South Aulatsivik. The place that has everything you need. 2017 Expedition Report.

Aulatsivik. Inuktitut: The place that has everything you need.

Inuit have lived on this wildly beautiful Island for hundreds of years precisely because it provides all the necessities of life, at every time of year.

Setting camp on the ice after skiing nearly 200km around South Aulatsivik Island and climbing to the summit of Mount Thoresby, with it's 1000m vertical drop overlooking the Kiglapait Mountains, and the polar bear dens on the Island's northern tip. 

Setting camp on the ice after skiing nearly 200km around South Aulatsivik Island and climbing to the summit of Mount Thoresby, with it's 1000m vertical drop overlooking the Kiglapait Mountains, and the polar bear dens on the Island's northern tip. 

In the spring of 2017 I set out with friends Joonas Plaan (Estonia) and Kevin Boate (Canada) on a 1354km skidoo access to 200km ski circumnavigation of South Aulatsivik Island, in Nunatsiavut, the Inuit homeland on the north east coast of Canada. South Aulatsivik is both wilderness and homeland. In Inuktitut, it's name translates as “the place that has everything you need”, and it’s easy to see why.

On our first day skiing around the island, we crossed the first of 17 sets of polar bear tracks, tracing lines from their dens on the island to the flow edge and it’s seals. As we circumnavigated the island, we followed the trails of wolves tracking hundreds of caribou, who we’d track right to summit of Mount Thoresby on the northern edge of the Island. Trading skis for crampons and ice axes, we ascended to look out over the Kiglapait mountains, as between 60-100 caribou flowed across the tundra valley beneath us. Inland, we’d find fresh signs of lynx, hare, and ptarmigan, remembering the Arctic char that swim the lakes and rivers to the sea each spring. For Inuit, these animals make South Aulatsivik a paradise. 

It’s no wonder then that the place is so rich in archeology. In the 1970’s, Smithsonian archeologist William Fitzhugh identified ten separate sites on the island, including several Maritime Archaic and Dorset sites, and one Groswater site (1977; 1978; 1990). Fitzhugh carbon dated the Early Maritime Archaic burial mounds on the island to 7065±70BP (1978; 1990)* (possibly inaccurately due to methods predating contemporary techniques for marine mammal oil decontamination; see Hayeur Smith et al 2018). The Island is similarly rich in much more recent Inuit history, including a winter sod house complex at Khernertok on the east side of Black Island (Taylor 1966; 1974), and two 6m tent rings and caches on the west side, along with the "Seal House", containing the remains of wooden boats, artifact clusters, and the remains of seals and a small whale (Curtis 2007). While most of these sites were hidden to us beneath the snow, the wind revealed stone caches and Inuksuit along our route, signals of Inuit genius and constant reminders that “our footprints are everywhere.”

It’s still a beloved place for Inuit in Nain, including my friend Caitlyn Baikie and her family, who’s cabin we stayed at on Black Island; my dear friends Sid and Isabella Pain, who also shared their cabin and captured drone footage of our ski, and for Emma-Rose Murphy and Ernie Ford, who poured over maps with us, teaching Inuit place names and natural hazards - the polar bear denning places, the rattles/polynyas of open water and bad ice formed by tidal currents, and, of course, exposure to the awesome wind and cold.

I'm looking forward to pouring through my journal entries for lessons learned, to share more here later. For now, I'll share this extract from my journal, a reflection on the moments before we set out, flying the blue peter, outward bound from safe harbour:

as we warmed up in my house and packed our kits for the morning, we toasted [Students On Ice founder] Geoff Green’s motto, “flexibility is key”: while good expeditions require careful planning, good adventures demand the grace to adapt when things don't go according to plan. The world sends waves. Planning gives us the surfboard, flexibility the grace to surf.  

Joonas Plaan, Andrew Bresnahan, and Kevin Boate on the sea ice around South Aulatsivik Island. (Photo: Sid Pain).

Joonas Plaan, Andrew Bresnahan, and Kevin Boate on the sea ice around South Aulatsivik Island. (Photo: Sid Pain).

Almost ready to go! Now just to fit it on the sled...Atii! 

Almost ready to go! Now just to fit it on the sled...Atii!