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Adventure: Canada

Trekking 'Neath the Midnight Sun

An unpopulated park preserve at the top of the world teeming with animals curious about people

July 12, 1998|MARGO PFEIFF

RESOLUTE, Canada — I flipped through the High Arctic lodge guest book to find decades of reminiscences by Korean, Swiss, Chinese, Australian and American adventurers setting out by dog sled, helicopter and ultra-light, on foot, by snowmobile, motorcycle and kayak to conquer the North Pole. In the cozy living room of the lodge were a foursome from Milan en route to the grave sites of the ill-fated 19th century Franklin Expedition on nearby Beechey Island, and an elderly British woman collecting trilobites who spent the entire evening peering through a loupe at samples she'd found on the beach that day.

A Scottish couple from Alberta who had come on a whale-spotting mission were surfing through the satellite TV channels to catch the landing of Pathfinder on Mars. When the robot buggy began sending back the first photos of the rocky surface of the red planet, the Scotsman proclaimed with disappointment in his thick brogue, "Looks like bloody Resolute!"

It was July 4, 1997, and my hiking buddy, Philip Kibler, and I had just flown 7 1/2 hours from Montreal to this hamlet, population 171, on Cornwallis Island in the High Arctic reaches of Canada's Northwest Territories. (In April, the Northwest Territories will split and the eastern half, including Ellesmere and Resolute, will become Nunavut.) Set on a flat, gravelly shoreline with little vegetation, Resolute looks like the end of the Earth. In one respect, it is: Resolute is the last-exit, gas-food-and-lodging stop for expeditions to the North Pole, 1,100 miles farther up the globe.

We were en route to a 10-day trek through Ellesmere Island National Park Reserve, the northernmost end of the northernmost part of North America. Resolute was as far north as regularly scheduled airlines would take us, so we would fly the remaining 600 miles to the park by charter aircraft that also was ferrying in national park staff.

Most Ellesmere trekkers plan their trips through experienced outfitters; others prefer "soft adventure" tours that include day hikes from the park's two ranger posts. I had been asked to shoot pictures for the national parks archive. Philip and I were experienced in the northern wilderness, so we would be hiking through the park on our own. Our only contact with the outside world would be the nightly transmission of our location by radio to a ranger station.

People living in the Earth's temperate zones picture the Arctic as one vast snowstorm-whipped emptiness. It is vast, but its climate and landscape are varied. One could say that Ellesmere National Park is the High Arctic's temperate zone.

The island itself is a polar desert; it receives less precipitation than the Sahara--about 1 inch a year. At the same time, due to the position of its mountains and the four months (April 20 to Aug. 20) of 24-hour sunlight, the northeastern corner is a thermal oasis, warmer and more lush than anywhere else on the Nebraska-size island. The comparatively balmy weather brings to life an abundance of vegetation in spring, which in turn attracts all manner of wildlife, from herds of musk oxen and caribou to Arctic foxes, wolves and about 30 species of birds.

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Stepping off the plane at the park's Lake Hazen warden station, we were 2,554 miles due north of Montreal; had we flown the same distance south instead, we would be in Panama City.

We were greeted by Warden Jeff Maurice, who helped us choose a route across the unmarked tundra to park headquarters at Tanquary Fiord, 85 miles to the west.

Officially, about 500 people a year visit Ellesmere, including scientists, park staff and Canadian and U.S. military personnel from the radio and weather base at Alert, the northernmost settlement in the world. But fewer than 80 adventurous souls actually hike into the wilderness. With so few humans around, the resident animals are not shy and often will come close.

At Lake Hazen, as we readied our packs--each of us carrying food and supplies for 12 days--it was an astonishingly warm 69 degrees. We stripped down to T-shirts and set off through ankle-deep grasses, yellow poppies and mauve, pink and white wildflowers buzzing with bumble bees and orange butterflies. Hard to believe we were only 640 miles from the geographic North Pole.

Though warm and summer-like at the time, the weather in the High Arctic often is treacherous. Temperatures can plummet below freezing in a matter of hours and it can snow in midsummer.

The first day, we followed the shoreline of Lake Hazen, accompanied by squadrons of big, hairy mosquitoes--hairy as a defense against the cold. As we set up camp at 8 p.m. I realized that we had hiked eight hours and yet the sun had stayed roughly at the same height all day, simply circling the sky. It was tough to force myself into my sleeping bag with midnight sun streaming into the tent.

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