2008 – Sverdrup Pass, Ellesmere Is Hike

The north has always appealed to us for hiking, backcountry ski, and canoe trips.  We are attracted by the remote, vast, and unpopulated landscapes.  Ellesmere Island is extra special; it is “the north of the north”.  Ellesmere Island is the most northerly island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.  At over 83 degrees north, the northern tip of Ellesmere Island is within a few kilometers of being the most northerly point of land on earth.

Ellesmere is the tenth largest island on earth and is about the same size as all of the United Kingdom.  Yet it has only about 200 permanent inhabitants in two locations: Grise Fiord, an Inuit community on the south shore, and Alert, a military base near the north end.  Another 200 or so people are stationed temporarily or seasonally at Alert, Eureka (a weather station), and at the national park office at Tanquary Fiord.  Perhaps another 2-300 tourists and researchers visit the island each year.

Our first trip to Ellesmere in 1996 was a hike from Lake Hazen at almost 82 degrees north to Tanquary Fiord.  The Sverdrup Pass trip described here was in 2008.  We did a hiking traverse across Ellesmere at about 79 degrees north, about half way up the island where it narrows.  Sverdrup Pass is named after Otto Sverdrup a Norwegian explorer.  He overwintered four times on Ellesmere between 1897 and 1902 and traveled across the pass to discover and explore the large islands west of Ellesmere.

We allowed ourselves 19 days to do a trip that occasional guided groups do in two weeks.  That worked out well for us.  We got to know the area well and spent real quality time watching Musk Ox, Arctic Fox, and Arctic Hare.  We saw no Arctic Wolves or Peary Caribou which would have been nice, and no Polar Bears which would have been not so good if they had been close.

Our plan was to first land in the middle of the trip at the top of Sverdrup Pass to place a food/fuel cache.  We would then fly west to start the trip at Irene Bay.  We were to be picked up at Beistad Fiord where we knew groups had been picked up before or somewhere on the Knud Peninsula where no one we talked to seemed to have any knowledge of potential landing strips.  (All Ellesmere trips except those out of Grise Fiord involve chartering a Twin Otter plane from Resolute.  They need a reasonably smooth landing strip a minimum 10 meters wide by 200 meters long with no big rocks.)

The first part of the trip went more or less as expected.  We were lucky and placed the cache just as a small storm was approaching.  If we had been an hour or two later we would likely not have been able to land in the pass which would have been a real problem.

We had hot weather for the first week; hot enough that we were sleeping on top of our sleeping bags at night.  There is no actual night in July, the sun literally just circles around in the sky.  At midnight at a latitude of 79 degrees north the sun is only 22 degrees lower in the sky than at noon.  (Can you calculate the noon/midnight difference in the sun’s angle in the sky for any latitude?  I have just given you all the relevant facts.)  The noon/midnight difference in the sun’s position is hardly noticeable but it is enough to cool the air a bit.

The warm day temperatures were actually a problem in that the creeks were high.  We stopped early a couple of days so we could wait until morning when creek crossings were easier.  We were worried that the big, unnamed river we were traveling along was going to be not crossable at all.  At one point after a particularly warm day it looked absolutely impossible; we thought we might have to turn back without getting to the cache.  When the time came two days later however we were able to cross it after a few hours of looking for a feasible route.

The High Arctic—defined as being the most northerly of the arctic islands—are mostly a polar desert, as dry as any desert in North America.  The terrain we were traveling through up to that point was very barren with almost no vegetation at all.  This was the most barren landscape we’d ever seen in the arctic; even more than the Lake Hazen area 300 km further north.  As we approached to top of Sverdrup Pass however the ground became lusher with patches of actual meadow here and there.  That’s where we started seeing the wildlife.

As soon as we arrived at the cache the first thing we did was sit and watch a group of about a half dozen Musk Ox.  The weather was still marginal and there were some day trips to do so we stayed at the cache for three days.  We got up close and personal with one Musk Ox bull who came by to check us out when the two of us were out for a walk one afternoon.  We didn’t feel like we were in any danger; he wasn’t making any threatening moves.   He just walked towards us and turned aside when he was about ten meters away.  It really looked like he was just curious.  That was special moment; we’d seen lots of Musk Ox on previous trips but never had an encounter like that.

We had some decisions to make: what to do from that point forward.  We had a week left and thought that it would take three days to get to Beistad Fiord.  We had been told that Beistad landing strip had yet to be used that year and there was a possibility that it may have been washed out that spring;.  We also knew that the last day’s descent into Beistad can be particularly hard with multiple crossings of the same sizable creek.  Bypassing Beistad and looking for a landing strip further out on Knud Peninsula was an option but there were definitely no guarantees that we would find one.  After considering all the options we decided to do a big loop from the cache and plan on getting picked up there.  We called the air charter company on our satellite phone and told them the change of plans.  From the cache we left the main valley and traveled two days in marginal weather to what would have been the last camp before descending to Beistad Fiord.

One more day trip and it was time to start heading back.  That day was completely clear; our first in quite a while.  We opted to partially backtrack the route back towards the cache in order to travel high and see the views which were spectacular.  On day 19 we were picked up in the early afternoon, just as a storm was approaching.  We were lucky again and flew out as planned.  Another great arctic trip.

Following are three videos and a slideshow:

  1. Video clips of Musk Ox.
  2. Video clips of Arctic Foxes and Arctic Hare.
  3. Miscellaneous video clips of panoramas and hiking.  The video ends with the plane taking off for flight back to Resolute.
  4. Slideshow of the whole trip.

You can see the videos in full screen view and in higher resolution by pressing the buttons on the lower right.

Musk Ox Video:

Arctic Foxes and Arctic Hare Video:

Miscellaneous Video Clips:

Now the slideshow. Press the white button on the top right to get a full screen view. Select the first photo and then click the arrows on either side of each picture to scroll through the set.