By Karen McColl
Moments after awkwardly dragging my plastic orange “expedition” sled through the maze of jumbled pack ice and onto shore at the Itijjagiaq trailhead in Katannilik Territorial Park, the seven-hour slog across Frobisher Bay was forgotten. The miserable wind my trip partner and I battled the entire 24-kilometre ski died abruptly the moment we reached shore and the sun started peeking out. Unpacking my sled of winter camping gear, I took in my surroundings. Although we were relatively close to Iqaluit, I felt a world apart, enchanted by the rocky bluffs and the picturesque canyon above us and the endless expanse of sea ice below us.
The Itijjagiaq “over the land” trail is an unmarked 120-km traditional Inuit travel route connecting Frobisher Bay near Iqaluit to the community of Kimmirut on the south coast of Baffin Island. Crossing the Meta Incognita Peninsula, it winds its way from sea level along creeks, valleys and canyons to a plateau 595 metres ASL, before dropping into the Soper (Kuujjuaq) River Valley leading towards Hudson Strait.
Although it didn’t feel like it that 13th of May when we set off from the Iqaluit breakwater, Katannilik Territorial Park is one of the most accessible parks in Nunavut for multiday trips. The south entrance is a mere two kilometres from Kimmirut, while the north entrance, where most people start their multiday trips, can be reached in less than one hour by snowmobile from Iqaluit. Unfortunately, most of our friends had already parked their snowmobiles for the year, forcing us to ski to
Waking up to golden light streaming through our tent the next morning, I sprung out of my sleeping bag. In what was to become our daily routine, I packed up silently while my trip-partner boiled water for breakfast. Practically strangers,we had only recently met at a volunteer event in Iqaluit. During one of our first conversations he said casually, “If you ever want to ski to Kimmirut, I would be totally down.” One month later, here we were: a fearless and strong-willed 24-year-old male and me, an adventurous yet highly cautious
29-year-old woman embarking on a seven day, 150-kilometre trip.
We towed our sleds up a small canyon called Toongatalik, “the place where there are
ghosts.” As we climbed gradually towards the plateau that we would reach the following day, phantoms were the furthest thing from mind. The cliff tops were alive with the chirps of snow buntings, flitting about as if energized from their winter spent south, while skeins of Canada Geese created a cacophony overhead. Although well into May, the 35 species of migratory birds that pass through this area each spring were just starting to arrive.
While the terrain along the Itijjagiaq trail is not overly challenging, the scenery is never dull. The landscape changes constantly from rolling hills to limestone canyons and pretty lakes to meandering valleys and wide plateaus yielding endless horizons in all directions. I loved every moment of it.
The Inuktitut word Katannilik means, “where there are waterfalls.” The park attracts a handful of hikers and paddlers each summer, many of whom fly to Mount Joy and float down the Soper River. In spring it primarily serves as a hunting area for Inuit and as a local snowmobile route. Nine emergency shelters approximately 15 km apart along the winter route provide protection from storms and polar bears, the latter more common on the Kimmirut side.
According to Nunavut Parks Operations Manager Cameron DeLong, only one or two groups ski through the park each year. The relatively short ski season, as described
by DeLong, starts “whenever it’s bearable,” meaning April and May when temperatures are warm enough.
Apart from seeing a couple groups of snowmobilers on the first and last day, we had the trail to ourselves. With annual park visitation of less than 100 people (not including Inuit who are not required to register), there’s a lot of tranquility to be found in Katannilik any time of the year.
Four days and 75 kilometres in, we climbed a small knoll to the highest point on the Itijjagiaq trail on the plateau that divides the park in half. Down the slope ahead of us lay Panorama Creek and the Soper (or “Kuujjuaq” — meaning “Big River” in Inuktitut). The slopes above the Soper looked brown in contrast to the snowy whiteness behind us.
“Fear is not a good enough reason for not doing something,” my trip-partner chided me the previous night while debating our next move. Knowing the rivers would be open in
the Soper this late in the season, I was hesitant about going further. We didn’t have river booties to brave the icy waters and I didn’t want to wreck my skis if there wasn’t enough snow in the valley bottom. We used our satellite phone to try and book a last minute flight from Kimmirut to Iqaluit for the end of our trip. The flight was full, giving us no choice but to turn around. I’m not sure if I was relieved or disappointed to turn back. I consoled myself by promising I would come back and finish the trail while he cheered himself up by insisting we ski another 12 kilometres that day.
Although our friend, Marie Bélanger, who skied to Kimmirut in 2011, faced high winds and poor visibility for most of their descent through the Soper Valley, she describes the
scenery she did see as “grand.” The Soper has deep and dramatic valley walls and numerous cascading tributaries that give the park its name. Equally memorable to the scenery of the Soper Valley for Bélanger, was the warm reception she and her partner received when they arrived in Kimmirut after an exhausting ten hour day. A community of only 455 residents, Kimmirut is known for its friendliness and hospitality. “When we arrived, two locals came out and took a picture of us. I think they thought we were crazy, but they were so welcoming. It was really special,” she says.
Safely back in Iqaluit after shaving one hour off our sea-ice crossing time, we smiled
at each other and hugged good bye. I was thrilled with our adventure, coming away with
a greater awareness of the land around me and the beauty of South Baffin. And what’s
more, I wanted to return. The last entry in my trip journal reads, “Beautiful area, hope to come back in the summer!”
THE ITIJJAGIAQ TRAIL
Katannilik Territorial Park was created in 1992 to encourage recreation and protect the nature and cultural features of the area. Although Inuit are historically a maritime culture, the Itijjagiaq Trail was a convenient overland route for people travelling by dog team and hunting caribou. Temperatures in the Soper Valley are, on average, five degrees warmer than surrounding areas, supporting lush vegetation and willows that can grow to 10 feet.
The idea of this trip came from a mutual friend, Marie Bélanger, who skied to Kimmirut with a friend in April 2011. The trip had been challenging. They only gave themselves six days to ski the entire 120 km and had to contend with bad visibility and blizzards. They also lacked some essential gear. “I didn’t even know what skins were before the trip,” laughs Bélanger, who had to walk some of the steeper sections because she didn’t have enough grip on her metal-edged cross-country skis.
Despite their trials, Bélanger enthusiastically recommended the trip to me, “at the right time of year and with enough time.” Maxine Carroll and Mitch LeBlanc of the Nunavut Youth LEAP Society are quite familiar with skiing in Katannilik. They run a ski adventure program for local youth and have taken two groups through the park since 2005. The Nunavut Parks sign at Shelter1 welcomes visitors to “the place where there are waterfalls.”