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The Freighter Canoe – Uniquely Canadian, Uniquely Northern

November 4th, 2015 | By | Filed in Arctic History, Trips

Freighter canoe, Eeyou Istchee

Freighter canoe with the Canots Nor-West decal.

Freighter canoes are hybrids, part motor-boat, part canoe. They are large, long and oddly beautiful. Note the straight stern, on which an outboard engine can be attached. The photo to the right was taken on the eastern shore of James Bay in the Cree territory known as Eeyou Istchee.

The people of Waskaganish, a small coastal Cree village on the southern coast of Eeyou Istchee, has a 300 year history of building canoes designed to carry the freight associated with the fur trade. It is thought that the current design was based on those more traditional canoes used by the Hudson Bay Company.

Igloolik Freighter CanoeWhat those of us in the south often forget is that the North is Canada’s third sea coast. James Bay and its northern and larger extension – Hudson Bay – are subject to strong winds, ice and currents. The motorized freighter canoe was designed to navigate that treacherous seacoast.

The photo to the left was taken in the summer of 2015 near Igloolik, an Inuit community far north of Hudson Bay on the banks of the Northwest Passage. Our Kings of the Arctic Safari is staged there. Riding in the canoe are members of our Field Staff, showing off their skill in the canoe that Northern peoples have adopted as their own.

The Arctic’s Big 5

October 23rd, 2015 | By | Filed in Trips

Walrus and PupTravellers to Africa talk about the Big 5: lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and the Cape Buffalo. These are the five animals that earned a reputation as the hardest to bag when trophy hunting. In the digital age, in the Canadian Arctic the Big 5 are wildlife that are extremely difficult to photograph in the wild.

The Arctic’s Big 5

Narwhal, the single-tusked whales that inspired the legend of the unicorn, are wary of the sound of engine motors. They will dive to great depths rather than encounter curious photographers hanging over the side of a boat.

Polar bears are migratory. Their home territories are massive, larger than any other type of bear. To see them in the wild takes an understanding of their natural behaviour.
Bowhead whale is the largest whale in the Arctic Ocean, yet are seldom visible. They slough dead skin from their bodies annually, a sight that is seldom scene.

Walrus live in the Arctic all year round. They need sea ice, like the polar bear, to survive. Due to shrinking sea ice, 35,000 female walrus and their calves were photographed congregating on a beach in 2014. The largest gathering ever recorded.

Beluga, white whales with comical faces, spend summers in the Arctic Ocean, when the ice has melted. They migrate south to avoid freeze up. To see them in the Far North, we depend on the local knowledge of Inuit, who have hunted them for centuries.

Safaris to see the Arctic Big 5

International Left-Handers Day – August 13, 2015

August 13th, 2015 | By | Filed in Sports, Trips

Kayaking in the narwhal summer feeding groundsAugust 13, 2015 marks the 22nd Anniversary of International Left-Handers Day. This day is a way to honour all the lefties out there and the everyday struggles they face living in a right-handed world.

Most ordinary products are created and aimed to support right-handed people, as that is the dominant hand of 87% of the world. So what do all the lefties do? Right-handed kayak paddles, for instance, are more common than those geared for left-handed kayakers. Just like a right-handed paddler controls most movements with their right-hand, a left-handed paddler controls most movements with their left. The blades of the paddle are set dependent upon the neutral position of the dominant hand and the paddle would then naturally face the kayaker. The difference is visible in which hand you grip and rotate with.

Kayaking is just one example of the struggles lefties face living in a right-handed world. Paddles and other sports equipment for left-handed athletes aren’t as available as they are for right-handed ones. This results in discomfort and a handicap that has an effect on the athlete enjoying their sport. Though, fortunately enough, there are kayak paddles specifically designed for left-handed enthusiasts, a lot of sports discourage participation and limit the athlete’s ability unless they are right-handed.

Interesting Facts about Lefties:

  • About 13% of the population around the world are left-handed and it is thought to be genetic
  • There is a high tendency in twins for one to be left-handed
  • Stuttering and dyslexia occur more often in left-handers (particularly if they are forced to change their writing hand as a child)
  • Left-handers adjust more readily to seeing underwater

To mark International left-handers day, if you are a rightie, try using your left hand for the day!

Looking for kayaking inspiration? Try this >
Author: Mandy Ams

The Spirit of Discovery – Arctic Kingdom Style

April 23rd, 2015 | By | Filed in Trips

bowhead, arctic kingdom, swim with bowhead

View from the boat when the bowhead whale surfaced

When you hear the word expedition does it ignite in you an expectation of discovery? We think so. Whenever we travel we seek the undiscovered or the little known. There are still new discoveries to be made.

One of our most exciting moments of discovery occurred during a Polar Bears and Glaciers of Baffin Island Safari, a few years ago. Our travellers sighted more than 20 bowheads in a shallow bay. That is a lot of whale blubber, as a single bowhead can weigh up to 80,000 kilos (176,370 pounds) and grow as long as 18 meters (59 feet). After consulting one of Canada’s foremost bowhead researchers we learned that we had identified a bowhead whale molting sight. In the shallow water, the whales wallow rubbing their bodies to slough off dead skin.

Bowheads are denizens of the Arctic Ocean. You won’t see them in marine parks or zoos. You won’t encounter them on a whale-watching trip in the Baja or Canada’s East Coast. Even in the Arctic, a bowhead sighting is rare. We increase the odds of a sighting by knowing the places they frequent.

Knowing where Arctic wildlife is likely to be found and why…is the secret to our success as an Arctic trip provider. We use natural biology and the knowledge of local guides to plan our adventures and deliver extraordinary wildlife viewing opportunities.

Walk with Grizzly Bears in your wildlife #film

September 6th, 2014 | By | Filed in Arctic Animals, Featured Trip, Filmmakers, Films, Northern Lights - Aurora Borealis, Trips

Walking with Grizzlies

Walking with Grizzlies

Have you seen Disneynature’s Bears? Filmed in Alaska, it follows a mother and her two cubs from the time they emerge from the den until they return to that den a year later. Alastair Fothergill co-directed and co-wrote the documentary. His pedigree as a wildlife documentary is long and distinguished. He began in the renowned BBC Natural History department working with Sir David Attenborough. So you don’t have to take my word that Bears is worth spending an afternoon on the couch with the family and a bowl of popcorn.

Make your own documentary – about Grizzly Bears

You are right to be skeptical about your ability to equal the quality of Bears, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a wildlife documentary. Digital cameras – and smartphones – shoot HD video. You can edit your footage on your home computer. You can even add soundtrack music and titles. If you are shouting at your tablet screen, “Yes I can do that, but there’s no way I can get as close to bears as professional documentary makers,” desist. Because you can! Really.

The picture to above is proof. The video we shot at the grizzly bear camp is further proof. Watch the grizzly bears here.

Make your own documentary – about Polar Bears

Now that I have convinced you that you can make your own wildlife documentaries, let me amp the excitement up a notch. Make a documentary about polar bears. Yes, you can get close enough to shoot polar bears and live. We can make it happen for you. We have the video to prove it. Watch the polar bears here.


So…what’s it really like? – Day # 7

November 14th, 2012 | By | Filed in AK NEWS, AK PRODUCTS & SERVICES, Client Reports, FEATURED, Featured Trip, Recent Trips, TRIPS, Trips

By: Liz Fleming

The last blog from Liz Fleming’s trip to the Arctic. Read below for the final fascinating installment.

What an adventure!

There was less laughter than usual at breakfast on the last morning. We all seemed to be struggling to swallow the  idea that the best adventure ever was coming to an end.  Looking around the dining tent, I realized that in the space of just seven days, total strangers had become close friends –
friends who lived in places like Berlin, Seattle, Melbourne, Singapore and Pond Inlet.  The gaps between us were going to seem vast.

Packing up, loading our bags into the komatiks, saying goodbye to the few camp staff members who weren’t coming with us to Pond Inlet, taking group photo after group photo – it was a long morning. As we pulled away, heading back to town, our yellow tents quickly shrank until they were nothing but tiny spots of colour on the flat, blue-grey ice. I think we all felt our hearts contract then too.

"Say Arctic!"

Mike and Tom had warned us that the trip back to Pond would be a long one. During our week away, the ice had shifted and larger than usual cracks had appeared.  The acrobatic snowmobile leaps we’d seen on the trip out were going to seem like child’s play.

Who knew you could make bridges from chunks of floating ice? I certainly didn’t, but fortunately it was a skill Tom and the guides had honed to a fine art.  When we came to cracks that seemed too large to slide a komatik across, they calmly moved big bits of ice into the gaps, creating the smooth surface we needed. Weirdly, this engineering wizardry caused no panic – I didn’t worry for a second about whether the whole process would work. After a week of watching the calm, capable guides handle every challenge our extreme environment presented, and knowing that the rock-solid Tom was in charge, I felt totally safe. No worries – we were in the best possible hands.

Though it was a long trip back, it was punctuated by seeing a rare white gyrfalcon in its nest on a barren cliff. These birds of prey are prized so highly by Saudi Arabian princes that they send bird-nappers to capture and smuggle the falcons out of the Arctic. Though he glimpse we had was brief, it was enough to send Jens, our ornithologist, into fits of joy as he added it to his birding life-list.

After hours of bumping around in the komatiks, we arrived back in Pond Inlet, tired and ready for our denouement dinner – a bitter sweet moment. As we ate, Mike and Tom talked about our time together on the ice – and Mike reminded us of his promise that we would find our magic

We realized that we had each found an individual magic as we shared our most important reflections on our week together.  While all were special, my favourite revelation came from Sandra, my Singaporean buddy. Tiny, intrepid and seemingly always ready for anything, Sandra confessed that she’d struggled her whole life with a fear of water, but wanting to snorkel with whales and narwhals, had decided to conquer her phobia. For the past year, Sandra had been taking swimming lessons at a pool, working her way from wading to actually swimming a few strokes. When I remembered helping her wrestle into her dry suit and seeing her hop off the edge of the ice into the water, I was amazed by her courage. No shortage of guts, that girl!

By far the funniest ‘best moment’ belonged to Sandra’s husband, Soo Young, a serious-minded, cautious orthopedic specialist who told us his favourite experience had been…riding in the komatiks.  Given that we were all nursing various degrees of stiffness from banging around in those same komatiks on the seven-hour trip home, Soo Young’s comment exploded like a laughter bombshell. Perfect timing – we needed something to keep us from crying as we finished our night and our incredible adventure.

As a travel journalist, I’ve been lucky enough to travel to some of the most exciting destinations in the world with fellow travel journalists who are usually adventurous and articulate.  But no trip has ever been quite like this one. No destination has challenged and changed me as this did and no other group has ever bonded like ours.  Mike was right – we did find magic on the ice and more – we found a passion for the Arctic that will stay with us forever. If that sounds like a dramatic statement, it is…because only words of that strength can describe a life-changing experience.


So…what’s it really like? – Day # 5

October 29th, 2012 | By | Filed in AK NEWS, Client Reports, Current Events, FEATURED, Featured Trip, IN THE NEWS, Recent Trips, TRIPS, Trips

Day Five – By Liz Fleming

After our incredible day and night (hard to distinguish between the two) yesterday, crawling out of our cozy beds was harder this morning, but luckily, breakfast waited for us.  A big feast of eggs and toast and lots of chatter about all that we saw and did the day before and we were soon revved for another trip to the floe edge – on this, the longest day of the year.

Our arrival was punctuated by a group of belugas cavorting just off the edge of the ice, so we hurried to get into our dry suits and kayaks to join them, wriggling into dry suits or climbing into the kayaks.  The whales lingered with us for a while, gliding smoothly around the drifting ice chunks, then slowly swam off, leaving us eager for more.


Arctic Kayaking


More Arctic Kayaking

With the belugas gone, we turned our cameras on the huge flocks of birds that swooped overhead.  Though they were all beautiful, my favourites
by far were the king eiders with their black and white bodies and brilliant, toucan-like beaks.  It was incredibly peaceful to simply sit in the sun and watch them soar and dive.

Peaceful sitting in the sun got old pretty quickly for the four kids in the group, however, so Mike and Tom started an impromptu ice soccer game, using a cushion for a ball.  Despite my basic lack of both ability and competitive spirit, I found myself playing goal – and getting decked by a
rampaging Mike!  I laughed so hard I could barely get up.

Brett, our crazy Aussie pal, had brought a kite and his flip-flops (what else would you pack for an Arctic adventure?) and put them both to use that afternoon.  The reds and yellows of the kite were like bright streaks of paint against the white landscape and the blue sky.

Though a duck hybrid dropped by to fascinate Jens the biologist, other wildlife proved elusive for the rest of the afternoon.  Still tired from the night before, we were content to head back for dinner at what seemed like the early hour of 8pm.  When the sun never stops shining, you lose all track of time.

Back at the camp, Chef Andrew had a great dinner waiting – and Tom and Mike had more treats in store.  One of the guides had agreed to tell us the story of his family and their life in the north…speaking in Inuktituk.  Billy, another guide, sat beside him to translate what was a harrowing story of devastating hardships.  The guide’s grandparents had traveled for two years from a tiny, remote community to make their home in Pond Inlet.  The grandfather was sick throughout the trip and unable to hunt, so the grandmother carried the burden of the family alone.
Often going without food, the family lost six of their seven children during the course of the journey – those who remained survived only because the desperate woman managed to kill a walrus.

As we listened, we could hardly believe that anyone could live through such terrible challenges – or that the grandson
whose mother was the only child to survive that epic journey could tell the story in such a matter-of-fact way.  We were coming to realize that life in the high Arctic is unlike anything experienced anywhere else.

Landscape of ice



So…what’s it really like? – Day # 4

October 9th, 2012 | By | Filed in AK NEWS, Client Reports, Current Events, FEATURED, Featured Trip, IN THE NEWS, Recent Trips, TRIPS, Trips

Day Four – By Liz Fleming

We woke to an unexpectedly damp camp.  The sun had come out and was shining brilliantly (yay!) but the sunbeams, in combination with a warm wind, were turning the surface of the ice to melt-water and causing our camp manager Simon grief.  Not to worry.  This was a man who’s spent a good chunk of his life navigating Antarctica, largely without support – a little water was no match for him.

In no time, Simon had produced an enormous auger and was drilling holes down to the sea below the ice, creating a superb drainage system.  He also, quite unexpectedly, created a whole new form of adventure for the guys in the group who all wanted to take a turn with the auger and seemed fascinated by watching the water get sucked down the hole.

With the water situation well in hand, we again loaded the komatiks and headed for the floe edge.  We’d only just gotten underway when our convoy came to a halt and the guides all jumped from their snowmobiles.  They’d seen polar bear tracks in the snow.

Furiously snapping away with our cameras, we marveled at the huge footprints.  The guides scanned the horizon with the binoculars and finally spotted the maker of the prints far in the distance – he was hard to see as he blended so well with the landscape.  After a few moments, he seemed satisfied and ambled off.

We hopped back in the komatiks and continued our journey to the floe edge.

Today was our day! The sun was blazing overhead and the water seemed filled with life. Tom, Mike and the guides hauled out the toys for the day – kayaks, paddles, survival suits, drysuits, snorkels, masks – everything we needed to get up close and personal with the whales, narwhals and seals we could see just beyond the edge of the ice.

If you’ve never wriggled into a dry suit, let me tell you, it’s a trick that’s best achieved by removing all your hair and perhaps your ears as well.  Because the seal has to be complete to keep the frigid water from rushing in, necks and cuffs are incredibly tight.  We took turns torturing one another, stuffing heads and hands and feet through the rubber openings as we fought our way into the suits – and we laughed ourselves sick while we were at it.

My best moment of what proved to be an absolutely incredible day, filled with every kind of Arctic wildlife I’d ever dreamed of seeing came when two enormous, browny-grey narwhals surfaced on either side of my kayak.  I raised my paddle and laid it across the gunwales so I wouldn’t disturb them, while my heart tried to beat its way out of my chest.
It was a moment I’ll never forget…but only a taste of what was yet to come.

After hours of snorkeling and kayaking in the endless sunshine, we were reluctantly packing up the komatiks to head back to the camp for dinner when suddenly the water erupted.  Beluga whales – dozens of them – were breaching.  We abandoned the komatiks and raced to the edge of the water where we could see our new playmates arriving – gigantic bowhead whales had joined the belugas.  The excitement in the group was off the chart.

Later that night, following a toast to Simon, who’d created an entire small city’s working drainage system in our absence and secured all of our tents, we were still so pumped that going to bed just wasn’t an option.  Heading out with Mike and Tom, we hiked our neighbourhood icebergs, leapt like ballet dancers off icy outcrops and took turns photographing one another’s reflections on the lenses of our sunglasses.  It was long past 2am when we finally fell asleep in our beds listening to the winds whipping the sides of our tents, still reeling from the glory of our incredibly Arctic day.

So…what’s it really like? – Day # 3

September 20th, 2012 | By | Filed in AK NEWS, AK PRODUCTS & SERVICES, Client Reports, Current Events, Current Trips, FEATURED, Featured Trip, IN THE NEWS, TRIPS, Trips

"Don't open your mouth when you look up!"

Day Three – By Liz Fleming

As we climbed out of our tents the first morning, the air was damp with mist.  Although Tom and Mike were a little apologetic  about the lack of sunshine, we were all so pumped about heading out for our first trip on the ice, we hardly noticed.

After a big breakfast, we gathered at the komatiks and loaded up for a trip to the bird cliffs, a particularly great area for Jens, an ornithologist and biology
professor from Germany.  He was my komatik partner and I felt very lucky to be able to listen to his commentary as
we headed out, bumping along the ice behind the snowmobile. I could tell I was going to go home considerably better informed about birds.

“The best advice I can give you,” Tom told us when we arrived, clambered out of the komatiks and stared up at the sheer cliff faces ahead, where hundreds of birds wheeled and screamed, “is don’t open your mouth when you look up!”

Wise counsel.

Birds of a feather


Murre eggs

The guides warned us often to watch where we stepped – the ice was solid but there were cracks.  Our Aussie buddy Brett learned the hard way.  Looking up as he focused on a shot, Brett put his feet too close to the edge and plunged into the water up to his armpits.  In just moments, the guides had hauled him out – no mean feat, as Brett’s a tall, solid man.  Wet but none the worse for wear, he was helped to a komatik and offered a quick ride back to camp.  In a display of true Aussie toughness and good humour, Brett opted to stay and seemed to dry out remarkably quickly.

After a return to camp for a hot lunch, we made our first trip out to the floe edge – a world unlike anything we’d seen anywhere…ever.  Pulling our small chairs from the komatiks, we moved to the edge of the ice where we sat, stunned into near silence by the vastness of the water. As we watched, cameras in hand, we played with photographing the King eider ducks that swooped past in huge flocks, their images reflected in the mirror-like surface of the water.

Suddenly, though very quietly, our guides signaled us to come. As binoculars were passed from hand to hand we saw – perhaps a kilometer away – a polar bear, watching us as intently as we were watching him.  Against the brilliant white background, his fur seemed cream-coloured – almost yellowish – and he was huge.  And we were in his backyard.

It was an afternoon of watching, of breathing in the cool, clear air, of trying to capture the size of our new world with cameras that suddenly seemed inadequate.  When it was time to reload the komatiks and head for camp, we were stunned to see that it was long past 8pm.  In a land where the sun never sets, we were quickly losing our sense of time.

On the way back to camp, a seal appeared on ice, sitting stock still beside its hole.  Our guides stopped and Cornelius, whose camera outclassed the rest of ours, climbed out to see if he could get a shot. Taking slow, deliberate steps, Cornelius moved closer to the seemingly unconcerned seal, clicking shots as he went.  He didn’t get very far before the seal – who had actually been hyper-aware of his approach the whole time – turned, slid into the water and disappeared.  I suddenly realized how incredibly difficult hunting seals must be and
how ridiculous it was to worry about the possibility of mass slaughtering.  Seals are far too quick.

After our long day on the ice, we’d have been happy to eat anything that stayed still on our plates, but were thrilled by the feast Chef Andrew had waiting for us.  Hot carrot and ginger soup, rare lamb chops and a decadent chocolate dessert topped with berries. How he managed that, in the middle of nowhere, I can’t imagine.

A few hours later, stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey, I snuggled into bed in my little yellow tent and listened to gentle rain falling.  I’d have been happy to stay there forever.


So…what’s it really like? – Day # 2

September 13th, 2012 | By | Filed in AK NEWS, Client Reports, Current Events, FEATURED, IN THE NEWS, Recent Trips, TRIPS, Trips, Uncategorized

Day 2 – By Liz Fleming

Packing up for a week on the polar sea ice is like outfitting an army for a major campaign.  It’s an exercise in memory – anything you forget, you’ll have to live without – there’s no dashing out to the corner store for that extra quart of milk.

Fortunately for us, the Arctic Kingdom team proved to be masters of organization. Not only had they made sure we’d brought everything on the list they’d provided, but they also rented us anything we didn’t own (and really…who has a stash of Arctic-style gear hanging in the closet, next to their shorts and t-shirts?) but also, when it was discovered that one part of the group had forgotten their oh-so-vital big warm rubber boots in Ottawa, the Arctic Kingdom team managed to scrounge replacements.

We gathered in the lobby, marveling at the sheer bulk of our gear, then piled mountains of stuff into the hotel’s bus and headed for shore to load the komatiks (sleds pulled by skidoos) for the expedition north to camp.  As we met our Inuit guides and helped them to load a seemingly endless collection of bags, boxes and coolers, I started to get a sense of the size of the project – it was like loading a wagon train for an epic journey.


The hauling and lifting worked up a sweat.  Decked out in acres of Canada Goose down – coats, pants, mitts – and wool lined, knee-high rubber boots, we were roasting like Thanksgiving turkeys and silently wondering if we’d need it all.  After all, the temperature in Pond Inlet that day wasn’t cold – not even close to cold.

Tom Lennartz, Expedition Director (and secret mind reader) laughed at our glowing faces.

“You might be baking right now, but later on, you’re going to be happy you have every bit of that gear.”

By the time we stowed the last bag and box and climbed into the komatiks ourselves, I was zipped and tucked into more clothing than I’d ever worn before, and thought I was ready.  Guide Mike Beedell knew I wasn’t. He pulled the strings on my parka hood tight, framing my face in coyote fur so only my ski goggles peered out.

Some hours later, as the komatiks rocked and rolled and the wind whipped across an unbroken sweep of sea ice, I was grateful for those tightened hood strings and glad of every ounce of down that protected me from the cold and wet. In the Arctic, staying warm and dry is key – once you’re chilled, the fun’s over.

I’d never given much thought to cracks in the surface of ice before, but they became a huge entertainment feature of our trip to the camp.  Because komatiks rest on long wooden skis, they can glide easily over almost any split.  Snowmobiles are another thing.  After pushing our komatiks carefully across the big cracks, our guides then backed up, gunned their snowmobile engines and leapt across the open water like Olympic long-jumpers.  It was simultaneously terrifying and fascinating – a madly exciting spectator sport.

Pond Inlet - Stunning Landscape

After nearly seven hours of travel across the frozen polar sea, punctuated by the snowmobile stunts and the occasional tea-and-pee breaks, we arrived at camp. Dwarfed by towering icebergs, the collection of white and yellow tents looked impossibly, almost hilariously tiny in the vast sweep of the ice.  We were home – and like any good home, ours was warm, and inviting, with the smell of a hot dinner wafting from the dining tent.


I made it!



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