For months I trained hard and prepared for a solo trek into the Parks’s mystical and uber wild, Akshayuk Pass, one of the most remote, demanding but also rewarding hikes in Canada.
However I always believed an early death would be from drowning. I’d had a couple of water scares as a youngster which served to reinforce such dread and then years ago when Trish and I met, our Chinese fortune said, “ a river of grief will follow”. It could have said maybe it’s not a good match, or she’ll steal your money. But no, to me it meant someone was going to fish my skinny little carcass out of the drink someday.
I wondered if I was heading to that river as that damned fortune stuck in my head like the shadow of a school yard bully. Not that I went around buying more life insurance and indiscriminately hugging strangers and loved ones. But I wondered…
Things start poorly before I even get out of Pangnirtung Airport. My First Air flight from Iqaluit is already a day late then it returns my backpack with the hip belt completely severed, which is kind of like finding your car rental comes without tires. Big first lesson about the north—expect the unexpected.
Then Maha Ghazal, my magnificent Pang saviour and couchsurfing host, a marine mammal biologist from ‘the south’, would rescues me with a loaner pack and a mountain of kindness.
I quickly repack, reorganize and absorb all her considerable wisdom (and that of her bud Ann-Cecile) about the Pass. I make an appointment with the Park office for the mandatory two hour orientation. They tell me to return after their lunch break. The Park welcomed just over two hundred adventurers last year (compared to Banff’s almost four hundred thousand) so it sounds like the whole season could be a lunch break. But the legendary ranger Billy gives an thorough orientation and emphasizes the dangers of water crossings, drowning and hypothermia. Oh, there’s also something about polar bears.
The next morning local outfitter Peter Kilabuk, a former MLA who quit politics to look after his disabled, adopted son takes me by boat, deep into Pangnirtung Fjord to the floodplain of the Weasel River and the trail head.
The first thing I noticed is all the geese shit everywhere. Because nothing decomposes very quickly, it looks like all the geese and their ancestors have turned the soggy tundra into a poop minefield. Then it hits you. The grandiose scale of the jagged peaks, the thunderous ribbons of water falling 4000 feet from glaciers above, as well as the occasional calving of ice and rockfalls.
But above all there is a profound sense of isolation and detachment from the world, and from time. After Peter shoves off the only sounds are geese and the distant waterfalls, which are kilometres away so they sound like automobile traffic after a while. Otherwise there is no evidence anywhere of human existence. The Park’s Penny Ice Cap contains the last remnants from the last ice age, so except for the receding glaciers, one gets the feel that most of the planet has moved onto to other things but has left this corner behind.
It takes me almost two hours to cover the first 3 km as I can’t stop but soak in the solitude and the enormity of it all. I love the fact that I’m alone, that the success or failure of this trip is on me. The river valley I follow is surrounded on both sides by sheer, jagged mountains. Many of the foreboding peaks are named after Norse Gods like Thor, Odin, Tyr and Asgard. And if in their heavenly perch they suffered from kidney stones, they likely deposited them in Auyuittuq in the form of randomly scattered boulders, many the size of shipping containers.
But the landscape’s harshness is softened by brightly coloured moss and summer flowers.
At times the trekking is on solid, level ground and I’m able to do a 4km/hr pace. Other times the steep moraines remind me of slogging my way up giant sand dunes in Morocco, although here it’s with fourty-five pounds on your back. And the tundra is an energy drain—as each sinking step taken takes twice the energy as you never really can plant, pivot and push off the soggy morass. Then there’s the silty quicksand that wants to swallow you. We’ll get to the river crossings and the boulder fields in a second. All this to say, a consistent pace is impossible to maintain.
Crater Lake is my first moraine and climb, followed by my first significant water crossing.
The first few braids of icy water are only mid calf, then I hit one well above my knees, my red line. I had preordained that I would not cross anything above the knees. I re-evaluate and decide that with such a guideline, someone under five and a half feet such as myself would barely get into the park. I then recall Maha’s wisdom to swap out my pants for rain pants. I do so and power through. I fist pump and let out a whoopee. In doing so I startle a weasel which quickly scatters, perhaps in laughter as it probably realizes this crossing was a mere amuse bouche to a potential last supper.
After a slow nine hours or so, I camp that first night feeling confident but also with bear spray nearby. I sleep in to almost 7, well past the optimal water crossing time for the nearby Schwarzenbach Falls (at 520 metres, it’s the highest Arctic waterfall, although like most waterfalls here, they are so far up and away that any sense of scale is lost).
The crossing is just before the Arctic Circle mark, and like most, is a series of tightly grouped streams of varying volumes. My knee feels strained as I don my rain pants, my neoprene shoes and socks and test the water without the pack. It’s fast, it’s cold and it’s mid thigh. Triple red lines. I am forced to make a hasty retreat and scour for safer crossing points. I review all the safety techniques and tell myself that the pack’s weight will stabilize me against the force of the current. I plunge back in. Halfway across I raise a foot too high above bottom and it gets pushed back, throwing me off balance just long enough to scare me. But I recover and hit dry rock. I look up and see the Arctic Circle marker and let out a keg size whoopee. I send Trish a GPS message and tell her I now own the Park.
However somewhere along the way I’ve strained my left knee further. I’ve lost rotational and lifting mobility. Scampering up uneven and rocky terrain especially moraines becomes a hardship. Several times I lose my balance and almost leave my face in the rocks.
Towards the end of the day I can see the Thor emergency shelter. But I lose the route in a field of boulders that only the Norse Gods could have created. For if they had giant cats they likely would have emptied the giant kitty litter, trapping wanderers like myself. Some of the boulders are the size of Volkswagons, others are rocking chairs. At times I’m on my hands and one good knee inching up one painstaking step at a time. A couple of times loose rocks give way and I slide off. Stepping off the rocks triggers shots of burning pain into my knee.
I climb out, but it costs me my last six shots as I’m completely exhausted. Then I see that instead of flat, solid ground between me and the shelter, I have come to a narrow but raging water crossing so loud and furious I can’t hear myself cuss. I survey the area. Large, slippery rocks dot the stream. I could rock hop to the other side but decide it’s a stupid idea with a pack and a wonky knee. I can’t see bottom and my pole dips in at my upper thigh height at the edge. A river of grief is before me. Yet the shelter is just beyond. If I could reach it I could possibly rehab my knee.
I stand down, hoping water levels will be lower in the morning and decide to find a place to camp across from Mt Thor, among the giant kitty litter, hoping it’s not a rockfall zone.
Camping across from Mt Thor, world’s highest cliff face at 1675 metres, three times the height of the CN Tower, or five times the Eiffel Tower
I find a clearing no bigger than a hot tub and set up my tent but snap the pole at the top hub. Thirty five years of solo camping and this is the moment I break a pole. I can’t find an emergency pole connector. I improvise with tape and a stake as a brace but it won’t hold . I’m absolutely livid with myself and feel like a massive loser. But with little choice, I sleep in my dilapidated tent by the water and hope I’m not drenched by rain and pulverizing winds.
The next morning I crawl out of my tent which because of condensation and the lack of a supporting pole, makes me feel like I’ve slept in a wet condom. The nearby water level has lowered a few inches, but my knee is burning and I can barely get my boots on, let alone change into water crossing gear. I slowly break camp and re-survey the surroundings and my situation. The clouds are low and thick. Rain is in the air. With my bum knee I’m an accident waiting to happen and without shelter I’m completely exposed without a chance to rest further. To abort means failure, and a major loss of face. I try and convince myself the safest option is the only option. But I feel like a wimp. Perhaps if I turn back towards the Ulu emergency shelter about 20 km away, I can find trekkers who’ve trailed me and who will lend me their pole connector?
I find a route out of the boulder field without vigorous climbing. I hit solid level ground which bodes well for the wonky knee which has loosened up. I get a steady pace going until the next moraine climb at Windy Lake.
With my trekking poles, I vault myself up one agonizing step at a time, though I rest frequently to listen to the steady thundering of the waterfalls cascading from the glaciers and towering peaks.
I run across two trekkers from Toronto. They’re concerned that I’m hobbling and solo. But they’re not concerned enough to give me their pole connector. I know enough of the north to know that if they lived here they would not have hesitated to give me their connector and would have walked me out too. I know I would have forked over my connector if the situation were reversed.
The down slope off the moraine is treacherous and I lose my footing. I plant a trekking pole to brace a slide. It gets caught between rocks and I hear it snap, yet somehow I have not face planted. The broken pole tells me I have made the right call to abort and I stop admonishing myself. But a broken pole and a bad knee is like a road trip without brakes . Miraculously just metres away is an inukshuk with a ski pole leaning against it. It’s too long and it’s a ghastly mustard yellow. Pushing aside my misplaced fashion sense, I can’t imagine why and how it got there, but it’s like an airdrop of water in the desert, a lifeline. The Norse Gods are telling me I can do this.
I re-cross the Arctic Circle marker at Schwarzenbach Falls. The water is unspeakably cold and raw, but also faster and deeper this time. I manage the first two crossings which are mid thigh. However the third wallops me like someone’s unleashed a firehose and sends me back. I search repeatedly for the widest, shallowest and weakest current. With little to choose from, I prepare to wade into my best hope, knowing this is the most dangerous and risky thing I’ve ever attempted and possibly my last. Yet I’m very business-like. I tell myself that if I fall in and lose my gear my only hope of survival is to keep moving at all costs. I calmly regulate my breathing, then step in once again. The water is fastest at the edges and in the middle. I hope Trish will forgive me if I don’t make it. I shorten my sidesteps and lean into the maw of the river.
And then it’s over. There is no whooping, no fist pumping this time. Perhaps the realization that a lifelong dread almost came true is sobering. Perhaps I realize that in this mini episodic man against nature struggle, nature in this harsh, unforgiving and lonely corner can also be compassionate. And so it gave me a free pass. And in doing so it also happened to drop kick my dread and that stupid Chinese fortune once and for all.
The emergency shelter is now only 12 km away. The clouds are still thick, and the wind has accelerated. But patches of blue sky also emerge.
Flood plain and tundra of Weasel River with skies clearing up on way to emergency shelter
It takes me 13 hours to do the almost 20km but I hobble to the shelter, slowed not only by the wonky knee, but the rugged, untamed beauty that invokes both fear and awe.
Ulu emergency shelter below
I base camp out of the shelter for the rest of the week. I get some writing done, do short hikes but mostly just stare off. Then my rations dwindle.
I use the Park’s emergency radio to have a boat pick me up the next day. I am in no hurry to leave despite the wonky knee, I wish I could do just one last river on my way out. But all that’s behind me.
After a week in the Park I’m back in Pang, ready to do a different kind of exploration. Whenever I hop on a plane one of the questions I always ask myself is, ‘could I live here?’ One of the prerequisites is that I have to be a fish out of water. I have a chance to ponder that question. Iqaluit and Pang are themselves different worlds. One is Manhattan to the other’s Smallville. Both are even more remote, culturally unique and intriguing than just about anywhere. My host Maha is off aerial counting belugas (is there a better job than that, anywhere?). I desperately need a shower, but supposedly the municipal workers who pump in water and haul out the sewage, are off hunting the belugas so we’re out of water. Expect the unexpected, even when you’re grimy and stinky.
Pangnirtung’s old Hudson’s Bay Trading Post
So I walk the village of 1,500. It’s 95% Inuk, the rest southerners, unlike Iqaluit which is more balanced and multicultural with African transplants driving cabs and Filipinos schlepping coffee at the Tim Hortons. A week without showering or shaving and I get mistaken for a local as people try to speak with me in Inukitut.
Ignoring the stunning backdrop of the fjiord and surrounding hills, things look mighty dry (literally and figuratively—a beer would’ve been a Godsend but is verboten), dusty, ramshackle and dilapidated. Peoples’ broken and discarded possessions are scattered about like unwanted toy soldiers.
Many of the older homes are abandoned and boarded up—remnants of an asbestos happy time. It’d be easy to speak ill of the north’s grim social determinants of health. It’s all there in high def and extensively documented. Heck it’s a wonderful backdrop for a tv series about a trailer park on ice.
Pang Fest: the annual music fest. There are zillions of kids everywhere, at all times. Many of the local musicians would have been booed off stage back home for such performances, but here the locals cheer and support their own.
I’ve heard southerners go on about what’s wrong and hard about life in the north. The costs of living (though salaries and subsidies soften the hit for some).The internet sucks so forget Netflix. Nothing gets done too fast or works especially well. One Iqaluit administrator spoke of her frustration when many her staff called in sick the day the clam dig started. If you’re a cop or in child protection, you’re shopping in the same aisle as the family whose kid you just apprehended or parent you just hauled off.
But it’s only part of the picture, though it’s often the one visitors with white middle-class sensibilities crashing through off a cruise on a point and shoot mission will ask about. People don’t factor in that the territorial government is younger than high speed internet so no wonder things don’t move like in the south.
Most locals I spoke with either didn’t have any real job, or had several with much anticipation centred around hunting. Which in the north means fishing, whaling, walrus, seals, ducks, and the very odd caribou. Indeed there appears to be a particular glee about it, one that appears to be part sport but also survival and community cement.
Iqaluit Harbour, on a cold blustery day that blew in loads of ice
Southerners come to work and make loads of money, then many leave. Is it any wonder locals often seem hostile, or indifferent and mistrustful towards them? And let’s not forget that the Inuk were among the last to leave residential schools, so their scars are among the freshest.
But not all southerners are gold diggers. The high school in Iqaluit is now largely staffed by permanent transplants such as my effervescent Iqaluit couchsurfing host, Maxine Chubbs whose grandson Mars was just born in Iqaluit. That makes 3 generations of her family in the north. One can foretell that they will be part of the modern, assertive wave of northerners who will seal the healing and get things right.
Cemetery overlooking Pangnirtung Harbour (and Fjiord), with sea lift in background
Maxine, during one of several superb hikes we did into Sylvia Grinnell Park
The gentle Eranga, a climate change researcher, Maha in the middle
And people like Maha are into their fourth year and are completely enthralled with their work, the ceaseless beauty, and the social cohesion. She first bought a snowmobile, then a boat. I guess nothing says commitment to locals like buying machines as strangers came by to help her assemble and fix her contraptions—often in minus 30 weather. Now she gets slabs of, ‘country food’ to eat like other locals and she’s drying her own whale meat.
I like to think that both Maxine and Maha, who are obscenely kind and generous, also cloak a goose-down wrapped Wonder Woman spirit that transcends the north and south.
Many of us southerners worry of climate change but do so in largely abstract terms. But to northerners, especially the Inuks, a changing environment and economy are pretty concrete. The caribou don’t roam the way they use. The fish and flora species are different. Fresh water supplies are threatened. Yet more than three quarters of people in Nunavut engage in traditional activities such as hunting and 94% gathered berries or what not. So it’s no wonder attunement to the land and sea and basic survival-related activities continue to take precedence over punching the clock or bagging high school credits.
It’s also a place where western ideas of alienation, ownership, individuality and autonomy don’t mesh so easily with a land where sharing, community and mutual survival are binding. Southern cities allow loners like myself to hide out and be anonymous. Harder to do that in the north. So would an introverted, solo traveler reared in southern sensibilities like myself trade up, or should I say north for one of the least populated and most inhospitable regions in the world? Well if I can face the Akshayuk Pass alone, live the unexpected and adapt to any and every possible mishap and challenge, it’s imaginable.
As I await my flight to Iqaluit, a couple of elders approach me. They’ve figure me out as a southerner. Even to posers with stupid fortunes such as myself, they still greet me with warm, wrinkly smiles. Once I’m back in Iqaluit, I have a Tetley Tea moment on Maxine’s deck. I gaze off into the bay and a tourist comes along, likely thinks I’m an Inuk and snaps a picture of me. Hope he got my good Chinese side.
That wonky knee turned out to be patella femoral syndrome, which sounds like a transgendered Spanish rice dish mash-up gone wrong. Physiotherapy is making it right enough for the next trip….Peru and it’s lesser known Andean treks, 2018. No water crossings anticipated.