Saturday, April 25
Well today is the day and there is a nervous energy about the team. We slept in later than normal to get as much rest as possible and then it was off to work. I was double checking my bag to make sure I had everything I needed for the next week on the trail, it seemed like a lot of clothes but I definitely wanted too many layers with me rather than not enough. Louis from the hotel gave us a ride down to the dogs and then the real work began, learning how to load the sled. There is a place for everything and everything has a place. Safety items (bear bangers, throw rope, brake line) need to be accessible, dog food, food bags, personal bags, technology equipment, cook sets, went next. The tents come next and are protected on top by the sleeping bag bivy sacks, then everything lashed tightly. Skis, ski poles, guns, lunch bags, and extra jackets are strapped on the very top with bungee cords or under the lashings. When the sleds were set it was time to harness the dogs, having sat for almost two weeks on the ice, they were more than ready to go. I was glad that my only job at this point was to keep the first team’s lead dog, Disko, in line because the dogs were crazy! And 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 the sled literally soaring across the snow, up chunks of ice and crashing down with wind whipping in my face, and dogs yelping! The dogs were so excited that within ¼ of a mile they stopped and got into a big brawl, and breaking them up was quite the challenge. I was definitely out of my element; at this point the nice cuddly dogs looked more like a pack of wolves. Mille was able to pull them apart within minutes and we were soon on our way again. We got stuck in the pack ice and had to whack our way through the ice with an axe to push forward with the sled. Finally we reached the smooth ice of the fjord and then we were flying, the dogs were amazing. We stopped for the night just past the mouth of the fjord. Time to learn the process for setting up camp each night: stake out the dogs, pull off all the gear needed in the tent, stake the tent down with ice screws, find snow/ice for fresh water, feed the dogs, and lash the sled down in case a storm comes up during the night. Meanwhile, Mille was getting the tent set up inside, starting the stove, lantern and starting the dinner. A cup of tea never tasted as good when I came in from the cold.
Sunday, April 26
The dogs were restless last night so they woke me up every so often but other than that I slept great. I was not cold at all, in fact I only slept in one of my two bags. Breakfast was huge, much more than I would normally eat, but I knew I needed the energy: 2 packages of oatmeal with butter added to it, a bagel fried in butter, and 2 sausages. Getting ready to go was just the opposite of unpacking so things went pretty smooth. Until it was time to harness the dogs. Today without the rush to get going I got to help and it was a lot of fun but a challenge, and I only had the calm dogs! Within a mile or so we stopped briefly to put our skis on and we were soon traveling even more quickly on the ice. The first day went so quickly that only now am I truly aware of what a beautiful part of the world this is. I’m so fortunate to be here. We ate lunch for the first time on the trail by turning one sled to the side and all grabbing our lunch bags and having a seat next to it. Warm soup, trail mix, beef jerky, cheese, and a candy bar are all on the menu and tasted excellent. Lunchtime is also an opportunity to check-in with the other team and see how they are doing. The dogs all rest during this time and it was funny hearing a couple of them snoring. After lunch we reached the mouth of the river and there was quite a bit of gravel so travel slowed down quite a bit. Mille did a good job of navigating and Disco did a good job in listening and leading the team through the twisting riverbed. Late in the afternoon we came to our first pass, a moraine leading up to a lake. This was our first real test as a team, and when I say team I mean the 29 of us, dogs and people. A lack of snow cover meant there was gravel and exposed rocks to navigate through, all the while going up a pretty steep grade. Maneuvering the dogs through this meant planning a good safe route and then a lot of pushing (people) and pulling (dogs). Mille and Aaron showed their leadership skills here in guiding us through a difficult situation pretty early in the expedition. We went team by team which meant that all of four of us assisted with each sled through sections of the pass and then went back and lead the second team through. After getting through the pass we stopped for the night just around the corner at Crater Lake. It was a beautiful location to stop, majestic peaks and glaciers but I was too tired to enjoy, I was ready for bed. During my interview for the teacher explorer position Aaron had said many times you feel that a day on the trail is like running two marathons. The first one is skiing and guiding the sled through harsh terrain and the second one is setting up the camp at the end of the day. I now know what he means.
Monday, April 27
Slept all through the night, once again not cold at all. Had the same breakfast today but it didn’t feel as big and I ate it quickly. My body was sore but I wasn’t in horrible shape. The beauty of our campsite was more evident after a nights rest so I took a few minutes to savor my surroundings, but soon we were on the sleds again. Right around the corner from Crater Lake was Windy Lake and it lived up to its name, as there was a cold blast in my face right away. The valley narrowed quickly and it became evident right away that there was going to be another pass/waterfall to work through. We stopped the sleds and Mille and Aaron went ahead to scout out a plan. 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 not even twice the width of the sled. Then, once again, exposed gravel and a maze of boulders and rocks would be obstacles, but 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. After finding Mille and Aaron, I returned to Mikkel and the dogs where we had lunch once we were all united. It was decided that we would go team by team with all four of us working together with the dogs to move up the waterfall safely one sled at a time. Having a nice rest the dogs raced hard at the commands of Mille and I fell off the sled and had to run up the frozen river several hundred yards to catch up. I met the team at a rock and ice wall that looked as if we were going to have to unload the sleds and carry the gear over. We decided to give it one shot before unloading and were rewarded by an astonishing effort by the dogs. From there we traversed the ice potholes, sometimes at ridiculous speeds, each of us falling multiple times. Both Aaron and Mikkel narrowly avoided getting hit by the sled. It was the oddest combination of skills needed to make it through because you had to have a lot of power to climb the elevation, but this created speed that was dangerous when having to make quick turns to avoid rocks or holes. When we made it to the largest of the rock walls we had to change strategy and become quieter to avoid creating an avalanche of rocks. Mille was the only one who yelled the commands and we had to hold our excitement in. As we rounded the corner of the rock wall and saw only one more hill to climb so we pushed hard. On the level ground at the top of the falls we let out a collective yell of celebration and then went back to do it again with the second team. We brought back a couple of dogs to join us and they pulled well but we did have to unload part of the sled at first ice wall. I knew it was going to be more difficult when I looked up from the back of the sled pushing as hard as I could and seeing two of the youngsters, Pingo and Sunny looking back and me, quite scared! When the second team reached the level ground we again celebrated knowing that our accomplishment for the day had tested us physically and mentally and we had grown and endured as a team. Although on the map we didn’t make many miles, sometimes progress isn’t measured in distance gained, but in obstacles conquered.
Tuesday, April 28
Once again I slept soundly and was eager to see what the day had in store. There is something that can’t be put into words about waking up here in the Arctic. Yes it is generally cold, but it is so still and that calmness combined with the raw majesty of the rugged peaks that surround you brings a perspective about life that is overlooked in other places. We got a chance to travel flat ground but getting going was slow to start because it was ice and the dogs had a hard time getting a grip. Mille once again navigated the team well and because we were in areas that were easier to manage she was able to answer a lot of my questions about the dogs and about travel in the Arctic. I am so fortunate to have the opportunity travel with somone who has 17 years of experience in the Arctic environment. We had lunch today at the foot of Mount Thor. What an impressive piece of granite! It was nice and warm in the sun and the chicken noodle soup tasted great. Something I haven’t mentioned before is that at lunch Aaron always asks a thought-provoking question that leads to great conversations and makes lunch entertaining. After lunch Aaron and Mille took the first team and Mikkel and I followed with the second. Travel was much quicker to start because we were going downhill in some areas and there was more snow on the ice. One of the most interesting things Mille had talked about earlier in the day was her decision in choosing the lead dog for different situations. Disco or Nazca had been in the lead most of the time so far, but we came to a section of the Weasel River that had some seepage and was wet on top with cracking ice, so Mille moved Tucker to the lead because he is fearless. At this point Mille skied ahead of the teams with Mikkel leading the first team and Aaron and I with the second. It was a little scary taking the team across the river with the water running on top, but we made it without any problems other than Aaron sinking in up to the top of his mukluk boot once. We stopped for the night at the far end of the Weasel River and the bottom of a hill. Mille and Aaron scouted the route for the next day while Mikkel and I staked out the dogs. Dinner tonight was a delicious pasta stir-fry with caribou meat crafted by Mille and the four of us recounted the excitement of the day before heading to bed.
Wednesday, April 29
We got up early today, 6 AM rather than 7 AM which was fine but I wasn’t sure why until a couple of hours later. The next section of the trail lead us to a precarious situation, a large rock overhang that once again had recent rock falls, only this time we had to pass directly under it. There was no way around the overhang, and 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 was gravel mixed with a bit of dusty snow meaning the sled would have a more difficult time moving. I can honestly say I have never exerted as much physical effort into something as I did in those moments under the overhang. Once again as a team, with a concentrated effort we were able to accomplish a very difficult task. The joy of making it up the pass was tempered by the fact that we had to do it again with the second team, so there was little celebration. The whole way back to camp I forced myself to think of positive things to keep the upcoming task out of my mind. Reaching camp we got the second team harnessed and were off wanting to make it as quick as possible. The second time through the overhang was a blur to me, the only thing I remember is getting over the last hill and running with the sled with Mikkel and riding to safe level ground with the sun shining on us. Mikkel stopped the sled right behind the first one and I ran out to thank the dogs for pulling with all of their might! There was an overwhelming sense of joy in the team as we all truly celebrated again. From this point we coasted on up to Summit Lake where there was a nice layer of snow to make travel fast with dog and skis. Mikkel and I skied together his afternoon and I enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about Denmark, where he is from. After lunch we had a couple of small hills to climb and then a couple of hills to ride down, which was a lot of fun. On Glacier Lake we met an Inuit man named Jimmy from Qikiqtarjuaq who helped us out by riding behind the dog sleds and braking as we went down a couple of big mountain sides. Without his help it would have been very treacherous and would have taken a long time. After getting to the bottom of the hill we joined Jimmy for some hot chocolate and bread while learning a little bit more about the area we were traveling through.
Thursday, April 30
We had a little slower start to the day, not getting going until after 11 but we had fresh snowmobile tracks to follow so the dogs moved quickly with us on skis working hard as well. This was a beautiful stretch of land surround by giant peaks and glaciers and a smooth lake to travel on which made enjoying the scenery easier. From Glacier Lake on, the travel was largely downhill according to the map and that proved to be the case. I developed a blister just before lunch, which made travel painful. It proved to be quite a chore to keep my mind off the pain; thankfully conversations with Mikkel did the trick. I learned about his experiences as a kayaker and climber. Two things I would love to do at some point in my life. Another thing that has been neat is having the same team of dogs for a couple of days in a row. I’m starting to know their personalities much better. It has been fun watching some of the younger dogs like Sisu, Yoik, and Luna get excited about lots of little things, whereas older dogs like Sable and Domino just lower their heads and pull hard immediately when called upon. The day ended by going down a long stretch of hills to the mouth of the North Pangnirtung Fjord, which was a ton of fun for us and easier on my blisters. Setting up camp has become a breeze, especially when there is snow nearby for water and ice to secure the tent. This was the coldest night so far so I didn’t linger outside long with my tasks. The whole team enjoyed another delicious dinner by Mille, macaroni and cheese.
Friday, May 1
Sleeping at the mouth of the fjord I was extremely excited to get out and see the fullness of it and maybe make it to the open sea ice on the Arctic Ocean. I knew it would be many miles and a hard day of travel so I put some moleskin on my blisters and packed-up for the days travel. This proved to be the hardest day so far; three days of over twenty miles of skiing had taken its toll. For most of the morning I just focused on skiing in a way that wouldn’t hurt my heels but that wasn’t really possible. For much of the day I was putting-on or taking-off layers as the temperature seemed to change each time we rounded a corner and the sun came out from behind a mountain peak. Rounding each bend was also a little disheartening because I kept hoping to see open sea ice, but there were always more mountains. Along the way today we saw lots of tracks from animals such as foxes and arctic hares, but no sightings of the animals themselves. We also passed a breathing hole from a seal, which was pretty cool. Around 5 PM this afternoon we spotted an orange cabin that was a shelter that people stayed in before entering the park so we stopped to check it out. It proved to be accommodating for the four us and we were excited to have place that would heat up a bit more and allow us to dry much of our wet clothing. We had a dinner of caribou steaks with rice and settled in for a night indoors.
Saturday, May 2
It was a warm cloudy morning, so getting ready to go was easy. I started the morning by taking pictures of some inuksuit that were nearby and enjoying the views of the fjord. Saying good morning to the dogs and then harnessing them was somewhat hard this morning because I knew this may be the last time I would have that opportunity as there was the possibility of reaching Qikiqtarjuaq if travel went well. It is really easy to become attached to them when you are around them all day long. I love hearing Jupiter’s howl in the morning, seeing if Nazca will finally let me pet her, and watching Sable stretch to start the day. They really are amazing animals! Rounding the corner of the fjord to the sea brought flat light that made visibility hard, nearly impossible without sunglasses. Seeing became even more difficult within the hour as it started to snow and an Arctic wind from the north picked up. Mikkel put his goggles on but mine were on the other sled so I had to suffer with the harsh wind until lunch. Despite the struggles with the conditions, it was kind of exciting to travel in a type weather that I had been expecting for much of the time. Lunch was a little colder today, Aaron and Mille had to turn their sled to protect us from the blowing snow. The cooler conditions made me appreciate the warm soup even more than usual. Travel after lunch continued at about the same pace with Mille and Aaron following snowmobile tracks with the hopes that they were leading to Qikiqtarjuaq. And they were! We arrived a little after 6 PM and were greeted by children from the community who were racing on bike and foot to meet us. By the time we reached the ice in front of the hotel even more kids were there, as were some older community members. Jason, who lived next to the hotel guided us to a place to stakeout the dogs and used his snowmobile to help us get our gear to the hotel. A parade of kids and adults carried our bags into the hotel, what a perfect ending to an unbelievable trip. Arriving back to modern conveniences brought mixed feelings. Life on the ice in a tent is hard work, but the people that I traveled with and the amazing landscape made it worth the effort. I am forever changed by this experience; I may even look to get a Polar Husky!