Travel in Nunavut on Two Wheels: Fat Biking Across the Arctic

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Adventure traveller and photographer Kari Medig left his skis at home and undertook a two‑wheeled journey through Baffin Island's pristine wilderness.

Nunavut map
Auyuittuq — pronounced ow‑you‑eet‑took – is Inuktitut for “the land that never melts.”   Illustration: Valerio Pellegrini

There’s a draw to Canada’s North – call it a magnetism – that once experienced pulls people back again and again. It is one of the last places on Earth where humans have barely left a trace, perhaps the closest thing to visiting another planet or travelling back in time. Kari Medig had hiked Nunavut’s Auyuittuq National Park before and was captivated by its majesty, but this time he wanted to attempt something new: fat biking through the park’s 97‑kilometre Akshayuk Pass. A travel corridor traditionally used by the Inuit, the pass starts at sea level and rises to 420 metres through towering granite peaks. Two of Medig’s adventurer friends, Carl Moriarty and Alex Frankel, joined him for the nine‑day trip. “It’s a surreal, stark, beautiful landscape,” says Medig. “For most of the journey, you’re north of the Arctic Circle. You end up with a huge respect for the Inuit people and their ability to exist in a place where there’s a fine line between survival, and not.”

February 9, 2022
Billy Arnaquq
Local outfitter Billy Arnaquq who took the team by snowmobile to the park’s entrance.
A child enjoying being towed behind a snowmobile
A child enjoying being towed behind a snowmobile on a sunny afternoon in Qikiqtarjuaq.

To reach the pass, the crew flew into the tiny hamlet of Qikiqtarjuaq, known as “Qik,” north of the park. Local outfitter Billy Arnaquq (above) took them the last 40 kilometres to the park’s entrance by snowmobile. The night before they left, Arnaquq invited them to his grandmother’s house to fuel up with whale blubber. “She just cut the fat up and gave it to us,” Medig says. “It has a rubbery texture; you can tell it has great calories.”

Related: Why Throat Singer Shina Novalinga is Sharing Her Inuit Culture on TikTok

The granite walls of the Baffin Mountains appearing on either side of the valley
The granite walls of the Baffin Mountains appearing on either side of the valley.

Although it was April, the bikers hit a 48‑hour snowstorm – then the mercury rocketed from ‑26°C to 0°C as they cycled alongside Weasel River into the Pangnirtung Fjord. A layer of flood water turned the valley into a vast reflecting pool, and they ended up drying their clothes out not from the wet, but from sweat. “Our boots are good for ‑30, but they can get super‑hot,” says Medig.

Nunavut biking
It was such a warm spring that everything started to melt and there were huge pools of water over the ice.

The Baffin Mountains are all named after Viking folklore. One of the most famous is Mount Asgard, which means “dwelling place of the gods” in Norse mythology. It’s massive granite cliff face is coveted by big‑wall climbers and also appeared in the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, when Bond skis over the edge of a cliff. “They had to find somewhere with a big enough drop that the skis would jettison away from his body,” says Medig.

interior of emergency hut
The emergency huts were put in the park in the 1980s by a Swiss warden.
The bikes and the crew enjoying the easiest part of their journey, a snowmobile ride to Pangnirtung
The bikes and the crew enjoying the easiest part of their journey, a snowmobile ride out of the park to Pangnirtung.

Brightly coloured emergency huts dot the park. “We went inside to warm up and cook during the storm – it was so windy, no one in their right mind would have stayed outside.” They ate dehydrated food, using melted snow as water. The sled (above) is called a qamutiik, and is used by Inuit people all over the North.

Related: 6 Institutions Leading the Cultural Renaissance on the Prairies

fat biking in snow storm
Auyuittuq is known for being extremely windy — with gusts reaching 175 kilometres per hour.

The fat bikes were custom made by California‑based Specialized, with extra‑wide tires to keep them from sinking in the snow and metal studs to grip the ice. The crew was ruthless about travelling light: Toothbrush handles were sawn off, books were cut in half and Medig chose his “third backup camera,” a Nikon D600, because it added the least weight.

fat biking in snow storm
Pushing up this pass through the storm was one of the toughest parts of the trip.

As they neared the last hut, temperatures had warmed up so much that their outfitter was worried he wouldn’t be able to reach them because of the melting ice. “In Nunavut, climate change is immediate,” says Medig. “You can’t move around the way you used to – hunting has changed and the polar bears are struggling.”

Nunavut biking hut
Carl and Alex high‑fiving as they arrived at their final destination — this was the trio’s first time bikepacking — and a culmination of a lifetime building survival skills.

Pangnirtung was the trio’s final destination. Medig always has mixed feelings at the end of a trip. “Part‑way through you realize you’re no longer encumbered by life’s daily pressures,” he says. “At the end, there’s a sadness along with excitement. You’re looking forward to your first burger in the airport, and to seeing your family, but you’re also losing that deep connection to the landscape.”

Related: No Ordinary Ride: Mountain Biking Through India

Fast Facts

  • −57.8°C The coldest temperature recorded in Nunavut.

  • 175km/h The speed of wind gusts in Auyuittuq

  • 1250 ‑ In metres, the drop from the aptly named Mount Thor, the greatest sheer vertical cliff on 
Earth.

  • Polar bears here are abundant and very predatory – anything that moves could be their next meal. In the spring, they journey down the fjords to the sea.

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