Dose of Awesome # 287

A trail name is a nickname that’s either self-assigned, or given to one hiker by another based on a particular event, quirk, or a personality trait. Said to have started on the Appalachian Trail, the use of trail names not only made it easier to keep track of hikers, but also to remember them, as trail names can be much more unique and individual than one’s birth name.

In the three days I’d spent in Mammoth Lakes prior to beginning the John Muir Trail, I’d met a number of Pacific Crest, and John Muir Trail thru-hikers – some of whom had introduced themselves by their trail name. Coming and going so quickly from the hostel (many just long enough for a shower, feast, take advantage of laundromat services, and enjoy a good night’s sleep or a good party), that’s all I ever got to know about some of them. At the time, I found many of my interactions with thru-hikers to be quite impersonal. For many, I never learned their real names, where they’re from or what they do off the trail – they came and went so quickly. As intriguing as these people were, there wasn’t time to really learn much about them.

But later, on the trail, I found myself thinking about the people I’d met at the hostel, and considering the possible stories behind their trail names. As I experienced being a thru-hiker myself, learned the culture of the trail, encountered countless characters, and learned the trail names of some of the people I’d met along the way, I was able to imagine the stories of the people I’d met at the hostel that were far more interesting than knowing just their birth names would have allowed.

On the JMT, I spent a lot of time hiking by myself. Some of this time, I’d spent pondering potential trail names for myself, and for the people in my group. Emily, I would have called “Lolly”, as most nights after dinner, she’d pull out her bag of candies (which she called “lollies”) and offer them to a grateful group of people, most of whom were tired of their own resupplies. Catherine, I would have called “Sunshine” to honour the passion and enthusiasm with which she woke up with each and every day as we prepared for another day of hiking. For Randy, I searched for a name that captured his unfailing ability to find a spot to put his feet up whenever we stopped to rest. For Ted, perhaps something to capture his quiet elusiveness, his awesome storytelling ability and the fact that when Ted spoke, everyone listened. For Jarette, I wanted to honour his ability to say and do just about anything with an unforgettable degree of comedy.

I thought long and hard about what might describe me as a hiker. I looked for something that might capture my endurance and my ability to keep a strong pace for hours. I wanted to capture the momentum I can keep as I take on even steep ascents, and the way it feels to fly along the trail when it’s a little more tame. I wanted to capture my ability to quickly make my way to the front of a group, even when I started at the back. This is something that I’m proud of, and hoped someone would recognize. After a conversation with someone else, I’d decided that I liked the trail name “Rocket”.

But as aptly as I feel that “Rocket” might describe me as a hiker, I’d yearned for a trail name to be given to me. The way I saw it, being given a trail name meant that someone noticed me. It would have signified a connection made between myself and someone else – something I craved as I set out on this adventure, and shared this experience with so many people with whom I shared a passion for hiking. As silly and playful as they may be, it was for this reason that I saw a trail name to mean something in a way significant.

I don’t remember the first time I met Turtle, but I do remember the first time I noticed him. We were at the top of Muir Pass, 14 days into our trek. Caught between the desire to savour the satisfaction of completing another challenging summit and the urge to run as far down the other side before I got struck by lightning, I saw Turtle with his pack off and his feet up, totally unfazed by the impending thunder storm.

We chatted for a few minutes, and he told me that this was not his first time hiking the JMT (though he didn’t specify how many times he did hike it), and that he was hiking solo. He shared some stories about his trek so far, and told me that his trail name is Turtle because, when he’s hiking, he takes it so slow and steady, but always makes it to his destination.

Between Muir Pass and Reds Meadow, I’d seen Turtle every day. Waking up far before us, Turtle always got a head start, but we always caught up to him along the trail – we leapfrogged for several days. Each time I passed him, we’d stop and talk for a few minutes, about our hike that day so far, about the weather, and about trail names that he’d thought of for one or another member of my group. Henk, he’d named “Freight Train” for his tendency to barrel down steep descents and the fact that he never stopped. Lisa, he’d named “Butterfly” after the way she swam. Each time I caught sight of the back of his pack growing closer as I gained on him, I found myself in eager anticipation – in the hopes that it would be my turn to get a trail name.

My turn came on day 17. We were hiking from Lake Italy Trail Junction to Silver Pass Lake via Bear Ridge (the “Pre-Lunch Ass Kicker”) – a gruelling 1000 foot ascent over a short 2.4 kilometres followed by a 1700 foot plunge into the valley on the other side. I caught up with Turtle near the river crossing, where our group had planned to meet for lunch. We stopped to chat, celebrating finishing a tough first half of the day.

As we wrapped up the brief conversation, he said “You know, I see lots of women wearing earrings on the trail. When I hike with my wife, she likes to wear earrings, too. But never have I seen, on the trail, earrings as impressive as yours. I think your trail name should be ‘Bangles’”. He was referring to a cheap pair of leaf-shaped earrings I’d worn partly to keep my piercings from closing, and partly because I felt that a 23 day sans shower or deodorant warranted this one luxury item – which I’d chosen specifically because, out of all the earrings I own, I felt these ones best suited the trail.

Awesome is this fun tradition of giving and receiving trail names, and awesomely fun was receiving my very first own.

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Dose of Awesome # 286

It’s been more than a month since we toasted champagne in the parking lot at Tuolumne Meadows, marking the end of our John Muir Trail. It’s been more than a month since the eleven of us – Bob, Ted, Henk, Lisa, Patrick, Aline, Emily, Randy, and our guides Jarette and Alwyne – parted ways and scattered between Bishop and Mammoth Lakes, as we set off to enjoy the remainder of our time in California in our own ways, and made our way back to what waited for us.

As I try to rewind, I am thankful for the magic of the JMT that burns within just as strongly today as it did for the entire 350 kilometres of the trail. I call it magic because I don’t know how else to describe it. It comes from the experience of living day by day with nothing more than I carried on my back; from being totally immersed in nature, unspoiled by any of the distractions that comes from life in civilization; from unique group dynamics, shaped by each of our personalities, and evolving in light of our collective experiences on the trail; from all the aches, sweat, tears, bruises and blisters, but at the same time, the many beautiful and sometimes meditative hours spent hiking each day. It comes from a huge sense of accomplishment as I surprised myself both physically and mentally on a near-daily basis, and the sharing of that with a group of people who were, just a few weeks before, complete strangers. And it comes from something deeply personal and individual, influenced by the events of not only the previous half year, but of my entire life. It’s not only indescribable, it’s something that could never be replicated again, even if we were all to reunite and hike the JMT all over again. That’s how special this magic is.

One month and a bit later, I am thankful to have not lost this magic. I am thankful that it has not even faded. Even though a month doesn’t sound long, it has been busy enough to cause me to forget a little bit. Throwing myself back into work, with a new class of sixth grade students, a beading workshop to teach, meetings and committees, along with a personal life in Kuujjuaq complete with violin lessons, meetings, yoga classes and whatnot, it was easy to lose touch with the magic of the trail. But it doesn’t take much to find it again. Though I know that no matter what I write today, it will inadequately capture this magic, awesome is the fact that I still feel it.

“The Mountains Are Calling, And I Must Go” – John Muir

The actual JMT heading north toward Yosemite starts at the top of Mount Whitney, but we had no choice but to get there by foot. Due to strict trail permit regulations and construction complications at Whitney Portal, our JMT began at Chicken Springs Lake. Thus, we had approximately 50 kilometres of hiking ahead of us before technically starting the JMT itself.

Hiking northbound, we were faced with the highest elevations of the entire trek right from the get-go. With little time to acclimatize, the most strenuous days for us were at the beginning, complete with a 14 500 foot Mount Whitney summit just 4 days in. At the same time, we had to get used to carrying a heavy pack, and carried our largest resupply of the entire trip for the first 7 days.

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The first few days were humbling. Winded by the altitude, the steep terrain, and my pack, I was reminded of a time I was very overweight and very out of shape. In those first few days, I learned that I can always slow down more (as Henk would say “there are 50 shades of slow”). At times, even when I didn’t think I could move any more slowly, I forced myself to reduce my pace by half, as I’d prefer to keep moving even at a snail’s pace, than to stop frequently and lose momentum. I also learned that I can do far more than I ever thought physically possible.

Life on the trail was fairly similar from day to day. We’d wake up in the morning to hot water for tea or coffee, which we drank as we began to pack up camp (a process which worked like a well-oiled machine in no time, as packing became very systematic and fast). I’d found something satisfying in the fact that everything had a specific place in my pack. On a journey as nomadic as this one, this consistency felt comforting.

Then we’d have breakfast. After breakfast, we’d finish packing our tents, take care of personal business (usually entailing brushing teeth and scoping out a good place to bury poop). Just before setting off, we’d do morning yoga and a map briefing.

We typically hiked 8 to 10 hours in a day. We had a few shorter days, and we had a few longer days. But on average, they were 8 to 10 hours, with a few shorter breaks, and a longer lunch break interspersed throughout. In the beginning, as we acclimatized, and as we grew accustomed to the trail, we hiked together. However, after a few days, we were able to spread out more. I’d found a healthy balance of hiking with the group, hiking with one or two friends, and hiking alone.

Our evenings were what made our JMT so unique. Arriving at camp typically around 3 or 4 pm, we’d set up camp, take some time to wash (ourselves and our clothes) in the nearest lake or creek, eat dinner, read a book or write in a journal, and relax with hot drinks, great conversation, and sometimes a game of cribbage or cards. Again, I loved the consistency of setting up camp, and the feeling of it being done after a long, hard day of hiking. But what I loved even more was the fact that every campsite was so different from one to the next.

We were usually sleeping by 9 pm (hiker midnight), but on a few occasions I’d find it within myself to stay up late enough to watch the stars pop out – a truly magnificent sight in the Sierras. On one particular night (at Lake 1160) I’d decided not to set up my tent at all, but rather to sleep under the stars. Patrick and I played Crazy Eights atop a boulder under the golden sun set. When the sun disappeared behind the mountains, we went to bed. A few hours later, I woke up, wrapped entirely in my sleeping bag (save for my eyes), to the stars and the milky way glimmering above. It was so vibrant it didn’t even seem real.

On “Whitney Day”, we woke up at 2:30 am and left base camp at 3:00. The full moon rendered our headlamps unnecessary as we begin our hike to the summit and back. I was the second of the group to arrive at the summit after a challenging 6.5 hour day of seemingly endless switchbacks and steep ascent. Patrick was the first. We passed the time posing for photos and admiring the view as the others arrived one-by-one. It did not take long for the altitude sickness to start setting in, though. Nauseous and with a terrible headache before we’d even finished lunch, I questioned my ability to make the 5.5 hour descent back to camp. It’s true what they say, though – just going even 100 feet down can make all the difference. In no time, I was feeling back to normal and on my way. Interesting was hiking back along the same trail, but seeing almost half of it for the first time. Since we’d hiked halfway up the mountain in the dark, we’d missed much of the view on the way up (though hiking by moonlight is a whole other experience of awesome).

After Whitney, everything felt easier. We left base camp on our fifth day for a 15 kilometre uphill hike to Tyndell Creek, and I found that my pack felt infinitely lighter and the ascents easier. Awesome was getting through the toughest days of the trek!

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Dose of Awesome # 285

I need to interrupt my tales of the John Muir Trail to write about the awesome with which I’ve been blessed over the past few weeks since I returned to Kuujjuaq. I’ve not found much time to write, let alone even think about writing, so much has been going on. But, thanks to a long weekend and gloomy weather that goes oh so well with pj’s, coffee and my blog, I feel inspired to write.

I returned to Kuujjuaq on the 9th of August, and was swept away by all the beginning-of-a-new-school-year awesome. Potlucks and lunches allowed me to bond with colleagues, and meet new teachers. Kuujjuaq’s annual Aqpik Jam music festival allowed me to enjoy four nights of great live music from artists from all over the arctic. A birthday full of celebrations with close friends sent me into my 33rd year with so much love.

My return to work was rejuvenated and filled with the excitement of setting up a new classroom and getting ready for a year with new kids. This year I am teaching sixth grade – a lovely class of 11 students whom I’ve gotten to know quite well over the past few years since moving to Kuujjuaq. We’ve been back to school two weeks now, and we’re off to a great start.

Two weekends ago, I was given the opportunity to spend a few days hiking and camping in Pingualuit National Park. Pingualuit is a 1.5 million year old crater believed to have formed when a meteor hit the earth. It is also said to have the purest water in the world. I drank it, and it’s delicious.

In the spring, I’d put my name on the waiting list to take this trip, but I’d resigned to the fact that I probably wouldn’t get to go. The trip was full, and since I’d had the chance to go to Kuururjuaq last year, open spaces would be given to people who hadn’t gone before (as far as I understood). But, luck was on my side, a spot opened up at the last minute, and I received a phone call two days prior to departure.

Accepting the opportunity, a small group of us (7 teachers and 2 women who work elsewhere in the community) boarded a chartered Twin Otter bound for Kangiqsujuaq (a small village approximately 2 hours’ flight north of Kuujjuaq). There, we met Maali Tukirqi, who picked us up at the airport and gave us a tour of the village (which started at the Nunavik Parks office and Pingualuit Interpretive Centre, and included a drive around the village, a stop at the beach to see the iceburg, and shopping for snacks at the Northern Store).

An hour later, we were back in the plane and on our way into the park, and less than an hour after that, we’d made 3 gut-wrenching swoops over Manarsulik camp’s tiny landing strip (the landing strip is a short clearing in the tundra covered with gravel, which is not maintained so much as cleared by the swoops of the plane before it lands). Excited, we were settled into our charming little cabin on the lake before dinner and a little walk to an archaeological site not far from the camp showing where camps used to be.

The hike around the crater took 8 hours, much of which was sunny and with just enough wind to keep the bugs at bay. Hiking together in the beginning, we enjoyed great conversation and a picnic lunch at the halfway mark. Afterward, we spread out a bit more and hiked at our own pace, enjoying the quiet and solitude as it came.

We got back to camp just in time for an amazing sunset and a beautiful rainbow over our camp as we ate, chatted and played numerous rounds of Yahtzee together.

We were hit by stormy weather the next day, which put a damper on our plans to qajak on the lake and go on a smaller hike. Our flight also got cancelled, giving us another day at the camp. I took the opportunity to work on my sewing project and read almost an entire book (something I don’t get to do in one day very often). We were running out of food, but our guides were generous and brought out all kids of country food – tuttuvinik (caribou), nikkuk (dried caribou) and mattaq (beluga) filled our stomachs that night.

The wind was strong and shook our cabin all through the night, and, though the fog lifted, it still gusted well into the next day. Fortunately, for the sake of work, a classroom that needed to be set up by the following afternoon, a grocery order full of frozen food that was scheduled to be delivered to my house in Kuujjuaq that afternoon, and a few things I had planned over the next few days, we were able to fly out. Our plane arrived at Manarsulik around 3 pm. It was bumpy, but we arrived in Kuujjuaq 2.5 hours later safe and sound.

Awesome was the opportunity, the adventure, and the fact that everything works out, even when they don’t go as planned.

Dose of Awesome # 284

You don’t realize how much you don’t actually need until you have to fit it all into a 75 litre backpack and carry it over mountains for days on end. You can get by with a lot less than you think, even in extreme circumstances.

As I packed for the John Muir Trail, I tried to keep it to a minimum. Learning from past experiences on smaller treks, I knew that there was always room to make things smaller and lighter, but that how to do it might not always be obvious. I just never put much thought into it before, because I never had to.

In the past, the most food I had to carry was a few snacks, and maybe a lunch for the day. On the Inca Trail, my food (and most of my gear) was carried by porters; on the Tour du Mont Blanc and in the Dolomites, I hiked hut-to-hut, where multiple course meals were provided almost on arrival; on the Laugavegur Trail, food and camp gear was transported from one camp to the next in a van (though, at the time, I knew I’d be hiking the John Muir Trail and had opted to carry most of my own gear as I hiked, in preparation). Still, compared to all my past experiences, this trek was a whole other animal – it was time for me to start thinking about ounces.

I meticulously considered each and every item I had in my pack. I had:

-A lightweight Therma-Rest and sleeping bag
-Two pairs of pants
-Two t-shirts
-Two pairs of underwear (one of each to wear, and one of each to wash)
-Three pairs of socks (one to wear, one to wash, and an extra in case my washed ones didn’t dry in time – I figured it would be worth it to splurge on dry feet for this one)
-Long johns and a thermal base layer
-One long sleeve shirt
-A fleece sweater
-A rain coat, rain pants and a rain cover for my pack
-A pair of running shoes to wear at camp each night
-Such essentials as water bottles (two one-litre Nalgene bottles), sunglasses, a Swiss Army knife, a headlamp with spare batteries, a pack towel, a spork, and collapsable cup and bowl.
-My toiletries consisted of my toothbrush and a travel-sized tube of toothpaste, and the smallest bottle of bug repellent, sun screen, hand sanitizer and first aid kit I could justify.
-My luxury items included my camera and a spare battery, my iPod, and a pair of tweezers and a travel-sized mirror.
-I also had a book to read, and my journal for writing.

Keeping in mind that I’d still be carrying several days worth of food, a bear can, part of a tent and group gear, I wanted to keep it light. For a 23 day trek, I thought I’d done alright.

The morning I was to begin my trek, I picked up my beautifully organized pack and experienced the mélange of feelings that I would imagine many through-hikers experience as they lift their pack for the first time. I was both shocked and disappointed by its weight. I was also a bit intimidated. How would I carry this, for 23 days?

As I took another mental inventory of the contents of my pack, I was stumped and overwhelmed. The only thing I felt  willing and able to sacrifice was my book. I had solid reasons for keeping everything else (not to mention, everything in their was on the packing list provided by my guides). As much as I looked forward to reading the book, I figured I’d be busy enough either living the magic of the trail, or writing about it in my journal that I could do without it (I found myself bored enough in the mountains, I could pluck my eyebrows).

I knew, though, that I needed to get rid of more than a book to save weight.

One of the perks of staying in hostels is the people you meet. Hostels are full of people from all over the world, and time spent in hostels are full of fleeting conversations with them about their varying travels and experiences. In Mammoth Lakes, my hostel was full of hikers – day hikers, section hikers, and through-hikers of both the John Muir and the Pacific Crest Trail.
Awesome were these people.

Awesome are not only the stories they shared, but also the encouragement they offered as I picked their brains over the course of my 3 days in Mammoth Lakes.

Especially awesome is the woman, whose name I never did actually catch, who took time that morning to help me pare down the contents of my pack. With her help, I was able to do so without sacrificing anything. She suggested I cut my pack towel in thirds and bring only one third, that I mail things to myself in resupplies (like that extra t-shirt and pair of socks) that I wouldn’t need right away, and convinced me to bring a pair of flip flops rather than my running shoes. Without her help, I probably would have never thought to cut the handle off my tooth brush, leave the deodorant behind (it’s futile, anyway), or tear my book into sections (each to be sent in a resupply along the way). These things that might seem insignificant, but do add up to make an enormous difference in weight. Without her help, I probably would have found myself trudging along the John Muir Trail with a monster of a pack that not only would have held me back, but probably would have put a damper on my experience.

To all the hikers I met in Mammoth Lakes: nakurmiik for your stories, help, and encouragement!

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All organized and ready to pack!

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My pack, which didn’t normally have things dangling from it, but it was laundry day in the wild.

Dose of Awesome # 283

There were only two times I’d really questioned my decision to hike the John Muir Trail. The first time, I was clinging to a boulder in the middle of a waterfall a few hundred feet up a mountain. We were ten days, and almost 100 miles into our trek. Forced to take a zero day by delayed arrival of the mule train that carried our resupplies, some of us decided to take advantage of the extra time and attempt to summit the insurmountable Giraud Peak, which overlooked our camp. Though technically we weren’t on the John Muir Trail at that point, I was on an adventure of a lifetime and part of that, I felt, called for doing it all.

The second time was the very next day. Almost 11,000 feet above sea level, in a tent I was only able to half set up before panic got the best of me, I sat huddled atop both my pack and my Therma-Rest for insulation in case lightning struck (and inside my sleeping bag for good measure), as a thunder storm exploded all around me – an experience made all the more harrowing as thunder echoed off the mountains with an inescapable fervor.

Sure, there were other times throughout my 23 days on the trail that I would have given anything for a foot massage and a hot shower (a gallon of ice cream wouldn’t have hurt, either). There were times (near-whole days, even) that the straps of the 38 pound pack I’d carried felt like knives slicing into my shoulder blades, and I fought the urge to eat the entire contents of my bear can just to find a little relief. There were other times, between blisters and a sprained ankle (the result of a mishap involving an inconveniently-placed rock, a swarm of mosquitoes and a steep descent out of camp at Bench Lake), that I’d wondered whether I’d ever walk with grace or ease again.

But stronger than any discomfort endured on the John Muir Trail (even stronger than armpits smellier than I’d ever imagined possible), was an insatiable hunger for more – more mountains, more wilderness, and more of all the challenges along the way. It was this insatiable hunger that pushed me to keep going as I hiked the 350 kilometers between Cottonwood Pass and Tuolumne Meadows. It all but carried me as I climbed more than a cumulative 37,000 feet up mountains, ridges and passes along the way (which, for a matter of perspective, is as high as planes fly).

Awesome was the journey, which, try as I might, I will probably never adequately put into words, and awesome is celebrating the single-most challenging physical feat I’d ever completed. I’m still processing it. Awesome was reminding myself several times a day, every day, that I am capable of more, both physically and mentally, than I sometimes think possible. Awesome are all the small things – describable and not – that I will take from my experiences on the trail and carry into my day-to-day life.

And awesome was sharing this experience with a group of strangers – each and every one of whom had something to teach me about the world, about hiking, and about myself – and awesome was the magic of an experience that can never be replicated, even if we were all to do it again together. Emily, Aline, Henk, Lisa, Catherine, Sam, Patrick, Bob, Randy, Ted, and especially our guides, Alwyne and Jarrette, thank you for being part of this magic. As I try to capture the essence of our trek over the next few blog posts, I dedicate my efforts to your courage, strength, and little bits of uniqueness that I found so inspirational.

Nakurmiimairaaluk ❤️

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Dose of Awesome # 282

My time in San Francisco is drawing to a close. I arrived on the afternoon of the 7th, exhausted from a 3:30 am wake-up call and landing in a time zone that was 3 hours earlier. But after a hot shower and a cup of coffee, I was ready to go.

My first day in San Francisco took me walking to Telegraph Hill and up the Coit Tower for a panoramic view of the city, then to Fisherman’s Wharf, where I wandered the piers and had chili in a sourdough bread bowl at famous Boudin’s Bakery.

My second day took me to Grace Cathedral, Lombard Street (the famous “crookedest” street in the world), then to the Hollywood Café for eggs benedict. Afterward, I walked along the bay all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. I enjoyed a windy walk across the bridge and back, then all the way back along the bay into Chinatown.

I walked 24 km that day.

My third day entailed a guided tour with Incredible Adventures  into Muir Woods to wander among the giant redwood trees, and to Sonoma for wine and beer tasting.

We finished the day at the look-off for an excellent view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

My fourth day took me to Haight-Ashbury and all through Golden Gate Park. Then back up Market Street and into Chinatown again for a bit of shopping.

And today, my fifth day, took me to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and on a mini shopping spree at REI, Target and City Lights Books.

There’s still so much I want to do and see, but there just wasn’t enough time. Nevertheless, awesome is the opportunity to experience a new city, and awesome is San Francisco!

Dose of Awesome # 281

I’ve been on summer vacation for two weeks. Like previous years, I decided to stay in Kuujjuaq to enjoy the beautiful (relatively bug-free) weather, finish up some projects, and relax before I travel to California and hike the John Muir Trail. My days have been full of playing violin, reading, drawing, biking, hiking, and just enjoying the land both alone and with friends. I could not have asked for a more rejuvenating and fulfilling time.

1. Awesome was finishing not one, but two new drawings.

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Amaruq – Wolf

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Kayuqtuq – Red Fox

2. Awesome was the opportunity to enjoy 7…yes 7…hikes on the land?

3. Awesome were picnics, and road trips and little walks past the end of the Road to Nowhere, where we found one of the most beautiful spots around Kuujjuaq, had a healing ceremony, and saw muskoxen. Further awesome are muskoxen – a symbol of strength and endurance, and their timely appearance.