This morning all guests wanted to head out to Cape Anne in hopes of seeing the belugas. As before, any 9 guests who had not been out to Cape Anne in the last 2 days were first in line to go today. However, 3 spots were open for guests who had previously been. My husband and I immediately signed up. We headed out after dressing for the cold and wind: two pairs of socks plus muck boots, 5 layers on the lower body, 6 layers on the upper body, 2 hats, and a riding helmet! It’s seriously cold on the 2.5- to 3-hour drive.
The entire drive I am facing the sea looking for belugas. It occurs to me rather infrequently to look inland for polar bears as I am so focused on one thing – belugas! And can you even believe it – I missed the female polar bear with a cub loping along the ridge! The people in the last two ATV’s saw them as they crested a ridge, then ran along the ridge for a minute – scared of the ATV noise – and then headed back behind the ridge out of sight. The guide on the last ATV with the radio forgot he had the radio to call the lead guide. Ah! Happily though, my husband was one of the 5 guests who did see the polar bears. He was thrilled beyond belief! Of course, I have no photos of the polar bears because it happened so quickly that not one of the 5 people thought to take a photo.
The guides all carry shotguns with slugs and bird shot for each group in case polar bears are spotted and come toward the group, as they do at times. Primarily, the shotgun makes so much noise that it scares the bears and they never shoot to kill except as an absolute last resort (which has never happened in the lodge’s history). Any time we go out for a hike near the camp, but without a guide, we have to carry pepper spray. Pepper spray, in my opinion, is sort of useless because the bears would have to be quite close for the pepper spray to hit them and you can only spray it downwind in place with wind often swirling all round you, but we take it anyway.
We spent about 2 hours at the Cape Anne River inlet today and did not see any belugas. We did, however, see several narwhals migrating eastward. The ice is moving out of the Cunningham River inlet and thawing more and more each day. Conditions seem right for belugas to make their way from the Passage into the inlet. But as we stop along the way home and look with binoculars we see no belugas. A helicopter pilot is here to transfer two geologists conducting mining research. On the way back to camp they flew along the coastline and reported that they saw the belugas swimming back and forth along the northern coast of the island. They are out there in the Passage and want to get into the inlet, but the ice won’t let them.
Today I opted out of the Cape Anne trip due to the long ATV ride. My husband, however, opted to go back out for the third day. Only 6 people wanted to go out to Cape Anne today so there was no battling for space. I opted for the kayaking/hiking option. Six guests and two guides hiked to the kayaks which were located about 1 mile away. Once at the kayaks we suited up in dry-suits, life vests, and kayak skirts. Then we set out to sea and kayaked about 45 minutes cross Cunningham River inlet. The water was smooth and aqua-colored with ice floes scattered about. Once on the other side of the inlet we hiked above Flat Rock Canyon. The crystal clear blue water rushed over the dark brown, stepped lawyers of sedimentary rock. After lunching on the tundra we kayaked back across the bay. The wind had picked up significantly and it took us a bit longer to get across the inlet.
My husband and the guests who headed out to Cape Anne today saw belugas in the distance migrating, but none doing their socializing behavior as seen several days ago.
It’s our last night here at Arctic Watch and we are feeling both happy and sad to be leaving. I personally am looking forward to getting back to civilization for a proper shower with consistently hot water, sunshine, and dark evenings! But we are sad to leave since we didn’t really have the awesome experience of observing belugas as we had expected. Oh well, that’s wildlife. You just have to be patient and get the timing right as wild animals show up when they want to show up.
After a rather late dinner my husband and I headed to bed. It was pouring rain – harder than we have seen over the last 2 weeks – and really cold. In addition, the generator is turned off each night at 10 pm so there is no longer any heat in the common areas so there is no reason to stay up. Around 10:40 pm we started hearing yelling and shouting in the camp. The wind was gusting beyond belief, which causes the tents to flap and makes a ruckus, and there is thunder in the distance. We can’t understand the words being shouted, but we assume that someone’s tent might be leaking or something. We figured staff would sort it out quickly. But after 5 or more minutes of yelling by many people now we figure we should see what was going on. I put my coat on and go outside. A guest runs by yelling “the belugas have arrived! They are out in the inlet!!” What?!? I run back to the tent and excitedly tell my husband that belugas have been spotted in the bay. We dress in our outdoor gear as quickly as possible, grab a camera, and start running for a high point on the shoreline. Several people are already there pointing excitedly at the water. About 50 belugas made it into the inlet and are socializing: spy hopping, tail bobbing, rubbing their bodies on the sand and playing. Amazingly, the pouring rain stopped, the sky cleared, and the thunder and lightning continued. We stayed until 1 am watching the whales and the sky show, all of us ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ at each spy hop and lightening flash like we were at a fireworks show. Such a very special evening!
Today is turnover day (Friday). After breakfast we packed up all our clothes and things and prepared to leave later this afternoon on the charter flight back to Yellowknife. It was clear, sunny, and beautiful outside. I commented to a staff person that the temperature was up today hovering around 45° F. His response was, “great, let’s get the bathing suits out!”
Once packed we headed out to spend the morning watching whales. Woohoo! We rafted across the river, loaded up in the UNIMOG to drive out on a sand spit, and then walked 5 minutes to the water’s edge. The whales were within 30-50 feet of us moving like inch worms along the muddy river bed exfoliating/molting in the shallow waters, spy-hopping, and communicating with each other.
As we watched the whales do their thing we began noticing a heavy fog roll into the valley. If it gets worse the charter flight won’t be able to land this afternoon, which means that we won’t be able to leave. We stayed out on the sand spit until 12:30 pm then headed back for lunch. The fog continued to thicken. Once back at the camp we were told that the charter had been canceled and that we get to stay another night at Arctic Watch – just like the folks last week. This is both bad and good. It is bad because everyone has hotel and plane reservations to change so the air is thick with tension and anxiety. On the other hand, it gives us more time to watch the whales!
It is still foggy this morning, but the fog is supposed to lift at 12 pm. As such, the charter flight company has been called and told to bring the new guests out to Arctic Watch and to pick up the current guests to be returned to Yellowknife. The plane is scheduled to arrive at 5pm today. Similar to yesterday, we packed our bags (again) after breakfast then headed out to the inlet to watch the belugas – another fantastic morning watching belugas in the mist. The scientist had her hydrophone in the water and we were able to listen to the whales communicating under water via a speaker plugged into the laptop. Incredible!
Around 1 pm the guests headed back to the camp for lunch just as the fog was lifting. We are going home today. After lunch, several guests who wanted to go back out to the sand spit to watch the whales (myself included) were loading up in the UNIMOG just as Richard got a satellite phone call. His face looked grim as we waited for him and we noticed the fog was returning to the valley. As Richard hung up the phone we all knew that we would not be returning to Yellowknife this evening. It’s too foggy here and at three other crucial locations along the route that the pilots have to use for emergency landings and refueling. Up here in the Arctic the bush pilots typically have to land using visual flight rules (no instrument landings) as there are few air traffic control towers – just a wind sock! So we get off the UNIMOG and go inside to rearrange our hotel and plane reservations for a second day in a row. In the 16 years of the Weber Family running this lodge this is only the second time a two-day delay occurred. One-day delays are rather common, however.
The warm weather put swimming into the minds of the staff. After dinner, the guests were given the opportunity to go for a “polar bear swim.” Sign me up!!! I did this in Antarctica 5 years ago so must do it in the Arctic.
The fresh river water that we will swim in is near 40° F, warm compared to the nearby ocean water that is approximately 30° F! Wearing only bathing suits we donned life vests. Each participant then dove head first off a rock into a big pool in the river to a chorus of the cheering crowd. Hitting the water literally sucked the breath out of me. WOW! It’s cold!!!! I am sure the look on my face was of shock and exhilaration! However, my husband says that the look on my face was of mild relief that it wasn’t as cold as I expected. It really was not as bad as I expected, but it was still very cold. We each swam to shore as fast as possible and climbed onto dry land with towels being tossed to us. It was definitely warmer out of the water. Of the 35 or so people at the lodge, including staff and guests, only 8 people went for a dip: 4 guests (all of whom were women!) and 4 staff (3 men and 1 woman). A bonding experience like none other.
It’s beginning to feel like the movie “Groundhog Day.” We eat breakfast, are told to pack up because the plane is coming, then bundle up in 5 layers of clothes, and head out to the sand spit to watch the belugas.
Apparently, because the belugas coming to Cunningham River Inlet are hunted by the local First Nation people, they are very skittish. We are told to keep our voices low, not to walk along the water’s edge, and be careful of splashing water if we need to cross from one sand spit to another away from the inlet. The owners know this from first-hand experience. However, some guests just don’t listen or don’t think it applies to them. After about an hour of watching a family group of about 30 whales splashing, playing, and spy-hopping within 50 feet to the east of where most of us are standing, a guest decides to cross from one sand spit to another through almost knee-high water to get a closer view. She does not realize the water is so high and as she wades across she is splashing and the cold water goes over her boot soaking her feet. She screams at the shock of the cold water on her feet, but keeps walking out to the spit. Within seconds we hear a foghorn sound from a beluga, then a second foghorn sound in response. Suddenly, this family group, adults and juveniles, is speedily swimming away from us in tight formation at the surface, the foghorn sounding repeatedly. They swam at least 300 feet west of us over the course of a few minutes. One bull at the lead, one bull at the back, and one on each side, escorting the family group to safety and away from a noisy, splashing human. It was fascinating to watch this behavior, but disappointing as well – now they are too far away to photograph and enjoy.
Eventually, it is time to go back to camp to prepare for our true departure! The chartered plane is on its way with new guests and fresh supplies. We are thrilled to be going home two days later than expected.
As we ferry in rafts across the river and walk to the landing strip spirits are high. After nine days together we are all best friends and have exchanged email addresses and the promise to send photos and to call if we are in visiting a city where someone lives. Finally, the plane lands and the new guests disembark. We cheer them on and wish them a great week.
Once on the plane, we settle in for our 5-hour flight that includes two refueling stops, one at Resolute Bay and one at Cambridge Bay, due to high winds. Finally, we arrive in Yellowknife. Most of us are staying at the main hotel in town – The Explorer Inn. After a quick shower 16 of the 24 guests reconvene at Boston Pizza, the only restaurant open at 10 pm on a Sunday night in Yellowknife, Canada.
In the morning, with the crowd thinning to about 10 people, we meet in the hotel cafe for breakfast. One or two people at a time gradually get up to check out and head for the airport or go for a walk. My husband and I are on the same flight as 7 others and we sit and chat at the airport and on the plane. In the Edmonton airport, as we disembark then split off for various flights to other destinations there are more promises to call “if you are in Toronto,” “call if you are in London,” and “call if you are in San Diego.” The joy of traveling to far-off places not only includes seeing scenery like nothing you have even seen before or observing animals and their behaviors you have never observed before, but also meeting and connecting with like-minded travelers from across the globe who you wish were your neighbors.