"Is that a big bear or a little bear?" she asked. It was her first trip to the Arctic.
Reid hesitated. "A wee one," he conceded in his broad, Glaswegian accent.
After unloading the week's supplies and setting up the tents, we both hung on our guide's every word as he explained and demonstrated how to operate flashlight-sized "bear-bangers" that fired off a loud "bang" that would hopefully dissuade any bears that might approach.
As back-up, Reid carried a pellet gun. Weapons, even for self-defence, are not allowed in Canadian national parks, although the Inuit are allowed to shoot wildlife in northern parks like Sirmilik as they are part of traditional hunting grounds.
The following morning, we set off along Bylot's shoreline. It's a rare treat to walk on a beach in the Arctic, and throughout the day we listened to the waves and followed wolf paw prints in the sand. We came across sandstone outcroppings that had been sculpted by the wind and rain into strange minaret-shaped hoodoos. When we hiked closer to examine Inuktitut syllabics graffiti someone had etched into the soft rock, we noticed the wolf had done the same.
By late afternoon we passed a small Inuit hunter's shack alongside the seaside toe of Sermilik Glacier, which gives the park its Inuktitut name meaning "place of glaciers." Climbing up a tundra ridge, we found a camp spot overlooking Sermilik and other glaciers up a long valley. As Reid cooked a chicken stir fry, we watched the last rays of a setting sun fire up a string of icebergs rafting along Eclipse Sound, a bracelet of brilliant rubies against a leaden sky. Seals popped up in the water, looked around and vanished with barely a ripple.
In the fading light, an agitated white spot in the distance stood out like snow on the reddish-brown tundra. By the shrieking of the snowy owl, we realized we must be near her nest and sure enough, magically camouflaged by their grey speckled coats, two juveniles were perched side by side on a rock barely 25 metres away, heads spinning nervously like swivels.
As an Arctic newcomer, Lester photographed every bright yellow Arctic poppy and set of shed caribou antler we came across. There was a bumper crop of lemmings that year and the small rodents scurried into burrows ahead of us. We watched a pair of sand hill cranes bugling and preening one another, and two white, chunky Arctic hares hopping up a grassy slope.
The hiking was not strenuous as we followed the stream up the valley. Tundra trekking is like walking across a landscape of feather pillows; soft on the boots, but tiring. River crossings were more of a challenge. Luckily water levels were low and we rarely got wet above our shins, but the glacial run-off turned our feet into useless blocks of ice within seconds.
Gradually, we settled into a relaxed rhythm. When Reid spoke, he increasingly slid into "Aye" and "Nay" and "Is that Choco-Max going begging?" Born in Scotland, he came to Canada in 1989 with the last intake of Hudson's Bay Company workers recruited from Scotland, as they had been for centuries, because the Scots had a reputation of surviving well in northern solitude.
"H.B.C.," Reid chuckled as he toasted bagels one morning on tent pegs suspended over the camp stove. "We used to say it stood for the Horny Boys' Club."
The summer of 2004 had been cool and wet, and in river valleys we hiked on ice that lingered from last winter. In places, "frost straws" had formed, hollow tubes of ice bunched together that tinkled and chimed as they shattered beneath our boots.
On our second-to-last afternoon, we watched Reid dance a jig on the high ridge ahead of us when he arrived at his favourite camp spot overlooking Stagnation Glacier. "Ah, it's good to be back," he said above the sound of a rushing waterfall. The late sun lit the snow-flecked hillside and we tucked into a feast of beef stroganoff.
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