SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
February 12, 1979
The northernmost national park in North America is on Baffin Island, where adventurers find muskeg, sheer rock towers, moraines, glaciers—and bone-chilling wind and water
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February 12, 1979

Cold Place For A Walk

The northernmost national park in North America is on Baffin Island, where adventurers find muskeg, sheer rock towers, moraines, glaciers—and bone-chilling wind and water

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We heard later that the educators had arrived back in Pangnirtung two days later. There they made arrangements to visit Ross Peyton's fishing camp, where they caught lots of char and undoubtedly enjoyed having a roof over their heads and a professional cook in the kitchen. We gloated a bit because their expedition had begun with so much side, but we didn't gloat much. It had become very apparent that this harsh land, if it put its mind to it, was more than capable of sending anyone scuttling back to the comfort of a fishing camp, or making him wish he could. Hubris may be natural to some, and even invigorating, but a little of it goes a long way in this part of Baffin.

Though it didn't seem possible, the weather got worse. The temperature dropped some more and the wind rose into a 60-mph tantrum, driving the water in the air into every crevice, even through the fabric of the storm shells we wore. Walking face into it, as we did through the day, gave one the sensation of pushing into a perpetual thicket of laurel bushes. What with the wind, scrambling across moraines, wading in muskeg and fording the ice streams, fatigue began to seep into us like water into a leaky canoe, rising from the Achilles' tendons to the calves, back, shoulders and, finally, to the gunwales, so to speak, of the head.

As tiredness flowed in, warmth flowed out. After seven miles of this, we both began to get the shakes, which were not only unpleasant but surprising. Sam and I both take some pride in liking cold weather and being resistant to it. Shivering acquaintances say it is because we are both too ample; we claim it is because we are sensible feeders who maintain proper substance and circulation, and that our critics could do the same if they were not so obsessed with being skinnier than God intended our species to be. In any event, the shakes were something new for us and we decided that this was no place for metabolic macho, that what we needed fairly soon was to get much warmer and drier than we were.

This was not immediately possible, because for several miles we could not find a place flat enough for a tent that had enough shelter to keep a tent from being ripped to smithereens by the wind. Along toward mid-evening we came to a field of black rocks, an old moraine. At the edge of this field, a few feet above the Weasel River, was a shallow dry ravine. The river was choked with sheets and blocks of ice that were noisily grinding against each other. Directly across the river was a cold-looking and loud phenomenon, the 5,000-foot face of a hulking, hook-shaped peak called Thor. Snouts of glaciers poked out along its flanks, down which periodically rumbled a cannonade of ice blocks and rock splits. The names of many of the spectacular Baffin peaks are taken from the mythology of the north: Thor, Odin, Loki, Freya. This is appropriate for these brooding, violent-looking and violent-sounding outcroppings. If they are not the petrified remains of the Thunderer and his ancient associates, they are very suggestive of them.

It seemed that the ravine might do for a camp. Getting set up in such a place is a kind of teeth-gritting, play-it-one-simple-move-at-a-time exercise; unlashing soggy, frozen packs, wedging a flapping tent into the bottom of a ravine, squirming out of wet clothes into dry sleeping bags, performing contortions inside a tiny tent while trying to start a stove, preparing hot food without setting the whole delicate nest of nylon and feathers ablaze. When it was all done, it was time to settle back and start some serious worrying. Once spread out in such a situation, the spreadees are as vulnerable as uncoiled armadillos, with nothing between them and the elements except a few millimeters of fragile nylon. As the wind tore into the ravine walls and at the tent, we cringed, as much as the cramped quarters would permit, hoped we had put the thing up right, and tried, without much success, to think of what we would do if we hadn't.

Fortunately the tent held, but so did the storm, keeping us shut up in our nylon cocoon for the next day and a half. Along with worrying, we entertained ourselves by discussing backpacking, an activity about which even in good weather we have mutually sour opinions.

It is now fashionable to call deep breathing aerobic exercise; introspection has become transcendental meditation; eating clean food is organic nutrition. In the same manner, hiking has been made chic and is called backpacking. There are a number of inspirational books in which authorities explain the mystique of backpacking and how it will enable the successful practitioner to find tranquillity and truth, or perhaps God. All of which I find irritating and pretentious.

I have hiked some 8,000 miles in the past 20 years, the largest single segment being 2,000 miles along the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. I can honestly say that I have seldom taken much pleasure from the simple act of walking. It seems to me that the essential question is whether what you find during or at the end of the walk is rewarding enough to compensate for the hiking—or backpacking.

Considering these matters while stormbound, Sam and I decided that the best way for us to have gotten to where we were would have been in a tight, heated Plexiglas bubble. We could have seen everything we wanted in the Weasel Valley and been a lot more comfortable.

However, midway through that uncomfortable march from Windy Lake to Thor we had paused for a rest at the top of a particularly punishing moraine. We looked back, because the wind made it painful to look ahead. Suddenly, downstream, a great white bird, a gyrfalcon, swooped down from the cliffs and took its prey, a sandpiper-type bird, on the lake flats. That was something neither of us had ever seen before but which we had both long hoped to see. Sam and I had first met, when he was 15, because of falconry. I had already been flying birds for 15 years and had written occasionally about falconry. Sam's father brought him around to hear more about its practice. Since then the two of us have admired a good many birds of prey.

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