Baffin is a
1,000-mile-long island, the fifth-largest in the world, and is shaped like a
crude, badly used battle-ax. The notched, dented blade, two-thirds of which
lies above the Arctic Circle, partially caps the northern reaches of Hudson
Bay. The shattered, stubby haft, a promontory called the Cumberland Peninsula,
points toward Greenland, 250 miles eastward across the polar seas.
By any standards,
Baffin is a formidable place. The average maximum winter temperatures are well
below zero. If summer comes—and often it barely gets to parts of Baffin—the
midnight sun may warm things up to 50� or so, but there is no day in the year
when there is not the possibility of frost and snowfall. Winds are incessant
and often of gale force.
terrain is rough everywhere, but it becomes truly mountainous on the eastern
side. The elevation of the black, rocky peaks there, five to seven thousand
feet, is not spectacular, but their conformation is. Geological upheaval, ice,
water and wind have cut the rock into jagged spines, columns and abutments, the
sheer faces of which rise several thousand feet straight into the cold air.
According to old
Baffin hands, God created the rest of the world in five days, on the sixth He
made Baffin and on the seventh He amused Himself by chunking rocks and ice at
Much of the land
that is not rocky is icy, lying under banks of perpetual snow and glaciers. The
massive ice fields are the remnants of the Laurentide ice sheet that once
covered much of Canada and portions of the U.S. to thicknesses of up to 13,000
feet. The Laurentide ice eventually retreated to Baffin Island, where it
probably began. It waits now in the black mountains, the presumption being that
sometime it will once again move south.
Though in area it
is larger than New England, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia combined, the total
population of Baffin could fit into the bleachers at Fenway Park. This is not
surprising, given the grim nature of the island, but what is surprising is that
people have been trying to live there since long before they began to nose
around Boston Common. In the course of their epic migration across the Arctic,
Eskimos reached Baffin some 4,000 years ago and have remained ever since. Some
5,500 Eskimos (or Inuit, as they call themselves) live on the island, most of
them in half a dozen recently established coastal villages that are convenient
for government administrators, social workers and storekeepers up from southern
About 1,000 years
ago Vikings came to Baffin, but while Norsemen continued to stop by
periodically for centuries, there is no evidence that they enjoyed or profited
from their visits. In 1585 a British mariner, John Davis (Davis Strait, between
Baffin and Greenland, is named for him) made a landfall on the Cumberland
Peninsula. Thirty years later William Baffin explored the island, and since
then there have always been whites in the area—first whalers, then traders, and
currently mostly bureaucrats of one form or another.
About 20 years
ago, members of the international rock and mountain climbing fraternity began
to investigate Baffin, particularly the strange peaks and extensive ice fields
of the Cumberland Peninsula. Now this arctic wilderness has become for very
serious rock climbers and backpackers what an ultrafashionable disco is to the
international jet set; in other words, the appetite for exotic and adventurous
recreation that has developed in the affluent temperate zones has made Baffin a
place to be.
dancers, rock climbers come from all over the more or less civilized world.
Among the several hundred who made it into the interior of Baffin in the summer
of 1978, for example, were Scots, English, French, Luxembourgers, Swiss,
Japanese, a Korean and a scattering of North Americans from such places as
Fairbanks, Alaska; Vancouver, B.C.; New York City and Iron Springs, Pa.
Six years ago, in
part to both aid and supervise outside visitors, Canada set aside 8,287 square
miles of the Cumberland Peninsula as a national park called Auyuittuq, an Inuit
word meaning The Land That Never Melts. Among other impressive phenomena, the
park includes the Penny ice cap, one of the world's largest sheets of permanent