are current driven not wind driven like the pans of annual ice. When the winds are calm, as they sometimes were at Cape Graham Moore, the bergs ploughed through the icy litter on the southbound current.

Icebergs experience bumper crop years such as 1984 and 1912, the year a berg, below the Grand Banks and south of the 42nd parallel hit the Titanic; closer at the time to the equator than to the North Pole. That berg would have left Greenland on the Gulf Stream, headed north and done a U-turn deep in Smith Sound then south past Baffin Island and the Labrador coast. Even after thousands of kilometres of travel, she was still an estimated ten times larger than the Titanic when she gashed the ship's hull.

The bergs that passed us at Niaqunnguut, pinnacled, tabular, crowned, sculpted and all on the same migratory flight path, will probably dissolve into death somewhere along the Labrador coast. Until then, they gave height to the horizon before our camp. If within reach and safely grounded in the shallows, we would have chipped off a chunk: there is no better ice for single malt, no better water for tea. Frozen in pre-pollution purity. As the ice melts, tiny bubbles of air effervesce in liberation from thousands of years of compression. Because of their density, the bergs reflect a stunning blue: cerulean, peacock, baby blue - what does one call this blue? - laundry softener blue? Out on Baffin Bay icebergs soften the horizon.

One morning while fetching water from a melt pool, I was visited by a beautiful, yet forlorn, red-throated loon. (He even made a beeline for Mike when Mike mimicked him). His call for friendship was an unbecoming bleat, like a calf for milk. It was far from the soulful cry of the common cottage loon with its sadness and tragedy like Russian opera. But he was as handsomely dressed as an aristocrat at a royal wedding: soft morning-coat grey covering his head, black stripes running down the back of his neck and a red ascoted throat. He had a contortionist's ability to kick a webbed foot through his tail feathers and wave it above his back. I was unsure whether this was a scratch or an effort to get blood flowing into cold toes paddling in zero degree water. What may have been his mate was raising two chicks in a pond a few kilometres from our camp. We watched her one night zig-zagging back and forth. Until she began to slow down in trust, her chicks tried valiantly to keep up with her but sometimes got left behind on a 'zig' when she turned back on a 'zag'.

Driven by Proteus, Neptune's herdsman, seals too made their way past our camp. Pods of harp seals corralled polar cod. Their concerted efforts were fascinating to watch, with heads above water they surged forward in a line neck-and-neck like Olympic swimmers, then attacked the tightened schools. Individual ringed seals, periscoped to observe us, looking like neoprene-clad divers. They in particular are hunted by local Inuit and are a favourite food of polar bears, such as the one that made its way into our camp late one night.

A north wind had been blowing fairly strong and consistently throughout the day. We had managed to photograph and draw in the lee of the mountain behind the promontory but during dinner late that night it began to pick up. After eating Mike went to check the sky. He just got outside when we were blasted by a sudden increase in the wind. He yelled to me to immediately pack the gear inside the tent as he quickly gathered and covered gear in the 'yard' with our Chlorophylle tarp and heavy rocks. I pitched hard and sharp objects into stuff sacs then tossed those out the front and back vestibules; soft gear was left inside. The tent was collapsing around me, we were at risk of snapping poles and puncturing the precious fabric. Still in bare feet I scrambled out of the tent. My body weight had held it down while I was in it, now, with Mike rushing to remove poles, I sat with my back to the wind and braced myself to hold on to the tent. It was bucking like a horse. Loosing it and our sleeping bags in below zero temperatures would have been serious. Together we rolled it into a bundle and raced across the thin footpath tenuously connecting the promontory to the main coastline and up over a hundred-metre knoll to its south side. The winds across the promontory were now driving at speeds up to 100 km and skirting the knoll to hit us from both sides and over the top. I lay with my full weight on the bundle to hold it down while Mike raced back to the site to further rock down gear and retrieve some necessary items.

When he returned, the winds were still too strong to erect the tent so we crawled into our bivvy sacks and sleeping bags and tried to sleep in the partial protection of the knoll. For a few minutes, peeking out from under the hoods of our bivvy sacks, we watched a rainbow come to colour over the bay, hoping it would mean an end to the gale. Then it began to rain. We had no choice but to put up the tent — but where to set it? Not only were we still being hard hit by north winds, now we were concurrently being blasted by westerlies channelling through a valley just south of where we lay. We were at the confluence of two extremely powerful winds. Below us, the ocean was being whipped into a frenzy with waterspouts shooting 20 metres into the air. There were no good locations and the best of the bad ones was at the edge of a cliff that dropped to a churning cauldron of water below. We set the tent within a few feet of the edge, me desperately holding the fabric while Mike threaded the poles through the sleeves. I got inside with what gear we had brought but even with the weight the floor was raising up around me as the roof was collapsing from above. Again Mike raced back over the knoll to add more tether to the kayaks and gather essentials. But the bear had got there first.

We suspect that the bear must have seen or smelled Mike and ran off before Mike got to the gear. Mike didn't see him and the marauder had only begun to dislodge the small boulders rocking down the equipment and rip into our gear. Thankfully, the overall toll from the night was quite low. The bear had torn the Chlorophylle tarp and a Trailhead bag but had only begun to ransack the gear within. Had he had the time to continue it could have been disastrous; between what he could have eaten and what would have been uncovered in the process and blown into Baffin Bay we would have been in a serious situation. There was one notable loss from the gale, which although not essential to survival, had been precious for our morale: the white village pennant given to us from friends in Wakefield. It had flown every day from the front vestibule. As I had held on to our tent bundle behind the knoll I looked for it out on the turbulent waters. But white caps and berg flotsam were being tossed about and they all looked like our little flag: thousands of pennants sailing away into the north Atlantic.

Our time at the cape had been rewarding. But it had now become apparent that we would not complete the circumnavigation of Bylot Island in this counter-clockwise fashion. Not enough time remained to meet the participants of the cross-cultural component of the expedition as planned. We were to have met them in Tay Bay on the northwest shore of the island; we were still icebound on the southeast tip. After much discussion we could only conclude that we had to make our way back to Pond Inlet. Doing so would not be easy. Returning would be our next challenge.

By Pamela Coulston
Published August 29, 1999
The Ottawa Citizen
The Montreal Gazette
The Edmonton Journal
The Calgary Herald

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