Finding Unexpected Friends (Jamie)

Leaving behind a warm and comfortable hut is never an easy task but it is made easier when the sun is shining and the thermometer is registering a balmy -25c. This hut stay, our last on the expedition was especially memorable due to the excitement of meeting several Inuit en route to Pond for the annual dog sled race. This race from Pond to Arctic Bay attracts teams from all over Baffin Island and is a wonderful way of ensuring the art of dog sledding is kept alive and actively practiced. I romantically thought that the race was well attended due to the desire to ensure this tradition is maintained and as an excellent chance for old friends to meet up whilst ensuring community bonds stay firm despite the huge distances. It takes places for all these reasons but is no doubt helped by the whopping $15000 on offer for whoever takes first place, $7500 for second and $1000 for every participant who makes the start line. I can honestly say I haven't heard of a government funding scheme I quite so heartily agree with, although the recent change in UK stamp duty comes close (thanks George).

The three teams we met were making a four week journey in convoy up to Pond to race and then come back again before the ice begins to deteriorate and were thankful for the $1000 to cover their fuel. Anything else for them was an unexpected bonus and the chance to give the presents and news they carried for their friends and distant family in Pond made the trip ever more of an event. The 6 Inuit consisted of an even split of young and old with the younger guys excited by the prospect of heading to Pond and the chance to win some money and meet some new girls. One of them was finishing school but the other two had dropped out years ago despite only being 18 and this trip pulled them away from their Playstations and firmly into the Arctic environment and the ways of their Grandfathers.

Of the two elderly Inuit whose dog teams were being taken up one had the most expressive face I have seen in the North and, when not smiling, his character was clearly shown in the deep creases left on his face by his cheerful grin. Dressed in a pair of old dungarees and a woolen trappers hat he was the colour of dark walnut and had a full set of white teeth, which almost shone as he laughed and joked. Small but sturdy and confident in his dog teams chances in the upcoming race he gave the impression of complete dependability and adaptability that many of the Inuit we have met and spent time here exude.

As the others were fixing one of the skidoos he pulled out a frozen Arctic Char and set about it with a rusty old saw chopping it in half then half again. With a flourish he whipped out a large knife and proceeded with the grace of long practice to shave wafers of the frozen fish into the snow where it lay pink and glinting. With a wave of his hand he invited me to take some which was something I had wanted to try ever since Jaipotte had said it was the best and traditional way to eat this sea fish and I gratefully dug in. The frozen fish melted on your tongue and the rich flavour of the wild Char gradually grew as the meat dissolved and I vigorously chewed it. Arctic Char is a lot like Salmon in taste and its glutinous texture which when still a bit frozen makes it amazing to chew on, especially when you have been eating boil in a bag meals for nearly 3 months. I was prattling away to the friendly old Inuit whose English was clearly limited but I assumed was enjoying the conversation whilst I was enjoying his fish when several of the younger guys came over and each began picking up pieces of the fish by the older man’s knees. Seeing this he began to carve more and soon we were having a small feast which despite the snowmobiles, backwards caps and hoodies of the younger Inuit is the same way travelling Inuit have snacked on the trail for generations and it made me thoroughly please that such a race was funded ensuring these adventures continue. True the Inuit of old didn't wash down their fish with cans of coke and a couple of sticks of juicy fruit chewing gum but it's great to see those skills and methods of travel continuing.

So after getting ourselves thoroughly warmed in the hut and feeding the dogs until they could eat no more we headed off and not before time as Benno had eaten a beef Stroganoff meal and the resulting effects had all but fumigated the hut. You learn quickly which foods you enjoy and which you need to endure on long trips and beef Stroganoff was bottom on both our lists partly because of the taste and partly because of the havoc it played with our digestive systems. We had thought we had removed them all from this legs rations but alas one had snuck through and we were paying the price, even Benno was struggling inside the small hut so the fresh cold air in our faces as we hit the trail seemed a relief not a burden.

We followed the river valley up and then gradually downwards as we came back out onto the flat sea ice after seven days on land. This had for the most part not been a bad land crossing and although the end provided deep snow and some more of the dreaded false flats it wasn't unnecessarily difficult and even with our newly laden pulks we weren't physically exhausted crossing it.

As we passed back onto the sea ice and into another magnificent fjord we picked up the trail of our friends Boomer, Sarah and Jake driving their dogs toward the distance headland. I found it strangely gratifying to be following dog trails, the sled rails heading straight to the horizon with the pitter-patter of hundreds of paw prints dotted around and about the sled on either side. Almost as if we could have been following a trail from one of the early RCMP officers dog sledding between communities in the 19th century or hunters from a time before snowmobiles. The tracks were broken by Polar Bear prints which had begun to litter the sea ice in front of us reminding us that once again we were back on their territory and we would need to be very vigilant. It was funny to see how the dogs had obviously picked up the older tracks of the bears and the sled veered from side to side as the dogs followed it. I had images of Sarah hanging onto the back of the sled for dear life as the dogs swung from left to right, noses to ground all eager to catch the bear whilst they tried to lead them straight. We were happy to see that the bear tracks were old and that none had crossed the skidoo tracks left by our Inuit friends with the other dog teams two days ahead of us and so travelled without much apprehension.

We pushed on eating up the miles and the rations with the dogs both in good spirits and Colin even coming to us actively now for food and a scratch. I have never seen a dog lick himself or sleep so much but now he seems to like us quite a lot and has recently taken to trying to gently take Benno's flapjack from his hands, as if being gentle will excuse his rudeness. It normally does and he often gets given some because we are both soft and happy to see him no longer cowering every time we go near him. As Benno said, "Colin why do you have to make me start to like you just when we have to think about giving you away".

We knew there was one more piece of land to cross between us and Pond, especially if we wanted to avoid supposed bad ice. Although the strip of land was only 1.8km wide, it looked less than flat on the map and only saved us 3km in distance. As we approached the hill started to loam over us and I got that familiar sinking feeling that this might not be the picnic we had supposed. About 20m's up the slope the gradient started to steepen and the pulks gradually slowed to a halt until it was obvious a single mule couldn't pull this load. "Screw this" I said "are we really going to put ourselves through this again", we agreed that we weren't and turned round and trotted back down to the ice which turned out to be pancake flat and edged with incredible couloirs filled with deep powder snow.

If we have learned anything this trip is that if all else fails trust your legs, if they are telling you this is too much and that the other road is probably lined with less lactic acid then trust them and forget all else. We rounded the point and looked before us at a horizon overflowing with broken and piled lumps of jagged ice intersected by a thin corridor of flat ice, winding its way out to sea which, with weary grateful smiles, we began to follow- slipping back into the endless day dreams of the long distance Arctic traveler.