Most people prefer an all-inclusive resort in Cancun or a fishing trip to Baskatong. For the three of us, a week on a fatbike in Nunavik is ideal! Being an airplane pilot in Northern Quebec for several years, I decided 6 months ago to try a new bikepacking expedition. Having successfully completed a bike crossing between the villages of Tasiujaq and Kuujjuaq, I felt ready for a new adventure.
Finding guys crazy enough to go a week on a fatbike and pedal 200 km on the tundra in total autonomy is not an easy task. After an evening spent with my friend Alexandre Dufresne, I share my idea and my dismay at the difficulty of finding acolytes for this project. Having experienced the sudden death of his father the previous year, Alexandre is thirsty for challenges and offers to accompany me on this crazy adventure. I tell him it might be better to sleep on it, just to let the idea mature. A few days later, he contacted me again: “Hey, are we still going to Nunavik?” I am surprised to see that the idea remained with him! I now have a partner!
Then during the week. I contact another good friend to see if I can persuade him to join us. Félix-Antoine Brunet, a calm guy, tells me without hesitation that he too would join us on this trip.
We now had a dream team! I know at this point that no matter what the outcome of our expedition, we were guaranteed to have lots of fun.
The route was simple. Take a plane to Puvirnituq, from there head south to try to reach the village of Inukjuak. About 200 km of tundra separate these two villages, because in Nunavik no road suitable for motor vehicles connects the different villages to each other. Air is the primary form of transportation, but a few times a week some Inuit hunters also use snowmobiles to reach a nearby village. It was when I looked out of my cockpit window and saw the big snow trails looming before my eyes that the idea of cycling through villages came to me.
We all arrive in Puvirnituq and establish a game plan for the next few days. The weather looks much worse than previously forecasted. We only have one week to attempt a crossing so we take the chance to leave and, if the weather deteriorates, we will limit our travel and our mileage.
Our strategy is to get up at dawn and take advantage of the freezing night to cover as much ground as possible with the good snow conditions. We don’t even think about the potential obstacles that could potentially lay ahead.
For starters, after less than a kilometer, Alexander’s rear derailleur broke. We are forced to return to the village to attempt repairs. We are several hundred kilometers from the nearest bicycle shop. Only a few hours later, a colleague from Puvirnituq offered to lend us his fatbike for our week. We are saved!
A few hours after our first attempt, we are back on the tundra. The temperature is mild despite a strong headwind, our morale is high! Leaving the village, we are surprised to see the children of the community dog sledding, building an igloo and ice fishing. A cultural day was scheduled on the agenda without our knowledge. Children are impressed by our oversized bikes and overflowing luggage. Adults are puzzled. The question that comes up most often?
“Why not?” I responded immediately.
Discouraged, the Inuits advise us to be careful and frequently check the state of our gear. Adventure tourism is completely nonexistent in Puvirnituq and white people from the south generally come to work rather than ride bicycles loaded like mules.
After several hours pushing our bikes south, we find the few traces of snowmobiles that form the trail that will take us to Inukjuak. The weather is difficult, our clothes are starting to get soaked due to the rain, snow and wind. After more than 7 hours of effort, we decide to put up the tent for the night. I take a look at my GPS only to discover that we covered a meager 20 km on our first day!
As we pitch the tent we make sure to solidify everything against the beating winds and the rain working against us. We begin to realize the urgency of our situation. We are completely soaked and our body temperatures are dropping rapidly. Upon entering the tent, Felix-Antoine begins to manifest symptoms of hypothermia. He quickly changes into dry clothes and puts on his down coat. For my part, I go out to tighten the canvas of our tent. I barely plant the stakes as my muscles stiffen with the cold. I go back into the tent where I change and realize that my clothes are so wet that I feel like I have a wetsuit on my body. Meanwhile Alexandre is in a much better position as his quality coat withstood the weather. Once all dried up, we realized that our first day was more eventful than expected. Reality hits us as we come to the conclusion that our day clothes are soaked and therefore no longer usable. Continuing south using our remaining dried clothes would be very risky because our night clothes are made of feather down. We therefore take the decision to ask for help from the village with our distress beacon. This would allow us to come back with a search and rescue team.
The team that arrived more than 16 hours later is made up of the best hunters in the village. The Inuits are surprised to see us in our little tent. They generally use the tupik, a spacious fabric tent heated by a small stove that they carry with them by snowmobile. They still offer help and make sure our team is in good health. I have a lot of respect for these men who know this terrain like the back of their hand, but I am fully aware that they will make fun of us during the days to come!
The return to the village by snowmobile will take 40 minutes … What has required 7 hours of continuous effort seems so fast. The weather is still very bad and we are satisfied with our decision to return to the village. I am particularly disappointed that I cannot continue to advance towards Inukjuak.
Alexandre suggests making smaller expeditions, just driving and staying within a day’s walking distance from the village. I find the idea good considering the weather which prevents us from making the big crossing (I will learn later that for several days the flights to Inukjuak were canceled due to the weather).
This time we are heading north. The idea is to make an igloo about twenty kilometers from the village. This could serve as an intermediate camp if we wanted to attempt a crossing to Akulivik. The day is going well, the wind and snow seem to have slowed down, although we are progressing very slowly. The conditions don’t allow us to use our bikes often. We push our bikes most of the time. A new sport is born, “bikepushing”! I think we are slowly becoming the champions.
Around 4:00 p.m., we start building the igloo. Having done a few small igloos in the past, I know that it is a task that requires a lot of time and precision, especially for an igloo capable of covering three people. After more than 4 hours of effort, the igloo is progressing well and getting taller. Closing the igloo roof is the hardest part. To make it easier, we use Montreal’s Olympic stadium for inspiration. A blue canvas will serve as a removable roof.
Comfortably installed in our igloo, we are very satisfied with the space. It’s much bigger than our tent. The evening meal will be great as we are in a better situation than in a tent. Throughout the night, I feel the wind rising. The well-stretched canvas anchored on our bikes begins to beat in the wind. Blowing snow suddenly enters our igloo through all the small holes left under the canvas. I’m starting to feel the snow accumulating in a thin layer in our igloo. In the morning, I realize that a blizzard had been sweeping our igloo for several hours. I take a look outside and the visibility is very low. The situation worries us: our sleeping bags and all our luggage are covered with a 5cm layer of snow. The canvas that serves as our roof also threatens to give way, after having flapped in the wind all night. Our down sleeping bags are now wet. We hope that the blizzard will not confine us to our igloo for several days.
I wish I could go back to the village without having to call for help a second time in a week! The men of the village would make fun of us for far too long! I also know that in the same region as us, a hunter is still missing. He got lost due to the poor visibility and the communities of Puvirnituq and Akulivik are still looking for him. Finally, the visibility improves, allowing us to pack up. The fresh snow has erased our tracks of the day before, so we pulled out our GPS as we knew this might happen. This time we return to the village on our own and award ourselves the gold medal in all categories of bikepushing!
To end our week, our plan is to join a camp on an island in Hudson’s Bay. About 30 km separate us from this fishing camp. The weather of the past few days has given way to snow hardened by the wind and cold temperatures, finally allowing us to cover great distances without breaking the snow crust. Our progress is good, especially with a strong back wind. As we arrive at the place indicated on the map, we face several islands of rock and ice, but no encampment. After searching the area to no avail, we decide to simply camp in a tent.
The landscape is flat and the terrain provides no natural shelter from the wind. With our new skills in building igloos, we quickly put up a wall of snow facing the prevailing wind and our tent is sheltered from the elements. Well settled, we are delighted to have set up camp so quickly without any major issues.
It is our closest campsite to the natural habitat of polar bears and we are taking extra care so that we do not have overnight visitors. Even though we didn’t see any traces during the day, my friends, visibly a little worried, remind me that a polar bear can feel its prey several tens of kilometers away. I fall asleep listening carefully to the sounds of the wind and snow around us.
In the morning, the weather is very good, the snow is still as hard despite a headwind of 60 km / h our progression to return to the village is constant. Everything around us is flat. The only identifiable landmarks are inukshuk (stone mound) that guide our return. After a day of fighting howling winds, we decide to allow ourselves the luxury of sleeping in a fishing camp on the outskirts of the village. The comfort of a dry floor is sublime!
Our adventure is coming to an end and we are taking the time to make a summary. Despite the poor weather and poor snow conditions we managed to do more than 100 km. The morale of my friends will have impressed me, they who had never set foot in Nunavik, found themselves in the worst conditions. They always had a positive attitude despite the wind and the rain managed to bear down and keep moving. This allowed us to have one of our best moments in life!
The biggest difficulty in a fatbike expedition is definitely our dependence on weather conditions. A little too much snow or too high temperatures and all of a sudden we are back in bikepushing mode. Like any good adventure, we were already planning other projects for next year…