Updated: Mar 10, 2019
I have always been fascinated with Northern Canada and the Arctic. Playing hockey on outdoor ponds as a young kid on cold winter nights helped to plant the seed at a very early age. Seeing my breath under a starry night and looking to the north allowed my imagination to run wild.
I have had the opportunity in recent years to run races in the Yukon twice, Northwest Territories twice and Alaska once. I found that this didn’t fully satisfy my need to go north, but just increased my desire to go farther north and experience first hand the true Arctic above the Arctic Circle.
When the opportunity to join my friend Ray Zahab on a Baffin Island adventure came up, I jumped at it. Our plan was to traverse Baffin Island via the roughly 100 km Akshayuk Pass unsupported by running, trekking and scrambling. We were to travel as light and quickly as possible over this rugged terrain, with the goal of completing the route in one push in a single day. Though not heavily used, the standard recommendation for completing this traditional Inuit route is between 8 to 12 days. Ray has completed the Akshayuk Pass six times previously, so his experience would be instrumental in helping to get through the Pass safely.
Getting to the Akshayuk Pass involved a 3 hour flight from Ottawa to Iqaluit, and then another 90 minute flight to Qikiqtarjuaq, where we would stay overnight before being shuttled by boat to the start of the Pass.
Qikiqtarjuaq is a small Inuit village of roughly 600 people. Once arriving, we were required to fill out permits and take a mandatory polar bear safety training course. Polar bears are the largest and most dangerous wildlife concern in the Arctic, and with a number of recent encounters and a few deaths on Baffin Island, the importance of this training was firmly entrenched in our minds.
Following a restless sleep, we took a choppy two hour ride in a small boat on the Arctic Ocean into the North Pangnirtung Fiord, while passing countless massive icebergs along the way to reach the start of the Akshayuk Pass. We were told that with the water levels being low on the Pass that our crossing should not be as difficult as some other times of the year, but also more importantly, that there shouldn’t be any polar bears in the area. This hope was soon squashed by the observation of ravens along the shoreline. One of the Inuit family members on the boat had just been able to say the words ‘Where there are ravens, there are polar bears’, and sure enough we spotted three polar bears right near the shoreline. Seeing these majestic creatures in the wild was a tremendous treat, however didn’t do much to calm our nerves as we were dropped off a few minutes later and would be entirely on our own once the boat left.
We were running with a small 15 litre backpack that carried only the bare essentials. No tents or sleeping bags, just a few extra clothing layers (in case of bad weather), minimal food, bear spray (probably useless if actually required), satellite phone and other safety and navigational gear. We accepted the fact that travelling with such minimal gear was a risk and put us in danger if something went wrong, however it meant that we were able to move much faster than using heavy packs for a multi-day crossing. There was little margin of error, as an injury on the route requiring a rescue and evacuation could take days, if possible.
The footing was surprisingly good for the first few hours with hard packed sandy riverbed allowing us to make good time. This was welcome as the further we got from the shoreline the chance of a polar bear encounter diminished significantly.
We soon began to hit long segments of hummock that were soft and uneven and slowed us considerably while forcing us to work harder. Fortunately with cooler temperatures we weren’t sinking in quite as deep as we could have, but the uneven footing contributed to plenty of ankle rolling. Running with trekking poles was a definite must.
With there being glacial runoff and many river sections and crossings, we chose not to carry any water with us, again to keep our pack weight down, but relied on the Katadyn BeFree water filter bottle to scoop water for drinking as we needed.
The temperature was a few degrees below freezing during the day and we had a slight tailwind, so we were fairly comfortable with tights, a long sleeve shirt, wind jacket, toque and mitts for the most part. If we stopped for any period of time, we put on our down jackets quickly to make sure to stay warm.
As the sun was beginning to set, we had a view of Mt Asgard from a distance, and that became our target to get as close as possible to before dark. It seemed a bit cruel to begin hitting the worst of the glacial moraine as darkness fell. We had our headlamps on full strength to work through these dangerous sections, but it was still treacherous and required paying close attention to every foot step. Even with trekking poles, making our way through the loose rocks and boulders by hiking and scrambling on all fours was difficult. There was no running done in this section.
We made good time over the first half of the Akshayuk Pass, and our plan was to stop at an emergency shelter at roughly the 65 km point at Summit Lake, where we would take a short break to warm up and eat something hot.
The trail on the Akshayuk Pass isn’t much of a trail for the most part, but requires making your way from waypoint to waypoint on a GPS. We had loaded the waypoints on both of our watches (and backup watches), but were having a difficult time finding the Summit Lake emergency shelter. For some reason the waypoint seemed to be off for both of us. The fact that we were both getting tired, sleepy and need of some hot calories made it that much more difficult and scary. The glacial moraine and high rocky spines required that we paid close attention to each step or risk very serious consequences. There were many loose rock and soft dirt sections with long drop offs. The only good thing about doing this segment at night was not being able to see how high we were.
After what seemed like an eternity, we finally found the shelter and were able to warm ourselves up, heat up a high calorie/fat/salty meal of noodles and miso soup with coconut oil and extra nut butter, plus of course…coffee! Finishing this helped to recharge our energy and got us back on the trail in better spirits.
The night had cooled off probably 10-15 degrees from the daytime, but was still comfortable. We had only a few hours more of darkness but were treated to a display of the Northern Lights during this time.
As morning arrived, we continued to press forward. One of the highlights of the entire pass was seeing Mount Thor at sunrise. Thor is a magnificent peak that features the greatest vertical drop on Earth of 1,250 m (4,101 ft). Seeing this massive beast in person felt like something just out of this world!
The braided water crossings with different widths, depths and faster moving water were getting significantly more difficult now with our greater accumulated fatigue setting in. There wasn’t a lot of snow on the lower ground, but a fair amount of ice on the rocks and along any still water. We needed to be super careful while crossing the fastest moving water sections, but I still ended up losing my footing and fully immersed on my back and chest into the icy water. Fortunately the sun was coming out at this time and I was wearing merino wool, which retained some body heat, so increasing the pace helped to warm me up and dried out my clothing. I took a few other falls on the rocks and water crossings, but none were quite as bad as this one.
The end was getting near, but still seemed to drag on forever with trying to find the most direct route to the end that had the best footing. Ray has completed this route an unprecedented six times, so with his experience and knowledge, he led the trickiest navigation, most challenging glacial moraine and roughest river crossings. I felt that while I was learning a lot from Ray along the way and was feeling more comfortable in certain aspects since when we started, I only took the lead though sections that were easier to navigate and when Ray was wanting a break from the constant searching for the best lines to take.
The scenery along the entire Akshayuk Pass was truly spectacular and unlike anything I had ever seen before. With the first 85 km being above the Arctic Circle, it goes without saying that there were no trees, which looked so foreign to me. Having come from a forest rich area of Ontario, this looked like another world with all the jagged peaks, rocks, boulders and braided rivers and streams.
The final few hours were extremely difficult for me physically with my body seizing up more than it ever has before. While I was still appreciating the incredible beauty of the pass, I was getting very tired, and ready to be done.
It has been a challenging past few years for me personally, and I found that during the final 10 km of the Pass I thought a great deal about my oldest sister who would have loved to witness this first hand or at least hear about every detail after. I definitely felt a closeness and connection to her many times, which was comforting and helped to give me the strength to finish. Thanks Deb!
Completing the Akshayuk Pass was definitely the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, but also one of the most rewarding and most proud of.
A huge thank you to Ray Zahab for the opportunity to see first hand this incredible place. I now fully understand when Ray is quick to point out that of all the incredibly beautiful places he has seen on the planet, that Baffin Island and the Akshayuk Pass is his favourite. A big thank you as well to First Air for getting us there and back for this incredible adventure.
-Shoes- La Sportiva Mutant
- MicroSpikes Crampons
-Socks. Swiftwick Pursuit 4 and 7 merino wool socks. One pair of goretex socks.
-Bottoms. Merino wool brief and long merino base layer, La Sportiva shorts, merino tights, La Sportiva windpant.
-Osprey Duro15 backpack
-N&Wcurve running poles.
-Hands. merino mitts, La Sportiva overmitt.
-Hats. La Sportiva beanie, Dion Fleece toque.
-Sunglasses. Julbo AeroSpeed
-Tracker and Satellite phone.
-Titanium pot, cup and spork.
-MSR whisperlite stove, Naphtha fuel and matches.
-iPhone (for camera and map. no cell service). Backup mini charger and cable.