The quickest and
most tempting way of crossing moraines is to jump from one icy rock to the
next, but if you're carrying a full pack this is also a good way of breaking a
leg or cracking a skull. A variant technique at difficult points is to change
from boots to sneakers and wade up the streams. This is slow and also painful,
because the glacial waters of Auyuittuq are a few degrees below freezing, cold
enough to burn like fire after a short period of exposure. Two or three minutes
would be the average survival time if one were fully immersed in the water.
the other difficulties is the weather. Says the cautionary Auyuittuq
literature, "Strong wind combined with rain or wet snow at near the
freezing point—conditions which can occur in every month of the year—has caused
more exposure casualties than full winter cold." The quality and quantity
of the wind is hard to imagine. There is almost never a truly calm day in
Pangnirtung Pass, and gales of 40 or 50 mph are as common as zephyrs in the
south. These are winds that cut and bully and can kill. According to a clinical
note on a topographic map of Auyuittuq, "Hypothermia is the rapid,
progressive mental and physical collapse accompanying the chilling of the
interior of the human body. It is caused by exposure to cold and aggravated by
wetness, wind and exhaustion. Most cases develop in air temperatures between—1�
C. and 10� C."
Sam Walmer is an
orchardist who spends most of his time tending peach and apple trees on his
farm in Pennsylvania. He has been a good and frequent companion of mine in
various adventures and misadventures. For a variety of temperamental reasons,
Sam and I tend to mount disorganized expeditions. We had fully intended to
reach Auyuittuq in mid-July, the optimum time according to all authorities.
However, there were distractions. For example, several days were lost in
Toronto as we tested the theory that it is easier to handicap horses there than
it is in Charles Town, W. Va., which turned out to be untrue. We did not reach
Pangnirtung until nearly the end of July—and were rewarded for our tardiness;
we caught one of the first canoe flotillas going up the fjord, a happening that
better-organized tourists had been awaiting for weeks.
upward-bound companions were four men who identified themselves as
public-school teachers of outdoor education. They were abundantly and cunningly
equipped and gave us a lot of good tips about how to survive in the outdoors.
We hoped that their concern for us was misplaced, but we could understand why
it arose. Sam and I do not appear, well, very smart when we go a-venturing.
Sam, for example, no matter what the occasion—running white water, spelunking,
climbing glaciers—favors a basic costume of overalls, ragged sweat shirt, long
johns, a tractor driver's cap and Sears work boots. Our gear tends to be old
and battered, having been beat up in a lot of improbable places, including
several in the Arctic. Because of sloth, we are both disinclined to carry
anything we are not going to use or use up. This suits us, but it is not
surprising that au courant outdoor experts would worry about us.
When we beached
at the head of the fjord, the outdoor educators immediately said goodby and
added that they might see us again when they were coming down from the summit,
at a time when we presumably would still be trudging up. Their plan was to make
the 70-mile round trip in four days, and they started off briskly. We dawdled.
The day was a nice one, one of the first summer days of the year. Temperatures
were in the 40s, there were occasional periods of sun, and the wind was gentle,
no more than 20 mph. We found a patch of dry-meadowy muskeg covered with a lot
of nice-looking boreal flowers. We set up the tent behind a sheltering boulder
and spent the rest of the afternoon admiring nature.
Some time during
the long twilight that passes for night in these parts the weather changed and
returned to normal. The temperature dropped to freezing; it began to rain or
snow or something in between, and the wind rose and began beating on the tent.
There being no incentive to lounge around in this sort of thing, we packed up
and started ascending the Weasel River Valley. We reached the Windy Lake
shelter about midday and in it found two of the outdoor educators. One had a
sore knee and the other was trying to mend a tent that had been ripped by the
wind. They said their two companions were scouting ahead to see whether or not
they should go any farther.
Windy Lake is
descriptively named. All the gales of Auyuittuq appear to fancy this spot as a
permanent home. Beyond the shelter we approached the shallow, perpetually
roiled lake over a series of long, steep, slippery moraines that in places
could be crossed only by crouching low and hanging onto the rocks so as not to
be blown backward. In God's good time the moraine gave way to several miles of
mud and sand flats over which the unimpeded winds from the lake get in some of
their best licks. At the head of the flats, we met the other two outdoor
recreationists coming toward us. They had gone a mile or so farther, found no
place where a tent could be pitched and said they could not believe how bad the
weather was. They had given up the idea of a dash to the summit of the pass and
were going back to their two friends, then returning to Pang as soon as weather
"At least you
will have good lecture material when you get back to class," said Sam, with
a certain innocent venom.
There was not
much fight in the out-doorists. Their leader, a principalish man with a very
teachy conversational style, nodded glumly at the environment and said
earnestly, "This is a harsh land of many contrasts."
well ordered or not, needs a zingy slogan to lift the spirits when things get
really bad. Ours became "This is a harsh land of many contrasts."