By Isabelle Dubois
Somewhere in Ungava Bay, off the eastern coast of Nunavik — Quebec’s Far North — stands an island the size of a small country, rising like a fortress of limestone walls looming 150 m to 250 m over this cold deep blue sea. Marking the marine waters with a 903 km2 plateau running 23 km wide and 45 km long, this giant freckle named Akpatok is not only the largest of its kind in Ungava Bay, but one of exceptional beauty not many have the chance to set foot on nowadays. Along with a group of British travel writers and tour operators in the region to explore and promote its tourism potential, a few tourism industry colleagues and I were fortunate enough to join in to get up-close and personal with this magnificent island.
On a balmy July 28 morning, one of Air Inuit’s chartered Twin Otters landed us on Akpatok’s only airstrip. Marching between our two armed pilots on one of Akpatok’s spectacular raised beaches, we headed down to the clear water, where one of our guides, Jimmy Gordon Jr., was awaiting us with a small inflatable zodiac to bring us onboard the Alara, Arctic Cruises’ 34-foot expedition catamaran, on which we were to spend the day. There, our captain Johnny Adams, who made the trip from Kuujjuaq, welcomed us onboard, along with another member of his crew, David Mesher.
Although we were all eager to cruise along the island in hopes of spotting polar bears, a huge iceberg just off the coast soon became the centre of attention. Displaying shades of blue and turquoise, the frozen work of art was made out of an arch through which we enjoyed playing hide and seek for a while with Willie Gordon and his wife Vicky, who had also come along for the ride on their aluminum boat.
Apart from the remains of a Dorset settlement at the southern end of the island and a couple of worn out cabins still standing near the airstrip, surrounded by rusty fuel drums and drilling equipment, remnants of exploratory oil drilling back in 1971 which the federal government plans to clean up, there was no other sign of human trace but our own. Although Inuit at one time in the past wintered on Akpatok (until the early 1900s) and still travel to its shores in the summer to hunt walrus that migrate in big numbers from Hudson Strait down to the west coast of the island on ice floes and leave when it melts, this remote offshore piece of land remains uninhabited. The Northern Village of Kangirsuk is the closest community, some 70 kilometres away.
But if Akpatok wards off real-estate, it remains, on the other hand, the ultimate holiday hot spot for thick-billed murres who flock by the thousands to the island’s northern and southern reaches for their summer vacation, making it Canada’s largest bird colony and ranking as one of the largest colonies worldwide. On occasion the island’s murre population number an estimated two million. It is therefore no wonder the island gets its name from this short-winged diving seabird wearing a black coat showing off a white belly, resembling a flying penguin, which Inuit call akpa in their own language. The bare cliff ledges provide the ideal haven of maternity for the females to lay and incubate their aqua-blue eggs, a delicacy for Inuit. Although outnumbered by the birds flying overhead, Willie Gordon, his wife Vicky and their grandson Christopher were not intimidated and got off on the shore to go pick some of these delicious treats in the lower level of the coastal ridges.
They were not the only ones scouring the area. A polar bear soon lurked high above the cliff, much to our delight as we were comfortably watching from the safety of our boat. Willie and his family soon retreated to theirs as well. After all, the bear was way up at the top of the food chain, ruling the island as king. Since there was no more ice for him to hunt seal or walrus, he was left scavenging for eggs or dead murres fledging beneath the nesting cliffs. A staring contest ensued, which nanuq eventually won, as we had to start heading back. The plane was waiting for us and the pilots’ duty clock was ticking.
On the way back, some of us were sun bathing in the unusually warm weather while others lounged in the luxurious cabin down below. Meanwhile, the island stood still, as the polar bears stayed out of sight, probably basking in the shade in one of the deep ravines cutting through the cliffs here and there, or buried in snow. The mystery and attraction remained.
Lulled by the waves gently rocking the boat, we soon had to come out of our daydreams. Once back on board our plane to fly over the island a few last times, excitement reached a peak when mother bear and cub were spotted, amongst others. These are memories we all will cherish forever… or until Akpatok’s fascination draws us back yet again.
MORE INFORMATION ABOUT GETTING TO AKPATOK ISLAND
With the new Nunavik Inuit Land Claims Agreement in effect since 2008, many of the region’s offshore islands such as Akpatok are now protected. Special permits and authorizations are therefore required for tourists to visit, which can be obtained through the use of one of Nunavik’s licensed tour operators (see list below).
Book your expedition cruise to Akpatok Island with:
Johnny Adams: 819-964-2998
Joseph Companion: 450-622-9956
514-457-3319 or 1-855-657-3319 toll free
Fly-over Akpatok Island with:
Air Inuit Charters
Johnny May’s Air Charters
819-964-1410 or 819-964-2321