AN EPIC ARCTIC JOURNEY
Pitched alongside a sheltering cliff, the tiny campsite on the frozen sea of Maxwell Bay in the Canadian Arctic was only a speck in the seemingly endless expanse of polar ice. Inside a pair of tents on the southern edge of Devon Island, five Canadian adventurers paused at the halfway mark of an 1,800-mile northern trek to await the arrival of a Twin Otter aircraft bringing supplies of seal meat for their 44 sled dogs. The purpose of the gruelling journey: to retrace the route followed by Qitdlak, an Inuit shaman who led the last recorded migration of Baffin Island Inuit to the northern coast of Greenland 125 years ago.
The campsite provided a respite from the -20° C temperatures and the physical strain of driving dogsleds across heavily ridged ice. But the delay in late April was still in some ways an
unwelcome interruption. With each passing day the winter ice in Smith Sound, separating Canada from Greenland, continued to break up, potentially forcing the group to plot a path ever farther north in case they were forced to seek solid sea ice for a safe crossing.
Symbolic: For expedition organizer Renée Wissink and his four companions, the dangers of the trek were obscured by its challenge and symbolic value. Setting out from Igloolik on March 6, the group last week arrived at Grise Fiord, at the southern end of Ellesmere Island, Canada’s northernmost Inuit community. In the final stages of the 17-day march from Arctic Bay, the expedition had been travelling at night. The night sky in spring is almost as bright as in the daytime, but the snow underfoot is firmer at night. “It is also a more beautiful time to travel because of the changing
light,” said Ottawa photographer and wilderness tour operator Michael Beedell, a member of the expedition. While resting at Grise Fiord, the team planned the journey’s next leg—north on Ellesmere Island toward Pirn Island, where they hoped to make the crossing to Greenland later this month.
The purpose of the arduous journey was twofold. By recreating Qitdlak’s epic journey, the expedition members hoped to draw attention to the achievement of a little-known northern pathfinder. But they also viewed the expedition as demonstrating Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic, by underlining the fact that northern routes across the frozen sea have been travelled by the Inuit for centuries.
Lark: That, in turn, supports Canada’s contention that the arctic waterways—frozen and used like land for
much of the year—should have a special territorial status in international law. “We are not rich kids out for a lark,” said Wissink, a former highschool social sciences teacher from St. Thomas, Ont., who fell in love with the Arctic from afar as a child and became a schoolteacher, first in Frobisher Bay and then in Igloolik. Now he is a tour outfitter and breeds Canadian Eskimo dogs—a rugged breed used by the Inuit for centuries—in Igloolik. “We are explorers dedicated to traditional ways of travel in the Arctic who are proud to be Canadians and believe in asserting a Canadian presence up here.” Luck: In fact, the expedition took place at a time of renewed interest— and controversy—over the future of Canada’s arctic domain. Since August, 1985, when the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea sailed the Northwest Passage without Canada’s per-
mission, Ottawa has sought to strengthen its claim to sovereignty over the region. Now there are signs that Washington may be willing to extend limited recognition—but only in return for freedom of movement for the U.S. navy in the arctic waters claimed by Canada. That prospect contributed to growing fears that strategic considerations could make the Arctic a future battleground. Faced with suspected incursions by Soviet—and U.S.—nuclear submarines in arctic waters, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s government now is considering the acquisition of as many as 10 nuclearpowered submarines for the Canadian navy.
At the same time, the Arctic’s economic fortunes have been severely shaken by the international boycott of seal pelts and the decline in petroleum exploration and development in the re-
gion. Luckily, the slump has been partly offset by a resurgent interest in the North that is prompting growing numbers of southerners—including flamboyant adventurers as well as ordinary tourists —to explore Canada’s last frontier (page 28). Still, the sluggishness of the Arctic’s resource-based economy has also served to focus attention on Canada’s social and administrative record in the Arctic—a record that some critics compare unfavorably with that of other northern nations (page 30).
Stark: But for Wissink and his fellow expedition members, their lonely journey provided an ideal opportunity to assert Canada’s presence in the desolate but starkly beautiful region. One month into their journey, expedition members symbolically planted a Canadian flag in the heavily ridged ice of Lancaster Sound, at the eastern en-
trance to the disputed Northwest Passage. Said Wissink: “It was our way of saying that this is a pretty important piece of real estate, and we have to stand up for it.”
Few arctic expeditions in modern times have taken on a physical challenge as severe as that faced by the members of the expedition memorializing Qitdlarssuaq—the term means Qitdlak the Great in the Inuktutuk tongue. In a three-month odyssey the group planned to travel from Baffin Island to Greenland by dogsled, a journey that took Qitdlak six years to complete. At times the trek has been nightmarishly difficult. Expedition members had to manhandle their three 1,000-lb. sleds across dangerous terrain littered with boulders and around 10-foot-high ridges of ice on Lancaster Sound.
Break: When the time comes to make the crossing to Greenland, the group will have to contend with the perils of shifting sea ice as the winter
cold recedes and ice, in slabs six feet thick, begins to break up. And at all times expedition members have to be alert to the presence of the huge and lethally dangerous polar bears, which provoked fights with their dogs during the first half of the trip.
Trek: But the five expedition members are well-prepared for traditional arctic travel. In addition to Wissink, 28, the trekkers are: Beedell, 30, who has travelled extensively throughout the Arctic, and three Inuit residents of Igloolik—Theo Ikummaq, 32, a former arctic wildlife officer and a great-great-greatnephew of Qitdlarssuaq;
Paul Apak, 32, another of Qitdlarssuaq’s descendants and an Inuit Broadcasting Corp. tele-
vision cameraman who is recording the journey on videotape; and Mike Immaroitok, 18, a nephew of Ikummaq’s and a dog driver.
The journey was conceived last summer by Wissink. He and his team subsequently raised $35,000 to finance the expedition, with a $10,000 grant from Ottawa, $11,000 from the Northwest Territories government, $10,000 from the Baffin Tourism Association and contributions from private Canadian organizations and firms. Said Wissink, a respected arctic adventurer who has trekked widely in Baffin: “I wanted a
commemorative trip that could be done by dogsled and that had a strong Canadian identity. The Qitdlarssuaq
THE CIRCUMPOLAR LANDS
Expedition met both those criteria.”
Historic: Qitdlak’s journey from the Canadian Arctic to Greenland had historical significance, but it was not unique. Anthropological and archeological records suggest that the Baffin Island Inuit had been travelling to Greenland as far back as the 12th century, and the two groups shared a common maritime culture. Those contacts gradually ended in the 17th and 18th centuries, when severe cold spells prohibited extensive travel. According to anthropologists, the isolation of the Inuit of northwestern Greenland caused them to become inbred and enfeebled—to the point where they may have faced extinction.
In the meantime social pressures in Baffin Island had persuaded Qitdlak to begin his journey. According to a traditional belief among the Inuit, the outbreak of a bloody intertribal feud near Pond Inlet on northern Baffin Island in the middle 1850s forced Qitdlak to flee from avenging relatives. According to another theory, Qitdlak, as a shaman, or religious leader, had brought about the deaths of some members of the community and consequently had to flee for his life. Whatever the reasons, Qitdlak had apparently heard stories of a small community of Inuit living across the sea in Greenland. As a result, he turned his forced exile into a quest for his people’s overseas kin. Using his ample powers of persuasion, the old man rallied 38 followers— many of them women and children—to join him.
Back: Qitdlak’s long march was punctuated by peril and tragedy. After two years of hardship 24 members of the expedition rebelled against Qitdlak and turned back. But according to oral legend, Qitdlak was a leader with “a flame burning above his head, so great was his might,” and in the early 1860s he succeeded in leading the remaining members of his band across Smith Sound into Greenland. There, near Etah, they met hunters from a tribe of Polar Inuit. The two groups lived together, sharing knowledge on hunting techniques, clothing and igloo construction. According to historians, that cultural exchange—and the new blood injected by the visitors from Baffin Island-may well have helped to prevent the Inuit of northwestern Greenland from dying out.
After six years there Qitdlak decided that the time had come to return home. Once again, he set out with followers. But Qitdlak died during the first winter. After battling famine and
resorting to cannibalism, the surviving members gave up and returned to Greenland the next year.
The story of Qitdlak has been preserved not only in Inuit legend, but in European historical accounts as well. In 1908 Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen wrote of an encounter with survivors and descendants of the shaman’s journey. Verification of Qitdlak’s journey is also found in official chronicles of arctic expeditions of the day. One of those was dispatched to search for the ill-fated expedition led by British explorer Sir John Franklin, which had vanished in 1845 during a search for the Northwest Passage. Diaries from the period, which describe contact with Qitdlak at various points along his route, have enabled modern historians to plot his band’s journey.
Said Alan Cooke, director of Montreal’s Hochelaga Research Institute, a northern documentation centre: “It is a great detective story. It is the only migration of its time for which we can relate the historical record to the oral tradition.”
Skin: In their re-creation of the shaman’s march across the ice, Wissink and his team have paid close attention to historical detail. The clothes worn by expedition members are largely handmade, from sealskin boots to caribou pants and mittens. The team is travelling in the traditional Inuit manner, aboard sleds—or komatiq—laden with walrus and seal meat for the dogs who pull them. Said Ikummaq: “When we pull into a village, the kids are real-
ly excited by the dogs and sleds. We hope our trip can get the kids interested in their heritage.”
Still, there are concessions to modern times. In the first stages of the expedition members slept in igloos built by Ikummaq. But after the expert igloobuilder strained his back hauling a sled over the ice, they decided to use their tents instead. As well, Beedell’s sled is loaded with camera equipment. The author of The Magnetic North, a book of photographs taken on his numerous wilderness expeditions, Beedell is also recording this journey in pictures. To cope with the monotony of the miles of endless arctic whiteness, some members of the expedition listen to music—“everything from rock to mellow stuff,” said Beedell—on their Sony Walkmans. And for meals, expedition members often
heat up freeze-dried packages of beef bourguignon or chili con carne.
Modern amenities did not soften the numbing shock of the -40° C temperatures that greeted the group when the winds picked up on their second day out from Igloolik. Beedell’s fingertips froze as he tried to use his camera. That did not prevent Beedell from delighting his comrades with an April Fool’s Day stunt that defied the subzero temperatures. Propping a sled against an outcropping of ice, Beedell stripped naked in the -20° C weather and pretended to dive off the sled into the snow. Said Dr. James Howe, an Ottawa physician and runner who has competed in the annual Midnight Sun Marathon in northern Baffin Island
and who has been Beedell’s doctor since infancy: “Mike is one of the few people in the world who went after what he wanted to do and did it when a lot of people told him he was crazy.” Travelling in cold but generally clear weather conditions —except for a treacherous whiteout—the expedition
completed the first 250-mile leg of its journey to Pond Inlet by March 23. Then, after a northwestern trek of roughly the same distance to Arctic Bay, the team struck out on the more dangerous portion of the trip across Lancaster Sound on April 9.
Knees: With the arctic summer on its way, expedition members heard the
ice creaking and groaning beneath them. But the greatest challenge was propelling the heavy komatiq over the ice ridges. “The pressure ridges are stacked like dominoes, some as many as 50 feet high,” said Beedell, who bruised both his knees falling from his sled as it swerved off an ice ridge.
“And the komatiq get bent out of shape from repeatedly smacking against the ice.”
An even deadlier threat came in the form of hungry polar bears who regularly investigated the expedition’s camps. The Lancaster Sound crossing cut across a haunt of polar bears. When the bears came too close, expedi-
tion members scared them off by firing round rubber pellets into the bear’s flank from a 12-gauge shotgun. Said Ikummaq: “Bears don’t scare easily. But I am not afraid of bears.” As well, the excited barking of the expedition’s dogs served as a reliable warning of approaching bears.
The sturdy dogs also proved themselves capable of pulling the komatiq for long hours under tough conditions. Said Beedell: “We do a lot of screaming and raving and ranting at the dogs during the day. But they are working animals who are happy as hell just hauling their guts out hour after hour.” Impressed by their endurance, Beedell was able to overlook some of the dogs’ more mischievous acts, such as eating his caribou mitts or trying to steal his caribou pants from the tent. As the arctic daylight lengthened toward almost 24 hours daily during late April, the dogs’ staying power began to dictate the distances to be travelled each day. “We go until the dogs get tired,” said Wissink.
Link: Despite occasionally frayed tempers and nagging minor injuries, the group expected to reach Etah by the end of May. Along the way, the trekkers planned to cross Makinson Inlet, where many of Qitdlak’s followers starved to death during the attempt to return to Baffin Island, and a more northerly location, where Qitdlak is believed to be buried. Although Qitdlak’s descendant Ikummaq claims to feel no special spiritual affinity with his ancestor, Beedell expects a linkage to grow. “Knowing you are passing spots where people starved to death, or where Qitdlak is buried, is sure to be eerie,” he said.
The expedition members say they hope that their trek may have a more lasting impact by reminding Canadians of the importance of their northern heritage. Like other southerners who have fallen under the spell of the Arctic, Beedell says he worries that unless Canada acts to strengthen its presence in the Arctic, real sovereignty over the area could slip from its grasp. At the same time, he sees in the Arctic abundant opportunities for Canada to build constructively for the future. “More and more North Americans,” noted Beedell, “are becoming aware of wilderness travel in the Arctic, and the Arctic needs those tourist dollars. Canada has a chance to be a showcase to the world on how to preserve a wilderness.” For Canadians, the importance of the Qitdlarssuaq expedition may be the vivid reminder that it provides of the fact that mastery of the Arctic is a prize well worth winning—-and keeping.
-BRUCE WALLACE in Maxwell Bay