2009 – Baffin Babes – 80 days in the Arctic

It took almost 2 years of preparation for our expedition “Baffin Island – 80 days in the Arctic”.

The Baffin Babes team consists of Vera Simonsson(28), Emma Simonsson(26), Ingebjørg Tollefsen(26) and Kristin F. Olsen(27). Baffin Island is Canada’s largest island, and is the 5th largest island in the world.

Read about their exciting adventure:

– “Is it just you? Who is with you?”

– “What do you mean?”, Vera asks the polar bear hunter standing in front of her in a beautiful seal skin jacket.

– “I mean, isn’t there a man with you?”

Elis, the polar bear hunter, looks surprised and confused when he looks over at the tent. He’s expecting a man to pop out of the doorway. Instead, out come two Artic godesses: Emma and Kristin.

For almost two years we’ve been preparing for the expedition “Baffin Island – 80 days in the Arctic”. We started with: Where do we want to go? How long will we be there? What we want to do and experience? All four of us had wanted to go to a place with a proper winter, a place where we could walk for miles on skiis, and a place with indigenous peoples. We rejected Kamchatka because of the cumbersome bureaucracy and dense forested areas, so the choice was Baffin Island, an island in the north-eastern part of the Canadian Arctic. We knew little about the island, and began the task of obtaining information, permits, maps, and solutions to the logistical challenges. Fuzzy telephone lines between Scandinavia and Baffin Island made for a sometimes frustrating and time-consuming process. The fact that the four of us were not in the same spot didn’t help the planning either. Vera Simonsson was guiding in Africa and Antarctica, Kristin Folsland Olsen worked with dogs and photography in Greenland, Emma Simonsson was a full-time student in Gothenburg and I, Ingeborg Tollefsen, worked as a teacher and with dogs on Svalbard. Telephone conferencing over Skype was the solution, at least the few times everyone’s network was working. At the same time as planning, seeking out sponsors, and getting equipment, we also did strength training and put on fat reserves of about 8 kg each.

On March 1st we are finally ready to depart Oslo. At least, three of us are ready. I have struggled with a mysterious stomach problem for much of the winter, and have to stay behind. It is hard to watch the others head off on our adventure, and I focus on getting healthy so I can join them on the second leg. Finally, on March 10, after a few hectic days in Canada with final plans and purchases, Emma, Vera and Kristin are heading northwards from the Inuit village of Qikiqtarjuaq. The thermometer shows -38C degrees and a slight breeze nips at any bare skin. With the sun shining, broad smiles, and a fair amount of tension in the stomach, the girls take the first of many steps on the 80 day journey.

Although the sleds weigh around 100kg they glide relatively easily on the hard layer of snow covering the ice, helped along by two dogs, Buck and Anu. We’ve borrowed the dogs from the capital Iqaluit, and they’re with us to help tow, to guard against polar bears, and for company. And a polar bear guard dog is good to have. The area around Baffin Island has the world’s highest number of polar bears.

– “Is that something moving over there?” Vera is squinting into the ice pack and something catches her eye.

– “Polar bear!”

Binoculars, flare gun and weapons are at the ready within a few seconds. The girls have crossed fresh bear tracks every day, and yet have not met a bear: this teddy bear was headed right toward them, and coming quickly closer.

– “If he goes past the ice I’ll shoot a warning shot!” Kristin says, standing ready with a flare gun.

Emma nods, and Vera lines up the rifle. Suddenly the polar bear changes tack, and shuffles off in the opposite direction. He was probably just curious about what kind of creatures were out in his territory.

The first part of the trip features sunshine and clear blue skies, but the sun is not high enough to provide any heat of note. It’s cold! Three layers of wool on both upper and lower body all the time, day and night, and once we take a break it’s on with down jacket and fur hat. Feet and hands are particularly vulnerable, so we stomp and rub these several times a day to warm them. Some days it’s like they never get warm. Everything freezes! Toothpaste, the oil they’re drinking to ingest more fat, and the snot dribbling from noses.  The roof of the tent is ice. Each girl sleeps in four sleeping bags. The innermost one that should prevent body moisture seeping in to the other bags isn’t working, so every evening the girls must melt the ice in their bag before they can sleep.

The sun gradually continues to get higher in the sky, and bring more warmth. A sense of relaxation and freedom spreads and is enjoyed to the fullest. Eyes wander over ice sculptures and the frozen sea horizon. The powerful sunshine makes the sun rash worse. Although they smear themselves with sunscreen factor 50, all three girls have itchy patches of sun rash on their cheeks. The solution is to cover them with large bandaids. One night as Vera is removing this covering she notices a thin layer of ice between her cheek and the plaster. The new, thin skin is frostbitten and both Vera and Kristin develop blisters overnight. Emma suffers a lot with her feet. At night she dreams that her feet shoot off and are replaced by new, pain-free feet without bloody blisters.

After four weeks the expedition reaches the village of Clyde River. Some of the city’s 1,024 residents come out to meet the girls. It’s Easter holiday and happy children are eager to help pull the sleds the last few hundred meters. Outside the houses polar bear and seal skins are hanging out to dry, and the streets are full of kids playing hockey. Emma, Vera and Kristin go immediately to the store to buy much needed fresh food, and get useful information about the route ahead of them from the village’s hunters, who are in keen discussion outside the shop.

On April 10th we’re finally at full strength. I arrive at Clyde River after what I thought would be a quiet month on Svalbard. Increasingly, I had received long lists from the girls via the satellite phone of things I had to arrange, procure, and fix. Honestly, I’ll admit that I was quite sick of all three of them by late March. But when I finally see them again is all forgotten, and I benevolently share out Elisabeth Arden cream, salt lozenges and snuff, which I got strict orders to buy at the airport at the last minute. Together, we continue preparations for the second leg. We pack all the food in portion packs and day bags, clean sled runners, and repair damaged lines. There’s a lot to do, but we also have time for a social dinner visit and cry on the couch watching “Titanic” on the TV, before we are ready to head away again.

On the first day, I vomit. Tension spreads in the group. This is the problem I had during the winter – I’d had difficulty eating, had spewed up and totally lacked energy. I thought I was healthy, but become nervous when today’s breakfast comes back up again. Fortunately it feels different to how it was in winter, and when Emma spews the next day I’m actually a little relieved. What I had in winter wasn’t infectious, so this can’t be the same thing. We’ve probably caught a stomach bug from Clyde River, and for a period of two weeks at least one of us sick. The dogs and three girls pull the sleds – the sick person has enough to think about, just making sure they can keep skiing. With 120 kg in each sled, this is a hard time. Often we work as two or three, in addition to the dogs, to get the sleds up the hills.

After a week we reach Sam Ford Fiord. This spectacular area is known for its cliff walls that rise 1,500 meters from the sea. Every year climbers and base jumpers come here to play in this secluded paradise. We meet a climber, Dave, and together climb we Broad Peak, an alpine peak at 1892m. One side of the mountain plunges headlong toward the sea ice, and I feel my stomach flutter when I perch on the edge and peer down. Fortunately, there are gentler ways down, so we take off the ski skins and enjoy telemark turns with “Mr Nansen” on sun-warmed snow.

The stomach bug goes and spring is approaching. The temperature is pleasant and the snow conditions are good. The sleds slide almost by themselves and we cross large lakes and wide fjords. We don’t need to ski close together. It is lovely to ski on your own for a while, watch the passing scenery, let your thoughts drift, and enjoy the immense freedom of being on a long trek. Here, we only need to think about our primary needs. We must eat, sleep and ski a certain distance every day. So simple! We don’t need to worry about everything that needs to be done or ought to be done. Nobody can get hold of us, there is no telephone to answer or email to check. I love it! These easier inlet stages are followed by land crossings. Our route alternates between sea-ice and mountains. When we head over a pass it’s grueling, but fun, climbing up narrow riverbeds and moraine mazes. The reward is the view and the wind under our wings, not to mention the downhill skiing to the fiord.

In May the spring is here! The birds are singing, foxes are barking and the hares hop all around the campsite. Vera complains of steamy sunglasses and sweat flowing in torrents between her breasts. According to her, no-one else in the world sweats as much as she does. Kristin is a self-proclaimed sun goddess and loves being able to take off the layers. Then the snow hits.  We’ve had fine weather and good skiing conditions right up to mid-May, but suddenly it begins to snow like crazy. It feels like the sleds suddenly weigh an extra 100kg, and we have to ski in single file to move forward. Whoever has the lightest sled paves the way. We do this for an hour, then switch both sleds and positions. We’re no longer chowing through the kilometers, and realize that we really need to keep pressing on if we’re going to make it over high-altitude glacial areas rather than following the sea ice all the way to Pond Inlet. Emma, our small, 57kg Duracell-bunny sets a cracking pace when she’s up front. Prior to the trip some people were skeptical about such a slight girl taking on an 80-day expedition. Many people thought she wouldn’t be strong enough to tow such a heavy sled. They should see her now! I struggle, however. It’s heavy. I find it hard to admit to myself and the others that I’m not as strong as them. This makes me a bit down, and I know my bottom lip is sticking out.  Every Sunday we have a group talk, called ‘psycho hour’, where we talk about negative and positive things and feelings so that we avoid situations like the one I’ve just created. I find it difficult that Emma and Vera are so incredibly close as siblings, and I often feel like an outsider. Sometimes it seems as if we are 2 and 2, rather than a group of 4. Instead of talking about the problem in an proper way, I make a throwaway comment, and this leads to misunderstandings, hurt feelings and tears. We have to sit down, talk and find a solution. An hour later and we’re hugging each other, and realise that we are nonetheless an unbeatable team.

We’re happy when we realise that we have time to detour up to Jimi Massi Galcier. This is a big goal for us, and with new energy and zeal we approach the first part of the following day’s 1100m altitude. Our disappointment is huge when the fog rolls in the next day and surrounds us like porridge. For a night and a half we’re staring at the compass needle. We’re skiing at night now, it’s too hot to ski during the day. In the wet snow the sleds become insanely heavy, and the snow sticking to our skis is a major irritation. Suddenly the fog and clouds disappear. We’re standing on the highest point, overlooking the glaciers and all the surrounding mountain peaks. It is so beautiful, so incredibly wonderful to see all of it! From here it’s downhill travel all the way.

– “This’ll be easy. We just need to slide down to the fiord!” says Emma with a huge smile, as she tears off the ski skins and heads down across the glacier. The rest of us follow after her.

– “CREVASSE!!!” I yell, as loud as I can.

Not far down the slope it feels like the snow is collapsing under me. Behind me I can hear how the snow is trickling down a narrow but deep abyss. We tie ourselves together and spend the next two days descending through a labyrinth of crevasses. Vera, who has the most experience on glaciers, takes the job of leading us through safely. Behind her we keep hold of the eager dogs, and are constantly ready on the brakes, should Vera fall. Luckily this doesn’t happen and, after two very long days, we pitch the tent close to some sweet-smelling heather.

This final week we have plenty of time and food. The daily stages are short and the rest periods are long. We take time to bathe in seal holes and the ever larger channels that we pass, explore ice castles, and set up camp on wonderful dry land. On May 31st, the 80th day of the trip, we reach Pond Inlet, the end-point of our trip. We are proud and happy because we’ve managed to achieve something we spent the past 2 years planning and training for. We have spent 80 days on skis, we have reached Pond Inlet, we’ve had a lot of fun and experienced so much along the way, and we are still good friends. Nevertheless it’s with sadness and a strange feeling in my stomach that we untie the sleds for the final time. In a few days we’ll leave Baffin Island, its wonderful people, and magnificent scenery. The adventure is over, civilisation awaits.