To the Ragged Edge of the
(Devon Island 1998)
A shortened version of this article appeared
in the Summer 1999 issue of Canadian Geographic Magazine.
The polar bear we had encountered only minutes
earlier was, to our relief, now ambling away southward as we watched
intently from our rocky outcrop, waiting for the coast to clear.
Just as we began to relax a second bear appeared, approaching us
from the ice-edge along an old set of tracks. With a mixture of
apprehension and awe we observed each pause and turn of the head
as this graceful hunter reached the bottom of our lookout, caught
our scent, and, after a moment's consideration, changed course to
the north. I had to put down the binoculars occasionally to reassure
myself that he was not already close enough to pounce. Meanwhile
John, ever vigilant with the telescope, remarked "It's getting
a bit thick out there. I've just spotted a mother and two cubs!"
North and south to the limits of our view
stretched the land-fast ice, our sledding highway around eastern
Devon Island. The ice-edge, here less than one kilometer from shore,
was sharp against a background of dark water, and the snow glowed
a soft magenta in the low-angled sunlight of that magical arctic
evening. The edge of the ice marks the boundary between our world
and that of the beluga, the narwal, the walrus and the seal. The
white bear crosses back and forth with ease.
Watching those bears was one of the most
memorable experiences of my life. The first bear, a big shaggy fellow
with thick folds of skin, would dive into a lead (an open crack
in the ice) and then emerge with a shake further along. The second
would pause and sniff at the air, presumably for seals, then continue
his unhurried pace - unchallenged master of his environment. Our
one regret was that in our rush to reach higher ground we had neglected
to take a camera.
After an hour we resumed sledding and hauled
a vigorous seven kilometers southward keeping well back from the
ice-edge, finally resting near some blocks at the front of a tidewater
glacier. No sooner had we voiced self-congratulations at having
passed successfully through the concentration of bear activity at
Johnson Point than a sixth bear emerged suddenly from behind an
ice block. He gave us only a brief glance, then disappeared. Exciting
though it was, I frankly wished for not too many more six-bear days.
In the fall of 1997 John Dunn had asked
"Would you like to go on a ski trip to the edge of the world?"
OK, that's not exactly what he said, but well he might have. Devon
Island is the largest uninhabited island in the world (55,247 km2).
Its black talus slopes define the northern shore of Lancaster Sound,
entrance to the famed Northwest Passage. A huge ice-cap, far higher
than any of the surrounding mountains, weighs down the land and
oozes like a perversely white treacle from between the shattered
cliffs to merge with the frozen ocean.
Devon Island was first sighted by Europeans in 1816 when Captain
Robert Bylot and William Baffin explored the large bay that now
bears the latter's name. Since that time history has ebbed and flowed
on these shores of rock and ice. They are uninhabited now, but there
is much evidence of human habitation, albeit not continuous, dating
from the Early Paleo-Eskimo stage of about 4500 years ago to the
Thule Culture whale hunters who began to arrive as early as the
year 1000. Repeatedly on our journey we came across stone rings,
elaborate walls and the remains of semi-underground sod-and-stone
dwellings, all of which hint of times when wildlife distributions
and climate were not as they are today.
The raw uninhabited wildness of Devon Island
is its attraction for two city-dwelling adventurers. Our ski-crossing
from the Franklin memorial at Beechy Island to Sverdrup Inlet in
1992 had taken us through an interior plateau of snow-covered shales
so featureless and devoid of life that we had taken to calling it
the Empty Quarter after the legendary desert of the southeastern
This time our objective was to seek the
edge of the ice. Where sunlight can enter the open water and currents
stir up nutrients from the bottom, conditions are right for an abundance
of ice algae, plankton, tiny squid and fish. This richness attracts
all things higher in the food chain, the sea birds as well as the
seals, walrus, whales, and the polar bears. Therefore the ragged
edge of the arctic world, far from being desolate, is a place of
The ski-wheel equipped Twin Otter dropped
us off in front of the Sverdrup Glacier on the north coast of Devon
Island on the pleasantly sunny evening of May 16, 1998. John and
I had passed this way six years before, but the ghostly breath of
earlier visitors was on the wind. In 1852 Commander Edward Inglefield
sailed here in search of the lost Franklin Expedition. He wrote,
"Rapidly we sped before a freshening gale towards the eastward,
and eagerly did our glasses scan the shore, but it was all in vain,
no trace of anything human could we observe, all was a mass of ice."
Only fifteen kilometers to the NW lay the
bleak and exposed site at Cape Hardy where Dr. Frederic Cook and
his Inuit companions Ahwelah and Etukishook spent the winter of
1908-09. They hunted musk-ox with a lasso and lances, and fended
off polar bears from their 'renovated' pit house, a re-occupied
relic of an age long past. That spring the three men continued north
and crossed to the village of Anoatok in Greenland, thus completing
one of the most amazing journeys in the history of Arctic exploration.
This notwithstanding the fact that Cook's subsequent claim to have
achieved the North Pole during that journey is widely discredited
We skied off in the metaphorical wake of
Bylot, Baffin, Inglefield and others, slowly at first, being neither
in a hurry nor fully acclimatized for the real work that would soon
enough come our way. The very useful reference book called Arctic
Canada from the Air describes Devon Island as a "legless donkey
with its head thrown up to bray". The Devon donkey is headed
west, while we two lesser asses of a different sort skied eastward
toward its hindquarters. So began the 'Legless Donkey World Tour
On the tenth day we stood at Belcher Point,
beside open water for the first time. Eider ducks swam back and
forth, calling occasionally. A set of fresh bear tracks reminded
us to be alert. The smell of the cold salt sea and the stark contrast
of white snow against black water brought back memories of other
arctic journeys, but here the sheer size of the nameless bay and
the slightly hazy prospect of the surrounding glacier-draped mountains
were completely overwhelming.
Devon's NE corner, Cape Caledon, appeared
impassable on skis, so we detoured up a large glacier toward the
ice-cap in order to by-pass the open waters of Lady Ann Strait.
On the second day up the glacier snow began to fall, and it continued
with few breaks for two days, accumulating over 30 cm of new powder.
Whereas before we had ascended the glacier with both hauling each
sled, and therefore making three trips at every stage, we now were
forced to ski ahead and break trail uphill without the sleds and
then return for them one at a time, for a total of five trips over
each stage. At this rate the camps were only four kilometers apart.
We began to deride the notion of this place being a polar desert.
On the fourth glacier day the weather cleared
and we enjoyed brilliant sunshine as we skied across a very broad
and subtle pass at 3200 ft (the maps we used are in feet) on the
ice-cap to end the day with our tips pointed downhill toward the
sea-ice once more. Three days later on a cliff-top overlooking Baffin
Bay we gazed for hours as beluga and narwhal cruised back and forth,
now and then diving for food below. A bear swam toward us and climbed
out onto the ice. He hunted a while below our viewpoint, then disappeared.(
We wondered what might be happening to the sleds in our absence.
) There is something very special, as John remarked, about having
one's horizon compass a wilderness half the size of England. To
the NW, Cone Island, Smith and Ellesmere Islands marked the end
of our 1992 expedition and John's 1990 Ellesmere traverse. Due north
lay Coburg Island, a shimmering fairyland of ice and mountains (and
a protected National Wildlife Area). Just east of Coburg lies a
tiny peaked island called Princess Charlotte Monument. It is barely
200 ft high, but the miraging that night made it loom like several
stacked CN Towers across fifty kilometers of icy ocean.
After the concentration of bears at Johnson
Point we made our way to the back of Hyde Inlet, where a determined
ramble over windswept wetlands revealed the first muskox we had
seen since donning our skis three weeks before. Our trek down the
east coast of Devon Island involved several days of travel in fog.
While not as dangerous for us as for the early sailors, we nevertheless
missed the fine views, and we had to be more vigilant about navigation
and about bears. One evening in thick fog I led us into a frustrating
maze of icebergs calved from the ice-cap edge, between them a swamp
of slush and water that floated the sleds and lapped at the tops
of our gaiters.
In Queen's Harbour, a small bay on the southwest
coast of Philpots Island, we pitched our tent on the site where
British whalers G. Brown and E. P. Philpots and the crew of their
ship Queen wintered in 1865-66. Their eagerly-awaited release from
the ice came eventually on August 27th! While Philpots apparently
had the appetite for a second winter in the neighbourhood of Lancaster
Sound the crew did not. "... but we had not proceeded far before
the crew mutinied, and we turned back..." he reports. We found,
on the slope behind our tent, a mound of rocks we believe to be
the grave of at least one of the Queen's crew.
Good sea ice, but more fog, brought us to
the southeast corner of Devon Island, Cape Sherard. Three lonely
orange cabins remain from an ice-observation project of twenty years
ago when the notion of oil-tanker traffic in the Northwest Passage
rated higher than it does today. During a windy scramble up the
prominent Hope Monument we discovered only rock walls and pieces
of aluminum wire marking the site of a lookout shelter where a friend
of mine spent some time at what must rate as one of the most bizarre
summer jobs of all time B watching icebergs go by.
Entering Lancaster Sound we again encountered
open water close to shore and were treated to the expected but always
fascinating sightings of beluga, as well as many eider ducks and
black guillimots. A gyrfalcon perched nobly on a rocky outcrop above
the lowland meadow, waiting perhaps for one of the numerous arctic
hare to relax its watchfulness, or for a ptarmigan to reveal itself
by simply moving.
Muskoxen became a common sight as we neared
Cape Warrender, the anticipated crux of our journey. Here wind,
tide, and southern exposure remove all ice from the shore earlier
than elsewhere, making progress tricky for a sledding expedition.
In the event we were able to round the cape on ice, but only by
dint of hard work with the ice-axes and some load-carrying. Walrus
and beluga swam by as we chopped and shifted ice blocks in the pressure-jumbled
ice-foot. (The ice-foot is the strip of sea ice that is frozen to
the shore and which does not rise and fall with the tide. Often
it is wide enough for travel, and has been referred to as the arctic
highway.) Perversely the dreaded Cape Warrender turned out to be
very engaging, even fun. Slowed, however, by the need to carve a
road, we gained only four kilometers in nearly eight hours. We made
camp in the late afternoon as heavy wet snow began to fall.
Alas poor weather and a concern for our
timetable prevented us from scrambling up any of the local mountains.
Two days of snow and rain saw us ferrying heavy loads along a rocky
bench 300 ft above the water to reach the next small bay. We had
arrived late, and there was no longer enough ice-foot to support
a ski expedition.
Next day the sun came out and so did the
pontoons. Four years before in Baffin Island we had experimented
successfully at converting the sleds to rafts, so we had brought
one set of shortened inflatable tubes for the eventuality of having
to cross wide leads. Now, however, we pressed the sled-raft into
service as a coastal ferry, saving many shuttles with loaded backpacks.
The problem of Cape Warrender had been solved, and we happily skied
across the remnant ice of Johnson Bay and into Dundas Harbour Post
on June 20th, the 36th day of our trip. The happiness was partly
for having reached this historical way-point, but partly also for
having done a laundry and had a wash that morning in the all-too-severely
rationed sunshine of southeast Devon.
Dundas Harbour began as an RCMP outpost
for the exerting of Canadian sovereignty in 1924. One can only imagine
the physical and psychological difficulties faced by the young mounties
posted there, having no contact with the southern world from one
summer to the next. The small cemetery on the hill behind speaks
of several deaths, at least one a suicide. Yet there were also those
who thrived. Staff-Sergeant (later Inspector) A. H. Joy has rightly
become legendary for the amazing patrols - expeditions really -
that he and his RCMP and Inuit companions accomplished in the last
half of the (elsewhere >Roaring') Twenties. The RCMP Commissioner's
Report of 1926 tells of Joy, Constable Dersch, and the Inuk Nookapeeungwak
setting out from the Craig Harbour Post on Ellesmere Island with
two teams of dogs in a gale on March 22nd. They crossed Jones Sound,
then waited two days for the storm to abate. After thorough reconnaissance
they ascended a glacier south of Belcher Point to begin a crossing
of the Devon Ice Cap. The crossing went well enough, but while descending
the glacier toward Croker Bay on the south coast they had a high-speed
encounter with hidden crevasses, in which one of the dogs was lost.
Four days later they set off from the Dundas Post, this time with
Constables Anstead and Maisonneuve and the Inuk Klishook. The six
men crossed the ice cap again, this time going north, after which
Anstead and companions went directly to Craig Harbour, while Joy
and his team detoured westward to visit Cape Sparbo. Joy wrote "I
have described the route taken by this patrol somewhat minutely
so that in the event of it being made in the future by strangers
... a comparatively easy trip can be made." John and I were
among those future 'strangers'.
The RCMP vacated the Dundas Harbour Post
in 1933, whereupon it was taken over by the Hudsons Bay Company.
In 1934 ten Inuit families were moved there from Baffin Island with
the intent of setting up a fur trading post. The site had been poorly
chosen, however. It was exposed to fierce winds both off the water
and off the ice cap. The sea ice was subject to too much motion
in winter and break-up was too early in spring, so the ability to
travel long distances for hunting and fishing, and for visiting
other communities, was very restricted. Moreover, the relatively
narrow coastal strip of eastern Devon Island not actually covered
by ice was neither large enough nor rich enough to support adequate
wildlife, especially arctic foxes, to sustain a multi-year trading
post. In 1936 the Dundas Post was vacated again, but not before
the crossing of the Devon Ice Cap had been repeated by Post Manager
Chesley Russell and three companions.
The Dundas Post was occupied again from
1945 into the early 1950s, but now stands abandoned, an important
historic site but alas also (in 1998) a disgusting garbage dump.
On the day of our visit the weather was kind, and, ignoring for
the moment the dilapidated buildings and scattered oil drums, we
saw a verdant meadow with arctic hare and musk-oxen grazing. A long-yailed
duck called from a pond surrounded by a field of green, while a
pair of rough-legged hawks perched on the cliff above, intermittently
circling and crying out at our intrusion.
Our plan was to cross the ice cap northward,
a human-powered repetition of Inspector Joy's historic patrol. Skirting
the remnant edge of the shining ice-foot we made our way westward
into Croker Bay, its still-frozen expanse a welcome change from
a week of wading, load carrying, and ice-road construction. Just
before reaching the bay we had our most engaging polar bear encounter.
A lone male huffed and snorted at us from less than 100m. At last,
more annoyed than frightened at our noise-making, he slowly turned
and grudgingly plunged into the dark sea, later to emerge on a large
flow some way off shore.
A reconnaissance day at the head of Croker
bay found us a way to get onto the giant glacier to begin our ice-cap
crossing. The day also provided an unexpected opportunity to watch
a mother bear and two cubs frolic in carefree ignorance of our presence.
Expect the unexpected and wonder is around every corner!
Although most of the glacier front is ice-cliff
we were able, the next day, to haul the loaded sleds up a gully
by means of a pulley system, thereby avoiding tedious load-ferrying.
Before long we were established on the bare glacier ice, and we
then made good progress amongst a few crevasses to the smoother
ice above. Heavy rain delayed our start the following day, but late
in the afternoon we set off, soon to encounter large areas of rushing
melt-water creeks and calf-deep slush-fields; challenging sled-hauling
indeed! It seemed ironic that the glacier, this part at least,
was actually wetter than the sea-ice. We camped at 3100 ft as the
sun came out again. John switched his attentions to photography
as I decided to remove the flopping shambles of multi-layered tape
from my feet to give them a night open to the air. They looked to
be in rough shape, but were in fact doing pretty well.
The weather stayed clear and sunny for the
remainder of our ice-cap crossing, which we nevertheless hastened
by putting in a record 44km day to pass the trip's high point at
about 5300ft. As we skied down the gentle north slope we crossed
a relatively fresh set of bear tracks at 5000ft. He was headed east
toward the top of the great ice-dome.
Two days later on June 30th we carefully
walked the sleds down a steep ice ramp at the snout of the Sverdrup
Glacier, thereby closing the loop we had begun 6 2 weeks before.
We were wearing big grins and the warm sun was beaming down. A few
hours later we pitched camp in a lush meadow of green grass and
yellow poppies B a marked contrast with the windswept and snowy
monotones I recall from our camp here in 1992. A fox with a young
kit skirted our camp. A quick scan with the scope revealed at least
twenty musk-oxen on the slopes behind. It was another one of those
wondrous arctic nights when one doesn't want to go to bed!
Over the next three days we made our way
westward, around Capes Hardy and Sparbo, to reach the unoccupied
biological research station at Truelove Lowland. This proved tricky,
as we had truly stretched the sledding season to its limit. The
sleds became boats again for the final going ashore. As we dropped
our last loads of gear in that odd little research ghost-town the
Arctic gave us one last surprise. Near the rough airstrip grazed
two Peary caribou (Rangifer tarandus pearyi), lonely members of
an endangered population. Until then we had seen no caribou, only
weathered antlers wedged among the rocks.
We had come to Devon Island with a goal
and we had accomplished it. But that goal is just a pencil-line
on a map. The real journey is the sweat and the sunshine, the fun
and the toil, the encounters with wildlife and weather, the ability
to touch gently the wide wilderness, and, for me, the pleasure of
traveling with a friend who truly carries the explorer flame to
the ragged edge of the world.