We trekked inland from the coast of Axel Heiberg Island in Canada's High Arctic, past gypsum cliffs soaring above a turquoise lake, through a labyrinth of braided rivers and narrow canyons, leading ever upward. At last, we reached the interior plateau; endless plains of burnt-red rock and mocha-brown earth. In four days, we hadn't seen a single human footprint, nor passed a sprig of vegetation taller than my ankle. The mood was one of utter desolation.
Apart from Arctic hares – which bolted across the tundra upright on their hind legs – we had 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, especially given that a neighbouring island in this region of the Arctic archipelago received a bone-quaking 99 out of 100 (100 being the most severe) on Environment Canada's climate severity index.
But even here, weather patterns appear to be changing; a global trend catching the attention of travellers who are accustomed to booking trips on the promise of sunny skies or abundant snow – and often finding neither.
In fairness, few, if any, are booking trips for Axel Heiberg: Huddling against Ellesmere's western coast, it's among the least visited corners of Canada.
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 landjaeger sausage and smoked cheese. In the distance, glaciers oozed from Axel Heiberg's central mountains like tongues of white toffee. Although they appeared close in this surreal 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 all eight days ahead, the precariousness of our situation was hard to miss. If the plane scheduled to pick us up on the other side of the island simply never arrived, we'd be hard pressed to survive. It's not a feeling I am accustomed to. From the depths of Burmese jungles to the high plains of Mongolia, there is nearly always the prospect of harvesting wild food, seeking the help of nomads or limping to some remote outpost. But not here.
Inuit refer to this part of the High Arctic as Inuit Nunangata Ungata – “the land beyond the land of the people” – although occupation sites have been discovered here, dating back almost 5,000 years. Long before the advent of seal-oil lamps, it's believed that wandering hunters survived the long winter months under stone and whale-rib shelters, in a six-month state of torpor, moving only occasionally to nibble food or urinate. Their achievement – survival in the cruellest of climes – is humbling.
In 1984, Environment Canada created the climate severity index, a means of rating the relative comfort of locations across the country. Using historical weather records, and accounting for a range of conditions including winter wind chill, summer humidex, psychological factors (amount of darkness), hazards (thunderstorms) and outdoor mobility (snowfall), the CSI ranks annual weather on a scale of 1 to 100, with 1 being most pleasant, and 100 most severe.
Victoria is among the most pleasant climate of Canada's cities, with a score of 15. Toronto lands at 36, Montreal 44 and Halifax 43. Some results may be surprising: St John's, at 59, exceeds Yellowknife 57. The most inhospitable of all? Ellef Ringnes Island, not far from Axel Heiberg, which earned an atrocious 99.
Bundled in the middle of it, waiting out a summer blizzard, such a ranking is easy to appreciate. After three days, snow turned to rain and we set off, scampering across the mid-island icecap, following the Strand River toward the distant coastline, swaddled in every garment we had.
Without warning, T-shirt weather descended. Within half an hour, flies and bees appeared, flitting across the tundra. Entire hillsides shimmered with blooms of yellow arnica. Cottongrass and pale yellow Arctic poppies pressed up toward the sun. A chocolate-brown fox visited the camp, rolling in the grass at our feet, sniffing every tent and then bounding away. We stumbled upon a field of perfect ammonite fossils. As blessed as the warmth was, it felt thin, illusory and not to be taken for granted.
Yet on a broad scale, meteorological records show Canada's weather is growing gradually warmer and wetter. And weather modelling suggests continued warming in the decades ahead. But before you leap to the conclusion that Canada's climate is growing more agreeable, keep in mind it is much more difficult to predict how rising temperatures may affect the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. Travellers are already familiar with growing climate uncertainty. From blizzards closing Heathrow Airport and floods emptying Bangkok to snow-less ski hills in Ontario and California, long-established weather patterns that once made it easy to plan trips appear to have been turned on their heads.
Back on Axel Heiberg, 12 days of hiking, climbing (and plenty of barefoot river wading) have brought us atop a summit overlooking the island's western coast. Behind us, a medieval scene of peaks, ice and great braided rivers. Ahead, a blue ocean dotted with glistening icebergs. And then, the buzzing of a Twin Otter?
Our plane was inbound a day early. With rare clear skies, the pilots wanted to get us out while they could. A reminder that when it comes to weather, you never know what tomorrow holds; perhaps now more than ever.