Alone In The Arctic
Snow covered mountains stretch to the horizon in all directions.The evening is calm, and we descend a long, gradual decline into a deep valley. Then, a steady wind picks up out of the northwest as my dog Buck and I begin an arduous climb, up a steep mountain slope, with our heavily laden pulls in tow. Other than my faithful Husky Malamute Buck, I’m all alone in the Arctic, and at the beginning of my solo trip to cross the rugged, northern reaches of the Ungava Peninsula. The 300-kilometers of raw wilderness lying in front of me is daunting, and I’m pushing to make distance.
Up the incline, we find ourselves on a small plateau, and the wind starts getting strong. Blowing snow is stinging my face as night falls. Soon,it’s pitch black, and I’m stuck in a serious blizzard. The wind is howling at 80 kilometers per hour with gusts topping 90. It’s minus 50 with the wind chill,and my face feels like it’s going to shatter without my balaclava on. Exhausted,and wet with sweat, I repetitively fail at trying to set up my tent in the strong wind.
My only option is to build a snow block wall as a windbreak. With deep chills running across my body, I grab my snow knife, and start cutting blocks out of the impossibly hard packed snow. I’m thinking, if I can’t get this wall up, I might die.I’m hacking out wide, thick snow blocks that are heavy enough to stand up to the wind. The exercise warms me, and slowly, the wall begins to take shape. Two hours later, I’m finally able to set up my canvas tent behind the wall. Were going to live Buck! I say with excitement, when we’re both safely inside. The tent walls shake violently as Ifire up my stove to melt snow and boil water. I’m absolutely exhausted, and it’s only Day 2; I’d planned for another 28 days.
I’m not sure what is it about Pingualuit Crater that has fascinated me for so long. The fact that it lies in the far-flung tundra ofNunavik’s Ungava Peninsula definitely adds a perpetuating mystique and draw forme. After all, accessing such places doesn’t come without a strong sense of freedom and a dose of adventure. Pingualuit is no little blip in the landscape either;it’s quite a sight to behold. In fact, it’s considered to be the most impressive meteor impact site in the world. It was created 1.4-million years ago when a massive meteor slammed into the earth’s crust, disintegrating on impact, and leaving the 400-meter deep crater in the process. To put it into perspective, 400 meters is only 57 meter’s less than the height of the CN Tower.
Much of the crater is also filled with some of the purest water on Earth, and at 867-feet deep, “Lac Pingualuk” is one of the deepest lakes in North America. Also, even though there is no known inflow or outflow to the lake, landlocked Arctic Char, and Lake Trout can still be caught in it.The presence of fish is evidence that it was once connected to the surrounding watershed. When the glaciers retreated, Pingualuit rim slowly rebounded after being compressed by the weight of glacial ice for many millennia. As the rimrose, it cut off the inflow and outflow of Lac Pingualuk, and the rim now rises to a height of 520-feet above the surrounding tundra. In fact, the highest point of land on the Ungava Peninsula is located on Pingualuit rim. Because it’s cut off, the lake is now entirely filled with precipitation, making it one of the clearest lakes in the world. And each drop of water in it is estimated to be an average of 350 years old. In addition to its age and depth, the lack of an inflow and outflow also contributes to Pingualuit Crater being a globally significant scientific research site. This is because sediments containing fossils at the bottom of the lake have remained undisturbed for many thousands of years, offering scientists a window into the earth’s distant climactic history.
Pingualuit is a big draw for me, but I also wanted to challenge my winter travel and winter camping skills. For years, I’ve read about people doing big winter expeditions in the Arctic, and have always been fascinated with stories of traditional Inuit travel. I wanted to give it a try, to see if I could do it for myself. Having already traveled extensively in the Arctic by snowmobile, along with several tough, self-propelled winter trips below the Tree Line, I felt like I was ready for the challenge.
My initial thoughts were to travel to Pingualuit and back, but while looking at the maps in the months before the trip, I decided I wanted to keep going west, and push all the way to Hudson Bay. After all, Pingualuit Crater is already about one third of the way there. My research also told me I’d be the first on record to complete a self-propelled crossing of the mountainous northern part of the peninsula between Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay, and the second person ever to complete a self-propelled, winter crossing of the Ungava Peninsula. Funny thing though, for some reason, I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to go with me, (except for Buck), and that’s why I went solo.
Although I’d originally foreseen a summer trip to Pingualuit Crater. A little research told me that a winter trek was very viable. The crater is the focal point of Park Nationals Pingualuit, a Quebec Park that can be accessed through the community of Kangiqsujuaq on the coast of Hudson Strait.
Kangiqsujuaq is a traditional Inuit community of roughly 700 people that lies well north of the Tree Line, and well off the road system. This is where you’ll find the park office, and it’s where guided trips to the park begin.Starting not far from the community, a mountain pass, marked by inuksuit will guide you roughly 120-kilometers to the crater. And, even better, Nunavik Parks Has built cabins every 30 kilometers along this corridor. The remote cabins are equipped with more amenities than you’d ever expect, my favorite being gas stoves for cooking, and oil stoves for heat. On shorter trips, cabins can be prestocked, and travelers on skis can enjoy a cabin every night if desired. But since I’d be hauling a month’s worth of supplies. I’d only be able to make itto a cabin roughly every other night.
I’m in Kangiqsujuaq just after arriving in a Dash-8 with Buckcrated in the cargo haul. I’m immediately awe struck by the beauty of the place. After checking into the Co-Op hotel, I head outside to check out the village. I haven’t made it far when a guy pulls up on a ski-doo asking, “Are you Jim?” and gives me a warm handshake. I notice he seems a little dumbfounded,and is looking at me as if he’s trying to get a read on my level of sanity. He introduces himself as Noah, and it turns out, he’s a warden for Pingualuit Park that I’d been emailing. Playing into his obvious concerned look, I ask, “What would you give me out of ten on the crazy scale?” “An 11” he blurts back. We both laugh, and we make plans to go over my route the next day. Soon, I meet another local guy outside the Northern Store, and share my plans. “No! Don’t do it! You’ll freeze to death!” He says with wide eyes and marked concern. I try to brush it off. I mean, I’ve come all this way; I’m not going to back out now!
Hudson Strait is the only place in the world where people venture under the sea ice at low tide to harvest food. It can be a dangerous way to fill your stomach though. If the tide starts to come in while you’re under the ice, you can become trapped and die. It’s not the kind of thing you want to do alone, but I have to experience it. It’s my last day in Kangiqsujuaq, and Buck and I walk along the coast as the tide is going out. A couple kilometers later, I sit down and wait in hopes that someone will show up with plans to go under the ice. It’s a long shot, and I’m about to give up when I hear a snowmobile, and look to see a group of Inuit on their way over. Lucasi and his wife are the local experts when it comes to going under the ice. And, they’re leading a group of graduate students from all over Nunavik. It’s the first time going under the ice for the students too, and everyone is excited. Soon, a hole is chiseled and a dark cave is revealed. Lucasi disappears below, emerging with a handful of mussels that he tosses out to the group. Soon we’re all under the ice picking handfuls of mussels from between the rocks, and one of the girls findsa crab. It’s warm, and the ice glows with a beautiful aqua blue tone. I can see channels in the ice cave, snaking off in either direction as echoing sounds of dripping water, shuffling feet, and words spoken in Inuktitut travel throughout the ice cave. Before too long, we all have more mussels than we can eat, and we escape from below the ice in due time. The mussels are absolutely delicious,and I gorge on them back at the hotel.
My expedition is underway, and it’s the morning of Day 3. It takes a lot of guts to keep going this morning after my blizzard experience the night before, but I push on. Many kilometers later, on Day 13, I emerge from the mountains and reach a massive plateau. In the distance, I finally see Pingualuit Crater, rising way up out of the flat landscape. It almost appears to be surreal.
Staying in a cabin near the crater, I think I’ve gone crazy when I hear a snowmobile. But on further inspection, it turns out I have company. Itis Noah, Charlie, Elijah, and Pierre. All people I’d met in town that work with the park. And they were leading the same group of people I’d gone below the sea ice with. It was about a 5-hour ride from Kangiqsujuaq they told me. That evening, I helped Elijah and Charlie build an igloo on the lake, which was then used as an ice fishing hut the following day. I was amazed at the ingenuity that went into building it. And once the igloo was done, I was very surprised at how warm it was inside.
Lunch the next day is raw frozen Arctic Char caught in the Igloo. Dinner was raw frozen caribou, and Beluga mukluk, an Inuit delicacy. Muktuk is raw whale skin, and I found it to have a little bit of a coconut flavor,and an interesting texture to it. In the coming weeks, I’d be ever more grateful that they kept me well fed over the couple days I spent exploring the crater with them.
The Povungnituk River is a traditional Inuit travel route that was used to access the interior. It’s day 17, and I’m at the base of an impressive canyon on the frozen Povungnituk. I’m snowshoeing west; over large drifts as I head along the northern border of Park Nationals Des Pingualuit. Soon, I leave the park behind me. There will be no more warm cabins for the next 200- kilometers. My plan is to follow the river some 100-kilometers to Lac Allamand, from where I’d beeline overland to Akulivik, an Inuit community on Hudson Bay. However, as the weather worsens, it seems Mother Nature has different plans for me. Spring is trying to come early which is causing fronts to collide, and I experience blizzard after blizzard. In this stretch alone, I can’t travel for five days, and my slowed progress starts to eat heavily into my provisions. On two occasions, I chisel through 7’ thick ice in search for fish to eat, only to come up empty handed both times. Each hole takes me 2 hours and a lot of energy to chisel. I have no choice but to cut rations, which are already pretty skimpy.
The terrain east of Lac Allamand is incredibly mountainous, and rugged. Scattered boulders, steep inclines, and deep snow make progress painfully slow. Looking at my dwindling food supply, I do the math. If I take a faster route to Hudson Bay, cut my breakfasts, and dinners in half, and up my travel distance to 20-kilometers a day, I’ll be able to make it in 6 travel days. But I have to eat almost nothing on the days I remained pinned down in bad weather.
I push on and make good time when the weather is on my side. The country is beautiful, no flat monotonous tundra here. And then, one day, all of a sudden, it’s not winter any more. Spring arrives, and a couple warm days melt the snow off of the hilltops, and hauling the pulls over boulders is a challenge. The snow gets softer too, and I sink up to my knee with every step, even with my snowshoes on.
Using a sat texting device, I’d facilitated a ski-doo pick-up on Hudson Bay, 40-kilometers south of Akulivik. It’s my last day, and with my boots full of water from crossing slushy lakes, I’m pushing hard to get to the bay before dark. But my heart sinks when I climb a riverbank to see a huge, boulder-strewn ridge rising up in front of me. It proves to be very time consuming for me to haul up the steep ridge through deep snow while maneuvering around the many boulders. There’s no way Buck will be able to make it up I think. And, I mentally prepare myself to be hauling across boulderfields in the pitch black. Finally, I’m almost at the top. I drop my pulk harness, and turn around to go help Buck who’s out of site, and surely hung up in the rocks below.
As I’m walking down the ridge, I can’t believe it when I see Buck’s head pop up over the incline. He somehow managed to haul up the steep ridge, and over all the boulders! I can’t believe it! Buck saves us at least a half hour of daylight, and we dig deep to reach Hudson Bay just before dark on Day 36. We did it!
Come morning, the only bit of food I have left is a small plastic bag with some protein powder in it. I climb out of the tent, to find a beautiful day, but my ski-doo pick up is nowhere to be seen. I soon realize I’m not the first to camp in this spot. I discover a large number of ancient stone tent rings, stone meat caches,old hearths, and even a partially burnt wooden artifact, all remnants of a bygone era when the Inuit lived as nomads. It looks like the spot had been well used by different groups of Inuit for hundreds of years.
Also, to my delight, I discover that much of the area is covered with Cranberries. It’s last fall’s crop, and the snow on top of them has just melted. That’s when they’re the sweetest. I happily gobble down several handfuls as I take in my surroundings. And at that moment, I truly feel connected to the people that had camped there so many years ago. It’s an amazing feeling. I take a moment to relax, and sit on a sun warmed rock. My pick up should be arriving any minute.