LIFE ON THE (FLOE) EDGE: AN ARCTIC SAFARI IN THE POLAR DESERT
I’m wearing three pairs of socks, two thermal undies, three shirts, a sweater and an expedition jacket, but I’m still freezing. The arctic wind slashes against my face as we ride east on qamutiks (authentic Inuit wooden sledges pulled by snow scooters) to base camp. For five hours our small group swishes over the frozen ice of Eclipse Sound and along the shores of the majestic Sirmilik National Park, part of Baffin Island. I am burring my head deep into the warmth of my colossal, fluffy parka, hiding from the icy wind.
Visions of tropical islands swim into my mind. Did I make the right decision in travelling to this very remote, Artic part of the world?
But then we reach the ice floe, an infinite white scenery of frozen sea ice. At this time of the year the ice is still tightly anchored, almost glued, to the mainland, while at the edge of this massive ice sheet, pieces are already breaking off and disappearing into the wide Atlantic, thanks to the summer sun. Arriving on this ice floe is a breathtaking moment – not just because the cold, Arctic air makes my lungs tingle, but because I am standing before a dazzling white desert of icy sea, with only a few dramatic icebergs to break the landscape in the distance. The only colours come from the deep blue sky and some abstract yellow shapes in the distance. The qamutiks skate closer and those small, yellow dots grow into a dozen tents: my otherworldly home for the next five days.
Together with eight others, I am here to join a five-day floe edge expedition with Arctic Kingdom. This Canadian tour operator is one of only a handful of companies with the expertise to show travellers the real high Arctic in Canada. Its founder is Graham Dickson, a University of Pennsylvania graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering and economics and a passion for extreme diving. In 1990, he began diving with friends around and below the ice as a hobby, learning how to deal with the extreme circumstances of the High Arctic and even building special cages to view walrus under water. A decade later, Graham founded Arctic Kingdom Marine Expeditions, which quickly grew into one of the most respected expedition and outfitting companies in the High North.
Recently Arctic Expedition worked with actor, director and producer Jacques Perrin for Disney Nature’s movie, Oceans, scouting the best sites for filming narwhal, beluga and walrus, and assisting the camera team with getting the shots they needed. The team was also contacted by NBCUniversal to provide location suggestions for the recent Drew Barrymore film, Everybody Loves Whales – they backed the movie team during a two-day film shoot in the area of Kuujjuaq. National Geographic commissioned filmmaker Doug Allen to go on an Arctic Kingdom expedition to Lancaster Sound; while explorer, naturalist and TV-celebrity Richard Wiese ventured with them to the High Arctic for his ABC series, Born to Explore. Quite the little black book.
When you ask founder Graham Dickson about the secret of Arctic Kingdom’s success, he says it can be captured in two words: local knowledge. Arctic Kingdom is a southern company that has spent enough time in the North to actually know what the Arctic is all about. “We bring the sophisticated logistics, but we still plug into the local community network and everything the Inuit hold near and dear”, explains Dickson.
Today, diving trips are only 10 per cent of Arctic Kingdom’s business; the rest is land-based expeditions. They bring individual travellers like me from all over the world to this remote location where the frozen floe ice meets the cold, wide Atlantic. I’m here to experience what it’s like to camp and live on the Arctic ice, beneath the midnight sun, stationed next to towering icebergs that emerge from the frozen, white ocean. I might see whales, polar bears, narwhals, belugas, seals and flocks of migrating birds – it all depends on Mother Nature.
Our group connected in Pond Inlet, a small hamlet in Nunavut located on the northeastern shores of Baffin Island, 72 degrees North. It took me three flights and almost 10 hours from Ottawa to get here. Canadian North, one of two carriers flying to these remote corners of the world, services Pond Inlet each day with small, propeller airplanes. Seriously northern is their slogan. As I gaze out of the small window over the frozen tundra and look around at the dozen or so passengers in the plane – a mix of Inuit and Western travellers overdressed in layers of Gore-Tex gear – I do start to feel seriously northern.
Pond Inlet has just over 1,000 inhabitants, mostly Inuit and a mix of ‘southerners’ living and working here. It is a tiny, somewhat peculiar community with a couple of small hotels, no restaurants, two shops and no bars because Pond Inlet is dry (alcohol is forbidden due to the abusive, alcohol-related behaviour often seen in these complex parts of the world). Unfortunately for me, even visitors are disallowed from bringing or consuming alcohol… There are definitely different rules in the Arctic.
The snow that covers this hamlet during a very long and dark winter starts to melt around the end of May. Thomas Lennartz, Arctic Kingdom’s expedition director, welcomes our group. Thomas is a tall, athletic character born and raised in Toronto, but with German and Swiss roots and thus so accustomed to these extreme, Arctic regions that he might as well be a local. A couple of days before our arrival, Thomas and his team have set up our base camp on the ice, some 70 kilometres away from town. They looked for the perfect spot: next to the bird sanctuary of Bylot Island and close to two grandiose icebergs frozen in the landscape.
Back on the ice after our grand arrival, Simon Garrod, the British camp manager, shows us around our mobile Polar hotel. Inside my bright yellow Arctic Oven tent there is enough space to stand upright and it’s furnished with real beds, plush linen and even a small heater for when temperatures plunge during the clear, midsummer nights. The tents are elevated above the ice on wooden boards – an invention by Simon, who has worked his entire life in the Arctic and in Antarctica, often for the British Antarctic Survey. A short distance away a larger tent contains a hot shower and a comfy, elevated toilet with a real flush. In the middle of the camp stands the biggest marquee – the place where everybody meets and where the kitchen and mess are located. Arctic Kingdom makes sure that when they pack up the camp after a month on the ice, nothing is left behind.
Mike Bedell – our charismatic Canadian expedition leader, who is an Arctic connoisseur and renowned wildlife photographer – is the quintessential outdoor expert. On a windless evening, he takes us to the floe edge, the place where the ice meets the Atlantic, for the first time. The trip is a 15-minute snow-scooter ride away from the base camp. At the floe edge Mike drops a hydrophone into the icy water so that we can hear the outlandish sonar sounds below the surface. There’s something immensely calming and soothing about listening to the Star Trek-esque echoes and noises from bearded seals and whales, while gazing across immense swathes of frozen Atlantic.
“You know, it’s a virus. When you have it – once you’re bitten – it draws you back to the Arctic and Antarctica. I call it the Polar virus”, says fellow guest Mr Heiner Kubny from Switzerland, who has travelled more than 50 times to Antarctica and into the polar regions of Russia, Canada and Svalbard. Mr Heiner sits extremely relaxed next to me at the border of the floe edge, while enjoying the views and snapping away with his huge camera.
Now and again a flock of elegant eider goose or murres fly by, or even pop up from under the floe edge where they are feeding. Behind us are the spectacular cliffs of Bylot Island, where these birds nest in great numbers. This is a twitcher’s paradise. The water here is so rich with small fish that it’s not only birds that like to hang out around at the floe edge; they’re joined by all kinds of whale, from beluga and narwhal to orca and bowhead. Mike places a kayak on the water and sets off to explore the floe edge with one of our group. For the more adventurous among us, like David Innerdale from Hong Kong, dry suits are provided for taking a dip in the ice-cold waters. David braves the chill and jumps into one of the wide cracks in the ice to snorkel and check out the underwater scenery. “An unforgettable experience!” he says later that evening, when we are back at base camp and sipping a hearty, robust soup that would make any Arctic debutant feel warm again.
During the summer months, the air temperature in this part of the Canadian Arctic swings between just-below-zero and five degrees, depending on the wind chill. Greyish, cold weather with snow in the air and feisty winds that rattle my tent at night quickly transforms into tranquil skies and a spooky mist covering the top of the giant, table-like iceberg in the distance. A couple of hours later, bright sunshine makes the otherwise much-appreciated Canada Goose jackets superfluous. It only takes me a couple of days to adopt the Arctic summer look: a deep tan with the mandatory sunglasses print burned into my face.
It’s a thrilling moment when we spot a polar bear in the wild for the first time. From the safety of our qamutiks, as we head back to the floe edge in the morning, I watch a huge male moving quietly away, now and again stopping to look back at us. “He is not far from our base camp”, whispers our Inuit guide as he stares into the white void. It’s comforting to know that a husky is guarding camp and that Inuits always carry guns… Wandering off alone is not an option – after all, this is a safari, just like in Africa.
Lennartz takes us on a walk beside a majestic iceberg in the footsteps of a huge polar bear. He measures the size of the animal by its tracks. “I think it’s a female, but a big one.” We explore the wide area around base camp with the qamutik sledges, while stopping now and again to admire the views, test the telephoto lenses or to warm ourselves with some hot coffee and tea. For a “top of the world” sensation, Mike suggests we climb a pinnacle-shaped iceberg. “This might be your only chance to stand on a ‘berg that is thousands of years old”, he smiles. But then the floe edge calls again, where some narwhals have been spotted. Unfortunately, the brown silhouettes with their legendary ivory tusks disappear quickly in the still ocean and nobody is fast enough to snap a picture. The females come to check the floe edge first to see whether it’s yet possible to swim through the cracks in the ice to feed in the rich waters off the Baffin Island fjords, which they do during the summer months .
On my last day in this frozen world, the sky is covered in eerie black clouds, the air is cold and the top layer of ice looks and sounds like the crust of a crème brûlée. Back on the floe edge, Mike entertains us by trying to attract whales while making wide arm gestures. “Oh rise up, mighty Leviathans! Rise up!” he calls. Then it happens. Whether by sheer good luck or Mike’s pleas, we get up-close and personal with a giant bowhead whale. The animal is feeding just below the pack ice, right next to the edge where we are standing. Every ten minutes it sticks its massive head above water to gasp some air, while looking at us inquisitively. We hear its loud breathing and smell its fishy breath. Everybody is awestruck and deadly silent. “Amazing! Any closer than this and it will be lying next to me in my tent”, jokes Mr Babis Bizas from Greece, a passionate traveller who has been to every country is the world, twice. “This makes my Arctic trip completely worthwhile.”
A bowhead whale feeding under the pack ice
Despite the fact that our group comprises seasoned travellers, no one has ever experienced a whale in such an intense way before. To watch a giant animal like the bowhead from this close, not from a boat but standing at the fragile edge of the retreating ice, is definitely a ‘wow’ moment. The disappointment of not seeing many narwhals this time around is soon forgotten. Baffin Island is by far the best spot in the world to witness these rare animals, but this year’s narwhal migration to the floe edge is later than in previous seasons. “Maybe next year?” I think. Strangely enough, Mr Kubny was right: I might already have caught the Polar virus and clearly I won’t need many excuses to return to this grand part of the High Arctic. Soon, very soon – before too many travellers discover its frozen splendour.
Debbie Pappyn and David De Vleeschauwer are a freelance travel writer and photographer duo working as partners in crime for several newspapers and magazines worldwide. Read more about them on classetouriste.be.