Jim Baird’s Arctic Adventure: Cliffs in the Dark at 40 Below
With the trip winding down, Ted and I knew we’d have to make a long push through the night to...
With the trip winding down, Ted and I knew we’d have to make a long push through the night to reach Ulukhaktok in time to spend a few hours with our friend Pat and, more importantly, catch our flight home. Fortunately, the weather was good enough for such an aggressive travel plan, and Ted and I left Rymer Point and headed straight overland, northward for Prince Albert Sound.
We passed many herds of musk oxen, including one that was 17 strong. In the late evening, Ted and I stopped to do some fishing in a spot where we were told the ice was thin and the fishing was good. But the ice was not as thin as we’d hoped, and we drilled through 6 1/2 feet straight into rock and damaged our auger blade. The dull blade made second hole we drilled was quite difficult and required every bit of strength Ted and I had to get through the ice. We fished for a while, but got skunked. Overall, the fishing on the trip wasn’t nearly as good as we’d hoped.
By the time we got back on our snow machines, it was pitch black and the terrain got rougher. We began traveling up and down some huge hills. At times it was a bit unnerving because you’d crest a hill and see nothing but darkness before the headlights picked up the grout. Ted warned to be careful not to fly off a cliff
He was right.
We were following a river–the final pathway to Price Albert Sound–and to save time, we drove over the bank to cut off a large bend in the river. Then, all the sudden, I saw a huge canyon in front of me. I turned away just in time.
I jumped off my machine and waved to Ted for him to stop. He pulled up and stopped beside me.
“What,” he asked.
I pointed to the canyon below us.
“Holy s—!” This is crazy. We shouldn’t be traveling at night like this.”
It was a good thing I wasn’t blindly following my GPS–or we would’ve plummeted over the 100-foot canyon wall…with the end of our journey in sight.
While we crossed Prince Albert Sound, the sky lit up in the east as the sun started to rise. As big as Great Bear Lake was, traveling on the sea ice is more daunting. There is no cover, the weather is colder, and the ice conditions are less reliable. This leg of the trip was the coldest yet–40 below zero, not factoring the wind chill. The sweat in our base layers from auger-drilling hours earlier chilled us to the bone. Ted started to shiver, and I wasn’t far behind. As the winds howled, we broke into our clothes bag and dug out some sweaters and fleece pants. Ted even took of his boots to stick a foot warmer in there.
None of this helped. He started to worry about frostbite on his toes, while I could start to feel it on my nose, cheeks, and ears. But once the sun got up, and the temperature rose, it got a little warmer. We turned west to follow the northern shore of the Sound, putting the strong east wind at our backs.
As exhausted as we were, we kept pushing. We stopped to refuel 100 miles from Ulukhaktok and called Pat to let him know we were close. We made good time on the last leg of the trip as we passed through the Safety Channel. The scenery was dramatic: Rugged, snow-sprinkled cliffs shot straight up out of the sea to our right and to our left we could see the horizon on the frozen Amundsen Gulf between the islands of the Channel. Finally, 26 hours and 225 miles after leaving Rymer Point, we could see Ulukhaktok.
It’s tough to describe the feeling of pulling up to a community like Ulukhaktok. Where everyone is so friendly and helpful. Where people are immediately interested in you and make you feel welcome. Where visitors are a big deal.
Pat and his wife, Jean, came out to meet up and brought us into their home. We told them all about our trip and ate delicious muskoxen until our bellies were full. Pat shared a couple amazing stories about how he had avoided death. Jean joked that he has nine lives. It was nice to share my stories with Pat–a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. I wish I had longer with him, but Pat would leave for a hunt late the next morning; Ted and I later that afternoon. I think Pat was proud of us for making the trip. We had traveled a very long distance and completed an epic journey through a land that has claimed the lives of many travelers. Very few people can say they’ve accomplished what we did, and I wonder if anyone has ever done the full route in one shot like Ted and I did.
When took off from the ice runway in Ulukhaktok to begin our string of flights back home, I thought about the deep satisfaction I felt when we first saw Ulukhaktok. We’re going to make it, I thought. And we did. We made it. –Jim Baird