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!
The scene 20,000 feet below me as I look out the window of the plane is of snow and frozen ice with an occasional patch of aqua blue sea water and blue sky. It is spectacular. Our charter flight, on a Dash 8 (twin propeller plane that seats 28 passengers), left out of Yellowknife, Canada, this morning, then made a stop in Gjoa Haven for fuel, and is now headed further north to Arctic Watch Lodge located on the bank of Cunningham River Inlet on Somerset Island in the high Arctic. Somerset Island is located approximately 1,800 miles north of Calgary and about 900 miles north of Yellowknife at latitude (or parallel) 74° North within the Arctic Circle.
As we landed the sun was shining, the sky was crystal clear, and the temperature was a high of 40° Fahrenheit (F). My husband and I have come here in hopes of seeing polar bears, beluga whales, Arctic foxes, muskox, and other Arctic wildlife and plants.
After disembarking, we walked a few hundred feet to the river and had to be ferried across the river in big yellow rafts to get from the landing strip to the lodge. I use the phrase “landing strip” loosely as it is merely an area of land on the scree-covered landscape that has been graded. There is no paved landing runway or even a traffic control tower, just a wind sock to aid the bush pilots in landing.
I later learned that the owners, Richard Weber and Josée Auclair, made the landing strip using a small bull dozer. To get the bull dozer from Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island – where a cargo plane delivered it – to Arctic Watch on Somerset Island Richard and one of his friends drove the bull dozer 60 miles over the ice that is the Northwest Passage in the winter. It took them about a week to do it and they had to keep checking the ice with a corer to make sure that it was thick enough (minimum of 30 inches of ice).
The “lodge” itself is made up of several large and small permanent white canvas tents on wooden foundations that make up the living room, dining room, shower room (yes, shared showers), kitchen, and the guest and staff rooms. I was fully aware that we would be “glamping” (glamorous camping), but it didn’t really sink in until I saw our “room”: a 12′ x 12′ tent furnished with a queen bed on a wooden frame, a small shelf unit, a small sink piped only with cold water, a small marine toilet hidden by a zippered canvas curtain for privacy, and no heater. The only heated rooms are the dining room, living room, and shower room. Luckily, we packed well!
At dinner we met the owners, their sons, the staff, and our fellow adventurers. Thus, we began our Arctic safari!
We survived the night in the tent and didn’t freeze! Hot water bottles at our feet, hats on our heads, and many layers in between kept us very warm. Other than the unheated tents the biggest problem is that it is light 24 hours a day in the Arctic. So we also had to sleep with shirts over our eyes to block the light!
The lodge is situated on the edge of Cunningham Inlet which leads out into the Barrow Strait, part of the Northwest Passage. This morning after breakfast a group of 9 guests and our guides, Catherine and Alex, headed for Polar Bear Point – after our training session on the ATV’s (all-terrain vehicles). We will use the ATV’s as our main source of transportation while here. There are two ATV options: the green John Deere “gators” that seat 4 passengers and the red Bombardiers (aka bombas) that seat 1 or 2 people. We drove out to Polar Bear Point using both ATV types on dirt/mud trails and saw ring seals sunning on the ice as well as several flower species (i.e., Arctic poppy, mountain avens, several saxifrage, a miniature Arctic willow tree, and more) scattered about the ground. We also were able to walk out on the ice within the strait – yes, we walked on the frozen ocean, on the Northwest Passage! It was an amazing feeling.
After lunch, we headed out for a hike to see three waterfalls with guides Catherine and Laurence. The tundra is made up of very hilly terrain that is covered in scree, and is very wet due to the melting snow. It was like crossing a bog in areas. We eventually made it to the waterfalls and gorge that must have had a 100-foot drop. The scenery was amazing. Wide-open space surrounds us. No one else for miles and miles. A wonderful first day in the Arctic.
Days 3 and 4
The weather was bad these two days with rain, temperatures in the low 30’s F, and winds with gusts up to 25 miles an hour. However, after a delicious breakfast both mornings several of us headed out past Polar Bear Point on the ATV’s toward Cape Marie looking for polar bears. Just last week a female with two cubs was seen in the area while marathon runners were racing. However, after spending approximately 12 hours (6 hours per day) driving around the northern part of the island, much of the time in the rain and staring at the frozen ocean looking for polar bears and beluga whales we didn’t see any. We did see several ring seals and a variety of seagulls. Shortly after returning to camp on Day 3 we did spot several adult and baby muskox.
I think the most exciting thing that happened on both days was that I drove a gator with three other passengers on the Northern Passage on solid sea ice! I was told that the ice is about 4-feet deep and not to worry. However, it was still extremely nerve-wracking and exhilarating at the same time – especially when driving over cracks in the ice ranging between 12”-24” wide in places! This is definitely not something that can be done in many other places in the world, but our guides Catherine and Raph were fantastic in finding the best places to drive on the ice. One day I got one of the gators stuck in mud. Everyone found flat rocks that we used to place under the tires and then Raph used a winch to pull the gator out. Then off we went to find a bit of shelter for lunch. Finding no shelter we lunched in the rain. All part of the adventure of being in the Arctic, I am told.
As stated above, the weather these past two days has been stormy with lots of rain and very strong winds. Although sunny weather is my preferred option, this storm is desired because the rain will melt the sea ice faster than sunshine and the wind will blow the small chunks out to sea allowing the Cunningham Inlet to open up, which will then allow the beluga whales to enter the inlet as they do every summer to nurse their calves, molt, and play.
Another day of bad weather (fog, rain, and wind) so in the morning we went for a hike to the waterfalls and after a delicious lunch some of us went river rafting and kayaking with Richard and another guide, Alex. We had to wear drysuits in case we fell in the water as the water temperature is in the high 30’s-low 40’s F. The view of the ice with its various shades of blue was beautiful from the kayak. We also saw a ring seal today, but they are skittish animals and slip quickly into the water even if we are hundreds of feet from them.
This evening we listened to a lecture given by Dr. Valeria Vergara, a beluga whale scientist/researcher from the Vancouver Aquarium. She is here, living in an unheated, leaking yurt about 1 mile from camp for 6 weeks to study the communication between beluga whale mothers and their calves.
The weather was a bit foggy today with some wind, but no rain. The ice still has not broken up enough for the beluga whales to use the inlet. Since there are no beluga whales to watch we rafted across the river and went for a hike up to the ridge above Gull Canyon with guides Catherine and Laurans. The hike was wonderful and the view from the ridge spectacular. Black-legged kittiwakes (a gull) were nesting on the crags within the canyon with a few fledglings on the nests. We also saw muskox, an Arctic hare (cute!), eider ducks, long-tailed skua, as well a rough-legged hawk circling overhead.
Toward the end of our hike we wandered down a shale and rock covered hill and I found a large fossilized trilobite! A trilobite was a small marine animal from the Paleozoic era (360-435 million years old). Exciting!
In addition, I saw two Arctic woolly bear moth caterpillars today. If any animal gets the prize for perseverance it is this caterpillar. It has an anti-freeze of sorts in its body and freezes every winter then thaws in the summer to feed on Arctic willow, then freezes again in the winter with this cycle continuing for anywhere from 7 to 14 years before it has eaten enough to morph into a moth to mate and die. What a life!
This evening we listened to a lecture given by Richard about his many trips over the past 20 years to the North Pole. I must say that cross-country skiing over rough terrain and floating ice slabs as well as swimming in cold water when the ice starts to melt for 120 days or so with a sled packed with about 360 pounds of supplies/gear in temperatures as low as -50° F does not appeal to me! He said they would eat over 7,000 calories a day and still lose weight. They gauged the temperature as such: it is -31° F when they could gnaw on a stick of butter; it is -40° F when a stick of butter snaps cleanly in two pieces; and it is -58° F when a stick of butter shatters like glass. Adventurers wanting to get to the North Pole eat a lot of butter and macadamia nuts on the excursions due to the high fat and calorie content.
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!