Into The Realm Of The Inuit
Nowhere to hide in the stark landscape
The sun came up over the horizon, shedding light on Prince Edward Sound, as the winds relentlessly gusted and the cold cut through my Arctic clothing like a knife. There was nowhere to hide in the stark landscape. It was the coldest weather I have ever experienced, about – 60 with the wind. Well above the Arctic Circle and as far north as Point Barrow at the northern most point of Alaska, my brother and I had to stop our snowmobiles and strip off our parkas to layer more sweaters underneath. The sweat we had built up after augering through 7 foot thick ice was becoming life threatening. This was Day Seventeen of an epic snowmobile expedition. We had already made our way across massive Great Bear Lake, past the Arctic Circle and the tree line. This was no man’s land now, and we were living at the whim of Mother Nature’s most ferocious conditions. We pushed on despite the cold, headed for the Inuit community of Ulukhaktok to meet up with our friend Pat Ekpakohak. The conditions were tough, but we endured nothing in comparison to what Pat dealt with in the same area seventeen years earlier.
I knew I wanted to head to the Arctic to undertake one of the most extreme snowmobile expeditions I could find, as well as to learn about Arctic travel and survival from some of the last true woodsman and landsman in the north along the way. The Arctic holds a certain romance; it is a region steeped in natural and human history, bound in the tradition of hearty Inuit, daring explorers, traders and Vikings. The draw of the true frontier can be powerful for the adventurous at heart. The Arctic remains a place where men can disappear without a trace. Travellers must be self-sufficient. The risk is great, the region unforgiving. My research for this snowmobile expedition told me that I had found the right place, and the right route. And so in early March of 2011, I decided to tackle the Arctic head on.
Our adventure began in Tulita (formerly Ft. Norman) Northwest Territories. Our Polaris 600 wide track snowmobiles were couriered there by truck from Yellowknife by Brian Borowitz, a hard-core winter road hot-shot it was a thirty-hour round trip for Brian on the dangerous winter road. We were already well off the beaten path in Tulita, an old Hudson’s Bay Company trading post on the Mackenzie River. From Tulita we planned a three-hour snowmobile ride on the winter road to the Dene native hamlet of Delene (formerly Ft. Franklin), which lies on the south-western shore of Great Bear Lake. Ft. Franklin was named for Sir John Franklin of Arctic lore, an 1850’s explorer whose record of Arctic exploration is significantly more ill fated than mine. However, my brother Ted and I were far better prepared than
“the man who ate his boots”.
We had snowmobiles, modern compasses, GPS devices, topographic maps and a satellite phone; we even had a satellite Internet device I would be using for blogging. Starting from Deline, we planned to cross the ominous and massive Great Bear, a lake so huge there are spots where no land can be seen for 360 degrees. It is the largest lake entirely within the borders of Canada and the eighth largest lake in the world. At the northeast tip of the water body we would cross the Arctic Circle and then travel overland to the Hamlet of Kugluktuk on the Arctic coast, crossing the tree line on the way. After refuelling in Kugluktuk we would leave the mainland behind us, venturing onto the sea ice and into the Arctic Archipelago, completing our trip in the hamlet of Ulukhaktok, on western Victoria Island. This is where we would reunite with Pat Ekpakohak and his wife Jean. We had met them a couple years earlier at the end of a long canoe expedition, and Pat was the one who spawned my excitement to travel the Arctic wilderness by snowmobile. In the planning stages of the trip, Pat helped us with our route from Kugluktuk to Ulukhaktok, but as the March weather warmed and our trip was delayed, we almost found ourselves in the same treacherous predicament Pat was in seventeen years prior.
We spent a couple days in Deline, where we made sure our machines were in good condition and talked about our trip with our buddy Leeroy, who had traveled part of our route before. I was nervous; I had never done a trip like this before. I had a lot of northern expedition experience but that was in the summer time. I had a lot of winter camping experience but that had been in areas much farther south, in my home province of Ontario. Luckily, both my brother and I had a lot of experience traveling on frozen lakes and reading ice conditions, but now we were in the Arctic, where blizzards can shred your tent in seconds, polar bears loom, leads in sea ice can open right in front of you, and the ice you are traveling on can break, separating you from land and sending you drifting towards Siberia on an ice pan.
To make matters worse, I had a fairly small understanding of engines and little experience with snowmobiles in general. With potential disaster scenarios flashing through my mind, I took a deep breath and reminded myself that this wasn’t my first time at the rodeo. And yet even though I was confident in my skills and knew I could do it, I also knew there is always a risk on these types of excursions, no matter how skilled you are.
With a mixture of confidence and apprehension, our machines roared out from Deline and onto the Bear, all our gear and fuel towed in large toboggans. Out on massive Bear, the wind creates hard packed drifts like moguls on a ski slope. We had to ride across these for hours on end every day. Our travel on the lake started well but we were a little concerned about running into pressure ridges, which we had been warned about in Deline.
Because of Great Bear’s northern latitude, the entire water body freezes about four feet thick, and ice remains on the lake for eight months of the year. Expanding and contracting of the ice creates huge pressure ridges that shoot directly up out of the ice, easily rising to twenty feet or more in some places. The hard water fault lines are serpentine along their course and they stretch on for miles. The ridges can be dangerous, it can be very tough to find a place to cross, and ice conditions around them are often unstable. Ted and I ran into our first pressure ridge right in the middle of a huge crossing on Day Two. We followed the ridge for five miles and, with an axe and a dry spruce pole, checked every place that looked safe to cross. The noise the spruce pole made when we drove it into the ice told us whether it was safe or not. With the axe, we could chop into the ice as deeply as needed to get a firm read on its stability. We finally got across but we were still in the middle of the lake.
On Day Four, Ted and I stood side by side while checking the ice conditions at another pressure ridge. A weak chop with the axe sent water back up the hole. I stuck the spruce pole in the hole to see how far down the second layer was. I was thinking maybe six inches, or a foot. But surprise—there was no second layer. When Ted saw the spruce pole go down five feet or more, he wisely started shuffling his feet on the ice, quickly backing up and saying, “Get out of here, get out of here” with disguised panic. The ice was just an inch thick, the minimum to support a person.
The weather remained relatively warm as we augured through the ice in search of take trout.
The lake is a world-renowned fishery but we had somewhat dismal fishing results; it took us a few hours, three different spots, and a lot of work augering to hook into these fish. We had been told earlier in Deline that the bite was off this year, but no one knew why. I had planned to take rest stops for fishing as we traveled but in the end our schedule would not allow for as much as I hoped for. Each time you want to fish, the auger needs to be painstakingly unpacked and then packed away again. An improper packing job will result in the auger and gear becoming damaged. Holes through the hard and thick ice need to be drilled to drop a line, and tackle needs to be broken out. It is very time consuming. Never-the-less, we did catch a couple ten-pounders that day.
That evening, as darkness set in, a nasty storm was brewing to the east. We had a tip off that there were some cabins in the area, but we wanted to reach shelter as quickly as possible. Thinking we had missed the cabins, we headed for a sheltered bay, but as we rounded an island, there they were. It was a beautiful sight; we got a roaring fire going in the stove, fried up some bannock and trout, and we were toasty warm as storm winds whistled past the windows.
On Day Five we rode into Hornby Bay, which lies in the northeastern corner of Great Bear’s McTavish Arm and is dissected by the Arctic Circle. This is where we would leave the Bear behind us and push for the Arctic coast. The bay was named after John Hornby, a white man who lived with the natives of the area. Hornby became famous for starving to death in 1927 along the Northwest Territories’ Thelon River, a fate Ted and I fortunately avoided when we were given a caribou leg by Gerry.
Gerry and a few other men from Kugluktuk were in Hornby Bay teaching high school kids traditional skills. We were as surprised to see them as they were to see us. We broke out our maps and showed them the route we planned to take to Ulukhaktok from Kugluktuk. Isaac, who spent most of his life living on the north shore of Prince Albert Sound, took one look at our route and announced it would not work, as the ice was too unstable. Speaking Inuinnaqtun with the other men in the group, Isaac drew a new line of travel on our 1:250,000 topo map, a longer but safer route. Isaac had traveled the route many times, even by dogsled in the old days, in order to trade at the Hudson’s Bay post in Coppermine (presently Kugluktuk). Isaac, like most of his generation, was born and raised on the land. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that the people of the far north started moving into permanent settlements. Thanks to his experience, we knew we were getting good advice—and it may have saved our lives. When we called Pat on our sat phone to ask him about the new route, he wholeheartedly agreed. Pat confirmed that our original route, which crossed the mouth of Prince Albert Sound, had become unsafe in the last week or so. We also learned that Pat had to leave soon; Canadian government scientists wanted him 200 miles to the northeast at a polar bear research station in about five days. This meant the time we would get to spend with Pat would be small, unless we hurried. I learned that time should not dictate your travel in the Arctic—that’s how you run into trouble—but that safety and weather must be the travel guidelines to follow. Start rushing and you will be in danger. However, Ted and I would need to bend this rule a little bit.
Leaving Hornby Bay late in the afternoon after fishing and tightening suspensions, we planned to make it to Dismal Lakes, which are half way to Kugluktuk and the coast. As we rode up the large hill that flanks the northeastern side of Hornby Bay we knew we would be arriving at Dismal well after dark. Soon after the Bear disappeared we crossed the tree line, which was astounding. The timber vanished very quickly and we were transported into a different world; the weather grew far colder, and the horizon disappeared as we rode into a whiteout.
We could barely see the trail left from Gerry and Isaac as we drove slow trying to conserve gas. The dramatic change in the country was a little unnerving. We had left native Dene territory and entered the realm of the Inuit. Continuing into pitch darkness, traveling up and down steep hills as the wind howled, we rode on. Any exposed skin at this point would freeze in minutes. Following the Teshierpi River we caught a break from the wind in a protected canyon.
When we rolled into Dismal Lakes at 3:00 am, the wind was really blowing and snow was coming in sideways. We rode up to a very small cabin on an island, a light flicked on, and a guy came out to greet us. Thankfully he invited us into the warm cabin where we sipped tea as thick steam poured in through the crack at the bottom of the door. Larry and his son had come from Kugluktuk to hunt wolves, and his son killed his first one that day. We made camp near the cabin and rode back to town with Larry and his son the next day. Rolling into town on quarter tanks was cutting it a little close; our new machines burned more gas than we had anticipated. We had to spend two days in Kugluktuk replacing runners on the bottom of our toboggans—it is amazing how abrasive the snow is—since they were worn to the thickness of a dime.
We worried we were going to miss Pat, not to mention our flight home, if we didn’t head for Ulukhaktok as soon as possible.
With our guns slung over our shoulders, we rode down the streets of Kugkluktuk and out onto the sea ice.
We passed our first muskoxen herd as we crossed the rough ice of the Coronation Gulf. That evening, we encountered what I later learned was an old D.E.W. Line sight (Distant Early Warning Line). It consisted of an airfield, a huge warehouse, geodesic domes, and airplane hangars. It was built at an incredible expense during the Cold War to protect against a Russian attack over the Pole. The large warehouse was open, and it was pitch black inside. Ted and I slept in the warehouse on the cold concrete floor, surrounded with old chemical drums, expired aviation fuel, instant heat meals, and a diesel generator. It was the most miserable night of the trip. The place looked like something straight out of a James Bond movie.
After sawing and frying frozen caribou for breakfast, we left the eerie Cold War base behind and rode up the western coast of Victoria Island to Rymer Point, where we were greeted by another herd of muskoxen.
Spending the night at Rymer in Isaac’s small cabin, we knew we would have to make a huge push for Ulukhaktok the next day. When we left the next morning, we didn’t talk about it but we both knew we would ride through the night. While cutting over the Wollaston Peninsula, we passed several herds of muskoxen before we stopped to fish in the evening. We drilled through seven feet of lake ice straight into rocks, damaging the blade of our auger. It was very difficult to make the next hole; this is where we worked up a sweat, a big no no when you are above the tree line. When we finally started fishing, the sun was almost down and the water under the ice was only a foot deep. We caught absolutely nothing. I had to remind myself of the Ptarmigan we got the day before, which meant we had enough food, but it was pretty tough not getting a fish after all that effort.
Our route continued north over lakes and tundra toward Prince Albert Sound. In the pitch black we headed into the Museum Range of the Colville Mountains. It was a little scary when I would crest a hill-top and see nothing but darkness below, before my headlights illuminated the snow in front of me. On our next stop we both agreed to be extra alert and careful, a difficult task when you haven’t slept. We questioned the safety of what we were doing; a couple times it seemed like we were going to fly off a cliff. Following a frozen, unnamed river we decided to cut over the banks at river bends to save time. I saw a pit of darkness ahead and strained my eyes to focus. At the last second I saw it: a huge canyon with sheer 100-foot cliffs. Quickly I turned away, jumped off my machine, and ran a few steps back to signal Ted. I dramatically pointed in the direction I wanted him to go. Ted stopped and looked at me in confusion. I pointed to the canyon that he had not seen. “Holy shit! What are we doing? We shouldn’t be traveling at night like this!” was Ted’s response. I studied my tracks, which came about ten feet from the cliff, before I finally turned away. It was a close call, to say the least.
Soon after the near disaster at the canyon, we rode across Prince Albert Sound heading for the north shore, which seemed like an endless distance away. We were still about 150 miles or more from Ulukhaktok. Although the sun cracked the horizon and visibility got better, we were far from safe in the frigid cold of the Arctic winds. For miles around, all we saw was white, as snow raced across the wind-whipped drifts of the sound. There was no shelter. The rising sun provided no extra warmth. I guessed it was about -60 with the wind. We were very close to breaking our tent and firing up our double burner Coleman stoves for warmth. It would at least have given us a sheltered place to change our clothes.
I wonder now if the Coleman stoves would have provided enough heat to fend off hypothermia if we had taken this option. I have heard it said that “In the Arctic, if you sweat you die” but luckily an extra couple of sweaters silenced our chattering teeth. Ted even pulled off his boots to stick foot warmers in, but his effort was futile and he almost got frost-bite in the brief moment he had his boot off. I didn’t come out unscathed either; I felt the sting of frostbite on my cheeks, nose and ears.
Finally, we reached the north shore of the sound, and turning west, put the wind at our backs. Now we just needed to follow the coast to Ulukhaktok. The snow was so hard packed by the wind; it looked like cement in places. As we pushed on through Safety Channel, the drifts became much smaller and we were able to ride with speed. It felt good. I was so exhausted that when we stopped to refuel and stretch our legs I almost fell over. Snow sprinkled the rugged cliffs lining the western shore of Victoria Island. We rode at their base, watching them tower way over our heads as they guided us towards Ulukhaktok. We are going to make it, I thought to myself, and a wave of goose bumps washed over me. We called Pat to tell him we were almost there. He had been supposed to leave that day but stayed home because of the wind. Exhausted but excited, we rode into Ulukhaktok that evening. We rode for 26 hours straight without even stopping to eat on this run.
Ulukhaktok is a very small and extremely remote Inuit community in the western Arctic. A barge brings their staples once or twice a season. Anything else needs to come to their gravel runway by air. Supplies are staggeringly expensive. Visitors are a big deal there, and we were immediately surrounded by people who were checking out our machines and gear. People wanted to trade with us and everyone was interested in our story. Pat and Jean greeted us with warm hugs and brought us into their home where they treated us to some delicious muskoxen that Jean fried up. We spent a long time talking with Pat, who seemed incredibly proud of us. We learned a few crucial tips from him, and he showed us some of his world-renowned carvings. Unfortunately, our time with Pat was too short, as he had to leave the following afternoon. Pat travels using no compass or GPS for miles over flat monotonous tundra and sea ice. I have no idea how he knows where he is going. This is an awareness that I sadly think I may never gain knowledge of, and it may be lost forever with Pat’s generation, the last true landsman of the Northwest Territories. Sixty-five years of sustenance, hunting and trapping in what remains one of the world’s last frontiers is what it takes to master a skill like this, not to mention generations of accumulated knowledge that has been passed along.
“He has nine lives, that man,” Jean said in a melancholy voice, after Pat left. She handed me an old northern newspaper and I began to read. On a dark November day in 1994, Pat Ekpakohak was riding across the mouth of Prince Albert Sound as blizzard winds relentlessly gusted. Vision obscured Pat went through the unstable ice on his snowmobile. He would have died if his komatik (sled) hadn’t been stopped by a large snow-drift. Soaked in seawater, his parka and clothing were extremely heavy, and he was barely able to pull himself out of the water using the rope attached to his komatik. As he dug through his sled to find his survival gear, his clothing quickly froze in the blizzard gales. Pat got out his tent, naphtha stove, radio, and what little rations he had. Stripping out of his frozen clothing and fighting unconsciousness, Pat wrapped himself in the tent fly, set up his canvas tent, and fired up his Coleman cooking stove for warmth. Shivering uncontrollably, he battled against the urge to pass out, knowing that if he did, it would mean his life. Rationing what little gas he had, he cursed himself for not bringing extra fuel, clothes, and food. What made Pat’s predicament even worse was that the ice he’d been traveling on broke off of the main sheet and was floating out to sea. There was no way to get back to the mainland without rescue. He tried again and again to radio Kugluktuk. Several miles away, on the north shore of the sound, Pat’s brothers were sitting out the storm in their small trapping cabin, concerned that Pat had not returned home. Fearing the worst, they turned on their radio and heard a broken signal from Kugluktuk, a report that someone was in trouble at the mouth of Prince Albert Sound. Immediately they knew it was their brother, because really, who else was out there? Fighting the blizzard, they pushed into the darkness to rescue their brother but the storm was too strong and they were forced to turn back. Kugluktuk radioed search and rescue in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a three-hour flight away. The rescue team took off and began flying northwest towards the heart of the storm, as Pat prayed for his life. He was very close to losing his focus as unconsciousness drew closer and closer. Finally Pat heard a voice on his radio. It was the pilot from the rescue plane. As Pat helped guide them to his location by burning his remaining gas, the plane dropped a large ball onto the pan of ice. The ball is a special device that can accurately show pilots which way the wind is blowing, using sensors and lights. When the wind direction was discovered the plane sent warm clothes, food, tea, and plenty of naphtha gas down to Pat by parachute. This saved his life for the time being, but he was still adrift on a massive ice pan. When the storm broke, Pat’s brothers sprung into action, rode back to town, and towed back a boat. Rowing out to the ice pan, they returned to Ulukhaktok with Pat. Later, they even managed to save his snowmobile. The rope had frozen solid in the ice, suspending the machine in the water. Dumbfounded, I put down the old paper and gawked at Jean, who simply nodded. “Nine lives,” she said again.
Gazing at the town from Pat and Jean’s porch, I thought about how far Ted and I had come on this journey; it was there that I realized why I had taken on this trip. I did it to gain a deeper feeling of connectedness. I love being close to the land. I love talking to people whose grandfathers were true nomadic sustenance hunters. I now feel closer to a way of life and an understanding that still lives inside us all, but is forgotten to most of the world. It is this feeling of connection, realized only through my amazement with wild country, which fuels my taste for adventure. That is what gave me the desire and energy to do this trip. I wasn’t on a mineral exploration expedition, I’m not an 1850’s explorer, and I don’t work for the geological survey of Canada, the Canadian army, or Museum of Civilization. Before-hand, many people asked me “Why?” “Why are you doing the trip?” I could never come up with a straight answer for the question, not until that moment in Ulukhaktok. But now when I’m asked, I know exactly what to say: “To find an answer.”
While reminiscing on Jean’s porch, the accomplishment of the journey started to manifest inside of me. Ted and I traveled roughly 596 miles in 12 days and spent eighteen days in the north. We did something that very few people can claim, and I wonder if anyone has ever done the whole thing in one shot like we did. The planning that went into this was major, the trip itself was tough, and the dangers we faced were monumental. Letting it all sink in, I felt that wave of goose bumps again as my purpose fuelled my sense of accomplishment. “We did it,” I murmured to myself, and we did.