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Falconry is one of the most addictive sports. For 3,000 years it has held man's interest, and at times it has become a kind of mania. In medieval England, falconry was such a serious matter that a legal code evolved specifying what classes of people could own what species of bird. A holy-orders clerk was permitted only a male sparrow hawk, a piffling bird for this sport. At the other extreme, only a king could take the field with a great white arctic gyrfalcon on his fist. These pale hunters of the far north were worth king's ransoms, even men's lives.
Once I knew a young man who now has been dead a long time by reason of suicide. He was a kind of monomaniacal genius of falconry whose consuming ambition was to work with a gyr. Eventually he made arrangements to get to an area of the Arctic where gyrfalcons had been reported. He was dropped off by a bush pilot and, although he was not much of an outdoorsman, in fact not much of anything but a fanatic falconer, he found an aerie and stole a young gyr. In the course of things he became lost, was unable to find his way back to the spot where the pilot was to retrieve him, and ran out of food. When a rescue party caught up to him, he was gaunt from hunger, feverish and infected. His young gyrfalcon, however, was in good shape. He had sliced strips of flesh from his own thighs and had fed them to the bird.
Sam and I never have been falconers on the order of that tormented man, but we have some feeling for this passion. We are falconers enough so that a glimpse of an imperial gyrfalcon riding down out of the sky on the back of a Baffin storm made up for a lot of backpacking.
When the storm finally broke, Sam and I crawled out of the tent and spent the afternoon drying our gear and doing a little botanizing in the moraine meadow. While so engaged we were joined by a small, elderly Korean who, under full pack, came over the rocks from the direction of Windy Lake as sprightly as a lemming. He said his name was In-Cho Chung but that his English-speaking friends called him Charley and he would be honored if he could count us among his friends. Charley, who was in his 60s, was a botanist who for 10 years had been visiting the Arctic to look at its flora, about which he planned to write a guidebook. He said that this was the second time during the brief summer that he had been to the moraine at the foot of Thor. Because a good many others had had great difficulty getting that far even once, we asked him to explain.
Flying north from Montreal, the venerable botanist had met a woman who was traveling to Auyuittuq. "I suggest to lovely young lady that we a do it together," said Charley and silenced all ribaldry with a dignified hand gesture. "We would be of aid to each other for purposes of a hiking and a making camp."
Charley and the lovely young lady reached Pangnirtung in early July in time to catch one of the last snowmobile rides up the frozen fjord. Once in Auyuittuq, things did not go well for them. "Lovely young lady was not a well prepared," explained Charley regretfully. "Very thin sleeping bag. I gave to her my feather jacket so she could stay warm, but she is a still very cold. She have trouble crossing the little streams. First I would cross with my pack. Then I would return to get lovely young lady. Very a slow."
They finally made it as far as Summit Lake, where Charley planned to spend some time looking at plants, but almost immediately the woman said she must return to catch a plane south and asked Charley to escort her as far as Pang. When they reached the fjord they found they could not travel farther by either snowmobile or canoe because of the poor ice conditions. They decided to walk the 18 miles back to Pang along the walls of the fjord. Caught between the cliffs and the ice in the water, they had an awful hike and at times had to wait until low tide permitted them to scuttle around the sheer cliffs. On one of these passages the lovely young lady fell in the water. "She was a very cold and a excited. She say 'Hy-po-ther-mia, hy-po-ther-mia,' "Charley recounted wonderingly, as if describing some curious occidental superstition. "She say will die if I do not stop and put up tent. It is a very bad place for tent, is all mud, but she say she will die so I do it."
The lovely young lady did not die and eventually made her flight. "I rest a few days in Pang," Charley said, "and now I am back. Now the plants are very nice and the weather is so good."
Sam and I met two North Americans who may have traveled farther and harder to get to Auyuittuq than anyone else there last summer. Nancy Witte and Doug Best, of Fairbanks, had left Alaska in May, traveled south to Washington state, across the U.S. to the East Coast, then north to Montreal where they got a plane to Pangnirtung. Before leaving Fairbanks they had dried their own vegetables, jerked some moose meat and made up various whole-grain concoctions to get them through their summer of hard wandering. In Auyuittuq they hiked up through the pass, down the Owl Valley, and then back across the mountains and glaciers to emerge on another fjord where they hitched a boat ride back to Pang with a party of French mountaineers. In all, they had walked some 200 miles over the harsh Cumberland Peninsula.
Three other young Americans, Steve Amter, Rick Cronk and Ronald Sacks, all from New York City, were to become celebrities among the climbers in the pass. They were serious climbers who planned to scale Asgard, a glacier-ringed mountain near the summit of the pass that has a very large international reputation among mountaineers. Some claim that from the standpoint of esthetics and challenge it is the world's perfect peak. The three climbers waited several weeks in Pang, finally got as far as the Thor moraine but then, like everyone else, were pinned down by the storm. They began to worry that getting their gear across the glaciers to the foot of Asgard would take more time than they had and would require much too much backpacking, about which they felt more or less as Sam and I did. Occasionally during breaks in the clouds they could study the formidable west face of Thor. The face itself has never been climbed. However, peering out into the storm, the three New Yorkers thought they saw a route up which they might ascend one of the prominent shoulders of Thor, in some ways as impressive a feat as getting to the top of Asgard.