August 11th, 2014 | By Prisca Campbell | Filed in Postcards from the Arctic
Story and Photo by Jane Whitney
We are standing at the margin of the sea ice called the floe edge in northern Baffin Island, 30 km from the nearest point of land. If there is swell in the open water, it will gently rock our snowy platform. We can see thick-billed murres swim underwater to feed underneath the ice where we stand. The high pitched call of the black guillemot reflected in the water blends in with the glorious silence.
We are waiting, watching, hoping to see the narwhal. When they come, it’s like they’re there all at once. Their exhalations explode through the surface of the water followed by sounds of trumpeting, half snores, and squeaky doors before inhaling as they propell forward, their foreheads bulbous-shaped with the spermaceti to echo-locate their prey. Sometimes we’ll catch sight of the tusk from a male or the white of an older narwhal, originally thought to live as old as half a century, but may now be thought to be double that age span. Mothers and calves stop at the surface for the calf to nurse. Once the narwhal raises its heart shaped tail, it too will dive in the dark abyss under the pack ice in these rich feeding grounds off of Baffin Bay. And we know we have to wait another 15 to 25 minutes for them to reappear.
We are spellbound. Jaws left wide open. Natahia, one of the women standing on the icy platform comments, “this is one of the best days of my life. It’s an experience that is hard to describe. It’s the peace of hearing the complete quiet with only narwhal everywhere you look.” Another spectator, Michael replies that he thought seeing 28 blue whales off of South Georgia was the best day of his life, but he changes his mind. “Seeing the narwhal surface from under the ice and stream pass is glorious but it is the setting of where you are that makes it magnificent. The pack ice you stand on can be cold under foot. The breeze off the Arctic open water can chill your hands. This whale takes you to this wild place of the High Arctic: the realm of a big wide open landscape, under a 24 hour sun, back dropped with 4000’ glaciated peaks. And you are kept warm by the genuine hospitality of the staff and the friendship of those you are traveling with."
August 11th, 2014 | By Prisca Campbell | Filed in Postcards from the Arctic
Story by Jane Whitney
That familiar cry of a red-tailed hawk made me want to turn to see what it was but I had to keep watching the seal that we were approaching. When the seal’s head was up, we’d stop. When the seal put its head down, we’d walk, all in single file. Half way there Steve thwacked me on the back and whispered excitedly “gyr falcon”! I take my eyes off the seal to look. The pair of birds did have a quick wing beat but not fast enough for a falcon. Looking through our binoculars, we see they are rough-legged Hawks. One is carrying nesting material. Their distribution is indicated for southern Baffin Island, and west and north of us, but not for the northern edge of Baffin Island where we are.
Photo credit: Michelle Valberg
We are en route to the floe edge. When we arrive, we hear the cry of the black-legged kittiwake, flying daintily in large numbers right in front of us. We are excited to see large groups of king eider. Northern fulmers glide by, silently. Many flocks of thick-billed murres pass, the sound of their wingbeat reminding me of a tabby cat hungrily lapping up milk. We see groups of 30 or more of pomerine and long-tailed jaeger, brandt, snow and Canadian geese. We see our first narwhal, then 3 more.
The wind is blowing some pan ice down and we watch as the smaller pieces of ice ride over on top of each other, bulldozing blocks of blue ice over the floe edge. The building of waves in the open water rock the pack ice we stand on, occasionally making us find our sea legs for balance. By the end of our first day we count 12 species of birds. As we leave, we look over our shoulder at glaucous gulls reflected in the Bahamian turquoise melt water.
August 8th, 2014 | By Prisca Campbell | Filed in Postcards from the Arctic
Story by Jane Whitney
Sheattie was born in an igloo 64 years ago. He is now one of the most respected hunters and elders in all of Baffin. He is our main guide as we go out across the pack ice to the floe edge. Quaima?
Ready? He calls out with a smile.
We will cross leads of open water where 5-foot thick pans of ice break apart. We will travel under cliffs of ancient rock and look across at the spectacular mountains and glaciers of Bylot Island and Sirmiluk National Park. We will pass by a towering iceberg frozen in the pack ice and watch seals lining the leads and individual holes.
Robert Bylot sailed into this area with William Baffin nearly 400 years ago. They set the furthest north record of reaching 77° 45’ North. They named Lancaster Sound, which would eventually become the gateway to the long sought after Northwest Passage, and Smith Sound, the future highway to the North Pole. Two centuries would pass before another exploring ship would sail this far north. And yet Sheattie’s ancestors travelled to the floe edge, as we are doing today, for over a thousand years.
The floe edge is where the ice pack meets the open water. Here, life flourishes, with flocks of thick-billed murres, king eiders, and black-legged kittiwakes. Narwhal travel close to the edge. Polar bear tracks show of their passing. The floe edge will be our home for the next week, in the land of the 24 hour sun.
Photo credit: Stephen A. Smith
June 6th, 2014 | By Prisca Campbell | Filed in Postcards from the Arctic
Story by Jane Whitney
I notice Inuit in the same line up as us as we check in for our flight with First Air in Ottawa. Women wearing brightly coloured amauties (a hooded jacket to carry young). A little boy with a cropped haircut running around in his striped T-shirt and a big green jawbreaker in his mouth. It feels so right to hear them speak in Inuktitut. I see the familiar northern greeting - smiling eyes, friendly conversation. I am excited to return to their land. It is a feeling of deep exhilaration.
The big, open landscape here is very, very quiet, save for the water dripping off the ice and the call of the glaucous gull or raven. There is no constant background noise of either air or vehicle traffic. You can hear children's laughter as they play outside on the dirt roads or in melt water on the ice. You can hear the dogs howl once a day as they wait next to the qamutiq
, a traditional Inuit wooden sled, parked out on the ice.
There is an Inuktitut word to describe being content out on the land in the north: quviannik
, "to feel deeply happy". This is how I am feeling.
May 30th, 2014 | By Prisca Campbell | Filed in Postcards from the Arctic
Story by Olivia Seifried
“This is your brake and here is the throttle,” explained our Inuit guide, Sam Omik Jr.
At 9:00am we met in the lobby of the Arctic Hotel, reviewed our cold weather gear, and then jumped into the “Polar Bear Van” to head down to one of Arctic Kingdom’s sea can locations where the guides had the snowmobiles warming their engines.
I pulled down my goggles and adjusted the balaclava to completely cover my face from the fridgid Arctic air. I was happy to see the snowmobiles were equiped with both hand and feet warmers.
We mounted our snowmobiles, forming a single line of Arctic engines behind our guide, and headed out on a four hour snowmobile tour to the polynya, a tiny pin-point on Frobisher Bay where the water current is so strong that the ice is unable to freeze over even during the coldest of the winter months. To reach the open bay we first needed to wind our way around the pack ice that crumples like pieces of paper as it pushes up against the land. Even though the bay is frozen, the tides are still alive, rising, falling, and reforming ice sculpture gardens.
Soaring across the vast, white ice we explored the roaming grounds for rabbit, fox and wolf, who manage to forage on what appears to be barren land during the cold winter darkness.
Approaching the natural ice hole, we could see the vapour condensing as it rose above the water. To better spot any ring seals surfacing in the nutrient rich polynya, we took a short walk to a stone landmark known as an inuksuk, marking a place of reference, and overlooking the entirety of the open water.
We warmed our hands around a steaming cup of sweet hot chocolate and learned a few words in Inuktitut before returning to Iqaluit – the most northern capital in Canada, and an easy access point to explore the vast arctic playground.
May 8th, 2014 | By Prisca Campbell | Filed in Postcards from the Arctic
Story by Kristyn Thoburn
After a few years of leading groups of adults to experience the wonders of the Arctic, I had the opportunity to introduce the Arctic, in all of its wonder, to some amazing kids. In 2010, I led two private family trips - one to Pond Inlet in April with two couples and their three children and another to Qikiqtarjuaq in August with a couple and their three children. The following is a story of two unique trips with two remarkable families and some of my favourite memories...
Pond Inlet was the stop in Canada’s Arctic for two families who were taking their children on a tour of Greenland, Iceland and Nunavut. We departed Pond Inlet amidst stunning mountains, glaciers, and fiords and set up our camp near the newly formed floe edge. One of our guides brought along his son who became fast friends with the kids on our trip and exchanged stories and experiences.
While the trip itself was only four days long, we packed as much as we could into this short time. We watched for seals on the floe edge, visited the bird cliffs, searched for polar bears, and hiked around icebergs. The highlight of trip was when the children built their own igloo (with help from our lead guide and expert igloo builder Sheatie of course!) and then spent the night in it – a quintessential Arctic experience!
Later on in the summer, I embarked on a summer adventure to the hamlet of Qikiqtarjuaq with a family of five with children aged 5, 8, and 12. We camped on a beautiful beach with views of the Baffin Mountains and Auyuittuq National Park. Agai,n our guides brought younger family members along to enrich the cultural experience. Traditional games were played, stories were shared, and everyone in the group walked away with new knowledge and friendships.
Our guides and hosts, Billy and Daisy Arnaquq, were extremely welcoming, showing us all around their “backyard”, teaching us words and phrases in Inuktitut and even inviting us to join them for dinner with their extended family. Our 12 year old guest, Kirk, had a bucket list item - to swim in all the world’s oceans – so he was very excited to check the Arctic Ocean off his list! We took advantage of what an Arctic summer has to offer by fishing for Arctic char and enjoying a mid-afternoon sushi meal, picking fresh blueberries from the surrounding area for breakfast, hiking to the top of a peak to enjoy the majestic view of the surrounding mountains and glaciers, and watching icebergs float in the crystal clear water. The pièce de résistance was an amazing encounter with a swimming polar bear who decided to make his appearance for our 5-year-old guest’s birthday. Her delight was a wonderful reward for all of us. Our trip was a great success!
Being able to share in these families’ experiences was one of the most rewarding times in my career. What a wonderful opportunity for these young people to see and experience a different country, a different culture and a different way of life. I’m sure they will carry these memories with them for a very long time, and so will I.
May 2nd, 2014 | By Prisca Campbell | Filed in Postcards from the Arctic, Uncategorized
Story by Jason Hillier
The day started with an exciting helicopter flight through the gorgeous Eclipse and Tremblay Sound regions near Pond inlet, Nunavut but the day ended with an even more memorable boat ride!
The Helicopter Flight
“Where do we want to land for lunch?” was the question we all were trying to answer with our eyes. We scanned the icecap as we flew over it, seemingly scraping the snow as we were so low, all the while peering out into the seemingly endless river valley below our feet. We were trying to find the perfect spot to not only give us the ability to do some light hiking but also get somewhere that we could take a few great pictures. We searched for only a short period of time before we found the perfect spot that gave us the best of both worlds. Lunch this day wasn’t just sandwiches or freeze dried rice; it was an amazing spread of salad, whole BBQ suckling pig (prepared the previous day in a custom made BBQ pit), fresh fruit, and of course, dessert. The view was spectacular and the lunch was fitting the occasion.
After our leisurely lunch we were headed north looking for the next great spot to put down. In almost no time, we came across a polar bear dining on a narwhal carcass. Quickly, we determined our plan to put down and do what we could to get a picture of that bear and the whale. After a little stalking and stealthy hiking, we eventually got close enough to get some great pictures.
It was shortly after our polar bear encounter that we happened upon what was undoubtedly one of the most amazing things I had ever seen, a pod of orca. We followed them with the helicopter and were inspired when we saw that they were heading towards the vicinity of our basecamp. We knew what we had to do. Get to our boats!
We quickly made for the basecamp and I am sure our pilot somehow found an extra “gear” in there somewhere. Within minutes of landing we were donning our PFDs and fuelling boats for Part Two of our adventure.
The Boat Ride
Orca from the Air
To say there was excitement in the air as we boarded our boat, which was captained by our faithful senior Inuit Guide Sheattie Tagak, was an understatement. It was with an almost nervous anticipation that we left the beach, without even a thought of dinner, to try and intercept our cetacean quarry. We were armed only with cameras and energy candy bars. After all, those will get you through anything in a pinch.
It didn’t take long before we came across the pod of orca. There must have been 20 of them but quite possibly, there were even more than that. It was impossible to tell for sure. In the midst of the commotion there was something we weren’t expecting to see but after a minute of staring in disbelief we saw a narwhal The orca had ‘taken’ a narwhal and were doing what killer whales do best with their prey. A simply amazing sight and one that I could only hope to one day be fortunate enough to see again. We watched the pod circle the narwhal and within a matter of minutes, the feeding frenzy was over, but that certainly wasn’t the end of the show.
Orca Up Close
The orca, freshly fuelled from a late evening snack, decided it was play time. The show they gave us for the next 3 hours took our breath away. They breached, they swam on their back while doing tail-slaps, they cruised in and out of our wake and prop bubbles, time and time again we literally made eye contact with our new found friends. I am sure we could have reached out and touched them on many occasions. They were playing with us and we were gladly reciprocating with them. It may sound weird but it even seemed that the orca were excited that we were with them. As the juveniles swam next to us and under us, you could almost see them smile, but maybe ear to ear grins are infectious?
Breaching Orca with Iceberg - Lucky Shot!
I feel extremely privileged to have had such an amazing and intimate encounter with such beautiful and intelligent animals. We drained our camera batteries, filled our memory cards, and found ourselves babbling like schoolchildren throughout the encounter. I wonder what amazing animal encounters 2014 will have in store for us!
Orca Playing in Wake