Note: this is part one of a six-week journey on Ellesmere Island.
It takes more than 12 hours of flying over three days to get to Grise Fiord from Vancouver with an overnight in Ottawa and stops in Iqaluit, Clyde River and Pond Inlet en route to Resolute Bay. From there, another 90-minute flight to Grise Fiord two days later. It’s like flying to Europe but getting on successively smaller planes along the way. It drives home the point that we live in a very large country.
Grise Fiord is as far as one can fly in Canada with a scheduled commercial airline. I’m here to join my friend John Dunn (www.arcticlight.com) to explore southern Ellesmere Island. We will ski and hike, hauling sleds with all our gear and food for the next six weeks. It’s the only way to travel here under our own power as we have to be completely self-sufficient. John has already been here for 10 days and amused himself by skiing a lap from Grise Fiord overland to Harbour Fiord, returning along Jones Sound to meet me for the start of our journey together.
The sleds are heavy as we ski away from town. I’m hauling my body weight in a sled, about 80 kilos, but it’s surprisingly easy to haul, as long as we’re travelling horizontally on sea ice. As soon as we hit an incline, gravity takes its toll and it becomes back-breaking work. If a hill is too long or steep, we have to double up one sled to get it up the grade, and return to do it again for the the other sled.
The weather is brilliant. A bit too brilliant as the sun reflecting off the snow and ice is unbelievably intense as we ski north up the fiord. Thankfully, the sun is behind us. We make our first camp on the ice foot near shore at 9 p.m. but it might as well be 9 a.m. The sun doesn’t set this far north at the end of May. It’s been above the horizon since April 24 and will remain so until August 20 when it will set again. Alternatively, next winter, the sun will not rise above the horizon from November 1 until February 10.
As always, it takes a few days to get accustomed to skiing with a heavy sled tied to your ass but the body is quick to adapt. My feet, on the other hand, are bearing the brunt of this masochism. I always get blisters and this trip is no different, even though I taped up both heels before we even left town. At least the blisters aren’t painful under the tape and will run their course for the next few weeks. I also have some toe issues as the boots squeeze them a bit too much. One of them, in particular, looks like something from a horror movie. I tape up the toes as well.
The landscape is overwhelming, big and raw. Rock, ice and not much else but the blue sky above. I feel small and insignificant. There is no sign of any human encroachment, other than the snow mobile track from local hunters. We follow it off and on while on the sea ice but have no choice but to ski on it once we get on land at the north end of Grise Fiord as we follow a frozen braided river bed upstream.
The mountains close in and the valley narrows as we slowly climb toward the Sydkap Ice Field, our first significant climb. We have to get over the glacier and the hills beyond to reach Baumann and Stenkul Fiords to the north. John has been to Ellesmere Island on several expeditions since the 1980s, as well as multiple expeditions on many of the other islands in the eastern Arctic. I’m in good company with an “old Arctic hand” who has hauled a sled more than 12,000 km. This is my third sledding trip with John.
We met in the 1990s through a mutual friend and in 1997 did our first trip together: canoeing the west coast of British Columbia. The following year we went to Ellesmere Island for a kayaking and hiking expedition in Makinson Inlet. This was my first Arctic journey and it changed my life, setting the tone for the next decade and beyond.
In 1999, John and I did a two-month canoe expedition from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean on the Back River, and were joined along the way by two other friends. In 2001, I did a 2-month solo canoe expedition from north of Great Slave Lake to Bathurst Inlet, paddling the Coppermine River and the Arctic coast. In 2002, another solo canoe expedition north of Great Slave Lake. In 2003, another canoe trip with my partner Janice. It was on that journey I proposed to her and we married later that year. In 2004, another solo canoe expedition along the Mackenzie River, although, along the way I met a group of fellow paddlers from Vancouver and we finished the journey together.
Jan and I continued doing journeys in the ensuing years. It was a natural fit as we both already loved that lifestyle. We’re always off on some trip or another in our own backyard of Beautiful BC or elsewhere: cycling, canoeing, hiking, skiing, or whatever. as long as we’re moving under our own power somewhere.
The Sydkap Glacier is a short but steep climb up to 600 metres above sea level. We double-haul John’s sled up to where the gradient levels out, and then return for my sled. Once over the top, we pick our way down until it looks safe to just let the sleds go. They rocket down the glacier to the frozen, snow-covered lake below. We ski down to them and stomp out a pad in the snow to level it and make camp. It’s 1 a.m. We have our usual pre-dinner hot chocolate, followed by soup and dinner. We hit the sack around 3 a.m.
We reach Stenkul Fiord two days later and cross Baumann Fiord the next day. It’s a 12 km crossing on the sea ice to the the Svendsen Peninsula and the mouth of a river that flows from a long, wide valley running parallel with Vendom Fiord to the east. We choose to ski up the valley instead of facing the monotony of 80 km on the sea ice on Vendom Fiord.
A long line of mountains separate the valley from Vendom Fiord and make a gorgeous backdrop for our campsite. The weather continues to be sunny and warm with temperatures just below zero, providing perfect skiing conditions. We’ve seen very little wildlife: a few snowy owls, snow geese and, first thing this morning, I heard snow buntings chirping near our camp. Soon, more birds will appear as the brief Arctic summer will shift into overdrive and all species will race against the clock to raise the next generation before the return of winter.
We bask in the sun as we make a dinner of pasta with pesto sauce and add our secret ingredient: peanut butter. It’s tasty and packs a great calorie punch. I always loose weight on these trips and it is my goal to minimize that on this journey. We have the same breakfast every morning: 200 grams of granola with whole milk powder and hot water, and a cup of coffee. We graze on various kinds of bars, nuts and chips throughout the day, and we usually stop at some point during our day to make a cup of tea.
At the end of the day, we make camp and while one of us finishes setting up the tent, the other gets the stove going to make a big hot chocolate. That’s followed by a hot soup – liquid and salt – and then dinner. We alternate playing cook and rotate through five different dinners: pasta with sauce, quinoa with veggies, spices and peanut butter, lentils with spices, veggies and peanut butter, pasta with a tomato sauce, and finally a dish of soup mixed with mashed potatoes, egg topped with a 1/8 of a pound of butter each for added calories. Parmesan cheese goes into all meals, although I’m not a fan and don’t always take it, leaving John to continue his solo attack on the five jars we’re carrying.
At the end of our day’s travel, there is usually time to relax, take photographs, study maps or sort food, fix equipment etc. We don’t often linger much after dinner before we go horizontal. In the tent, we might read for a while or write some notes but go to sleep pretty quickly. We’re usually pretty knackered from the day’s efforts.
Three days later, we have skied 48 km further north and climbed up about 300 metres from sea level to a pass through the mountains to the south end of the Braskeruds Plain. We haven’t seen any wildlife, although we’ve come across tracks from arctic foxes and musk oxen.
We pull up beside a circular spot of tundra that is free of snow. It’s too lumpy to camp on so we stomp out our 2 by 4-metre tent platform in the snow beside it. But among the tiny willows we spot one of the Arctic’s most remarkable residents: the Arctic woolly bear caterpillar. This hairy caterpillar is best know for its slow rate of development and long periods of hibernation in extended periods of extremely low temperatures. It can take up to 15 years for the caterpillar to become a moth. The caterpillar feeds primarily on Arctic willow but will eat other plants like purple saxifrage and mountain aven.
After foraging for two months, the caterpillar weaves a silken hibernaculum in which it spends up to 10 months in a kind of suspended animation. They are able to produce a kind of antifreeze which protects them from temperatures down to -70 °C. It repeats this process year after year until it eventually pupates and emerges as a moth after 3 or 4 weeks. Reproduction occurs often within 24 hours and after the eggs are laid, it’s game over.
Most things are small in the high Arctic. It takes a lot of energy for plants and animals to be big. It’s an interesting juxtaposition in this huge landscape. As I sit watching a woolly bear basking in the warm sun, on the eastern horizon I can see the Wykeham Glacier, part of the vast Prince of Wales Ice Field that stretches from Makinson Inlet north to Alexandra Fiord. It’s a massive ice dome covering mountains 1,500 metres high. The scale is unimaginable. And this isn’t even the largest ice field on Ellesmere Island.
We are now at 78 degrees north, the furthest north I’ve been, and only 1,300 km to the north pole. It’s the first day of June and we rise at 4:30 a.m. We are shifting from travelling during the day to travelling at night as we are heading east and south so we won’t have the sun in our faces. It’s a beautiful morning as we descend to the shore of Vendom Fiord and ski five kilometres across the sea ice to reach the other shore. As we cross, the weather is deteriorating. By the time we make camp on the shore of the Humphreys River it is snowing. After 12 days of brilliant sunshine, it was bound to happen.
My lower left leg and foot were hurting the last few kilometres. We had a fairly high pace skiing across the fiord to try to beat the weather and after a bathroom break I stepped into a crack in the ice foot which didn’t feel very good. I didn’t hit anything but when I take off my boot I find a swollen lump on the left side of my leg above the ankle. It’s painful to flex my foot and I’m not happy.
We are near the site of where John buried a sled in 2010 while on an expedition with another friend, Clive Rubens. We find the sled and begin to remove the boulders covering it. We spend three hours moving rocks and hacking away at the ice encasing the sled. My leg hurts too much and I return to camp to rest and ice my leg. The change in weather is a blessing as we take a much-needed day off while the snow continues to fall. We have skied 12 uninterrupted days, covering 225 km and probably should have taken a day off earlier. But when the weather is good, we travel as the weather will inevitably turn and it becomes difficult to travel. I ice my leg and try to keep it elevated while taking anti-inflammatories.
While I convalesce inside the tent, John goes back to the sled burial site to try to free it from its icy grave. Several hours later, John returns to tell me he succeeded in getting the sled out from the ice but it was damaged and as he tried to haul it back to camp decided it would be madness to haul it all the way back to Grise Fiord. It would dramatically slow us down, so he returned it to its frigid resting place. What’s buried should remain buried.
We’ve determined I’m likely suffering from tendinitis. Nothing but rest will sort that out but we can’t really sit around. We carry on the next day, struggling in soft snow. It’s only seven centimetres but it is sticky and the skins on our skis accumulate large slabs of it in no time, despite copious applications of wax. Eventually, I pull my skins off and mount the short kicker skins just forward of the bindings and that works quite well. John pulls one skin off and just leaves one. The sleds are also icing, increasing the drag.
It’s too painful for me to continue in the sloppy snow and after 13 km we stop and make camp. My lower left leg is swollen. I sit with ice on it while we eat and drink. The weather has turned sunny again and we hope for better conditions. In the morning, John goes out while I make breakfast and after a couple of minutes I hear in the distance: “And on the 8th day, God made crust.” Yes! It will make our travelling much easier. We have breakfast, break camp and hit the trail. Conditions are perfect but I pull up lame after only 11 km on the shore of the Meadow River. We have to ascend the river and cross over the mountains to Split Lake and Makinson Inlet, 20 km to the east but for the rest of this day and the next we sit and rest and I ice my swollen leg, take ibuprofen and rub a topical anti-inflammatory cream on the swollen area.
The next day, my leg looks and feels better and we continue. John hauls both sleds until we hit a canyon we have to ascend. We team up through the technical ascent and eventually gain the height of land. It’s completely snow-covered. There is no sign of spring.
We were not the only ones to use this route to Makinson Inlet. We followed tracks of a small herd of musk oxen all the way up. In the distance, we can now see the Split Lake Glacier and the ice field beyond. It’s brilliantly sunny but a cold wind blows down the valley and we resort to skulking in the tent where it’s warm as the sun mercilessly reflects off the snow. My leg still hurst and the swelling has increased from the day’s work. All I can do is apply ice, elevate, rest and hope it gets better.
We carry on to Split Lake along a kind of plateau. The view opens up and we see the huge Split Lake Glacier spilling into the lake down below us. We set up the stove to make tea and take in the view. After an hour or so, we carry on down a canyon until it becomes too steep and run out of snow. It’s all melted and the creek is running down to the lake. Nothing else to do but load up our backpacks and hoof it down. We each make multiple trips until the entire pile of gear has been portaged to a nice camp site above the lake.
The view is magnificent and for only the second time we are camped on dry land instead of snow. To the north, on the other side of the canyon, a herd of musk oxen blissfully grazes in a steep meadow. Eleven adults and three new calves slowly make their way down the slope. While the adults graze, the calves chase each other around the meadow. We sit and watch them until they’re out of sight below us. A while later they appear again to the south.
It’s great to see these animals that look like a left-over from another era. The musk ox, called umingmak in inuktitut, meaning bearded one, are well adapted to life here with a coat of long wool covering a layer of soft underwool called qiviut. Qiviut is stronger and warmer than sheep’s wool, and softer than cashmere. It is gathered from shrubs and rocks in June when the musk oxen shed their qiviut, up to 3 kilos of it, or from hunted animals. It is spun into wool and made into a variety of commercial products. Most of commercially available qiviut comes from northern Canada but some comes from farms in Alaska and elsewhere.
We are quite tired after our ski down the canyon and the portage that followed. My leg is still swollen and I’m not sure if I can continue but there is no easy way out of here. A group of friends is spending time in Makinson Inlet, and if my leg does not improve, I could possibly fly out with them but we are still at least a week away from where they are.
After a good night’s rest, we finish our portage down to the lake shore. Walking feels much better than skiing and I hope conditions continue to be favourable for walking. The ice is mostly free of snow now so there will not be any need for skis on this day. But we have a liquid obstacle to overcome first. The ice has completely melted away from the shore of Split Lake. We inflate the packraft and John paddles across to the ice. He stays on the ice while I pull the raft back to shore and load it with gear. We do this until everything is on the ice and then I get in to cross the moat.
We keep the raft inflated and tied onto a sled so we can use it to get back to shore at the other end of the lake near the glacier. It’s a short 5 km walk and only takes us an hour. We repeat the rafting to get all the gear and ourselves back to land and find a nice camp spot on a bluff overlooking Split lake and the Split Lake Glacier that splits the lake in two. After yesterday’s epic, it’s nice to have a short day and rest my leg some more. It is improving.
Stay tuned for part 2