The Land That Never Melts: A mid-life journey to the top of the world

Guest Post By Peter Klika

I scrambled up the ladder of the rickety cargo plane and immediately stumbled into a tangle of steel cables. I was still flailing around when the cargo handler greeted me with a curt:

“Welcome aboard. You’re our only passenger today. Follow me.”

I limped to the back of the plane to a single seat. “Why all the cables?” I queried.

“Cargo,” he replied.  “They will be arriving soon.”

“They?”

Before he could answer, I heard a commotion in the distance, then barking , and then snarling as the first huge 120 lb. husky entered the cargo hold straining under a short chain barely under control by his burly handler. He led this magnificent beast to within six feet of my seat and smartly snapped it’s chain collar to a link on a steel cable. I squirmed.

“Only five more and a few crates. Light load today. Don’t worry about the cables breaking. Very strong,” he yelled over the din of snarling and yapping huskies.

I felt sick and we hadn’t even taken off. It was 1986 and I was about to take off from Frobisher Bay ( now renamed Nunavut) on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. We were headed toward the Inuit village of Pangnirtung from where I intended to trek across the arctic circle by myself for ten days. It was my 40th birthday gift to myself. Or was it just another one of my periodic mid- life crises? As one of the huskies lunged at me, I was beginning to doubt this whole idea.

Why wasn’t I ruining my liver with a rum punch on some beach in the Caribbean?

The drone of the aging DC-3 soon put the huskies to sleep and I began to relax. We skimmed over the ice blue waters and ice bergs of Cumberland Sound and we were soon circling the tiny airport at Pangnirtung. As I disembarked and waited for my backpack I noticed that the chain link fence surrounding the airport was festooned with drying seal skins and walrus hides.

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Pangnirtung, NU, Canada                                                                                          Photo by David Turner

I had arranged for a boat trip up Pangnirtung fjord the following day with Jovee who had a small skiff. He was supposed to meet me, but as I slung on my pack a small, young Inuit boy tugged on my arm. “Are you Peter? I’m Danee. My father Jovee couldn’t come . His head popped.”

This did not sound good, but before I could ask, Danee said, ”He’ll be sober tomorrow maybe, so my uncle Mosee will take you tomorrow early when the tide is flooding up the fjord.” That sounded more promising. “ You should check in with the Mounties, suggested Danee. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police ( RMCP) administer Pangnirtung village which has about 800 people.

Pangnirtung is the gateway to Auyuittuq National Park (established 1976) on Baffin Island. Its majestic 50 mile long valley is surrounded by sheer granite spires and cliffs. Auyuittuq means “ The Land that Never Melts” in the local Inuit dialect. The Pangnirtung Fjord leading to the Park is usually ice free only in August, but sometimes the ice in the fjord never breaks up until the following year. The ice fields that are on either sides of the sheer Pangnirtung Valley never melt.

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Cliffs of the Pangnirtung Valley

The Mounties were most welcoming. I was the only visitor that week. In 1982, Auyuittuq National Park only received 300 visitors, most of whom were government employees on inspection trips.

“You mean I have the whole park to myself?” I asked.

“Pretty much. There was a group of four, but they exited the park on the northeastern boundary.”

I was feeling very fortunate.

“You can camp anywhere until your boat trip tomorrow, but we need to inspect your equipment.”

So I poured out the contents of my 50 lb backpack. “ Looks good but what’s this?” he asked holding up a clear bottle.

“Vodka,” I said.

“Well the village is dry, but we will save it for your return. Your equipment is spot on though.” I managed a weak smile. I later learned the village was dry because if you pass out when drunk, you risk being eaten by hungry sled dogs. There were more sled dogs than people in the village.

I moseyed over to the Hudson Bay Company store to poke around even though I had a ten-day supply of freeze dried food. I bought an ice cream bar and exited the store to find three old Inuit men curiously examining my backpack. They looked up and started giggling. Maybe it was the chocolate drooling down my face. “ Do you like Eskimo Pie?” one asked.

I wasn’t sure what to say. I knew that the appropriate name of the people here was Inuit. “I respect the Inuit culture,” I said at a loss.

They broke out in guffaws. They pointed to my ice cream bar. Yup, it was an Eskimo Pie brand.

I apologized for the misunderstanding, “I’m so sorry, I meant no disrespect.” But they were bent over in laughter.

“We are Eskimos and we love our Eskimo Pies. Only the anthropologists who run around up here studying us call us Inuit.”

I started laughing, too, and it was a great ice- breaker (pun intended) to a long conversation about the history of Pangnurtung as a whaling station in the last century, the current demand for Narwhal tusks, which were hunted locally, and the huskies that had just been flown in for breeding purposes.

I was feeling tired. When I looked at my watch, it was almost 11:00 pm, but the sun was still up. So this was the fabled “Arctic Sun.” I asked about a good camp site. They already knew Mosee was going to pick me up in the morning and promised to wake me up.

“You can sleep in the church. You won’t need a tent and it has a toilet. We will take you there.”

The church was small and dark and smelled of seal blubber, but it was clean and cozy enough. I spread my sleeping pad and bag near the altar over which which hung, I thought, a huge crooked crucifix. But on closer inspection, it wasn’t crooked at all. It was two giant six foot, tapered, narwhal tusks mounted as a cross. I crawled in my sleeping bag and drifted off to sleep dreaming of whaling ships , narwhals, and yapping husky dogs.

The next morning I was gently awakened by a kindly Eskimo grandmother. “We have breakfast for you: fresh eggs, fried char [an arctic fish related to salmon], and fresh biscuits and coffee.” What a treat: room service. I wasn’t too embarrassed to ask for seconds.

Mosee arrived and escorted me silently to the small village dock and his diminutive skiff. We motored with the flood tide up the fjord dodging large ice bergs , seals and the  occasional polar bear. The ice pack had broken up only a week before. He unloaded me at the head of the valley on a pebble beach and assured me there were no polar bears around, and then motored off. Pangnirtung Valley is sometimes called the Switzerland of the Arctic, but I was thinking of it more like Yosemite without the bears. I hoisted my pack.

Granite spires drifted in and out of the morning mist. It was completely silent and I was utterly alone.

I headed slowly up the valley along the Weasel River. If there was a trail, I never found it. Occasionally, there was an “inukshuk” or stone cairn made by Eskimo hunters in the form of a man with his arms outstretched. They were very helpful as I picked my way up the valley crossing rushing side streams and gliding along on spongy fields of green and sometimes red moss. I was surrounded by a magical fairy land . The going was tough and slow, but worth every footstep.

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Stone Cairn, (“inukshuk”) in the Weasel River Valley

It was a gentle climb to the Ashhayuk Pass ( 1500’), passing melting glaciers descending from the enormous Penny Ice Cap above the towering cliff on either side of the valley. The weather was extremely variable changing from bright sunshine and balmy temperatures (60 degrees F) to near blizzard conditions and freezing temperatures in a matter of hours. Sometimes the wind and sleet were so ferocious, I had to pitch my tent and wait it out.

I could hike 24 hours a day if I wanted because it was never completely dark. Even when the sun set at midnight there was a long twilight and the sun rose again a mere three hours later. I usually hiked six hours, slept for four hours, and then hiked another six weather permitting.

Wildlife was scarce. Some ptarmigan and an occasional Arctic Fox chasing a weasel. Thankfully there were no polar bears or wolves in this part of the valley. There were Arctic Grayling in the river but I was too inept to catch them. Besides, I had my enormous supply of Gypsy Boots energy bars. There was not a tree in sight and the largest vegetation were willow bushes stunted by the constant wind and heavy winter snow pack. It was more than enough.

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Arctic Fox

I hiked for two more days before Mount Thor emerged on my right. Thor Peak, as it is officially called, is a granite peak that has the world’s tallest purely vertical drop. The vertical drop measures 4,101 feet and angles inward at 105 degrees making it more of an overhang. First climbed in 1965 by a Canadian team , it was also the site of the longest single rope rappel (3,280’)in the world by an American team in 2006.

I camped at the base for the “night”. There was no campsite so I cleared a few rocks and set up my tent and dozed off dreaming of narwhals and their spiraled single tusk that can reach up to 6 feet in length. Some historians think that Vikings may have brought Narwhal tusks from Iceland to Europe in the Middle Ages, which inspired the myth of the Unicorn.

Mount Thor
Mount Thor

The next morning was frosty so I packed quickly and headed toward the pass with a sore back and a pack that was still way too heavy. I passed a weathered sign that announced the Arctic Circle, that imaginary line at 66 degrees north latitude. It marks the southernmost point at which the midnight sun is first visible on the June solstice.

I could see a large inukshuk far in the distance and guessed it was the crest of the pass and the watershed of the Owl River which ran east. A few ermine played in the sun-warmed rocks, and my cold legs no longer felt like wooden stubs. I shared the commanding view from the Pass with a giant six foot inukshuk which reminded me of how much I was missing the company of another humans.

The twin cylindrical towers of Mount Asgard ( 6601’) loomed on the left. I started the steep descent along the headwaters of the Owl River leaving my stone friend behind. I descended to aptly named Windy Lake and spotted a rock wall wind break and barely discernible camp site.The weather deteriorated rapidly and I just had got my tent up before the wind suddenly gusted to 30 knots or more. I had invested in a good mountain tent so I was only mildly concerned when the gusts approached 40 knots. Then came horizontal sleet and hail and I crawled into my puffy down bag as the temperature plummeted.

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By Ansgar Walk – photo taken by Ansgar Walk, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=659811

The next morning I awoke to a white fairyland all around me. I brushed off the frost from the inside of my tent and fumbled for my butane stove. After a second cup of industrial strength coffee , I crawled out onto the three inches of snow and hail that had accumulated during the night.

It was a wonderland, but where was the trail?

I couldn’t even find a friendly inukshuk to guide me. I decided to stay put and read hoping the snow would melt. I had a well thumbed copy of “War and Peace,” so I wasn’t worried about running out of reading material.

Mercifully the sun finally came out. My yellow tent warmed quickly, and I lolled around in my sleeping bag listening to the buzz of mosquitos bigger than my coffee mug. I had plenty of food and wasn’t in a hurry. I would wait.

Soon, the sight of the twin towers of Mount Asgard were too tempting. I had to get closer. I collapsed my tent and weighted it down with smooth river stones . I then crossed the Owl River on slippery stones and worked my way up a rivulet to the tongue of a glacier that originated at the base of Asgard. Should I go further? I didn’t have crampons or an ice ax . I took a few steps and the clear blue ice began to collapse under my feet. I turned away. Time to head back.

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Image from Google Maps

I had proved myself worthy of the land that never melts. Time to head home.

The trek back was uneventful except that the weather teetered back and forth from bright sunshine to snow flurries every few hours. Then I saw them in the distance: five space aliens with giant white pods on their backs with two large antennas protruding from their heads! Maybe I was hallucinating. They were walking slowly away from me. I decided to follow.

As I got closer I figured it out: these were humans with fiberglass sleds on their backs with skis on the sides. I quickened my pace and caught up just as one of the “aliens” turned and addressed me: “We were skiing the edge of the upper ice cap and have been watching you for days. We are on a training exercise for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Nice to finally meet you.”

We walked together for an hour or so bantering back and forth, and then they split off to climb back up to the ice cap. I was alone again. I still had two days before Mosee was scheduled to pick me up so I decided to camp for the “night” and enjoy the rushing sound of my old friend, the Weasel River.

I arrived at the head of Pangnirtung Fiord two days later. The ebb tide had turned to a flood. I knew Mosee would soon be heading to pick me up, so I settled in for the wait. I spied an orange tent and sauntered over to find two men drinking coffee. They were startled to see me. They were from Frobisher Bay, where they were pilots for the Canadian Ice Patrol. They patrolled the east coast of Baffin Island looking for large icebergs that could be a hazard for shipping in the Davis Straight, which runs between Baffin Island and Greenland. Evidently there were actually a large Manganese mine up the coast and ore carriers frequented the strait. Their job was to alert these ships to the location of hazards to navigation.

Moshe arrived and the trip down the fiord was uneventful save for one moment when I got to see a real narwhal, or at least a part of one, as it was cruising in the fiord chasing Arctic Cod, their main food source.

Arriving back in Pangnirtung I immediately headed for the Hudson Bay Store and it’s precious stock of Eskimo Pies. I gobbled two as the same guys who regularly hang around the store welcomed me back and laughingly congratulated me for not getting eaten by a polar bear.

I gingerly stepped into the cargo hold of the same rickety plane that had brought me. No giant huskies this time. I breathed a sigh of relief as we taxied down the runway towards Frobisher Bay and my flight home. As we circled west I had my last glimpse of Pangnirtung. I swear I could see Mosee and Danee waving goodbye, but I maybe it was just another of my many Arctic dreams.

 

Peter Klika is currently “rewiring” after working for the U.S. State Department, NASA, the University of Hawaii, the Governor of Hawaii, and the law firm of Klika, Parrish & Bigelow. He has sailed both around the world and the rim of the Pacific Ocean, led several Himalayan expeditions, and walked solo across Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. He has contributed to such diverse publications as National Geographic, Arts of Asia, UCLA Pacific Basin Law Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. He participated in five documentaries on Tibet including “Finding Shangri-La” which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

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