Destination: Baffin Island

Canada’s biggest island is the spectacular homeland of the Inuit and an Arctic wilderness that offers once-in-a-lifetime adventures

Words by Sarah Stirling

The 1,250m face of the world’s largest cliff, the West Face of Mount Thor, loomed over our small trekking party in remote Arctic Canada. ‘Beluga whales very late this year,’ a voice commented, in low staccato tones, gazing over the pale green fjord to the spiky granite mountains behind. It was summer; skeletons of snow clung in sharply-angled gullies. Jet-lagged after four flights to get to this remote Arctic island, and without the relevant knowledge to answer, I floundered. ‘Ice very thick,’ added the Inuit, helpfully.

We were on Baffin Island, staying in the 1600-strong Inuit settlement of Pangnirtung (‘place of bull caribou’) before starting our trek. Brightly-painted wooden shacks extended along the shore. Modern hunting equipment, including skidoos, stood outside them. Conversations soon turned to the locals’ desire to ‘get on the land’ and go hunting as soon as possible. Children roamed, inventing games; bikes were prized items.

Back in 1950, for complex reasons, the Canadian government began ‘relocating’ communities of the nomadic aboriginal people. Some moved willingly to permanent settlements in search of Western comforts, while others felt pressured into it. Whatever the reasons, the precariously accelerated adjustment to Western ways has resulted in wide-ranging issues, from identity crises to a lack of jobs; issues that the Canadian government and the Inuit are still trying to resolve.

I’m reading a 1986 classic, Arctic Dreams. The author, Barry Lopez, lived amongst Inuits. They were, he writes, uneasy ‘about the irrevocability of decisions made by people who are not sensually perceptive, not enthusiastic about long-term observations.’ Thinking how much the Inuit could teach us Westerners about connection to nature before it’s too late, I turn back to the man, who is still patiently gazing, and respond with some questions.

Giants and ants

The next morning we hefted our 28-kilo rucksacks onto a dinky silvery tin motor boat, climbed in after them and powered towards an inlet 30 kilometres distant. This was the mouth of the Weasel River. Our plan was to follow it up the Akshayuk Pass to Mount Thor. The boatman, Joavee — round and benevolent behind glasses and cap — hovered by a huge boulder and we scrabbled onto cold, hard rock. The land around the inlet was a giant’s playground of granite footballs; some house-sized. We turned to face the unusually snow-free, U-shaped valley. Summer here is short: late July to September. Either side of us loomed gargantuan vertical cliffs with white tongues leering over them; remnants of the glaciers that carved and then receded from the pass. We were standing in a place touched by very few humans. We were alone. Or were we?

Walking the sandy valley floor, I realised that my sense of proportion was skewed. The enormity of the cliffs and boulders, and lack of any other visible life, such as trees, made it impossible to determine scale and distance. I had no idea how long it would take to reach the next bend in the river. The sheer, dark faces of the surrounding mountains somehow retained their remoteness even when we stood underneath them. They seemed to be waiting for something to happen on the empty stage below. We had become a line of ants, surrounded by indifferent giants.

I remembered some facts from my book: Arctic ecosystems are just harder to see. The environment favours those with a ‘predator’s alertness for revealing detail’. Looking down I noticed ground willow. It has evolved to live on few nutrients and grows horizontally, twining over the sun-intensifying, dark, Arctic soil. We were walking on top of a forest. An ancient and slow-growing one; a centimetre-wide branch could contain 200 annual growth rings.

I also remembered nature writer Robert Macfarlane describing the Arctic: ‘How could language grip a landscape that was so huge and monotonic? Detail anchors perception in a context of vastness’. I picked up a bit of eider duck down, tangled in the hairs of a purple flower. It was growing from an oasis of vivid moss around a trickling stream. ‘It’s like a Japanese flower garden!’ enthused Richard, another member of the party, filling his water bottle. Adjusting my focus, I zoomed out to take in a house-sized rock, far across the endless sandy river valley, cleaved in two like an apple by the cold of winter. Our young and enthusiastic guides brought us dinner, delicious and somehow cooked only on camping stoves; I gave it my full, predatory focus.

White surprise

On day three we reached an inukshuk marking the perimeter of the Arctic Circle. These Inuit landmarks are built from stones to resemble people. The Arctic’s longest waterfall, Qulitasaniakvik (‘place to get caribou skins’) tumbled almost 600m over cliffs opposite us; a 200m vertical sheet and series of smaller horsetails. From here it looked tiny.

The line of the Arctic Circle is the southernmost point at which you can see the ‘midnight sun’. Moving north, the number of 24-hour nights experienced in winter and 24-hour days in summer gradually increase. Overdosed on serotonin, we felt constantly caffeinated. As we walked, I discussed with the group how much the idea of a day, with its dawn suggesting new beginnings, is embedded in us and our art, and how alien Western timeframes must feel to the Inuit.

As we drew close to the foot of Mount Thor, the weather dramatically worsened and our guides decided we should camp between boulders. The tents flapped like demon kites as we pegged the life out of them. By now we had become accustomed to our trail gear and it had adjusted to us. I hunkered down cosily in the relentless light to read. Our guides and the National Park rangers had told us we were extremely unlikely to see polar bears in the area where we were hiking. Guns are prohibited in the national park. In the extremely unlikely event that we saw a bear, we would rely on strength in numbers and bear spray. Reading about the intelligence of polar bears made my heart race. A few of their hunting strategies: they drift like innocuous chunks of ice towards seals; build ice walls to hide behind; and even scrape away ice at seal holes, then lie over the thin ice so it still looks thick from below. The Inuits apparently advise that most polar bears are left-pawed, and that if attacked you must leap to the right. This was not comforting.

Somehow I drifted to sleep, and woke to find a soft shape pressing into my leg from outside the tent. After reassuring myself that it was a cold object, not a warm bear, I gently unzipped, to find it had snowed heavily. This was extremely unusual – one Inuit told us she had never seen snow in July. Our guides were doing the rounds with coffee. ‘Let me take a photo of you,’ Richard called to his wife, Joan. ‘You’ll find it funny, one day.’ Thor, to our disappointment, was shrouded behind clouds.

Mighty Thor

As we hiked towards Thor, the blanket white revealed succinct evidence of life – a maze of footprints outside a hole. The black ears of an arctic hare, caught mid colour-change. A fox, like a border collie, but seemingly all tail. Only 20 or so species of land mammal live this far north.

As we hiked, the sun came out, dramatically unveiling Thor, and we all gasped. Its dark face has been carved into a startlingly sheer curve by glacial erosion, and a cape of rock flows from its opposite side. It looks like a whale fin. The northern air was so clear we could see every crack and fissure in the huge cliff. Many peaks and glaciers further north remain unnamed, but here a pantheon of the most impressive recalls the Norse Gods.

Over the next few days, we hiked back to the river mouth. By now we had adjusted to a slower pace of life. While the guides cooked our meals, we talked or explored close to camp. One morning I found Lisa peacefully absorbed in watching a lemming nibble grass. Our final day dawned like summer. The snow had all melted as if the wild weather had never happened. Joavee arrived in his boat, his grandson trailing fingers in water sparkling with sunshine. As we purred back towards Pangnirtung, the back of a whale rounded out of the water, with the impossibly slow grace of huge creatures living by different rules of time and space.

Enraptured, I recalled a final sentence from my Arctic bible: ‘As temperate-zone people we have long been ill-disposed towards deserts and long expanses of ice. I am inclined to think their value will one day prove inestimable to us.’ The Arctic is on the cusp of transformation. Its people are modernising and the climate is becoming more erratic. I’m torn as to whether to encourage you to go, or encourage you to stay away so the region remains pristine. It’s an environment of stark contrasts, harsh beauty and no easy middle grounds. But it’s also a place that can teach you how to slow down and watch: a skill us Westerners need to learn before it is too late for the little blue marble we all share.

Walk it!

  • TIME/DISTANCE: Daily walking distances range from 5 to 10km daily with plenty of time to enjoy the scenery. Camping breakfasts, lunches and dinners are delicious and varied.
  • TRAVEL: Sarah travelled to Baffin Island with Black Feather, on the Auyuittuq Getaway Hike. This once-in-a-lifetime trip involves 10 nights camping and costs $4,795 (£2,674) not including flights. Sarah flew from London to Ottawa via Toronto with Air Canada, then took a connecting flight to Iqaluit (2½ hours), and a final flight to Pangnirtung (1 hour) with First Air. The provider can coordinate flights in partnership with Flight Centre (