“We’re going to bring ‘er in even if we have to do a barrel roll, so hang on,” our bush pilot calmly announced as he bucked buffeting winds and dropped our Twin Otter plane towards a bumpy, grass-covered runway.
My intrepid hiking buddy Philip Kibler and I had just flown four hours from the remote Inuit community of Resolute to Lake Hazen on Ellesmere Island, NU for a two-week hike at the top of the globe in Quttinirpaaq, the world’s northernmost national park. Fewer than 100 adventurous souls annually hike into this out-there Nunavut wilderness during the brief summer season between late May and late August. Most come on guided trips through an experienced outfitter, but we were up here on our own; we had the surreal honour of being the only two people trekking through the 37,775 sq km (14,585 sq mi) of Canada’s second-biggest national park. When you’re standing amid glaciers and icecaps 900-m (2,953-ft) deep oozing over jagged peaks, the diminishing drone of your plane’s engine sends a fleeting tremor through you. Suddenly it’s clear that you’re truly alone. And in the middle of nowhere.
Setting off in 20 degrees C (68 degrees F) sunshine through fields of yellow Arctic poppies and pink wildflowers buzzing with bumblebees and butterflies, it was hard to believe we were just 720 km (447 mi) from the North Pole. Quttinirpaaq is a polar desert drier than the Sahara and relatively warm, due to a bowl-like cradle of mountains and 24 hours of sunshine from April through August. But the weather can be dangerously fickle, and by the following morning, a staccato of ice pellets were pinging off a tent we wouldn’t leave for the day during a not-uncommon July 15th blizzard.
Our destination was 135 km (84 mi) west: the Tanquary Fiord Warden Station. As we hiked, the terrain alternated between gravel and sand dunes to hillsides littered with shattered green and red shale. Sometimes we were accompanied by our own entourage of big, hairy mosquitoes. At other times, we laboured across deep, spongy tundra, teetering step after step atop cauliflower-sized grassy hummocks. There were countless glacial rivers to ford, some thigh-deep and carrying ice chunks that bruised our shins. That’s when a reward of a cup of hot chocolate was outback bliss.
In the absence of human predators, Quttinirpaaq’s critters were astonishingly tame. It felt magical, as if we’d stumbled into some Arctic Eden. A shaggy white female Arctic wolf trailed us for an entire afternoon. She stayed about 30 m (98 ft) away and watched us with curiousity. When we stopped, she pretended to snooze among the rocks as if she hadn’t noticed us. A long-tailed jaeger hovered at eye level in front of Philip to keep him from stepping on her eggs. A baby caribou in search of his mother came within arm’s length. We saw troupes of Arctic hares the size of large cats running on their hind legs as they do only in the High Arctic. Sometimes they are so abundant on Ellesmere, they travel in packs of thousands.
One morning, I startled a family of Ptarmigan, “Arctic grouse,” that were so well-camouflaged their chicks looked like rocks with legs. We encountered Arctic foxes and had a rare glimpse of endangered Peary caribou, tiny creatures—the bulls weigh only 70 kg (154 lbs)—that look as though they should be pulling the sleighs of Santa’s elves. Muskox, great shaggy beasts with curled horns (and highly coveted cashmere like downy fur called qiviuk, were a regular sighting, sometimes too close for comfort. One big male sauntered near our tent one day. That he was not amused by our presence was clear from a threatening display of sniffing, stomping, twirling and snorting as we scrambled—hearts in our throats—up a cliff. Finally, after a standoff of several hours, he turned and sprinted off.
The midnight sun traveled in a circle around the sky day and night, oddly disorienting when you’re accustomed to regular stints of darkness. Your brain never really wants to go to sleep, and I was glad for the airline eyepatches I had brought to combat the sunshine streaming into the tent at 2 am.
On our 12th day on the trail we dropped back to sea—and mosquito—level and could see the head of Tanquary Fiord, our destination, a day’s walk away. As we set up camp that night, I saw human footprints for the first time in almost two weeks.
The next afternoon, we spotted a cluster of brown Quonset huts and a Canadian flag fluttering over the Tanquary Fiord Warden Station. One of the rangers had strolled out a kilometre to meet us.
“Congratulations,” he said and shook our hands. I heard nothing of the ensuing conversation because I had caught scent of the chicken he had thrown on the barbecue when he had seen us approaching. It was a heavenly aroma after 10 days of freeze-dried food. But then I certainly did hear him say: “Would you two be wanting a shower, by any chance?”