As we approach the 2 week mark in Canada, still enjoying the extraordinary hospitality of our friends in Qikiqtarjuaq rather than the confines of a frozen Tentipi, our combined trip milometer stands at a less than anticipated 18.6 miles pulling sleds, 66 miles on skidoos and innumerable air miles.
After a whirlwind morning of saying goodbye to our fantastic RCMP hosts; Chris,Halie and Glenn and preparing and readying ourselves and our equipment for the next 575 miles to Pond Inlet, including gratefully packing away our smelly pairs of jeans and tired t-shirts that had been worn continuously for the duration of our travels,we hit the trail.
With weather conditions perfect and just a gentle breeze skipping down the western fjords to push the temperature below -45degs our spirits were high and we gazed over the sea ice taking in the views and watching for any curious bears. As the weight of the sleds began to bite into lower backs and hamstrings the deep snow meant that even with sleds now weighting 150kgs, progress on the flat sea ice was slow and heavy going. Once we reached the distant ice bergs locked into the bay like carved ice gates marking the beginning of the end of civilisation, conditions took a significant turn for the worse. The sea ice that had formed in the autumn had been crushed and folded into deep trenches and broken ridge lines by the prevailing NE winds and although far from unusual or unexpected, combined with the abnormally deep snow that gathered in the wells and hollows of the deformed ice pack made pulling the sleds a significant undertaking. Each ice formed sastrugi ridge was between 1-3 feet high and filled with snow meaning that the sleds could not be moved over a ridge by a single person as the friction was so great that the sleds simply could not be moved alone.
Having crawled 120 metres in 30mins, and due to the rough ice one of Benno's ski skins became unstuck and could not be refitted in the -41deg air temperature, without setting up the tent to warm the metal. With Qikiqtarjuaq still sitting prettily on the horizon and after a brief discussion regarding the speed we were travelling, the loads in the sleds, the distance to Clyde and the endless, violently contorted ice stretching to the horizon we made the decision to turn back.
It is difficult to explain the disappointment of returning after only 5 hours on the ice, secure in the knowledge that the plan we had concocted had been rapidly unraveled and we were now facing a serious re-evaluation of our objectives. Thankfully the sight of the RCMP's finest, mounted on their 4 stroke steeds coming to our aid once more and yet again welcoming us into their homes was enough to help us regain our motivation and spirits after what had been a fairly disappointing day.
Waking the next morning, our first collective thought was "what now". Again with their help, guidance and a garage full of snow loving toys, we saddled up with the RCMP and went on patrol to check out the conditions. The ice was as bad as we had thought and if anything got steadily worse to the North, meaning that any journey would require lighter sleds to enable us to move at a sufficient speed to cover the necessary ground. Having ensured we got enough 20,000 year old ice from the electric blue ice bergs to enjoy with a glass of 12 year old single malt that evening we headed back to the detachment to consolidate our plans and devise a new approach to get us back on the path to the wildness.
The obvious option we have been considering is to use the local hunters to help us lay depots along our intended route to Pond Inlet meaning our sled weights will be considerably lighter but we will still have the necessary food and fuel cached to allow us to safely attempt this significant journey along the fjord ridden East Baffin coastline. We need to be able to move at a minimum speed of 1 mph in order to cover the miles without running out of food and with the snow conditions as they are and unlikely to change in the immediate or medium term laid depots are the only solutions within our budget that allows us to cover the miles and keep our hopes of exploring this coastline alive.
Meeting with the local hunters and the willingness with which they share their knowledge and experience has been a wonderful learning curve whilst giving us solutions to issues such as localised routes and ice conditions. Jaibute, Johny, Jai, Stevey and Phillip have all helped our printed maps evolve into a record of over 300 collective years of experience now marked with huts built by their grandfathers, areas of broken ice, regions known to be favored by bears and much much more. Although there is some confusion as to what terrain that can be covered by skiers and what is possible on a skidoo, a slight incline on a skidoo is an impassable mountain with a heavy sled and comments of "its only a climb of few hundred feet" are regular occurrences. Their combined offers of help mean our spirits are high and our options are increasing with every person with whom we share a cup of tea.
Our thanks also have to go to Yves who has so far made us a tent pole base, fixed our skins onto our skis with rivets and is hopefully going to fix my boot tomorrow (although I haven't asked him yet!). His and Eric's (Captain of the famous ice locked Vagabond) mixtures of frank advice and enthusiasm for the wilderness and exploring it has helped keep our heads up and ensured we don't loose sight that having the opportunity to explore this coastline in any capacity is a gift which we must continue to appreciate.
Briefly in Colin corner, he has settled in well and is now actually coming to us for treats and affection although his excessive whining and howling as his girlfriend and old team mates tease at chain length him during the night has lead to him being kept in the RCMP garage. This luxury has now been removed from Colin after he chewed half the banister off the wall in the during the night and is now enjoying the view from a nearby lampost as Tala enjoys the warmth on her own in the peace and quiet.
Although questions regarding the feasibility of covering the entire NW Passage, supported or not are now at the forefront of our minds, we are are all buoyed by the Northern Lights blazing above Qikiqtarjuaq by night and the friendship and hospitality we have been so fortunate to enjoy, safe in the knowledge that it is a privilege to be here and any length of journey along this frozen ocean will be an adventure none of us will ever forget.