The earth that never melts
In the 1970s, while flying over the future Nunavut with his faithful wife Aline, a young and obsessed Jean Chrétien (Prime Minister of Canada from 1993 to 2003) promised to create a national park in his honor.
“Back at the office, I consulted the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs – which was me –, the Minister of Northern Affairs – which was me – and the Minister in charge of Parks Canada – which was me – and they were all in agreement”, he will recount later. The result: in 1976, the Auyuittuq National Park Reserve was created, before becoming a national park in 2000.
Nowadays, one does not go to Auyuittuq National Park by chance or unexpectedly: the trip must be meticulously planned. You must first reach Baffin Island via Iqaluit, capital of Nunavut; then take a local flight to Pangnirtung (28 km south of the park) or Qikiqtarjuaq (34 km north of the park); and finish it off by water taxi in the summer, or by snowmobile in the winter.
The Akshayuk pass Although the area of the park is more than 19,000 km2, and it is permitted to venture everywhere, the most popular activity remains the hike of the Akshayuk pass, a natural corridor used by the Inuit for generations to connect the Cumberland Bay (Pangnirtung) to Davis Strait (Qikiqtarjuaq). It must be said that the rest of the park is largely covered in ice…
The full “walk” is 60 miles, but most hikers opt for a round trip from the southern portion only, along the Weasel River from Mount Overlord to Summit Lake. It is a spectacular region: traveling it twice, in one direction and in the other, is in no way tiresome and more economical (in terms of sea and air transport) to return to its starting point (Pangnirtung).
Normally, it takes 5 to 6 days for the round trip, but as we wanted to prolong the pleasure, we took advantage of it for a dozen days, sometimes spending two nights in the same place to explore the surrounding mountains without our backpacks, which weighed 40 kg at the start… Next time, I will go in the winter in order to drag all those kilos of food, fuel and equipment in a sled, rather than having them on the back !
An unforgiving climate
As in any mountainous region and, moreover, arctic, the climate can change very quickly in Auyuittuq. This is particularly the case in Akshayuk, a valley bordered on both sides by very steep mountainous terrain, where the (katabatic) winds sometimes make travel hazardous or even impossible.
We were also nailed to our tents for 24 hours by winds which we later learned were around 100 km/h.
But the most threatening danger is crossing mountain streams. Fed by melting glaciers, their flow fluctuates constantly during the day, depending on temperature and sunshine.
There is also the longest vertical wall in the world (1250 m), on the emblematic Thor peak, which culminates at 1675 m.
Auytuittuq is also an idyllic location for cross-country skiing and dog sledding expeditions. However, the winter is so harsh – great darkness and Siberian temperatures – that the park authorities strongly recommend waiting until March and the return of the sun to practice winter activities there.
The Weasel River Bridge
A few days after the end of our adventure, the park experienced a period of several days of rain where the temperature was abnormally high. A flash flood developed to inundate the valley and wash away the pedestrian bridge that crossed the River Weasel. Visitors who were still present were evacuated by helicopter, and the park was closed. The bridge has since been rebuilt, but the event stuck in the minds of locals as confirmation of the seriousness of climate change, and that it is particularly felt in the Arctic. (Photo Patrice Halley)
By Xavier Bonacorsi
Photographer, kinesiologist, builder and disciple of the maxim: “life happens outside”; Xavier writes for various photography, fitness, health and outdoor magazines.
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