By Natalie Gillis
Way up north in the Canadian High Arctic lies a massive island which very few people have visited.
Nunavut’s Ellesmere Island is one of the last stops on the way to the North Pole. The island is separated from Greenland by a sliver of ice-choked water so narrow that on a clear summer’s day you can easily see to the other side.
The mountains that form the spine of Ellesmere Island rise sharply from the Arctic Ocean and are divided by a storied valley system known as the Muskox Way.
It’s a spectacular natural highway that snakes through the mountains to form a migration route for the muskox, as well as for the people who called this region of the Arctic home for at least 4500 years.
As muskox migrated through these valleys forging for the sparse and frozen roots of willows buried deep in the snow, people would follow, leaving behind meat caches, hunting blinds and tent rings as evidence of their relationship with the prehistoric animals.
The countless archeological sites left behind remain so untouched in the dry Arctic air, that it’s almost as if the people who built them were here only yesterday.
Today, the Muskox Way is part of Nunavut’s Quttinirpaaq National Park and the explorers who are fortunate enough to find themselves here will likely still encounter these remarkable animals.
I use the term “explorers” to describe individuals who make this journey north because they truly are venturing off the beaten path.
The trek to Quttirnirpaaq National Park involves flights from Ottawa through Iqaluit, Pond Inlet, Arctic Bay and Resolute Bay, followed by a refuelling stop at the Eureka Weather Station before finally stepping down from a small bush plane onto a gravel strip at 81º north.
I’ve made this journey to Ellesmere Island to guide self-supported hiking trips four times over recent years. It’s a place I’ll never grow tired of exploring. The desolate landscape provides an enormous amount of space to reflect on the natural world and humanity’s place in it.
While hiking on the land for several days or weeks at a time, enveloped by this uniquely cold and quiet wilderness, it’s easy to feel like you’re the last living thing on the planet. That is, until the moment a large muskox crests a hill just in front of you and gives you a stoic stare.
You’re reminded of, and impressed by, the determination to survive that has kept these creatures thriving since the Pleistocene (the last ice age.)
Being confronted by another breathing being in such a vast and silent place makes for a powerful encounter.
In the image above, I tried to capture this feeling — the sense that here, at what feels like the edges of the Earth, life remains stunningly, beautifully, wild.
About the author: Natalie Gillis is a landscape, wildlife and adventure photographer inspired by the spirit of exploration, and the natural beauty found in cold, wild places.