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Qikiqtarjuaq youth complete journey of a lifetime through Aksayuk Pass

Six Qikiqtarjuaq youth, accompanied by three instructors, hiked the 97-km Aksayuk Pass in Auyuittuq National Park last month, departing their home community Aug. 10. Instructor Celine Jaccard tells the tale.

The team leaves Qikiqtarjuaq for Pangnirtung via the Aksayuk Pass in Auyuittuq National Park Aug. 10. From right: Jacob Qappik, Celine Jaccard, Jane Aliqatuqtuq, Jerry Nookiguak, Alex Kilabuk, Annie Kilabuk, Tom James Kooneeliusie, Alanna Qyiuqtaq and, at the back, Raymond Arnaquq.
all photos courtesy Celine Jaccard

The team: Celine Jaccard, Adam Aliqatuqtuq and Alex Kilabuk accompanied Alanna Qyiuqtaq, Jane Aliqatuqtuq, Annie Kilabuk, Jacob Qappik, Jerry Nookiguak and Tom Kooneeliusie.

The preparation: There are many stages that go into preparing for an expedition like this, from the big pieces, like an emergency plan, to the small details, such as finding someone to read our satellite updates on local radio for families and friends without internet.

Jane Aliqatuqtuq, left, and Annie Kilabuk adjust to the very heavy backpacks at the start of the expedition.

A successful expedition starts with good objectives and values, so here were ours: The Aksayuk expedition was meant to invite participants to step out of their comfort zone, take on a great challenge, create meaningful relationships with other youth and to get to know themselves in a different way.

We wanted to create an opportunity to learn and strengthen life and land skills, share land knowledge, and try new ways of doing things. Most of all, this project was meant to offer a true learning of resilience and create a deep, meaningful life experience.

The expedition: We left Qikiqtarjuaq by boat in the evening with Billy Arnaquq of Nunavut Experience Outfitting. The nearly three-hour boat ride started in the fog. Towards the mouth of Panniqtuuruluk, the sky opened up and the ride finished among majestic icebergs!

We set foot at the beginning of Aksayuk Pass late, hiked to the nearest camping spot and taught how to set up camp, sleep comfortably, along with some safety procedures. We went to bed tired, but laughter was coming out of the tents.

The expedition team enjoys lunch break by a creek – an opportunity to clean up and fully enjoy the beautiful day.

The first day, we learned our morning routine, adjusted packs and demonstrated how to take care of our bodies for this long hike. This, along with our backs working hard to carry heavy packs led to a rather short-distance day, just over five km.

But everyone worked hard and practised good self-care and we got to cross the first of 10 significant rivers. The next few days were pushes of roughly 10 km on mushy tundra. Every morning started with a briefing to read the map, a check-in on how everyone was doing and setting goals for the day.

Instructor Adam Aliqatuqtuq helps Jane Aliqatuqtuq across the Owl River. The instructor team scouted the more difficult rivers first, and teamwork helped get everyone across 10 significant crossings safely.

Spectacular views kept us going when our legs and backs wanted to stop. There were a few occasions where nerves were giving up, such as after being soaked because of slipping in a small stream! Those were harsh moments, but after letting emotions out and taking a few breaths of fresh air came the realization that we were accomplishing something big and had to keep going.

Alanna Qyiuqtaq takes in the breathtaking majesty at Qaiqsualuk, and the spectacular Mount Thor.

Everyone helped each other, the fastest took weight off the slowest, snacks were shared, and someone was waiting for you if you needed to adjust something. Our team bonded.

We had a particularly spectacular night near June Valley with a stunning view of Qattaujannguaq (Mt. Asgard) playing Inuit games – a night we will remember. After about a week, we made it half way and transitioned from soft tundra onto moraines. New adjustments for the body, going uphill, but the routine was established and we knew what to do to be a good support or to get the support we needed.

Group picture at June Valley of the intrepid Qikiqtarjuaq youth and instructors who hiked the 97-km Aksayuk Pass in August. From right: Adam Aliqatuqtuq, Jane Aliqatuqtuq, Alanna Qyiuqtaq, Annie Kilabuk, Alex Kilabuk, Jacob Qappik, Celine Jaccard, Jerry Nooiguak and, at the back, Tom James Kooneeluisie.

Then came the rain, light, just a couple days, so we can't complain, but the colder weather and slippery rocks required extra care. We put on our ridiculously bright yellow ponchos, which covered both bodies and backpacks, and kept on going, looking like minions. Finally, we made it to Summit Lake, an opportunity to take a well-deserved day off.

We were welcomed by the Parks Canada staff on patrol. They invited us in their cabin – a very special treatment just for local youth – and they shared stories of their work. Maybe a future career for some of our hikers!

Qik'in it at the Arctic Circle, with Jane Aliqatuqtuq.

The day off was something different! Of course, we slept in, had brunch, relaxed, some tried fishing, played cards or made palauga. Then we hosted a wedding ceremony. Life on an expedition entails many inside jokes, nicknames, and odd moments that are hard to explain if you weren't present but create all the magic. This hilarious ceremony was part of it! A spectacular moment of silliness and joy!

We continued our journey on the downhill side of the pass. That section of the park sees more visitors, which creates little trails and, combined with our lighter packs, hiking got easier, which compensated for the fatigue. The youth were at this point were autonomous and confident managing their day. There were moments of homesickness, so we kept our support system active, debriefed when needed.

As we approached the end of the park, we left the moraines to reach tundra: berry picking and goose hunting!! Our last day of hiking started with an impressive demonstration of hunting skills! Amazing to watch the team run so fast after the geese and catch them with rocks.

Successful hunt: five geese, which made a delicious feast on our last night. The perfect way to finish this journey that combined hiking and traditional activities.

On the last evening, we shared the highs, lows and learning of the expedition. The highlights that were named by the participants were geese hunting (Tom James Kooneeliusie), the wedding at Summit Lake (Alanna Qyiuqtaq), playing Inuit games at night (Jane Aliqatuqtuq), the views (Annie Kilabuk), fishing (Jacob Qappik ) and all the laughter.

The lows were not having a stove in the tent (Tom James Kooneeliusie) and the foot pain (Jane Aliqatuqtuq).

Lessons learned:

"This beats school, a lot more hands on learning," said Tom James Kooneeliusie.

"We learnt how to hunt without a riffle. We also learnt to have fun without weed," said Jacob Qappik

"We learnt about Qallunaat camping style and hiking," said Jane Aliqatuqtuq.

"I still can't believe I walked this far. I tried giving up on the first day of hiking but I made it! Big thanks to Celine, Adam and Alex for all the help and motivation you gave me! I would have never made it this far without you guys. Thank you," said Alanna Qyiuqtaq on Facebook.

The next morning, Peter Kilabuk of Peter's Expediting and Outfitting picked us up early. The loud music and hot chocolate were most welcome!

Jane Aliqatuqtuq takes a moment to enjoy the view on an evening walk, with Qattaujannguaq (Mount Asgard) in the distance.

Of course, our flight got cancelled due to weather, so we spent two days in Panniqtuuq before being warmly welcomed home by families and friends!

We would like to thank Inuusivut Anninaqtuq and the Qikiqtaani Inuit Association, our two main funders. Parks Canada Nunavut for their support, as well as the municipality of Qikiqtarjuaq, Inuksuit School and all who have cheered us and believed in this project! Qujannamiik.

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