Devon Island’s shape is a “legless donkey with its head thrown up to bray” according to the book Arctic Canada from the Air. Suitably inspired, we set off on the “Legless Donkey World Tour 1998.” We skied in the metaphorical wake of 17th-century Arctic explorers William Baffin and Robert Bylot, slowly at first, being neither in a hurry nor fully acclimatized for the work soon to come our way.
Nine days later, we stood at Belcher Point, beside open water for the first time. Eider ducks swam before us, calling occasionally. Fresh bear tracks reminded us to be alert. The salty smell of the cold sea, the contrast of snow against water, the vast, nameless bay, and the hazy, distant, glacier-draped mountains completely overwhelmed us.
At 55,247 square kilometres, Devon is the world’s largest currently uninhabited island. But there is much evidence of bygone human habitations, although not continuous, from the early paleo-Eskimo period about 4,000 years ago to the Thule culture whale hunters who occupied arctic Canada into the 1600s.
We pitched our tent on day 24 at the site on Queen Harbour where the British whaling ship Queen wintered in 1865-66 and remained icebound until August 27. While the ship’s surgeon Edward P. Philpots apparently had the appetite for a second winter in the Arctic, the crew did not. “We had not proceeded far before the crew mutinied, and we turned back,” his chronicle reads. On the slope behind our tent was a mound of rocks believed to be the grave of at least one of the Queen’s crew.
On smooth sea ice and through a blanket of fog, we skied up to Cape Sherard, where three orange cabins of an ice observation post remain from the 1970s, when the notion of oil-tanker traffic in the Northwest Passage rated higher than it does today. In a windy scramble up the prominent Hope Monument, we found only rock walls and aluminum wire from the lookout shelter where a friend once worked at one of the oddest summer jobs ever – watching icebergs.
Winds, tides and a southern exposure had taken most of the ice from the shore near Cape Warrender on Lancaster Sound, where dark talus slopes define the entrance to the Northwest Passage. We rounded the cape on ice, but not easily. Walrus and beluga swam by as we chopped and manhandled through ice blocks in the pressure-jumbled ice-foot, the strip of sea ice frozen fast to the shore and unmoved by tides. Some call it the arctic highway, since it is often fiat and wide enough for travel. Here, however, our highway had succumbed to the advance of summer, leaving only rocky cliffs. We camped in the late afternoon as heavy snow fell.
Through two days of snow and rain, we ferried our loads along a rocky bench 100 metres above the water where there was no ice-foot. Next day the sun came out and so did our pontoons, a set of inflatable tubes that convert the sleds into rafts for crossing wide leads. John ferried our supplies along the shore, once paddling past a pod of feeding belugas.
On June 20, the 36th day, we skied into Dundas Harbour, an RCMP detachment established in 1924. Mounties posted there faced tremendous physical and psychological difficulties, having no contact with the outside world from one summer to the next. The small cemetery on the hill behind speaks of several deaths, at least one a suicide.
The RCMP left Dundas Harbour in 1933, whereupon it was taken over by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Ten Inuit families were moved there from Baffin Island in 1934 to set up a fur-trading post, but it was ill-fated. The site was exposed to fierce winds off the sea and ice cap. Travelling conditions on the sea ice were restricted by relatively early break-ups. And the thin strip of ice-free coastland didn’t support enough wildlife, such as arctic fox, to sustain the trading post. In 1936 the post was vacated, then taken over again by the RCMP from 1945 until 1951. It is an historically significant site but, alas, also an eyesore. Dilapidated buildings and scattered oil drums contrasted with arctic hare and muskox grazing in a verdant meadow. An oldsquaw duck called from a pond, while a pair of rough-legged hawks perched on the cliff above, circling and crying out at our intrusion.
We set off westward to Croker Bay, welcoming its still-frozen expanse after a week of wading and carrying gear. At the head of the bay, we searched for a route onto the giant glacier to begin our icecap crossing. The glacier’s terminus is, mostly, an ice cliff. We hauled the loaded sleds up a gully using pulleys, navigated around a few crevasses, and soon were sled-hauling on smoother ice.
The weather stayed clear for the crossing. A record 44-kilometre day took us past the journey’s highest point at about 1,600 metres. We skied down the gentle north slope, crossing bear tracks at 1,500 metres. They pointed east to the top of the great ice dome.
On June 30, we carefully walked the sleds down a steep ice ramp at the snout of the Sverdrup Glacier, completing the loop we had begun six weeks earlier. With big grins and a warm sun beaming, we pitched camp in a lush meadow of green grass and yellow poppies. A fox with a young kit skirted our camp. A quick scan with the scope revealed at least 20 muskox on the slopes. Another wondrous arctic night!
We made our way westward for three days, around Cape Hardy and Cape Sparbo, to reach the unoccupied biological research station at Truelove Inlet. We had stretched the sledding season to its limit: to get ashore, we pushed the sleds into the water – they float pretty well when the food is getting low. As we dropped the last load of gear in that odd little research ghost town, the Arctic gave us one last surprise. Near the rough airstrip grazed two Peary caribou, lonely members of an endangered population. Until then we had seen no caribou, only weathered antlers wedged among the rocks.
We came to Devon with a goal and we achieved it. But that is just a pencil line on a map. The real journey was the sweat and sunshine, fun and toil, wildlife and weather. And, for me, it was the pleasure of travelling with a friend who carries the explorers’ flame to the ragged edges of the world.