Articles

The Island that knows no summer

PIERRE BERTON July 23 1955
Articles

The Island that knows no summer

PIERRE BERTON July 23 1955

The Island that knows no summer

Here’s hot-weather reading Travel with a Maclean’s editor to Baffin — our largest island where the fiords are the longes in the world, the mountain rival the Alps, and the glacier are a quarter of a mile thic

PIERRE BERTON

WHEN I FIRST espied the wrinkled hide of Baffin Island on a June day in 1954 it seemed almost as if I had reached the ramparts that guard the very rim of the world. For eight hours we had been winging across the piebald surface of Hudson Bay, seeing nothing but the stark whiteness of cloud and ice. Then, ahead of us, looming out of the fog lay Canada’s greatest island, a wild land of blue and white, its coastline tattered by a thousand fiords, its horizons ragged with a regiment of mountain peaks an enormous block of uplifted precambrian granite that the Icelanders of Leif Ericsson’s day called Helluland the country of big black stones fa phrase also attributed to Labrador).

Here, sprawling for more than a thousand miles across the top of Canada, lay the fourth largest island in the world (excluding such continental masses as Greenland and Australia), twice the size of the whole of New Zealand, with mountains that rival all but the highest Alps, fiords longer than Norway’s, lakes the size of Nipigon and icecaps a quarter of a mile thick. The first explorer to see the Canadian Arctic landed here almost three cent uries ago, in the days of the first Queen Elizabeth. Since that time the great island has been more carefully and more extensively explored and investigated than any other part of the Canadian Arctic. Yet great wedges of it remain unknown.

It is from the area of Baffin Island that the cool masses of air in the weather reports so welcome in the heat of summer come drifting down to bring relief to perspiring office workers cooped up in city canyons. The northern half of Baffin knows no real summer, for the temperature rarely rises more than fifteen degrees above frost. Thus, in July, when the weather grows hot and sticky across southern Canada, my mind goes back to the frosty horizon of the island as I first saw it.

The land tongue-and-grooved with the sea as we advanced upon it. Long fingers of frozen ocean cut their way far inland, winding beneath the dark cool cliffs, and every valley harbored a green glacier that, from the air, seemed to be spilling at breakneck speed into the ocean.

The sixteen thousand miles of Baffin’s crinkled coastline are so intricate that mapping it has taken three centuries of careful explorat ion, and the charting is not yet done. The shores of the huge island seem, indeed, to have been submerged in the sea, for the mountains and valleys march down to the ocean’s margin and then vanish beneath its surface, often to reappear as islands along the coastline. Thus it is sometimes almost impossible to tell where the mainland begins. Actually, Baffin is a drowned land, still heaving itself out of the waters that washed over it when the weight of the Ice Age glaciers forced it down. Marine shells and fossils can be found six hundred feet and more above the present level of the sea. And the strange stone rings that, mark the former dwelling places of the extinct Eskimo civilization called the Thule are twenty to thirty feet higher than the present native homes along the shore.

The great island, with its eastern wall rising almost sheer from the sea, has attracted a long procession of explorers and scientists since the days of Martin Frobisher, the bearded and illiterate British naval captain who first discovered it. Their adventures have yielded many curiosities. Those who trekked into Baffin’s interior found two great lakes — a hundred miles across -near the southern tip in a drab and swampy land, studded with pools and low granite ridges, where gales blew ceaselessly in the winter. Others came upon hot springs three acres in size, which froze in the winter to form great blue cones of ice through which the sulphurous waters hissed and bubbled. Some pushed up the east coast, past a land of gorges and chasms where the mountains soared straight into the clouds as high as seven thousand feet and rivers of solid ice poured through the valleys to the sea’s rim. Some followed the western shoreline past masses of

layered limestone, banded in yellow, black and red, pasl ancien! coral reefs rising seven and eight hundred feet above the sea, past bricklike cliffs chiseled by the elements “into various romantic shapes as of broken arches, decayed walls, niches and tunnels . . . (like) the ruins of ancient castles or stately palaces.’’

Those who ventured farther discovered, at the island’s western tip, the world’s longest fiord, Admiralty Inlet. There are two hundred and forty miles of it, guarded by a thousand-foot mountain wall christened Giant’s Castle, into whose gaudy serrated flanks the wind and the waves have graven great pillars and columns and pointed buttresses, gateways, caves and giant caldrons. Those who trespassed upon the midriff of the island saw a relic of the Pleistocene Age—the Barnes Icecap, ninety miles long, forty miles wide and a quarter of a mile thick, bestriding the mountain backbone.

Since the bold Frobisher first found himself face to face with “a mighty deer that seemed to be

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man-kind” (it was probably a moose) explorers and scientists have tried to chart the flora of the island. Those four ubiquitous Arctic mammals, the wolf, the caribou, the white fox and the lemming, roam the bleak interior plateau but, curiously and mysteriously, there is no trace of the shaggy oddity of the tundra, musk ox. There are Canada Geese by the thousand and, in the interior, goose traps have been found — great corrals of boulders into

which the natives herd the birds to club them to death in the molting season when the geese can’t fly. There are insects in myriads. One party identified two species of bumblebee. One captured specimens of butterflies. Another happened upon a colony of fulmars, an intriguing species of polar seafowl that routs its adversaries by spouting pure oil from its bill. There were perhaps half a million of these birds, the largest colony yet recorded.

“More carefully explored than any other part of the Arc

Now, we ourselves were flying to the very northern tip of Baffin—the sixth plane ever to land on the narrow strait that separates the mainland of Baffin from the almost unexplored island of Bylot. Below us lay the mountain spine that braces Baffin’s eastern flank and is a continuation of the mountain range that borders the Labrador coast directly southeast. The mountains were marked on the map but the altitudes were misleading. Dark cliffs that should have slipped beneath us towered above us as we swept down a long glacier-choked fiord.

Ahead of us, beyond the mountain barrier, the frozen expanse of Baffin Bay stretched for four hundred miles into the horizon, beyond whose cold mists lurked the ice wall of Greenland. The bay was named for William Baffin, a self-taught British navigator of obscure beginnings and unknown background, a “learned-unlearned mariner” who charted these shores with surprising accuracy in 1616 and then returned to England, with his tales of the great bay disbelieved, to die soon after, fighting fiercely for his country in the Persian Gulf. Later geographers, on viewing his discovery, called it “the most magnificent bay in all the world” and it has grown rich in the history of the Arctic.

For it was here, through the eyes of a whaling captain, that the world had its final glimpse of the most famous and ill-fated Arctic expedition of all. On a bright July day in 1845 the whaler happened upon two stubby three-masters painted bright yellow, tethered to the ice pack. These were the Erebus and Terror, and their commander was Sir John Franklin, an ageing British naval officer of bald pate and plump figure. He was waiting for the ice to break up so that he could press on in pursuit of his own personal grail, the legendary Northwest Passage. But after the whaling ship departed no

white man ever laid eyes upon him or his crew again

By the time we reached the northeastern tip o the island, a faint haze of snow was beginning tc obscure the land. For although it was mid-June anc the rest of Canada was caught in the grip of th first summer heat wave, the island was locked in th embrace of winter. As we swept down a long mountain-bordered arm of the sea, a tiny pinprick of civilization appeared. This was Pond Inlet, i skimpy line of square buildings and tents straggling along a frozen beach, about a hundred miles farthei north than the North Magnetic Pole. There are half a dozen settlements like it on Baffin and, except for the air base at Frobisher Bay, not much more. Behind it there stretched a monotonous low tundra broken by low valleys, frozen swamps and hard little lakes. It was an ashen land, streaked with the remnants of the winter’s snows and covered by an uninviting crust of lichen. Baffin is a land ol extremes: it can be awesome in its spectacle, dismal in its monotony.

Down we came with a hard jolt on the sea iee, rumbling along a crude runway marked with gunnj sacks and gasoline tins, to shudder, finally to a stop. Then, with the engines stilled, the silence oi the Arctic engulfed us. The crew and I and a group of scientists who had come here to the ends of the earth to study this continental outpost climbed out onto the ice, shocked at the sound of our own voices, so out of place in the hush of the bright Arctic evening. Robert Service called this northern calm “the silence that bludgeons you dumb” and the phrase is an apt one.

A mile or so away on the low shore line we could just make out the buildings of the settlement. They too seemed still, as still as the gap-toothed mountains of Bylot Island across the inlet to the north. And then came a familiar sight: the wavering line

nd yet great wedges of Baffin Island still remain unknown”

of Eskimos and dogs, pouring out to meet us. These are the real inhabitants of Baffin.

Here, for a few hours, I visited with the seven white men who inhabit the tip of the great island: two Mounties, two Oblate fathers, two Hudson’s Bay Company clerks and an Anglican missionary. The Protestant clergyman in his parka and woolen toque was hardly distinguishable from the laughing, grinning natives who swirled around him. The following winter, he said, he planned to travel over three thousand miles of his parish by dog team. The trip would include crossing the hundred-mile ocean gap between Baffin Island and Boothia Peninsula to the west, a feat performed by camping on an ice floe and letting the wind blow it across the waters. It is hard to realize it now, but just thirty hours after this encounter I was back home again in Toronto, two thousand miles due south, and this cold and desolate strip of treeless beach seemed as distant as the mountains of the moon.

Last April I returned to Baffin Island, and to a scene that contrasted dramatically with the primitive one I had left the previous summer. The great island had come alive with planes, machines and men. The feeling of timelessness had vanished and a sense of urgency now prevailed. Bulldozers were more in evidence than Eskimo komatiks and CocaCola flowed like ice water.

The reason for this ferment was the construction of the great Distant Early Warning line of radar stations across the roof of Canada, three thousand miles from Alaska’s tip to Greenland’s midriff. This immense construction job, fed by the continent’s greatest airlift and paid for by the United States, has had a dynamic impact on northern economy. It is reckoned that the total bill when the task is completed in 1957 will reach three quarters of a billion dollars. The job of air-freighting supplies into the

radar sites alone is expected to strain the resources of eighteen Canadian airlines and tie up more than sixty of the country’s largest aircraft for two years. Many of these lines have been operating on a shoestring; since the DEW-line contracts were awarded they have had to double and treble their staffs. Maritime Central Airways, the prime contractor on the eastern section of the line, had to go to Europe to purchase more planes for the job. Now one of Canada’s largest airlines, it is scarcely ten years old.

I entered Baffin from the south this time, on a DEW-line air freighter loaded with yellow tractors. For eleven hundred miles we flew across the Labrador peninsula, a white waste of rock and snow and frozen water; then out across Ungava Bay where the thousand-foot, cliffs of Akpatok Island, a dark, ice-encrusted table with perpendicular edges, rise from the sea in a flat triangle; then over Hudson Strait, a deep ocean trough gouged out in glacial times by a mile-thick river of ice squeezing out from Hudson Bay to the Atlantic. Soon after, the low, withered tip of southern Baffin crept out into the sea to meet us. The land below seemed more ancient than anything I had yet. seen. The surface looked like freshly stirred porridge: rocks older than time, scoured, pitted, scratched and clawed by ice, wind and water. Off to the east stretched a black fissure, cutting raggedly into the rough surface of the island. And everywhere we could see the swirling tracks of the long-dead glacier winding down from the interior toward the sea.

We were crossing the serrated peninsula that Queen Elizabeth I named Meta Incognita (a phrase meaning unknown boundaries), the first land in the Canadian north to be visited by explorers. On the east side lay the frozen surface of Frobisher Bay, a one-

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hundred-and-fifty-mile-long neck of the ' sea stretching inland. To this bay in 1576 in a tiny cockleshell of a ship came Martin Frobisher, a one-time pirate and slaver, choleric and passionate, heavy of frame, florid of feature, violent of temper and "full of strange oaths.” This venturesome Elizabethan, who was eventually to become his country’s First Sea Lord, sailed into the bay that now bears his name with the blessings of good Queen Bess ringing in his ears, half believing that he had happened upon the mystic land of Cathay with its mountains of gold, its mounds of rubies and its acres of diamonds. Instead, he found a curious black stone that he persisted in believing to contain gold, and a queer race of heathen who I seemed, at first glance, to be half fish, but turned out to be Eskimos in kayaks. Five of his men vanished into the hinterland and were not seen again, but Frobisher managed to take a native hostage by hauling him out of his kayak and heaving him aboard ship — "a strange infidel . . . whose like was never seen, read, nor heard of before.” The unhappy captive hit his tongue in two with chagrin at being made prisoner and soon died of a cold in the head.

With his black stone and his sea unicorn’s tusk a present for the Queen and his tales of a frozen domain beyond the ocean’s rim, the first explorer soon had the nation believing he had discovered King Solomon’s mines. In no time at all he was back again with three ships industriously digging up two hundred tons of glittering but worthless iron pyrites, which were eventually hoarded under quadruple locks in the Tower of London and Bristol Castle. Then, after a third voyage, the Arctic bubble burst and Frobisher was denounced as a madman, a derelict and a thief. But a man who I could brave floating mountains of ice in a twenty-ton sailing vessel could not be subdued for long. Frobisher went on, with his comrades Drake and Hawkins, to drive the Spanish Armada from his country’s shores and to earn himself a knighthood and a place in history.

There was an odd sequel to this discovery of Baffin Island. Three centuries after Frobisher’s abortive mining expedition, when the whole record lay half forgotten in yellowing journals, an American sea captain named Charles Hall sailed into this same bay, happened upon the ancient diggings and then, to his astonishment, heard from the lips of the Eskimos a clear account of Frobisher’s arrival, together with the fate of the five missing men who had lived and died among them. The details had been handed down from generation to generation, preserved in the memories of an aboriginal people whose minds, uncluttered by the paraphernalia of civilization, are so crystali sharp that they can recall to the last nut and bolt the structure of an out¡ board motor or a diesel engine.

Martin Frobisher would lose some of his Elizabethan aplomb if he saw the Í great air base that has borrowed his name. At the head of the long bay,

! caught between two rocky ridges, lay a bright rectangle of civilization. Our aircraft clattered down on a hard runway and now, after crossing more than a thousand miles of dead and empty land, we stepped out into the twentieth century.

The air base of Frobisher Bay is imprinted in my mind as a confused

mosaic of men and machinery:

—Twenty-one aircraft parked along the runways, some of them among the largest flying machines in the world: Yorks, DC-3s on skis, Canso flying boats, PBYs, plump C-46s, big-bellied red-snouted Flying Boxcars, and immense triple-decked Globemaster troop carriers whose yawning maws swallowed twenty-five-ton D-8 tractors at a gulp . . .

American pilots of all shapes and sizes in blue parkas; bearded Canadien laborers with sheath knives at their belts; an Eskimo looking out of place in dungarees; cooks, weathermen, radio operators, clerks and mechanics; and a lone civilian complete with briefcase, fedora and rubbers . . .

A soiled Flusky pup sleeping in the middle of the runway . . .

— A blue bus stuttering along a surfaced road between mountains of filthy decaying snow . . .

—The whirling antennae of the Ground Control Approach system on a yellow truck parked on the runway’s edge; a small thicket of radio towers; a platoon of crimson oil tanks crouched under the dark precambrian hills; and an Eskimo settlement far away, sprinkled along the flank of a distant valley • • -

Water running, snow melting, planes zooming in and out and a bitter cold wind whipping the runways . . .

Maps, maps, maps: maps of the Arctic, maps of Baffin, maps of the radar chain; sea maps and air maps; and, from a humming little facsimile machine, a new weather map unrolling slowly, prepared only a few moments before by a scientist sitting in a steamheated office in Montreal, more than a thousand miles away . . .

—The clatter of machines: little

yellow forklifts shuttling from plane to

plane; a powder-blue Chev station wagon hurrying across the runway; baby tractors, giant bulldozers, scarlet jeeps, great towering road graders and one enormous oil tanker sitting like a gross centipede on its eighteen wheels . . .

In short, the paraphernalia of the air age, most of it flown in at enormous expense and trouble by an airlift that spans half a continent.

This was Frobisher Bay, built originally as a wartime refueling base, left to rot and decay as another postwar ghost town, then reopened in 1951.

Our pilot was in the briefing room looking over the great wall chart that listed landing conditions at the various DEW-line sites being built in the eastern Arctic. The line, at this point, was only two months old and the handful of men on the scene had scarcely had time to level runways for the big planes bringing in supplies, oil, food and equipment to build each station.

The Giant Dumping Ground

The first planes to arrive had been DC-3s on ski-wheels and they had gone down with no runway at all on the bumpy sea or lake ice.in the vicinity of each site. Usually they flew in tandem, the first plane carrying a wooden ramp, the second a baby bulldozer. The bulldozer was unloaded, using the ramp, and put to work clearing a small strip so that larger planes could land with larger bulldozers.

The base at Frobisher Bay is really an enormous dumping ground. Planes from the U. S. and Canada dump their freight here. Other planes relay it north. We had brought tractors from Mont Joli, Que. As soon as these were unloaded, we loaded up again

with oil for the DEW-line sites. A group of bearded workmen in shapeless parkas began to switch cargoes at top speed. It was already past six in the evening, our destination was two hours distant, and the sun was due to sink at 9 p.m. There were no lights on the makeshift runway on which we were to land.

The sense of pressure increased as the evening wore on and more and more planes zoomed in for reloading. In the first days of the airlift, when daylight was scanty, the pilots would take off from Frobisher’s lighted runway in the dark of the polar night and land at each radar site at dawn. By splitsecond timing they could manage two ferrying jobs a day, leaving the sites on the second trip just as dusk fell and returning to Frobisher in the darkness. The airlift was being operated against time, for by July the ice would no longer be safe for landing and it was important to dump as much cargo as possible into the sites before the airlift ceased for the season.

The pilot looked at his watch. "Kinda close,” he said.

"You think you got troubles?” the foreman of the loading crew shouted, as he heaved another oil barrel on board. "Listen, I’m four men short and there’s two more planes landed want to be loaded immediately.”

Aircraft seemed to be arriving by the minute now, each trying to squeeze in another payload before the light failed.

Finally our cargo was aboard, the doors jammed closed and once again we were over the white gruel-like surface of Baffin Island.

The land below us now was a terrifying monochrome of white, so flat, so barren and so thick with snow that, land, ocean, lake, rock, river and sky all blended into one, with only the occasional razorback of a glacial ridge snaking across the empty expanse to chart our way. The sun was an orange ball on the horizon and as it slowly dropped, the whole land became veiled in blue shadows.

Thus we flew north for two hours. Suddenly a rugged scarp appeared ahead of us. We skimmed across it and there, on a frozen lake, we saw once again the tracks of man: the snow had been shorn from the ice, which gleamed in a neat rectangle for a mile and a half in length. Around this airstrip clustered the tiny figures of men, some little yellow tractors, a big silver plane, a huddle of fabric-topped Atwell huts and the thin needle of a radio tower, all strangely out of place among the huge ebony boulders, the "big, black stones” of the Icelanders, that lay strewn about like enormous marbles.

A moment later, as the plane below us took off, we bumped down the shiny runway. Up rattled a fifteen-hundredweight truck, followed by a little tractor, a dark-blue snowmobile and a gang of men dragging a steel-andtimber sledge. With scarcely a word they began to unload the aircraft at top speed.

We rode the snowmobile at a twenty-

five-mile-an-hour clip across the corrugated surface of rock and ice to one of the huts and here, at the top of the continent, we ate Melba toast with caramel jam and freshly baked shortbread.

"You like this better than Frobisher?” somebody asked the cook.

"Sure,” he said with a great wink. "The grub is better and so are the women.”

"C’mon,” the pilot said, gulping down his coffee. "The light’s failing fast.”

Back to the plane we clattered as the last of the oil barrels rolled out the door.

"How long will it take before you get all your stuff?” the pilot asked the foreman.

"Can’t say. I asked for four thousand barrels of oil and so far all I got’s a thousand.”

"Where’ll the permanent strip be?”

"Down the lake a piece on the flats.”

"Gravel?”

"Don’t know. If not we’ll just have them fly in a rock crusher and make our own.”

Land That Looked Like Water

We took off in the blue twilight. The hills stood out as sombre bulks against the orange sky, the black stones on their crests silhouetted like ungainly graven images. By the time we reached Frobisher the black shroud of night had engulfed the island and the red lights of the radio towers mingled with the pinpoints of the stars.

At five the following morning the st illness of the Arctic was splintered by the roar of air transports warming for the take-off. Once again we were off across the emptiness of Baffin Island, first up the east coast where the mountains have their beginnings and then up the low flatland of the western coastline.

Where was the land and where was the sea? Each seemed to merge imperceptibly with the other, with no telltale line to mark the margin. Where was the sky? It seemed to merge gently into the land.

Somewhere below us, so the maps told us, lay Air Force Island, so flat and so close to the water that it had not been identified as a land mass until 1948.

But we found the airstrip, hacked out of the frozen ocean, made a shaky landing in the thick slush, disgorged our cargo and headed back empty.

It was time to leave Baffin Island again. As we headed toward the outside world I felt the same sense of unreality that had marked my departure the previous June. I had one final glimpse of Frobisher Bay with its huge machines and its men scurrying against time, and then once again we were drifting over the bleak glacier-scoured rockland that has intrigued three centuries of explorers. Now the sense of urgency and pressure left us. For the next five hours as we flew south we left the twentieth century behind and seemed to hang suspended over forests primeval and lands forlorn. +

Don’t Rock the Boat

Returning from a Maritimes sketching trip James Hill was bowling along No. 8 Highway in his convertible when this scene on the salmony Miramichi took his eye. He parked, waited for the guide to tip the canoe as he stood up to net his client’s fish. When it didn’t tip he decided the composition and color were just right for yet another cover. But, he warns, don’t you try standing up in a canoe, not even for a cover painting.