Crossing Baffin Island
Traverse an Arctic ice cap, forge a Class V first descent, follow a traditional Inuit route across Baffin Island in homemade sea kayaks: Welcome to the burliest double-date ever.
Words and photos by Erik Boomer, Sarah McNair-Landry, Katherine Breen, Eric McNair-Landry
The word seemed to hang in the air for a long moment then gave way to the clattering of shattered ice sliding into nothingness. I dropped to my butt, dug my ax into the rotting snow and felt the rope take the weight of Kate’s body.
She was waist-deep in the crevasse, her skis and legs dangling into the abyss. All that kept her from falling was the 9 mm climbing rope connecting the four of us together. With Sarah and me belaying, Eric crept to the edge and helped Kate, his girlfriend, back onto her skis.
As a kayaker, the teamwork felt natural to me. Glaciers are like giant rivers suspended in time, flowing and moving through valleys, over rocks, down drops and around corners. Like rivers, glaciers have their steeper, more dynamic sections. On a river these cruxes are full of holes, waterfalls and rogue currents. In a glacier, the flowing ice fractures, creating dangerous crevasses that often lie hidden beneath a thin layer of snow.
Kate’s slip into the crevasse came on the second of five days we spent crossing the Penny Ice Cap, the first leg of our two- month, 660-mile traverse of Baffin Island. Our primary mode of transport would be traditional Inuit kayaks we researched and built ourselves, but first we would have to cross the ice cap and descend the Class V Weasel River. Only then could we switch to our sea kayaks and follow a traditional Inuit route across the world’s fifth-largest island. So Kate shook the snow from her skis, and we kept going.
Sarah led our rope line, probing with her ski pole to test the strength of the snow bridges obscuring the crevasses. Sarah, my girlfriend of four years, was raised on Baffin Island. She’s been living by her wits on the ice since before she was in grade school, and has a natural toughness I can only marvel at. She likes to ski hard, to push for more miles when the rest of us urge her to stop. Some of my kayaking friends say girlfriends are “siphons” who suck the life from whoever they date. Sarah is just the opposite. She breathes adventure into my life. She motivates me to harden up, to take chances, to go for it.
I was next on the rope line, following behind Sarah and hauling my Liquidlogic whitewater kayak like a sledge. I spend most of my time paddling Class V rivers
and working as a photographer, but since completing a 104-day Ellesmere Island circumnavigation with Jon Turk in 2011 (“World of Ice,” May 2012), Arctic expeditions have begun to grow on me.
Next in line was Sarah’s older brother, Eric McNair-Landry. Eric shares his sister’s arctic pedigree and rock-solid expedition skills. He’s also something of a mad genius. We call him “Ericapedia” for his encyclopedic knowledge of nearly everything, and his ability to improvise. Eric’s MacGyver skills would save the day many times.
The end of the climbing rope was fastened to Eric’s girlfriend, Katherine Breen. This was Kate’s first expedition. She brought a positive outlook and an egoless perspective that helped keep the rest of us grounded. She also is a medical doctor and certified yoga teacher. When something got stuck in the end of a kayak, Kate was the only one of us flexible enough to fish it out.
We started our last day on the glacier at 3 a.m., under a midnight sun concealed by whiteout conditions. Roped for safety and with GPS in hand, we navigated by feel. Like a blind person probing with a cane, Sarah stabbed her pole into the snow in front of her, assessing the stability of the snow that camouflaged and bridged the crevasses.
We continued this way for hours, until the storm began to clear and the surrounding peaks came into view. Our route led us between two of the most dramatic peaks I have ever seen—Mount Asgard, a cylindrical massif that rises like a 6,611-foot-tall grain silo, and Mount Loki, piercing the skyline like a sharp tooth.
The Arctic sun circled these peaks all summer, barely kissing the horizon in the hours around midnight. The limitless daylight allowed us to push hard and long. Sleep-deprived and physically exhausted, we pressed on in a hazy, dreamlike state. The end of the glacier came suddenly, an icy horizon line resolving into a cliff-like drop off to the moraine below. From the base of this unstable wall of ice, water that had been trapped in the glacier for thousands of years gushed headlong into an unstable riverbed. After 50 miles of skiing, 6,000 feet of elevation gained and lost, and a final 24- hour push, we had finally reached the Weasel River. Looking at it sent a jolt of nervous anticipation through my body.
In summer, the river surges as much as six vertical feet between the chill twilight and the warmth of the day. Receding side- glaciers have filled this valley with moraines of scalloped rock. The wild river charges downstream, freighted with silt, jostling and pummeling boulders into a constantly changing combination of undercuts and sieves.
As I assessed this first whitewater puzzle, a mile-long sequence of Class V+ cruxes called Summit Lake Rapid, violent winds funneled through this rocky crack in Baffin Island, pelting us with river spray and glacial dust. The whitewater was nonstop, and at the very edge of what is now possible in a kayak.
I studied this rapid for about two hours before finally making my decision. The fifth day of a two-month expedition wasn’t the time, and this remote wilderness wasn’t the place. The team’s overall goal of completing the expedition took precedence. Reluctantly, I walked around the part of this rapid that presented such an interesting problem, and launched into a still powerful but more manageable section of Class V.
Paddling alone into the first waves, the power of the river overtook me. It awakened me to the present moment, reminding me that this is what I have spent my entire life preparing to do: kayaking unknown waters north of the Arctic Circle, surrounded by giant mountains named after Norse gods. It was my time to have fun and let it fly.
The wind rushed off the ice cap and between the towering canyon walls, accelerating to about 40 miles per hour. The gusts were so powerful I had to set a ferry angle against them in order to keep my line in the rapids. I paddled this way to our first river camp, through four miles of nonstop Class IV whitewater. The river was on edge—very steep. Even in sections that didn’t pose a real threat, I found myself paddling with more urgency than normal.
While I ran the meat in my creekboat, the rest of the team set safety on shore. They hiked around the Class V rapids and paddled the mellower sections in their seven-pound inflatable packrafts.
The river slowly mellowed as it approached the Arctic Ocean. Our river crafts were no match for the second stage of our expedition, and in the small community of Pangnirtung we traded them for our sea kayaks. These weren’t just any store-bought boats. They were Baffin Inuit kayaks. After months of work, we were proud to say that we had built them.
“Rock, paper, scissors!”
My paper beat Eric’s rock. He clambered out of the hot tub and, steaming, ran upstairs to refill our gin and tonics. It was a fall evening in Tofino, a sleepy surfing outpost on the west coast of Vancouver Island where the four of us had holed up to plan our next adventure.
The seed had been planted years before, after Eric and I finished a 1,500- mile kite-skiing traverse of the Greenland Ice Cap. We sat on a rocky beach and watched the local people celebrate their annual kayaking festival, a cross between an Inuit block party and a decathlon of traditional paddling skills. We were struck by the vibrancy of Greenland’s kayaking culture. The native people my brother and I had grown up with on Baffin Island shared the Greenlanders’ sea-hunting heritage but no longer have a living connection to it. Their grandfathers traditional traded the traditional skin kayaks for the convenience of motorboats long ago.
Years later, when Eric’s painstaking study of Google Maps revealed a potential paddling route across Baffin with only six miles of portages, we talked about crossing the island in traditional Baffin-style kayaks. The idea took life that night in the hot tub.
The first step was to research the design. Then we’d build them, sharing our process of learning and discovery with local kids. Finally, we’d have to paddle the skin-on-frame crafts across the fifth-largest island on earth.
All this was wonderfully exciting to talk about while holding a cool drink above a bubbling tub. But back home on Baffin Island, deep into a month of 10- and 12-hour days in the high school woodshop, I wondered if we would ever finish the boats.
“BEEP, BEEP, BEEP … ”
The kitchen timer told us five minutes had passed, and Kate donned heavy work gloves to pull a piece of white oak from our homemade steam box. The wood had been soaking for 24 hours, then boiled and finally steamed. Now we had less than a minute to form it into the shape of a kayak rib. Kate passed the hot stick to Eric, who carefully bent it into a tight semicircle, as the rest of us leaned in to help. One down, 20 more to go. The next rib out of the steam box splintered immediately.
I couldn’t have told you when we had last eaten, or breathed fresh air. But I did remember old photographs of an Inuit man chewing wood to make his kayak ribs. Despite the long hours and occasional missteps, I didn’t feel we had much right to complain. Here we were in a heated workshop, with a table saw, a mortising machine and a stereo blasting our favorite tunes. The Inuit who perfected the Baffin kayaks made them in the open, using whatever small willow twigs, bones, and driftwood they could find.
Although we had new materials, we tried to stay true to the traditional design. Each of our kayaks was built to fit its owner, using an ancient formula based on our body dimensions and passed down through the generations. We used no nails or screws, instead joining the frame with tongue-and-groove joints and sinew lashings.
Eric had reverse-modeled the design from an old photograph, filling in the blanks with bits of boat-building lore and advice from kayak revivalists in Greenland. Kayak designs vary across the Arctic, depending on conditions
they were used in and the materials available. Greenland boats have a sexier profile, designed for speed and rolling. Baffin-style kayaks are wider and much roomier.
Our finished kayaks looked remarkably like the one in the photograph. But a lot of questions remained unanswered. Will our kayaks be strong enough? Will they hold enough food? How will they handle potages and stormy weather?
There was only one way to find out.
After switching to our hand-built kayaks in Pangnirtung, we paddled into Cumberland Sound then turned inland, working our way across
the island in a succession of rivers, lakes, and portages. What really drew us to this route was its cultural significance.
For centuries, and until a few decades ago,Inuit families from the coastal regions around Pangnirtung and Cape Dorset in southern Baffin Island would travel inland for the summer. The great lakes of Nettiling and Amadjuak provided good hunting and fishing, as well as a chance to trade, visit distant relations, or even find a new husband or wife.
Our goal was not to be the first or the fastest to travel these traditional routes, but to link them together in a single season. From the moment we began studying the maps and satellite images, we knew that the Amadjuak River linking the two big lakes would be a tough upstream paddle. The river rises 284 vertical feet in about 38 miles, a gradient similar to the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Perhaps more ominously, we heard no stories of Inuit traveling this particular route. The few people who have crossed overland from Nettiling to Amadjuak had chosen to portage through a series of lakes that runs parallel to the river. We were about to find out why.
The upstream stretch of the Amadjuak would become an 11-day battle against huge-volume whitewater, innumerable swifts, slippery rocks, tricky lining, and heavy portaging.
Inuit people perfected our traditional kayak design for ocean hunting, not river travel. And I’m no whitewater paddler. Thanks to our Amadjuak epic, I have far more experience paddling upstream through rapids than down them. As difficult as the river paddling was, our sea kayaks performed admirably. They handled attainment after attainment as we made our way up the current, hopping from eddy to eddy and stopping occasionally to scout or portage the larger rapids.
Our kayaks took care of us, but they suffered. Our first day on the river, Eric snapped the tips off his traditional paddle. The next day, Boomer broke his in half. The boats, which for 330 miles of coastal and river travel had remained relatively waterproof, sprung leak after leak as we scraped the ballistic nylon shells against the river’s shallow bottom. Patching the skins and applying new layers of polyurethane waterproofing became a nightly chore.
Every long day of upstream paddling was a physical and emotional test, but also a learning experience. I got better at reading the river, assessing which swifts were within my ability, and which ones would make me feel as if I were running on a treadmill turned up too high.
In the tougher sections Boomer would paddle his own boat, then come back for mine. The river gave us plenty of chances to become a stronger team. We faced constant decisions about whether to paddle, portage, or line, about when to call it a day and what time to start in the mornings. We made those decisions together,pushing ourselves while looking out for one another.
We averaged just 4.5 miles per day, yet somehow the beauty of the river kept our spirits high. This team thrives on adversity, and seemed always to find a way to turn frustration to fun. Our last morning, we awoke to a thin layer of snow. Naturally we laughed about it; even in the Arctic, snow is an unusual sight in the middle of August. But as it persisted for the next couple of days, the inevitable headwind driving icy needles into our faces, we found less to joke about.
In a part of the world where summer is measured in weeks, we still had a month of hard travel ahead of us. For two weeks we’d been imagining ourselves on this lake, paddling easily, finally off the river and out of the current. Instead, we encountered headwinds and huge waves. We had only two days of food left, and if the weather didn’t improve, we would have to leave the boats and hike the last 10 miles to the food cache that Boomer and Sarah had dropped by snow- machine four months earlier.
We were always hungry. The hard travel and constant chill made sure of that. Food dominated our conversations. We tried to remember what goodies we we slipped into those two plywood boxes. Other times we wondered if there would be any food at all. If animals or weather had damaged the cache, our situation would be dire. As much as we would love to hunt and fish, we didn’t have the skills to live off this hungry land.
The freight canoe changed course abruptly, puttered toward us, carrying the first human being we had seen in 54 days, an older Inuit hunter in a long parka adorned with a magnificent fur ruff. After the usual introductions he ducked behind the gunwale and retrieved a gift prepared for just this occasion: four pairs of fresh socks!
It was a splendid day, the first sustained break from the 20-knot headwinds that had plagued us for the last two weeks. The hunter was the first of many people we would see that day. Frantic to exploit the fine weather, it seemed that the entire population of Cape Dorset had taken to the water for hunting or a weekend getaway.
A family gave us fresh bannock and caribou meat. More hunters stopped, directing us toward the town or just dropping in for a short conversation on the water. We commiserated about the awful summer; many told us it had been the coldest in 30 years. The community had been wind-bound for weeks. The news left us feeling both vindicated and foolhardy. What had we proved by slogging through seas that more experienced travelers had wisely avoided? What was the point of paddling day after day into the unrelenting headwinds, the snowstorms and tidal rapids?
With limited food and fuel, we really had no other choice. Now though, we did. The hunter in the fur ruff had told us that the fair weather was unlikely to last, and if we paddled into the night we could make it to Cape Dorset before it turned. We thanked him for the advice and the socks, but had no intention of racing for the barn. We had chosen the trail because we love this lifestyle. We wanted to savor one last night out.
By the time soup was boiling on our camp-stoves, the lights of Cape Dorset could be seen illuminating the clouds hanging low over the far shore of the sound.
We’d pitched our tents on a snow-dusted beach next to an old cabin, now abandoned. Fifty years ago, when people still lived in prosperous hunting camps scattered across the land, this modest structure had been home to an Inuit family. Long ago they had moved into the town of Cape Dorset, and the land now lay tranquil and uninhabited. Slowly the Arctic tundra is turning the old way of life into artifacts.
From our beach camp we watched the hunting boats returning to Cape Dorset. That evening, around dinner tables laden with fresh seal meat, they would spread the word of our imminent arrival. The mayor would organize a welcoming celebration at the community center. Fresh towels were being laid out at the hotel. The managers of the local print shop were choosing a gift. Someone was buying fireworks.
Our stoves blazing in the tent vestibule, we celebrated quietly over a meal of thick caribou steaks. We were warm and content. Tomorrow would be a big day, but tonight we would relax, enjoying one last night out on the trail.
This story first appeared in the March 2014 issue of Canoe & Kayak.
More from C&K:
–See a video interview with members of the Baffin Island expedition.
–Check out more digital features on incredible paddling journeys.