Zenith Watch Ambassador, Edward Cooper recalls his expedition from the Canadian weather station at Eureka, around the southern coast of Axel Heiberg Island, and across the sea ice to Haig-Thomas Island.
It was my friend Alec Greenwell’s dream to retrace his great-uncle’s Arctic Expedition of 1937-38. David Haig-Thomas had been the leader of the British Arctic Expedition and, along with his Inuit guide Nookapinguaq, sledged over 1500 miles from Etah, Greenland to an island west of Axel Heiberg in the Canadian Arctic. This small rocky outcrop was then marked on the charts as Haig-Thomas Island.
The Canadian Arctic has some of the most remote areas on this planet. The high cost of travel to the region deters many would-be tourists and has made it the exclusive enclave of well-funded research programmes and expeditions. It is sad that more people can’t see what beauty the area holds but it was fantastic to have had the privilege of experiencing a place devoid of almost all signs of human activity.
In all the expedition took us three months and two of these were spent in Qaanaaq, Greenland, where we carried out research into modern hunting techniques alongside training for our primary objective: the trek across the sea ice to Haig-Thomas Island. It was an incredible opportunity to work alongside Inuit hunters as they passed on their knowledge of hunting practices and their methods of survival in such a inhospitable place. These hard won, thousand-year-old practices that have been evolved from one generation to the next would prove invaluable to us when we finally went alone, hundreds of miles from the nearest human being.
Our trek took us from the Canadian weather station at Eureka and around the southern coast of Axel Heiberg Island, at which point we headed due west across the sea ice to Haig-Thomas Island.
Inuit hunters relaxing after a sledge race around Inglefield Bay. This photo was taken shortly after the town witnessed their first sunrise in over four months.
Polar travel is often sold in the media as one of survival, challenge and cold. We experienced all of these things but what we also experienced was an incredible array of wildlife – as interested and unafraid of us as we were of them. We were surrounded by Arctic wolves, welcomed into Eureka Sound by the Arctic fox and saw polar bears every other day of the journey. At times we were privileged to catch a glimpse of those ancient beasts, the musk oxen, as they cleared the summit of the snow-covered peaks that surrounded us. Haig-Thomas described the area as ‘an Arctic zoo’ and it was fantastic to see that it is the same place today as it was 80 years ago.
We took advantage of the good weather to make the 50km dash over the sea ice from Cape south west on Axel Heiberg Island and made it over the tide crack on to Haig-Thomas Island three days later. There was a huge sense of relief from both of us having completed what we set out to do and we paid our respects to David in a note that we left under a cairn at the top of the island.
The feeling of isolation and vulnerability during our time there was palpable. However, I believe it is when the mind is exposed to those types of emotions that you are able to best tune in to the environment around you. These feelings were intensified during the blizzards, the absence of distraction and the monotonous plodding into nothing opened our minds to the colour that we had left behind. Friends, relationships and moments took on a physicality that I had never experienced before and we were able to access and replay in fascinating detail the memories that back home had been relegated to fleeting thoughts.