Words by Vincent Colliard
Photos by Caroline Côté
Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet) is a small Inuit community belonging to the Nunavut territory and located in the North of Baffin Island. We are in the heart of the Canadian Arctic, at the entrance of the infamous North West passage. And Mittimatalik will be the starting point of our honeymoon, together with explorer Caroline Côté, as we plan to ski around the uninhabited Bylot island, right on the other side of the village.
I met Caroline, an adventure cinematographer and ultra-runner from Québec during a guided expedition in Antarctica. Since then, we became partners in crime on the ice and also life companions. As a couple, we like to step outside of our comfort zone in order to grow together. Going on expeditions taught us not to spend too much energy on worthless details and focus on what’s important. Leaving with as little gear as possible and unsupported makes us truly happy. As Caroline said once: “We are building on expeditions what we want to build in our daily life”. Married for only a few months, we find our happiness in the present moment and the simplicity.
We were indeed tempted to go in the warmth, getting sun tanned and drinking cocktails. But since our bodies are so white due to too many expeditions in the polar regions, we would anyway not end up with a nice tan but “red ketchup style” instead. The truth is that the magnet of the North was stronger and for us, nothing is better than skiing on sea ice striving to find our place in this wild eco-system, far from the turpitude of men.
A decade ago, I sailed through the North West passage together with Børge Ousland and Thorleif Thorleiffson. Sailing along the coast of Bylot island stayed in the back of my head. From a polar exploration point of view, it has it all. And when Caro mentioned: “I always dreamt about circumnavigating Bylot!”. We naturally agreed. “Let’s go drink Rhum-Coco in the Caribbean islands next time!”
Before sharing stories of smelly socks and icy moustache, it is very important for me to understand the past history and the culture of the places I explore. Now, we are on Inuit territory. Gathering information about the province of Nunavut opened my eyes and rose even higher my respect towards the first nations who, not so long ago, suffered from the Canadian authorities.
After WWII, the Canadian federal government forced Inuit first nations to relocate in order to ensure the country its sovereignty in the high Arctic. Families were torn apart. They were basically evicted from their homes and promised a better future. They soon discovered that they had been misled.
On top of the relocation, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police killed their dogs. Was it in the name of security in the villages of the Far North? Or was it to avoid the Inuits to travel freely across their land? A massacre that disrupted the Inuit way of life. “Qimmiq”, dog in Inuktitut, played such an important role as it was a mean of transportation, a way to move and follow the herds.
The relocations of the Inuits are often referred to as a dark chapter in Canadian history and it continues to affect their lives. During the whole length of our expedition, Caroline and I kept these facts in mind. We felt blessed traveling through Inuit territory.
April 9th, we left Mittimatalik. 475km of wild territory lied ahead of us. Not to mention the polar bears, the foxes and the wolves, Bylot Island is a sanctuary for birds. It is the nesting ground of the thick-billed guillemot, the black-legged kittiwake and the greater snow goose. North of the island lies the Lancaster Sound where narwhals and seals take a breath before diving again into the dark blue depth of the Arctic Ocean.
Suddenly, I felt free again. The time did not matter anymore. The pressure of a busy life in the city is far gone. I am coming back to life. Ice is my element. I am always excited at the beginning of an expedition because I have no idea about the outcome and we might also experience some moments that could change the course of our lives.
One of the highlights of the expedition was definitely the wonderful polar bear encounter. Meeting a polar bear in his natural habitat is one of the reasons why I keep on coming back to the polar ocean. During the trip, we sometimes met up to 10 polar bear tracks per day which was clearly a good sign of a stable and healthy eco-system.
One evening, Caroline was in the vestibule of the tent while I was outside fixing the bear fence around the tent. Before joining Caro, I made a 360-degree scan. Suddenly, I rewound. Was there really a polar bear 30 meters away from us? I started singing a song. Caroline and I agreed before the trip that we shall sing a song as soon as one of us spot a bear. Hearing my voice singing, Caroline immediately put outside our safety equipment of the tent and stepped out. We were now together outside, side by side, singing. The bear slowly went away and ended up hiding behind ice blocks. Fortunately, he didn’t invite himself into our tent for breakfast the following day.
I really enjoyed experiencing this moment together with Caro. She handles this type of situation in such a clever and detached way. She has the ability to stay very calm as if nothing is happening. The kind of attitude where she really accepts her destiny, no matter the outcome, wrong or right, and deals with it.
From a potentially dangerous moment, it turned out to be a magical moment. A few seconds of deep connection with nature, staring into the eyes of a bear roaming free in its territory, is worth all the hours of preparation to get there. To me, polar bears aren’t dangerous in general. They are simply on top of the food chain. Human is quite good at creating monsters. When we look at the current state of our planet, who’s the threat?
This expedition around Bylot island will remain engraved in our memories for the rest of our lives. 18 days, 475km unsupported in the land of mineral purity will be like a diamond in our minds. We felt lucky to live these moments to the fullest, far from the turpitude of men, and close to the polar bear who reigns over his kingdom and whose future is like that of man, compromised.
Alright! Let’s talk products. On this trip, I used the jacket, bib, mittens, facemask, and hat from the Arktis collection. I mean, why use anything else 😉? To me, it is the ultimate collection for expeditions in an unforgiving environment like the Arctic. Expedition partner on the Icelegacy project, Børge Ousland, has collaborated with Norrøna to create this battle mode collection.
The jacket is long and provides extra protection on the thigh. The big pockets are easy to open even with gloves. Going unsupported on expeditions men carry extra things and these pockets are just perfect for storing compass, GPS, matches, tools…
The pants are like a Viking armor! I feel very protected. The flaps all along the side zippers avoid the ice to collect on them. The knee pads allow me to work comfortably on the ground, especially when I am tired and my back hurts. It does, I am getting older 😅. Geezzz!
Plus. The Gore-Tex Pro membrane is tough. In 2022, during the first winter crossing of Svalbard, I brushed off the ice that accumulated of my jacket and pant up to 1H30min some days! Better to have a strong and resistant membrane.
One big lesson learnt on tough expeditions: putting on/off the mittens must be as simple as possible. I have a good pair of mittens when I can put them on without using my hands. The idea is to lock the glove under my armpit and still be able to take them on and off. So extra room in the entrance of the mittens is crucial. Life should be very easy when temperatures are brutal.
Here are my guidelines for sizes of down/synthetic jackets I put on top of my GTX jacket. Consider that when I am home, I use M:
- temperature range -10c to -20c, I wear L;
- temperature range -30 c to -40c, I wear XL;
- Below -40c, I pray.
It goes the same for the sizes of my mittens. Through the years, I realized that we shouldn’t be afraid of taking bigger sizes. Extra room is necessary to create an air chamber of warmth around the hands.
Vive la collection Arktis!