Call of the wild

September 4, 2011

From the moment we stepped ashore at the head of Pangnirtung Fiord in Baffin Island in Canada’s far north territory of Nunavut and the sound of the boat dissolved among the waterfalls we felt alone in an ancient primal land controlled completely by the forces of nature. Loaded with more than we could carry we were forced to repeat each day’s journey two more times for the first four days in order to ferry loads.This way we experienced the landscape under different conditions as the weather changed constantly and unexpectedly from sunshine to gale force winds and rain. Rivers rose and fell within hours making crossings dangerous, and avalanches of rock poured down thousand meter rock walls. Camping each night meant finding a huge rock to shelter us and flat ground that was safe from flood. Polar bear safety required stashing food and fuel well away from our camp.

The sheer scale of the Weasel Valley is hard to comprehend with granite walls that tower above us for a thousand metres capped by glaciers hundreds of metres thick. The valley floor has no trees, the tallest shrub being a low growing Arctic willow. When the ice and snow melts in the brief summer months the exposed tundra is covered with flowering plants, Arctic geese fly in formation overhead and eider ducks flock at the river’s edge. The remains of caribou antlers and tracks of other creatures show us that there is life here but we saw little except a lone peregrine falcon.

One of the most inspiring peaks is Thor named after the god of thunder by the Inuit people who have inhabited Baffin Island for 4000 years. The overhanging west face is one of the tallest and home to one of the hardest climbs in the world. The peak’s shape is so dramatic we wanted to make The Fine Line Sculpture in its shadow. This is a land dominated by ice so we were excited to find that some of the winter ice still remained in the coldest part of the valley shaded by the walls.

Although the ice was very thick it was melting at the edges where the rocks absorbed sunlight. Here it was possible to cut off and shape a piece about 1.5m across using our ice axes and with much effort, especially from Len, move it to a suitable site on the ice sheet. We had little time to get the shape right before the sun dipped behind the giant peak of Odin to the west. Since the sun never actually sets here above the arctic circle in summer its golden light touched the high peaks for some time giving me the opportunity to photograph and film the glorious spectacle.

Some days later we had made our way to Summit Lake, climbed up onto the Caribou Glacier and camped on ice beneath the mighty flat topped towers of Mt Asgard. A day or two of clear weather meant this was a highlight of the expedition and a chance to experience the high Arctic terrain I had dreamt of for so long.
The return journey with our heavy loads was punctuated by severe storms, difficult river crossings and a transformed landscape.

The friendly Inuit family with whom we stayed in Pangnirtung told us that the rainfall is the worst for decades and that the annual winter ice festival last Christmas was the first they have held using boats because there was no ice on the fiord.

Our flight out was cancelled and we hitched a ride on a rescue helicopter returning to base after evacuating those in the mountains affected by the severe weather and a polar bear sighting. Flying low across the vast Arctic wilderness of Baffin Island for hours we saw no human habitation only endless rock and tundra interspersed with lakes and patches of remnant ice, as wild as any place can be.