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Yellowknifers caught up in Nunavut park evacuation
Pair among those helicoptered out after high water levels close parts of Auyuittuq National Park

Daniel MacIsaac
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, August 11, 2011

Yellowknifers Darha Phillpot and Michelle Swallow were among the hikers recently evacuated from Auyuittuq National Park in Nunavut after rising water levels made crossing key rivers too dangerous. But both women still give the trip a 10-out-of-10 rating and say they hope to go back to complete the trek someday.

NNSL photo/graphic

Yellowknifers Darha Phillpot, left, and Michelle Swallow pose for a picture during their hike in Auyuittuq National Park, before rising waters shut down the national park and cut short their trek. - photo courtesy of Michelle Swallow

The trip which involved flying to Iqaluit and then on to Qikiqtarjuaq on the east coast of Baffin Island for a planned, 11-day hike through the Akshayuk Pass was a long time in the dreaming and about a year in the planning, according to Phillpot, who sat down with Swallow and Yellowknifer on Monday to tell their story.

"I'd been hearing about it for years and years and years," said Phillpot, 38. "It's definitely one of those things you're supposed to do before you die.

"Just the remoteness, the beauty of the scenery and Nunavut is a particular draw because of the traditional and contemporary culture of the area."

And, according to the women, the trip was living up to expectations at least for the first day of the journey along the traditional Inuit travel corridor. Phillpot said, that first night, she wrapped up in her down sleeping bag to keep warm as expected but that by the second night the temperature was around 17 C and she slept in a camisole.

"That's hot for Nunavut," she said, before adding, "And then it started to rain."

"We passed one small river we'd been told was no big deal but had a lot more water and was more of a challenge," Swallow, 34, continued. "And then we started hearing radio reports at the emergency shelters about heavy rain in the south about hikers having to wait for a few days to cross rivers."

Parks Canada would eventually cite the unusually high temperatures and heavy rainfall as the reasons for key river crossings becoming "impassable and extremely treacherous" while the women were still out on the land.

Even under normal conditions, hikers have to be prepared for what they'll face in Auyuittuq including glacier-fed stream crossings with constantly changing water levels, fast-moving water, slippery rocks and near-freezing water temperatures. And the women were prepared.

Both Phillpot and Swallow are active in the outdoors and familiar with swift-water rescue. They said they used a "six-legged monster" technique to pole, step and zig-zag their way across the many rivers and streams they encountered holding each other around the waist and pressing down on each others' shoulders with their free hand.

"We were really careful about our limits," Swallow explained. "They key is to be quick because you don't want to stay in that water for long, but also not to make a mistake."

That technique proved essential on Day 5 when the pair needed 40 minutes to cross the waist-deep, kilometre-wide Owl River and when, at one point, Swallow felt her feet being swept away.

"I would have swam," she said. "But Darha was there to pull me up."

"That was the most challenging day for us," Phillpot said. "On the other side, we stripped off, got a fire going, changed and started moving as soon as we could.

"But then it started raining again."

Crossing the Owl was not only the biggest challenge the women faced hiking Auyuittuq, but also their last. By the time they reached the next major crossing, the Norman River, they found a group of hikers who had set up camp after being cut off by the too-high river. And while the women were prepared to wait it out, even for several days, within minutes everything would change as a helicopter arrived out of nowhere to evacuate them from the area.

That day, Aug. 1, Parks Canada officials already dealing with a number of stranded and injured hikers decided to close parts of the park. And Phillpot said while the Parks people were firm in giving them no choice but to get in the helicopter, they were also friendly, telling them: "Brush your hair, ladies you're going to Pang!"

In fact, Phillpot and Swallow chose to be dropped off with a dozen other hikers in another part of the park north of Pangnirtung near Crater Lake, where they were able to enjoy the still-spectacular scenery and do some less-dangerous hiking for the last three days of their trip.

"It was surreal," Swallow said. "We went from very stressful but exhilarating to relaxation very quickly."

And while it was disappointing to have their hike cut short, both Phillpot and Swallow said they understand the reasons for the park closure and don't regret making the trip. They said they understand first-hand now the beauty of Auyuittuq, and said they plan to get back there again.

"It feels unfinished," Phillpot said. "That's how it feels."

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