August 1, 1999

Kayak Nunavut 99
Published August 1, 1999
Dispatch 4

Ignus aurum probat, miseria fortes viros
Fire tests gold; adversity tests strong men
Seneca De Providentia

The Norwegian Otto Sverdrup said he could think of no greater hell than to be born a sled dog. Now here I am, in no greater hell, my life as a sled dog continues. For five days, Mike and I have pulled our komatiq (sled) mounted with our kayaks and gear (a total weight of about 300 kgs) along the northern coast of Baffin Island in order to make a safe crossing to our destination Bylot Island. It has been long and exhausting. It is not over yet.

After leaving our campsite at the graves of the two sailors near Mt. Herodier, we headed into Albert Harbour, a narrow passage of water separating tiny Beloil Island from Baffin. Captain Joseph Bernier and his crew over-wintered here in 1906/07 during his sovereignty patrol, claiming arctic lands for Canada. At the western mouth of the harbour we were forced to paddle our scow across a 15-metre lead, open crack of water. With the kayaks on top of the sled the effect was one of an upside-down catamaran, a vessel concocted by a dyslexic boat builder.

We made a mere four kilometres that day, camping on the ice at the shore of Beloil. The four metre tides were up creating a moat around the island, which together with the jumbled pack ice stacked at the shore, made it difficult to get to land. As we planned only to sleep a few hours we crawled into our bivvy sacks-no tent-on top of the komatiq, the kayaks beside us as a slight windbreak.

The next day we pulled for about 10 kms against steady headwinds of 40-50 km/hr. Our ice camp that night was a welcomed relief. 'Night' suggests a dramatic change of light to darkness, which is not seen here under the 24-hour summer sun. It is the sweetest time of the day and like those that live here we are often having diner and travelling in the wee hours and sleeping through the late morning until noon. We have begun to sleep, as is said, 'upside down'. Under clear skies the midnight sun softens the snowcaps of the glaciers, the sea ice and the icebergs to lavender and baby pink. Deposits in the rock faces of the mountains reflect ochre, sienna and bronze. The low-lying carpet of vegetation - only centimeters high - shimmers with the greens of dwarf willow and heather, the crimson of sorel, the magenta of river beauty and the yellow of poppies, marigold, lousewort and buttercups.

A.Y. Jackson came north to the eastern Arctic to paint this beauty in 1927. He took passage on board the government supply ship Beothic which brought provisions to scattered and nascent communities, created by the government, and no doubt to flex some Canadian sovereignty muscle. He wrote in his memoirs

"We attempted to reach Pond Inlet and found the sea there still frozen over. There were fifteen miles of ice between us and the post. We stopped a few hours at the edge, hoping someone would come over the ice; then, as no one came, we turned north following the coast of Bylot Island, which to me seemed the loveliest island in the Arctic. It was crowned with sharp peaks, all snow-covered; between them ran the curved line of slow-moving glaciers; at the base lay a stretch of flat country where the snow was disappearing."

But it was Lawren Harris, who A.Y. convinced to accompany him on a return trip in 1930 that immortalized the Canadian Arctic, and in particular Bylot, through his art. As they entered Lancaster Sound they got hit by a terrific storm, which washed one of the pigs into the sea (ham overboard). But they made it to Pond, which at that time consisted of an Anglican and a Catholic church, a Hudson's Bay Company outpost, an RCMP station, all for a handful of southerners and about 30 Inuit. He fell in love with Bylot, of which he painted massive oils. "For and artist in search of bold and simple motives, a place like Bylot Island should be a happy hunting ground", he wrote. Looking at Bylot as we moved along, I thought that Harris was more of a realist painter than one would readily think viewing his art in the south. From across the water it is an island of dark vertical lines of gneiss with a shimmering ice mantle. The clouds above are thick brush strokes of white oils. Icebergs, now trapped in the annual ice and glimmering in the sun reign over the horizon, demanding your eye as do the pyramids against the horizontal lines of the surrounding Egyptian desert. Bold and simple motives, bold and simple lines.

We had much time to consider the art of Bylot in our next day of pulling. We logged 14 solid hours of hauling the load. At one point, just as we came to open water where the outflow of a glacial stream had broken the ice, we saw three snowmobiles and komatiqs making their way back to Pond. It was a false hope that they might ease our crossing with a tow to Bylot. A few kilometers away they crossed to the other side of the inlet and followed the Bylot shore back to the hamlet. We were left to paddle our rig through the open water and continue pulling it through the surface melt pools, bridge across open leads and over moguls and pressure ridges of ice. We barely made it to our chosen destination, an iceberg off in the distance, frozen in the ice that would offer protection from winds again building from the east.

Although the following day was relatively easy at just five hours of pulling, in some ways it was more difficult. The weather was overcast, the winds again in our faces at 40 km/hr and we faced the disappointment of spending another night on this shore. Knowing that we would certainly get frigid seawater into our rubber boots again, we pulled cold, wet socks onto our feet and began to walk.

We were also disappointed in our attempts to transmit material via our satellite phone. We are carrying wonderful technology, some of the latest, including a 1 kg Toshiba notebook computer (Libretto 110CT) and the Mitsubishi Omni Quest satellite phone supplied by Telesat Canada. Even at this latitude (73 degrees north) we can get an excellent bead on Telesat's satellite that hovers geo-stationary above the equator at approximately the longitude of Saskatchewan. From here, our transmission goes 40,000 kms up to the satellite and back down to Telesat's dish in Ottawa and then out along conventional phone lines. At this latitude, we have to angle our built-in antenna very low on the horizon, an elevation of about 6 %, basically the minimum. But here, running along this shore of north Baffin we are locked in a communications shadow under 1000 meter cliffs. Our beam is bouncing off the rock face. From Pond Inlet and from the floe edge where Mike tested it a few weeks ago, the voice transmission back home was clearer than a local cell phone call. We have climbed a number of mountains to get height and walked out a ways on to the ice towards the center of the inlet but could not get high enough or far enough to project through a pass without losing very valuable time.

We are now at Sidlerosik, an ancient campsite protected from the winds on three sides by rock walls. It is our first campsite on land. For centuries, the Tununirmiut (the people of the land 'that faces away from the sun') have used this site from which to hunt. Two seal carcasses and a cache of gas and two-stroke oil on shore indicate they still do. These though must have been old seals, 'tagaks', because only the organs and coats were taken, the meat too tough to be palatable. Above us, in the cliffs are lookouts that have been used to scan for seal, narwhal, bowhead and polar bear. A path leads up to them, worn down by a succession of sealskin kamiiks and rubber boots. A rock offshore of the camp creates a weakness in the ice, opening it early and allowing a breathing spot for narwhal and seals as they make their way into the inlet. The shore is lush in vegetation from the rich nutrients of the camp middens (compost heaps) fertilizing the soil.

It is relatively quiet here but on two separate occasions last night both Mike and I heard what sounded like laughter and voices. I first heard it when we arrived. Mike had walked around a rock wall up the shore to look at ice conditions. I was examining the partial skull of a baby narwhal, its little tooth tusk broken but still visible, its blowhole intact. It was the colour of Payne's gray and covered with black lichen, sure signs of being a century old. I was startled from my thoughts of the skull by loud talking, laughter and children's voices. I thought Mike had met a family around the bend and was bringing them back. It wasn't the wind, I was out of that, but when he came back a few minutes later, he came back alone. I didn't say anything to him. Later, when he went out to get water he returned to the tent saying he thought at first I was singing but then heard voices and laughter.

The sky has now cleared to sun. It is 1 a.m. and we are packing up to make our push across the inlet to Bylot. We are finally leaving Baffin and leaving behind us as well the laughter and bones that remain to age in the middens of old campsites.

By Pamela Coulston
Published August 1, 1999
The Ottawa Citizen
The Montreal Gazette
The Edmonton Journal
The Calgary Herald

"We are on the fringe of the great North and its living whiteness, …its cleansing rhythms. It seems at the top of the continent is a source of spiritual flow that will ever shed clarity into the growing race of America, and we Canadians being closest to this source seem destined to produce an art somewhat different from our southern fellows - an art more spacious, of a greater living quiet, perhaps of a more certain conviction of eternal values. We were not placed between the Southern teeming of men and the ample replenishing north for nothing."
Lauren Harris c.1930s