The Land That Never Melts
Aaron Doering, with Jeni Henrickson
Photos by Matthew Whalen
This is a journey of celebration and personal challenge through a land I’ve come to know and love well. It is also a mission of fellowship, learning, and community, with a goal of collecting and sharing, in their own voices, the stories of the people of this little-known region of the Arctic.
We are halfway into a ten-day pulking expedition through Auyuittuq National Park on Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada. More than 60 miles of Arctic wilderness stretches ahead and behind us to reach the nearest communities of Qikiqtarjuaq and Pangnirtung. There are hundreds of miles of glaciers, mountains, and rockfall to our north and south separating us from any form of human civilization.
The five-member team I am leading is comprised of both experienced and amateur Arctic travelers. The responsibility of leading a team through such remote and forbidding wilderness is not inconsiderable. The closest hospital is hundreds of miles away, and the quickest rescue, by snow machine or helicopter, would take several days to reach us. Polar bears, frostbite, dehydration, unexpected leads in the ice, all are real threats to survival here in this so-named “land that never melts.”
The journey through this land holds so much meaning for me, both personally and professionally, that any risks quickly are laid to rest. This is at once a journey of celebration and personal challenge through a land I’ve come to know and love well. It is also a mission of fellowship, learning, and community, with a goal of collecting and sharing, in their own voices, the stories of the people of this little-known region of the Arctic.
As I slide from the warmth of my sleeping bags and prepare to light the camp stove and cook breakfast, I think through things I’ve heard from elders and community members about this changing land and culture. Everything from stories detailing the forced placement of once-nomadic people into permanent settlements and western-style schools that has wreaked havoc on the native culture and language, to concerns about the changing seasons, ice cover, and snowfall that are impacting animal migration patterns, subsistence hunting, safe travel, and coastal erosion rates.
I’ve spent more than a decade traveling through the circumpolar Arctic. This is my third journey within this region alone. Traveling always by traditional means (dogsled, ski, or snowshoe) has provided a unique perspective on the land and communities here. It has also given me the opportunity to speak with locals more openly about their experiences, observations, challenges, and dreams. Communities have thrived here for thousands of years but have been barraged over the past century with growing threats from the industrialized world and the race for dominance over natural resources and culture alike.
The weather is clear and our travel smooth across the snow-covered ice at the start. We enjoy warm temps for April, in the single digits to teens Fahrenheit, as our travels begin, but those temps steadily drop and become accompanied by a stiff wind and windchill as our journey progresses.
The journey from Qikiqtarjuaq to where we now camp, several miles east of Mount Battle, is all uphill. The snow cover is deep in spots, making for slow travel at times. We pull pulks that weigh between 200 to 250 pounds each. They are laden not only with our camping gear, fuel, and food, but also with the technology needed to capture and transmit our journey live online to thousands of classrooms around the world.
Today we are preparing to face our biggest challenge yet, up the side of Mount Battle to reach Glacier Lake. We cook a big breakfast, saturated in butter. Bagels, oatmeal, and sausages will fuel our trek today, along with Snickers, ramen, and Pemmican bars for lunch.
After breakfast, we take down the tents and pack up our pulks. We head out toward Mount Battle across deep snow, into a steady 30mph headwind. Despite the cold, we slowly shed layers of clothing as our bodies warm with the effort of the trek. We soon encounter a curious Arctic fox, who is as surprised to see us as we are to see him. He is the first living creature we’ve encountered since we departed Qikiqtarjuaq four days prior. The fox makes a wide circle around our team, and then follows us a short ways before continuing on his own journey, his curiosity about these strange humans now satisfied.
Near the base of Mount Battle, we encounter widespread rockfall and a steadily increasing uphill grade. We stop to assess the trail ahead. I consult with Chris, a high school teacher and seasoned outdoorsman who has traveled this pass with me on a previous trip. Given the difficulty of the terrain here, we want to ensure our climb up the mountainside is a safe one, and that we don’t expend effort following a route that will end with retracing steps and starting again.
After examining our map and assessing the terrain through a pair of binoculars, we decide it’s best to send scouts without pulks to check out two possible routes up the steep mountainside. Chris heads to the east, and I head south, as the rest of the team breaks for lunch and keeps watch on the gear. Chris and I return about an hour later, satisfied that the beginnings of the southern route are the best to follow.
The land here is like nowhere else. We begin our journey in Qikiqtarjuaq, a small Inuit community of about 500 people that sits on a tiny island just off the Baffin Island, hugging the shores of the Arctic Ocean. From Qikiqtarjuaq we travel up the North Pangnirtung Fiord into a stunning but unforgiving Arctic landscape.
We anticipate the final days of our journey are going to be long and tough, and that they are. Crossing Glacier and Summit lakes entails a full day’s travel with a persistent headwind that makes it difficult to regulate one’s body temp. We put on backcountry skis and battle hard drifts of snow and ice.
As we approach the top of the mountain, we spy Glacier Lake about a half mile along the far side. We are elated. We make our way to the lake, dance in celebration, and make camp. Our campsite is framed from behind by the renown Mount Asgard, which watches over us as we pitch tents, begin to melt water from snow, and dry our gear.
Each night at camp brings many tasks aside from melting snow, cooking food, and drying gear. As we are also running an adventure learning program—sharing our journey along with lessons about the land and communities here with schools around the world—solar batteries, computers, and satellite technology are also brought into the tent. We keep the technology in Ziploc bags to collect the moisture from the condensation as they warm up. Once the tech is warm, we set to work writing field reports and editing videos and photos to share online. These items are then uploaded to an online learning environment. This extra work creates a crazy dance in the tent each night in tight quarters.
We anticipate the final days of our journey are going to be long and tough, and that they are. Crossing Glacier and Summit lakes entails a full day’s travel with a persistent headwind that makes it difficult to regulate one’s body temp. We put on backcountry skis and battle hard drifts of snow and ice. Eight hours later we reach our goal, the beginning of the Weasel River.
The Weasel River requires a full change of gear. I ask the team to switch to snowshoes along with rigid shafts for the pulks (in place of the rope system we had been using). With the melting snow on the south side of the lake and a river that is extremely steep, the snowshoes and rigid shafts provide better control and prevent the pulks from sliding past us and pulling us down the river with them. We whoop with joy traveling downriver as it is literally the first time experiencing serious downhill during our journey to date.
Soon, one of the most notable geological structures of this region stands before us: Mount Thor, the world’s steepest and tallest vertical cliff (with a 1250m drop that angles inward at 105 degrees). We stop to make lunch in the great mountain’s presence, capturing video and photos while doing a dance to keep warm.
By the time we’re ready to set up camp for the night, there is no snow to be found. We scour the landscape for a place to pitch tents where there is also access to fresh water, from either snow or ice. Fortunately, immediately before we reach an area of frozen rapids with towering boulders that would be dangerous to traverse in the approaching darkness, I spot a sheet of ice on the side of the river that should be sufficient to set up camp. We collect rocks to secure the snow flaps on the tents for extra protection in the strong wind, and begin chopping ice to melt for water.
The next day challenges us with a whole host of varied terrain not found in many regions of the Arctic, from wide stretches of sand to frozen falls and rock gardens. We cross boulders, dance over ice holes, and, with much effort, pull our pulks across the sand. We feel at times like we’re traveling through an obstacle course. At the bottom of one particularly treacherous stretch, we reach Windy Lake.
We ski to the edge of Pangnirtung Fiord, which is lined with heaving ice, and decide to make camp there. Although the fjord is a mixture of saltwater and freshwater, the old ice that has been pushed up above the surface typically has been leached of its salt content. We chop off chunks of the heaved ice with a hatchet… mixed with a lot of sand. There’s nothing like a few “floaties” and a little sand in the bottom of your Nalgene bottle!
Once camp is set up and dinner is done, we enjoy our final night on the ice. As we reflect on this journey, we share our favorite and most challenging moments from the expedition. I am so proud of this team. Everyone has maintained a consistently positive attitude despite the many challenges we’ve faced. The team has communicated well and taken care of each other – monitoring everything from morale to any signs of frostbite or dehydration. It takes a team that works together well to make an expedition successful and, just as important, fun.
The next day, as we arrive in the small Inuit community of Pangnirtung, we fight back tears. It is bittersweet after months of preparation and weeks of travel to reach our final goal. But I know I will be back as soon as I’m able, traveling the wilds of Baffin Island and continuing to learn both from the land and the people here in this stunningly beautiful and critically important “land that never melts.”
North of Sixty° expedition team members: Aaron Doering (expedition lead), Chris Ripken, Jeni Henrickson, Brad Hosack, and Matthew Whalen (photographer)
With a passion for the Arctic, the environment, and education, Aaron Doering has more than a decade and thousands of miles of experience dogsledding and skiing the circumpolar Arctic while educating students around the world online. Since 2004 he has completed three-week to six-month-long Arctic expeditions at least annually, including in Canada, Russia, Alaska, Fennoscandia, and Greenland. An associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Doering is a laureate of the prestigious humanitarian Tech Awards, and a fellow for the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment. He also holds the Bonnie Westby Huebner Endowed Chair in Education and Technology, and is co-director of the Learning Technologies Media Lab. A published author and frequently sought-after speaker worldwide, Doering is an adventure learning pioneer who has engaged, motivated, and inspired students, teachers, and the general public around the globe through his adventures, online projects, writing, and recent TED talk.