The sun was still bright as we set up camp, under the watchful eyes of near by Muscox. They ran around us to gain the ridge above camp, where they held their position all night. Occasionally giving us a grunt to let us know we were on their turf.
Even with the sun high in the sky, the bitter polar easterly winds constantly chilled. An ever-present reminder of the harsh living conditions found here. As we traversed a wide basin, travel became increasingly difficult as the snow and ice started to melt in the short Arctic summer. Streams that were easily crossed without getting your boots wet, now swelled into raging rivers. The only way to cross was wading through the frigid waters using hiking poles for support on the slippery rocks. If the winds hadn’t chilled you to the bone, knee deep in ice water would!
Cape Hardy is the point of land that we have been trekking towards for a couple days. It is a mountain like feature that makes up its own peninsula. We make camp on a high point of land that looks to the frozen ocean to our east, and to our west. Our tents are dwarfed by the massive headland above. Looking up to the plateau, a second small heard of Muscox peer down. Daytime temperature is between 5 and 10 degrees Celsius. This marks the warmest temperature this area will see all year. Small resilient arctic plants work hard in the intense yet short growing season. Purple Saxifrage is a small flower that only blooms for a few days a year. We are in peak season, and the tundra changes before our eyes from snow, to a dull brown to a blooming deep purple.
At the northern most end of Cape Hardy lie the ruins of the ill-fated Franklin Cooke expedition. Not to be confused with James Cooke, Franklin Cooke was also a British explorer charged with finding the Northwest Passage. In the late 1700s, Cooke's expedition got caught in the sea ice, and was forced to overwinter on Devon Island. A make shift encampment was built for the cold dark Arctic winter ahead. Timbers from their damaged ship were used as beams, rocks were piled into walls, and what little tundra that was available was made into walls and ceilings. Remains of an old tall ship, these primitive sod houses, and various bones are scattered around what looks to be the most hospitable place on the Cape. Records and logs show that the crew was able to survive the winter by trapping arctic fox, and eating seal meat. But the following summer when the sea ice retreated, the expedition was lost at sea.
It took three hard days of hiking up and over the last mountain range before the Truelove Basin, and our pickup point. This basin has an abundance of food and water sources, making it a mecca for wildlife. Muscox skeletons litter the ground. Evidence of recent Polar bear activity kept the entire group at a heightened level of awareness. Our trek had only 10km left.
Tired, cold and wet, we approached the dilapidated research station, and makeshift airstrip at Truelove. This site was set up as a top-secret military base, for pre Cold War high Arctic reconnaissance. It later was handed over to the Arctic Institute of North America as a research field site. In recent years this site has remained vacant. Various universities have tried to maintain field sites here, but the harsh climate and high costs made it prohibitive. For more than 70 years, supplies have been flown in to the short and bumpy airstrip, but no one has ever bothered to take anything back out. 70 years worth of scientific equipment, portable buildings, primitive snowmobiles, spent fuel drums, and junk, are spread far and wide. Some things have been destroyed by wind, others ripped apart by hungry bears. Whatever it once was has long been forgotten and discarded. More proof of the harsh realities and challenges of the high Arctic. From Franklin Cooke, to military personnel, to today’s PHD students, few have ever been able to with stand this climate for any length of time.
After exploring the modern ruins of the research station, it was time to wait for our pickup. Again the twin otter would make an attempt to reach us in the deteriorating weather. Nothing is a guarantee. Especially getting home on time.
At some point in time, one of the occupants of the station must have smuggled in a set of horseshoes. Most likely an attempt to pass the lonely hours of solitude. We played a few rounds in the most northerly horseshoe pit in the world. A unique and fantastic way to end a unique and fantastic trekking expedition. Possibly the most remote place in Canada, providing some the most amazing scenery, wildlife encounters, and adventure in the world. Till next time Devon Island!
Links for Devon Island: