Fundraising Expedition across Baffin Island

© 2019 FrontLine Defence (Vol 16, No 2)

International Women’s Day 2019 held a special meaning for a group of Canadian female business leaders and military Veterans who embarked on a 14-day trek on Baffin Island, Nunavut, to raise funds for critical programs supporting female military members, Veterans and their families. Rose McInerney describes this unique experience for FrontLine readers, and Sgt Shilo Adamson captures the splendor in photographs.

As our historic all-women team strapped on their snowshoes to begin the perilous journey across a foreboding and frozen 100-km Akshayuk Pass trail on Baffin Island, I pondered the transformative properties of Canada’s Arctic region. Answers came quickly in Mother Nature’s overwhelming beauty – spectacular granite rock cliffs and desolate, but powerful, scenery; deep fiords and frozen lakes carved by ancient glaciers; and majestic mountain peaks like Mount Asgard and Mount Thor that have been shaped over thousands of years.

These were a few of the majestic highlights from our women’s expedition from April 1st through 14th, when 17 civilian business leaders and military Veterans embarked on a journey due north of the Arctic Circle. Together, with the help of four guides, we traversed the Akshayuk Pass in the wilderness of Auyuittuq National Park  – each of us putting months of rigorous physical training to the test.

The Akshayuk Pass sits on the ancient Penny Ice Cap and connects the northern town of Qikiqtarjuaq and the southern town of Pangnirtung. Komituk sleds are pulled by snowmobiles driven by Inuit guides who take people to the park entrances over forbidding terrains of rock and ice, amid frigid temperatures ranging from –10 to –40°C.

Entering the park, the visually spectacular, spiritual display of nature’s prowess is almost indescribable. Its beauty compels visitors to commune with nature.

For centuries, Canada’s Inuit people have forged this deep emotional connection to the land that begs us to reconsider how we relate to one another and to our natural world.

Fostering friendships in an environment free from the typical distractions of our daily lives enriches the time spend together, and has a true healing effect.  This was apparent in our expedition team and the military service women who had themselves suffered from traumatic job experiences.

Our Baffin expedition team was a purposeful team of civilians and military women focused on using the Arctic challenge as a vehicle for raising critical financial support and awareness for the needs of our Canadian military Veterans and their families.

True Patriot Love (TPL), a nonprofit organization that provides health and mental wellness support programs for Canadian Veterans and their families, is behind this effort. Each year they create groups like the Baffin 2019 team to help members of our Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).  The CAF is comprised of frontline peacekeepers and protectors of our nation’s civil rights, values and freedoms, but many citizens don’t realize their work comes at a price.

Many of today’s 658,000 Veterans are dealing with service-related injuries from Operational Stress Injury/Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (OSI/PTSD) and other forms of physical and mental health trauma.

As Canadian patriots and newly-minted Arctic trekkers, our women’s Baffin team marched north to demonstrate our commitment to the CAF. Each civilian in our group paid their own trip expenses and had to raise a minimum of $50,000 in donations. Collectively, the group has raised nearly $790,000 in donations by walking the Pass with our 50-pound sleds filled with gear and tent equipment for shelter during our bitterly cold nights. Along with the corporate sponsorships, we are getting close to the TPL goal of $1 million, so we hope people will keep donating.

When we arrived in one of the coldest and most remote regions of the world to begin this fundraising trek, we soon came to understand some of the survival challenges CAF members face on our behalf.

Right from the start, the conditions were extremely difficult, physically and emotionally, as we struggled to stay warm. The following day was also bitterly cold but with white-out conditions adding to our anxiety and our uncertainty.

In that state, there’s an overwhelming feeling of isolation where staying warm and not falling behind becomes the primary focus. The military women on the expedition excelled at this mental and physical preparedness, frequently leading our group in rituals like putting up tents and taking care of basic physical needs like gathering ice and snow to melt for our water supply.

More often than not, they were at the front of the pack leading the way and ever ready to help others when a sled was caught on a rock or tipped over. As the harsh elements tested the resilience of our civilian leaders, these struggles morphed into building blocks for conversations about leadership, character, friendship and learning. The mutual respect and admiration for our military women who juggle family and career, particularly when they are married to a fellow military officer, generated moments for sharing common challenges with child-rearing to discussions related to commanding respect in male-dominated fields.

From that first morning, when we traveled to Owl River and forged a path over the coming days across June Valley and Glacier Bay, the cumulative demands of the expedition stretched our group’s physical limitations. Yet, it was during our longest trekking day, the most ambitious course that lasted nearly 20 km, where we pushed beyond our expectations and successfully crossed Summit Lake. 

Our shared joy and mutual respect for each other during our greatest doubts, sheer exhaustion and mental difficulties catalyzed our commitment and friendship for one another. When we finally arrived in Pangnirtung, it was evident that our diverse group of women from all across Canada had forged the richest bonds of sisterhood and support for one another. 

We were welcomed with open arms by the Mayor, the local Rangers and Junior Rangers, and military servicemen. The Inuit community honoured us by sharing their rich cultural practices and love of fishing, while also helping us to understand their struggles in our changing world. This education confirmed our shared role in building happiness for all Canadians in the  many years to come.

Sponsored by Mackenzie Investments, the True Patriot Love Women’s Expedition Baffin Island 2019 will remain an indelible source of great pride – and proof that anything is possible when human resilience is stretched beyond our imagination. This unique partnership of Canadian Veterans and civilians fostered incredible learning experiences and friendships that serve the best interests, as a reminder of our mutual duty to protect and serve each other.

Our TPL expedition team beckons Canadians to take the opportunity to see the raw beauty of our Canadian Arctic and to celebrate more personally our country’s true north. It offers inspiring landscapes not found in other parts of the world and the opportunity to connect to our deeper self, each other, and the Inuit people of this great land. To this end, I am indebted and grateful for all of our military service men and women, especially those in our expedition: Lieutenant Commanders Isabelle Vallee and Kathryn Logan; Major Kimberly Horan; Sergeants Nicole Laidlaw and Shilo Adamson; and Master Corporals (both retired) Natalie Forcier and Krista House.  

True Patriot Love Foundation has produced ambitious expeditions around the world since 2012 to some of the world’s most remote and grueling landscapes, including the Himalayas, the North Pole and Antarctica. The expeditions highlight the perseverance and unconquerable spirit of soldiers and Veterans in the face of adversity. This first-ever women’s expedition to Baffin Island celebrates female strength and resilience.

Previous expeditions have raised $7.5 million collectively to fund critical programs supporting all members of military and Veteran families.
With good fortune and wise choices, I am confident that we’ll all continue to overcome challenges and discover better ways to understand, support and appreciate the symbiotic roles that foster a more just and meaningful world.
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Rose McInerney, MBA, is a published author, former teacher and strategic consultant. As the founder and CEO of WomanScape, Rose harnesses the power of a collective group of writers who share inspiring stories about women making history.  

All photos by Sgt Shilo Adamson.

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