A natural wonder of the Arctic
I have already made two trips to the Arctic, one to Baffin Island to paddle the Soper River, the other to Coral Harbour to photograph walrus. For me, the Arctic is both mystical and intoxicating. Once there, I knew I had to go back.
I decide to go to the floe edge. Pond Inlet, Nunavut, is my first trip above the Arctic Circle. It is also my first trip to the Arctic with snow still on the ground, the sea still covered in ice and days that are light for 24 hours.
Getting to Pond Inlet, feels like going to the end of the world. The distances in the North are staggering. Ottawa, Ontario, to Pond Inlet is 3034 km. Pond Inlet to the North Pole another 1932 km. By comparison, Ottawa to Vancouver, British Columbia, is 3540 km.
I don’t have the knowledge or equipment to travel in the Arctic on my own, so I sign on with Black Feather, a wilderness adventure company.
The floe edge is a magical place. It is the place between sea ice and open ocean. In the spring, it is a place where sea ice begins to melt and break apart, creating large floes of pieces of ice — a place where Arctic mammals and birds congregate.
The floe edge, called “sinaaq” in Inuktitut, is described as the line of life, one of the natural wonders of the Arctic. In the springtime, it is one of the most dynamic ecosystems in the world. It teems with life: polar bears, narwhal, seals, sometimes walrus and perhaps even bowhead whales. As an amateur photographer, this is why I want to be there.
I land in Pond Inlet a day early, check into the Sauniq Hotel and immediately go out to shoot some pictures. I always have to force myself to put my camera down for a few moments and just enjoy the scene. As I stand on a bank overlooking the water, a Pond Inlet resident asks me how far I think the other side is. He tells me it is 40 km distant, a full two day’s walk. The size of the land is quickly obvious.
The next day, I meet up with the rest of my travel companions and our guides for a trip briefing meeting. The following day it is down to the waterfront to load our gear into two qamutiit. These are sleds approximately 20 feet in length that are pulled by snowmobile. Today they are built out of wood without screws or nails. Pieces are lashed together for optimum flexibility when travelling across the rough terrain of frozen sea ice. Qamutiit are like the pickup truck of the south.
We take approximately three hours to reach our camp. It is located on the ice along the shore of Bylot Island and perhaps 15 minutes or so from the floe edge where Eclipse Sound and Baffin Bay meet.
Heading out to our campsite, we must traverse several large cracks in the sea ice. Our Inuit guides explain that the sea ice still rises and falls with the tide. This puts stress on the layer of ice, which is up to 3 m thick, causing it to crack. This cracking tends to occur in predictable and reproducible places year to year. At one of these larger cracks, the nose of the sled drops into the crack as we try to cross it, bringing the sled to a rather abrupt stop. We must unload the sled and pull it back from the crack with the snowmobiles before reloading and continuing to our camp.
Winter camping in the Arctic is quite an experience. Black Feather provides lined winter boots, a warm parka, and a polar sleeping bag. We each have our own tent. We sleep on cots that are approximately four inches above the tent floor which of course is on the ice. I never feel cold and, in the morning, and when the sun is shining, the tent becomes uncomfortably warm. The biggest challenge was getting dressed in the four-foot clearance of the tent.
The daily routing is up by 07:00 hrs or so. Breakfast in the dining tent. Discuss the day’s activities. Load the sleds and head off to the floe edge or to Bylot Island to explore the surroundings. On one such trip, we visit an old Inuit sod house site, last used perhaps 60 or more years ago. Back to the camp site by about 16:00 hrs to discuss the day’s outing, dry any wet clothing and enjoy a wonderful “home cooked” meal. Tucked into our warm sleeping bags at night, we could sleep peacefully knowing we have our Inuit guide standing polar bear watch through the night.
It feels like we are camped on the main route to the floe edge. Hunters move back and forth between Pond Inlet and the floe edge. The sea ice is covered with snowmobile tracks making the surface look like a well-travelled highway, just not the kind of highway that southern visitors are used to.
At the floe edge our guides always check the ice thickness before allowing us to set up chairs, tripods and settle in for a few hours of hopeful watching. We see other visitors in the distance along with hunters, and one group with a hot air balloon. It rises majestically close to Bylot Island, a brilliant blue against the brown of the mountains behind it.
The colour of the ice floes varies from white to wondrous shades of emerald green/blue. The sky varies from overcast grey to soft shades of yellows and, of course, blues.
Sea birds fly back and forth along the floe edge as if putting on a show. Finally, a lone narwhal surfaces in front of us. Not close, but close enough to capture it with my camera. It is the only one I see. This is followed by a grey seal, one of the larger seals in the Arctic, reaching as much as 300 kg.
One afternoon, we see a polar bear at the floe edge perhaps 2 km away. We watch it slowly amble towards the open water, dive in, and begin swimming along the floe edge towards us.
That day, there are a lot of pieces of ice floating along the floe edge. When the polar bear reaches us, it pauses at one of the large pieces of ice directly in front of us. It looks at us, then checks the ice for seals. Seeing none, it continues to swim around the back of the ice and on up the floe edge. For me, this is one of the highlights of the trip.
By the time we return to Pond Inlet, there is considerably more melt water on the surface of the ice. This creates some wonderful photo opportunities with the reflections of the mountains in the surface water.
I finish my trip with two days walking around and shooting images of the people and the town and the unique way of life that these communities in the North offer to those who choose to visit.