06-Jun-2005 -- COBURG ISLAND 2005, by Sandy Briggs
It has happened before. John phones and says something like "So, would you like to go on an expensive trip to somewhere remote and cold to haul a heavy sled full of food through polar bear country?" My answer was the same: "Sure. What’s the catch?"
This time the objective was to be Coburg Island, a windswept and biology-challenged range of ice-bedecked mountains guarding, as it were, the entrance to Jones Sound, about 25 km off the southeast coast of Ellesmere Island in Canada’s high arctic.
But I am being unkind. Ten years ago the entire 35 km long island was proclaimed as Nirjutiqavvik National Wildlife Area. The reason for this designation was mainly a significant set of bird cliffs near Cambridge Point at the south end, and on Princess Charlotte’s Monument, a prominent sea stack off Coburg’s eastern peninsula. The chief nesting species are thick-billed murres and black-legged kittiwakes, but in the spring of 2005 the area was visited by four odd ducks, transients from far to the south. These were John Dunn, Chris Cooper, Randall Scott, and me. We were attracted, as are the other species, by the opportunity to be near the open water of the great North Water Polynya. When it comes to wildlife, it is the areas where floating ice ends and open water begins that are really where the action is. It is the opportunity to see all the sea birds and the marine life, including polar bears, not to mention the superb scenery and the soul-restoring feeling of wilderness, that brings us back again and again to Canada’s amazing arctic territories.
We arrived in Canada’s most northerly civilian settlement, Grise Fiord, in the middle of May and immediately set off with our skis and sleds (sledges) for the pleasure of camping on the sea ice in beautiful sunshine. It was -15°C. Mid-May is late enough in the spring that open water surrounds Ellesmere’s southern tip, King Edward Point, so we had planned to gain the east coast by skiing across the Manson Icefield, a system of glaciers and icecaps covering much of southeastern Ellesmere. It was during our outward and return crossings of this icecap that we had the poorest, most low-visibility weather of the entire six-week trek, which was otherwise favoured, rather unexpectedly, by clear blue skies.
It was during the crossing of the sea ice to Coburg Island that we saw our first polar bear of the trip. He was a distant and lone hunter, appearing weirdly distorted in the heat-shimmer above the highly reflective snow. Once established on Coburg, we immediately set off to ski up the highest (according to the map) mountain on the island, an unnamed snow-dome that soared to fully 825m. From its cold and windy summit we had a grand view of Baffin Bay, Jones Sound, southern Ellesmere Island and, finally Devon Island, our playground on several earlier trips.
Our anti-clockwise journey around Coburg Island required crossing low passes on the insides of three large peninsulas whose outer extremities were lapped by ocean waves and were therefore unsuitable for good sled hauling. We visited cliff-tops high above the nesting murres, skied or hiked up several other hills, watched seals bathing in the sun beside holes in the ice, saw a pod of belugas from a lofty viewpoint over the ice edge, listened to the distinctive sound of the long-tail ducks and the purring sound of the murres, and hauled our sleds in front of the 40 metre ice-cliffs of numerous piedmont glaciers.
Along the northeast coast of Coburg Island our route took us to the confluence of the 76th parallel of north latitude and the 79th line of west longitude, which was a few hundred meters out on the rapidly melting sea ice. We stopped to take some photographs, including some of our GPS unit showing we were at the exact confluence.
A little further up the coast we had a slightly unnerving encounter with a bear when we unwittingly disturbed her daytime snooze. We first became aware of her presence only because of a loud and persistent growling as she hurriedly climbed up the steep cliffs behind the shore. It was considerably comforting to see this agitated bear headed away from us rather than in our direction.
On the night of June 9th we camped beside a spectacular giant iceberg just off the north coast of Coburg Island. One detached section of this berg looked, from our camp, like a vertical pillar with an armchair at the top. From there we made our westward crossing of Glacier Strait back to Ellesmere, and the homeward part of our trek had formally begun.
As luck would have it, our return crossing of the Manson Icecap also had to be done in whiteout conditions by compass and GPS. It was 'high fives' all round as we reached the sea again at the snout of the mighty Jakeman Glacier. With the crux behind us we were able to proceed back to Grise Fiord at a leisurely pace. We saw numerous muskoxen along the way, and enjoyed the novelty of hiking around on snow-free land to seek out birds, picturesque canyons and ancient archaeological sites.
The melting season was well under way as we made our way toward town. Extensive puddles of water covered the sea ice and dry feet became, for a few days, an unattainable luxury. We arrived uneventfully back in Grise fiord on June 22nd, having had nearly six weeks in the great northern wilderness. Even as our flight took us southward we were scheming about possibilities for future trips.
It had been another very fun adventure.