Sat March 19
All too soon its 5am, the alarm clock buzzes me awake. Groggy and a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach from too little sleep, I pull on my various layers. Strands of pale caribou fur, shed from yesterday’s borrowed pants, has imbedded itself throughout my gear. Months later, I’m still picking the hollow hairs off fleece, hat, long underwear.
Out the window, the brightening sky shows four hunters with loaded komatiks, 6 tanks of gas heading out for some walrus and seal hunting at the flow edge.
Koochi arrives first, topping a bowl of cereal with a helping of frozen seal meat. He has a different komatik, a broader sled with no box. Sak arrives and then Thomasee who was delayed making repairs to the komatik hitch. Adding to the delays last night, Thomasee’s komatik blew sideways, jack knifed at the hitch, its front runner hitting a rock. The whole rig, snow machine and komatik tipped sideways, but in slow motion. I was able to leap off but Thomasee’s leg was slightly pinned. He says nothing but I can’t help but wonder at the size of his bruise.
We load and go. It’s smooth sailing with all conditions in our favour: the ferocious blizzard has blown itself out leaving only a slight headwind. The bright blue cloudless day looks absolutely picture perfect. How daylight paints a rosy picture! The first challenge is the river ice but everyone keeps to the snow patches on the side and there are no problems.
Winding up the Soper River, we pass last nights emergency shelter, its cheery orange exterior, a gaudy but visible dot against snow covered slopes. The river forks at Mount Joy – it looks like an uninspiring bald hump but nonetheless an unmistakeable landmark to all who pass by.
With a steep climb up out of the river valley, I alternatively hang on to Thomasee, the side handles and seat strap but the caribou pants are slippery against the seat leather, and I’m relieved when we finally summit. Pascal’s new machine easily powers up the hill but Sak towing George and Barb, is also struggling. It’s 9am, and we are about 1/3 of the way to Iqaluit…doing the math, I can see that it will be a race to make that 1pm flight departure…more adventure!
Another steep climb up, the snow machines straining under the load. Our komatik flips over and the harness/hitch tears almost completely in two. Another delay! Thomasee muscles the komatik upright and hauls it to a flat spot about 200m away. I look back, see that Sak, Barb and George are also having troubles at the start of the climb, their komatik also over on its side, Sak struggling to right it. Finally at the top, Sak and Thomasee improvise the necessary repairs to the hitch and also to a broken seat spring (under me). Now, I join George in the komatik with lighter Barb riding behind Sak. Having walked up the hill, I overheat and take off the caribou skin pants – this is a mistake I am to pay for during this next section of trail.
Our merry band pushes forward. The last climb out of the valley, goodbye Mount Joy and we are on the top of a barren windswept plateau. This is truly “Meta Incognita” - the name alone thrills my tongue and I repeat it to myself, several times, imagination running wild about long lost explorers whose bones still grace this bleak no mans land. There is no vegetation visible in this desolate stretch of land, only piles of rock that littler the base of the hills, seeming to have been washed down. Hilltop sentinels, stone inukshuks, are the only indication of our route. The snow still swirls up here despite the blue sky and calmer conditions in the Soper Valley. Thomasee’s headlight is barely visible and he is not that far behind. How Mathew found his way last night is remarkable as our snow machine tracks are wind obliterated almost immediately.
I’m getting cold, exposed to the elements and not moving in the back of the komatik. At least my leg muscles contract when riding on the back of the sled, blood being forced into cells and warmth circulating. My camera stays inside my coat (which I later regret) as the cold seeps down my neck and into my jacket.
Sak looks worried, we have lost precious time with unexpected tip overs and hitch repairs. He pushes the throttle whenever he can and I hope we gain time. Stopping for a short warm up, I spy a set of large wolf tracks which I want to follow but time doesn’t permit. Finally, this cold open hill portion is about to end as we descend into canyon country.
The valley narrows, a slight track becomes evident of earlier travelers. The wind has died and its almost hot feeling in contrast to the icy exposed blast of the open country. Suddenly, Sak stops and stands up – he proceeds slowly and we do a sudden drop down of about 7’, over a small frozen waterfall, crusted with wind driven snow. The passage is so narrow I can almost touch the rock walls with my outstretched arms. It is absolutely stunning scenery but no time to stop for photos. At another place, all passengers get out, Sak and Thomasee maneuver the snow mobiles around an especially tricky corner – it’s a dangerous drop with high risk of jack knifing amongst the rock – too many places to bash a head.
We continue along this passage for about 45 minutes, twisting and winding this series of rock and snow canyons until it ends at the top of a long steep hill. Frobisher Bay stretches before us, the agony of riding through jumbled ice fields still unknown. Sak and Thomasee put a thick rope under the snow mobile front runner to slow the descent. Barb and I run down the hill, tumbling and rolling like kids, George descends more gracefully. Regrouping at the bottom, its ‘everybody in’ with no time to waste.
We cross a small flat area, either a frozen lake or shallow bay, ringed by low hills. A few caribou browse their slopes, I can see approaching hunters, their snow machines veering off the trail, in anticipation of a chase. The smooth ride doesn’t last and we are thrust upon the heaved sea ice and hard packed pillars. The tidal sea ice has been broken and repeatedly heaped in random piles, frozen hard, unforgiving. Our speed slows as Sak and Thomasee carefully pick their way between this rough terrain. Careful, careful we go as another set back will unquestioningly cause us to miss our plane. My own fear is not about missing a flight but of a sudden jackknife with my leg trapped or knee twisted under the komatik. The load inside shifts slightly with the next lurch as does George who is riding with me in the box facing me from the rear.
So, it happens. I see it coming, and anticipate the turn over. It’s a slow motion roll over, no one is hurt and no damage done. After reloading everything back into the komatik, a poorly placed pack has resulted in a boot toe (or so it feels) pressing into the small of my back. It feels like a small kick over every bump and jolt we ride over but I can’t shift the pack to relieve my agony. The padding under my bum has disappeared as well, contributing to the bone shaking ride. I lift myself up off the floor with my hands which seems to bring some relief to bum and back. I persevere off and on for 50 minutes, not wanting to stop, fuss, rearrange as every minute now counts.
However, it’s almost more than I can endure. It goes from being annoying to painful to excruciating. When George turns in his seat to estimate how much farther to Iqaluit, he inadvertently puts pressure on my leg which causes more discomfort. With the noise and helmets, he can’t understand what I’m yelling. Weak from pain, compounded by lack of sleep, an empty stomach dusted with gasoline fumes, my psyche borders on dementia with this torture. Later back home, Barb and I compare notes: although she was sitting on the padded seat behind the driver, the sharp jolts troubled her spine and neck. How does Sak manage to live this lifestyle day in and day out, with his back injury?
I loose track of time, everything fades except surviving the next hammering blow. Whimpers and small cries escape from my lips, thankfully my helmet muffles the sound. After an eternity, the fuel storage tanks and oil drums in the Iqaluit harbour come in to sight. Another five minutes and we are on a plowed road, roaring by wooden storage shed to the airport terminal. Barb and I are giggling like idiots, so high on endorphins, a pack in each hand, we stagger inside and present ourselves at the check in counter, minutes before scheduled takeoff. But the laugh is on us as the flight has been delayed for at least one hour! We collapse in heap, in hysterics, laughing uncontrollably. George seems absolutely unfazed by either the jolting ride or our actions. Perhaps he is frozen? Which sets Barb and I off into another laughing fit.
The gear is unloaded. Pascal and Koochi arrive, having missed the circus. I rescue my muskox carving box, hoping that he has made the journey in one piece. Thomasee leaves before I can thank him. I manage to buy Sak a coffee, who is rightly tired but pleased that he got all us tourists here on time and in generally good condition. We chat a bit, I get an inkling of other things I really want to know more about but the clock ticks….they are calling our plane, I hug Pascal good bye, give Koochi a wink and a smile, its all happening too fast and I’m not ready to go!
We board the plane, waving madly, as to lovers we will never again. The last 24 hours and sudden transition from wild komatik ride to Boeing 737 is too much for me to digest. Wave after wave of relief, joy, sadness, elation wash over me. After a warm meal, a few liquor laced coffees, I succumb to the heat of the airplane cabin and slide into a slumber etched with dreams of future return visits to the land of Meta Incognita.