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.
"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.
The warm sunny days at the beginning of our trek had given way to clouds and bitter cold. To warm up each morning, we did yoga sun salutations against a backdrop of glaciers and waterfalls -- we'd try anything to get some sunshine. But when the Arctic sun did break through it did so coyly and briefly, showing off only tantalizing glimpses of the landscape; the glistening white arm of a glacier, a few soft mounds of tundra, the seductive curve of shoreline as we made our way back towards our base camp, snowy owls hop-scotching the ridges ahead to keep an eye on us.
Our final morning on the beach opposite Pond Inlet dawned bright and sunny. As we watched Sheatie's boat weaving through distant ice chunks toward us, we finally succumbed to a temptation we had been fighting all week -- we fired off our bear-bangers into the wide blue Arctic sky.
Pack your bags
First Air, an Inuit-owned airline, has the best schedule for Nunavut flights. Ottawa to Pond Inlet is available four times weekly for $2,526 return, all taxes included. Montreal to Pond Inlet is available three times weekly for $2,715, but requires an overnight in Iqaluit. For more information, call 1-800-267-1247 or visit .
SIRMILIK NATIONAL PARK
Pond Inlet, Nunavut; 867-899-8092; www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/nu/sirmilik
Dave Reid, Polar Sea Adventures: Pond Inlet; 867-899-8870; . Polar Sea is the only company licensed to operate commercially in Sirmilik park and offers a variety of trips.
Ten-day hiking adventures cost $2,595 from Pond Inlet, $4,495 from Ottawa; departures are Aug. 8 to 17 and Aug. 22 to 31. Floe edge sled trips cost $3,995 from Pond Inlet, $5,895 from Ottawa; departures are June 17 to 25. Polar Sea also offers trips by snowmobile, cross-country ski or dog sled in the spring and sea kayaking in August and September.