Updated: Mar 31
Nowhere to hide in the stark landscape, the sun came up over the horizon, shedding light on Prince Edward Sound, as the winds relentlessly gusted and the cold cut through my Arctic clothing like a knife. There was nowhere to hide in the stark landscape. It was the coldest weather I have ever experienced, about – 60 with the wind. Well above the Arctic Circle and as far north as Point Barrow at the northern most point of Alaska, my brother and I had to stop our snowmobiles and strip off our parkas to layer more sweaters underneath. The sweat we had built up after auguring through 7 foot thick ice was becoming life threatening. This was Day Seventeen of an epic snowmobile expedition. We had already made our way across massive Great Bear Lake, past the Arctic Circle and the tree line. This was no man’s land now, and we were living at the whim of Mother Nature’s most ferocious conditions. We pushed on despite the cold, headed for the Inuit community of Ulukhaktok to meet up with our friend Pat Ekpakohak. The conditions were tough, but we endured nothing in comparison to what Pat dealt with in the same area seventeen years earlier.
I knew I wanted to head to the Arctic to undertake one of the most extreme snowmobile expeditions I could find, as well as to learn about Arctic travel and survival from some of the last true woodsman and landsman in the north along the way. The Arctic holds a certain romance; it is a region steeped in natural and human history, bound in the tradition of hearty Inuit, daring explorers, traders and Vikings. The draw of the true frontier can be powerful for the adventurous at heart. The Arctic remains a place where men can disappear without a trace. Travellers must be self-sufficient. The risk is great, the region unforgiving. My research for this snowmobile expedition told me that I had found the right place, and the right route. And so in early March of 2011, I decided to tackle the Arctic head on.
Transport truck on the Mackenzie River ice rd. near Tulita NWT
Our adventure began in Tulita (formerly Ft. Norman) Northwest Territories. Our Polaris 600 wide track snowmobiles were couriered there by truck from Yellowknife by Brian Borowitz, a hard-core winter road hot-shot it was a thirty-hour round trip for Brian on the dangerous winter road. We were already well off the beaten path in Tulita, an old Hudson’s Bay Company trading post on the Mackenzie River. From Tulita we planned a three-hour snowmobile ride on the winter road to the Dene native hamlet of Delene (formerly Ft. Franklin), which lies on the south-western shore of Great Bear Lake. Ft. Franklin was named for Sir John Franklin of Arctic lore, an 1850’s explorer whose record of Arctic exploration is significantly more ill fated than mine. However, my brother Ted and I were far better prepared than
“the man who ate his boots”.
Traveling from Tulita to Deline.
The Arctic Circle crosses northeastern Great Bear.
We had snowmobiles, modern compasses, GPS devices, topographic maps and a satellite phone; we even had a satellite Internet device I would be using for blogging. Starting from Deline, we planned to cross the ominous and massive Great Bear, a lake so huge there are spots where no land can be seen for 360 degrees. It is the largest lake entirely within the borders of Canada and the eighth largest lake in the world. At the northeast tip of the water body we would cross the Arctic Circle and then travel overland to the Hamlet of Kugluktuk on the Arctic coast, crossing the tree line on the way. After refuelling in Kugluktuk we would leave the mainland behind us, venturing onto the sea ice and into the Arctic Archipelago, completing our trip in the hamlet of Ulukhaktok, on western Victoria Island. This is where we would reunite with Pat Ekpakohak and his wife Jean. We had met them a couple years earlier at the end of a long canoe expedition, and Pat was the one who spawned my excitement to travel the Arctic wilderness by snowmobile. In the planning stages of the trip, Pat helped us with our route from Kugluktuk to Ulukhaktok, but as the March weather warmed and our trip was delayed, we almost found ourselves in the same treacherous predicament Pat was in seventeen years prior.
Deline, Northweat Territories
We spent a couple days in Deline, where we made sure our machines were in good condition and talked about our trip with our buddy Leeroy, who had traveled part of our route before. I was nervous; I had never done a trip like this before. I had a lot of northern expedition experience but that was in the summer time. I had a lot of winter camping experience but that had been in areas much farther south, in my home province of Ontario. Luckily, both my brother and I had a lot of experience traveling on frozen lakes and reading ice conditions, but now we were in the Arctic, where blizzards can shred your tent in seconds, polar bears loom, leads in sea ice can open right in front of you, and the ice you are traveling on can break, separating you from land and sending you drifting towards Siberia on an ice pan.
Ice cave on Great Bear.
To make matters worse, I had a fairly small understanding of engines and little experience with snowmobiles in general. With potential disaster scenarios flashing through my mind, I took a deep breath and reminded myself that this wasn’t my first time at the rodeo. And yet even though I was confident in my skills and knew I could do it, I also knew there is always a risk on these types of excursions, no matter how skilled you are.
Pressure ridges can stretch on for miles.
With a mixture of confidence and apprehension, our machines roared out from Deline and onto the Bear, all our gear and fuel towed in large toboggans. Out on massive Bear, the wind creates hard packed drifts like moguls on a ski slope. We had to ride across these for hours on end every day. Our travel on the lake started well but we were a little concerned about running into pressure ridges, which we had been warned about in Deline. Because of Great Bear’s northern latitude, the entire water body freezes about four feet thick, and ice remains on the lake for eight months of the year. Expanding and contracting of the ice creates huge pressure ridges that shoot directly up out of the ice, easily rising to twenty feet or more in some places. The hard water fault lines are serpentine along their course and they stretch on for miles. The ridges can be dangerous, it can be very tough to find a place to cross, and ice conditions around them are often unstable. Ted and I ran into our first pressure ridge right in the middle of a huge crossing on Day Two. We followed the ridge for five miles and, with an axe and a dry spruce pole, checked every place that looked safe to cross. The noise the spruce pole made when we drove it into the ice told us whether it was safe or not. With the axe, we could chop into the ice as deeply as needed to get a firm read on its stability. We finally got across but we were still in the middle of the lake.
A canvas tent with a heat source can mean the difference between life and death.
On Day Four, Ted and I stood side by side while checking the ice conditions at another pressure ridge. A weak chop with the axe sent water back up the hole. I stuck the spruce pole in the hole to see how far down the second layer was. I was thinking maybe six inches, or a foot. But surprise—there was no second layer. When Ted saw the spruce pole go down five feet or more, he wisely started shuffling his feet on the ice, quickly backing up and saying, “Get out of here, get out of here” with disguised panic. The ice was just an inch thick, the minimum to support a person. The weather remained relatively warm as we augured through the ice in search of take trout.
Rugged shield country on eastern Bear.
The lake is a world-renowned fishery but we had somewhat dismal fishing results; it took us a few hours, three different spots, and a lot of work augering to hook into these fish. We had been told earlier in Deline that the bite was off this year, but no one knew why. I had planned to take rest stops for fishing as we traveled but in the end our schedule would not allow for as much as I hoped for. Each time you want to fish, the auger needs to be painstakingly unpacked and then packed away again. An improper packing job will result in the auger and gear becoming damaged. Holes through the hard and thick ice need to be drilled to drop a line, and tackle needs to be broken out. It is very time consuming. Never-the-less, we did catch a couple ten-pounders that day.
The author with a Great Bear lake trout.
That evening, as darkness set in, a nasty storm was brewing to the east. We had a tip off that there were some cabins in the area, but we wanted to reach shelter as quickly as possible. Thinking we had missed the cabins, we headed for a sheltered bay, but as we rounded an island, there they were. It was a beautiful sight; we got a roaring fire going in the stove, fried up some bannock and trout, and we were toasty warm as storm winds whistled past the windows.
Lake trout fries on a wood stove in a small cabin on Great Bear Lake
On Day Five we rode into Hornby Bay, which lies in the northeastern corner of Great Bear’s McTavish Arm and is dissected by the Arctic Circle. This is where we would leave the Bear behind us and push for the Arctic coast. The bay was named after John Hornby, a white man who lived with the natives of the area. Hornby became famous for starving to death in 1927 along the Northwest Territories’ Thelon River, a fate Ted and I fortunately avoided when we were given a caribou leg by Gerry.
Gerry with a gift of caribou meat.
Gerry and a few other men from Kugluktuk were in Hornby Bay teaching high school kids traditional skills. We were as surprised to see them as they were to see us. We broke out our maps and showed them the route we planned to take to Ulukhaktok from Kugluktuk. Isaac, who spent most of his life living on the north shore of Prince Albert Sound, took one look at our route and announced it would not work, as the ice was too unstable. Speaking Inuinnaqtun with the other men in the group, Isaac drew a new line of travel on our 1:250,000 topo map, a longer but safer route. Isaac had traveled the route many times, even by dogsled in the old days, in order to trade at the Hudson’s Bay post in Coppermine (presently Kugluktuk). Isaac, like most of his generation, was born and raised on the land. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that the people of the far north started moving into permanent settlements. Thanks to his experience, we knew we were getting good advice—and it may have saved our lives. When we called Pat on our sat phone to ask him about the new route, he wholeheartedly agreed. Pat confirmed that our original route, which crossed the mouth of Prince Albert Sound, had become unsafe in the last week or so. We also learned that Pat had to leave soon; Canadian government scientists wanted him 200 miles to the northeast at a polar bear research station in about five days. This meant the time we would get to spend with Pat would be small, unless we hurried. I learned that time should not dictate your travel in the Arctic—that’s how you run into trouble—but that safety and weather must be the travel guidelines to follow. Start rushing and you will be in danger. However, Ted and I would need to bend this rule a little bit.
Northern lights over Hornby Bay on the Arctic Circle.
Leaving Hornby Bay late in the afternoon after fishing and tightening suspensions, we planned to make it to Dismal Lakes, which are half way to Kugluktuk and the coast. As we rode up the large hill that flanks the northeastern side of Hornby Bay we knew we would be arriving at Dismal well after dark. Soon after the Bear disappeared we crossed the tree line, which was astounding. The timber vanished very quickly and we were transported into a different world; the weather grew far colder, and the horizon disappeared as we rode into a whiteout.
Ted Baird navigates through a white out.
We could barely see the trail left from Gerry and Isaac as we drove slow trying to conserve gas. The dramatic change in the country was a little unnerving. We had left native Dene territory and entered the realm of the Inuit. Continuing into pitch darkness, traveling up and down steep hills as the wind howled, we rode on. Any exposed skin at this point would freeze in minutes. Following the Teshierpi River we caught a break from the wind in a protected canyon.
A small canyon provides protection from the wind en route to Dismal Lakes
When we rolled into Dismal Lakes at 3:00 am, the wind was really blowing and snow was coming in sideways. We rode up to a very small cabin on an island, a light flicked on, and a guy came out to greet us. Thankfully he invited us into the warm cabin where we sipped tea as thick steam poured in through the crack at the bottom of the door. Larry and his son had come from Kugluktuk to hunt wolves, and his son killed his first one that day. We made camp near the cabin and rode back to town with Larry and his son the next day. Rolling into town on quarter tanks was cutting it a little close; our new machines burned more gas than we had anticipated. We had to spend two days in Kugluktuk replacing runners on the bottom of our toboggans—it is amazing how abrasive the snow is—since they were worn to the thickness of a dime.
We worried we were going to miss Pat, not to mention our flight home, if we didn’t head for Ulukhaktok as soon as possible. With our guns slung over our shoulders, we rode down the streets of Kugkluktuk and out onto the sea ice.
Heading out onto the Coronation Gulf.
We passed our first muskoxen herd as we crossed the rough ice of the Coronation Gulf. That evening, we encountered what I later learned was an old D.E.W. Line sight (Distant Early Warning Line). It consisted of an airfield, a huge warehouse, geodesic domes, and airplane hangars. It was built at an incredible expense during the Cold War to protect against a Russian attack over the Pole. The large warehouse was open, and it was pitch black inside. Ted and I slept in the warehouse on the cold concrete floor, surrounded with old chemical drums, expired aviation fuel, instant heat meals, and a diesel generator. It was the most miserable night of the trip. The place looked like something straight out of a James Bond movie.
DEW Line site at Lady Franklin Point.
After sawing and frying frozen caribou for breakfast, we left the eerie Cold War base behind and rode up the western coast of Victoria Island to Rymer Point, where we were greeted by another herd of muskoxen.