8 January 2007: Fairbanks
Crossing the Barrens
By David B. Andersen
(From the February/March 2000 issue of UpHere Magazine)
There is a well-deserved mystique about the Barrenlands. The vast expanse of tundra lying north and east of Great Slave Lake is steeped in history and remains one of the largest uninhabited and roadless tracts left on the continent. This region has been the stomping ground of legendary Arctic explorers. The likes of Samuel Hearne, David Hanbury, George Back, and Warburton Pike gained Arctic fame through their early exploits out here. In more recent times, John Hornby’s name has become almost synonymous with the Barrenlands. The English adventurer’s maniacal fascination with what some consider one of the most desolate landscapes on Earth earned him a lasting place in Barrenlands history when he and two companions starved to death on the Thelon River in 1927.
While growing numbers of summer tourists are now finding their way into the heart of the Barrens on fly-in float trips and adventure tours, winter travelers to its far reaches are few, and winter crossings of the Barrenlands in the last half century have been rare. In all seasons, it is still an unforgiving region that demands preparedness and respect.
In 1999 I was a member of the Trans-Nunavut Snowmobile Expedition from Yellowknife to Iqaluit. The Barrenlands loomed large as one of the trip’s major logistical challenges. At the same time, the chance to see and experience this infamous land in winter presented us with one of the biggest reasons to make the trip.
Our group of four departed Yellowknife on March 28, pulling 30 days food and 1,200 pounds of expedition gear in custom-designed sleds. With good weather and no mechanical problems, we hoped to complete the Barrenlands leg in eight to 10 days. On March 29 we stopped briefly at the Chipewyan community of Lutselk’e to take on 230 gallons of fuel for the crossing to Baker Lake 700 miles distant.
With machines straining under their new loads we reached the eastern limit of Great Slave Lake and began the slow climb up Pike’s Portage--a series of small lakes that would lead us to the true beginning of the Barrens. Through thinning trees and commanding views of Great Slave Lake we reached the edge of the Barrens at mid-day on March 31. What gleamed in front of us was John Hornby’s obsession—a seemingly featureless expanse of white vanishing into the northeast horizon. We pushed on.
We quickly found ourselves dealing with the navigational challenges of a landscape that looks the same in all directions. Maps, compasses and odometers became essential tools. Visual references to the sun or drifts in the snow showing the direction of prevailing winds allowed us to maintain a general heading while underway. For reasons of fuel economy, however, our track through the Barrens needed to be precise and we relied on GPS for that accuracy.
We pitched our first Barrenlands camp at the base of an esker near Campbell Lake. It was clear, not a breath of wind, and -22°F. We lounged warm and well-fed in our tents jubilant at our entry into country we had dreamed about for more than a year. A full moon crested above the esker through a dazzling aurora. Already the Barrens was weaving its spell.
Pulling heavy loads through trackless and unfamiliar country, making frequent stops to confirm position, we had the modest goal of 100 miles per day. Most days it was all we could do to make that in 10 hours of travel. Some days we settled for much less.
Over the course of our crossing we experienced a full range of Barrenlands weather. Two clear and calm days with the thermometer hovering at -25°F were followed by a day where we watched the temperature climb 55 degrees in eight hours. That night it rained and refroze, creating a dangerous glaze on the snow that dramatically slowed our approach to the Thelon River country. Fighting machines that would periodically plunge through the jagged crust and flounder in deep snow, a full day of travel netted just 48 miles of progress on April 2.
We entered the Thelon River at its confluence with the Hanbury River. The Thelon forms one of the largest watersheds flowing into Hudson Bay. Along its upper reaches, soil and micro-climate conditions have combined to create and Arctic oddity—the so called Thelon Oasis—an isolated forest hidden far beyond the Northern limit of trees. For two days we followed the frozen Thelon in the luxury of trees—firewood for our tent stoves and the comforting rush of wind through the spruce at night. Then, as quickly as they had appeared, they vanished and we were returned to the Barrenlands.
Our limited sightings of wildlife confirmed the Barren’s reputation of being thin country in winter. Two grey wolves standing long-legged outside our tent one morning provided our most memorable wildlife encounter. Scattered bands of caribou, a few stray ravens, and arctic hares were the only this we saw with any regularity. On the Thelon, we had hopes of spotting muskox but managed only a few fleeting glimpses of moose, and an occasional explosion of ptarmigan in the willows as we sped past.
On the central Barrens lakes of Beverly and Aberdeen our luck with the weather took a decided turn for the worse. Overcast and white-out conditions that had followed us for days joined forces with a ground blizzard pushed by 40 mile per hour winds that made travel impossible. We made a hurried camp along the shore of Aberdeen lake and remained stormbound for 20 hours.
Underway again on April 6, a haze and white-out conditions continued to slow our progress as we left the Thelon and struggled overland toward Baker Lake. Camp 10 was pitched in rugged boulder-strewn hills 37 miles shy of our goal.
A 2 p.m. on April 7, 11 days after our start in Yellowknife, we reached the community of Baker Lake. A dozen elders fishing through the lake ice in front of town were the first to greet us. We struggled with a language barrier trying to explain who we were and where we had come from. The eventual understanding that we had come from Yellowknife brought a vigorous second round of handshakes and a closer inspection of our sleds and gear. During our short stay in Baker Lake to re-supply we were besieged by curious on-lookers stopping by to offer their welcome and ask questions about our route. From them we learned we were the first to make a winter crossing from Yellowknife to Baker Lake in 32 years.
The remainder of our grand adventure went without incident. Through Wager Bay, up the Melville Peninsula, and the length of Baffin Island, each leg had its triumphs and challenges. On the verge of spring, and fighting deteriorating ice conditions in Cumberland Sound, we reached Iqaluit on May 5, having traveled 3,400 miles in 38 exhausting days. In Iqaluit we sold our sleds and machines and hurried home to waiting families and jobs.
“What part would you do again?” friends ask. “There is something about the Barrens,” I tell them, uncertain how describe what that something is. The scenic Thelon, the serenity of our full-moon camp, our visit from the wolves—of all the days and distance we traveled, it is our crossing of the Barrens that conjures the fondest memories. Somehow in all its emptiness, the Barrenlands manages a blend of austere beauty with a powerful sense of history and place. It is a mix that makes it unique in all the world, and for those who have seen it, makes John Hornby’s obsession a bit easier to understand.
Lake Aberdeen Blizzard Camp. Villagers greet the Trans-Nunavut Expedition.