After a few days of rainy cold weather, with nothing eventful to speak of on my agenda, I decided Monday was going to be the Day of the Pingo.
What is a Pingo, you ask? Simply put, a mound of earth-covered ice, also known as a hydrolaccolith. Tuktoyaktuk is famous for having one of the highest concentration of Pingos in the world with one VERY large specimen, second in size only to one found in Russia. They can reach heights of up to 90-100 meters. In a land where most of the terrain is flat these protrusions of ice and earth cannot help but catch the eye and in this case, call out to be climbed.
Today’s adventure faced 2 major challenges, the first being unfamiliarity with the land. Since most of Tuktoyaktuk is broken up into small island-like bits scattered about, there would be no direct path. Locals have indicated it is much easier to reach the Pingos by boat (still ‘boatless’), but seeing how dependability is not a strong suit up here, there was not point in trying to acquire a lift. Who knows how long the day would be delayed? Google Maps was able to assist in providing a general info on a route, however what is marsh and what is suitable land to traverse is not very well indicated.
The second challenge involved the small detail of not having yet received the outdoor clothing ordered from various online outfitters some time ago. There would be Third & Fourth challenges, unknown, prior to departure, but more on that later. As for the clothing issue, a well researched and calculated decision was made it would not rain or that temperatures would not drop too low. “Yeah Right!”, hope was more like it. So layers of sweaters were the order of the day and old running shoes would have to do the trick. Of course a backpack of some kind was needed to carry grub and the camera. The solution, grab a canvas grocery bag, some string and proceed to tie string at the top then down to one of the corners. Short a floppy hat, I felt like David Carradine in Kung Fu.
The goal was to leave before dawn, like a true “outdoorsy” kind of guy, however at this time of year, Tuk is void of sunrises. So out the door at 6am and off. During the first roughly 7-8km leading out of town, roads were great. The scenery gradually transitions from the small rather utilitarian box shaped homes found in Tuk, to commercial buildings, including the airport, followed by the town dump, and finally wide open spaces with the Pingos protruding from the green shrub-covered land; acting much like a place card at a wedding reception, holding the grey overcast horizon upright.
After a fairly carefree and absolutely quiet walk, the only spectators, squawking, were two red masked cranes. These feathered cheerleaders looked to be approximately 4ft in height and were clothed in layers of grey and rust colored feathers.
The point was reached where some “off the beaten path” adventures would begin. Let’s all remember, there are no longer going to be any straight lines.
A couple days prior to leaving for my hike, some of our new Tuk friends, who hail by way of Australia, spoke of a boardwalk built to assist in reaching the Pingo. Such a tidbit created a sense of complacency in how today would turn out. Seeing the boardwalk in the distance, the plan was to zigzag over the terrain until I met up with the boardwalk, followed by an easy jaunt up to the challenge for the day.
Someone was either looking over my journey with a helping hand, early in this walk, or simply wanted to torment me from the beginning. The loud revving sound of an ATV could be heard coming from the distance and quickly, skipping along the surface, approached. As one never shy to asked directions, I signaled the driver. From the conversation with the young man, two things were becoming evident. Simply getting to the boardwalk was not going to be easy, enter Challenge number 3. You see, the boardwalk was constructed to be an entry point for someone coming by boat. The boardwalk even had a nice dock built to receive Tourists and the like, but was not intended for fools like myself. And finally Challenge number 4. The second ‘interesting fact’ was relating to Grizzly Bears. The phrase “I would not be out there unless I was with someone who had a gun” echoed in my head for a moment.
After some deliberation, ‘screw it’ was the only reply formed in my, clearly, hollow head. After walking for approximately an hour, turning back was not going to be an option, not until something interesting happened or if reaching the top of the Pingo was not realistically possible. So what, if locating the Boardwalk involved more zigzagging, nothing new there. The high-powered zoom found on the camera could be a handy tool for keeping an eye out for grizzly bears, right? And besides, a day allowing the photographing of a bear or two, “death free”, would allow my oldest daughter to see her dad is like Austin Stevens, a big deal in our household.
Thanks to the rolling nature of the ground, high points allow for some sort of strategy in trying to meet the boardwalk. The only real challenge was the ground itself. Tuk may be flat but the surface is not smooth by any stretch. As you walk, nothing but small mounds of grass push their way from the ground combined with brush whose branches spread out in every direction ultimately weaving themselves amongst their neighbors. Each step is a rolled ankle or twisted knee waiting to happen. Surprisingly, along the way, small little red plants dot the way along with various mushrooms. Lack of fungus knowledge prevented, perhaps for the better, the Day of the Pingo from potentially having a Jim Morrison theme to it.
Still being full of pep and energy, the trek to meet up with the boardwalk did not seem all that bad, annoying, but not physically taxing. As the boardwalk became closer, relief began to spread…..’this wasn’t so bad’. Behold, the boardwalk, the light beige wood used to construct this path with a green lush backdrop, had an Oz like quality. The urge to skip, much like Dorothy, down the yellow road was almost overwhelming.
Well, turns out that chick had it much easier. My golden path gradually edge up the side of a hill and as it peaked, revealed the day was far from over. While shiny and new, this meandering path was far from completed. There, left standing, on the last constructed portion, the Pingo easily a kilometer away guarded by a large body of water….”Crap!”.
Some time ago, while traveling in the state of Maine (US), my brother and I were attempting to locate a Denny’s for breakfast. We just couldn’t seem to find the road granting us access to the building we could see off in the distance. Standing on the dead end of my boardwalk path, one of the phrases a friendly local used when trying to give us directions to our breakfast came to mind. “You can see it, but you can’t there from here”. While just outside of Bangor, this bit of hillbilly philosophy did not make sense to a couple of hungry young men, but sure seemed fitting on this grey windy day.
Being a slightly stubborn person combined with, still as of yet, avoiding wet feet, this trip was not done yet. As one door shut another opened, in that the end this planked path provided high ground to scout a new route. Upon viewing what would be the only option, there would no longer be thoughts of a shortcuts today. The remaining portion of the voyage would involve a slight bit of backtracking followed by a tour around a large body of water to the opposite (west) side of the Pingo from where the last plank of the boardwalk stood.
The scenic route about to be embarked on was by no means a certainty in allowing this trip to finish atop the Pingo. Even though the piece of land, making up the proposed path, looked as though it formed a gateway to the West edge of the Pingo, a certainty it was not. Regardless, the next leg of the journey took place through some waist high brush allowing the uneven land a decent place to hide. Once the bushwhacking was complete, the path to the Pingo was provided a slight interlude with an easier walk. As is the case almost all over Tuktoyaktuk, most shorelines are covered in what can only be decades of driftwood, leading to the creation of Mother Nature’s own version of a boardwalk.
Once the timber path ran out, to higher ground it was. Based on photos and articles studied prior to the trip, the last quarter of my trip, the last portion of the little Pingo adventure would be over a former Pingo. While flat, the land is made up of mounds ranging from 3-20ft wide, each surrounded by water, giving the impression the ground was breaking up. This meant playing the mother of all hopscotch games to reach the edge of the Pingo and the occasional wet foot as a result of missteps.
At last, the base of today’s destination. A last major decision to make. Even though being ridiculously close, one more hurdle existed. There still remained a marshy moat whose depth was uncertain. “The heck with it”, time to get wet.
Descending to the green spongy grass the idea would be to follow the tracks of an ATV who had previously passed. At least this provided some assurance wet shoes would be the order of the day and not my eyebrows. The first step was met with a flash of cold on my ankles. Squish Squash Squish Squash….and there, stood the trophy of the day.
The steep climb up to the peek of my frozen friend could not have been easier. At the top of the World’s second largest Pingo, visitors are greeted with a tremendous view from four smaller peaks. The myriad of greens and the grey tinted water colored by the smoky sky, looked as though an artist alternated between dropping greens randomly on a canvas while also pulling the brush across to create the crooked rivers and water ways weaving in and out of the rolling carpet. Not a bad view to enjoy during lunch. Total time, 3 hours and 22 minutes.
Once lunch time had come to an end, overseeing the landscape for a potentially more direct route home was in order. Apart from seeing how ludicrously shorter the trip would have been by boat, a shorter footpath was quite clear. The newly discovered path combined with the willingness to get wet feet would shave almost an HOUR off the time in returning, then getting to the Pingo. As a matter of fact, the trip home was shortened further when a local offered to provide a ride home with yet another 30 minutes of walking left.
-glass of scotch