September 12, 1999
Kayak Nunavut 99
Published September 12th, 1999
Even the snow geese didn't make it this year. Usually they come by the tens of thousands to Bylot but only a few thousand waited for summer to arrive on the island to build their nests and fledge their young. Chen hyperborea they were called before biologists knew where 'beyond the north wind' they go. They go to Bylot to breed; we went to paddle.
In the end, it was a highly successful not-yet-completed expedition. We didn't 'win' at our bid to circumnavigate Bylot Island by kayak but we certainly didn't lose. Although it sometimes felt as though the weather was conspiring against us, the break-up of the annual icepack came pretty well on time - end June, early July. The difference this year was in the dispersal of the ice litter. In 1998, the ice had broken and flushed from the eastern seaboard of Baffin and Bylot and the waters in between by the first week of July. This year, held in place by predominant east winds, it only significantly dispersed at the start of the second week of August.
If the weather wasn't conspiratorial, it certainly was ironic. From the moment we were picked up by the icebreaker Henry Larsen, the weather turned in our favour. For a week we were blessed with clear days, midnight sun, calm seas and a slight west wind that expunged the ice and gave us a generous beginning to the next stage of the expedition.
We were joined in Pond by artist Allen Smutylo, CBC broadcaster Avril Benoit, translator and carver July Papatsie and four youth from the north Bertha Tuktuadjuk, Ted Irniq, Jimmy Ipelee and Niko Inuarak. The next day we headed back to Bylot. Ice again determined our movement and we were forced to camp on sand, that irritatingly migrating into gear, cookware and food, with only a thin trickle of silty potable water. But we were well placed to explore the landscape behind the camp and launch our journey around the south and southwest coast.
On the ridge above the first camp stood hoodoo sentinels: blasted sandstone spires that rise up like stalagmites and sculpted like giant pawns, rooks and knights. We climbed to them on our first night as they bronzed in the lowering sun. Part way up the ridge we began to find sharp teeth in the sand. They were a few centimetres long, hollow but repacked by sand, without which the fragile enamel splintered along its length and folded like a fan. Sixty million years ago, when Bylot was a balmy garden, hadrosaurs, pleisosaurs and hesperornis roamed the island. Along with the remains of these dinosaurs, marine reptiles and loon-like birds, paleontologists found a species of prehistoric shark with so many sharp teeth that the researchers used them to spear their smoked oysters. Perhaps this was what we found: prehistoric cocktail picks.
Behind the ridge we explored a spectacular high plateau landscape; in front Greenlandic icebergs sailed past the camp. We ate muktuk (whale blubber) and fresh char, from which July extracted cartilaginous toys from the char's head: the 'raven', the 'knife', the dangerous 'spider' that chokes the throat, and the three dimensional 'seagull' with diaphanous wings.
It was an enjoyable start to the journey and we were traveling with some wonderful, adventurous people. But despite this, Mike and I were worried. We had planned to bring together Inuit and other Canadians prominent in art and culture to share cultural perspectives and artistic inspiration. The exchange would in turn be shared across Canada through magazine articles, a website and art, bringing a greater understanding of the region and encourage tourism there. It was specifically set for this year to celebrate the birth of Nunavut and the establishment of Sirmilik National Park, of which Bylot is the cornerstone. We also wanted to give training to Inuit youth particularly in the growing eco-tourism sector. But a few days into the journey we didn't see the level of cultural exchange we had expected. Four members had pulled out at the last moment; two of which we hoped would take key roles in the exchange. We also wondered if the expedition was having any impact on the youth. On top of it all, Mike and I knew that setting a date to meet the group had forced us to abandon our own counter-clockwise paddle around the island just as the ice had finally opened to allow us passage. It was time to have a meeting.
The next morning as we lingered over 'cowboy' coffee we discussed the goals of the trip, the work that had gone in to realizing it, and the fortune we had to be there thanks to the generous support of our sponsors. We suggested that for the expedition to be safe and successful, we all had to think and work collectively, not individually. It was important to share responsibilities, lend a hand to others without being asked, and show patience in difficult periods. We finished by going 'round the table' to hear each of their trip expectations.
In the days remaining we continued to paddle and explore and to write, draw, carve, paint and photograph. But we also began to share our diverse knowledge and talents: Allen with his techniques and philosophy on visual arts, Avril with communicating through the spoken and written word, July with Inuit stories and traditions, and Mike with techniques and safety in wilderness travel. On all subjects we got a refreshing youthful, northern perspective from the younger members. There was also more sharing of responsibilities and workload.
Our final paddle was under a lavender evening sky smattered with wood grain clouds, illuminated from behind by the midnight sun. Across the sound lay Curry Island, the landscape etched on the backside of the old two-dollar bill. Everyone seemed a bit more reflective as we paddled, perhaps absorbing as much of the environment as possible before our return south.
On our last night back in Pond the group met to reflect on the journey. Mike and Allen had decided to remain on the water in an attempt to complete the circumnavigation Mike and I had begun. We met at the hotel over coffee and sweets. We were all tired and I anticipated I was wasting everybody's time. So I was stunned by the eloquent and thought-out responses each one gave as to how the journey had solidified decisions and enhanced career choices and changes. How they had come to better appreciate the land and seascape - its danger and its beauty. How they were inspired by the various artistic talents of the group. How they began to recognize and respect the differences and similarities in our cultures and ourselves as individuals. And finally how fortunate they were to be able to travel together in this incredible region. For Mike and I, we know how fortunate we were to have them join us.
I have now returned south. I am floating on my back in the middle of a lake staring up at the sky. My body that spent a summer bundled against the Arctic chill is pale against the dark, cool waters. I drift aimlessly looking for conclusions in the cloud patterns, wondering why I went on this expedition. So often people ask. I also think about fear. It would have been easy to remain home instead of facing some of my worst ones full-frontal and more intensely than even imagined. But a life curtailed by fear is a compromised life. I make my way back to shore and dry myself in the waning evening light. I think back to the motto of the Epicureans. In the end, there is no other reason: 'while we live, let us live'. Dum vivimus, vivamus.
Mike and Allen continued to paddle along the west coast of Bylot hoping conditions would allow them passage along the north coast. But winter had already begun to return and high winds, big water and the onset of winter slowed their progress. A food cache that was to have been brought to them by an Inuk guide had not been found and they began this leg with little food. They procured some from departing goose researchers, some caribou from Charlie Inuarak and Rachel, a woman they met on the shore, gave them tea, bannock and muktuk. The cache at Tay Bay would have given them two weeks of provisions but a bear had got there first. All that was left was some peanut butter, two tins of salmon and two tea bags found scattered on the tundra. Ten days after setting out, Mike and Allen returned to Pond by boat, having paddled about 130 kilometres. Mike will return next year to make another bid to circumnavigate the island. But for now, renegade Bylot Island, notched out from Baffin, remains unbridled, ungirdled.
By Pamela Coulston
Published September 12, 1999
The Ottawa Citizen
The Montreal Gazette
The Edmonton Journal
The Calgary Herald
Mike and I would like to thank the following sponsors for their tremendous support:
Telesat Canada/TMI Communications
O Canada! Expeditions
Chlorophylle h. tech Clothing
Boreal Design Kayaks
The Royal Canadian Geographic Society
Daymen Photo and Outdoor Marketing/Lowepro
Disegno Fine Jewellery