August 15, 1999

Kayak Nunavut 99
Published August 15, 1999
Dispatch 6

Overland travel was not an adventurous communal leap, but a laborious individual trek. From that age came our English word 'travel' - originally the same as 'travail', meaning labour, especially of a painful or oppressive nature - an accurate description of what it meant to go long distances overland.
Daniel J. Boorstin
The Discoverers

Was this my mid-life crisis? It was my 40th birthday and I was spending it with my husband pulling our 300 kg komatiq, kayaks and gear from the abandoned Scottish whaling station on Bylot Island to Button Point, the last leg in pulling this beastly burden. At midnight - still out on the ice, still pulling - Mike sang Happy Birthday and I cried like a baby. Tears dissolving into the annual sea ice. This was no party. I wanted a party.

We were only half way through an eleven-hour pull that included bridging and poling across open leads and fording water wallows. Then, finally, with our campsite before us on the shore, we were blocked by an unnerving confusion of open water, ridges of pressure ice, obstacles of broken and bobbing ice pans and the outflow of a rapid glacial creek.

We liberated our kayaks from the flat bed of the komatiq to which they had been strapped for a week and paddled around the pans to shore. While I shuttled gear up to our tent site, Mike paddled back to retrieve the komatiq. By time we got settled in our tent we had been awake for more than 24 hours, 15 of which were spent moving camp and 11 of those continual pulling. Along the way we had some thin lukewarm broth from our thermos, six pieces each of licorice and shared a granola bar. We were tired, we were hungry. We prepared some Alpine Aire Shrimp Alfredo, had some hot chocolate and went to bed. So raise a glass for me my friends for we have but a week's worth of sips left of our precious Jack.

These last days have been extremely difficult, arduous beyond what either of us imagined. Poor weather conditions and a late dispersion of the annual ice and our decision to make our way to Button Point under our own steam has made for a grueling start to the journey. We spent many long days and nights pulling the rig over the ice, as long as 14 hours at a go, and often awake for more than 24 hours. We were making the push on not much sleep, not much food.

We had estimated about six days of food required and, even with a generous contingency on top, we were down to a portion of dehydrated refried beans, a portion of pancakes, a portion of scrambling eggs, some tea, milk powder and half a dozen hard candies. Last night, after eating the pancakes, we hiked to our food cache beyond Cape Graham Moore, a round-trip distance of about 20 km, gaining a total of 1000 meters in altitude and taking 11 hours to complete. Once again, by time we returned to camp we had been awake for more than 24 hours - but oh how we feasted on the wonderful food packed for us by our friends at Trailhead back in Ottawa!

Before we had set out, Pond Inlet had had about three weeks of T-shirt weather. Then, a couple of days after our departure, there was a shift to the east with a low ceiling, rain, heavy fog, zero degree temperatures and strong winds which blew in our face every day with gusts up to 30-40 km/hr. The winds also kept the annual ice, now broken and rotting, firmly in the waters between Baffin and Bylot. While at first this was positive, allowing us to still make our way to Button Point, it has now effectively blocked clear passage around to Cape Graham Moore. The ice off the shoreline at Bernier Creek near Button Point where we now camp is an unfinished puzzle of disconnected pieces, neither a completed picture nor cleared from the table. They are close enough together that they are difficult to circumnavigate yet too small to dock at and haul the kayaks over. In all, the conditions have slowed us down in our bid to completely circumnavigate the island.

But these have also been rewarding days; we have been blessed by sights few people have seen. Beautiful, historic, wondrous vignettes substantiating Bylot's right to its imminent national park status. Before we began our journey we flew over the east and north shores of the island on a short reconnaissance.

We took off from Mittimatalik (Pond) in a Twin Otter and followed the inlet east to the floe edge. Below us the annual sea ice still held fast around the island although in places interrupted by a large lead or rot from which emanated little cracks spiking off in all directions. From our perspective, the ice had the pattern of skin, a frozen epidermis occasionally marred by a watery vein. Along the north coast, massive Greenlandic icebergs remained lodged in the ice pack suspended for the winter from their journey south. We crossed back over the top of the island, a broad sweep of glacier softening the rugged peaks with a white mantle untouched and unexplored since it was formed with the last ice age. From a distance, the island does suggest a Lawren Harris painting, broad strokes of oil lacking in finer detail. But at the micro level as we now see it by foot or by kayak, the richness of the island is astonishing.

We are latitudes above the tree line yet when we walk it is through dense, century-old forests. Dwarf willow, centimeters high, spread a thick carpet beneath our feet, their crimson catkins raised like Liberty's torch. The trunk, a vein running along the ground, is decades old yet only as thick as my finger. Arctic poppies, a delicate wonder in this Arctic desert, nod their heads - thin, butter-yellow petals of crepe paper - together in conversations of fours and fives. Bell heather, tiny white glocke ringing in carillons, sound the short season of light and warmth. The magenta of river beauty lines the shores of glacial creeks and trickles. Rock lichen, beautiful blemishes of black, chartreuse and yellow, show a slow growth on a hard surface, while pumpkin orange xanthoria elegance indicates the nourishing droppings at a falcon's perch. Sorel, green and beet-red leaves and dragon's blood catkins, has given us tart salads reminiscent of lemony watercress. We have grazed a fair bit on it and on the yellow flowers of wort. There are many other plants and flowers here, the tundra is rich in vegetation - tripes, mosses, buttercups, marsh marigolds and puffballs of cottongrass - that burst into colour with very little precipitation, heat and light.

Bumblebees too make haste in the sun, their bodies furry in adaptation to the cold. B. hyperboreus and Bombas Polaris moving with the determination their responsibilities bring: so many plants, so little season. Other insects that have equally adapted to this environment: the mundane midge, the helpful crane fly (we even saw these way out on the ice), the bothersome black fly and the very unpalatable warble and bot flies that burrow under the skin or migrate up the nasal passages of caribou driving them starkers. But the award-winner in adaptation is the woolly bear, a caterpillar whose life lasts a total of 14 years before pupating to a moth for one season only, time enough just for reproduction. It builds numerous cocoons to elude preying birds and its system contains ethylene glycol, the same chemical as car antifreeze. When the mercury drops below zero its little body remains unfrozen. Now that is a wondrous creation.

The investigation of nature is an infinite pasture ground, where all may graze, and where the more bite, the longer the grass grows, the sweeter the flavour, and the more it nourishes.
Thomas Huxley, 1871

We had not yet seen many mammals; the larger ones are either marine or marine-dependant such as ursus maritimus, the polar bear. We had spent these days on the fast ice and hiking on land. The whales, seals and bears were still a distance away at the open waters at the floe edge. But we did have a comical encounter with a bearded seal, an udjuk, as we lined the rig through the big lead. Curious about this new creature to its waters, the seal swam back and forth doing laps of the lead. Whiskered, corpulent, ungainly, he nonetheless side-stroked, first in front of us then behind, with the elegance of a synchronized swimmer.

On our hike to get our food from the cache we spent an hour watching a pair of sandhill cranes. These are rare visitors this far north, coming here to breed on the tundra. These two, if they weren't mating they were at least dating. And at the top of the saddleback we almost over-looked an arctic hare, well camouflaged against the rocks in his splotchy molt from winter white to summer brown. These are hardy souls: the leverets are born in an exposed nest, furred and ready to run. As an adult it can weigh more than five kilos and can hop on its hind legs to view the landscape then drop to all fours to run at incredible speeds straight up steep mountainsides. It was doubtful this one had ever seen a human. He waited unflinchingly as we got ever closer finally sitting just 2 meters from him.

Some of the finest sights in the Arctic are painted by the midnight sun. For a photographer such as Mike, it is reason enough to keep returning north. It was 2 a.m. when we crossed back over the ridge from the food cache. We had climbed up and out of the mist and now looked down on top of the thick carpet that completely obscured the valleys below and the mountains to the south. The sun emerged from its encirclement behind a mountain peak to our backs and the carpet and distant fog lit up. Then up in the sky the curtain was drawn back to reveal the twin icy peaks of a distant mountain, its white blanket shimmering. But because it was totally framed by mist, the peaks looked suspended, ungrounded. To our eyes, for one brief moment, God revealed the Janus-faced portals of heaven. And heaven was covered in glaciers.

By Pamela Coulston
Published August 15, 1999
The Ottawa Citizen
The Montreal Gazette
The Edmonton Journal
The Calgary Herald