August 22, 1999

Kayak Nunavut 99
Published August 22, 1999
Dispatch 7

dis aliter visum
man proposes, God disposes

You do what you can. You plan, you prepare, you research, you do your math. In the end, in the Arctic, nature will decide where you go and when you go.

We finally made our move from Bernier Creek on Bylot Island (Akiat) one evening at about 9 o'clock. We had been land-bound because of the broken and rotting ice pack that was crammed from there to Baffin. Behind our campsite there was beautiful tundra and mountainsides to explore so for many days we were content to stay where we were. But when the receding tide opened ally ways between the ice pans we packed the kayaks and headed out. We didn't get far. Part way to Button Point the wind and tide shifted closing the pack in around us, forcing us to pull our kayaks up on to a 10 by 10 metre pan. It was clear we were going nowhere. We pitched our tent on the pan and, still in our drysuits, crawled inside to wait for the next tidal change.

The crew of the Polaris knew what it was like to wait it out on a pan. They spent six months - an entire Arctic winter - on a piece of ice that sometimes shrank to the size of a suburban backyard.

Charles Hall left Connecticut on the Polaris in July 1871 with 33 people, including 8 Inuit in a bid to reach the North Pole. But Hall died on route and the ship turned back after wintering in Thank God Harbour in Greenland. On the return they got caught in a storm. With the ice tightening around the hull the crew began to cast provisions and equipment over the side to the others who moved it to safety. Then, suddenly, the storm shifted, the ice retreated, and the ship slipped away leaving 19 people adrift on the ice.

They had some provisions - biscuits, canned and dried meat, dried apples, chocolate and sugar - but it was the Inuit that prolonged their survival. They built igluit (igloos) and hunted seal; eventually they were reduced to eating the sled dogs.

The castaways drifted across Baffin Bay, down the Davis Strait and into the north Atlantic. At one point, the pan was too small to support them and they moved on to a larger one but it too gave way. George Tyson, erstwhile navigator of the Polaris wrote: "At six o'clock this morning while we were getting a morsel of food, the tent split right under our tent. We were just able to scramble out, but our breakfast went down to the sea."

They faced storms and further break-up until finally in April 1873 they spotted the sealing vessel Tigress and one of the Inuit kayaked to the ship for rescue. They spent half a year on a pan; we spent half a night.

Nonetheless, when we woke, it was time to abandon our free-floating camp. Throughout the night it had rotated with other pans in an eddy and been greatly eaten away in the grinding ice pack, leaving little buffer beyond our tent and kayaks. The changing tide had also given us ally-ways of water, albeit in a labyrinth, through which we could make our way around Button Point (Sannirut 'the land that is sideways') to Cape Graham Moore.

We are now camped on a steep-sided promontory only 40 metres at its widest point and 150 metres long. Locally, it is called Niaqunnguut 'this land is shaped like a human head'. There is a thin, tenuous footpath that links the promontory to the coast. It has eroded away to the bare width of a man's stance. On either side the ground plummets 30 metres to the water. Its rocky base made offloading of the kayaks difficult. Behind the promontory steep mountains rise. But it is the spectacular view of Baffin Bay - and the migration route of bowhead whales, narwhal and seal - that made this an important campsite dating back thousands of years.

The centuries of habitation in the North American Arctic are recorded in the bones and stones left scattered on its landscape. This was the last major region on earth to be occupied by humans when Paleo-Eskimo arrived from across the Bering Sea to Alaska and spread eastward. Archaeologists know very little about that culture but the succeeding Dorset culture that emerged 3,000-2,500 years ago left an extensive amount of art and artefacts. A second cultural wave, unrelated to the first, crossed into Alaska about 2,000 years ago and eventually displaced the Dorset in the high Arctic in the 13th century. It is this culture, Thule, from which today's Inuit are descended. From the shoreline to the saddlebacks we saw abundant evidence of the latter three cultures here on Bylot; digging a little deeper archaeologists have found the more subtle indications of Paleo-Eskimo habitation.

The whaling station near where we camped awhile back (ikaaqtalik 'where there is a meat rack) was a particularly favoured campsite. Walking along the beach one morning, Mike found an ancient lichen-covered stone kayak stand. It was set above the tide line and also out of the reach of the sled dogs that would gladly chew the skin of the kayak which are made from the stretched hides of ring seals. He also found numerous blinds in rock gullies from which they would hunt caribou. Close to the shore we found numerous whale meat caches and further up caribou meat caches. We camped inside or beside many tent rings, circles of stones that form the perimeter of the summer home, tupirq, a skin covered tent. We also found Thule dwellings recessed in the ground qamaminiq, their walls reinforced with rocks and massive bowhead whale vertebrae and skull plates. These qamaminiq are circular with a diameter of about 4-6 metres, a tunnel entrance and sleeping platform towards the back. Their imprint is similar in shape to an iglu, the traditional winter house built from blocks of snow.

The eroded banks at Bernier Creek revealed in its strata much evidence of habitation: walrus, seal and whale bones, chert blades and harpoons and a broken kuliq a flat soapstone dish to hold whale oil and a cottongrass/moss wick, keeping a continual flame by the hearth. As we saw much evidence of life so have we seen much evidence of death. Regularly as we walked on the tundra we found graves, simple rectangular beds of rock, once piled high over corpses now collapsed to reveal a femur, a vertebrae, sometimes a lichen-covered skull.

Now, as I write, it is early morning. We have had only a few hours of sleep. I was awaken by a throbbing in my hands and feet. They have swollen and blistered from exposure to the cold and salt water. The joints are stiff as if arthritic, the pads and toes are numb as though having fallen asleep and maliciously they begin to burn when I go to bed. They will remain this way until I return south. I know; it is an allergic reaction I have on every cold climate kayak trip. We are tired but we find a beautiful morning outside our tent not to be missed by a return to sleep. We have had so few. I take some arnica and rub some cream onto my hands and feet. Mike puts water on the stove for tea, adjusts the solar panels strapped to the roof of the tent and leaves with his photographic equipment.

I sit in the vestibule of the tent. The pain has subsided so I open my sketchbook to an incomplete drawing of a walrus skull. The skull itself is perched on one of the stones of our tent ring. Its uneven ivories - one broken perhaps in tuskered battle - are polished and reflect a slight pink in the morning light. Elsewhere the sun, emerging through a thin veil, casts pink, lavender and mauve on the soft underbelly of the clouds and slow-drifting pans of ice.

At this time of year at this latitude the sun does not rise ex Oriente lux and set in a cowboy's west. Rather it revolves around our tent as though our tent was the centre of its orbit. It will be higher at noon than at midnight but basically does not leave our sight except to revolve around - not really drop below - a mountain peak behind our camp. In the spring when the first light emerges after kasiutuq 'the time of darkness', it shows itself not in the east in the morning but in the south in the late afternoon. Throughout the day we move our solar panels 360 degrees around our tent like a heliotropic flower that daily does a full rotation to maximize the energy available in this short burst of season. Arctic poppies do that, their parabolic yellow heads paying full reverence to the sun.

I set more water to boil. The band of light play now on the water is mesmerising. The rays reflect off the ripples at an angle creating quick slashes of brilliance, hitting the water like the hard drops of a summer storm; light raining down on Baffin Bay.

It is a quiet morning, just the bare whisper of Boreas and the sudden applause of murres taking flight, their wings clapping against the surface of the water. They are a fat caricature of a bird that feeds on polar cod, capelin and crustaceans. Hundred of thousands arrive in May to nest on the steep sea-cliffs of Bylot, crowding together in vertical nurseries. They lay a single conical egg, which because of its shape rotates around itself instead of rolling off the ledge. Local Inuit come in June to scale the walls north of Cape Graham Moore on old, uncertain ropes to collect the eggs. We had some hard-boiled out on the ice near Elijah's camp a few weeks back; speckled turquoise tear-drops with a distinct taste of seafood. (We also had a loon egg Mike found abandoned under water at the whaling station. It tasted like white fish).

I watch another flock take off, their webbed feet running on the surface to boost their ascent. They fly low for a bit, their numbers doubled in the flatwater reflection. Last night at midnight I listened to the murres as we paddled through thick fog north of the cape. The eerie mist shroud was wrapped tight about us. Visibility was only meters yet I closed my eyes each time I heard a formation of murres coming up behind me for a landing. I wanted to feel the sound of the flock. Together, the wing beats felt like they had the velocity of a helicopter's rotor. The sound not like the whistling out of air, rather the sudden drawing in of breath; the sound wind would make if it could suddenly reverse itself.

I opened my eyes from the fly-by and adjusted my focus to the inexactitude of the fog. There before me, emerging from the mist, was a polar bear only 30 metres away. I reverse paddled to stop the kayak and motioned to Mike. She had a full healthy body from a winter of hunting at auluq, the breathing hole seals make in the ice, and spring at the floe edge. Now, for the summer, she will be land-bound on Bylot and will fast until the ice re-forms in October. The hollow hairs of her coat reflected the very slight yellow of fat in cream. She was slowly making her way across the shore-fast ice: white on white on white. As we floated towards her a cub appeared from behind an up-turned pan of ice, then a second. Born last winter, they will remain with the mother another year. They were exploring with the budding hubris of youth, tentative steps of independence yet not too far from mother's side. Together the three of them made their way towards shore. Our weeks of hard work had been rewarded with a sight that can only be hoped for, not planned. But in the end, in the Arctic, nature will offer up some of the greatest beauty on earth.

By Pamela Coulston
Published August 22, 1999
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