AUYUITTUQ NATIONAL PARK
Mileage: 111 km
My name is Steve Evans. I am a backcountry adventurer. I prefer to move fast and light, over long distances, often in remote and extreme locations. In August of 2018, I made my way to Baffin Island, north of the arctic circle, on an 8 day solo trip to hike Akshayuk Pass, circumnavigate Mount Thor, the tallest sheer rock face on the planet, and be one of the first people on this earth to Packraft the entire length of the Weasel River.
This is my story.
Looking south towards Pangnirtung as the tide rolls out. After a morning orientation session with the park office to review polar bear safety and essentially how not to die, I am boat shuttled to the upper southern fjord by a young man named Joseph and dropped off 3 km south of Overlord, due to low tide, in the late afternoon. I kindly remind him not to forget about me 😁 and be back in 8 days. The landscape is immediately stunning and it is a matter of minutes before I realize that wet and cold feet are going to be a reality for the remainder of the trip. I begin to hike up the east side of the Weasel River. At first I am disoriented at which route I am supposed to be taking or where exactly I am hiking. There is no trail, just follow the valley, so I end up taking the path of least resistance. Through the river bed, across the rivers, along the hills, and over rocks and boulders as needed. The terrain varies immensely and changes as quick as the weather. The mountains are massive, the river is braided, wide, and freezing cold, and the wind burns my face. I break my hiking pole within the first hour and my tripod falls apart shortly afterwards…it’s a good start. My backpack feels heavy, I’ve got 8 days of food, a full winter packrafting kit, and my standard backpacking gear. It’s the heaviest pack I’ve carried in many years – 42 pounds to be exact. Within 5 hours of trudging through mud, soft moss, and rocks, I officially cross the Arctic circle, arrive at an area known as Windy Lake and set camp for the night. Winds and temperature force me into the tent and by 9pm I am fed, bundled tight in my sleeping bag patiently waiting to doze off to begin the next day.
Camping in front of Mount Thor. The sun comes up early in the Arctic, about 4 am. Tossing and turning I finally get the courage to climb out of my sleeping bag and get the day started. It takes a few minutes for my feet to warm my wet shoes, but I load up the pack and off I go. Up towards the Rock Garden, opposite Windy Lake until I reach the Windy Lake Bridge….this is where it gets interesting. You see, on the map, there is a bridge to cross the rapids. And in reality, there is also sort of a bridge, except said bridge is completely destroyed and smashed into the side of the rock canyon and the remains scattered about the area. I am not able to cross the river. I decide to push forward up the east side as opposed to backtracking down river to where it may be possible to Ford the water. Eventually, my path turns into rocks, which then turns into a wall of rocks, and soon is no longer navigable by foot. I make the executive decision to inflate the packraft, run down river and exit on the opposite side. Easier said than done. But the plan is executed and I find myself setting up my tent in front of the face of Mount Thor a few hours later. It is here that I bump into a ranger on patrol collecting water samples, and after comparing maps I find out mine is 13 years old even though I just bought it. It is obsolete, doesn’t have current information on it, and according to the updated version there is no bridge and the main route is on the opposite side of the river 🙁 I take it all in and laugh it off. It will make a great story…I set up camp, lay my gear out to dry, and enjoy a view few people on this earth will ever get to see.
The world’s best selfie. It was a cold night. There is ice and frost on my sleeping bag, tent, and anything that has moisture in it is frozen including my shoes. Today I push on to Summit Lake. The west side of the river is traveled more often, and a trail is visible to follow. I arrive in the early afternoon and spend a fair but if time scouting the Weasel River to ensure a safe descent. The section right after Summit Lake is a class 5 death wish and the reminder to Thor Shelter is class 2+/3, boney and technical – pretty much ideal for the packraft. I get a perfect clear night with a full moon for some great shots of the valley below that I have just hiked up. With prime real estate for a campsite, I whip up one of my world renowned home made dinners and prep my river gear for the next morning.
A dreary morning. But it is necessary to cross the lake and portage the section of rapids from the East side so as not to retrace my steps. The terrain along Summit Like is grey and moon like. Not much colour and it feels cold. It’s very quiet, you can hear rock falls in the background. I don’t bother putting on my drysuit for the calm water crossing but in the middle of the lake, when it Dawn’s on me how far across it is, I regret it thinking that if I ever did flip the glacial melt water would have me hypothermic in minutes. I land on a sand moraine and pack up the raft for the hike. This is an area of constant terrain change. You are walking on the moraine of a glacier. There is no route, it is choose your own adventure here much like a maze, you think you are on the correct path only to come to a dead end. You just plan your route well in advance from a highpoint. I eventually make it over the moraine and back to the river. Time to run this river. It moves fast, and there are multiple braids so one needs to choose based on ability and waterflow. Portions of it remind me of plinko from let’s make a deal, bouncing off protruding rocks, but eventually making it to the end. The bottleneck and blind corner before Thor Shelter must be scouted heavily. I skipped the first section and ran the second. Once you enter the upper rapid, you are committed to the rest regardless of whether or not you are still in your boat. Take caution. By the time I arrive in front of Mount Thor, my hands are blue from the cold. I put my fingers in my mouth to help defrost them. I brought 2mm neoprene gloves and they are ineffective against the near freezing temperatures of the water. A gear choice I would regret for the remainder of the trip. As I hike up to the camp spot, I begin to warm up and opt to run a few more sections again up river before calling it a day.
Paddling amongst Giants. The plan for today was to head up Fork Beard Glacier and traverse the east side of Thor. But after being up close and personal with the ascent, I can say it is a challenging endeavour and not something I would take on by myself. I opt to hike the east side of the river across the west face of Thor, and put in to paddle the Weasel river at the foot of the south glacier leading back down Thor. I cross the river in the morning. It is deep, fast moving, and stinking cold. I wanted to take great video but the safety risk was too high. Once on the east bank, I ascend off trail towards Mount Thor’s sheer face and eventually find myself staring right at it. To climb this face must be total insanity. I relax and take in the scenery with a snack and then push onwards. Back down the rocks to the river and paddle out with Thor towering behind me. I struggle to keep my hands warm as I float into Windy Lake and my plan is to portage the tougher water on the west side. But as I make my way to shore, the river is moving too fast and I’m unable to pull off into the eddie. I try a second time but am pulled into the turbulence of the water. I make a split decision to ferry across the top of the rapids to the mud beach on the east side. I paddle fast and hard, barely matching the speed of the water as it pulls me closer to the tongue. I’m successful and make it across, as I hop out I sink in the sand up to my thighs…quicksand!?! 🙁 I hold my packraft tight and have visions of being stuck for days slowly sinking. But I wiggle my legs loose without losing my shoes and slowly make my way up the bank. I’m done. I throw my Packraft on my back and begin the trip up to the Rock Garden and onto Windy Lake shelter for the night.
My fort in the arctic. One must be flexible and able to change plans in a moment’s notice when traveling in the arctic. For that reason, I scheduled an extra day in my itinerary in case of weather or injury. Today was a terrible rain and hail day. I had set up camp last night in the emergency shelter and decided to take advantage of it by staying 2 nights, and spending the day fixing my broken gear, then heading up river to packraft any sections that were not possible when I had my heavy backpack on the nose of it. The difference in performance when there is not a backpack on the nose of raft is incredible. My confidence and ability is much higher without the added nose weight. A few runs down the river left me wishing I never left the warmth of the shelter, but I soldiered it out to get the shots I needed to make the world’s best video (coming soon). You’re welcome 😎 A full day without moving camp is new to me. And having now experienced it, I would prefer not too again. The days are long and I enjoy being on the move, covering ground, and experiencing new terrain. In the evening I use the shelter radio to call in to the park to organize my pickup in the coming days. I am relieved to make contact and feel better knowing that they received my message. I end the night by organizing my gear for the following day and prepare for an early rise to get moving. There is a bit of sadness and regret knowing that the trip is ending soon, and my mind is filled with new routes and climbs that I saw on the trip. With all my gear stuffed into the shelter, I close my eyes and slowly drift asleep to the sounds of howling winds and raindrops.
A bad case of cabin fever 😂. I’ll try to describe what it is like to get out of bed and immediately expose yourself to water that moments ago was actually ice. This water is in the range of 1 to 3 degrees Celsius. Drinking it freezes your teeth and causes your brain to malfunction momentarily. Myself, having minimal brain cells as it is, was able to freely drink as much as I could ever want without issue. The river from this point on is slow and wide, with the only remaining section of rapids located at Crater Lake. I exit on river right and take the west trail up and around the lake, looking down at the rapids. They are very runnable, but not with a full pack on the nose and not by myself. It’s a short hike to get past them and I put in immediately after to catch a few good class 2 sections before it flattens out again. The river now runs quick and smooth, and I make incredible time floating and paddling the last section of the Weasel River before meeting the fjord that I was dropped off at. The cloud ceiling is low, and it rains on and off but I enjoy the trip, the view looking up from the center of the river is such a contrast to looking down at the river from the mountains. I’m lucky enough to experience both. Before I know it, I make out a small orange shelter far on the rivers edge. At first I don’t believe I could have made it to the end of the river so quickly, but moments later this river begins to shallow as the tide rolls out. I am forced to hike through the ankle deep water to the rivers edge, and then up and over to the fjord where Overlord lies. The wind punishes me as I make my way along the coast. I take shelter in the hut and use the emergency radio to confirm my pickup for the following morning at 10am. Everything seems to be in order. I read through the shelter log book and find roughly 15 pages of entries dating back to 2002. With the last entry being over a year ago. I add a full page report for others to enjoy in the future and get my gear ready for departure in the morning.
He remembered to come get me! I’m up early, and the day is beautiful. It’s almost a waste to leave. I’m tempted to head back in and never return. But then I remember that the is no beer store here and come to my senses in panic. The tide has rolled in, but I still have to walk about a kilometer for the water to be deep enough for the boat to land at shore. I can see him in the distance, and I wave to ensure he sees me. My bright orange jacket is like a flare against the grey and green environment. The boat pulls up, I throw my backpack on the front, and I hop on. Peter is driving his boat today, he offers me hit chocolate to warm me up and we sit in his cabin for an hour while he discusses everything from garbage management, whale hunting, to politics in Northern Canada. As we dock the boat in Pangnirtung, it’s a quick handshake and I am off to a lodge for the night to clean up before my flight back. It ends too fast. I barely have time to reflect on the trip and before I know it I am off with only memories of what is probably the greatest adventure of my life.