It isn’t a regular inflight experience on the flight to Pond Inlet with Canadian Arctic airline First Air. The seats next to me are occupied by a musher and his affectionate husky puppy who likes to chew my finger and roll around in his bag adorably. Announcements are repeated in English, French and Inuktitut. Peering out the window to the water below I see icebergs so big they are easily spotted even from the planes cruising altitude. As I sip my complimentary Bailey’s coffee, I wonder if we are being pre-warmed for the frigid polar temperatures to come on our hike.
Deep inside the Arctic circle, Bylot Island lies on the 73rd northern parallel. With a surface area of 4,273 square miles, it is one of the largest uninhabited islands in the world, except for the two weeks we hike there.
It is a bumpy half hour journey by boat across the Eclipse Sound from the Inuit hamlet of Pond Inlet to our island. Watched by a couple of inquisitive seals, eight of us plus two guides roll up our trousers and wade through the ice-filled water to reach the beach and throw our backpacks onto the sand. The boat departs and we think we are totally alone, however after walking less than 100 metres, we spot the first of many Polar bear foot prints, larger than the size of my head, reminding us we are never really alone and to remain vigilant for the predator. We clamber two kilometres inland to set up our first camp on a grassy plateau. Tired from travelling, we are soon cozy in our sleeping bags donning wooly hats with our drinking water bottles now comforting hot water bottles and wearing eye masks to block out the 24-hour daylight as we sleep.
The following day under cloudy skies we pack up camp and return to explore the beach. It is a fascinatingly morbid place. Beached icebergs as large as cars and as small as diamonds litter the shoreline, slowly melting into the sand, the last signs of winter disappearing as it is just about to begin again.
Gristly artefacts found just above the tideline tell the story of a population still strongly connected to its history and natural surrounds. The ground is covered in sun bleached white bones belonging to the unicorned narwhal, birds and seals. Curiously I scour the site, trying to identify bone parts and match them with an animal. We discover whale vertebrae bones the size of car tires and there is much debate among the group about how old the bones are.
Our hike turns northwards up an unnamed river valley to explore the Hoodoos. Much of the coastal areas in northern Canada are mapped by explorers searching for the fabled Northwest Passage. The seamen didn’t bother heading inland beyond the beaches and the island is little visited other than by a handful of Inuit every year, hence the lack of names for most of the geographical locations.
There are no paths or tracks to follow on the island; we have a map and make our own. Throughout the two-week hike, we trundle in and out of Sirmilik National Park. Sirmilik means “Land of the Glaciers” in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit. The glacial and snow melt means finding fresh drinking water from the run-off was easy but also that we can’t avoid multiple toe numbing river crossings.
They may not be cool, but my croc rubber sandals are my prized piece of kit on the trip. They’re cheap, super light-weight, dry instantly and protect my toes from scrapes whilst wading through water. I also proudly wear them around camp with not one but two pairs of socks to keep my feet toasty, happy to relieve my feet of my hiking boots at the end of each day. Bed time always comes early after our wonderful guides cook hearty carb heavy meals of Bolognese pasta or thai rice, ensuring we are warmed from the inside out.
We usually enjoy a long, leisurely breakfast of gallons of coffee, egg frittata and bacon, apple porridge or delicious blueberry pancakes. All are carried in our backpacks in powdered form and rehydrated with each meal’s ingredients bagged together, labelled for a specific day.
We endure another icy river crossing one morning to reach the Hoodoos across the valley from our camp and to enjoy a better view of the Peregrine Falcon nest in one of the tallest spires. Often referred to as a “fairy chimney,” a Hoodoo is a tall, thin spire of rock that grows from the bottom of an arid basin, its haphazard layers and shape defy the usual rules of gravity. Their unbalanced appearance is the result of erosion on alternating hard and softer rock layers, creating perfect nooks for a nest to raise three fat, fluffy, white falcon chicks.
Despite the lack of sunshine and reliably constant chilly temperatures between three to 10 degrees, the group keeps good humour, ‘accidentally’ leaving behind food bags for others to carry and being overly generous with snacks, encouraging each other to eat to relieve backpack weight. Hiking becomes easier with each passing day as we eat through the contents of our backpacks. I’d estimate my starting pack weight to be about 35 kg. We hike across approximately 10 to 14 km of undulating ground per day, spending two nights at most camps, allowing for longer days of hiking to higher elevations without our heavy backpacks.
As our journey continues, we traverse the moss-covered Polar tundra to reach the next valley with multiple river crossings, including one whose river bank had collapsed within the last 24 hours, exposing a huge slab of permafrost. Stepping across large and small boulders dumped in the river valley by previously higher water levels is tricky with a heavy backpack, requiring careful foot placement to stay on our feet. Most of the time, we are hiking on the tundra, slogging it out across the boot stealing bog in what feels like a comically lame military yomp, the ground saturated due to the snow melt and the permafrost below.
On our last day we hike alongside the river valley to explore the glacier, which shares the name of the national park. Light drizzle falls from the low clouds and the temperature drops. For the first time on the trip I keep my down jacket on beneath my rain jacket to keep out the chill. At our lunch spot a fellow hiker, Brendan, a retired Veterinarian, notices something unusual about a prominent rock someone has sat on. It is surrounded by long, lush grass and a closer inspection reveals that half of the rock is bare, its lichen eroded away. He then notices the Owl pellets among the grass and proceeds to break them up between his fingers revealing the tiny bones of the birds the Owl has eaten. The investigation leads him to hypothesize with confidence that the rock is a favoured perch for an Owl and a territory-marking urinating spot for an Arctic fox, hence the erosion of the lichen from the high nitrogen concentration in the fox’s urine, which also fertilizes the grass.
It isn’t overcast for the whole trip. We bask in three hours of sunshine upon reaching our last camp next to the Sirmilik glacier. This is my favourite camp. The glacier is a dull, grey colour, covered in moraine rocks since its winter white snow coat has melted. It separates us from the pyramidal peaks on the other side of the valley facing the sun. Further inland and higher up, the glacier splits off in multiple directions, flowing around four, probably never climbed, sharp peaks before joining again as one big powerful slab of ice that is forcing its way down towards the beach. Under temporary blue skies and zero wind, the arteries of water exiting the glacier shine like liquid silver into the Sound.
As we take down camp for the last time on day 13, I notice the fresh snow that has fallen overnight in the mountains surrounding us, despite it only being mid-August. It is clearly time to leave and once again the island is completely uninhabited.