I could barely hear Donna Lester's voice from the depths of her hood where she was hiding from an icy wind that blasted big, wet snowflakes against her parka. She was pointing up at great overlapping V's of white snow geese circling against a charcoal sky, gathering numbers until finally, amid a chorus of syncopated honking, they soared away.
"We're heading north and they're heading south," Lester mumbled through frozen lips. "Do you think they're smarter than us?"
Good question. This was, after all, our summer vacation. Late August and even the birds were outta there.
The weather may sometimes be less than ideal 700 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, but where else can three people have a 22,000-square-kilometre national park all to themselves? The northern tip of Baffin Island is also one of the most dramatic landscapes on Earth. We camped in solitude overlooking three glaciers while a parade of icebergs sailed past on Eclipse Sound and a pair of snowy owls kept vigil on a nearby rock outcrop.
Sirmilik is one of Canada's newest national parks and the third biggest in the country. It comprises four parts: three sections on Baffin Island include the land and waters of Oliver Sound, Borden Peninsula and Baillarge Bay, a seabird colony. The fourth and biggest segment is the Bylot Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary, an 11,100-square-kilometre island half-covered with glaciers.
Unlike most federal reserves where the government pitches a conservation plan to the locals, it was the Inuit who asked Parks Canada in the late 1970s to protect Northern Baffin Island's Lancaster Sound, one of the richest wildlife areas in the Arctic with its abundance of seals, polar bears, caribou, narwhal, beluga and bowhead whales, as well as migratory birds. The Inuit had been watching petroleum exploration companies nosing around and feared a potential environmental nightmare coming down the pipeline in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Sirmilik was a long time coming as Inuit land claims first had to be settled. After the new territory of Nunavut was established in 1999, the park was set up in 2001. To reach Sirmilik it is a three-hour flight north from Ottawa or Montreal to Nunavut's capital of Iqaluit, and then another three hours north to Pond Inlet. No wonder the park sees fewer than 100 visitors a year.
For more than a decade of periodic visits to Pond Inlet, I had been gazing longingly at the dozen or so glaciers streaming off Bylot Island like icing off a cake, 25 ice-choked kilometres across Eclipse Sound.
I had visited "Pond," as the Inuit community of 1,250 is known, several times. In summer, I had kayaked between icebergs and up inlets along the coast. I had hiked through velvet tundra dotted with blueberries and the remnants of ancient Thule sod houses.
In early spring, I had visited when the sea ice first begins to shatter, opening up the rich waters beneath to winter-hungry wildlife from bears to birds that can be observed in a kind of Canadian-style safari at the edge of the ice floe. But I had never made it across to Bylot.
So, in the summer of 2004, when my Pond Inlet-based friend Dave Reid, an outfitter, suggested I join him for a week-long hiking trip to Bylot Island, I quickly packed my down parka, gloves and tuque, and happily headed north during a Montreal heat wave. Reid is the park's only licensed guide and at the last minute another keen hiker, Donna Lester, also from Montreal, joined us.
Pond Inlet is the jumping off point for Sirmilik. Sausaged into orange survival suits, we boarded Sheatie Tagak's boat. Bylot disappeared into an eerily dark fog bank halfway across Eclipse Sound, and when we burst free into sunshine again it was just in time to see a rainbow and the misty blow of a passing Bowhead whale.
I took it to be a good omen and said so as we stepped ashore, mostly because I had seen the look on Lester's face as she disembarked and stared down at dinner-plate sized bear prints in the sand all around us.