“Time to stalk some caribou! Time to stalk some caribou!”
As I struggle to tie my layers of unnecessary, newly purchased thermal jumpers and jackets around my waist and shrug my child’s floral backpack off my shoulders to the ground, Tessum Weber is jumping up and down with Tigger-ish excitement, a (strictly precautionary) shotgun bouncing in time to his gleeful chants. An alarmingly cornflower-blue sky beats down on us as I follow his lead and sink into the spongy turf of the tundra, crouching alongside our strange, beetle-like band of sportswear-clad adventurers. Immediately a dense, herbal perfume rises like a cloud and envelops us – spicy like cologne, lavender-ish, but with a wild intensity beyond any English garden I’ve known – and I curl my fingers into the thickly woven carpet of green, yellow, red and blue lichen, cranberries, cloudberries, crowberries, blueberries, Labrador tea and a hundred miniature mosses besides. The mazy outline of the deer-like caribou pick their way along the horizon as we prepare to crawl towards them, noses pressed almost to the fragrant ground. Not for the last time, I experience a moment of dizzy disorientation at the sheer, sensory abundance of it all, here at one of the wildest and least traversed corners of the earth.
When I boarded the first of many planes to Canada’s Arctic treeline and Arctic Haven, the partner lodge to the even more northerly Arctic Watch, this overload of sunshine and scent was far from what I had imagined. Like most city dwellers, to me the words ‘Arctic tundra’ evoked a harsh expanse of ice and blinding white, frostbite and freezing winds. My visions were bleached of colour, a monochrome world where nothing thrived except for perhaps the odd polar bear ambling among the dunes. However, although this portion of the northern Canadian territory of Nunavut is known locally as the Barrenlands, I found it to be anything but. Far from barren, these prairies are home not only to caribou and cranberries, but also to a complicated history of human endeavour, exploration and exploitation. Its vast, glassy lakes and fir-fringed hillocks have harboured the ambitions of men and women for centuries, from the nomadic Inuit tribes that first settled here to the intrepid Weber family who are the forces of nature behind Arctic Haven.
The Canadian writer, Farley Mowat, who documented his travels in the region in the 1940s in the book People of the Deer, describes the effect of the land as “a disease of the imagination”. “It is a sort of disease – an Arctic fever – and yet no microscope can discover its virus and it remains completely unknown to the savants of science”, I read, curled up in a wooden chair by the edge of the lake. “The arctic fever has no effect on the body but lives only in the mind, filling its victims with a consuming urge to wander again, and forever, through those mighty spaces where the caribou herds flow like living rivers over the roll of the tundra.”
For the Webers, this fever is more like a full-blown genetic inheritance. Richard Weber has journeyed to the North Pole more times than any human in history, while his wife, Josée Auclair, has her own stack of Arctic achievements, which include leading all-women treks to both the North and South Poles. Their eldest son, Tessum, was the youngest person ever to trek to the North Pole, and his younger brother Nansen is an acclaimed wildlife photographer who recently wrapped on Our Planet, a Netflix documentary slated for release in 2019 – the brothers also run a heli-skiing lodge on Baffin Island together. At one point, Tessum tells me how, at the age of eight, he spent his school holiday moving between outpost camps and hunting caribou with an Inuit elder – which may go some way to explaining his earlier enthusiasm.
Arctic Haven is the family’s second Arctic lodge, and despite the luxury price point, I get the feeling that it is predominantly a way for them to stay connected to the land and indulge their collective fever, as opposed to a commercially driven venture. The effort of building and maintaining a lodge in such an inhospitable place is a Herculean one – as we descend through the clouds in a tomato-red Dash 8 plane, I’m struck by the magnitude of its isolation, one lone structure amid acres of untouched land. The lodge is only open for a small slice of the year (from April to mid-September) before the groaning ice closes up the waters and makes contact with the outside world impossible – I later hear tales of winter caretakers driven to insanity by the extreme desolation – and it takes a heavy dose of pragmatism, ingenuity and perhaps a special kind of madness to keep things running smoothly. The wooden, green-powered building is a no-frills affair, where the real luxury comes not from designer-brand toiletries or fine dining, but from the thrill of your proximity to nature and distance from just about everything else.
This allure of silence and pristine wilderness attracts a certain sort of traveller – and alongside the Webers, the equally effervescent guides, and a soppy German Shepherd inappropriately named Fury, our ramshackle community includes conservationists; photographers; writers; a sculptor whose house is full of life-sized animal sculptures, including two narwhals breaking through her living room floor; Richard’s adorable Norwegian godmother; and a Mexican family who, brilliantly, own honey and tequila factories and a zoo. Most have come in the hope of witnessing the autumnal caribou migration, when these graceful deer head South into the trees ahead of the winter freeze.
It’s in their pursuit that I find myself belly-down and shuffling through the scratchy, yet soft tundra as part of a hike to Halfway Bluff. In the mode of a traditional safari I’d expected to perhaps catch sight of two or three of the animals throughout the week – however within a few hours, I’ve quietly witnessed several lazily meandering from tree to tree. At one point, and after drinking handfuls of fresh, cold water from the lake, we came across a crowd of 50 or so grazing in the valley below and decided to do the same, feasting on homemade soup, bread, cheese and nuts as the clouds cast long shadows over the green-grey earth. This turns out to be a rare treat – although in the spring they group together and it’s not uncommon to find 800-to-900 at a time, during autumn the caribou tend to roam solo or in small units. We stumble across an inuksuk, a stone lookout built by the Ahiarmiut people who used to inhabit these lands from which they would hide to spear nearby caribou.
Later, I’m awoken at 4AM by a knock on the door. The Northern Lights are feathering and skittering across the skies outside, and I’m surprised to discover they’re a milky, hazy white as opposed to the lurid greens and purples I’d expected – I later learn that this is because the naked eye at night cannot process the colours and interprets them as white. Even though I’ve been told that they are caused by angry solar winds, their tranquillity lulls me back to bed with a head full of stars.
The next day I opt for another hike, this time with Richard and guide Drew to Blind Hill. After a brisk boat ride across the choppy waters of the lake, we disembark just as the skies cloud over and the heavens open, quickly soaking through my not-so-waterproof waterproofs. Richard bounds ahead like a caribou incarnate as I breathlessly try to keep up whilst avoiding sinking into the boggy tundra up to my knees, letting out shrieks every time my muck boots slide perilously over the mossy mounds. Drew gathers up blueberries for our morning pancakes, and we spot a few caribou through the drizzle and mist before making our way up past the treeline to an ‘esker’ (a sandy verge or ‘opposite river’ created by glaciers pulling up sediment), where we have lunch. (I sadly mishear Richard’s promise of “views and ‘bous” at the top as “views and booze” and have to hide my disappointment, although the vistas stretching out in all directions are indeed stunning.) On our way back, some kindly Canadians shows me how to “ski” down the side of the esker without toppling over, and I’m reminded of Richard’s earlier statement that Brits make “crap polar explorers” because we don’t grow up with those skills. Later in the week during a fishing expedition, I pratfall backwards spectacularly into our boat whilst attempting to board, making Richard crack up. I fear he may find me faintly ridiculous, but the satisfaction of navigating this unfamiliar terrain (semi-)successfully is more than enough to make up for it.
With sure-footedness not being one of my strengths, I jump at the opportunity of taking a helicopter ride to the more remote parts of the Barrenlands. We flit over mirror-like lakes, steamy rapids, piles of shale and the multitudinous, criss-crossing paths of migrating caribou, which are etched into the ground like motorbike tracks and appear far more prolific from the air. In a few weeks the land will be a patchwork of vibrant reds, yellows and oranges, but for now the green is punctuated only by the odd canary-coloured tamarack tree or rust-leafed blueberry patch. We spot a flurry of black dots moving across the tundra that turns out to be a herd of muskox – unusual in this location at this time of year – so we bring down the helicopter and slowly stalk along the ground, Richard going shotgun-first. I can see the wind ruffling their debonair, shaggy pelts through my binoculars, although we daren’t get too close. Back in the air, we see the remains of camps, as well as the neon-yellow barrels of an old, abandoned weather station, hinting at Nunavut’s human history. It’s a complex and, at times, tragic tale: the disruptive economic practices of trappers, followed by the forced relocation of the Ahiarmiut tribe in the ’50s, led to the decimation of their traditional way of living, and today none remain on these shores.
Exhausted from a week of mind-expanding encounters, on my final day I decide to forgo hiking in favour of a sojourn at the Cabin Islands, named after a small hut that was used by the Inuits, Denes and trappers, and is now an overnight option for Arctic Haven guests seeking additional solitude. As the rest of the group set up camp, I wander off to the other side of the island, scrambling down to an empty beach marked with caribou footprints and wading in the icy water up to my ankles before climbing back along the eastern tip of the island. Settling into a soft scoop in the land, I pop blueberries picked directly from the ground into my mouth and stare out at the emerald-green trees and glimmering lake that stretch in every direction around me. I realise that, with the exception of those back at the boat, I was completely alone – the nearest signs of modern civilisation many hours away – and moreover, that I was one of only a handful of humans to have ever gazed upon this astonishing, vibrant and very much alive place. I’m surprised to find myself welling up at the thought. It might be that, despite my failure to channel my best polar explorer, I’ve been infected by Arctic fever after all.
[Photos are courtesy of Arctic Haven]