Written by Team Outpost
Photos by Simon Vaughan and Will Allen
in Spectacular Auyuittuq
Following announcements in Inuktitut, English and French, our aircraft climbs skyward, leaving Iqaluit behind and moving ever closer to the Arctic Circle.
Our destination is the community of Pangnirtung, which sits just off Cumberland Sound, is surrounded by mountains on three sides and a fjord on the fourth, and has a population of 1,300. As our aircraft approaches the airport it turns on a dime, then makes a dramatic landing beneath a set of jagged mountains. We are thrilled.
Pang, as it’s colloquially known, is not only a centre for Inuit artwork but also a gateway to one of Nunavut’s most magnificent parks, Auyuittuq. After dropping our bags at The Auyuittuq Lodge, the town’s only hotel, we stroll the dusty streets and visit the Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts and Crafts, which houses magnificent tapestries, weavings and lithographs. We stop at the century-old Hudson’s Bay Company buildings, before heading to Auyuittuq’s park office.
Auyuittuq was established as a national park reserve by Parks Canada in 1976, but upgraded to a national park in 2000 and spans more than 19,000 square kilometres—from Pangnirtung Fjord to North Pangnirtung Fjord near Qikiqtarjuaq on Davis Strait. Renowned for its scenery, the park offers some of the country’s most spectacular hiking and rock climbing. Our Parks Canada guide Billy unfurls a map and shows us the route we will take during our trek.
"Our boat heads down the fjord, magnificent towering mountains crowding in on either side, with a flawless blue sky overhead"
“The boat will drop us off here,” he says, pointing to a spot at the very end of the fjord. “That’s where we start our hike. We’ll continue up and get some good views of Mount Odin before returning for our pick-up the next day.”
Just as Team Outpost was about to make its customary enquiry about resident polar bears, Billy leads us into a small theatre and right by a taxidermic version of the object of our interest.
“We’ll show you a polar bear safety video now. There are lots of polar bears around Auyuittuq, so it’s important to know how to avoid them. But if you can’t avoid one, you need to know what to do.”
With that the lights are dimmed and we sit in riveted silence, watching a sobering video of people shouting and screaming at curious polar bears, waving their arms and firing flares. Back in the hotel lounge, we ask if anyone had seen any polar bears.
“I saw one today,” a voice sounds from the other end of the room. We turn to see Nicolas, a professor of oceanography who had arrived in Pang aboard the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen the previous day.
“It was swimming near the entrance to Auyuittuq just as I was returning from the park,” he says. “Looked like a big one, too.”
At that we eye each other nervously—even as we’re hoping to mimic the experience—before returning to our rooms to pack for the trek ahead. The next morning, after a delicious breakfast at the lodge, we load our stuff into a Parks Canada truck for the short drive to the harbour.
"Our first attempt at a river crossing proves as dramatic as the scenery, with its icy waters churning and frothing in a kind of glacial maelstrom"
“We have some of the highest tides in the world, more than 10 metres," explains Delia Siivola, Auyuittuq's park manager. “We time the departures to get as close to the park entrance as possible; otherwise you have to hike further. Hope you have a great time!”
Our boat heads down the fjord, magnificent towering mountains crowding in on either side, with a flawless blue sky overhead. Behind us, Pang slowly disappears and we see icebergs dotting the entrance to Cumberland Sound. The landscape consumes our senses; every second we move into the park offers an endless display of ageless, untouched beauty.
Enormous glaciers dominate the tops of mountains, cracked and broken, some of them spewing water that cascades into web-like streams which the fjord swallows. Immense boulders sit strewn about the land, surrounded by countless fragments of ancient mountains that have lost pieces of themselves to time and gravity.
After an hour, the fjord has narrowed to a shallow river; we pull up beside a large boulder and leap out just beneath Overlord Peak. An enormous wolf paw print glistens in the cloying mud.
“Arctic wolf,” says Matthew, one of two Parks Canada guides who is accompanying us. “Biggest in the world here.”
We head away from the fjord and go inland, following the Weasel River. The echoing boom of falling rocks resounds off the sheer cliffs, as we continue toward the impressive Mount Odin. The terrain offers us no ease—deep moss and lichen swallow our feet with every step, and giant remnants of landslides cut across our path, forcing us to climb the unstable, 45-degree mounds left in their wake. Occasionally we hear the distant cry of a raven, and it’s the sole reminder we are not the only living things here.
With barely any nightfall now—daylight runs almost 24 hours this time of year—we continue our trek until late in the day. Our first attempt at a river crossing proves as dramatic as the scenery, with its icy waters churning and frothing in a kind of glacial maelstrom. We’d been warned to expect difficult crossings, but this one beat even Matthew.
“I’ve never seen the river this big,” he declares, pointing out the alternate route we’d have to take. Soon afterwards, we catch our first glimpse of Baffin Island’s highest peak, the mighty Mount Odin, soaring 2,147 metres above the tundra. It wouldn’t have been beyond belief if we’d been told that the towering pinnacle had been carved by thunderbolts from Valhalla itself—on the tundra, it looks fantastic. Soon we stop to pay homage to a spot that marks the Arctic Circle, before continuing and spying Mount Thor; not as lofty as Odin, but even more spectacular.
“That’s the greatest vertical drop [of any mountain] on Earth,” Matthew tells us. “Over 4,000 feet [1,675 metres] of sheer cliff.”
By this time we are thoroughly exhausted, and break to camp for the night near Schwartzenbach Falls, serenaded by the sounds of utter silence as we drift to sleep. Early the next day we continue our trek, leaving Odin and Thor behind, and follow the Weasel River back to our pick-up point. The river crossing that had foiled us the day before taunts again, even as we try our luck anew. Emboldened by clear air and Norse legend, we plunge in, our feet instantly numbed by the cold water. The river pushes and pulls, defiant-like, almost as if it’s driven to sweeping us away; but we forge on and are invigorated by the challenge and eventual triumph.
“You did well,” Matthew says, as we reach the far bank, wet boots squelching on rocks. “Your confidence out here has grown.” We are strangely flattered by the comment.
We’re now back at Overlord Peak, at the entrance to the park, and put our weighty packs down on the tundra, perching on them as we await the boat home. Mosquitoes gently hum by but don’t stop to bite, as if they too respect our achievements. Or maybe we just smell really bad.
“Most polar bear sightings come near the water,” Matthew tells us, breaking the silence. He is a capable guide, prepared for such a sighting, and as we wait there, half hoping, half fearful, we know we’re in good hands.
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