It took several days for the extent of our isolation to become apparent. In that time we’d trekked inland from the coast, following the shores of a turquoise lake beneath gypsum cliffs that soared up for thousands of feet. Then came a labyrinth of braided rivers and narrow canyons leading ever upwards. At last we reached the interior plateau, endless plains of ochre rock and mocha earth. In four days we hadn’t seen a single human footprint, nor passed a sprig of vegetation taller than my ankle. A few wildflowers were sprinkled about, but the mood remained one of utter desolation.
Apart from Arctic hares — which bolted across the tundra on their hindlegs like figments from Alice in Wonderland — we’d seen no animal life either. Which isn’t to say there wasn’t any. Muskox trails wove across the landscape. There were plenty of wolf and fox prints, and countless caribou droppings. But how did they survive? That animals endured in the face of such scarcity seemed miraculous.
A biting wind swept down from the west, so the four of us sought shelter beneath a silicon tarp held up by ski poles, gnawing on a scant ration of landjäger sausage and smoked cheese. In the distance, glaciers leaked down from the high central mountains like toffee. Although they appeared close in this unearthly landscape, it would be a two-day march until we reached them.
The inevitable hunger of backpacking had set in, and as I mentally inventoried the food supplies buried in our packs, accounting for the eight days ahead, the precariousness of our situation became unmistakable. If the outside world forgot about us, if the plane scheduled to pick us up on the other side of the island simply never arrived, there was no way we could survive for long.
That’s not a feeling I was accustomed to. From Burmese jungles to the Mongolian planes to Patagonian icecaps, there had always been the prospect of limping out, seeking the help of nomads, or harvesting at least a smattering of wild edibles. No such possibilities existed here. Swimming to another island in the frigid ocean was beyond hope, and with no wood to build a raft, escape was impossible. We were four people — the only four people — on an island half the size of Iceland, teetering on the edge of nowhere.
Months earlier, my bedside phone rang late at night. I instantly recognized the raspy, broken voice calling on a satellite phone from god-knows-where. Dave Quinn is a hardcore dirtbag, long-time wilderness guide, and my best friend… if you still describe people by that moniker at age 40.
Dave had arranged to guide a well-heeled European investment banker and his friend, the director of the Calgary Zoo, on a 12-day, 80-mile traverse of Axel Hieberg Island in the Canadian Arctic. He offered me a free spot if I was willing to carry a heavy pack. (Make that a spine-crushing 120 pounds, complete with shotgun, small raft, electric perimeter fence to ward off polar bears and more.) I agreed instantly.
Despite its rugged beauty, Axel Heiberg remains among the least visited and most mysterious corners of the world. The island is easy to miss when scanning maps, for it huddles against Ellesmere’s western coast. Until 1900 no one had even set foot there, and today it remains the third-largest uninhabited island on the planet. By comparison, Ellesmere — with a national park, army outpost, research base and Inuit village at Grise Fiord — feels positively pedestrian.
Inuit call this part of the extreme High Arctic Inuit Nunangata Ungata, “the land beyond the land of the people.”
Inuit call this part of the extreme High Arctic Inuit Nunangata Ungata, “the land beyond the land of the people.” In spite of the moniker, a scattering of occupation sites have been discovered there, some dating back almost 5,000 years. In a time before advent of seal-oil lamps, it’s postulated that a few wandering hunters managed to survive the long winter months by entering a state of torpor, moving only occasionally to nibble rancid blubber or to urinate.
Tough folk indeed.
Rarely trodden landscapes have always exerted a magnetic pull on me. I am drawn by the silence, the enormity, the sense of discovery, and the peace they exude. After 18 seasons of guiding northern river expeditions, there were few of the Arctic’s remote corners I had not explored. But this was one. Journeys on Axel Heiberg remain virtually unheard of; getting there is mind-numbingly expensive. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Late on the fourth day, a deep canyon appeared before us, torn through the soft tundra by thunderous meltwater. As we stood on the brink, peering down and pondering our options, three slight Peary caribou materialized from mists on the opposite side. No more than a hundred feet away, but utterly unreachable, these rare skittish animals soon melted away again.
Following the canyon’s rim, by midnight we’d attained a glacier that lead toward the high peaks. After a fitful rest, we were hiking by 5 a.m. Dark clouds boiled on the western sky, and soon the flurries came. Then a full-on blizzard.
After a fitful rest, we were hiking by 5 a.m. Dark clouds boiled on the western sky, and soon the flurries came. Then a full-on blizzard.
In a complete whiteout, we climbed the snowfield, avoiding meltwater rivers that careened downward at a furious rate, eventually plunging into the echoing depths of the glacier. A slip into any of these sapphire flumes would have been fatal, so when drifting snow began concealing them beneath a crust of white, progress slowed as we probed every step. Wordlessly we fell into a routine of walking, snacking, and then walking more. Forced to disrobe entirely to cross a meltwater pool, we clambered over piles of loose moraine and pressed on.
Disoriented, we continued what we believed was the ascent until mid-afternoon, when somebody noticed the rivulets of meltwater at our feet were now flowing the direction we were headed. Without knowing it, we had crested Axel Heiberg.
Eleven hours and 13 miles later, we picked our way down a ramp of steep ice to terra firma, collapsed into the tents, and brewed mug after mug of sweet, milky tea.
Take a pie-shaped slice out of the High Arctic running north and west from the town of Resolute, and you have what’s been dubbed the “Barren Wedge.” Here, a continual stream of pack ice — pressed into the islands by the relentless Arctic gyre — brings fog, wind and chill. Plants struggle to grow; game and marine mammals are unusually scarce. Statistically, it endures the harshest weather in all of North America.
Canada’s Climate Severity Index (CSI) measures the impact of climate on human comfort and wellbeing, and accounts for a range of factors including wind chill, summer humidex, darkness, thunderstorms, hail, and snowfall. Employing a scale from 1 (most pleasant) to 100 (most severe), it allows the easy comparison of say Victoria (near Seattle) — which boasts the most pleasant clime at 13 — to Toronto (not far from Buffalo), which lands at 36. The most inhospitable location for which records exist is the former Isachsen weather station on Ellef Ringnes Island (just off the coast of Axel Heiberg), which garnered an atrocious 99 CSI.
And we were in the midst of it. The summer snows continued for three damp days while we trekked westward, swaddled and still shivering in every garment we had. Clambering atop a high summit, we peered through swirling snows over a medieval scene of peaks, ice, and braided rivers, the entire panorama a bleak palate of black, brown, and white.
Then, suddenly, tee-shirt weather graced us. Flies and bees appeared, flitting across the tundra, buffeted by warm winds. Entire hillsides shimmered with a bloom of yellow arnica. Cottongrass and pale Arctic poppies pressed up toward the welcome sun. A chocolate-brown fox visited camp, rolling in the grass at our feet, sniffing our tents and then bounding away. We stumbled upon a field of ammonite fossils. Day after day was filled with discovery and solitude. Yet as blessed as the warmth was, it felt thin and illusory.
Upon reaching the coast, and due to be picked up the following morning, we attempted to contact our pilots via satellite phone. A surprising message came back: they were already in the air, racing our way. The good weather expected not to last, they were determined to bring us back from the edge of the world, while they could.
As a best-selling author and weekly columnist for The Globe and Mail, Bruce’s writing can be found in The New York Times and his photography was featured by National Geographic in ‘Through the Lens’. Bruce lives in Kimberley, B.C.