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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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.

The island's 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 it.

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 Canada.

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.

Like rock 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 terrestrial ice.

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