From the warming lights and RCMP hospitality in Clyde we travelLed North West into the otherworldly coastal fjord System. We had yet to cover such ground, a mixture of frozen fjords and overland traverses littered with moraines from receding glaciers. It was unknown to us but the visual rewards were full of promise so we took a westerly turn from the direct route north to travel through this area.
Tongue like fjords linked by overland passes, littered with glacial moraines and debris, awaited us and it took us a full day of hard work to cross the first small “small” moraine. The promise of a further two more to escape Stewart Valley meant we hit the ice with a renewed vigour. A big motivator being that over last few days, on the flat fjord ice, we had annihilated our average per day mileage. Luck was now on our side; the ice was pan flat, the wind on our backs, as it swept off the rolling glaciers now behind us and slabs of steep rock face towered above us curving out of sight. It was majestic.
We soon found large sections of clear ice where you could see into the depths of the fjord beneath our feet, littered with bubbles of air, trapped until the melt. Not that you could see much, the snow covering the majority of it prevented much light entering and peering into the darkness beneath we wondered what sort of fish lurked beneath us- maybe even a Baffin version of Nessie. We were zipping between the slower snow cover and this new found friend of “perfect” ice, where for a brief moment our sleds felt almost weightless and we could let our minds wonder without having to concentrate on picking our way through debris.
Our time was spent admiring the chutes and bowls that could be skied down as well as the numerous cliff faces that may or may not have been climbed. We dreamed we would come round the corner to a huge base camp of climbers on their own winter expedition; ideally with some seriously heated tents, food that was not rehydrated and, best case, a cool beer to sip on. It’s sad and not particularly surprising to say that we didn’t find any.
Ahead of us loomed moraine number two, according to the map and GPS it was certainly shorter than the first but still we dreaded it. From a distance the options didn’t look great- a high wall of rock and mud starting on the right hand side and sweeping across the glaciated valley with the odd dip until land on the adjacent side. There did look to be a tight but potentially skiable path on this far side. As we came closer and could see further it gradually opened up to provide a passable route. Our initial fears of spending a day trying to get over it were brushed aside as we found ourselves cruising down a frozen stream on a gentle sloping gradient with massive grins on our faces. Colin did not have the same feeling as he scrambled around, like Bambi on ice, unable to grip and looking as if he might die of terror at any moment. I tried putting him on top of my sled and he looked pretty happy, especially as he had been sneaking onto them to sleep each night, until I started moving again at which point he jumped off. I hadn’t expected that, I was more expecting him to pee or poo all over it like he had done on the a skidoo ride, which although messy was certainly easier than having him slip and slide whilst attached to my sled.
Two moraine hurdles down and one to go. Despite the sun beaming down on us the days were cold and the temperature was plummeting again with forecasts of -39C which was not great to hear. This made the final section that much harder as we donned masks and goggled up with the breeze of the ice caps chilling exposed skin in seconds.
Approaching the final moraine, which on the map was as foreboding as the first one which had hampered our progress. It brought back still fresh memories and the question of was it worth the detour for these spectacular views? There was meant to be a small stream but it wasn’t that clear on the ground where this was. Spotting what appeared to be a valley and praying for a similar situation to the last frozen stream we made a beeline for it. It was our only option as the rest of the moraine up close was impassable with pulks.
A route briefly opened up before we had to scramble over some rocks. Maybe our luck was up? To our relief a frozen stream lay on the other side. Feeling physically tired we took a short break- it was a perfect spot for filming. Whilst in the process Jamie shouted over that some water was gurgling up under the pressure of the lake behind it and instantly refreezing in beautiful forms on the surface of the established ice. That’s pretty cool! Then we spotted some more and then another patch, this was becoming less cool and a bit concerning. The issue was that a layer of ice had formed with some water running between it and the thick ice that lay beneath. As we moved the pulks occasionally sunk into the weak ice becoming trapped as the water froze around them. We donned skis to spread the weight and focused on our route. Although the water was not at all deep we did not want to get any of our kit wet as it would freeze and make for a particularly unpleasant period depending on where and how wet it got. Even in the tent on the warmest night the temperature wouldn’t be higher than -10C, once wet and then frozen kit would remain frozen. To our relief this weaker patch of ice only lasted a short distance as we carefully and safely made our way through before we were zig zagging the meanders of the river back down to the sea ice once more.
We then exited Stewart valley with high fives, fist punches and a hug all round- dogs included. It had been quite a detour and a mini adventure within this journey north. The tough going had certainly taken its toll on us and each night we had collapsed into our sleeping bags hoofing down our meals and any other calories, not thinking of them as food only fuel that we had from that days rations. It had become simple numbers game. When we reflected back on the escapade it is easy to question whether it was it worth it or not? Observing this natural region of jaw dropping beauty made the answer easy; of course it was, now we were out of it!
We now made a straight line crossing past the spectacular Sillam Island with its glaciers falling off its steep sides, skimming Scott Island with its angular bow like rock face rising from the ocean floor, towards another overland pass and our first and only depot. We weren’t sure what to expect from the pass. Our opinion of going overland had been tainted by a few experiences. It certainly didn’t conjure up positive feelings but with lighter sleds we had a positive mind set.
Entering it and despite the views being impressive the pass just didn’t compare to what we had been seeing so recently, we had been spoilt and were in danger of becoming geography snobs. Following the river we met the tracks of our dog sled friends and skidoo drivers Levi and Boris. For the next few days we followed these tracks and as our sleds got ever lighter and the going got easier despite the patches of rough windblown snow and occasional rocky outcrop or the hills that neither set of drivers seemed to wish to avoid. Our map, although sufficient, lacks the detail for micro nav meaning we were hoping they would take the easiest path. We crested another hill again only to find the valley we had been following linked below us with only a small detour which would have avoided all those meters gained to lose them again. It did provide Jamie the opportunity to test out his telemark skiing skills as he glided down in control even with a Pulk. This is an almost impossible task when you have Colin attached to your sled as I did. As the sled picks up speed going downhill it gets closer, panicking Colin decides to increase his pace in a bid to get away from the one object he is tied to on a fixed length of line. This only results in the sled careering into me at higher speed and almost taking my legs out from beneath me.
We are however slowly making progress with the lovely chap as he certainly seems happier and less timid than when we first got him. Falling asleep on top of our sleds certainly shows an air of confidence he didn’t have before and a clever streak that he has managed to keep very well hidden up to now. A beautiful and almost hot (-20C) day brought us nicely into the hut and our depot stop. Sitting by a frozen lake with pristine snow, mountains and glaciers in the surrounding area, it is certainly a beautiful spot.
The almost unspoilt view excluding the defecated patch where around 20 or so dogs had been with the sled teams which I am sure you can imagine was less pristine. You could see where all the dogs had slept with these small round melted depressions in the snow and the area was littered with the pitter-patter of paw prints. Compared to our previous hut finding days with strong winds and snow this felt a lot better plus the “it’s obvious to see” is very true when the weather is good. We could see it from a good distance off! Unpacking our supplies and re-measuring for the umpteenth time how far the next section is. Concentrating on what we would encounter initially the first 15k are going to be tough with our heavy sleds again as we cross the remaining bit of land down to the sea ice. We are making the most of the opportunity with a day to rest up and to organise ourselves before taking this and the remainder of the journey on.
One slight surprise whilst packing up was the sound of an engine followed by another and then nothing. It was as if a skidoo had stopped outside but we were in the middle of nowhere! Two people suddenly appeared through the door. It was a group heading up for the dog sled race taking place in Pond in about 10 days time. We joined them for hot drinks and the freshest sushi of Arctic char cut straight off a whole fish in large slivers. It was delicious. The remainder of the afternoon was spent chatting away with the group, admiring the caribou gloves they had, packing up the remainder of our kit and patching up some of the gloves which have taken the full brunt of this environment. It isn’t the sort of place that takes any prisoners, the slight sign of weakness in any bit of equipment and it soon unravels. In the case of our gloves my favourite pair is now held together more by my quality sewing (it is anything but this) than the original stitching. The seriously dry air also has the habit of causing fingers and lips especially crack as we begin each day and finish each night with increasing levels of moisturiser including Mushers secret hoof and paw cream for my feet. Jamie has a particular liking for some lotion with self tanning in as he glows ever more orange. At least I can spot him from a distance even without his Baffin jacket on. Onwards and upwards!