Week 10 Wild

Date Posted: 5.4.2009
Location: 67º33'N 63º59'W
Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut, Canada
Weather Conditions: Snowing 20°F (-5°C)
“RUUUUUN...” Mille throws herself up the bank in horrified flight from the sound rumbling above. At the same time Mikkel and Chris bring the second sled to a stop at a safe distance from the terrifying overhang of rocks that we just crept under. They do not hear Mille and having made it, they are elated. Mille shutters, “Both Aaron and I had moved away from the overhang as well, and I was simply standing with
my head between my legs grasping for air to catch my breath again.
For a split second, noise from somewhere above us sounded like a
snowmobile was on top of the overhang, and I thought how crazy that
was; then my brain connected the dots that this was impossible and I
realized maybe the overhang was coming down.” It obviously didn’t.
We were safe indeed.


      
 
Chris and Aaron mapping out in the tent  
Yes, we are off! We crossed the Arctic Circle. We have made it through the Akshayuk Pass in the Auyuittuq National Park. We are sitting in the community of Qikiqtarjuaq. We grin as we feel very fortunate, and we are in disbelief. It is hard if not impossible to put words on what we have just experienced. With bruised bodies and totally ecstatic at our accomplishment as a team – and in complete awe of the mighty Polar Huskies – we are going to try our best... Simply put - none of us have ever traversed such a wild place anywhere in the circumpolar Arctic. As Chris says it, “It has been an experience of a lifetime.” We all agree! Mille adds “I have never been with a team this great. I am so proud of the attitude, morale and determination of my team members.”




 
 
    Explore our first camp site!
  We are close-by Mount Overlord,
  can you locate it?
 
 
      
 
     Boom!
 
 
Auyuittuq is an Inuit word that means “the land that never melts.” Looking up at the eternal glaciers spilling out over the jagged mountains, it has been obvious to us why the place was given this name. But the place is changing. Aaron and Mikkel were on skis next to their sled when massive ice came crashing down from the vertical cliff wall towering above them. “We ducked!” grins Mikkel. In reality, they were far away from where the glacier ice came down, but the sound and sight was just colossal. There are more than 100 glaciers stretching out from the Penny Ice cap in the 19,089 km2 of glacier-scoured terrain. Remember from last week, the park rangers told us that the glaciers are receding. They also told us that the flash flood last summer happened because the glacial lake at the very top of the pass, Summit Lake, became unplugged and loads of water tore through the pass carving out the landscape, undercutting banks already fragile from melting permafrost and shoving boulders around like peas in a pot—especially the landscape in the waterfalls of the pass! We can attest to that! The constant sound of raining rocks tumbling down scary overhangs held together only by melting permafrost as we took our sleds through the waterfalls was more than eerie.  Through the worst of the sections, it was so alarming that we made sure only Mille used her voice running the dogs while the rest of the team kept mum, pushing and pulling on the sleds as if our lives depended on it. Ok, Tucker did not quite get the point of being as quiet as possible to not provoke rock slides—he did continue to bark it up plenty!


      
 
Day One...  
   

  Watch Aaron at Work!
 
Now back to the beginning, that is not how it started out. We had an incredible take-off from Pangnirtung. Chris is beaming, “Just like that we were off. I rode on top of the first sled and the last advice Mille gave me before we took off was ‘hold on, and if the sled is about to tip, jump and get out of the way.’  It was the craziest ride I have ever been on as the sled literally soared across the snow, up chunks of ice and crashing down with wind whipping in my face, and dogs yelping!” It was not long though when sleds were jammed into huge walls of ice and Mille was standing in water half way up to her knees. Axes were swinging and Polar Huskies were going in every direction to get us out of the pack ice and rising tide waters. “I didn’t have much of an option other than to stand in that water, and knowing I would not later have to deal with -40 degree temperatures with the warm weather we are having, I was not in a panic,” explains Mille. “I just wanted us out of there as I could see the flat panned ice ahead. I was thrilled to be on the move and we were all about finding another route for the second team to get out of the pack ice and to avoid this mess!” Day one: and the adventure was well underway.


 


 
      
 
  Explore our crazy camp in sand.
  How many glaciers are spilling
  out over the cliff walls.

 


   
      Listen as Mille tells how and why the
    team is making water for the dogs!

 



 
The nice thing about pack ice is that we can grab our axes and whack at the ‘ice boulders’ until its passable. Don’t get us wrong: pack ice can be painstakingly challenging. But, the use of an axe is of no use at all when the boulders are rock! In the late afternoon the river narrowed to just a tight passage of just that - rocks and boulders. Working together, all four on one sled at a time slowly moving the teams forward, we made it over the moraine and out onto the lake through the myriad of rocks and sand. Lots of sand. It was late and the wind was picking up and it was not a great place to camp: glare ice, rocks, and sand with no deeper patches of snow in sight really. Walking ahead looking for a better campsite, Mille quickly backtracked to the two sleds. The winds had really picked up around the corner and we were actually entering the area of ‘Windy Lake’ (hint hint) where the locals in Pangnirtung warned us earlier about tremendous winds whipping up. With camp set up, the dogs dug down into the sand and we boiled them water for the night. As we were packing down camp the next morning we were choking on the dust in the air and everything was covered in fine layers of sand; but we had been reminded that we slept in a bare polar desert already!  When still in the sleeping bags, we ate our fried buttered-up bagels with sand grinding between our teeth! 


      
 
     Running across the Arctic Circle!
We had been told to expect one difficult passage in the pass. Rocks would be exposed and it would be extremely icy with not much snow. Now already through that section, we were all smiles with the infamous Mount Thor in our view. The Polar Huskies were getting a hang on running on glare ice. They were looking like a bunch of bambi’s on ice! As the river narrowed again, we passed an area of good snow along the banks of the Weasel River and we pulled the dogs over to let them eat, while Aaron and Mille went ahead to scout a route.








 
 
 

Explore our entrance to the waterfall passage. Look for the area with the most rocks, where it narrows and it looks like the absolute end: that’s where we had to go!       
 
     
     
Watch Mille’s thoughts on going
through the waterfall passage
 
     
     
Watch the second team of Polar
Huskies with their sled up against
the vertical 12-foot wall!
 
 

  
 
In Chris’ diary he writes, “After what seemed like an extraordinarily long time without seeing them, Mikkel and I decided that they should have been back. Mikkel stayed back to keep control of the dogs and I grabbed the bear bangers and a shotgun to go looking for them.  Once I got all the way up to the passage I realized why they hadn’t returned yet. This was going to be a nightmare!  First, we would have to get the sleds up a 12-foot vertical rock that was not even twice the width of the sled. Then, once again, exposed gravel and a maze of boulders and rocks would be obstacles. There were new challenges as well.  What was not sand and gravel was pretty much glare ice and that meant it would be hard to grip, but it was also thin in places breaking through into deep holes (not into water).  And many of these were not visible until one passed them. Equally frightening were rock walls facing southwest with rocks literally raining down...” Mille adds, “Aaron and I were on our way back and in deep thought when we saw Chris in the distance at the very beginning of the passage. We yelled at the top of our lungs for him to hear us that he should head back to the sleds while closely looking at the smoldering walls around us only held together by thin webs of melting permafrost.” It was a sunny day and we could see it all changing minute by minute in front of our very eyes. We were in a hurry as we wanted to get through this section. We discussed all possible options between us - yes, even that of turning around.


      
 
Part of the waterfall passage.  





 
 
At the end of the passage there was a protected narrow with good snow up the sides for the dogs, and space for both tents to be set up if we could get the sleds there. We were certain that we were going to have to unload the sleds along the way, probably several times, to get them through. We realized that we may have to be in separate camps for the night as we had no idea how long it would take us, but at the same time, we watched how the heat of the day affected the surroundings and we did not want to wait. Back with the sleds, we un-harnessed one team, set up a stake-out to put out the dogs in the snow safe for the night if necessary and we set out. The Polar Huskies blew our minds. “Finding our way, I would look back calling out at the dogs to move forward. Every single Polar Husky pulled with all their might from Good Thunder, Trigger and Chitwa right in front of the sled, all the way up to Disko in the lead, barking intensely back at his team if he couldn’t feel any movement. Chris, Aaron and Mikkel were pushing and pulling, moaning in anguish to make the sled go forward and then scattering wildly once it did to get out of the way as the 500 kg-monster coming at them crashing against boulder walls.” Two hours later we were through. Hugs and kisses for all! We hurried back, one more team to get through. We did it!


 
 
      
 
  Watch Chris and
  Aaron have a close-
  call on the river
 
 
Now, we would be cruising! Not so much it turned out! As we were still climbing our way towards Summit Lake, glare ice and constantly going up at an angle proved to be challenging with the heavy loads. Then, the water was flowing and any snow was soaked bottom up creating a thick soup of slush that would bring the sleds to a stop; while on the river itself it was standing water and cracking ice. ‘Fearless Tucker’ was put in lead and Mille headed out front ski poles in hand to check the ice every step of the way as we were hugging the shoreline as close as possible for hours on end. We were all smiles. We had made it through the passage. 


      
 
     Lunch on the Arctic Ocean
 
 
    Watch the
  'snow-mobile-break'
  in action!
 
 
 
Finally Mount Thor was leaving our horizon after days of hard work and not much mileage to show for it! We were more than surprised to find one more difficult passage. This one was really just a lot of climbing with many turns turning into more climbing. That is if it had not been for the overhang. Chris writes, “(Again) a large rock overhang, only this time we had to pass directly under it.  There was no way around the overhang, but for the first time on the trip I was scared.  We took the first team up the pass quickly and got to the overhang.  Once again Mille would be the only one to speak while under the overhang with the three of us pushing with everything we had to get across the gravel.  Not only were we traveling under a rock overhang, but the surface we were going across was mostly gravel meaning the sled was being much more difficult to move.  I can honestly say I have never exerted as much physical effort into something as I did in those moments under the overhang...” That day we made it all the way to the top, eating lunch on Summit Lake. From there it was pretty much an endless downhill, all the way to the Arctic Ocean. Only once did we have a bit of a hairy downhill. Luckily we had just met Jimmy who was out on his snowmobile looking for his future father-in-law to be to be coming from Pangnirtung. Jimmy warned us of the very steep drop ahead and offered up his snowmobile to be attached on the back-end of each sled as a brake! It worked like a charm!


      
 

 

(Side) No animals in sight – but they are here! Once in areas of snow we saw tracks of seal, Arctic hare, fox, wolf and lemming.


His future father-in-law came many hours later. It usually takes the locals about 3 hours to get through the pass by snowmobile. However, a man who travels the route many times every year, for his entire life, took almost 10 hours! We met one other snowmobile and it took him almost six hours to get through the waterfalls alone. To the Inuit in this area, the Akshayuk Pass has been a traditional travel corridor for thousands of years. “Normally when you are on a traditional route, it all makes sense traveling by dog team. It was not so much here anymore. It’s a pass alright, we saw inuksuits guiding our way the entire pass, but things are clearly changed making it close to impossible to get through this time of the year” says Aaron. In Qikiqtarjuaq there seems to be little doubt, traditionally it has been an option to go through the pass in May but the landscape has been changed drastically by the flash flood and melting permafrost. With rivers running differently in the pass, its terrain is more dangerous with treacherous overhangs, and the earlier melt of the little snow there, sometime in mid-April, is probably the end of the season by now.

   
                       Polar Huskies, Mikkel and Chris enjoying running ‘downhill’ on the Owl River – the river was named for the seven pairs of snowy owls once seen sitting together on the shore of the river. An Arctic species, Snowy owls are considered a threatened species. Have any thoughts or made any cool projects on endangered species? Make sure to share it in the Climate Zone.
   








      
 
     Polar Husky Superstar Rubi
 



 
This week’s first Polar Husky Superstar, Rubi, was one barely impacted by the challenges this week! Rubi is one of, if not the most powerful Polar Husky here. Her technique is superior and her determination is unmatched. When the going gets tough, Rubi gets tougher - quite literally. At first Rubi seems laid-back as she is usually the first one to lay down when the team stops. She loves her belly rubbed, and she is very sweet with people and can seem downright lazy at times in her ways. But in a harness with the sled stuck, that all changes. She gets furious. When Rubi throws herself into the air with impatience it is not a ‘jumping-up-i-am-so-excited.’ It means ‘I-will-use-every-ounce-of my-body-forward-to-move-this-sled!’ That is why Rubi was one of the dogs that pulled through several sections more than once this passed week. Along with her brothers Domino and Tucker, we would bring them back to the second team as well to get as much power as possible through the difficult sections. Rubi barks out commands for the team to move and eventually she gets quite mad with anybody and everyone—she is the queen bee—and she backs her will power with amazing muscle weight and incredible work ethics. Rubi is a female of might and passion.


      
 
Polar Husky Superstar Sisu  
 
Watch the Polar Huskies pull into the community of Qikiqtarjuaq on the Arctic Ocean!
 








Sisu, this week’s other Polar Husky Superstar, has a lot less might simply because she is tiny compared to Rubi. But boy does this youngster have passion. She really surprised us this week. All along we have thought that Sisu has a lot of potential, but this week she simply took commands with no problem. We put Sisu in point of the second team going up through the waterfalls, actually just because we needed a place to put her and she was all crazed up. She stayed in point ever since! Very affectionate by nature, Sisu pays full attention to the task at hand and is rarely distracted, which is highly unusual for a Polar Husky just on the first expedition! Fast like a whip, she is wild to go... along with the rest of the Polar Husky gang!