Expeditions such as this one, where you don't know your partner well, are like blind dates: they can be the beginning of a lifelong relationship or they can be disasters. I admire Noah's diplomatic style, in which "My legs are a little tired" means "It's your turn to break trail." As an Inuit kid growing up mainly in Cree communities, Noah sometimes had to fight bigger, tougher boys. He rarely won, but because he stood up to them, they mostly left him alone. He may not be as fit as he imagines, but I don't know if he realizes just how mentally tough he is. His inner compass never strays from Kangiqsualujjuaq, and he never complains.
Real Shelter and a Frozen River
A trip of several weeks soon ceases to feel like a finite journey with a remembered beginning and an approaching end. It becomes life. It feels like you've been doing this routine for years and will be doing it, like Sisyphus, for eternity. Such an expedition requires patience, stubbornness and the ability to suffer cheerfully. You need to take the long view. Our immediate goal is the George River, where the trees resume. We look no further ahead.
The 1,000-foot slope down to the river is not as steep as the contours on the map suggest. Still, the sleds almost bowl us over a few times. Once, Noah has to plant his leg to stop the runaway sled and wrenches his knee slightly. It doesn't seem serious at the time.
Every summer, sportsmen fly into George River for its salmon and trout fishing, and a few outfitting camps cater to these anglers. As is usual in the North, the uninhabited buildings remain unlocked, and it's considered OK to overnight in them, as long as you leave them clean. The day after reaching the river, we find ourselves two miles from the nearest cabin when the light fades. Noah's tweaked knee is sore, but there are no nearby trees to camp among, so we continue slowly. In the gathering night it's hard to see past the headlamp beam bouncing off the snowflakes fluttering down. Now and then, the planet Mars peeks out of the fast-scudding clouds, and I use it to double-check our direction. We grope toward the elusive camp for hours. "I've never worked this hard in my life," says Noah.
Finally, a gabled roof etches against the night sky. We unscrew the plywood from one of the cabin doors and I get the propane stove going inside. Too tired for dinner, we chug a double helping of soup and go to sleep.
Our expedition now enters a different phase. The George River runs north to our destination, and navigating is simple point-to-point. Our sleeping bags, dried at the cabin, are fluffy and warm again. If dangerous headwinds rise, we can retreat to the sanctuary of the woods. Success no longer seems in doubt. The remaining 220 miles sound formidable, but a frozen river is a straightforward challenge that yields inexorably to time and patience.
Health Hurdles on the Trail
After four hours' sledding, however, Noah's knee begins to bother him again. We bandage it and stop early. For the first time, Noah is sullen. After he falls asleep, I sit up wondering what we'll do if his leg worsens.
For the next two days, we advance nervously. Noah favours his left leg so much that the right one begins to ache. I take some of his load. At one point, I haul both sleds for a few hours while Noah skis behind, but I doubt whether I can maintain this level of effort, so we spend two days at a cabin to give Noah's legs a chance to recover somewhat. Every morning thereafter, he trusses them in elastic bandages and applies a knee brace.
Now it's my turn to be stricken. Perhaps I pick up giardia from an open creek we drank from at the cabin, because for four days, I can't eat. I manage to travel for the first two days, but for the second two, I lie in the tent and wait for the antibiotics to kick in. Eventually, the ailment passes.
Despite these delays, we have enough food, thanks to the raw caribou and seal that Noah brought with him. He hopes to make this as traditional a journey as possible, and even wants to hunt en route, but we see only ptarmigan. Disturbingly, we spot no signs of the George River caribou herd.
By now, Noah has learned much about sledding and winter camping. At first, when chopping river ice for meals, he used so much force that the pieces shattered to bits. Now his restrained blows easily shear off large chunks. In the rough ice around rapids, he makes skilful anticipatory turns that keep his sled from catching on blocks. He no longer sits down every half-hour for a rest and a bite to eat: he's discovered that one stays warmer by snacking as one goes. "Blood is like a creek," says Noah. "As long as it's flowing, it doesn't freeze." He has become what his father neatly calls a Big-Time Go-Off-er.
Winter yields to spring reluctantly. Near the end of March, we endure -5° F and a frigid 25-mile-per-hour headwind. Then a warm spell, in which the wet snow soaks our boots. This is the worst weather I've ever experienced. In a month and a half, we enjoy just three sunny, windless days.
Noah's leg problems remain in check, and Kangiqsualujjuaq draws nearer. People in Labrador and northern Quebec have been following our progress through Noah's daily satellite position reports and his father's Facebook entries. Noah's quest has touched people's imaginations. Even his mother and father, estranged for years, begin chatting amicably together online about their son.
Mile 350 and the End
On the 44th day, just a few miles from our destination, three snowmobiles approach us. They've come to ask when we'll arrive; apparently an event is planned. My eyes mist. It really is over. "Two and a half hours," I tell them.
Little Kangiqsualujjuaq lies in a secluded cove. In the fog we don't see it, but we can hear a fire engine's siren calling people to the beach. Eventually, we make out what looks like a forest. Drawing closer, we see it's really a long line of people. Almost half the town of 900 has come out to greet us. I hang back, but one woman hugs me and says, "This is very important. Thank you for the work you did." We spend the next hour shaking hands with the long line of well-wishers. They treat Noah as a rock star.
We rest for a few days. After serving as guest of honour at the town's Easter celebration, Noah flies home to Nain. People look at him differently, and the doubters have been silenced, but he hasn't come home with a wife or a new fluency in Inuktitut. A few locals assume that his new status as a role model equates to material success and ask him for money.
Noah doesn't say much about how he feels to have accomplished his dream, but I have a certain amount of experience with these things. You're relieved, calmed, satisfied. You wonder where, if anywhere, this may lead. But feelings tend to be unresolved. You undertook the journey because the idea occurred to you, but you aren't sure why you had the idea in the first place. Afterward, you get the idea to do another trip. That doesn't resolve anything either. But it feels like you're going in the right direction.
Jerry Kobalenko's writing and photography have appeared in hundreds of publications around the world, including National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, Canadian Geographic and Time. His books Arctic Eden and The Horizontal Everest recount the author's lifelong love affair with the Canadian High Arctic. See more at Kobalenko.com.
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