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Kayaking across Baffin Island - The Pittarak Expedition

Food, Water, Snow | Kayaking Baffin Island

Erik Boomer & Sarah McNair-Landry
Written by Jamie Bunchuk

The snowstorms began in August. What had started out as rain, turned to near-freezing sleet, then morphing seamlessly and without stopping into an almost-endless flurry of snow. The river was much different from what we had expected. Angry white water – framed by the daily blizzard around us – ripped at our kayaks, tore their skins, forcing yet more repairs, more delays. Few reprieves. Our handcrafted Inuit-styled kayaks – built in the traditional Baffin Island manner – were manoeuvrable as anything but weighty and portages were slow, heavy affairs. We were really starting to get hungry, we were burning more calories than we were rationed to eat, and our food cache still lay elusively out of sight. We put our heads down and just focussed on reaching it.
If you were ever struggling to get a cut just right, or a piece of wood was stubbornly refusing to fit into place, you just had to remind yourself that at least you didn’t have to chew the timber with your teeth to bend it into shape. You didn’t have to gnaw at the cuts to fit them into specific grooves, or use super primitive tools.
The Amadjuak River was a big turning point in our expedition, not that it had been easy before then. Our goal had been to build our own boats and then to put them to the test by embarking on a 1,000 km journey across the fifth largest island in the world: Baffin. The idea was Eric’s but the seeds of interest had started several years before, when Sarah and her brother were on an expedition to Greenland. They’d just come off the icecap and had found themselves in a small Inuit community that happened to be having a kayaking festival. The tradition of kayaking in Greenland is super-vibrant; people still build their own boats regularly and use them as part of their daily life. Sadly, despite a very similar heritage of traditional kayaking, in Baffin things are not quite the same and the age-old practice of making one’s own boat from scratch is dwindling and diminishing.

We thought it would be a cool project to research these traditional Baffin kayaks, build them, and then paddle them across the island of their birth. Through this, it was hoped that the expedition might inspire the local community and the wider international public to get interested in the practice of traditional kayak building. For over a month, four of us – Erik Boomer, Katherine Breen, and Eric and Sarah McNair-Landry – worked out of a high school workshop in Iqaluit building the kayaks, also watching school children make their own miniature versions at the same time. The amazing thing about Inuit kayaks is that there are no nails or screws involved; everything is either tongue-in-groove construction or lashed together. The boats are built exactly to your body dimensions, so everybody has a different-sized, totally bespoke vessel at the end of the build.

A lot of the joy from building our own kayaks came from thinking about how they must have been built in the past. If you were ever struggling to get a cut just right, or a piece of wood was stubbornly refusing to fit into place, you just had to remind yourself that at least you didn’t have to chew the timber with your teeth to bend it into shape. You didn’t have to gnaw at the cuts to fit them into specific grooves, or use super primitive tools. Even with modern tools, the whole process took us a good two months before we could even get the boats water-ready to start the expedition proper. We were very fortunate. Building one’s boat own gave us a good perspective across the whole journey about the region’s people who had paddled that way before us.

Traditional Kayak building
Up to the Amadjuak we hadn’t hit any major challenges. In fact, we’d been really lucky with the weather, bearing the brunt of only a couple of storms bad enough that we couldn’t actually travel. The terrain had been manageable too. But the river slowed us right down. Suddenly from bashing out 25km a day – surging ahead of schedule – to dropping down to just four kilometres a day at our lowest ebb. It was hard to suppress the worry that we wouldn’t reach the food cache in time. The water volume was huge, flowing from rapid to rapid, rarely calming. A strategy evolved as to how to tackle the swirling white water; initially we’d all try to paddle up it in our sea kayaks, eddy-hopping up the river in the sparse mellower sections. If the rapids were too big the next strategy was to tie a line to the front of the boats and haul the kayaks upriver, knee-deep in the near-freezing water. We ripped and wore through our boat skins a few times doing this, which made the kayaks leak; made us get us even wetter and made the whole cold challenge that much tougher.

When the rapids were too big to haul the boats we’d have to unload them and start portaging our gear and often it would take us three to four shuttles back and forth to get everything. A four-kilometre portage would take us all day, just hiking back and forth, back and forth, shuffling stuff. It was truly morale sapping. All the time it just kept snowing; we could only laugh about it in the end: ‘oh here comes another little flurry again’ was the running joke. Ever the snow came down all around us and before we knew it the landscape was blanketed in white. We still had another month ahead of us; soon we’d be hitting the Arctic Ocean which was even cooler than inland. It was a big turning point, and things just got harder from then on out. Hard and cold.

If you were ever struggling to get a cut just right, or a piece of wood was stubbornly refusing to fit into place, you just had to remind yourself that at least you didn’t have to chew the timber with your teeth to bend it into shape. You didn’t have to gnaw at the cuts to fit them into specific grooves, or use super primitive tools.
Testing the rapids on Baffin IslandKayaking across Baffin Island - The Pittarak ExpeditionCamping in the snow on Baffin Island
If you were ever struggling to get a cut just right, or a piece of wood was stubbornly refusing to fit into place, you just had to remind yourself that at least you didn’t have to chew the timber with your teeth to bend it into shape. You didn’t have to gnaw at the cuts to fit them into specific grooves, or use super primitive tools.
Sarah started a starvation index; she really likes to stay goal oriented. So if we didn’t make a certain average number of miles travelled that day it was like: ‘alright, the starvation index is going up one notch’. If it went up far enough the four of us would have to start rationing and cutting back on food. In the end, we got to the food cache with just one day of supplies left. We had dropped off the cache ourselves in the wintertime, in a little mini-expedition up there by snow machine. So right up until the last minute there was some doubt about what condition we would find the gear in, it had been sitting there for a couple of months after all. ‘What if an animal had got into it? Or what if it had got water damaged, or something else had happened to it?’ the worried train of thought ran. The supplies had been dropped off in winter, when the snow had been thick and deep. What we thought was a nice gradual slope to deposit the rations on actually turned out to be a small cliff face. We had to paddle past our food drop-off with hungry stomachs and then hike two kilometres back to get it because there was nowhere to land our boats. But we found the food perfect, intact and not damaged. We could continue pushing on with the journey.

Getting to the cache was a good halfway point but it certainly didn’t mark the end of the difficulties. By this point, snow and rain had precipitated every day for two weeks solid. Every evening we would pack away our gear still wet; every morning we’d put it on still wet. It was a bitter challenge as we pushed past the site of our food dump in series of portages to get back to the Arctic Ocean and the final end stretch. By then it was September and it was cold; standing water was freezing everywhere; freezing hard enough to support your body weight. September storms were rolling in and 20-knot headwinds were just nailing us in the boats day after day after day.

Added to that, whilst traversing the coast we had to contend with the tides, which mixed with narrow fjords, the swell ripping up and down in the big pinches to create large tidal rapids. These came as almost a complete surprise to us all. You had to treat the ocean as a white-water river, trying to hop into ocean-eddies or behind islands where the currents weren’t as strong. Sometimes we’d come up to rapids that would completely block our way and we’d have to wait. Either that or we’d try to portage around them, sometimes land-hopping over islands to get through. On occasion we were lucky; we might stop and take a lunch break, and by the time you’d finished the rapids would have completely subsided with the tide; the seascape looking placid and entirely different. But the ocean remained scary nonetheless. Often you’d be more than a kilometre out from land, paddling from fjord to fjord, when all of a sudden you’d see boils and whirlpools forming around you. Having a flip out there would turn it in a very bad situation very quickly. Yet we couldn’t stop and take days out, even if the weather was truly terrible; either the four of us stayed where we were, starved or ended up calling a rescue, or we had to carry on, regardless of the state of heaving ocean.

Erik-Boomer-Pittarak-08Kayaking across Baffin Island - The Pittarak Expedition
Coming in, we were all low in body fat; it was quite difficult to keep warm and we were utterly exhausted. You could feel the cold blood going back to your elbows and knees and feet when you moved about. We were really looking forward to finishing at this point, which made the enforced stops and storm days all the more difficult to bear; it made you think you were never going to get there.

A hunter out searching for seals was the first to spot our return to frequented waters. He had heard that we were approaching his community, and with the forethought that he might run into us, brought four pairs of new socks as a present. Not too long after meeting the hunter, a larger boat circled around and rafted up beside us. A family heading out to their cabin for the weekend spoiled us with hot chocolate, bannock (local bread), sweets and a big frozen chunk of reindeer meat. It was really awesome. When you haven’t seen anyone in two months and those kind people are the first ones you see, the first people from the outside world you have contact with – it really put a smile on all our faces.

The next day we pulled into our end point, the community of Cape Dorset. The inhabitants had heard we were coming, had followed our progress and spotted us out in the ocean. It was a pretty amazing way to end the expedition; a couple of hundred people came down to greet us, letting off fireworks, cheering, honking horns. We could not have imagined a better welcome. As we got out of our boats, people hugged and shook our hands. Our kayaks were carried up on shore, and the community gathered in a big circle around our boats and us to say a prayer for our safe passage. In true northern style, we were then taken to a community square dance party they held in our honour. We spent our first night – after a good meal and a hot shower – dancing until the early hours, until the stars shined bright and the cold ocean stilled, as if mirroring the long-anticipated rest we now, finally, had the privilege to enjoy.


Watch the film from this expedition: Expedition Q – A Crossing Of Baffin Island on Sidetracked TV

Erik Boomer

Erik Boomer and Canadian polar adventurer Sarah McNair-Landry recently completed the gruelling 65-day expedition across Baffin Island, covering over a 1000km by kayak, ski and foot. Avoiding crevasses to cross the largest Icecap on Baffin Island, Boomer, Sarah and two friends descended into the Weasel River valley. Here, Boomer did a first descent of the class 5 glacier fed river surrounded by some of the world’s tallest cliffs. This was only the first week on a two-month expedition. At the ocean the team picked up their traditional Inuit style kayaks that they hand built themselves, and followed old traditional Inuit routes across Baffin. Tidal rapids, portages, snowstorms and polar bears were a few of the many challenges along the way.

For more information visit their website: pittarak.com

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