For anyone visiting the North Baffin community of Pond Inlet, given fair weather, the first thing that strikes you looking North is the formidable and staggeringly beautiful sight of Bylot Island. Snow and ice-capped mountains rise 3,000 feet straight out of the deep waters (or sea ice) of Eclipse Sound and Pond Inlet. The south coast of Bylot is the most precipitous with the distinctive triangle-shaped Linguaq Mountain (3,000 feet) the Castle Gables (4,600 feet) and Mount Thule (5,800 feet) — all within plain view from the community. The unseen interior mountains of the island rise to well over 6,400 feet. A number of glaciers can also be seen (although most are now in retreat) and the island is encompassed within the aptly named Sirmilik National Park. Sirmilik in the Inuktitut language means “place of glaciers”. The southwest corner of Bylot is much lower in elevation and is characterized by rolling hills, tundra and the occasional outcropping of incredible limestone features known as Hoodoos. The hoodoos found on Bylot rival any found in the world including Drumheller in Alberta and Escalante National Monument in Utah.
The Inuit are known to have inhabited the island and the surrounding North Baffin region for about 1,000 years. Although the island is now uninhabited, many hunters from nearby Pond Inlet still actively hunt there in all seasons. The North Baffin area is scattered with archaeological Thule sites. Thule are the ancestors to the present-day Inuit who arrived in the Eastern Arctic about 1,000 years ago.
Approximately 420 miles above the Arctic Circle and just over 1,000 miles from the North Pole, Bylot covers an area of 4,273 square miles, twice the size of Prince Edward Island. The name Bylot comes from Robert Bylot, who with William Baffin, were the first non-Inuit to see the island in 1616. More “visitation” came to the island in the 1820s in the form of whalers and explorers. In the mid 1800s the great polar migration of Qitdlarssuaq (aka Kridlak) and his followers took place. On their migration North, time was spent on Bylot Island before crossing Lancaster Sound, Devon Island and eventually to the Thule area of northwest Greenland. In 1906, Bylot was claimed for Canada by the incredible Capt. Joseph Bernier. The location at which this “claiming” took place is called Canada Point and to this day the rock that Bernier and his crew inscribed (chiselled) the words ARCTIC 1906 can still be seen.
Bylot is a fascinating, enigmatic, historical, culturally rich and very remote island. It is for these reasons and more that the 2017 Bear Witness Arctic Expedition was launched. Along with strong science and educational components, the idea of celebrating Canada’s 150th was a major reason for the Bear Witness project. The plan and goal of the expedition was to circumnavigate the island by ski — something that had never been done before, or even attempted. The journey would represent the largest island in the world ever circumnavigated by ski.
The estimated distance of 520 km meant the journey would take about a month to complete. The timing of the expedition would be crucial. Local Inuit hunters were consulted and asked about the ice conditions throughout the winter. Together with satellite images from space (courtesy of NASA) a picture and comprehension was created as to what travelling conditions might be expected. Ice conditions were reported as being favourable along the south coast but very little (if any) knowledge was forthcoming or known about the north and east coasts. The fact and stark reality was, and is, that very few people (including local Inuit hunters) ever venture to the north coast. Perhaps there was a reason no one had ever attempted to ski around Bylot!
An enormous amount of planning and organizing finally culminated in team members David Reid, Eric Brossier, Ingrid Ortlieb and Martin Garcia meeting in Ottawa, Ontario. The team flew with First Air and headed North, first to Iqaluit and then onward to Pond Inlet. On April 12, the four skied north across Eclipse Sound towards Bylot Island — the decision had been made to travel around the island in a clockwise direction. The team was accompanied by four Inuit sled dogs, provided by local Inuit hunter Lee Innuaraq. The dogs were brought along because the island is known for its high population of polar bears — the dogs would be on “bear watch”.
With heavy sleds (each around 210 lbs each — the price paid for going unsupported) and rough ice conditions, it soon became clear that the idea and plan of averaging 20 km a day had been too optimistic. Early on, the team experienced cold temperatures (-30C+ at night) as a winding route was found and negotiated up Navy Board Inlet on the west side of the island. On April 19, the team reached Canada Point, 111 years after Capt. Bernier claimed the island for Canada. The team was proud to hoist the Canadian flag.
The formidable and daunting north coast lay ahead and the travelling conditions (although under mostly sunny conditions) didn’t improve. The route was a fascinating (and at the same time frustrating) mixture of smooth floor-like sea ice and jumbled ice as tall as a house. A normal day would consist of breaking camp and start skiing by about 9 or 10 am. At around 6 pm thoughts would turn to looking for a suitable campsite and on most days the team skied until 7 pm. With few icebergs around on which to climb to scout the smoothest route ahead, the team patiently worked their way through, around and over the challenging icy labyrinth.
The north coast of the island is significant, not only because of its incredible remoteness and wildness, but because it forms part of the eastern entrance to Lancaster Sound and the Northwest Passage. Another goal of the Bear Witness project was and is to bring attention to the proposed Lancaster Sound National Marine Conservation Area and help ensure its eventual protection.
On May 6, the team arrived safely at Button Point on the southeast corner of the island. Schedules, timing and the distances needing to be covered dictated that there were no rest days during the entire expedition. At long last, the team’s skis pointed west and the route back to Pond Inlet was highlighted by meeting and stopping to talk to a number of local hunters and incredibly smooth ice. The teams daily distances were now up around 24 km. After 28 days straight, the team skied back into Pond Inlet on May 9.
David, Eric, Ingrid and Martin consider themselves incredibly fortunate to have had this opportunity to successfully accomplish such an expedition and bring attention to such an important region of Canada. The Arctic means many things to many different people but its beauty, importance and significance can never be understated.
Plans are already in the works for another Bear Witness Arctic Expedition. Details will be posted through the Bear Witness website and through social media. A commemorative expedition book will be coming out in 2018.