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To the magic circle

Beauty, and no bears, shadowed the hikers' every mile

Email|Print| Text size + By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / August 27, 2006

AUYUITTUQ NATIONAL PARK, Nunavut -- This remote wilderness that crosses the Arctic Circle had always been on my life list of places to visit, but my enthusiasm started to dissipate when park officials briefed us on the hazards involved.

They started with polar bears, even though it was July. (``If a bear shows signs of stalking you, fight back!" advises the Parks Canada ``Safety in Polar Bear Country " brochure.)

Then there's hypothermia. The temperature was a balmy 50 degrees, but nature is capricious in the Arctic, with blizzards possible any time of year. And there are other things to fret about: being hit by rockfalls or avalanches, drowning in turbulent glacial-fed streams and rivers, falling off mountain peaks. ``Does everyone come out alive?" I jokingly ask ed Billy Etooangat, the park's communications services officer. ``Not everyone," he said.

That said, and observing the precautions, Auyuittuq National Park (pronounced I-you-WE-took) is an extraordinary place to hike . You are even better off following a guide, as we did, who carries a satellite phone and knows how to repel polar bears.

Auyuittuq, on Cumberland Peninsula, was established as a national park in 2001. It is not a common destination for tourists other than extreme adventurers, who know it has the highest peaks of the Canadian Shield.

But it deserves to be more popular, given its majestic scenery and remarkable human history. The Inuit people, once known as Eskimos, lived and roamed here for at least 1,000 years, along a raw, glacier-scraped terrain.

According to Monty Iyiraq Yank, senior park warden, the park attracts only 300 to 600 visitors a year, and even Canadians are oblivious to the region's scenic offerings. ``I have family in the Ottawa area and every year they say, `How long did it take you to drive down here?' " he said. ``They're amazed that jets come up here. I tell them, `You know Baffin Island? That big island beside Greenland?' "

One of the draws of Auyuittuq is the opportunity to hike to the Arctic Circle and appreciate firsthand the place where the imaginary geographical point falls on the planet. I've always been intrigued by the idea of getting close to the top (or bottom) of the world, and trekking to the poles is beyond unrealistic for a casual hiker.

Reaching the Arctic Circle, on the other hand , seemed manageable, at least in summer, when the average high temperature is 52 degrees. We flew first to Ottawa, then Iqaluit (Nunavut's capital), then farther north to the hamlet of Pangnirtung (population 1,300 ) . We entered the park by boat, crossing Pangnirtung Fiord to get to the southern end of the Akshayuk Pass, an ancient river bed now used by hikers that leads north and into the Arctic Circle.

Many hikers trek all 60 miles of the pass, which can take from eight to 16 days, depending on your fitness level and pace. For my husband and me, a 15-mile round trip to the Arctic Circle and back seemed just about right. We had some trepidation about making it a day trip; we knew we had to keep a steady pace and time our return to coincide with high tide, so the boat could get through the narrow opening of the pass and bring us back. If we were late, we'd be stranded till the next day. Polar bear anxiety set in.

Fortified with two days' food (just in case), extra clothes, walking sticks, and water shoes for crossing those forbidding glacial streams, we were off. Our guide was Joavee Alivaktuk, a local Inuit outfitter with a close connection to the park: Akshayuk Pass, he told us, was named for his grandfather, the first man to travel it by dogsled. Alivaktuk speaks English and Inuktitut, the Inuit language, and insisted we start out early before the sun got to work melting the mountaintop glaciers and made traversing run off streams more perilous, to say nothing of colder. (``This, Eskimo knowledge," he said, tapping his forehead. ``Not Environment Canada .")

We arrived at the park at 7:30 a.m. and conditions seemed to be in our favor. It hadn't rained for five days, and the first few streams were shallow, though rocky, fast-flowing, and shockingly cold. Alivaktuk, who easily hopped from stone to stone, demonstrate d how it's done. Move quickly, stare straight ahead, avoid the green slippery rocks, and don't fret about how cold the water is -- your feet will be so numb after the first stream, you won't even notice by the second one. (Eskimo knowledge proved accurate on that point.) Also, unfasten your backpack straps in case you slip, so you can get out of it quickly. Above all, be aware that the glacier-fed streams you encounter on the way out will be bigger (and deeper) on the way back. I start ed to wonder why they called this park ``Auyittuq," which means ``land that never melts."

As we trudge d along the pass, following a path marked by inukshuks -- the rock piles built by Inuit as trail markers -- I also marvel ed at how varied this landscape is. I was reminded of ``The Lord of the Rings," with its elaborate map of all the kingdoms in the land. Except instead of the realms of Mordor and Gondor , Auyittuq has the land of sand dunes and grass slopes, the land of rugged mountain peaks and rock debris, the land of moraines and raging streams and tiny purple saxifrage flowers , which grow, miraculously, in rocky ground and sand. A thunderous sound in the distant mountains made us stop and look up, as a huge mass of ice broke off from a high glacier and slammed on to the rocks below.

Five hours and eight minutes after starting out, we spot ted our holy grail on a rocky ledge: There was an inukshuk with a green sign that could use a new coat of paint. It says ``Arctic Circle" in English, French , and Inuktitut (Canada's languages), and cites the latitude: 66 degrees, 30' N. No fanfare. No gift shop. Just an understated marker and a spectacular intersection of rushing river, rolling green hills, and jagged mountain peaks.

Contact Linda Matchan at l_matchan@globe.com.

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