A Mongolian sage once said, “it is far better to experience a place just once than hear about it a thousand times”. This has been my mantra for the last 40 years as I have had the privilege of exploring many edges of the planet. I have remained fascinated and obsessed with wild and remote places, whether standing at the North Pole or summiting Mt. Logan, Canada’s highest peak, or lying on an ice pan in Antarctica and capturing the Cheshire grin of a leopard seal who has just wolfed down a cute, enchanting penguin.
Much is to be learned from the people and unique creatures of these remote places living together intimately in a predator/prey relationship. Their special adaptations, knowledge and skills are sculpted by the environments they inhabit.
Although I love moving through undulating desert sands and steamy jungles, listening to the cacophony of sounds that pulse from the dense undergrowth, I am most often drawn to polar environments. I yearn to witness precipitous fiord walls that humble me and make my neck ache from looking up in awe for too long. I am filled with wonder by bold mountains proudly greeting the frozen ocean and by titanic icebergs that elicit baritone groans as they shrug and slough-off multi-ton chunks of skin. To spend time amongst these ice goliaths is inspiring, like sentient beings they seem to be waiting impatiently for the sea-ice to melt so they can set sail on epic journeys.
As a photographer, guide and passionate skier, the Arctic spring draws me North annually. For it is a time to revel in the perpetual light and ski in idyllic temperatures!
I first saw the Big Walls of Baffin 36 years ago when flying with Bradley Air to north Baffin. This area is 120 kms west of Kangiqtugaapik (Clyde River) as the falcon flies. I was on my way to Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet) to photograph the region for my first book, The Magnetic North. I was perched up front in a jumper seat with the pilots in a Hawker Siddeley 748. As we broke out of the cloud cover heading up island, the most magnificent landscapes appeared. I was left gawking with my face pressed against the glass and shutter clicking. The land below me was so rugged and surreal it took my breath away. Granite pinnacles pierced the sky, steep walled fiords and hanging glaciers lapped at the ocean with their icy tongues. In other places, massive piles of moraine looked like gigantic abandoned mining projects. Everything below me beckoned to be explored and felt. I was visually overwhelmed, and I remember wishing I had a parachute to jump out of the aircraft and immerse myself in the landscape eight thousand feet below.
Twenty years later I finally set foot in this landscape on a summer ship journey up the coast of North East Baffin. Over the last decade I have returned many times on ski journeys into the heart of this region known as Kangiqtualuk Uqquqti (Sam Ford Fiord).
Skiing and pulling a sled a few kilometres per hour is one of the most rewarding ways to travel on sea-ice and glaciers.
Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen expressed his love for travel on skis “you are one with the skis and nature. This is something that develops not only the body but the soul as well and it has a deeper meaning for people than most of us perceive”.
My good friend and colleague, Laura Adams, a mountain guide, ski professional and inspiring impressionist painter, told me that she returned a thousand times in her mind to this region as she worked on her big, bold canvasses back home in Nelson, British Columbia. She has captured the unique quality of ephemeral Arctic-light setting the landscape aglow with her beautiful oil painting shared in this story.
When I view her oil painting, I am immediately transported to one of my favourite places in the world. The memory is of idyllic May days spent camping on the ice with friends near the toe of the Broad Peak tidewater glacier and the base of Polar Sun Spire. We feel humbled here for we are but tiny specs of humanity, surrounded by colossal glacial forces and immense geological creations that have taken millions of years to form.
As I look up at this famous Spire rising 1,300 metres (4,300 feet) above us, I think of the hardy climbers who have spent many days clinging to this face, sleeping in a tent bolted into this granite wall. I also think of those thrill seekers who have died leaping off other summit spires nearby. Wearing batwing suits of ballistic nylon, they hurl themselves off 1,400-metre overhangs and hurtle towards the ice — then pull their parachute — hoping fervently that it will deploy on time!
For the Inuit of Kangiqtugaapik, this region has sustained their ancestors for millennia. In winter and spring, the fiords are ice highways providing access to good fishing lakes rich in char and the rolling hills below the Barnes Ice cap provide excellent caribou hunting. Seals reveal themselves in the spring sunshine and bask on the sea-ice, providing food for Inuit families and Nanuq, the ice bear.
There is a movement to create a new territorial park here and perhaps a designated world biosphere park under UNESCO. Well planned community tourism offers a good wage economy for many local outfitters and the potential for youth to learn new skills and be involved in adventure tourism and related services will grow steadily. Pangnirtung and Auyuittuq National Parks have received the infrastructure support for many decades. Clyde is deserving of major support with a thriving community and a world-class environment to welcome world travellers.
For me, skis will always offer the ideal mode of travel in a polar environment. Self-propelled journeys offer a deeper relationship with oneself and the land. Like a Buddhist mantra, the constant repetition and rhythm of prolonged ski-touring gives you a deeper connection to yourself and the place you are moving through. There is great value in sustained exertion, deep breathing of cold, clean air and the tug of your sled gliding efficiently over the snowscape. With fatigue and exhaustion as part of the experience, a contemplative rest is well earned and needed. As I sit down on my sled and drink in the view, there is deep gratitude for these simple joys. The sharing of snacks and refuelling the body, topped up with delicious 10,000-year-old water melted from glacial ice becomes a treasured moment.
As I move through these geological masterpieces, I feel the genetic memory of my ancestors percolate out of my pores and deep joy surfaces. I am living in the moment and my awareness peaks. There is no other place but the here and now. When living in the moment like this I feel as if my body transforms into a unique musical instrument. My elated, tired and taut muscles are being played by the wind, the snow and the spirit of the place and the music pulses through me.
When I must leave such magical landscapes with my friends and fly back to my other home in the Gatineau hills of Quebec I know I will come back thousands of times with one of my best friends — my vivid memories.
I am reminded of environmental activist Edward Abbey who once said, “may your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.”
Mike is a photographer, guide & educator who has spent 40 years roaming the remote regions of Canada and the globe. He works extensively with Adventure Canada. www.adventurecanada.com To see more of Mike Beedell’s work, go to www.mikebeedellphoto.ca To see painter Laura Adams work, go to www.Luminate.ca For more information on journeys to the Kangiqtualuk Uqquqti (Sam Ford Fiord) region, go to: www.nunavuttourism.com Outfitter: Levi Palituq at Levi.Palituq@hotmail.com