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May 1999

Landscapes of the Soul: Canada’s Arctic

Like your first love, you never forget your initial visit to the Arctic.

In my teenage years, I’d hiked, paddled, and climbed throughout what is now Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I’d had the happy conviction that the midnight sun would become a permanent, if seasonal, part of my adult life. But by some then-unimaginable quirk of fate, this journey with Jeff is the first time I’ve been back to the 66th parallel in a quarter of a century.

Not a breath of wind disturbs the air at the head of the fjord. Before us, glimmering in midday sunshine, lies the great sweeping arc of a 3,000-foot-deep valley. It’s a perfect U, with 1,000-foot-high granite walls rimming the broad bowl, and we are standing on its floor. Hanging glaciers tumble from notches sliced between cliffs, and glacier snouts pour forth milky-white torrents. These split into ever more braids as they cascade toward the valley bottom, where they are swept up by the broad brown span of the Weasel River and in short order are deposited into the salt water of Pangnirtung Fjord. We can see all this because there isn’t a single tree anywhere. From what we can tell, there’s not so much as a bush on this vast island, the fifth largest in the world. We’re confronted by an utterly silent, shockingly sparse, and unbelievably beautiful landscape. It’s so still, so quiet, so crisp that I feel as if I’m in a vast diorama depicting the end of the Ice Age. All that’s missing are oversize models of mastodons and cavemen.

Eventually we’re forced to lower our eyes from the scenery to confront the 90-pound packs at our feet. Our desire to go high requires ropes and other hardware that we wouldn’t have to carry if we were sticking to Auyuittuq (eye-you-eat-uk) National Park Reserve’s main trail. As we stagger up the immense Weasel Valley, we are teased unmercifully by the 1,000-plus-foot granite precipices that seem to be whispering, “Climb me.” But we’re not interested, not even if it means dropping our loads early. Mt. Asgard, our goal picked from magazine photographs and from the recommendations of friends who have scaled it, lies at the head of the Weasel Valley. For us, Mt. Asgard’s twin towers are unmatched in magnificence.

But what I want even more than climbing the mighty Asgard is to hike the entire 25-mile length of the Weasel River Valley. I desperately need to reconnect with an Arctic world, to witness everything she has to show. During rest stops, my eyes dance freely across the Weasel’s landscape, pausing now and then to stare fiercely at its every twist and fold.

I was obsessed by Arctic spaces even before I first witnessed one at age 13. The magic doorway stood in a wire rack at the Seattle Public Library: Never Cry Wolf, by Farley Mowat. That book swallowed me whole. From that moment I knew, with the certainty of adolescent passions, that wolf biology would become my life and the Arctic, my homeland. The inner door opened the following year, 1969, when an adult hiking and mountaineering buddy invited me on a Seattle Mountaineers trip to what would become the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. His offer penetrated my soul like the midnight sun itself, and I don’t believe I slept for a month after that happy moment.

For four days, Jeff and I labor under absurdly heavy mountaineering loads as we ply the lower valley’s trail. At night, we camp without a rainfly, using the tent merely to keep a moderate-by Arctic standards, that is-population of mosquitoes at bay. The sun drops just low enough to remind us that a new day is in the making. In one of my favorite Arctic rituals, our circadian rhythms shift so that we’re eating dinner during the magic midnight hours. By the time we waken, the sun is beating harshly on our tent. My watch shows that it’s noon.

Other than frequent disappearances beneath shin-high braids of glacial runoff, the route is remarkably good. Auyuittuq is Canada’s, and perhaps North America’s, most accessible Arctic preserve. Though little known within the United States backpacking community (the response when I told friends at home about my destination was usually, “What’s a baffin?”), hikers from around the world flock here to taste the polar life. On average, about 400 visitors arrive each year. While this may not seem like a crowd, nearly everyone visits during the narrow window of early July to late August. The majority follow our route up the Weasel River to Summit Lake, its headwater, where they explore the nearby glaciers before returning via the same trail. The more adventuresome fly instead to tiny Broughton Island on the north edge of the park, where they ride a skiff for the 4- to 12-hour journey-depending on ice conditions-to the mouth of the Owl River. This somewhat wilder and only slightly less spectacular valley also springs from Summit Lake, and Owl River backpackers finish on the same trail we’re hiking up. Each journey extends 50 miles and usually lasts a week or two.

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