Note: this is part two of a six week journey on Ellesmere Island.
We have a tough couple of days ahead to get to Split Lake’s southern portion. We can’t travel over the glacier so we have to go over the mountains and descend through what we called the “painted valley” and a canyon to get there. We hike through the painted hills in 1998 when we were here.
We take a day off, and while I rest and ice my leg, John hauls a sled load of stuff up and over the painted hills and caches it in the canyon. The following day, we haul the remaining sled and gear along the same route and pick up the other sled.
The descent through the lower canyon is tricky. The creek is flowing and we have to cross it multiple times. Eventually, we run out of snow and there is nothing to do but load up the back packs and portage the remaining kilometre down to the end of the canyon where we make camp. It takes multiple trips and nine hours. This was route with many obstacles but nothing went wrong. I’m very pleased about my leg. Still some pain and a bit of swelling but much less than a few days ago. Things are looking up. We cut the rigid ankle cuff off the left boot because it was likely a contributor to my problem. It was riveted on and I can always remount it in the future with some small bolts.
A storm is brewing the following day so we decide to stay put. With the exception of the camp essentials and some food, we portage all of our food and gear down to the lake shore one and a half kilometres away. The wind comes in ferocious blasts and we put boulders on all the tent pegs and make sure all the guy lines are well anchored. It rains but snow falls at higher elevations and we hunker down in the tent, sleeping and eating.
The storm abated overnight but it’s a cold nasty day. We break camp and hike down to where we cached the sleds with the rest of our food and gear. We walk out of Split Lake on to Makinson Inlet. Most of the sea ice is flooded now but closer to shore on the low tide there is enough dry ice for us to haul the sleds without getting our feet wet. We make good progress and make camp 21 km down the inlet at Hook Point. The two lobes of the Hook Glacier surround this point of land that will perhaps eventually become an island when the glacier retreats more.
Just before we set off down Makinson Inlet from Split Lake, we take a quick walk to the spot where we landed in 1998 and found the landing tracks of the Twin Otter. Amazing that after more than two decades, these tracks are still clearly visible, and a testament to how long it takes for any vegetation to cover up a disturbance made by us.
Another storm blows in just after we established camp. It’s blowing hard and raining. We have some protection from the wind but it alway seems to find us. We’re happy to be warm and dry inside our life support tube, as our tent is affectionately named. We camped in this spot in 1998, too. I recall we had nicer weather.
The weather does not improve but we break camp anyway and continue down the inlet. It rained off and on and a stiff head wind blew at us all day while we negotiated a maze of ice and melt water for 16 km. Under most circumstances, we would not have travelled under these conditions but we have to keep moving if we are to get back to Grise Fiord. My leg has improved enough that I’m confident now that we can finish the journey.
At times during the day, I question why we are doing this. Hiking along the Hook glacier was a good reason. It is an awe-inspiring thing to drag a sled with the toe of a big glacier towering above you. We hiked to a cathedral-sized iceberg. Another good reason. It’s a gorgeous, piece of ice sculpted in a way only nature can do. All day long we have to solve the maze of ice and water as we try to find a route through and around various obstacles. Our feet got wet and stayed that way. The rain adds a level of discomfort I could do without but what are you gonna do?
I put damp socks and wet boots on my feet in the morning as we prepare to break camp and carry on down Makinson Inlet. The rain has stopped but the wind is still blasting down the fiord. We pick our way through the ice rubble along the Palisade Glacier. In 1998, this glacier ran far out into the fiord. It has retreated quite a bit in 21 years. It still is an impressive sight. Beyond the Palisade, the ice is clear, although flooded with melt water but our feet have been wet for a couple of days already. Wet is wet so they can’t get any wetter. We set our sights on Bowman Island looming on the horizon in the middle of the inlet.
It takes us two days to get to Bowman Island under awful conditions. The wind has been ferocious and right in our face. Very cold as a result. I never even took off my down jacket which is normally too warm while sledding but not today. My wet feet are numb from trudging through ankle-deep slush pools. We keep seeing large polar bear tracks and keep the bangers and bear spray handy. The mountains and glaciers are beautiful but it’s difficult to really take it in because of the conditions. We don’t stand around too long because it’s too cold.
When we get to Bowman Island, we decide to call it a day after only eight kilometres but the conditions are too horrendous to carry on. We dig out a tent platform in a snow bank between the rocks with the top of Bowman Island towering 500 metres above us and make camp. We dive into the tent and fire up the stove to make a hot drink and dinner. The stove heats the tent quickly and we take off wet boots and socks. It’s the best feeling but it takes a few hours for my numb feet to warm up. Outside, it’s blowing and snowing, slowly covering the blooming purple saxifrage.
We get up at 8 p.m. instead of our usual midnight. We’ve had this horrendous weather for five days now and we hope conditions in Bentham Fiord are better. The nine kilometres to get to Bentham are grim, much like the crossing to Bowman Island the day before but once we turned the corner into Bentham Fiord, the wind ceased and the ice surface was much better and the miles tick by.
Bentham Fiord is amazing with a dozen glaciers pouring into it, most from the Manson Ice Field that we have to cross. But the weather continues to be marginal so we don’t really get to see the landscape. It’s snowing with poor visibility and bears are on our mind. And then we spot one on the far shore of the fiord. It’s hunting. Shortly after, we come across a seal carcass. The gulls are picking on what’s left of it. It’s an intact skeleton with only the lower jaw detached and the skin in a little roll beside it.
We carry on a little further but we’re tired after more than 20 kilometres and make camp on shore about five kilometres from the end of the fiord. We keep an eye on the far side and the bear is standing over a seal hole, waiting for its next meal to surface. We keep the bangers and bear spray right at hand inside the tent and hope the bear will stick to seals to dine on.
It’s been a week since we have seen the sun. Our boots are water logged. The last two days were more about survival than anything else. Not really fun but it feels good to have gotten through it. We hope for better conditions to cross the Manson Ice Field but some things are out of our control.
For the second time in my life I was woken up by a bear. I hear something on the rocks near the tent followed by tell-tale snorting. I unzip the inner tent and look out through the vent and see a polar bear looking back at me only 10 metres away. I wake John and we get our bangers out. John sticks his loaded banger through the tent door and fires one off. The loud explosion has the desired effect and the bear takes off like a race horse. It runs about 50 metres before it slows down, turns around and looks back. Thankfully, it decides the big red lump that made a loud noise is not something to eat and it continues on its way.
I got a few blurry photos and a couple of decent frames. It’s a younger bear, not the one we had seen earlier on the other side of the fiord. It’s still snowing but since we are very much awake now we make coffee and breakfast, followed by a second cup of coffee.
We eventually break camp as the snow stops falling and we head down to the end of the fiord keeping a wary eye on our surroundings but we don’t see any more bears. There is a good ramp up on to the glacier and we begin the climb. Unfortunately, the new snow is not helping matters. It’s sticky and our skis get clumped up with large, heavy lumps of snow sticking to the skins, despite lots of wax. I take off my skis fearing a flare-up of the tendinitis but walking is not much fun as I occasionally sink a foot or more into the snow. As we climb, conditions improve and I put the skis back on. We cross the high point of 400 metres and descend into a valley where six glaciers come together and decide to make camp. We’ve had enough. It’s still grey but there’s hardly any wind. It’s warm in the tent despite the lack of sun.
The snow started falling again while we slept. Visibility is practically zero but we pack up and head off. Like two red-hooded monks on some obscure pilgrimage, the storm swallows us up as we continue to climb the Manson Ice Field. There is no definition as we trudge onward into a white abyss. With no scenery to feast my eyes, I focus on following John’s tracks and let my mind wander across an inner landscape but I would rather have seen the world around me. We climb all day and manage 16 kilometres.
The blizzard continued dumping 15 cm of new snow. We linger over breakfast and coffee, delaying our departure, but we eventually decide to give it a try. We grope our way further up the glacier but it’s too difficult dragging the sleds. One of us dumps his sled and breaks trail while the other follows. Then we switch while the other returns to get his sled. We do this until we reach the height of land at about 800 metres (2,500 ft). The visibility improves and we point our skis downhill.
Several hours later, we ski off the glacier into the Fram Valley. It’s completely free of snow and we have 20 kilometres to go to the sea ice of Fram Fiord. But we are too tired to think about that and set up the tent at the base of the glacier. We have running water to cook with instead of having the melt snow. Exhausted, I fall asleep not worrying about the task ahead.
More than four weeks into the trip, we’ve consumed the bulk of our food but my pack feels like a ton of bricks. I swear off backpacking altogether. It’s for suckers. Dragging a sled three times the weight or pedalling a loaded bicycle is much easier. John and I hike about four kilometres together. At this point, John dumps the contents of his pack and goes back for the remainder while I carry on another four kilometres and find a suitable camp site. I dump the contents of my pack and return to pick up what John left behind. He meets me there with the final load he picked up at last night’s camp and we trudge on together.
We are sitting outside for once enjoying a cup of tea after the day’s work and spot some musk oxen on the other side of the valley. We watch them cross the river as they continue to wander towards us. They haven’t seen us yet, so we stay seated and watch them through binoculars coming closer. We are in a little hollow and lose sight of them momentarily when, suddenly, they appear on a little rise about 50 metres away and they spot us. They don’t seem to be bothered by our presence and continue to graze. There are three cows and three calves.
We enjoy watching them, making photos and video when all at once they stampede off down the valley. We watch them run until they disappear over a distant ridge. We don’t know what finally spooked them. Perhaps they got a good whiff of our scent, which I’m sure is not very appealing after a month on the trail.
When we wake up, the landscape has been transformed back to a winter wonderland and it’s still snowing. We fester in the tent until it looks like it had stopped and we decide to haul a load five kilometres further down the valley. John hauls a sled and I carry a full backpack. The walk back to camp was more pleasant. It continued to snow as we dive back into the tent.
I wake up with a start. It’s warm. Sun! I open the tent and there is no trace of the snow from earlier in the day. Absolutely none. It’s like we’ve woken up in a different place. We have breakfast, pack up camp and haul it 10 kilometres down the valley. Then we return for the load we cached the previous day. The sun is gone and the weather is still unstable but at least there is no more major precipitation – for the moment.
We’ve caught up to the musk oxen that we saw a couple of days earlier and the herd has grown some. We try not to disturb them and camp on a gravel bar in the river valley while they contentedly graze in a meadow above the bank. We have only a few kilometres to go until we can get on the sea ice in Fram Fiord. The weather has been brutal for the last two weeks, making travel much harder, and we’re both tired of it. To remain positive and motivated has certainly been difficult but we have managed to press on despite the difficult travelling conditions.
Wearing backpacks we drag our lightened sleds over the rocks of the river bed. The sleds are taking a beating but they’re tough and withstand the abuse quite well. As we near the sea ice, we cross the river. Our boots have been wet for two weeks and I hardly care about wet feet any more. We eventually reach the sea ice and manage to get to Anstead Point. The wind is cold but at least it’s not snowing or raining.
We are camped among some old winter houses made of boulders and whale bone dating back anywhere from 500 to 1000 years, perhaps even older, predating the arrival of modern Inuit. Large chunks of whale bone stick up from the ground, forming circular pits lined with boulders. In their time, the whale bones would have formed a trellis above the pit and animal skins would have covered the structure. It’s unimaginable that people with only primitive tools successfully hunted whales here. It’s a cool site but I’m too tired to really appreciate it and go to sleep.
The sun beats down on the tent as we awaken. Finally! For the first time in two weeks, we have breakfast outside and soak up the warmth of the sun. We try to dry out wet socks and boots as we linger in camp, admiring the whalebone house sites and the landscape on the horizon. Smith and Cone Islands are visible across Jones Sound, and beyond, Devon Island lies on the horizon more than 70 kilometres away.
We eventually pack up and head out. Ice conditions are pretty good but there is still a lot of water on the ice, especially in the mouth of Starnes Fiord. Wet feet again. Oh well. We follow a lead in the ice, looking for a place where it’s narrow enough to cross but a polar bear stops us in our tracks. He’s a few hundred metres ahead and we wait, giving him time to move on. We lose sight of him in the pack ice ahead.
After a while, we continue and follow the bear’s tracks. He’s a big boy with size 12 feet. His track eventually makes a sharp turn to the right out to the open sea ice and we continue to pick our way through the ice rubble near shore. We have a good day and manage 22 kilometres. We’re only a day away from Grise Fiord now. We are camped in the shade of the mountains, and while the sun shines on the ice out to sea and Devon Island beyond, a cold wind drives us back into the tent where we make dinner. It’s amazing what comfort a few microns of nylon can provide.
We make camp a few kilometres from Grise Fiord at Brume Point, not wanting to camp in town. We have a couple of days before our flight to Resolute and we relax in the sun. We also heat up some water and have a bath to be somewhat presentable once we are among people again. My cell phone pings and messages are coming in. While we were travelling, a cell tower was installed in Grise Fiord and the service is now active. Suddenly, we are connected to the rest of the world again. The illusion is over.
A few more images from the final couple of days: