Auyuittuq National Park Part 1, Canada, 2011

In August 2011 I went on a Black Feather 14 day tour of the Auyuittuq National Park on Baffin Island in northern Canada. The group of 6 walkers experienced food hijackers, record water levels from melting glaciers and park closures. We had an improvised schedule due to the various mishaps, moving along in the famous ‘northern time’ (i.e. slowly). But more importantly, we experienced this amazing, barren, stark arctic paradise. Guiding us through this adventure were the professional and lovely Black Feather guides, Candice and Mike.

28 July 2011

I watched the blur of the propellor against a backdrop of beautiful, fluffy white clouds. Beneath the cotton ball expanse of cloud was the massive Penny Ice Sheet, hidden from my eager view. The cloud layer had opened up briefly several times for me, poised at the window with my camera primed, to reveal the fairytale landscape below of rugged, barren, brown mountains, little patches of bright snow,  and little snakes of white running down the sides of U-shaped valleys into a bigger river below.

Arriving at Qikitarjuaq

Arriving at Qikitarjuaq

With every glimpse of this I felt a sudden rush of excitement rising up from my stomach, choking me momentarily with joy. I am really here. And then I saw it – Mt Thor – a kilometre high vertical slab of rock, the high cliff face poised over the valley below. At the point of recognition it all disappeared behind the protective layer of cotton wool.

Plans awry in Qikitarjuaq

Our luggage had arrived with us in Qikitarjuaq. The fresh food that tour guide Mike had brought from his shopping spree in Iqaluit had arrived. The 2 barrels of food that represented the lion’s share of our stocks had not arrived. They were sent weeks earlier from Ottawa, and they had mysteriously disappeared. The owner of the hotel where we were meant to be staying had disappeared, and the hotel was locked. Our lovely boat driver Billy arranged that we could stay at his parent’s place while they moved out to stay with other family. We spent the evening half preparing for the trip which was supposed to start with a boat trip to the park entrance the next day. Still, exactly how things were going to develop was rather unclear.

Qikitarjuaq is a barren depressing place. A handful of prefab houses plonked onto a deserted island in high arctic north of Canada. There is not a blade of grass. A few dirt streets – a five minute walk from one side of the village to the other. A small, expensive supermarket on stilts was the social highlight of the town. The Parks Canada office is a little tin shed where the visitors receive their polar bear training.

Qikitarjuaq

Qikitarjuaq

29 July 2011

Plan A: Our missing barrels of food will be found and we catch our boat to the park as planned. Plan B: We do a very improvised and expensive shopping spree in the small, badly stocked supermarket in Qikitarjuaq. Plan C: We cry.

Plan A eventuated due to our guide Candice the brave. She and Mike went to the airport.

Candice: ‘Our food was sent on this day, this time, arrived in Iqaluit then, left then, arrived in Qikitarjuaq then, and had this registration number.’

First Air: ‘Your registration number is only 10 digits long. All registration numbers are 13 digits long and start with 133.’

Candice: ‘Then try this registration number with 133 at the start.’

First Air:’Yes, I have that number, but the delivery is not here in Qikitarjuaq.’

Candice: ‘Where is your storage area?’

First Air: ‘We haven’t got one.’

Candice: ‘What is that?’ (pointing)

First Air: ‘A storage area, but it is empty.’

Candice: ‘Can we look inside?’

First Air: ‘No.’

Candice: ‘I will get the police.’

And yes. Our food was there in the storage area.

Thunderbirds are go! Our trip was on. And the boat was leaving in an hour. We had to distribute the food, pack and jump on the boat. We made a provisory table and distributed the food and equipment. On seeing it all, I wondered how we could ever fit it all in. We did.

High speed packing at Qikitarjuaq

High speed packing at Qikitarjuaq

At last we were on the boat, away from Qikitarjuaq and on our way to the park. Floating in the fiord was a chiseled block of light blue ice. We circumnavigated it, marveling at the intense blue mass hanging just below the surface. It was beautiful.

Iceberg

Iceberg

The fiord was barren, bare, brown rock rising up from both sides. We passed U-shaped valleys with milky white rivulets falling the final metres into the sea, and flows of ice sprawling around rocky peaks in the backdrop.

We were deposited onto the beach and left in this beautiful arctic wilderness.

Dropped off at Auyuittuq National Park

Dropped off at Auyuittuq National Park

30 July – 3 August The north side of the park

Pictures tell a thousand words.

The Owl River valley is beautiful. Moss underfoot, at times in large tufts which formed a geometrical checkerboard pattern. Dotted across the landscape were beautiful flowers and mushrooms. Even the odd stunted tree that lay flat along the ground, no more than 30cm long. Moving from close-up to the surrounding backdrop: ragged peaks with glaciers rolling down the sides. I was in constant awe of the size of it all. And the peace. Here was raw nature. Just being. And I was honoured to walk here. Breathe it in. Be part of it.

Glacial Stream Crossings

Glaciers ooze down the sides of the mountains on both sides of the Owl Valley. On reaching the valley they open out into broad braided plains. Crossing these streams is usually not too difficult. Warm weather (climate change(?)) had increased the melt of the glaciers, and the flow in the glacial streams. What was normally a trickle had become raging torrents. Ankle deep braids had become waist deep flows.

Crossing a braided river should be done at the right time: about 4 am, after the coolest part of the 24 hour (constant light) period. A crossing should be done at the widest part of the braided plain, and the shallowest braids should be found. You need to wear protective warm socks (scuba diving socks). Phillip, one of the group, didn’t have such socks until the end of the trip. He compared socks/no socks with the difference between the brightest light and the deepest dark. Also walking sticks are advisable to help balance in faster flowing parts.

Our first non-trivial crossing was much deeper than its usual ankle depth at our first crossing attempt in the early evening. The last braid was waist deep with strong current. We gave up and waited until the next morning. At 7am, the water had risen and not fallen, so we resigned ourselves to a late evening crossing attempt. It rained all day. I slept. At 10pm we tried to cross again. The water had risen due to the rains. We gave up. Our next attempt would be serious: at 4am.

Spirits were low. Would we ever cross this stream? And this stream is meant to be trivial compared to streams further into the park. Time was passing. Would we have time to complete our trek? The answer was yes. At 4am we crossed the stream and continued, buoyed by our success, deeper into the park.

Park closed

We hadn’t gone more than a few hours past our infamous river crossing before we had to turn back. We met hikers coming the other direction. There was a group ahead that had tried to cross a glacial stream at high tide in the deepest part. One of the group had got swept away in the icy waters and had almost died. They were rescued by helicopter. The park rangers closed the park due to dangerous water levels. We had to go back.

We were dejected once again. We would not see the whole park. Would we see anything more of the park? We returned the route we had come, were picked up by the same boat, and returned to our favourite town of Qikitarjuaq.

Half way summary

Attempted hijack of food supply by airport staff at Qikitarjuaq. Majestic chiseled iceberg in fiord. Beautiful fiord and glacial valleys. Successful glacial river crossing on third attempt after 2 days. Helicopter evacuation of preceding group after part of group being swept away at glacial river crossing. Park closed due to high water levels and sighted polar bear. Beautiful view after scree slope boulder dash scramble. Two polar bears walk through Qikitarjuaq on day before we arrive. Inuit grandma cuts up arctic char with chopper, layed out on cardboard on kitchen floor. Char meal washed down with wine from stash at Qikitarjuaq.

We made it into the other side of the park. The second installment of the Auyuittuq trip is here.

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