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After an hour of speeding down the fjord’s calm waters, the skiff slows and pulls up to a half-
submerged rock. Jeff Bowman and I throw our packs ashore, then leap overboard. Immediately the outboard pulls back, and almost as quickly it melts into the slate-blue horizon. We turn slowly in place, trying to make sense of the sudden shift in our universe. A moment ago we were connected to the familiar electro-mechanical pulse of late twentieth-century life. Now we’re standing alone on Baffin Island, a spectacularly empty 1,000-mile-long chunk of land in Canada’s new Nunavut Territory.
We’ve flown thousands of miles to the northeastern corner of our continent for one ostensible reason: to trace a route up Mt. Asgard, a 3,500-foot granite spire. At least that’s why Jeff invited me on this expedition. Though Jeff is a businessman from Boston and I’m a writer from Hood River, Oregon, we’ve somehow managed to link ropes in Yosemite, the Tetons, New Hampshire, and various rocky points between. But this would be our first adventure where backpacking to the mountain-a three-week trip-involves a greater journey than summiting it. And frankly, the lure of hiking through the foothills is the primary reason why I accepted Jeff’s invitation. I wanted to come home to the Arctic, to my first true love, long ignored but never forgotten.
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.
The upshot is that each day we meet groups of international wilderness buffs. One day, while Jeff and I cool our feet streamside, a family from England wanders into view. Another time, we’re breaking camp when a French couple stops for a chat. At the next camp, we’re treated to tea by an elderly couple from Ontario. The one nationality we almost never encounter is American.
As with my current visit to Baffin Island, the goal of my first Arctic journey was to climb a mountain, in that case 9,020-foot Mt. Chamberlin, the highest peak in the Brooks Range. At least six of us were changed forever by the experience-not the climb, which was stellar, but the Arctic life. We became addicted to the endless horizons and the intimate details of this exquisite landscape, and we kept returning. By my final trip north in 1974, we’d seen tens of thousands of caribou, a dozen wolves, and even more grizzlies. But for all my early passion, somehow the midnight sun dipped below my personal horizon. Only its glow lingered in my dreams.
Maybe that’s why I haven’t needed the Arctic break-in time that Jeff seems to be experiencing on Baffin. He wants wildlife. I, too, would love to see more than a few honking geese and the weasel that poked its head from behind a boulder. But while caribou herds move on, the landscape endures. He also hasn’t adjusted to what he calls its barrenness. I guess that impression is in the eye of the beholder. While Jeff’s gaze tends to skip from trail to distant views, I’m often crawling on bended knees, poking my camera lens into thickets of lichen, lifting my sunglasses to make sure the tundra’s colors are for real. Fireweed, the splendid purple flower that bumps against your chest in lower latitudes, blooms just as intensely up here on Baffin. But since it has to complete its life cycle in just a few weeks, the entire plant, flower included, barely tickles our calves. Still, it grows in such a dense mat that the trailside seems painted by a gigantic purple brush.
Even willow, which at Alaska’s much higher latitudes grows head-high in sheltered nooks, is squashed flat against the ground. Once we spy a knee-high patch; elsewhere the willow elevates itself to boot height at best. We’re told that if we were to cut through a Baffin willow’s pencil-thin stem and examine it with a magnifying glass, we might count 300 annual rings. Baffin, like any Arctic land, is a harsh place. But barren? Hardly. At least not once your senses are attuned. I don’t argue the point with Jeff. Soon enough he’ll understand.
At the end of our fourth Weasel day, we confront a scarier side of the Arctic. This morning’s breeze has worked itself into a bluster. The formerly blue skies are sheeted the color of wet granite, and we’re mortified by the horrid current at whose edge we tremble. Inuit rangers we’d met yesterday had advised us to wait until 2 or 3 in the morning before crossing this notoriously ill-tempered glacial effluent. Despite perpetual daylight, the night air cools enough for glaciers to hold back a portion of their meltwater. Intimidated by what we see during the early evening and knowing of a Japanese hiker who was swept to his death at this spot last year, Jeff and I don down jackets and sit on rocks in the increasingly gloomy chill. But we’re not too good at waiting and soon cave in to our irrational, lets-get-this-over-with impatience. We unstrap hipbelts, link arms, and wade into the torrent.
In no time, the water is pressing unmercifully against my hips, tipping me downstream. Without Jeff bracing from below, I’d be swept away like a soggy rag doll. We shuffle slowly across, anchoring each other and praying that we can continue to stand up to the 30-foot-wide torrent of liquid ice. Neither of us has ever walked through such a powerful current, and if we could turn around, we would. But we can’t.
Suddenly, the water grows shallow and we claw our way onto the bank, delirious with joy. As we dance about trying to get the warmth to return to our legs, two young platinum blondes and an elderly Inuit stride up, obviously intending to cross in the opposite direction. “How was it?” they inquire. “A l-l-little t-t-too intense,” I reply. We implore them not to attempt it until the volume abates during the wee hours of the morning. The Inuit meanders over to commune with the stream for a while, and we learn from the women that their companion hikes this trail weekly while maintaining the outhouses. A few minutes later he returns, announcing that they should wait. I breathe a sigh of relief. Now I don’t have toface up to whether I was more concerned about their safety or about bruising my ego if they’d made it look easy.
In the two rainy, foggy days after our stream crossing, we scramble the moraine above Summit Lake, cross the gray highway of the Caribou Glacier, and finally arrive beneath Mt. Asgard. We wait four days for the weather to improve so we can climb the mountain, all the while staring dumbly at the shroud of sodden clouds, only occasionally glimpsing the peak’s 3,500-foot skyward sweep. We shiver, knock fresh slush from our tent fly, and brew yet another pot of hot chocolate.
On the fifth drippy day, we make the gut-wrenching decision to abandon our dreams of granite. We collapse the soggy tent and leave this inhospitable world of rock and ice above the tundra. A dejected shuffle eventually takes us across the glacier to a moraine-top camp above Summit Lake.
By now it’s early August, and under thick clouds it has become impossible to read during the night’s darkest hours. So I’m asleep when the rain stops falling. In the morning, we feel an unaccustomed brightness on the tent. Over breakfast, we more sense than witness the fog thinning. Then a distant summit pops out from its gauzy blanket. Then another. Soon the clouds lower until they merely carpet the Weasel Valley and leave us warming under a high ceiling of bright vapors. We decide to race back toward our summit, leaving everything here but our climbing hardware and some food and bivy gear.
During the following days, sporadic rain splatters us in waves. But in between, the sun breaks through to dry both rock and climbers. The icicles we’d seen earlier have retreated deep into recessed cracks, and we scamper up the granite with unbridled glee. We drag a backpack behind us and stop every 1,500 feet or so to spend the night on small ledges. At noon on the third day, we haul ourselves over the edge to the perfectly flat, snow-covered summit. In an hour we’ll have to begin the arduous process of rappelling and scrambling down a different, less challenging route, but for as long as possible we let ourselves linger at the apex.
As we climbed the last rope lengths up the mountain, the clouds had gradually dissolved into atmospheric haze, and now bright sunshine does its best to warm our cold hands. In all
directions and as far as we can see are granite monoliths and twisting glaciers. Two great earthen valleys are the only rents in a sterile monotony of endless rock and ice. In the northern rift, we see the Owl River braiding to parts unknown. To the south, the Owl’s twin sister, Weasel, surges down our familiar sun-dappled valley. Here on our frozen summit, we melt snow for tea and dangle our feet over the edge while we sip. We sit quietly, absorbing this ice age landscape, and then I turn to ask Jeff what he thinks about all this. But the mood is one of private contemplation, and instead I leave him to survey his own horizons.
A few months later, I get a letter from Jeff describing his Arctic experience. “Looking out across the landscape one day,” the letter begins, “it felt like we were on top of the world. In this isolated place-something that’s so hard to come by anymore-it seemed that nothing counted other than ourselves, but everything about life mattered. I marveled at how tenaciously life clings to what I had thought was a barren land, and it awed me. At that moment I fell in love with the Arctic.”
As I reread Jeff’s letter, my mind drifts back to youthful northern passions. In my heart I feel the warming glow of the midnight sun, and I realize that first loves never die.
Auyuittuq National Park Reserve, Canada
GETTING THERE: Auyuittuq lies in southern Baffin Island, in Canada’s new Nunavut Territory (formerly part of the Northwest Territories). Fly to Pangnirtung with First Air out of Ottawa (613-839-3340 or 800-267-1247; about $1,030). To get to the park, you’ll need to arrange for a motorboat at the visitor center ($50 per person each way) or fly to Broughton Island ($50 extra) and then take a boat ride (negotiable fee; about $140 per person) to the trailhead for the Owl River-Weasel River trek. There is a $70 per person fee for staying in the national park for more than three days (prices above are in U.S. currency and are subject to change; consult any major newspaper for up-to-date U.S./Canadian conversion rates).
TRAILS: The Weasel River Trail, which we hiked, is well marked, generally easy to follow, and climbs less than 1,500 feet in 25 miles to its source at Summit Lake. The wilder and less-traveled Owl River Trail continues on to North Pangnirtung Fjord. To hike this 50-mile route along both valleys, begin at the north end. Otherwise you could hike to the mouth of the Owl River only to find that ice conditions prevent a boat pickup. In midsummer, glacier crevasses are fully visible and allow for interesting hiking. Use care when walking on glaciers, and do not travel unroped if there’s fresh snow on the glacier because it may conceal crevasses. A few short trails outside the park leave directly from Pangnirtung for a spectacular wilderness journey into country rarely visited by non-Inuit.
RESOURCES:Pangnirtung 26I, 1:250,000 scale (about $6); Canada Map Office; 613-952-7000). Nunavut Handbook: Travelling in Canada’s Arctic ($21.50; Nortext Multimedia, Inc.; 800-263-1452 or 613-727-5466; www.arctic-travel.com) is essential reading for a northern visit. It includes a detailed description of the park.
SEASON: Cross-country skiing is excellent in May and June, when you’ll have to access the park by snowmobile because the fjord is frozen. During breakup in late June or early July, reaching the park requires a rough two-day hike along the shores of the fjord. Hikers clear out by mid-September because of threatening weather.
CONTACT: Auyuittuq National Park Reserve; (867) 473-8828; email@example.com. Its Web site (www.parkscanada.pch.gc.ca/parks/nwtw/Auyuittuq/auyuittuqe.htm) offers everything you need to know about the park, including photos.