It was arctic cold, everyone had a great time
Deserted on an uninhabited island in the high arctic
Article by Justine Gosling
It wasn’t a regular inflight experience for me on the flight to Pond Inlet with Canadian arctic airline First Air. There was no inflight entertainment system, but one wasn’t needed. The seats next to me were occupied by a musher and his affectionate husky puppy who liked to chew my finger and rolled around in his bag adorably. Announcements were prolonged and in the 3 languages of Canada, English, French and Inuktitut. Peering out of the window to the water below I could see icebergs were that were so big they were easily spotted even from the planes cruising altitude, the views were far more captivating than any rom com I’d usually entertain myself watching. First seen by Europeans in 1616 and named after polar explorer Robert Bylot, Bylot island sits deep inside the arctic circle on the 73rd northern parallel. With a surface area of 4,273 square miles, it’s one of the largest uninhabited islands in the world. Except for the 2 weeks we were hiking there.
It was a bumpy half hour journey by boat across the Eclipse Sound from the Inuit hamlet of Pond Inlet to our island. Watched by a couple of inquisitive seals, 8 of us plus 2 guides rolled up our trousers and waded through the ice filled water to reach the beach and threw our backpacks onto the sand. The boat departed and we thought we were totally alone, however we hadn’t walked 100 meters before spotting the first of many polar bear foot prints. Larger than the size of my head, this was a reminder that we were never really alone and to remain vigilant for the predator. Despite it being late in the evening, our latitude meant that it was still light and this banished any tiredness I may have felt as we clambered 2km inland to set up our first camp on a grassy plateau.
Our first morning we woke early to cloudy skies, packed up camp and returned to explore the beach. It was a fascinatingly morbid place. Beached icebergs as large as cars and others as small as diamonds littered the shoreline, slowly melting into the sand, the last signs of winter disappearing as it was just about to begin again. That first day we stayed on the beach, losing track of time, distracted by our findings half buried in the sand. Gristly artefacts found just above the tideline told the story of a population still strongly connected to its history and natural surrounds. The ground was covered in sun bleached white bones belonging to the narwhals, birds and seals that simply lay where they were discarded by the Inuit hunters. Curiously I scoured the site, trying to identify bone parts and match them with an animal. We discovered whale vertebrae bones the size of car tyres and there was much debate among the group about how old the bones were.
From day 2 our hike turned northwards and inland up an unnamed river valley. Much of the coastal areas in northern Canada were mapped by explorers searching for the fabled North West Passage. The seamen didn’t bother heading inland beyond the beaches and the island is little visited other than by a handful of Inuit every year, hence the lack of names for most of the geographical locations. We set up our third camp on the raised rocky edge of the dried river bed with the Hoodoos in view on the opposite side.
Most mornings as everyone eventually emerged from their tents a huddle of trekkers formed around the stoves and breakfast chef like penguins. Our days began slowly with multiple cups of coffee and tea as the international group, strangers just a few days ago, learnt more about each others lives with each cup. We usually enjoyed a long leisurely breakfast of meals such as egg frittata and bacon, apple porridge or delicious blueberry pancakes, all carried in our back packs in powered form and rehydrated.
At the beginning of the third day we endured yet another icy river crossing to reach the hoodoos across the valley from our camp. They may not be cool, but my croc rubber sandals were my prized piece of kit on the trip. They’re cheap, super light weight, dry instantly and protected my toes from scrapes whilst wading through the water. I also proudly wore them around camp with not one but two pairs of socks to keep my feet toasty, happy to relive my feet of my hiking boots at the end of each day.
The previous evening a keen bird spotter among the group identified a pair of peregrine falcons and their nest in one of the hoodoo’s tallest spires. Often referred to as a “fairy chimney” a hoodoo is a tall, thin spire of rock that grows from the bottom of an arid basin, it’s haphazard layers and shape defying the usual rules of gravity. Their unbalanced appearance is the result of erosion on alternating hard and softer rock layers, creating perfect nooks for a nest to raise 3 fat, fluffy white falcon chicks seen only through binoculars. It was not far from their nest that someone discovered more polar bear foot prints in the sand below one of the chimneys. This was a surprise and concerning discovery as polar bears don’t usually come in land around this time of year. Being so large and heavy it’s simply too much effort for the bears to walk up hill in land, nor do they have any reason to do so except curiosity. The prints were roughly the size of a football from a medium sized bear. So fresh, the inch long, liner diverts scraped by the bears 5 paw nails were still sharply marked in the sand.
Heading further inland, as a team we decided to spend a couple of nights at each camp so as to enjoy steeper hikes and longer days at higher elevations. It was an easy trek to a couple of neighbouring 700m peaks, hitting a few small patches of snow on the way. From the top, low cloud hid the summits of the taller mountains in front of us and their glaciers freely flowed around them giving the impression that they were much smaller than their true elevations drawn on the map. We chose not the easiest route back towards camp that took us alongside one of the glaciers to get a better view of the humongous hulk of ice. The scramble traversed a steep incline as we cautiously descended through the loose moraine. All but 2 of the glaciers on the island terminate on land. There are no paths or tracks to follow on the island, we had a map and made our own. Throughout the 11 day hike we trundled in and out of Sirmilik national park. Sirmilik means “Land of the Glaciers” in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit.
As our journey continued east we traversed the moss covered polar tundra over a few days to reach the next big valley with multiple river crossings, including one who’s river bank had collapsed within the last 24hours exposing a huge slab of permafrost. For these few days we were hiking on the tundra, slogging it out across the boot stealing bog in what felt like a comically lame military yomp, the ground saturated due to the snow melt above and the permafrost below.
Despite the lack of sunshine and reliably constant chilly daytime temperatures between 3-8 degrees the group kept good humour, ‘accidentally’ leaving behind food bags for others to carry and being overly generous with snacks, encouraging each other to eat to relieve themselves of backpack weight. Hiking became easier with each passing day as we ate through the contents of our back packs reducing its weight. I’d estimate my starting pack weight to be about 35kg. We’d hike approximately 10-14km on undulating ground per day, making camp around 5pm. Bed time always came early after a hearty carb heavy meal of bolognese pasta or Thai rice.
It wasn’t overcast for the whole trip, we basked in 3 hours of sunshine upon reaching our last camp on the grassy edge of the river valley to the Sirmilik glacier. This was my favourite camp. The glacier was a dirty grey colour, covered in moraine rocks since it’s winter white-snow coat had melted. It separated us from the pyramidal peaks on the other side of the valley facing the sun. Further inland and higher up the glacier it spilt off in multiple directions, flowing around 4, probably never climbed, sharp peaks before joining again as one big powerful slab of ice that was forcing its way down towards the beach.
On our penultimate day we hiked alongside the river valley to explore the glacier which shares the name of the national park. Light drizzle fell from the low clouds and the temperature dropped. For the first time on the trip I kept my down jacket on beneath my rain jacket to keep out the chill.
As we took down camp for the last time, I noticed the fresh snowfall that had fallen overnight in the mountains surrounding us, despite it only being mid August. It was clearly time to leave. Back on the beach where we had been dropped off 11 days ago we waited for our boat pick up. All the ice in the water had gone but the seals were still there keeping an eye on their rare visitors, occasionally we’d spot their glossy coal coloured heads pop out the water only to quickly disappear again as soon as they were spotted, such was the game it seemed. The boat ride back to Pond Inlet was much smoother on our return and the mist meant Bylot island was soon out of sight not long after we set off and once again the island was completely uninhabited.
Fly with Canadian Air London from Heathrow to Ottawa – £700, 7 1/2 hours
Fly with First Air Ottawa to Pond Inlet, connecting in Iqaluit – £2,400 (I know, it’s extortionate!) 4 1/2 hours total flying with both flights, not including connection wait
Trip with Black feather: https://blackfeather.com
Ideal month – July /August