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I Hiked Across Baffin Island: Here’s Three Lessons Learned in the School of Adve


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I Hiked Across Baffin Island: Here’s Three Lessons Learned in the School of Adversity

“Many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased.” John Steinbeck


I hiked across Baffin Island.

To be more geographically correct, in 2005, along with two friends, I trekked for 11 days, and covered well over 100 kilometers, on a one way traverse of Auyuittuq National Park’s Akshayuk Pass. The day we left Quiquitarjuak the locals were busy scaring polar bears away from the village with bear bangers. For the first part of the hike we trailed in the wake of an invisible, enourmous (size 12 footprints) Arctic Wolf, busily engaged in killing and eating various migratory birds. We hauled huge packs across endless muskeg bog, raging rivers, and daunting terminal moraines. We crossed the Arctic Circle from north to south, summited 5,000+ft peaks, battled squadrons of mosquitoes, wandered the surface of huge glaciers and gazed with wonder upon giant mountains including Thor, which boasts the tallest, steepest, unbroken cliff face on earth. We did all this while keeping a constant vigil against possible polar bear attack. Several people have been killed or injured in various ways here in the past, and fewer than 50 make the attempt annually. Understandably, as this was an adventure well beyond the realm of your average ‘walk in the park’, it’s taken awhile to process.

Nevertheless, here are three things I learned along the Akshayuk traverse which, I would argue, could be equally applied to any courageous endeavour you choose to pursue back in your (hopefully warm, dry, and safe) workplace:

1. You can do anything you put your mind to, in bite sized chunks

‘I’m not going to make it’, I said to myself. It was Day 1. My pack was at its heaviest, my levels of acclimatization to ‘the suck’ at its lowest. It was hot, buggy and, to add insult to injury, we were slowly squelching our way uphill through a vast alpine arena richly upholstered in endless, ankle deep, muskeg. The thought of failing on the first day was ridiculous, of course. In the past I had endured similarly difficult challenges.  However, in the past, I was a young and supremely fit paratrooper, not a middle aged office worker. Eventually, I stopped and had a little chat with myself as I sometimes do on such occasions, and decided that a) yes, I was capable of continuing and b) I needed to break up this (ugly) part of the journey into smaller, more manageable, bite sized chunks. Looking ahead I could see a boulder sticking out of the muskeg about 100 meters ahead. ‘That’ I said to myself ‘is my next finish line’ and off I went, slowly but surely. On reaching my first ‘finish line’ I searched ahead for another, found it, reached it and repeated this mental inch worming until, eventually, I reached firmer ground like a ship wrecked sailor reaching a lifeboat chanting ‘I think I can…”. Of course, the support of my colleagues, who were similarly struggling yet also seemed to find a way to make it work, helped to keep me going too.

Top Tip: When things look too big, or too impossible, to tackle all at once don’t quit, grab a team, then pick off the big, scary thing in smaller bite sized chunks. 

2. Be a cautious entrepreneur

When you’re on a long range, self-propelled journey like ours, you are always worried about time. You can only carry a finite amount of supplies: food and fuel principally. As a result, you try to move as fast as possible along your route so that, should the occasion arise and you are delayed in one location for longer than anticipated, by extremely bad weather for example, you have enough reserves on hand to safely wait it out (without having to eat your smelly partners). However, this hike demanded a certain amount of caution. We had heard about people being killed crossing some of the large, swift, frigid, glacier fed rivers. One of the groups who went in a week before us had someone collect a broken leg after a large boulder fell off a mountain. Log books in the safety shelters described being trapped inside for days by marauding polar bears. Clearly, while beautiful, the scenery out here could kill you if you weren’t paying attention, or even if you were. As a result, we adopted a policy of what I like to call ‘entrepreneurial caution’. For example, although sometimes the route across this river or that gigantic mound of glacial moraine seemed straightforward, before fully committing ourselves into the unknown, we would sniff around a bit, testing various ways through or around, much like you would test a cake. In this way we would discover various obstacles in seemingly innocuous features and, forewarned, would be able to circumnavigate terrain traps such as pleasantly smooth beaches that turned out to be quicksand, or majestic spires of apparently solid stone that turned out to be rock slide ready choss guillotines. The time we invested in these somewhat tiresome continuous mini-investigations, try shuffling around on a steep gravel bank with 70lbs on your back sometime, clearly paid dividends in the form of safe and timely progress.

Top Tip: Be curious, be humble and, when in doubt, look before you leap. Literally.

3. Professionals discuss logistics

Napoleon once said ‘Amateurs talk tactics, professionals study logistics’, and nothing reflected our approach to this trip more than our logistical planning. Earlier, I mentioned the importance of food and fuel to our success. The health of our supply of these important commodities dominated much of our thoughts before, and during, our trip.

We started with a study of the available information on this area including interviewing a couple of people who had completed the trip before. Most reports suggested that, with good going and relatively fair weather, we could complete the traverse handily within 11 to 12 days. Of course, given the many uncertainties, we decided to pack food for 16 days, just in case, and take extra fuel so we could dry out if we accidentally took a dip in one of the hundreds of water courses. Remember, we were above the treeline, so no jolly smore graced bonfires for us. We discovered that, if we pared all our other clothing and equipment down to the bare minimum (I only took one extra pair of socks and vacillated mightily over that decision) we could afford to carry enough food and fuel for a 16 day period. This allowed us about 2 lbs of food each per day, a seemingly ridiculously small amount for people burning 4000 to 5000 calories. Even then, our packs easily topped out at about 70lbs apiece, which meant we would need to be properly fit. So, before the trip, that’s what I trained with. About six months before we left I made up a pack containing 70 lbs of gear and regularly launched myself up and down various local peaks, or the staircases of tall buildings, preparing myself physically for the challenge. Nothing helps you connect personally with the famous Scouting Motto: Be Prepared, than the prospect of a looming, monumental physical challenge.

Top Tip: With a little forethought and preparation, by the end of any project, you can do far more than you think you could, with far less than you thought you needed.



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    Baffin Island 243.jpg
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