Travel Consultant, Seekey, traveled to the Arctic for an adventure filled with exotic wildlife, surreal landscapes, and extreme solitude. Follow her journey on the blog!
More high wind and cloudy skies today, but again this is good news as the wind continues to push the ice out of the inlet. This is definitely not the trip we were anticipating as we expected that the beluga whales would be here by now. Supposedly, the weather is about two to three weeks behind schedule so the ice has not melted enough yet to allow the beluga whales to enter the inlet. To keep us busy today there were three options for outings. My husband and I chose to go sit near a known Arctic fox den in hopes of seeing this elusive animal. Others had gone several times during the past week and had only seen an adult female once for a brief
time. At this particular den 13 cubs and 2 adult females were observed about 2 weeks ago. To get to the den, a group of four guests and our guide, Alex, rafted across the river, drove a few miles in a UNIMOG (a heavy duty military-like vehicle built by the Swiss in 1962), then hiked about a quarter of a mile to the den. Luck was with us! As we approached the den we could see three or four little fox cubs playing outside on the top of the mound. We immediately dropped to the ground and watched. Every few minutes we would move forward a few feet and finally settled in about 100 feet from the den. Eventually, the little cubs got tired and went inside the den to rest. About an hour later someone spotted a fox trotting across the tundra. It was the adult female coming to check in on the cubs. As she approached the den five cubs popped out of the various entrances to the den and bombarded the female. Some started nursing and others were playing with each other. After about 15 minutes, the female took off again and the cubs played for a while before going back inside the den. We sat in place for about 4 more hours in the freezing wind in hopes of seeing the foxes with no more luck. But what a wonderful day it was!
Arctic Watch Lodge has only week-long stays due to the distance from Yellowknife and the difficulty getting in and out of the area. As such, all flights arriving to and departing from Arctic Watch Lodge are only on Fridays – today. This day is called “turnover day” by the staff. One group of guests arrive as the other group of guests departs for home. Today, however, the clouds are very low, the wind is rather high, and it is pouring rain. Therefore, the plane cannot land so the guests who were supposed to fly in today must spend another night in Yellowknife and the guests who were supposed to leave today cannot. When booking the trip all guests were encouraged to add an extra day or two in Yellowknife prior to flying home for this very reason. The guests who are stuck at Arctic Watch are not charged for the extra night at the lodge. On the other side, the guests who have to stay another night in Yellowknife and miss a night at the lodge are not reimbursed for the night missed at the lodge. This is the perfect reason to get travel insurance for trips – especially to Arctic Watch Lodge!
Since the weather was so bad today no activities were planned. As such, guests hung out in the huge living room, which is heated, and played ping pong, worked on puzzles, chatted, read, and changed their hotel and plane reservations. Since my husband and I are staying for two weeks we are not affected and so I opted for a hike near camp with four other guests.
The morning excursion consisted of driving out to the Badlands located south of the lodge in the ATV’s. It was rough driving given the mud. About 45 minutes out from the camp one of the gators got stuck in the mud up to the axle. For some reason our guides had not packed shovels or planks as they had done previously. So we radioed for help. While waiting for assistance to arrive we explored the mud flats and took photos. Getting stuck in the mud at Arctic Watch is par for the course.
After lunch and as the guests leaving the lodge one day late headed out to the air strip, Valeria (the beluga whale researcher), Nansen (son of the owners), my husband, and I headed out to Polar Bear Point. Valeria wanted to put the hydrophone in the water to see if she could hear any beluga whales. Once at the point and on the ice we unloaded the equipment and Valeria hooked it up to the computer with special software. However, the computer and hydrophone weren’t communicating so we packed up the equipment and returned to the lodge to meet the new group of people and dine on delicious food.
Off to Polar Bear Point again this morning to check on the ice and see if any beluga whales are out in the Northwest Passage. The Passage is clear of ice and a part of the inlet is now open so we hope that the beluga whales will show up soon! The clock is ticking for us, but no beluga whales today and no polar bears either.
After a hearty lunch of tomato basil soup, sandwiches, and gigantic chocolate chips cookies, four of us and Nansen rafted across the river then hopped on the bombas for a 4-hour excursion to Muskox Ridge. We drove over hill and dale and across creeks and rivers on our ATV’s – my husband riding behind me hanging onto his camera gear with one hand and the ATV with his other hand as I drove – bouncing along over the rough terrain. He said my driving of the ATV was perfect, but that it was one of the worst rides he’d ever had! How is that even possible? During our excursion we saw about 20 muskoxen in the meadows, a snowy owl off in the distance, and plovers along the edges of the creeks. We also hiked down into a bog just to see what we could see and stopped by the fox den to see if any cubs were out playing. No luck at the fox den so off we went looking for other animals and enjoying the amazing but barren Arctic scenery.
A full day is in store for 10 guests and 2 guides today. We have decided that since there are no beluga whales in the Cunningham Inlet and no chance of them showing up here in the near future that we would head out to Cape Anne to see a Thule site. Cape Anne is located approximately 40 kilometers and a 2.5- to 3-hour ATV ride from camp. Thule are Inuit ancestors from about 1100-1400 A.D. and the archaeological site is a circle of flat rocks wedged into the ground to create a base with ½ of the floor covered with flat rocks – the sleeping areas – and the other ½ left as ground that was used as the cooking area. So, we all piled onto the ATV’s (gators and bombas) and headed out around 10 am. Sadly, my husband was not feeling well today and opted not to join us.
It is rough and slow going on the ATV’s as there is mud, snow, ice, and rocks/shale covering the very hilly terrain. We stop at various look-out points to check the sea ice for polar bears and the sea for belugas. At each stop we see nothing so move on. Our lunch spot is located at a point where the land protrudes out into the sea as a small peninsula and is where the strong Northwest Passage currents push the floating ice onto the shore creating strange-looking hills and piles of ice about 20-30 feet in height called pressure ridges. It is beautiful and the colors of blue are wide-ranging.
Finally, we start the last leg of the trip toward the Thule site. I am in the last of four vehicles in the back seat looking out to sea. I notice several white things bobbing at the surface of the ocean. At first I think they are just more smallish ice chunks floating along in the current. Then I realize they are going under and popping back up again. I yelled out to the guest who was driving to stop, I hopped out of the ATV, and ran for the shoreline. BELUGAS!!!! Bobbing, white and grey beluga whales. Eventually, the other ATV drivers realized that we had stopped and came back to check on us thinking we had gotten stuck in the mud. Once everyone realized that the reason we stopped was because we spotted whales they all grabbed their cameras and we headed for the Cape Anne River inlet. There were about 85 belugas (as best that we could count) doing their social behaviors of rubbing on the shallow sand to help them molt, spy-hopping, waving tails high into the air, doing the banana (head and tail arched up in the air at the same time), playing, splashing, and communicating. Beluga whales are called the “canaries of the sea” since they click, squeal, chirp, whistle, and make noises that sound like a horse, a cow, a chicken, a foghorn, and like they are “blowing raspberries.” They are just plain noisy whales. They make hundreds of different sounds when communicating with other belugas. We spent about 90 minutes watching them and taking photos. It was so exciting and fantastic!! I have never seen anything like this before. But it also made for a very long 10-hour day trip. All of us were freezing by the time we reached camp – but it was so worth it!!
Valeria, the beluga whale scientist, and two others went out to Cape Anne Point at 9 pm to put the hydrophone in the water to see what calls the belugas were making and to get a better count (remember it’s light 24 hours a day). On the way they got stuck in the mud and it took them 2 hours to dig themselves free! Once they made it to Cape Anne they saw only a few belugas migrating several hundred feet from shore in the Northwest Passage and none were socializing in the shallows of the inlet as they had been doing earlier in the day. They also saw several narwhal whales migrating.
All the guests are very eager to head back out to Cape Anne River inlet in hopes of seeing beluga whales. However, only 9 people can go due to space restrictions on the ATV’s and no one who was out there yesterday is allowed to go out to Cape Anne today, which is understandable. Therefore, my husband, who was ill yesterday but suddenly feeling better today (the arrival of belugas has a way of doing that to a person), headed northwest to Cape Anne River inlet. Meanwhile, 5 other guests and I headed southeast to Lake Inukshuk to fish for Arctic char, a kind of salmon. The ride to Lake Inukshuk took us about 3 hours on the ATV’s. We stopped at various locations along the way to watch the muskoxen, observe the fox den in hopes of observing frolicking fox cubs, and to check out a bowhead whale jawbone protruding out of the ground. The open, far-reaching scenery is incredible consisting of scree-covered slopes in various shades of brown, meadows and bogs in a variety of green and yellow hues, and crystal-clear water flowing in the streams with small groups of muskox foraging on the landscape. There is absolutely nothing else on the
landscape except the lodge and no man-made sounds except our voices and vehicles. The vegetation is sparse and that which does exist is very low-growing. The grasses rarely exceed 5 to 6 inches in height. The Arctic willow tree grows prostrate on the ground and rarely reaches more than 2 inches in height. A 2-inch Arctic willow tree is about 200 years old because the growing period is so short (only about 6-8 weeks).
Lake Inukshuk was still frozen except about 30 feet around the edges. After lunch everyone went fishing for char at the river mouth. Within 10 minutes the first fish was caught. We kept the first three fish, each about 24 inches long, to take back to camp for sushi, and the remaining 13 fish caught over the next two hours were released. Once everyone was done fishing we all piled back onto the ATV’s and returned to the camp. It was a wonderful day with great company.
Sadly, my husband did not have as enjoyable a day as I had. One of the ATV’s got stuck in the mud and had to be dug out, they did not see any beluga whales at the Camp Anne River inlet or anywhere along the way, they were all cold when they returned as the wind had really picked up, and morale was low.
Interested in having your own Arctic adventure? Contact one of our travel consultants at 1-800-554-9059 or firstname.lastname@example.org – and check out this sample itinerary!