“There must be over 20 bowhead whales!” Exclaimed Graham Dickson, Chief Expedition Officer for Arctic Kingdom Expeditions.
It was August 2012, and while scouting a new area just south of Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut by boat with a couple of photographers on Arctic Kingdom’s trip “Polar Bears and Glaciers of Baffin Island” Dickson, and the photographers were witnessing the act of bowhead whales rubbing their 60’ long bodies on the rocks at the bottom of the ocean floor to scrape off their skin – a process also known as ‘molting’.
Bowheads rubbing in the shallow waters of the coast of Baffin Island allowed with snorkeler Todd Mintz approaching
One of the photographers, Todd Mintz, a Canadian photographer who has travelled with Arctic Kingdom to photograph polar bears, muskox and narwhal since 2010 couldn’t resist putting on his drysuit and floating in the water to witness the behavior underwater. He took this video with a GoPro camera mounted on his camera.
When asked what is was like to have a 100 ton whale approach to within 5 feet of him, Mintz replied, “That was one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had. I had no idea what he was going to do. I was frozen on the spot, and only remembered to take some pictures at the last second. That never happens.”
View from the boat when the bowhead whale surfaced
Mintz also managed to retrieve some bowhead whale skin that was floating in the water.
At the time Dickson and the photographers on board new they were witnessing something special.
The fact that there were such a high concentration of bowhead whales in 30’ of shallow water is very rare as bowhead whales are known to be pelagic or deep water whales. Second, the water clarity was crystal clear and to our knowledge there has never before been such clear underwater photographs taken of bowhead whales. Third, the pieces of bowhead whale skin in the water, also to our recollection had not been seen before.
To verify what we saw, we consulted with the Canadian expert in bowhead whales – retired bowhead whale ecologist and researcher Kerry Finley. Finley has studied the Baffin Island bowhead whales since 1983 along the coast of Baffin Island mainly a few hundred kilometers to the north in Isabella Bay. He had not been to the location where we saw the rubbing activity.
“The place where whales go” according to local Inuit elders
After discussing the behavior of the bowhead whales with Finley and reviewing photos and video taken on the trip he commented, “Your photographers captured just the sort of image that we tried so many years to obtain…I had hoped to document the rubbing behaviour that I suspected was taking place but to no avail. It is interesting that you actually saw pieces of skin which I never saw. It is definitely molting behavior that you saw”.
Finley went on to say, “What you have found, could very well be a very special place for bowhead whale observation”
The bowhead whales were finning, logging (resting on the surface), tail slapping, and rubbing on the rocks in the shallow waters
Upon returning to the Arctic Kingdom base camp that evening one of the local Inuit elders came to our camp. We described to him where we went and what we saw. His response was simple – “Yes, you went to the place where the bowhead whales go”.
Apparently we are not the first ones to have ‘discovered’ the bowhead whales and where they go to molt. The Inuit people have known about them all along.
Arctic Kingdom is planning on returning Aug 1 to 7 and Aug 8 to 14 2013 to the “place where the bowhead whales go” along with our Inuit friends and we hope to repeat August 2012 encounter.
There are still a few limited spaces left for interested persons who would like to join. For more details visit this page: “Polar Bears and Glaciers of Baffin Island”
Or Contact: Thomas Lennartz – thomasarctickingdomcom
Erik was from Austria. Robert and Kendra were from Hong Kong. Micki and Chuck were from LA, Joanne was Australian and Pat was a friend from Ottawa. Most of us had never met before, but we greeted each other like adventurers with a common goal: combing the western edge of Hudson Bay for mother polar bears and their months-old cubs. Stowing our gear and chatting excitedly, we boarded the VIA train in Churchill, Manitoba, bound for Chesnaye, 60 kilometres south. It was a slow ride south through the boreal forest, but with every kilometer clicking past, our anticipation grew. The spring 2013 Polar Bear Mother and Newborn Cub Photo Safari with Arctic Kingdom was about to begin.
Two hours later, we rolled to a stop in Chesnaye. Very late on a very cold March night when the temperature hovered at -30C, we stepped off the train onto the frozen tundra, with no station or platform in sight.
2 hour train ride from Churchill to the Lodge
There, the Lodge staff met and whisked us into their specially-designed Arctic vehicles – vans with special tracks instead of wheels. A quick 30-minute drive brought us to our home for the next seven nights. Ten adventurers were already at the lodge and they were buzzing with elation. That day, they’d experienced an amazing opportunity to capture, on camera, a polar bear and her cubs. Needless to say, our excitement and their stories kept us up until after midnight.
Our group from all corners of the globe – from Hong Kong, Australia, USA, Canada and the UK – heading out in the tracked van in search of mother and cubs
Day 1 at the Newborn Cub Lodge
At 9am the next morning, after a chef-made breakfast, we boarded the specially-equipped van. Parkas on, photo equipment at the ready, we crossed our fingers and toes in the hopes that we would see a mother and her cubs close to their den.
Just twenty minutes later. “There they are!” shouted our guide, pointing to a Momma bear feeding her cubs. From a respectful distance, we observed the tender interplay of nature and nurture. Once she was done, our guides positioned the vehicles and we clambered to get all our gear on and our photo equipment ready.
Tracked vehicles seem to watch over the tripods set up close to mother and cubs bear den
Stepping outside, the cold took our breath away. And yet…this is what we had come so far to see. We stood together, slightly unsure of what would happen. Even so, in that moment I thought, how lucky am I to experience this!
Waiting for mother and cubs to appear…any second now….
Lined up, our fingers on camera buttons, we watched, took photos and observed. The cubs tumbled over each other joyfully, with their mother nearby.
And then, the unexpected happened. Momma bear awoke from her rest, stretched, rolled onto her belly, sat up and sniffed the air in our direction. Slowly, she walked towards us. Our guides were immediately on alert and started their snowmobiles. She wasn’t aggressive in her approach—but she was curious.
Once the bears got too close, the guides moved in and gently suggested they head in another direction. The only sound over our overawed, pounding hearts was the quick click-click-click of our camera shutters as we captured each movement.
Perhaps convinced we meant no harm, Momma bear and her cubs went back towards their den to rest. As they slept, we chatted, moved in and out of the vans and tried to keep warm—the temperature by then was around -40C (-55 with the wind chill). And we marveled. On our first day, we had spent 10 hours watching this family. They had approached us four times, we had magic light and an all-around eventful day. We weren’t sure how any other day would compare.
Day 2 at the Newborn Polar Bear Cub Lodge
The next day, we searched fruitlessly for the family…but eventually, our guides located them later in the day. The babies played, slept and never strayed far from their mother’s side. They were adorable, and yet we had to remind ourselves that one day, they too would become the most fearsome predators in the Arctic.
Day 3 at the Newborn Cubs Lodge
The wind howled across the tundra, forcing the little family to hunker down. Even so, the light and setting were absolutely stunning. Momma bear put her face into the snow to sleep while the cubs played with each other. In between sniffing around and nosing each other, they crawled all over their mother, giving us unbelievable photographic opportunities. Once again, they approached us with interest.
Day 4 at the Newborn Cub Lodge
After such excellent luck, it came as no surprise that it ran out by the fourth day of shooting. Our guides had spotted three families, but they were deep in the park and the trek would have been too treacherous to make in our vans. We had beautiful light and spent a few hours sitting outside in the sunshine waiting for word from our guides.
But the day wasn’t a total loss: An extraordinary sunset morphed into a mesmerizing, noble display of northern lights early in the night. We definitely had nothing to complain about.
Day 5 at the Newborn Polar Bear Lodge
There are days in the North when it feels like you’re on a movie set. The light is gorgeous, the landscape was Hollywood perfect and the players all know their parts well.
The day dawned cold and windy, but a new mother and her very tiny, very new cubs fresh from the den emerged to explore the world around them. Everywhere Momma bear went, they followed. If she stopped to sniff the air, they stopped, too.
Polar bears use the small hilly areas to make their dens and there, we watched them sleep most of the day. Anytime we spotted movement, we would run to our cameras. It wasn’t the best day for shooting—the wind was strong and blew snow straight at us. But I don’t think any of us minded.
Day 6 at the Newborn Cub Lodge
Could anything top the week we had experienced? In the Arctic, nothing is a sure thing. There are too many variables, too much can change in a heartbeat. And yet, in many ways, our penultimate day at Wapusk was the best. Under the biggest tree for kilometers, our guides found the family. It was another beautiful background. After hours of sleeping, Momma Bear got up and walked in our direction with her cubs. Our guides warned her with their snowmobiles. She walked back to the tree and we watched her try to feed her cub. She took her big front paw and gently nudged him towards her. It was a tender moment that spoke volumes about how, regardless of species, our desire to both protect and feel safe. We want to feel loved. We want to be nourished.
At the end of the day, we had the unparalleled luck to have all three polar bears – mother with her two cubs – walked right past us. Trigger-happy and filled with excitement, we watched her walk away with her cubs close behind her. It was a fitting farewell and I was overcome. Tears ran down my face and I sobbed. I felt so blessed. I was doing exactly what I had dreamed of doing for so long. The Polar Bear Mother and Cubs Photo Safari trip had fulfilled my dreams.
The return back to Churchill was uneventful. Upon arriving on a bright, sunny day a bit warmer than what we’d experienced in Wapusk we had a dog sled ride and enjoyed the afternoon. But our hearts and minds were far away with the mother and newborn cubs that were back in Wapusk National Park.
ABOUT MICHELLE VALBERG
This was Michelle Valberg’s first trip (of many) as an expedition leader with Arctic Kingdom.
Michelle Valberg is a globally recognized and celebrated photographer, whose quest to capture the beautiful and unique on camera has taken her to all corners of the world.
Valberg’s stunning, and at times haunting photographs are highly sought after by art collectors globally, and have been showcased in various exhibits and features across North America. In 2011, Valberg’s work was the subject of a critically acclaimed 3-month solo exhibition at the esteemed Canadian Museum of Nature.
It wasn’t my first time in Antarctica. I’d been there before in 2007, when I boarded the Vavilov in Ushuaia, steeling my resolve for the next 48-60 hours of the legendary Drake Passage.
It wasn’t that bad – on the way there. The ocean was fairly flat, but the main issue was boredom. Sure, there were lectures and an opportunity to meet your fellow travellers, but outside, it was just grey – miles and miles of grey. Our of the 10-day program, more than 4 days were spent crossing the Drake.
The way home was a different story. We had 30-foot waves and, standing on the top deck, you could watch the bow all-but-disappear into the deep blue as we crashed into wave after wave. The dining room was a ghost town, and the few people that did make it to dinner had to contend with holding onto their plates so they wouldn’t end up on the floor. The staff did their best to make sure everyone who was laid out in their cabin was comfortable, but most just wanted the motion to stop.
Day 1: Punta Arenas
So I had the opportunity to join a new Fly-Cruise adventure to Antarctica this January onboard the Ocean Nova, a ship I know well from previous expeditions. I arrived in Punta Arenas the day before and checked into the Hotel Rey Don Felipe, (http://www.hotelreydonfelipe.com/) a quaint hotel, with excellent service. Dinner that evening was at La Pergola Restaurant at the historic the Hotel José Nogueira (http://www.hotelnogueira.com/restaurant/?lang=en ) under exceptional art painted by none other than Shackleton’s great (or is it Great-Great?) granddaughter.
Everyone was very excited for the morning to come – this was Christmas eve for the travel die-hards.
Day 2: Punta Arenas to Antarctica
The next day we woke early to join the flight from Punta Arenas to Frei Station (Chile’s most important base in Antarctica) aboard the BAE-146 jet. This 70-passenger jet is designed for short take off and landings and is perfect for the job at hand. Fog on the runway at Frei delayed our departure so instead we were taken for a tour of the town, including its impressive cemetery and it’s natural history museum. After lunch we moved to the airport , quickly got aboard, and had landed in Antarctica by 6pm.
We were greeted with temperatures hovering around freezing, with the last wisps of fog making our approach in Zodiac to the Ocean Nova a bit unreal. Coming aboard, we were welcomed by the friendly crew, and I was pleased to see some nice improvements to the décor of the ship – it still looks a little like it came from an Ikea catalog, but it is very well laid out and the staff is top-notch.
Dinner was delicious, we’ll-presented and soon followed by a nightcap in the Panorama lounge at the top of the ship. We were, indeed, in the Antarctic.
Day 3: The Weddell Sea
We awoke to brilliant sunshine as we edged into the Weddell Sea. Boarding the Zodiacs, we ventured out, along the frozen line of ice, in search of wildlife. The sea was mainly frozen with ice and stuck iceberg stretching out to the horizon. We encountered a few crabeater and leopard seals, who were mainly indifferent to our presence – allowing us some great opportunities for photos.
Relocating after lunch, we came to Brown Bluff, which was, as promised, brown. It was bright, sunny, and a pleasure to be out of deck, as you can see in the time lapse video.
This would be our first chance to stand on the Antarctic continent. Here we also had our first face-to-face meeting with the locals – the Adelie and Gentoo penguins. There were thousands of penguins here, going about their business as if we didn’t exist. There were times we actually had to get out of their way as they went about their very deliberate way. Also on the site were nesting Snow Petrels, but the penguins definitely stole the show. We had about 3 hours to spend with them, and many of us got an Antarctic tan – from chin to mid-forehead, minus the sunglasses, of course.
The evening brought a lecture on the early explorers, and the case for who really was the first to discover Antarctica – still a hotly contested subject it turns out!
Day 4: O’Higgins Station
During the night we re-cross Bransfield Strait, to tuck into the west side of the peninsula, and in the morning we find ourselves approaching O’Higgins Station. We were their first – and given that we were at the tail end of the season – most likely their last, expedition ship visit. The 42 staff at that base were mainly from Chile, but there were also some German and UK scientists, all working on products ranging from Climate Change to Penguin breeding. Our group was definitely a welcome distraction, with the base staff taking as many photos of us, as we were of them. We were treated to a guided tour, and were able to meet one-on-one with some of the scientists to discuss their work. Outside, the penguins continued to mill about.
Fog descended in the afternoon as we made our way to rugged Astrolabe Island. It was a lively Zodiac cruise with some new species – Chinstrap Penguins, Fur Seals, nesting Fulmars, Terns and Cape Petrels. Then we ate, then we drank, then we slept.
Day 5: Southernmost
The morning find us standing off of Orne Harbour, for another chance to set foot on the White Continent. The setting was dramatic, with a glacier at the end of the bay that seemed to reach up to the sky, making the Ocean Nova look very small. We hike up the ridge to a great aerial view, and smell the Chinstrap Penguins at the top before we actually lay eyes on them. The view from this point is amazing, and many of the way down slide on the snow – some for the first time in their lives.
Afternoon brings Cuverville Island and a walk on the beach among the Gentoo penguins and their young chicks. We have endless opportunities to photograph them and watch as the small chicks chase their parents (or any other Penguin for that matter) as they emerge from the water, looking for a taste of what they’ve caught.
Back to the ship and it’s our first close whale encounter – a small pod of Humpbacks has found the ship interesting and comes to check us out. We stand in the wind, smelling the evening’s bbq dinner from the upper deck, and are treated to many flukes and blows.
Dinner is served outside on the upper deck, with icebergs in the distance changing colours from gold to crimson in the waning light.
Day 6: Whaler’s Bay and Yankee Harbour
This morning we woke early to see the ship come through Neptune’s Bellows, a tricky navigation due to the shallow depth and narrow gap, and into the volcanic caldera of Deception Island. He we set foot on steaming sand, heated by caldera, which is which is quite warm to the touch. True to its name, this was once a great whaling station, with several nations represented at the turn of the past century. It was totally abandoned by the British Antarctic Survey after the 1967 eruption. We walk among the most complete ruins of whaling history in the Antarctica. The rustic rendering tanks and dilapidated old buildings are stark reminders of how hard work and life must have been from these early whalers. A brisk walk takes us up to Neptune’s Window for great views south towards the continent and back toward the bay.
A few hearty souls trip down to their bathing suits, or in some cases their underwear and tear off into the water for a polar dip before he head back to the ship for lunch. I did it last time I was here, so I figured I could let myself off – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, right?
After lunch we arrive at Yankee Harbour for a beach walk across the way from a large and frequently calving glacier. Here we find – you guessed it – penguins – but also a few skuas fighting over a set of penguin remains. There are also a number of fur seals up on the beach loudly playing together like a couple of puppies at the dog park.
In the evening we had a photo show of the trip and we sat with our fellow adventurers to rehash the trip. It had been an intense five days in one of the world’s most remote places, and we were all richer for having made the journey.
Day 7: Antarctica to Punta Arenas
We return to Frei Station on our last day and watch from the ship as the plane lands on the gravel runway, kicking up a cloud of dust. It’s what we previously imagined to be proper Antarctic weather outside, with a 30knot wind and sleet stinging our skin – quite unlike anything we actually experienced during our trip. We jump in to the Zodiacs one last time and head to the beach, walking the half mile or so up to the plane. We pass a bunch of the uninitiated – those who haven’t yet had their 7th continent, and wave as we walk by – knowing they’re in for the adventure of their lives.
Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, The bright dancing lights of the aurora are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun as a result of solar flares. Solar flares are explosions ejected by the Sun. These flares contain charged particles and if they head towards Earth, carried on a solar wind, Earth’s magnetic fields divert them.
Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)
Most of the particles disappear into space but if some enter our upper atmosphere, around the Polar Regions where those magnetic fields converge, then these charged particles react with the gases found there. These magnetic fields create auroral ovals around the top and bottom of our planet which move and distort as the Earth rotates and solar flare activity increases. The lights are seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. They are known as ‘Aurora borealis’ in the north and ‘Aurora australis’ in the south.
Auroral displays appear in many colours although pale green and pink are the most common. Shades of red, yellow, green, blue, and violet have been reported. The lights appear in many forms from patches or scattered clouds of light to streamers, arcs, rippling curtains or shooting rays that light up the sky with an eerie glow. You have to be within an auroral oval for a chance of seeing this particle/gas reaction hence why you need to travel north.
2) When and where is the best time to see them?
The Northern Lights halo occurs primarily at 60 degree latitude
Auroral activity is cyclic – known as the Sunspot Cycle, peaking roughly every 11 years. Winter in the north is generally a good season to view lights – although this can also be the coldest time. The long periods of darkness and the frequency of clear nights provide many good opportunities to watch the auroral displays but to . Usually the best time of night (on clear nights) to watch for auroral displays is local midnight. Located around both magnetic poles of the earth is a halo like ring called an aurora oval – generally found at the 60 degree latitude in the northern hemisphere. The area directly beneath each aurora oval is the best place to see the aurora most often. North American locations under the northern oval include Yellowknife, Churchill, Iqaluit, Canada, Fairbanks, Alaska. Other parts of the world including Lapland, Norway, southern Greenland and Iceland will also see the northern lights.
3) What Is So Special About 2013/14?
The Sunspot Cycle and how it is linked to sightings of the northern lights. The cycle is generally around 11 years and the 2013/14 season it reaches its peak, the Solar Max. Sunspots are temporary dark patches which are cooler than the rest of the surface of the Sun and when these increase in number, so too does the amount of solar flare activity and the subsequent possibility of auroral displays. This doesn’t mean you won’t see displays during other periods of the cycle, as activity is constant, just that displays at the peak may be more intense or more frequent.
4) Why Are Displays Different Colours?
Colors and patterns are from the types of ions or atoms being energized as they collide with the atmosphere and are affected by lines of magnetic force. Displays may take many forms, including rippling curtains, pulsating globs, traveling pulses, or steady glows. Altitude affects the colors. Blue violet/reds occur below 60 miles (100 km), with bright green strongest between 60-150 miles (100-240 km). Above 150 miles (240 km) ruby reds appear.
5) Will I Definitely See Them?
Viewing Northern Lights over Iqaluit
We suggest locations that have the highest likelihood and where weather conditions are generally better than anywhere else but cannot guarantee sightings. And what’s more, Arctic Kingdom suggests locations where during the day whilst you are not star gazing, there are many activities to keep you occupied while we wait for night to fall. Activities, to name a few, can include dogsledding, igloo building or photographing wildlife. Patience and time is the key as well as a clear, cloudless winter’s night. Displays can occur any time from around 5pm but most activity tends to be a little later.
6) Bonus! How Do I Photograph Them?
Tripods with long exposures are needed to capture the northern lights
We said ‘Top 5’ – but we are going to add one more as we are asked this question very often. Generally you need to keep the camera steady using a tripod as exposures from several seconds to almost 20 give the best results. SLR camera users should try a wide angle lens with a wide aperture as well as setting their ISO levels to high. For further tips, you can ask your Arctic Kingdom trip leader when on your northern lights trip. It takes practice to get the settings right as the northern lights photographs you see in books and postcards showing spectacular night skies have been put together by people with years of experience. This is not to say that complete novices don’t succeed – we’ve had some amazing shots sent in to us.
More often than not, people tend to simply stand beneath a display and marvel at its magnificence – also beats having to take your gloves off to try and work your camera!
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.
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.
Because it was our last full day at camp, Tom and Mike suggested we sleep in a bit in preparation for a late, great night. Lolling in bed felt delicious.
When we finally crawled out into the daylight, the sun was dazzling – so warm, in fact, that we began to lose our minds…just a little.
I went in to the bathroom to brush my teeth and stepped out to find that the usually conservative Cornelius had stripped down to his black Calvin Klein boxers and was setting up his camera for an iceberg photo shoot in front of the iceberg. Sandra and I were enchanted! Not wishing to be outdone, we ran for our bathing suits and the craziness took hold. Never had our Inuit guides looked more surprised.
After an hour of rampant silliness and giggling, we gathered our clothes and our wits and headed for a new floe edge – one that was much closer…just half an hour away. We arrive to find the air filled with hundreds of birds and as we dragged the kayaks to the edge and set out on the calm water, we were snapping photos of the mers, kittiwigs, king eiders reflected on the surface.
Birds in flight
Justin and Jens pulled on dry suits and kayaked to a floating berg, where they were quickly surrounded by belugas. Pulling on their masks and snorkels, they slipped into the water (no mean feat when you’re balancing a kayak at the same time) and began what was for them, their best ever day of whale watching.
Meanwhile, on shore, the sense of last-day lunacy returned. Spreading out a couple of caribou skins, Sandra, Tom, Cornelius and I posed for our own Arctic version of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoot. This time, the guides had their cell phone cameras ready and snapped shot after shot – most of which were no doubt sent to their friends under the heading: “Dumb things southerners do when the sun shines.”
Arctic Swim Shoot
The biggest excitement of the day was provided not by the whales and not by our swimsuit silliness but by Edward, our fifteen-year-old campmate. All week long, he’d been needling his parents about wanting to do a polar plunge – and they’d said no. This was his last opportunity and he somehow managed to convince them. Stripping down to his bathing suit, the lean, lanky, shivery Edward headed for the edge. Tom quickly tied a rope around his wrist to enable a quick yank back onto the solid ice should the cold water prove too much – and Edward’s moment had come. We gathered at the edge, cameras at the ready, and waited. And waited. Edward looked at the water. And waited…and looked as if he might change
his mind…and waited some more.
The tension was deadly until Tom took matters in hand. “We’re doing this together, buddy,” he said, stripping down to his own bathing suit.
Then Tom jumped, giving Edward the encouragement – and the yank on the rope – necessary for him to make his much-anticipated polar plunge. It was a life-changing moment and we are all impressed by both Edward’s courage and Tom’s ‘just do it’ attitude.
Just do it!
There was a sense of trying to hold onto that last day…to stretch it out as long as we possibly could…to savour every last moment of that Arctic passion we’d all developed. As the long, long day came to an end, Cornelius and I followed Simon and Mike on a slow paddle in our kayaks. A thin film of ice was crusting the utterly still surface of the water – each stroke of our paddles carved into it. In the distance, narwhals were breeching and all around us, breaking the stillness of the air, was the gargantuan sound of a bowhead whale breathing. It sounded just as the dinosaurs once did.
When we loaded the komatiks and headed back to camp, it felt as if we’d filled our own lungs to bursting with the clear, fresh air of the far north – and it’s a scent that will linger with us forever.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
Birds of a feather
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.
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.