Jim Baird’s Arctic Adventure: Crossing the Arctic Circle

When we got to Hornby Bay on Great Bear late in the afternoon, we were surprised to see snowmobile tracks. We followed them for a couple minutes until we saw a few walled tents in the northeast corner of the bay. We went over to check it out and met several people. They were mostly high school students, lead to Great Bear Lake by a few older men from Kugluktuk. The kids were learning traditional ways of hunting, fishing, camping, and navigation from the older guys.

We mentioned the route we planned to take to Ulukhaktok once we reached Kugluktuk. Two of the men in the group, Gerry and Isaac, were very experienced travelers and told us that the route we planned would not work. There would be open water on the ocean at the mouth of Prince Albert Sound and our fiberglass toboggans would never make it on the rocky overland section we had planned to cross. Isaac drew a different route out on our topo maps, and we've decided to follow his advice. The new route will make the trip longer but hopefully much safer. That night the Northern Lights danced in the sky over the route to Kugluktuk we planned to take in the morning.

The next day we woke up to the sound of a howling wolf. We fished all morning with no success, although the previous evening one of the older guys had landed a couple lake trout. Our plan was to leave for Dismal Lake that afternoon but by the time we packed up, tightened our suspensions, fixed a broken hitch, and chatted with everyone, it was evening already. Gerry gave us a whole caribou leg before we left and we were very grateful for the good meat. We left Hornby Bay under overcast skies, knowing we would be traveling well into the night. After climbing a large hill we got a final look at Great Bear Lake. About 10 minutes later we crossed the tree line and cut a standing dead tree, which we strapped to our sled for emergency firewood. Winds howled and snow fell causing whiteout conditions as we crossed the Arctic Circle. It was almost dark and it was very difficult to follow the blown-over trail. The horizon was barley visible to the east and west but non- existent in front of us. We had left traditional Dene territory and were now in the realm of the Inuit.

Soon we came into the rugged canyon terrain of the Theshierpi River that we would follow to Dismal Lake. The canyons cut the wind and although it was dark we could see that the country was beautiful. Wolverine tracks crossed our trail and we followed them in the darkness on foot for a while, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive creature.

It was pitch black out for a couple hours when we stopped to add oil. We were out of the canyons, traveling over a large hill nearing Dismal when the winds began howling again. It was freezing. We'd hoped to stay in a small cabin we heard was at Dismal Lake. The tracks left from the group at Hornby Bay became much easier to follow once it had gotten dark because of the shadows my headlights cast.

We rolled onto Dismal Lake around 2:30 a.m. and a light went on in the cabin. Larry and his son, who we had woken up, came out into the wind to greet us and invited us into the cabin for some hot coffee. We gladly accepted. He and his son had been out wolf hunting--they got two, one being his son's first wolf. We set up camp on the ice and the wind died down.

The next morning Larry went towards the Kendall River to look for more wolves. Ted and I wanted to fish for char that are in the lake. Dismal feeds the Coppermine River and Arctic char often spend the winter in lakes connecting to the Coppermine. Our auger plus one extension couldn't make it through the ice and we had to add another extension. The ice was almost 7 feet thick and we could barley pull our auger out of the hole. Finally we dropped line only to realize the water was less than a couple feet deep below the ice. This wasn't the end of the world though because we knew people in the area often fish in shallow water. We jigged for a couple hours and caught nothing. With our tails between our legs we began to break camp. Larry came back from his hunt, no wolves, but his son got a caribou. They escorted us back to town and we were able to go between 35 and 45 kph through the open country. We stopped to meet with another few guys who were on their way to visit their dad at Hornby Bay. It was nice to meet other people; we were surprised that we saw anyone.

We made it to Kugluktuk by 9 p.m. and began to prepare for the second leg of our journey. We will travel across the Dolphin and Union Straight to Victoria Island, then overland to the Wollaston Peninsula to Prince Albert Sound. Then we'll cross the sound to follow the north shore, through Safety Chanel all the way to Ulukhaktok--longer but much safer route than we had originally planned. --Jim Baird