Baffin Island i2P Expedition Summary

In September 2009, I was privileged to be a part of the impossible2Possible (i2P) expedition to Baffin Island, Nunavut Territory, Canada. My friend, Ray Zahab, created the nonprofit organization with the support of Bob Cox to encourage youth to reach beyond their perceived limits, and to use adventure as a medium to educate, inspire, and empower youth around the world. The Baffin Island team was lead by Ray and Bob along with John Zahab, Cathy Zahab, Jen Segger, Tessum Weber, Dr. Ewan Affleck, Kevin Lin, and myself. Five extraordinary Youth Ambassadors from across North America made the trek.

Kathleen Merritta a native Inuit learning more about her culture from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut

Thompsen Dhont an aspiring Olympic cross country skier from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories

Amanda Cobbs-Russell a conservation biology student and volunteer from southern California

Tamara Banks a gymnast with a strong work ethic from Ottawa, Ontario

Sandi Nypaver an endurance athlete and volunteer organizer from Painesville, Ohio

The group gathered in Ottawa, and then we took a couple of short flights to reach the small Inuit village of Qikiqtarjuaq on Baffin Island in northeast Canada, just southwest of Greenland. From there we took two boats southwesterly through the Pangnirtung Fjord to the first ranger station, where we began our journey on September 2, 2009 across Auyuittuq National Park, one of the most remote national parks in north America, above the arctic circle. Over the next eight days we would travel 62 miles (100 km), north to south, through Akshayuk Pass, a vast glacial valley that was carved out over millions of years ago. The remnants of the Penny Ice cap, which reached down as far as St. Louis in the United States during the last ice age, are in the park.

After being dropped off, we were advised to move from the shelter because polar bears have been known to frequent the area searching for food during this season, where the ice has broken up and they have to depend upon foraging on the land for food. As we walked, we had fantastic views of the Naujat Glacier, which is receding at a rapid rate, and the glacial moraine. There is no defined route on the north side of the pass as it is mostly bog paralleling the Owl River. Legend has it that the Owl River is named for seven pairs of Snowy Owls once seen sitting on the shore together.

The energy return stepping on the patches of bog grass sapped our reserves, especially since our packs varied from 50 to over 70 pounds (27 to 32 kg) each. Kathleen rose to the occasion and treated us to the traditional “throat singing” that is an ancient part of her Inuit culture. She gave us all insight into Inuit history and how the Canadian influences have affected her culture. Over the last half century, many of the Inuit have moved into small towns and away from the old ways of hunting, subsisting on the bounty from the land and seas. Because of the late start, we trekked only about 4 miles (7 km) before stopping just short of the Owl River ranger station.

That night Dr. Affleck presented the first educational module to the Ambassadors and us. These daily educational sessions—covering glaciers, climate, geology, geography, wildlife, park history, and the history of the Inuits, including their culture, navigation, and hunting and fishing—were a highlight and focus of the trip. Every day the Youth Ambassadors would write a blog sharing their experiences and what they had learned with approximately 5,000 students in classrooms across north America who were following the expedition and submitting questions. These educational modules are still available on the i2P Web site at http://impossible2possible.com/world/?s=education. It was fun for all of us to listen and learn, and I encourage you to take advantage of this valuable resource.

The weather on the second day of the trek (Sept 3) was typical for fall in the oceanic arctic: overcast with occasional misting of rain as we approached the June Valley ranger station approximately 18.6 miles (30 km) along our path through the valley. Still in mostly boggy terrain, the Owl River is braided, flat, and wide; in some areas over a mile (2 km) wide. Amanda was doing field studies, collecting water samples that would tell more about the effects of the environment on the watershed. Always optimistic, Amanda continued to be an inspiration to the team and to those back home who were following us.

Day three (Sept 4) brought us up to the confluence of the Highway and Norman Glaciers, which have deposited a huge moraine over 3 miles (5 km) wide that forces the Owl River to narrow near its source. Tamara demonstrated her athletic and gymnastic abilities as we worked our way across areas of moraine with Midnight Sun Peak towering above us in the distance. In keeping with this theme, even with winter approaching, nightfall was around 9:00 p.m. and dawn would break around 3:00 a.m. We stopped near the confluence of the two glaciers, close to the Glacier Lake ranger station, almost 28 miles (45 km) total for our trek. This marked almost the half way point up the pass, and temperatures dropped to about 20°F (-6°C) that night.

The next morning (Sept 5) we worked our way around the massive moraine that served as a damn to Glacier Lake. Around the late 1950’s there was an outlet that would empty into the Owl River but, in the last fifty years, this major outlet has dried up leaving huge boulders in what was once the river bed. We got our first glimpse of Thor Peak, the highest vertical wall in the world at 5,494 feet (1,675 m) in height. Sandi continued to show her endurance as she lead the way, forging ahead in spite of heavy packs and difficult terrain. It was great to see each of Youth Ambassadors, in turn during each day, take the lead. We camped just over 32 miles (52 km) along our route, near the shore of Glacier Lake as more and more glaciers presented themselves at the top of Akshayuk Pass.

During the night it snowed a few inches, and we woke to a winter wonderland. We hurriedly packed up our tents as the winds and snow continued until we moved further south along the lake shore. More moraine and less bog was the order of the day, which made traveling quicker. Occasionally the trail would appear and vanish making travel interesting. This day, (Sept 6) the fifth of our trek, Thompsen would frequently lead the way and showed no signs of fatigue. Always cheerful and happy he would keep us all in high spirits. All of us were in wonder and awe traveling among giant peaks and glaciers that were formed 18,000 years ago during the last ice age. We traveled over 9 miles (15 km) around Glacier and then Summit Lake and camped near Caribou Glacier that night.

On the sixth day (Sept 7) the trekking became easier as an established trail presented itself, at least most of the time. A flood in 2008, caused by the
rupturing of the Summit Lake damn, had washed out the trail in a few spots. The flood also washed away a bridge lower down the valley by Windy Lake, which would present a challenge the next day! As we followed the Weasel River down the other side of the pass we came into Thor ranger station at over 45 miles (73 km) and camped below the shadow of mighty Thor. In the early 1950s Tessum’s grandfather was the first to climb the wall and named many of the major peaks lining both sides of this remote valley after Norse gods. Even higher on the other side of the Weasel River were Mount Northumbria at 6,268 feet (1,911 m) and Mount Odin at 7,029 feet (2,143 m). Norse mythology tells of Odin, the father of all gods and of Thor, god of war. There is also Asgard at 6,593 feet (2,010 m) whose flat top is the home of Norse gods. In keeping with his family tradition of exceptional guides, it was obvious that adventure is in Tessum’s extraordinary bloodline.

The next morning (Sept 8) we continued along the Weasel River with Tessum testing the depth at various points. We needed to cross the river to continue along the trail on the other side but, with the bridge near Windy Lake gone, we had to find a shallow place that would allow a safe crossing on foot. We made our way down river until we found wide spot where the water was less than 3 feet (0.9 m) deep. The guide took the packs from the Youth Ambassadors and assisted them across the river. We felt fortunate to have located a crossing as we made our way into the Windy Lake ranger station at approximately 51.5 miles (83 km) from our starting point. Through the night we would hear the rumbling of several rock avalanches as if the Norse Gods were speaking to us.

Hiking out the last day (Sept 9) to the Overlord ranger station was difficult as we would travel more than 10.5 miles (17 km). Jen Segger, Kathy Zahab, John Zahab, and Kevin Lin would keep the group moving with their extraordinary guiding capabilities. The huge peaks were behind us now and the terrain would give way to more of an open valley and the South Pangnirtung Fjord. We got a boat ride from the fjord into Pangnirtung “Place of Bull Caribou” village. A few final flights brought us back to Ottawa and the end of the journey.

A huge thanks to all of the sponsor companies, including LEKI and ExOfficio. As Ray said, “The help of awesome companies such as First Air, Gatorade, Iridium, Apple, Nikon, The North Face, Alpine Aire, and Canada Goose made this expedition possible – please check our sponsor page for more.” You can find them on the expedition Web site http://www.impossible2possible.com/world/ along with photos, videos, and the educational modules.

The i2P Baffin Island Akshayuk Pass expedition was a huge success! My thanks to Bob Cox and Ray Zahab for an exceptional and inspiring educational experience that was shared with approximately 5,000 students in classrooms across north America who interacted with the Youth Ambassadors on a daily basis. We all look forward to many more educational expeditions in the years to come in locations around the world.

It’s true, as Ray has set out to prove to youth around the world: what you thought was impossible is, in fact, possible. As I say, you have to put your Dreams in Action. Discover what you’re made of… it’s more than you think!

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