Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 6, 2021
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Magnetic North

The pristine beauty of Bylot Island draws visitors to the Arctic Circle

My childhood wish had always been to visit the Arctic, but it took years for the pieces to fall into place. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined what I would find 700 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. Bylot Island is a jewel of the Canadian North, untouched, unpredictable and unique.

More than twice the size of Prince Edward Island, this polar wilderness lies within the protected boundaries of Sirmilik National Park in Nunavut. The name Sirmilik comes from the Inuit word for "place of glaciers." Here, great rivers of ice flow over the landscape and wind their way through ancient mountain ranges. Their massive weight carves deep valleys as they make slow but unwavering progress to the sea.

Me and my shadow
I had travelled to Bylot Island to explore and photograph this remote area for Parks Canada. No humans live here. There are no hotels, airports, or roads -- not even hiking trails. And not a sign in sight.

Hiking in the Arctic requires endurance. Distances can be hard to estimate without trees or large rocks to give the landscape scale. At first glance, the tundra appears nearly level and relatively smooth. Then the scramble begins. Loaded down with camera gear, I trudged over endless tussocks and slippery rocks, through shallow creeks and foot-sucking mud, across glaciers, moraines and mountains, all the while making innumerable stops to take pictures. I was in sensory overload and everything excited me.

I danced with my shadow in the midnight sun, energized by July's never-ending daylight. A valley opened below me scattered with the gracefully sculpted hoodoos. Carved by the wind from pale sands, they stood like sentinels in the vast landscape. As I approached for a closer look I found layers of seashells, half a meter thick, compressed in the stone.

As I walked I became aware of the fragile crust over the fine sand. No matter how softly I tread, it cracked, then shattered, reminding me that I was an intruder in this pristine environment.

Beyond the valley, butterflies floated among the tiny colourful wildflowers that carpet the land. During the few weeks of summer, constant daylight encourages more than 360 species of plants to grow here. I began to wonder if the 200 rolls of film I had brought would be enough.

Strange Geometry
In the lowlands, I was intrigued by a phenomenon found only in this part of the world: tundra polygons. Water that seeped into the ground expanded as it froze, creating fissures. Over centuries, each successive freeze-thaw cycle enlarged the cracks, eventually creating distinct geometric patterns, beautiful in their simplicity. Enhanced by the summer rain, they glimmered like silver jewels tossed into the rich green vegetation. These still pools of water reflected tiny islands of bright green moss encircled by slender grasses, reminiscent of a Japanese painting.

Although Bylot Island is distinctly lacking in signs of human activity, it is an area rich in wildlife, home to arctic fox and hare, weasels, lemmings and caribou. In the surrounding waters, great whales, orca, narwhal, beluga and bowhead dive and frolic. Polar bears den along the northeastern coast and seals and walrus survive on the bountiful resources of the sea.

Northern Nests
In 1965, Bylot Island was designated as a sanctuary for migratory birds. Fifty different species choose this area as their annual nesting site. The world's largest breeding colony of greater snow geese also migrates here. During the short summer season, the geese nest, raise young and tenaciously graze the abundant arctic grasses, gathering strength and energy for the southward migration. In 1999, there were a recorded 800,000 geese on the island.

Hundreds of thousands of seabirds also return to the north end of Bylot each year: kittiwakes, thick-billed murres and fulmars crowd narrow ledges to raise their young on the towering cliffs.

Overwhelmed, I came to accept the fact that it would take a lifetime to do justice to the beauty of this landscape on film. I rested on a lichen-covered rock, high on a ridge. To my right, an immense glacier slipped between rugged mountains. Below, a drifting iceberg turned to burnished gold in the low sunlight. Behind me, my tiny blue tent sat alone amid miles of rolling tundra untouched by humans. And my childhood wish, finally realized, had given birth to a new dream of trips to come.


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