THE GREAT ESCAPE


Finally back on the sea ice, our mid-way point and resupply location lay ahead, invisible to us. However, rather than being frustrated at feeling like you aren’t getting any closer this was a welcome sight compared to the hills, rough terrain, false summits and rocks which prevent us from taking the most direct path. With the edge of an island set as our target there was a renewed vigour in our steps. We bolted out of this imaginary start gate. It felt amazing to be sliding along, not worrying about rocks, and just enjoying the tugging on the lines rather than feeling like you’re horizontal and trying to pull some monumental object like in a strong man competition. Our pace naturally slowed as the ice undulated along in its never-flat state. Despite the improvement, we still dreamed of pancake flat ice with a dusting of snow. Our search for perfect ice continued.

We have been ticking off the kilometers since leaving the headland. Our initial plan had been to head overland for the final leg into Clyde. Due to our last experience this was out of the question, we thought far better to take our chances with the ice gods and their beautiful whites and blues rather than the ones controlling the barren and stark land routes. We were making fantastic progress towards our headland with a band of ice appearing on the horizon. As we came closer these towering blocks broke through the surface creating an almost impenetrable wall of ice. It was the worst ice we had seen all trip. Fortunately we spotted a way round. A glimmer of hope. Thoughts of “have we chosen the right route?” started to eek into our minds as we closed in on the second headland and the possibility of a hut for the night. As the wind picked up we arrived at this remote and desolate hut with a strange and small lookout post on roof. It was possibly a whaling station in the summer as it overlooked two bays. After clearing the snow, piled as high as the door, we staggered in. Typical for the larger huts it was colder than outside. The main benefit was we were out of the wind and a rickety bunk bed sat in the corner, which very quickly we were tucked up inside. Stoves burned gently next to us still in a bid to warm the place up.

We were awoken to Tala licking my face and jumping up towards Jamie’s bunk above me. We lay in our bags drinking hot tea, cradling a hot bottle and discussing options if the ice ahead resembled what we had seen the night before. The options weren’t great; head back down the coast to another route overland or cut across from near our current position. This would slow us down considerably and possibly provide another torturous set of days. We decided to climb a nearby hill for a better view. Reaching the top having been crossing fingers, toes and anything else flexible we looked up the coast. There was a slither of “flat” ice. It was fantastic news, we could head up using our route.

Pulks ready, dogs in position we headed north again in beautiful sunshine and a sharp breeze that cut through any chink in our armour of clothing. We walked past huge explosions of ice that looked like giant marshmallows that the sea had forced to the surface in a mess of blue and white. They are an incredible sight and demonstration of nature’s brutal power as we weaved between them on our way up the coast towards our next stop. With forecasts of 30mph and higher winds we dug in, digging a small hole for the tent behind a slight hill in this tundra coastline. Guy lines were all out and the sleds tied on for extra stability. We headed to bed wishing for soft winds and a good night’s sleep.

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Waking the next morning to gentle flapping wasn’t what we expected but it was a bitterly cold day. When the sun finally poked its head out we could begin to see just how flat and barren the landscape was as sea and land flowed into one another under a blanket of snow and ice. It was here the troubles began. Colin, who was attached to the sled, launched a cunning ploy create chaos with his lines and Jamie’s harness. As Jamie scrambled about on the ground with the line all of a sudden he was holding both ends. His line had broken. Colin, who is usually not too switched on, spotted his chance and made a bid for freedom. He spent the rest of the afternoon sprinting about with Tala just out of our reach. You can imagine him screaming “freedom” (obviously in a Scottish accent despite his Inuit upbringing) on every pass as part of his hedonistic and wild afternoon antics continued until the end of the day where he collapsed in a ball. Trying to catch him was futile as he waited till you got close and then got up and trotted off. Maybe food will bring him closer! The morning brought strong winds; Tala was coated in a layer of snow, as was the entire tent, with one side building up quite a large drift. We thought it was too strong to ski in but it had brought Mr Colin in for food and capture. It was a stroke of fortune before turning our attention to securing the tent more and building a snow wall to sit out the weather and wait for more favourable conditions for our approach to Clyde River.

HUTTER MADNESS


Round the Cape and Northward bound we go! Benno and I have started to rack up some respectable distances and rounded Cape Hooper in calm and clear weather and good spirits. The ice and snow Gods have not however been particularly kind to us and the conditions under sled and foot have been testing and frustrating. As our sleds get lighter the going is getting easier and the previously insurmountable ice and snow ridges can now be conquered with brute force and a lot of swearing. The lighter sleds bring us happiness in that they now feel like dragging a small dead cow behind you where as previously it had felt like trying to drag a dead Narwhal tusk and all through the deep snow, the difference I assure you is noticeable! This happiness is tinged with the knowledge that the sleds are light because they are rapidly emptying. Food, fuel, dog food and Benno’s haemorrhoid cream are all disappearing at an alarming rate and it is a daily reminder to us of what is needed out here to keep your body functioning and our tent warm.

We have however judged it correctly so far and we should be arriving at the next depot in 3 days time with 5 days worth of everything to spare which is good to know I case we get any unforeseen hold ups. Jaipotties hut that we are now aiming for has our cache of food and fuel is well marked and we have exact coordinates from the man himself, so finding it should pose no problem. Not so with the last two huts. There are few things more demoralising than promising yourself a warm evening in a hut, maybe even sitting in just your base layer if it gets warm enough. A raised platform to snuggle up together on, the ability to sit upright against a wall and the special thought of waking up in the morning without your beard frozen to your sleeping bag. We have had these heady dreams twice dashed now in the last week. True disappointment is knowing that despite having skied for 8 hours to reach a random point on a map given to you by a hunter 2 weeks previously, the 8ft by 8ft hut that is apparently “unmissable” is nowhere to be found. When moving by skidoo traveling 6-10kms in search of the exact spot is a 15min job and of no real concern but when that distance represents half a day’s travel by foot, searching becomes a totally different proposition. Knowing you are probably only 1-2kms from a small shed whilst you put your tent up in -30c after a long and arduous day is completely gutting but at least it means we will really appreciate Jai’s hut when we get there.

We are starting to see more bear tracks and in one area saw either a single bear running around a lot looking for something or the equivalent of a mass polar bear rave. We both agreed it was probably just one or maybe two sniffing about and cleared and recycled the shotguns. We have taken more recent glances over our shoulders just in case. A quick and casual reminder of whose Kingdom we are trespassing in and that vigilance is key to a safe journey through.

Jamie&Benno Hutter Madness

Our evening of sulking over a lack of huts was improved immeasurable by eating some of the brownies Celine had given us before we left. We had been saving them for a low moment and this seemed appropriate. As we broke the brownies hurriedly we saw pieces of paper tucked in between the slices. On our piece of paper was a quote from Ernest Shackleton giving us a timely reminder as we snuggled in our down sleeping bags next to our roaring camp stoves that somethings are best kept in perspective. A wonderful gesture from Celine and Yves and it helped turn a miserable night into a happy one as we sat like children at Christmas reading our quote and munching our brownies.

So onwards to the hut and some more biltong, chocolate buttons and no doubt more deep snow and horrible mounds of ice. However as the great Shackleton said “difficulties are just things to overcome after all” and we will be bearing that in mind as we go.

NORTHERN HOSPITALITY


We departed Qik early in the morning in a bid to get dropped off before our drivers for the day Jaipottie and his son kyle headed further north. Despite the time, Yves and Celine who have been incredibly helpful, gave us a departing gift of brownies!! We are definitely going to appreciate them when the going gets tough.

After a few hours driving we were dropped off near to where Alex had his head injury and where we were all picked up. Smack bang in the middle of nowhere. Standing there realising this was our opportunity to continue further north towards Clyde river and continue learning about the east coast of Baffin Island. Despite the early start and following a late night doing last minute packing and final goodbyes, we still managed to get some good miles under our feet before stopping for the night on an open estuary between distant towering cliffs.

It was a beautiful spot with the mountains behind us still glowing in a pinky colour with the setting sun and the icebergs in the distance gradually turning from electric blue to green. We managed to get all the necessary snow melted for the next morning before hitting the sack. What struck us whilst lying there was the lack of sound. There was not a breath of wind and all we could hear throughout the night was the odd snore or one of the dogs have a short walk and a shake off. At least with the snoring it is obvious who the culprit is.
I had forgotten my alarm was set for 5 am, I soon corrected it for a bit later in the morning when I realised it was still dark and freezing cold.
Morning in the Arctic is always a nice surprise. All the moisture in your breath freezes to the lip of your sleeping bag during the night so when the time comes to wake up this has a tendency to flutter down onto your face in ice cold spots. On top of that if you happen to touch the side of the tent this has the same effect but on a grander scale! Heading off with the sun rising into the sky and burning off any cloud, we continued on to our depot of food. It was a fairly standard day with Tala running about in her crazy fashion, while Colin whined constantly at the injustice of being on a lead. Jemima I am afraid despite some spectacular final attempts to catch her, remains in Qik. We miss her dearly.
We knew we were getting close. Coming round a head land a hut slowly appeared and what made it even more special was that smoke was rising from it. This meant one thing warmth! Then off one hill appeared two boys tobogganing down it and going off a small jump. It was quite a surreal sight. Tala meanwhile was ignoring all commands and exploring the new smells and surroundings. Arriving we were soon offered a warm room for night, a choice of caribo and Arctic char soup and some tea. Both soups Jamie and I decided were delicious. All this, despite our conversation either being translated by the 12 year old boy Edmond or through a mixture of English and hand signals. We couldn’t have asked for more then they provided us with a huge chunk of iceberg ice saving the task of collecting a load of snow to melt. It also makes some pretty epic tea, hot chocolate or maxi nutrition viper for recovering. Not quite as good as the glenlivet on iceberg ice but carrying that would be an unnecessary extravagance. It has been some incredible hospitality from our hosts who were surprised to see 2 men walk over hauling sleds.

Northern Hospitality

The coming days see us heading further north towards our next depot. Meanwhile Alex is heading further south to Ottawa for further medical evaluation and recuperation. We are hoping he has a speedy recovery and to see him shortly.

A Dogs Life – Colins Blog


Its been an odd month inside what so far has been a completely normal winter. The snow fell as is usual and the darkness and frozen sea gradually grew longer and stronger in just the same way they have for the last 4 winters I can remember. My cold paws and nose felt just the same whilst waiting patiently for my coat to grow nice and thick again to warm me up and of course occasional visits from “the man” to bring food and get us all excited before driving off again on his dogless sled. I am quite an anxious dog by nature and know one has ever accused me of being too intelligent therefore it brings me a great deal of contentment when things happen as they should, the seasons change and the “the man” comes and goes. I’m not one for too much excitement.

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Things took a considerable turn for the worse when “the man” arrived one afternoon with the dogless sled and unceremoniously dumped me sideways onto it. Despite the lack of strong canine’s running out front those things can really move and make very loud and distressing noises and before long I was dizzy, scared and half choked on the black fog belching from within the monster. The noise gradually lessened and as we came to a stop I assumed we had reached our destination, although I was so shaken and disorientated I was struggling  to stand up, let alone make a rational judgement as to where I was. I was also very distressed that Jemima had disappeared and since we do everything together this was defiantly a cause for concern.

In front of a very large box with a door stood 3 pale faced mens with massive orange chests and arms and surprisingly skinny legs, talking in an odd sounding growl to “the man”. They came over and touched my head and paws, felt my tummy and looked in my eyes and mouth. Being a well behaved dog who knows his manners I did not growl or pull away but i can tell you now I didn’t like it. Not one little bit. Whilst assuming my standard meeting new people pose of cowering and shaking slightly I spied Jemima through the wall of orange , she had found me. My heart leapt and i gave a little whoof to let her know I had seen her. This happy feeling was quickly banished when “the man” grab my special area saying in his strange growley language “if you want him stand up just grab penis” I stood up as he grabbed me as I am sure you would and tried to look unconcerned but this is difficult when some you don’t want to touch your privates is rather forcefully holding onto your delicates.

Suddenly i was released, the dogless sled was being started and small pieces of paper were changing hands. I braced myself for another horrible sideways ride but it never came. Instead “the man” drove away, kicking up a cloud of snow and dirty smoke and leaving me lost and forgotten with 3 strange orange mens in a new and terrifying part of town. Thankfully my memory is pretty poor even by dog standards and despite feeling anxious, the sight of Jemima skulking around out of grabbing range and the large bag of dog food one of the orange mens was bringing calmed my heart rate and bought the most influential part of me back into immediate focus. My tummy. Now i wouldn’t consider myself a greedy dog although others may disagree but here in the North when tasty edible things are put in reach, you dont wait for a polar bear or Jemima to come and take it, you eat it as fast as you can. Tasty and edible covers a range of things, well to be honest absolutely anything unless I am physically unable to chew it or get it in my mouth. I have eaten some things that were a bit queer, even things that smelt alot like dogs I once knew but I am sure its a coincidence Uncle Chops disappeared on the same day we had that strange, stringy, furry meat .

I digress, see food does that to me, its very therapeutic it clears my mind of everything else regardless of the situation I am in which is not always a blessing.

The orange mens put the bag of food away after a disappointing portion size, they always are and pulled me round the back of the building. As we turned the corner an alarming flurry of grey fur, massive ears and booming bark was my shock introduction me to Tala. What a Bitch. Please take it from an amorous male dog she is a slamming hottie. Well built in all the right areas, luxurious flowing fur, gleaming teeth and a come get me stare in her bright eyes. Her lovely coat was grey with flecks of white and black and as I stared at her a strange sensation began to creep over me. Instincts from the past 1000 years began to click together in my brain and I could feel the cogs turning until suddenly the realisation hit me, holy f*#k its a wolf.

This was not a good scenario, the orange mens had obviously bought me to feed to this massive slavering wolf thing, I cowered and shook as if my life depended on it, which believe me I thought it did. In the way of all dogs, horrible nasty wolfs or nice well behaved huskys, we sniffed at each other, front and back to find out a few essential facts. I had my eyes firmly shut the entire time waiting for the blow to come that would end my beautiful and terribly short life. After several minutes had passed and I hadn’t taken my last breath, I ventured a glance through one squinting eye at the wolf. To my considerable relief and bemusement the wolf dog was sitting down next to the Orange Mens whilst they spoke to her and patted her on the head. To my amazement they began pouring a small pile of food from the same bag that they fed me from and with various grunts from the Orange Mens the wolf dog sat down, then lay down, then gave them a paw and finally waited agonisingly by the pile of food until one of the mens gave her a sign and she attacked it with gusto. This was really bad news. These Orange Mens were strange sorcerers from a distance place, no dog I had ever seen or met would do that for any mens, anywhere, ever. The Orange Mens must be very powerful dog lords indeed and I whimpered anxiously wondering when I would come under their spell and be fed to their pet wolf.

However the Orange Mens patted me on the head and wandered off leaving me sitting with the wolf under a frozen Arctic sky with the darkness broken only by the pinpricks of starlight and the glow of the young moon (I always know where the moon is and how big it is. Its a husky thing). The wolf approached. “Hello daaarling, my names Tala, with a T in case you didnt know. Your a sorry looking boy arent you, when was the last time you got dewormed?”. Although I understood what she said her accent was very strange, clipped yet snotty, crystal clear and yet nasal. ” My name is ᑕᐃᒪᐃᓪᓗᑐᕐᑐᐊᓗᒍᓐᓇ I replied and you dont sound as if you come from these parts”. “Thats funny” Tala quipped, “My boys said you were called Colin, dreadfully common sort of name but easier to comprehend than that rubbish you just came out with”. “Your right, I am not from around here, I am from Chelsea in London, I am sure you know it, everyone does so I wont go into to details but needless to say this winter ski holiday  is proving to be quite disagreeable. I flew cattle class over, I have missed an entire week of Made in Chelsea and its bloody freezing. I only recently changed into my winter collection and my coat is taking longer to come through than usual hence this awful red thing I am wearing. Still it will be worth the wait wolf grey is this seasons black according to Karl. I can only imagine there has been a terrible mix up with the Maitre’d in the hotel here as I have been outside for the last 2 nights, but I am sure my boys are sorting out my room as we speak and hopefully they have digital so I can catch up on New York fashion week”

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Well I was pretty tired and most of this made very little sense to me so I simply said “well its certainly nice to meet you” and added as a after thought, “do you only eat dog food”? “Of course” replied Tala “although I am partial to a little fish if served correctly and I only drink glacial water or snow served at room temperature”. “Oh good” I replied “Well I hope you dont mind but I am going to sleep, its been an eventful day ” and with a quick look round for Jemima, hiding under the building, she has a wonderful knack for finding the warmest places, I settled down and closed my eyes. As I mentioned before its difficult for me to dwell on things for to long as I tend to forget everything rather quickly even my supposed new name and as I got comfortable I thought I could almost hear my friends from the dog team snuffling next to me. As I drifted of to sleep I thought whatever next, hopefully breakfast.

Return of Our Team Mate – Colin


It had been a bit of a rough few days for the team and both our dogs, Colin and Tala. Colin had made up for all his high pitched and constant whining by making us aware of Alex being down. I will cover this more in the next blog. Since then we had called the RCMP for some assistance and bundled both dogs into the back of a komatik, which is a big sled dragged behind a skidoo, before driving them back at high speed to our starting point in Qik.

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Colin and Destruction of a Spare Bin Bag

It was that night that Colin managed to escape! We woke in the morning to no Colin. All that was left was his tracks wondering about the entire area. We could tell it was him by the weird dragging trail in the snow as a result of the cord that was still attached to his collar. Following this trail led us all round Qik from the surroundings of his sleeping area, to the dog sled area on the edge of town before heading to the dumb. It had clearly been quite an active night of adventure for him. Maybe the bug for adventure had bitten him a long the trail. We did however find Jemima, who had evidently run all night to get back. We hadn’t been able to get her before leaving (although she was following us, she is pretty wild and feral) so we knew he must be around. She looked a bit stiff and was clearly very hungry. In a bid to get colin to come to us we tried to lure her in with food. We tried a pile of food close to us. She clearly decided this was too close, a second was placed with a trail of Inukshuk dog food leading to it. Myself and Jamie stood between the two piles. Despite our best efforts, she managed to eat all the food we put out without coming close enough for us to take her back home. She even wandered round and ate the initial pile we put out.

A new plan was needed.

48 hours later and still no sign. We jumped onto the skidoos and headed towards his old haunt. Fortunately and slightly unexpectedly I spotted him lying in the ground with his fluorescent cord on the snow. Jumping onto the cord, in case there was a risk of him getting away, I reeled him in. It was clearly a bit of a shock, unsurprisingly as he had been relaxing, curled up in the low lying winter sun. It didn’t take long till between us we had him on the back of the skidoo. As he was sitting on my lap I was hoping the warm feeling was due to his furry coat and general body warmth rather than him peeing on me. I was fortunate in this respect, however he drooled (which froze instantly) all over my arm as he gazed at the surroundings we were zooming past.

Back in Safe Hands
Back in Safe Hands

Back at the RMCP base camp he was safely and much more securely tied up.

Improvise, Adapt and Overcome


As we approach the 2 week mark in Canada, still enjoying the extraordinary hospitality of our friends in Qikiqtarjuaq rather than the confines of a frozen tentipi, our combined trip milometer stands at a rather poor 18.6 miles pulling sleds, 66 miles on skidoos and innumerable air miles.

After a whirlwind morning of saying goodbye to our fantastic RCMP hosts; Chris,Halie and Glenn and preparing and readying ourselves and our equipment for the next 575 miles to Pond Inlet, including gratefully packing away our smelly pairs of jeans and tired t-shirts that had been worn continuously for the duration of our travels,we hit the trail. With weather conditions perfect and just a gentle breeze skipping down the western fjords to push the temperature below -45degs our spirits were high and we gazed over the sea ice taking in the views and watching for any curious bears. As the weight of the sleds began to bite into lower backs and hamstrings the deep snow meant that even with sleds now weighting 150kgs, progress on the flat sea ice was slow and heavy going.

IF

Once we reached the distant ice bergs locked into the bay that shone like carved ice gates marking the beginning of the end of civilisation, conditions took a significant turn for the worse. The sea ice that had formed in the autumn had been crushed and folded into deep trenches and broken ridge lines by the prevailing NE winds and although far from unusual or unexpected, combined with the abnormally deep snow that gathered in the wells and hollows of the deformed ice pack made pulling the sleds a significant undertaking. Each ice formed sastrugi ridge was between 1-3 feet high and filled with snow meant that the sleds could not be moved over a ridge by a single person as the friction was so great that the sleds simply could not be dragged.

Having crawled 120 metres in 30mins, and due to the rough ice one of Benno’s ski skins became unstuck and could not be refitted in the -41deg air temperature, without setting up the tent to warm the metal. With Qikiqtarjuaq still sitting prettily on the horizon and after a brief discussion regarding the speed we were travelling, the loads in the sleds, the distance to Clyde and the endless, violently contorted ice stretching to the horizon we made the decision to turn back. It is difficult to explain the disappointment of returning after only 5 hours on the ice, secure in the knowledge that the plan we had concocted had been rapidly unraveled and we were now facing a serious re-evaluation. Thankfully the sight of the RCMP’s finest, mounted on their 4 stroke steeds coming to our aid once more and yet again welcoming us into their homes was enough to help us regain our motivation and spirits after what had been a fairly disappointing day.

Waking the next morning, our first collective thought was “what now”. Again with their help, guidance and a garage full of snow loving toys, we saddled up with the RCMP and went on patrol to check out the conditions. The ice was as bad as we had thought and if anything gets steadily worse to the North, meaning that any journey would require lighter sleds to enable us to move at a sufficient speed. Having ensured we got enough 20,000 year old ice from the electric blue ice bergs to enjoy with a glass of 12 year old single malt that evening we headed back to the detachment to consolidate our plans and devise a new approach to get us back on the path to the wildness.

The obvious option we have been considering is to use the local hunters to help us lay depots along our intended route to Pond Inlet meaning our sled weights will be considerably lighter but we will still have the necessary food and fuel cached to allow us to safely attempt this significant journey along the fjord ridden East Baffin coastline. We need to be able to move at a minimum speed of 1mph in order to cover the miles without running out of food and with the snow conditions as they are and unlikely to change in the immediate or medium term laid depots are the only solutions within our budget that allows us to cover the miles and keep our hopes of exploring this coastline alive.

Meeting with the local hunters and the willingness with which they share their knowledge and experience has been a wonderful learning curve whilst allowing us to find solutions to problems such as finding routes and localised ice conditions with their insights we otherwise would not have the benefit of. Jaibute, Johny, Jai, Stevey and Phillip have all helped our printed maps evolve into a record of over 300 collective years of experience now marked with huts built by their grandfathers, areas of broken ice, regions known to be favored by bears and much much more. Although there is some confusion as to what terrain that can be covered by skiers and what is possible on a skidoo, a slight incline on a skidoo is an impassable mountain with a heavy sled and comments of “its only a climb of few hundred feet” are regular occurrences their offers of help means our spirits are high and our options are increasing with every person with whom we share a cup of tea.

Our thanks also have to go to Yves who has so far made us a tent pole base, fixed our skins onto our skis with rivets and is hopefully going to fix my boot tomorrow (although I haven’t asked him yet!). His and Eric’s (Captain of the famous ice locked Vagabond) mixtures of frank advice and enthusiasm for the wilderness and exploring it has helped keep our heads up and ensured we don’t loose sight that having the opportunity to explore this coastline in any capacity is a gift which we must continue to appreciate.

Briefly in Colin’s corner, he has settled in well and is now actually coming to us for treats and affection although his excessive whining and howling as his girlfriend and old team mates tease him during the night has lead to him being kept in the RCMP garage. This luxury has now been removed from Colin after he chewed half the banister off the wall in the during the night and is now enjoying the view from a nearby lampost as Tala enjoys the warmth on her own in the peace and quiet.

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Although questions regarding the feasibility of covering the entire NW Passage, supported or not are now at the forefront of our minds, we are are all buoyed by the Northern Lights blazing above Qikiqtarjuaq by night and the friendship and hospitality we have been so fortunate to enjoy, safe in the knowledge that it is a privilege to be here and any length of journey along this frozen ocean will be an adventure none of us will ever forget.

Jamie, Benno & Alex

North West Passage

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