Category: Akshayuk Pass

Mountains, clouds, and ice guard the entrance of a rich, magical valley

Mountains, clouds, and ice guard the entrance of a rich, magical valley

In the Pacific Northwest, we tend to become hunched and dull during winter, when the slate grey days end too soon and the evergreen trees loom monotonously dark green. We board planes flying to sunny places, where light sparkles on snow or tropical oceans.  Or we just stay put and get depressed, drink too much coffee, and buy expensive lights for our desks.

Mt. Thor, shedding storm clouds

Mt. Thor, shedding storm clouds

This verdant weight felt lush and light to me as I drove back from SeaTac airport after returning from Baffin Island without having seen a tree for weeks. There, everything appeared to be ice, dangerously cold water, impassive peaks, jumbled glacial moraines, sand and rocks, rocks and sand.

Where glaciers once ground the rocks to flour sometimes looks lifeless and painful, like dry boredom.  Rocks and dirt are washed around by water, tipped by gravity to tumble down moraines, heaved by freeze/thaw.

CarpetLook closer and you will see a carpet of plant life spreading over rocks and dirt that finally stop moving: lush, deep carpets of moss and lichen, mushrooms, willows, grasses, and flowers.  Along Cumberland Sound, find lemon yellow Arctic sulfur butterflies and deep orange fritillaries by freshwater streams.


Arctic Sulphur Butterfly- Pangnirtung headlands

In the Weasel River Valley, look up to see the warm streaks of iron across the charcoal and ivory surface of a mountain, or the warm wash of sun across the rocks or a wind-sculpted sand dune.  Find the iridescent sheen of bacteria thriving on iron and manganese rich water in puddles.  Delight in the abstract pattern of charcoal silt in a shallow stream.   Admire the faint gold of August evening light on the river braids.WeaselEveLight2

Around Crater Lake, pause to pick up rocks.  You will find crystals of every kind, shimmering finishes, all colors. These are rocks laid down by ancient lakes or thrown skyward by volcanoes, then heated under pressure to become gneiss, schist, quartzite, and slate.

The Pacific Northwest might wrap you in a soft cushion of greenery, so dense and comfortable that Midwest flatlanders like me never leave.  The seeming barren lands of the Arctic tundra drive you to action,  to seek beauty, drawing you onward with occasional flashes of beauty and brilliance.   Every day, once we set camp, I roamed looking for color and light.  When the pickup boat sped away down Pangnirtung Fiord, we looked back quietly at the grey fortress of mountains looming over the Weasel River Valley. Ruth said it was sad to leave the mystical valley, that she would miss just walking, eating, and sleeping, living a simple life in a beautiful place. I silently agreed as I imagined behind that curtain of rain flashes of red and gold, orange and pink, yellow and jet black.


Fortune cookie irony, opened at lunch on the third delay day.

Fortune cookie irony, opened at lunch on the third delay day.

This has been a historic year for weather in many areas.  My home, Washington state, has been hot and drought-stricken, resulting in failed crops and historic wildfires.  This post is a week late after a historic windstorm swept through, leaving me and 174,999 other people without power.  My power finally returned after 5 days when I finally got a live person on the line at the utility so I could explain that all I needed was a fuse replaced on the power pole.  She got a crew out promptly and the repair took all of 10 minutes.

Baffin Island was not spared the swing in weather, but it went the opposite way:  cold, with very late breakup of pack ice.  Cumberland Sound was coated with ice, here seen from the air. CumberlandSoundIcebergPlane Pack ice brings arctic fog.  Qikiqtarjuak was plagued with fog, Pagnirtung with wind.  Neither was conducive to plane travel.


I learned a lot on this trip about the level of adaptability and flexibility Arctic travel requires.  People writing brochures to attract folks to the Arctic try to balance attractiveness with alarm by letting you know that traveling in the Arctic may involve some delays.  What they need to tell you is that you need to research every air stop in case you get stuck in the town and need a place to stay and something to do.  You need to leave days of buffer on either end.  Parks Canada points this out on their Ivvavik Fly-in Trip informational package:

Due to variable weather, flights in and out of the park can be delayed. Parks Canada recommends that travellers allow for two or more days between the end of your Arctic Base Camp trip and your flight out of Inuvik. If your trip returns as planned, you’ll be glad to have some extra time to explore Inuvik.

This is a great way to frame expectations.

My recommendation after this experience- and my plan for next year’s arctic trip- are:

  • Get all your flights booked together!  That way, if one leg is delayed, they will shuffle all the downstream sections for you. I booked my Air Canada flight separate from the First Air flight that the outfitter booked.  When First Air was delayed, I lost my ticket on Air Canada (I cancelled, but ended up with only $100 toward a future flight due to fees). Make sure your airline ticket has a standby option (mine did not, probably noted in the multitude of small print)
  • Buy travel insurance, and make sure the limit is at least $1000; hotels in remote areas are expensive.  The outfitter’s policy allowed only $600, which I easily burned before the delays at the back end. 
  • Check before you go if your credit card has  travel insurance- mine does not.
  • Leave time at the back end to accommodate the range of delays you may experience coming in and going out.  Research the airport locations for things you’d like to see!

On this trip, we were a fairly adaptable bunch, but here’s the gap between the plan and reality that we faced (descriptions on the left are from the outfitter):Presentation1



Summit Lake Camp between rainstorms

Summit Lake Camp between rainstorms

The best lunch I’ve enjoyed in recent memory was delivered to my tent by guide Rhys Hill on a rainbound day at Summit Lake.  Hot bannock grilled with cheese and ham delivered in a plastic bowl to the vestibule, along with a bottle of glacier runoff water, fruit leather, and a chocolate granola bar from my snack bag made an unforgettable feast.

Lunch in my daily life now is usually forgettable.  I eat at my computer like many busy people, putting down calories without recalling what foodstuff contained those calories. Meals at home are more deliberate:  summer lunches eaten on the front porch listening to birds moving through the weeping cedar and crabapple, Sunday breakfast with hot coffee listening to the radio. All the same, I take food for granted most of the time, as only people in well-fed countries  can do.

Rainy day room service, Summit Lake camp, Auyuittuq National Park

Rainy day room service, Summit Lake camp, Auyuittuq National Park

But when a body is burning energy daily and the world is simplified into eat, sleep, walk, and stay warm, a hot lunch is everything.  When  clouds sit on top of a temporary nylon home, pelting the shelter with rain and wind, lunch is a highlight of the day, comfort and sustenance, survival.

Our plan was to camp at Summit Lake, day hike the following day to the Turner Glacier to see the famous Mt. Aasgard;  the Mt. Aasgard of the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved me. By this point in the trip, I had committed to brooding, magical Mt. Thor as my favorite, but we were still exploring as much of the traverse as we could despite the travel delays.

The day hike to the Turner didn’t happen the first day we intended.  We joked about the polar desert environment over breakfast, after living through wind and rain all night.  I had slept quietly, but others were kept awake by the flapping of the solid but noisy Hilleberg tents – even if they were sleeping in their own tents, and the Hilleberg was someone else’s.  After breakfast, our plans unraveled and we were chased back into our tents by another round of stormy weather. Everyone withdrew to write, read, sleep, or look at photos.

The lunch delivery was a welcome treat.  I didn’t want to burn any more camera battery, and I was struggling to write in the small Rite-in-the-Rain book I’d carried with.  My writing was not florid prose, but notes, cue words, and pen sketches written with a crabbed, cold hand as I hunched over.

OldCaribouAntlersSometime after lunch, the rain gave us a break for the afternoon and dinner before chasing us back into our tents.  Some of us went hiking.  I followed Trond and Ruth northward, but decided not to try following the gracefully rock-hopping Norweigans over the high point they chose to cross over a creek.  I backtracked to the Summit Lake moraine to find the caribou antler Ruth had picked up the day before. There are no caribou in the area anymore, and a hunting ban is in place indefinitely because populations have dropped 95% since the 1990’s, down to a herd of only 5,000 animals. According to CBC report, natural migration in addition to over-harvest due to the “reach of snowmobiles” is to blame.  Even pro-hunting legislators lined up to protect the remaining animals and work to establish a sustainable management plan.

The antlers left in this area are mostly old ones, yellow like this, though Trond found a big, white, complete rack by the Half Hour Creek emergency camp area.

PeekabooAasgardTurnerGlacierWe hiked the next day to the Turner Glacier to see if we could catch a glimpse of Mt. Asgard.  Micheil said the Turner River, something we weren’t keen to cross, had moved since he last saw it.  A central moraine with ice beneath a thin layer of rock stood allowed us to ascend to a spot where we could see the famous mountain. Mt. Asgard is there, behind that cloud, to the left of the rock teeth above the ice of the Turner Glacier.  Really.  It’s like Mt. Rainier, the famous volcano in my state:  you can work in an office for an entire winter and not realize your window has a great mountain view until the clouds clear and the sprawling, glacier-clad mountain looms large and white.  Really.  Others in my group pictured silhouettes of Aasgard, but I did not.  Standing on the rock-studded icy moraine of the Turner, I was happy to have made the place, and missed the somber and thoughtful Mt. Thor.

Even with the marginal weather, the rich orange-red of the iron-streaked terrain glowed against the gray mountains and sky.  Equally warm was the joy of traveling with a lighter pack-  though I was admittedly no more nimble and balanced than when I was carrying all my gear and shared food on my back.



Our camp at Summit Lake was lovely between storms, with mountains all around. My spot wasn’t the most comfortable.  Tucking in behind Susan’s tent along a rock wall helped break the wind a little, but the ground beneath me was uneven.  My warm ultralight Thermarest and ability to sleep regardless saved me during three nights at this location.BreidablikHwyGlacierEve

At every camp,  the simple things were all that counted like pitching the tent to put a layer of nylon between us and the wind. The tents might have been flimsy shelters, but the psychological comfort they provided was very real. Food counted a lot, no matter what it was.  No mindless meals working at a computer; we carefully watched Micheil and Rhys cook, contemplated how much fat we could add to a meal in the form of cheese or peanut butter, relished every hot meal.   Sure, the outfitter brochure promised pine-nut pesto, and the food barrels that never met up with us due to flight problems held bacon, wine, and rich desserts of pears to be drizzled with Grand Marnier-laced chocolate sauce. But for us, burning calories to stay warm and carry heavy packs over rough terrain , an extra piece of Co-Jack cheese on a bowl of chili, or a hot grilled sandwich consumed inside a rain-whipped tent was an incomparable feast.

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