Paddling on the Floe Edge

    The icebergs were often bigger below water than above, as seen from our kayaks. © Black Feather (2)

    It isn’t my usual inflight experience having my finger chewed by a fluffy Husky puppy with the sharpest milk teeth whilst listening to announcements in Inuktitut. I am onboard my second First Air flight to the small Inuit town of Pond Inlet in Nunavut territory, Arctic Canada.

    Pond Inlet is located on the northern tip of Baffin Island, the world’s fifth largest island. As I gaze out the window, I see my home for the next week, the white frozen expanse of the gateway to the Northwest Passage. We land with a bump on the gravel tarmac and soon are off the plane and reunited with our bags at this single room airport.

    The air outside is cold at minus 10 and burns my nose as I inhale, but the welcome from the locals is much warmer. Red cheeked children follow us on their bikes as we walk to the only hotel in town, just a few minutes from the airport. We spend our first evening in a basic hotel being briefed on what to expect for the week ahead. Our group is an international mix from Canada, Japan, Switzerland and the UK. Canada is so enormous, the Canadians joke about the international holiday they are on.

    “Sinaaq” is the Inuit word for the ice floe edge. The next day we set up base camp on the ice after a three-hour snowmobile drive from Pond Inlet. From here the plan is to spend the next five days exploring the ice floe edge from the ice and water with skis, kayaks, standup paddle boards and snowmobiles, hopefully spotting some Arctic wildlife.

    For somewhere so remote, we are camping in remarkable luxury. Our every need is seen to by three very experienced Canadian guides alongside two local Inuit who are very willing to share with us stories about their culture and way of life. We have a separate toilet tent for privacy, a kitchen tent and a social tent. Our guides cook delicious fresh meals such as Thai curries and chilis followed by delicious cakes washed down with ground coffee and hot chocolate. Each guest has a three-person tent to ourselves and sleeps on cot beds with a mattress and cozy, thick sleeping bag. I am never cold.

    It is strange to think that the ice-covered ‘ground’ I am standing on is half a metre thick, much less in places, with nothing beneath. It amuses me to think that a seal could be swimming beneath my tent as I cozily sleep in my sleeping bag at night. On our first morning, we excitedly head off on our cross-country skis to explore. We see paw prints of polar bears, birds and Arctic foxes. But we also see a lot of cracks in the ice that weren’t there when we arrived the night before and had set up camp.

    The strong winds overnight, 24-hour daylight and warm temperatures are melting and moving the ice fast and cracks are forming on the ice sheet, some miles long. Our camp is now on the wrong side of a rather wide one. So, less than 24 hours after we built camp, we take it down and rebuild it on the “We won’t end up cruising out to sea on our own ice island” side of the crack. To reward our removal efforts, we then kayak through the problematic crack. It isn’t quite wide enough to get our paddles in the water, but we amuse ourselves by “paddling” through the snow, pushing ourselves along.

    Sitting back enjoying the views at the floe edge.

    One afternoon we drop a hydrophone into the water that’s connected to a speaker, so we can blissfully sit, take in the view and listen to the seals and whales communicating to each other beneath the ice. The conversation between the seals was constant, a high pitched, descending bomb sound with individual seals speaking over one other. We are a captive audience and can hear them perfectly as everything else around us is perfectly silent. From time to time the Narwhal interjects with their clicking sounds. It is the perfect sound track to the endless blue view in front of us.

    Every day we travel out to the ice floe edge. It fascinates me to see how quickly the ice changes. Depending on the wind and currents, huge cracks open and close in front of our eyes, the tides lift and lower the ice, it melts, refreezes and the colours change with the light. The view is never the same on the next visit, even hours later. Within less than an hour, a big expanse of open water could be a solid dumping ground of chunky, snow-covered ice boulders with no water in sight.

    We see animal prints everywhere. It is fun to guess how old the prints are and to compare the size of the print to that of our hands. Often, we don’t have to guess as we can see the polar bear, a cream-coloured blob in the distance with a black nose strolling across the ice, frequently looking back at us with curiosity. Cubs walk in line behind their mothers, occasionally running to keep up or to pounce on their sibling to provoke play fights. The highlight of the trip for me is seeing a large polar bear swimming, using his front paws to effortlessly break through the ice as he progresses forward. Behind him he leaves a two-metre wide channel and, once he has safely disappeared, we kayak through.

    Our camp on the ice.

    Kayaking on the ice floe edge is a unique experience. The guides have all the equipment and clothing we need, and have it laid out ready for us. The kayaks break through the ice like a small ice breaker ship as we paddle. Patting the ice with my flat paddle produces visible shock waves that spread out on the ice surface; I can’t resist patting it repeatedly just to see the force of the impact and the range of the waves. Other sections are like paddling through thick, gritty black water. Being stranded on the thicker pieces of ice is a regular occurrence but part of the fun.

    An evening hike.

    Before heading back to Pond Inlet on the snowmobiles to catch our flights home, we take to the water once more for a different perspective via a standup paddle board. From standing height on the board, I can see the massive size of the baby blue coloured icebergs beneath the water level, always much larger than above the water line. The speed is slow, cumbersome and the paddling arduous, but I am aware of the uniqueness of the challenge my surroundings gift me as an incredible paddle experience that surely cannot be surpassed.

    On the plane home I reflect on my new-found appreciation for the beauty and versatility of ice. Our survival depended on it, but it was also our greatest threat. We had slept on it, drank it, travelled on it, watched it move and evolve from ice to water and then back to ice again and touched it in all its different forms. I’ll never look at the ice in my gin and tonic in the same way ever again!

    Black Feather’s “Floe Edge Ski and Sea Kayak Base Camp” experience has been designated a “Canadian Signature Experience” by Destination Canada.

    Share with this link: