July 11, 1999
We are off. My Mr. King and I, my travelling companion Mike Beedell, are embarking on an Arctic expedition to circumnavigate Bylot Island by kayak. The island, almost 11,000 km2 and approximately 550 km in circumference, lies at the eastern mouth to the fabled Northwest Passage at the northern tip of Baffin Island, standing like a toll booth at the entrance to a passage that extricated a high price to travel its often-deadly highway. We will be paddling in the wake of the many that plied these waters before us. And by modern technology we will regularly tell you our tale.
For centuries they came, they saw, they got lost. The Northwest Passage was the Holy Grail of European explorers hoping to find a back door to the Orient and all her spices and glory. Particularly during the 16th, 17th and 18th century they came with high hopes and financial backing. Frobisher in the 1500s thought he found a short cut to Cathay but dead-ended in a bay that became eponymously named but is more traditionally known as Iqaluit ('a place of many fish'). There he exchanged 'belles, looking glasses and other toyes' with Inuit. After Frobisher came John Davis, William Baffin, John Ross and John Franklin. Lost, lost, really lost, dead lost. Ah, the manpower and finances mounted to find Sir John. The lengths to which the British Admiralty and then his widowed (but fanatically faithful) wife went to bring him back alive, bring him back dead, to bring back something that explained what happened to the crew of the Erebus and Terror. Franklin's disappearance spawned a virtual industry of search. More than 40 expeditions went in search of Franklin, the most recent in the early 1980s when Dr. Owen Beattie of the University of Calgary studied the skeletal remains which showed saw and hack marks that suggested cannibalism.
By the 18th century, the Northwest Passage had occupied the dreams of European explorers for 200 years with little success. Finally, in July 1906, the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, found his way through in the spirited little Gjoa, a 42 tonne herring boat engine-powered with a crew of six. Early attempts through the Northwest Passage were made using wind power only. But it was not until 1988, that my intrepid Mr. King, my travelling companion Mike and skipper Jeff McInnis sailed the length of the Passage, a journey that took three summers to complete. Amundson was right. To make the Passage a small boat was needed, one that could manoeuvre through ice packs. (Actually half right; you either go small or you go big and plough your way through: a polar tanker weighs in at 155,000 tonnes) Jeff and Mike went small; they sailed from Inuvik in western Northwest Territories to Button Point over 4,000 kms away on the eastern edge of Nunavut. It is reassuring to know I am venturing forth into these waters with one who has ventured forth before.
They were all, no doubt, courageous men and seminal in their pursuits. But they were not the first. In the history of the Arctic, Europeans were Johnny-come-latelies. They were preceded by Vikings, (Eric the Red and son Lief) in about 1000 AD (Y1K angst?) and, earlier still, according to Farley Mowat, by Albans fleeing the British Isles and setting up boat-shaped longhouses on the central east coast of Ellesmere. (Not a theory held by archaeologists). But even before Vikings and Albans, earlier by centuries, came the successive cultures of Paleo-Eskimo, Dorset, Thule and Inuit. Archaeologists believe that the North American Arctic was the last major environment on earth to be occupied by humans. Paleo-Eskimo arrived about 4,000 years ago followed by the related Dorset culture 3,000-2500 years ago, crossing the Bering Strait and moving eventually into the Baffin region. About 2,000 years ago a new culture migrated, the Thule, from which the Inuit of today are descended.
I expect they all knew why they were going to the Arctic. To follow food opportunities, to search for a shortcut to the east, to light the street lamps of Europe with whale oil and flounce the skirts of its women with baleen, to find Captain John and claim the reward money (Rae was reluctantly given the runner-up prize of £10,000 for returning home with some clues and the claim of cannibalism).
In the past, travel had practical, not idle, purpose. Travel for travel's sake is mostly a luxury of the 20th century is it not? Now, the 'why' of an expedition is not always evident. And from that uncertainty, at a loss for an answer more concrete was perhaps born the reply 'because it is there'. It is, to be sure, a region of spectacular beauty with a richness of marine and terrestrial life beyond the imagination of southerners who write the Arctic off as a barren land, a no-man's land. But there is a deeper 'why' the one that addresses all the hardships, all the sweat, and maybe a bit of the angst. Not what we are looking for in the landscape, but what we are looking for within ourselves. This is the 'why' that I can't put my finger on. Perhaps, by the journey's end, I will have.
The objectives of the expedition however have been clearly defined and honed over the past year. This is a journey comprising two parts. Part I is the complete circumnavigation of Bylot Island by kayak by Mike and I. We will explore the island and surrounding waters, documenting our journey with video, 35mm and digital cameras, extensive notes and drawings. Together with trekking and ski touring on Bylot's glaciers we expect to cover a distance of about 1000 kms. Through recording and sharing our experiences we wish to bring a greater understanding of the Arctic to Canadians and abroad and to promote tourism to the region.
We begin our journey in the community of Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet). In a couple of days we will leave Pond and travel across the still-frozen waters that separate Baffin from Bylot. We will then begin a counter-clockwise circumnavigation of the island, at first pulling our kayaks across the ice until we reach the floe edge off the south-eastern tip of Bylot at the same Button Point where Mike and Jeff completed their Northwest Passage sail. At that point we will begin paddling our kayaks in leads (open cracks in the ice) and at the floe edge although we will at times be forced to haul them back up onto the ice for certain stretches. At some point on the north-eastern coast the annual sea ice will have completely broken and flushed out, leaving us with continuous open water until we reach Tay Bay on the west coast of the island. This is where part two begins.
When we reach Tay Bay we will be joined by a dynamic group of people with whom we will kayak the remaining west and south coasts of the island to our completion. We thought carefully as to whom we would like to share this journey with. We sought out people who would be inspired and those too that would be inspiring. Our team includes Peter Irniq, the Deputy Minister for Culture, Elders and Youth of the Nunavut Government; his son Ted, a computer technician with the new government; the Canadian Ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs, Mary Simon; film producer and former CBC The National correspondent Whit Fraser; CBC radio host, most recently with This Morning, Avril Benoit; international award-winning artist Allen Smutylo; carver, translator and story-teller, July Papatsie; cameraman Tim Wilson; and two young, eco-tourism trainees Nikko Inuaraq and Bertha Tuktuadjuk. Together we will travel in this spectacular landscape in a cross-cultural celebration of Nunavut, which came in to being on April first as Canada's newest territory and the establishment of Sirmilik National Park, expected for August. Sirmilik encompasses areas of northern Baffin Island and almost all of Bylot, the cornerstone of the new park and already a bird sanctuary.
In the high Arctic, such an undertaking is not without its risks and hardships. This is not March break in Florida. Along the flow edge are extremely high concentrations of polar bears and walrus, which can be even more aggressive than the bears. The water hovers at about 0 degrees celcius and the ambient temperature can still drop to the single digits despite it being summer. On the glaciers we must probe for crevasses as we ski and hike. At the start of the journey while we are still travelling on ice, we must pull our fully loaded, 100 kilo kayaks until we reach water. Often, that will mean negotiating through jumbled pack ice and leads. On the north-east side of the island, the water is open all the way to Greenland, offering little protection from high waves and wind that build out in Baffin Bay and the Davis Strait. Last year in the waters just east of Mittimatalik two kayakers from Toronto drowned when offshore winds capsized three of the four kayaks; the third person, was dragged to shore through near freezing waters clinging to her companion's boat.
While we will carry an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), the remoteness of the location and the extremes in weather and water conditions virtually preclude rescue from a capsized kayak. A signal from an EPIRB, picked up by an orbiting satellite is first relayed to one of three Canadian ground receiving stations at either Goose Bay, Churchill or Edmonton. From there it is transferred to the mission control operator at the Canadian Forces Base in Trenton and will, at best, result in Search and Rescue (SAR) mobilization within about 15 minutes. But that is only the start of a rescue. The Co-ordination Centre then contacts the RCMP of the closest community to the distress call to send out local resources while also mobilizing the nearest Coast Guard ship.
Those are the risks, these are the precautions. At all times on the water we wear Stolquist dry suits and lifejackets and other cold water gear and will paddle within quick reach of each other. For communications and safety we are carrying a satellite phone supplied by Telesat Canada, an (EPIRB) and light-weight walkie talkies that can keep us in touch with each other on land to a distance of 2-3 kms. As well we have emergency flares, bear flares and a gun that shoots rubber bullets then real bullets if we are faced with an aggressive bear or walrus. Prior to leaving the south we reviewed rescue techniques in the lake across from our home. To fix our kayaks and tents while camping on the ice in high winds, we have 4" and 6" long titanium-tipped ice screws.
The two most critical elements of safety in the Arctic are patience and sound judgement. It is Mike's extensive Arctic travel and sea-kayaking experience that is undoubtedly our most critical factor of safety. As well, we have allowed ourselves sufficient time to make the circumnavigation without having to paddle on uncertain days. Should the weather look at all unfavourable, we will stay land bound. "Mobile ice and wind are the most powerful forces one has to contend with in the Arctic", says Mike, "you have to work with those forces because you certainly can't win working against them".
We have already completed one journey. Three-quarters of a year of extensive planning and enervating preparation, averaging 12 hour days, 7 days a week for the last few months. Tomorrow, finally, we will leave Mittimatalik. The 'prospect of change, and consequent stretching out of the imagination' are at hand, we will turn our backs on the Fort. Perhaps by the end of it all I will have an understanding as to why I chose to travel with 'Mr. King' on this expedition to explore the land and seascape of Bylot Island. It might be only so that 'why' never becomes 'why didn't I?' In the spirit of the Epicureans, dum vivimus vivamus -- while we live, let us live.
By Pamela Coulston
Published July 11, 1999
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