Kayaking the North Coast of Baffin Island

I have biked across the continent and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. Both of these trips were the fulfillment of long-held dreams, but there was nothing unique about either ─ many others have done them. One trip that I conceived, organized and led had never been attempted before, and to my knowledge has not been repeated. It was a 280-mile kayak trip in 1975 along the northern coast of Baffin Island, the largest and eastern-most of the islands in the archipelago that lies north of the Canadian mainland.

Baffin Island is huge, two-and-a-half times the size of Great Britain. The only larger island in the northern hemisphere is Greenland, which lies to the east across the frigid waters of Baffin Bay. Baffin Island straddles the Arctic Circle, extending 450 miles north of it. The northern-most part of the island consists of two great peninsulas, each of which is a high level plateau fronting on the sea with precipitous cliffs. Bylot Island, a mountainous island with an area about the same as that of the state of Rhode Island, occupies a large embayment in the northeast corner of Baffin Island. The eastern coast of Baffin Island consists of high mountains dissected by steep­-walled, branching fjords. The mountains of the east coast and of Bylot Island, as well to a lesser extent as the northern peninsulas, are covered with snowfields that feed glaciers terminating at or close to the shore.

The entire island is treeless, but the tundra is surprisingly rich in plant life — lichens, mosses, sedges, grasses, flowering plants and ground willow. Relatively few species of land animal live in the area — caribou, polar bear, arctic wolf, arctic fox, snowshoe hare and lemming — but the life of the sea is extraordinarily rich — whales, seals, walrus, fish and plankton. It is also one of the great breeding grounds of migrating birds — eider ducks, snow geese, fulmars, murres, guillemots and arctic terns (which migrate from the Antarctic) to name just a few. Because of the abundance of life in the area, it has always supported a relatively large Inuit population.

The kayak trip began in Admiralty Inlet on the western shore of the Borden Peninsula. We paddled around the Peninsula into Eclipse Sound, a body of water about the size of Long Island Sound, and ended the trip at Pond Inlet, the eastern outlet to the Sound. The timing was dictated by the expected break-up of the sea ice in the area. This normally occurs in mid-July, after over two months of 24-hour daylight and the warmest weather of the Arctic year. To be sure of open water, I scheduled our start in early August, by which time the weather had begun to cool. Particularly after break-up, atmospheric conditions create a substantial, mostly low-lying cloud cover over the maritime Arctic, and this keeps the long hours of sunlight from warming the surface. Temperatures during our three weeks in the area were generally in the low 40’s.

The group as we headed north consisted of four New Englanders. In addition to myself, we were Ben Bowditch and Phil Preston, both schoolteachers, and Dave Spencer, an engineer. Laurie Dexter, a Scot and the Anglican missionary at Pond Inlet, joined us on 18 hours’ notice. Unknown to us, he had been planning to make a similar trip, but his plans were thwarted when, two days before we arrived, his prospective companion had canceled. We were put in touch with each other after our arrival in the Arctic by the air service that flew us to and from Baffin Island. Laurie was familiar with local conditions, knew the local Inuit and the location of their hunting camps, spoke their language and, importantly, was ready to go. Through him we made contact with the Inuit, which added a significant dimension to the trip.

Our put-in place was Arctic Bay, an Inuit settlement (pop. 292) off Admiralty Inlet. We flew there in a Twin Otter from Resolute on Cornwallis Island to the northwest, which we had reached by commercial jet. Our flight landed at Arctic Bay on a dirt airstrip bulldozed out of the tundra that, as we later learned, was shut down by the Canadian government two days after our arrival on the ground that it was “substandard”.

The settlement is located at the head of a harbor on the north shore of a fjord which extends east from Admiralty Inlet. At the time of our arrival, the harbor was jammed with ice which had been blown in just two days earlier by a strong west wind. We had begun to wonder whether we could make it through the ice to open water when an offshore breeze developed. The ice moved away from the shore, a double blessing for it not only cleared a passage for us but gave us a lesson by demonstrating the ease with which drift ice could be moved by wind.

We got underway at 6:00 in the evening. At this season there was, of course, no need to worry about darkness. Once outside of the harbor, we paddled west along the first of many high cliffs that line Admiralty Inlet. These cliffs, which rise 1,000 feet from the sea, are rookeries for fulmars and glaucous gulls, and their calls echoed off the rock. We camped at about 11:00 pm, and at 12:30 am the sun still shone, casting long shadows from the low ridge behind our campsite but illuminating the cliffs south of us, across the fjord. This was our first and only campsite without a ready source of fresh water, but we were able to get fresh water by melting the sea ice. During the long cold winters, the salt in the ice concentrates in brine pockets which then melt the ice below them, eventually returning the salt to the sea.

The next few days we paddled north in Admiralty Inlet along a coast lined with scattered floes of drift ice grounded offshore. Since the floes melt most rapidly in the vicinity of the surface of the water, the tops of the grounded floes are the last to melt; at low tide they looked like a forest of great white mushrooms. And the Inlet was framed in by magnificent cliffs. They rose here to heights of up to 2,000 feet and were often highly stratified, with the rock displaying many colors, ranging from yellows to reds and purples. Streams dropped over these cliffs, forming breath-takingly beautiful waterfalls. With the sun always relatively close to the horizon, the quality of light in clear weather was almost always like twilight on a clear winter day, and in the late evening hours the red sun occasionally caused the rock almost to glow with a golden tone.

To the north of Admiralty Inlet and the Borden Peninsula lies Lancaster Sound, a part of Parry Channel, a watercourse that extends through the archipelago from Baffin Bay on the east all the way to the Arctic Ocean to the west. Lancaster Sound is part of the fabled Northwest Passage, although the usual route goes south to the west of Baffin Island because as one goes west in Parry Channel, one is increasingly likely to encounter ice. Our flight to Arctic Bay had taken us over about 120 miles of the Channel, and it was jammed with ice almost as far east as Baffin Island.

As we approached the Sound, there was more ice and, as we were now in more open water, there was a slight swell which kept the ice against the coast in constant motion. This made the shore frequently inaccessible except at stream deltas where the outwash kept a channel open through which we could reach the beach. The deltas of larger streams had shallow harbors, quite adequate for our kayaks as long as the tide was not too low, and there were gravel bars off the deltas on which ice floes grounded to form breakwaters which dampened the swell. These were extremely welcome on two occasions when we found ourselves on the water in rough, windy conditions.

As we approached the Sound, we also began to encounter icebergs, huge pieces of ice produced or “calved” (a wonderfully graphic usage) by glaciers. Icebergs are much thicker than the sea ice that we had been encountering. Most icebergs in the Canadian Arctic originate in the glaciers of Greenland. They are then carried by ocean currents counter-clockwise around Baffin Bay, thus reaching the vicinity of Lancaster Sound. The glaciers of Baffin and Bylot Islands are small by comparison to Greenland’s and produce few icebergs of significant size. We encountered large icebergs aground, often well offshore, and these provided handy spots to rest when paddling against a headwind. However, an iceberg can be dangerous to a small boat as the gradual melting process can cause it to crack and break or, if it is afloat, to capsize.

The morning after our coldest weather of the trip, which brought with it a snowstorm, a strong onshore wind in Lancaster Sound drove a great mass of ice onto the shore. For a time we were able to paddle around the loose floes, occasionally pushing one aside to make a passage for ourselves into open water. But as the day wore on the ice became more tightly packed, and we were finally unable to proceed. We went ashore and climbed the hills behind the coast to have a better look. Offshore we could see a huge band of drift ice being slowly blown toward shore. It appeared that the ice we had seen in Parry Channel on our flight to Arctic Bay was being driven onto the coast where we had stopped. We became concerned that we might be trapped on shore by the ice. Ironically, as it turned out it was the ice itself that permitted us to continue. As the band of ice advanced on the coast it acted as a lee shore which kept the sea from building up to the extent that it had when the ice was farther away. When the sea had calmed down sufficiently, we got underway.

It was in the course of that day’s paddling that we saw our first polar bear. We were about a quarter of a mile off a stream delta lined with large floes when we spotted the bear, rearing up on his hind legs to see us over the ice. Thereafter we saw bears daily for about a week. Potentially the most dangerous encounter took place on a point of land to which we had hiked after a stop for lunch; as we returned we noticed a mother bear and two cubs behind us. How close had we come to them? And how close would we have had to have come before the mother bear felt her cubs threatened?

Another polar bear encounter occurred early one morning while we were camped in a stream valley on Lancaster Sound. I awoke to the shout “polar bear” outside my tent. By the time I was able to rouse myself from sleep and look outside, Ben and Laurie were dashing with rifles toward Dave, who had gone up the valley to relieve himself. He had not seen an 8-foot bear heading slowly but determinedly down the valley in his direction. Soon the three of them were retreating back toward the camp. Or rather I should say the four of them, since the bear was coming right on behind them. We fired a single bullet over the bear’s head when he got to within about 45 yards of us, and this sent him scampering across the treeless landscape. He looked back at us frequently (as if to say that he had intended us no harm) but kept on going until he was lost to sight behind a large bluff that framed in the valley.

We were out of our tents, and we had breakfast as quickly as possible. It was cold — about 40° — and the only sure way to warm up was to build up body heat by paddling. We paddled until lunch against a light headwind but with a favorable current and stopped at a picturesque little canyon. About a quarter of a mile away were two stone bridges cut by the sea into the low cliffs of a prominent cape. The early morning clouds had dissipated, we were out of the wind and the air felt warmer than the 50° that the thermometer now showed. After a leisurely lunch, we armed ourselves with binoculars, cameras and guns and went for a hike out to the cape.

The tundra in this north-facing stretch of coast was relatively barren, with individual plants widely spaced amid frost boils, gravel patches and bog. But almost every plant was in bloom, and thus there were flowers everywhere, particularly the ubiquitous Arctic Poppy which looks like an oversized Buttercup. The cape, a low plateau, afforded views over the sea through an arc of 270°. And the air was crystal clear. To the west was the low, hilly coast along which we had been paddling. To the north, 45 miles across Lancaster Sound, were the impressive cliffs and ice fields of Devon Island. Northeast of us lay Baffin Bay, unbroken for 250 miles to Greenland except by icebergs — many icebergs. Trying to count them would have been like trying to count the stars on a clear night. To the east we had our first view of Bylot Island, incredibly beautiful, covered by jagged peaks, snowfields and glaciers. To the south was Navy Board Inlet, a fjord-like passage between the Borden Peninsula and Bylot Island down which we would now paddle. This cape marked a significant turning point in the trip, for we now began to move south.

We camped that night at a very wide stream delta. It was a difficult landing because, while there was no ice, there was surf and, with the low tide, no harbor. The stream paralleled the beach of the delta and we pitched our tents at the end of the narrow gravel peninsula formed by the stream and the sea. It was an exposed campsite but it had been, and still was, a beautiful day. By morning, however, the weather had closed in and a northeast gale was blowing. Apart from icebergs, there was nothing between us and Greenland, and the surf began to build. The storm continued for 24 hours, and the onshore wind caused each high tide to be higher than the one before it. The second night we moved to the higher, but only slightly more protected, ground across the stream. By midnight the little peninsula on which we had camped the night before was under water. The storm abated rather abruptly the next morning, but the breakers on the beach continued to pound in. When we felt the sea was calm enough, we had an exciting launch off the beach through the surf.

We crossed Navy Board Inlet and spent two nights on Bylot Island. The contrast between our two campsites could not have been more complete. We camped first on Tay Bay, a beautiful harbor set amid the mountains and glaciers of Bylot Island; the vegetation here was amazingly lush, particularly after the sparseness of the south shore of Lancaster Sound. A day’s paddling along the Bylot Island coast brought us to Canada Point, the driest and most barren place we visited; the appearance was of a desert, all sun bleached gravel with little vegetation. Perhaps the dryness was attributable to the presence across the Inlet of a large snowfield, spread over a 3,000 foot plateau and feeding a series of glaciers which curved steeply down to the sea.

Beginning at Canada Point we began to see people. This land is remote, vast and wild, but it is peopled. In the early evening of our night at Canada Point, we were surprised to see a boat heading for us. The boat belonged to the Game Management officer at Pond inlet, and he had aboard with him three Inuit hunters who were looking for walrus. (Although it may be commonplace in the Arctic, I found it odd that a Game Management officer was taking hunters out hunting.) Following the custom of the region, when they saw our camp they came ashore to visit, exchange news and have some tea. We learned from them the location of several camps on the west shore of Navy Board Inlet and Eclipse Sound.

The next day we re-crossed the Inlet to Baffin Island and visited two of these camps. The first belonged to three Inuit who were hunting narwhal, the small tusked whales that live in these waters. But our visit, later in the day, to the site of an archaeological dig was particularly eventful. We toured the dig, of course, which was in the charge of Laurie’s Roman Catholic counterpart at Pond Inlet. We examined ancient Inuit homes with stone foundations (one carbon-dated to 200 B.C.) in which had been found many interesting and well-preserved wooden artifacts. Excavation in the Arctic is a slow process owing to the permafrost which permits only a narrow, unfrozen layer of earth to be removed each day. The archeologist must then wait for the frozen ground beneath it to thaw. The houses belonged to the Thule and Dorset Inuit cultures which relied on catching whales and lived less nomadic lives.

As it happened, the Inuit we had visited earlier had brought to shore at this same site a narwhal they had killed, and they stopped by in the evening to butcher and cache its meat. We watched the show. For dinner we had filet of polar bear, taken from the carcass of a bear the archaeologists had been forced to shoot two days earlier. The day ended at about midnight when the walrus hunters aboard the Game Management boat, having found no walrus, stopped by for a visit. Time seemed almost irrelevant.

We visited two more camps farther south. These were larger camps, with several Inuit families — men, women and children — at each. Formerly the Inuit lived in such camps all year round, but now they live in settlements most of the year, spending only the summer months at such remote camps. At the first of these camps we visited, we had the unique experience of finding the Inuit photographing us as we came in to the beach. It was we who were the curiosities here. The camps were filled with activity, women carrying babies on their backs in traditional parkas, children playing, men repairing boats, fish drying on racks and sealskins stretched to dry.

Laurie and I visited the tent of an Inuit family who were trying to preserve some of the traditional Inuit ways. Their tent was laid out like the ancient Inuit houses we had seen earlier, with a sleeping platform at the rear spread with caribou skins and in which a child was sleeping. There was a seal-oil lamp in the tent, and it was lit in our honor. We spent almost an hour talking about hunting, the habits of Arctic animals and Inuit ways. We stood while our host and hostess sat on the sleeping platform, in accordance with Inuit custom. These Inuit, in common with most that we met, impressed us as warm, friendly people, who had ready smiles and whose conversation was frequently punctuated with laughter. Laurie told me later than he knew whites who had spent years in the Arctic and had never had such a visit.

After leaving the Inuit camps we paddled along the southern shore of Eclipse Sound. This is an area of high relief, numerous islands and deep fjords. We were ahead of schedule now. We took more time during stops or completed our day’s run before lunch so that we would be able to hike in the surrounding hills. There were no polar bears on this region, and we were able to take hikes alone, exploring what interested each of us — birds, geology, flora or whatever. And the scenery here was particularly impressive. We had explored the country behind our campsites earlier in the trip, but we were always very conscious of the need to get far enough along so that a spell of bad weather would not keep us from reaching Pond Inlet in time for our flight out. An average of 15 miles per day would have done this and we regularly logged more than that, making as much as 25 miles in one day. Now we paddled only 10 miles or so each day.

It was while we were on the water that we had the most contact with wildlife. Seals are extraordinarily curious animals, and we were constantly looking around to see a seal’s head just out of the water, peering at us. A small pod of narwhal raced past us in Admiralty Inlet. But it was the birds that always kept us company on the water. The dominant species varied as we moved along. In the vicinity of Arctic Bay fulmars were everywhere, and they had the habit of gliding quite close to us. In Eclipse Sound we witnessed a jaeger force a kittiwake to disgorge the contents of its stomach, which it did not do without much protest. Perhaps the most inspiring sight was of molting snow geese. For a few weeks these beautiful white geese are unable to fly, and they move across the tundra in huge herds, a great wave of white over the green and brown of the barren hills.

The final leg of the trip was along the eastern coast of Eclipse Sound. This is a low coast and relatively uninteresting. We pushed again and arrived in Pond Inlet (pop. 449) three days ahead of schedule. We had four nights there, enough to get a good feel for life in an Inuit settlement. It clearly had many of the benefits of modern society — a beautiful school (with showers we had the great pleasure of using), churches (the settlement is overwhelmingly Anglican), stores (a Hudson’s Bay Company store and a competing Inuit cooperative), a tiny hotel (with no guests while we were there), telephone communication with the outside via satellite, an airstrip (with very irregular flights), petroleum storage facilities and a nursing station. But something about the Inuit I had sensed in the camps — and liked — something akin to the sense of freedom and space that is part of the Arctic, was missing in the settlement.

“Since you told me of all those people living on one small island I have not slept well at night. I awaken thinking about the men and women and children all crammed into such a small space, pushing and shoving, fighting for air to breathe. I see people stacked up one atop the other and I become one of them striving to climb upward to reach open air. I awake in a sweat, light a cigarette, and for a long time I cannot sleep. I lie there thinking of what life must be like for all those poor people in New York.... How people in your land can live day after day, month after month, year after year in the same house and not go off to hunt I do not know. I could not do it. I would like to see your land, but I could never live there. For I like the sky over my head and the feel of the snow-covered ice beneath my feet. I like to look about and feel myself free.” The reaction of an Inuit from the Pond Inlet area to learning the number of people who live on Manhattan Island, as quoted in Wilkinson, Land of the Long Day (Toronto, 1955).