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
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
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.