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Auyuittuq is the northernmost park on the continent. A pass climbs up the valley of the Weasel River from the head of a fjord off Cumberland Sound. It reaches a series of glacial lakes at the summit and then descends the Owl River to an arm of Davis Strait. The route along the Weasel (but not along the Owl) is sporadically marked by Inuit cairns. Otherwise there are no signs or guideposts. There are seven tiny emergency shelters into which three or four people can squeeze to escape the weather. This is the extent of the facilities in Auyuittuq.
On the fjord below the Weasel River, 18 miles from Auyuittuq, is an Inuit village of 950 people called Pangnirtung. In it are the park headquarters, where maps and advice can be obtained. The advice is largely cautionary. Visitors are given to understand that if they get into trouble in Auyuittuq they will have the sympathy of the park field staff (four wardens and a superintendent) but not much else. No rescue teams are available to respond to emergencies. The point is emphasized that anyone who goes into Auyuittuq must be self-contained and self-reliant.
There are some gaudy ways of entering Auyuittuq, such as parachuting onto the Penny ice cap, but most people fly into Pangnirtung and there try to make arrangements with Inuit guides to be hauled up the fjord in canoes or on snow sleds. Even getting to Pangnirtung by more or less conventional transport can involve considerable logistic effort, and when you get there you wait. You wait for machines, for spare parts, for somebody's cousin who is said to be seal hunting but who, it is also said, will probably be glad to give you a ride in his boat if and when he returns. Especially you wait for the weather—until it is good enough to fly or paddle or just walk.
The problem of arctic travel was nicely illustrated in Pangnirtung last July, which is when summer is supposed to occur. Gales, snowstorms and frosts were frequent and the weather was generally worse than anyone could remember it for 20 would-be summers. A few impetuous visitors who got to Pang early were able to snowmobile into Auyuittuq over the frozen fjord, but shortly thereafter the softening ice became too rotten for sleds while not dissipating sufficiently to permit canoe travel. These in-between conditions continued almost until August. The cr�me de la cr�me of the international outdoor set, those who had arrived precisely when careful research and planning indicated they should arrive, hung around Pangnirtung for days and weeks while their supplies, patience and cash melted. Waiting in the Arctic can be as expensive as traveling. In Pang, lettuce was selling for $3 a head, apples for $1 each. Other goods and services were comparatively priced.
Scenically, Pangnirtung has much to recommend it, at least for a few days of waiting. There are those who feel it is the most attractive village site in the Arctic, standing as it does on the beach of a clean, deep, mountain-bordered fjord. But many people, especially romantics who want igloos or, at the least, tents, find the village less than charming. In design and function, Pang is arctic modern, like most of the settlements in far northern North America. The buildings are basically prefab tin and wood boxes, to which additions of packing crates, plastic and canvas are often made. Most of them are surrounded by truly impressive piles of debris—cans, bottles, plastic wrappers, old bedsprings, broken toys. Remnants of outboard motors and snowmobiles are mixed in with exotic organic matter, scraps of fox and hare skins, pieces of old whale and seal, and lots of very defunct fish.
There are sound reasons for this mess. Temperate zone waste-disposal systems are simply out of the question in settlements perched on solid rock or on a few inches of frozen sand over the rock. For thousands of years the obvious solution has been to let things lie and rot where they fall. But because of greater contact with southern civilization, the north now has more junk than it used to, junk that doesn't rot away, but the disposal system remains traditional. A happier way of looking at Pangnirtung is that it is a kitchen midden in the making and no doubt will be very attractive to archaeologists who come this way a thousand years from now.
For tourists, a very important person in Pangnirtung is Ross Peyton, a gaunt Newfoundlander who came to Baffin nearly 30 years ago as a Hudson's Bay Company clerk and stayed on to become an entrepreneur of the Arctic. From his base in Pang, he trades in native crafts and also operates a fairly luxurious fishing camp that caters to affluent anglers from the south. Peyton also owns the only public house in Pang, a combination hotel-dormitory-dining room, which is of course known as Peyton Place. Like other more or less permanent inhabitants of Pang—Inuit and southern Canadian alike—Peyton has not done any thrashing around in the interior of Auyuittuq and expresses no interest in doing so. However, he thinks well enough of the park and its users, though they put little money in his pocket.
"The chaps with the big packs," he says, "bring everything with them. They camp out on the beach or up in the rocks, more power to them. They will slip in here when things get grim for a shower or a meal. Generally they don't have much money, but they are very bright and well educated. When they go back they talk a lot about what they have done, and it gets our name around. Older people who don't want to scramble around in the rocks but who have the wherewithal for a more comfortable trip hear about us and may book in the hotel or at the camp. Those pack people do my advertising for me."
More efficiently than any government regulations, environmental imperatives control the number of people who use Auyuittuq. The difficulty of reaching even the head of Pangnirtung fjord winnows out the casual tourist. Only about 1,000 arrive in Pang each summer with some interest in seeing the park. About half of these make it to the park proper but turn back after a one-night stay just inside the Auyuittuq boundary. Only about 250 continue on up toward an emergency shelter 10 miles away at the foot of a gray, cold body of water called Windy Lake. Perhaps 200 of these go on toward the summit of Pangnirtung Pass. Brief guides to Auyuittuq note: "Arctic hiking is quite a bit different and more difficult than walking through other areas of the Canadian wilderness." And: "Needless to say, previous backpacking experience and good physical condition are prerequisites. Novice and intermediate hikers should be accompanied by more expert backpackers."
The walk up the Weasel to Windy Lake is relatively easy compared to what lies beyond, but even in this 10-mile stretch there are "differences and difficulties." The ascent is moderate, the summit of the pass standing only about 1,500 feet above sea level, but the footing is atrocious. The best of it is found along the river on sand and silt bars and in low-lying pockets of mossy, swampy muskeg. The ground squishes up underfoot but at least the walking is fairly level. However, there is not much of this flat, sloppy going because the terrain is choked with moraines, those great haphazard piles of debris left behind by glaciers. Moraines are filled with rock, everything from gravel to boulders the size of suburban bank buildings, and they are slow and fatiguing to cross. The worst are the newest ones, made slippery by residual mud and ice. Alongside and through the moraines run powerful, milky colored streams fed by the melting glaciers above.