Northwest Passage

July 18, 2017

This was to be our last day at Arctic Watch Lodge—weather permitting, as we well knew! But the weather prediction said there was no chance of our being stranded here today.

Today there were two half-day excursions on offer, one to the Northwest Passage and the other to view the belugas. We’d already been down to watch the belugas a few times and we hadn’t gone to the Northwest Passage before, so we signed up for that one. After breakfast we teamed up with Terry and Karen and went in the Honda 4-seater ATV. Terry liked driving and he was very good, so he drove in both directions.

ATVs at the Northwest Passage

ATVs at the Northwest Passage

The route was mostly familiar to us, up and down over the gravel plains. We stopped at the Thule artifact site again, and then continued on to Polar Bear Point, which was at the end of the inlet. Everyone who had done the trip before told us to expect very strong cold winds when we got to the Passage, but to our delight we had no wind, only blue sky and sunshine. And the people who had done the trip before were also surprised at how little ice was left along the shore.

Old ice floes

Old ice floes

Playing on the ice floes

Playing on the ice floes

We spent about half an hour at the point enjoying ourselves. We saw some polar bear footprints in the snow which were probably about three days old, and there were no live polar bears to be seen. On the way back to the lodge we stopped to watch the belugas frolicking in the estuary. Luckily we were close enough to get some photos of them spy-hopping, which we hadn’t previously seen.

Polar bear footprints

Polar bear footprints

Spy-hopping beluga

Spy-hopping beluga

Back at the lodge the wind was howling and it was very cold. But lunch was ready: a great-tasting potato, bacon, and fish chowder followed by bison burgers. No complaints about the food here!

Arctic Watch guiding crew

Arctic Watch guiding crew

At about 2 pm we all went out to the airstrip to wait for the plane. Unlike the day we had arrived, today was blue sky and sunshine, so waiting for the plane wasn’t too bad. By now we had all learned that a Unimog makes a great windbreak! The next group arrived, the plane was unloaded, then our bags were loaded, and finally we climbed on board. We were definitely sad to leave, especially on such a nice day.

Goodbye to Arctic Watch!

Posted in Nunavut | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

River rafting

July 17, 2017

Today’s excursion was entirely water-based, and we were all doing the same basic activity with variations. It was quite complicated, and so the whole guiding crew would be going along to provide logistical support. So after breakfast we all (except John) climbed aboard the Unimogs for a trip up the Cunningham River.

Unimog crossing the river

Unimog crossing the river

The trucks came to a stop after an hour or so, coincidentally right in front of a pair of Black-bellied Plovers and their nest. We started off across the tundra on foot, through relatively lush grassland with some rather boggy sections. On the lake as we passed by there was a fair-sized flock of Snow Geese with three sets of chicks.

Black-bellied Plover

Black-bellied Plover

From there we climbed up the hillside into the area known as “the badlands”. Here there were two whale skeletons which were mostly intact. The whales had died in the ocean, of course, but since that time the land surface had risen (because the glaciers had melted) and now their skeletons were 60 meters above sea level. That was definitely a strange thing to see. After we had viewed the scenery from the high point we descended into the valley of the Cunningham River, where the rafts and other gear were waiting.

Hiking the badlands

Hiking the badlands

Whale skeleton

Whale skeleton

We had lunch next to the river, and then the water-based activities began. Some people were kayaking and some were stand-up paddle-boarding, but we chose the third option, which was floating down the river in a raft with one of the guides rowing. We had to wait for the other groups to get into dry suits, but all we needed to do was put on life jackets. Finally everyone was ready, so we pushed off.

Kayaks ready for action

Kayaks ready for action

For the most part the river was shallow but reasonably fast-flowing. We tried to tell Drew, who was rowing our raft, which course to take to avoid bottoming out–with moderate success. But besides that, all we had to was to sit there and watch the paddlers. They were doing surprisingly well; even many of the beginners made it around the right-hander which led into the canyon without capsizing.

Paddlers on the water

Paddlers on the water

The walls of the canyon were very steep and crumbling. The rocks were quite bizarre; they looked like columnar basalt which had been smashed into fragments and reassembled in Art Deco style. At one place we came across a nesting pair of Rough-legged Hawks but otherwise we saw very few birds. It took most of the afternoon to float down the river, and when we exited the canyon the boats were pulled out onto the shore.

Canyon walls

Canyon walls

We were feeling quite cold so we opted to get out of the raft and ride back to the lodge in the Unimogs. But as it turned out it wasn’t much faster to drive back than it would have been to drift in the raft. At the lodge we got out of our outdoor gear and then made some hot chocolate before sitting by the heater.

Dinner was at 7 pm and tonight we had shrimp curry with sticky rice and cucumber and radish salad. Dessert was freshly-made ice cream sundaes. Then after dinner some of the group (not us!) went for a “polar dip”, which involved jumping into the river. Most of them came out of the water after only a few seconds, leaving two of the guides to compete for the longest stay in the water.

Midnight sun

Midnight sun

Dave gave us a very good talk about polar bears after everybody was dried off, and then we went out to admire the midnight sun. Today was the first night that we had had blue sky and to see the sun high above the horizon at bedtime was quite special.

Posted in Nunavut | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Beechey Island

July 16, 2017

Yesterday our potential flight to Beechey Island had been cancelled due to weather, but today the weather was good and we were definitely going. So after a quick breakfast we all met at the Unimog for the ride over to the airstrip. The plane was due at 9:30 am and at 10 am we started to get worried—maybe the airline had some reason to cancel the trip? But no, before long we could see it approaching and then it set down on the airstrip.

Kenn Borek Twin Otter

Kenn Borek Twin Otter

Once on the ground the crew unloaded six large barrels of fuel and then put the seats down so that we could sit comfortably on the 20-minute flight. After the obligatory (but quick) safety briefing the plane taxied to the end of the airstrip, then gunned the engines and off we went. Our Twin Otter could carry 18 passengers and there were only 11 of us, so we all got a window seat. The flight over the Northwest Passage was smooth and the views great; from time to time we could see belugas below and the water was mostly free of ice, but apparently the passage was not yet completely open.

Northwest Passage ice

Northwest Passage ice

Before landing on Beechey Island our pilots flew back and forth over the landing site, which was a very small strip of beach, to check out the conditions. And then they landed on the beach, braking hard and stopping very close to four grave sites.

Franklin Expedition graves

Franklin Expedition graves

When Sir John Franklin went on his ill-fated expedition to explore the Northwest Passage he spent a winter in this bay. Three of his sailors died and are buried on this beach, and in the fourth grave is buried a sailor from one of the rescue expeditions sent out to look for his ships when they didn’t return. Our guide Dave spoke for a while about the history of the Franklin expedition and the circumstances which led to those sailors being buried here, and then we paid our respects by toasting them with a shot of whisky.

Toasting the sailors

Toasting the sailors

Dave continued by reading some excerpts from “Frozen in Time” by Owen Beattie, which describes the research project which exhumed and studied the bodies in the 1980’s, and then we were free to wander down the beach to Northumberland House. This “house” is a storage depot which was put there to support the rescue expeditions, but now there is not much left but parts of some walls and a lot of rusted iron barrel staves and tin cans.

Northumberland House

Northumberland House

We stayed in the area for quite a while, watching the birds in the sea and looking at all of the other memorials which had been placed on the beach. The weather was calm and warm, the warmest we’d had since arriving. But the bay was still covered with ice—perhaps it had been late to melt in the year when Franklin wintered here as well?

Frozen-over bay

Frozen-over bay

The flight back to the lodge was smooth and when we landed, we sat in the back of the Unimog and had a picnic lunch. The wind had risen again so sitting in the back of the truck was chilly, but the chef had made some tasty mushroom soup to accompany our sandwiches. We still had some afternoon time so Dave drove us over to watch the belugas, which were really active in the river estuary. We watched for quite a while but the tide was rising, so we had to head back so that it didn’t strand us.

Young beluga playing

Young beluga playing

Dinner tonight was a Sunday roast with garlic mashed potatoes and roasted carrots, followed by a delicious dark chocolate pot au crème. As usual the food was really good. After dinner Nansen, the younger of the Weber boys, gave a talk on photography in the Arctic. He had been working on it for about three years and he had some amazing photos of various animals plus a couple of videos.
Tonight was the first night when there had been blue sky, but tomorrow will be our last full day here before we return to Yellowknife.

Posted in Nunavut | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Belugas and Solo walk

July 15, 2017

This morning we awoke to wind and rain, and we found out that this kind of weather would stay around all day. We decided we didn’t want to do an all-day ATV trip to look for musk-oxen, so we chose to go looking for belugas in the morning instead.

The trip to the belugas was easy because we just got into the Unimog and it drove us out into the estuary. They were still a little way out, but every so often they would venture closer to us. Not far out there was a shallower section of water where the belugas would go to rub their bodies and slough off old skin. There were probably about 20 belugas in total, of various ages from some which were two to three weeks old, very dark in colour, to lighter grey ones and finally the full-grown white adults.

Beluga close to shore

Beluga close to shore

It was quite mesmerizing to watch them swimming around, diving, rolling, and spy-hopping. The dark-coloured young ones mostly stayed with their mothers but they could swim just as well as the adults. From time to time we could see a whale swimming towards us like a torpedo; they could go really fast if they wanted.

Beluga rushing towards us

Beluga rushing towards us

But after an hour and a half of standing in the wind and rain we were starting to get cold, so we all headed back to the lodge for lunch.

After lunch the organized options were to go back to watch the belugas some more, or to go to Gull Canyon, where we had gone yesterday. And it was still raining. So after some hemming and hawing we decided to head out on our own. We got bear spray from the guides and set off to follow the ATV track along the side of the estuary. Along the way we could see the belugas, and some of the more curious ones came towards us to see what strange bright yellow things were on the shore.

Belugas splashing

Belugas splashing

We passed the place where the kayaks are stashed and then, since we weren’t supposed to go out of sight of the lodge, it was time to turn back. We climbed back up to the road, where we came across a pair of Snow Geese with a couple of chicks. But now the wind and rain were blowing in our faces, and by the time we got back to the lodge we were sweating from all of the extra work we were doing. And our outer clothing was wet so we had to spend the rest of the afternoon drying camera straps, gloves, toques, and jackets in front of the propane heaters.

Arctic Watch kayak storage

Arctic Watch kayak storage

Dinner was at 6:30 pm and tonight we had roast lamb, broccoli, new potatoes, and salad followed by flourless chocolate cake with butterscotch icing topped with blueberries. Then after dinner Richard (the owner) gave a slide show about his several trips to the North Pole, along with a frank and entertaining discussion of the issues involved with Arctic long-distance travel. He concluded with a description of how he drove a bulldozer from Resolute to the lodge across the winter ice so that he could build a proper airstrip to service the lodge!

Bulldozer

Bulldozer

Posted in Nunavut | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Gull Canyon and Musk-oxen

July 14, 2017

At our 8 am meeting today we were presented with three options for today’s excursions. Option 1 was a short ATV drive to look for musk-oxen, option 2 was a long ATV drive to the Northwest Passage, and option 3 was a trip in the Mercedes Unimog truck to Gull Canyon for a hike. It was an easy decision for us—we chose option 3.

After breakfast we put some extra clothing in our daypacks and joined the group outside by the truck. There was Luc and Linda from Quebec City, Terry and Karen from Pittsburgh, Eric from Squamish, Katie from London, and Elspeth and John from Boston. The truck, driven by Dave, took us across the river and the gravel flats and the airstrip to the hills nearby. It was a slow drive because of all the uneven terrain but after about half an hour we were at the start of the walk.

Hiking on the tundra

Hiking on the tundra

We started across the tundra, admiring all of the flowers, and very soon we passed a group of Long-tailed Jaegers. We must have been a bit close to their nests, so they were flying above us and squawking away. But they finally settled down once they deemed we were far enough away. Soon we reached the top of the hill, where there were a lot of Snow Buntings.

Long-tailed Jaeger

Long-tailed Jaeger

From here we had fantastic views down into the canyon, which was formed millions of years ago along a fault line. We could see massive sections of uplifting as well as greatly eroded columns of rock. After spending some time on the ridge we backtracked a bit and descended into the canyon, where Dave had driven the truck and set out the lunch. What a great lunch—squash soup, bread, chicken salad, cheeses and cold meats, topped off with fantastic chocolate chip cookies!

Gull Canyon with Unimog

Gull Canyon with Unimog

After lunch we walked up the canyon to explore. There were Thayer’s Gulls nesting on the canyon walls, along with a couple of Glaucous Gulls. Along the way were fossils of corals and other underwater creatures. Since we were wearing rubber boots we could walk in the water if we liked, and we did, but we were told that last week the water had been too deep for that. So because of the low water levels we could walk past the green mossy part with the gulls and into the more barren upper canyon.

Nesting gulls

Nesting gulls

(Walking up the rocky river bed was a good for the boots. You might think that rubber boots might slip while walking on sloping rocks, but ours didn’t. We were very impressed.)

Walking up the canyon

Walking up the canyon

Rocks with fossils

Rocks with fossils

Back at the truck, we watched a pair of Rough-legged Hawks for a short time and then drove back to camp. The plan when we arrived there was to head down to the bay to see the belugas. But Dave called Gretchen, the researcher who lives down by the bay, and she said that they had left because the ice had been blown in. But luckily for us, Richard, one of the owners, had gone for a run up the hill just behind the lodge and noticed a small herd of musk-oxen!

Bay with no belugas

Bay with no belugas

So naturally we hurriedly put our boots back on and headed up the hill with our guides. After a vigorous 15-minute walk we carefully looked over the crest of the hill to where the six musk-oxen were. They were still lying down, so we were able to regroup and figure out how to get closer. But while we were doing this the wind changed, so now the musk-oxen were on alert. When we tried to move closer, they all stood up and casually started to wander away.

Musk-oxen near the lodge

Musk-oxen near the lodge

Dave then suggested we should go downhill a bit to try to outflank them, so we did that. Only to see them down in the valley about a kilometer away, making good speed away from us! Oh well, at least we got a good view of them.

Walking back to the lodge

Walking back to the lodge

The Northwest Passage group had had a mechanical problem with one of their ATVs, so we ended up having dinner at 8:30 pm. Fortunately the kitchen staff had got enough advance notice, as we had another great meal—turbot, roast potatoes, and salad, followed by orange crème brulée. After dinner we sat and chatted with Terry and Karen before returning to our cabin.

Posted in Nunavut | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Waterfall walk and ATVs

July 13, 2017

Our bed had very warm blankets, so we had been quite warm (even too warm) last night. But outside, of course, it was still close to freezing. It was still cloudy like yesterday, but with fewer snow flurries. After breakfast we had a brief meeting to find out what activities were on offer. Today we divided into two groups; one group would hike to the waterfall in the morning and learn to drive ATVs in the afternoon, and the other would do the reverse. We opted for hiking first, so at 9 am our group of 12 headed out, led by guides Dave and Aven.

Arctic Avens

Arctic Avens

The tundra around the lodge area was fairly easy to walk on, consisting mainly of shale with some muddy spots. There were lots of wildflowers, including Purple Saxifrage, Arctic Poppy, Arctic Avens, Bladder Campion, and Draba. There was also musk-ox poop here and there, although we didn’t see any of the animals.

Arctic Poppies

Arctic Poppies

The waterfall route was fun; we passed several waterfalls of various heights, some of which we scrambled down the slope to view and others we viewed only from the top. Once when we scrambled down the slope we found a pair of Snow Buntings feeding three recently-fledged chicks! But because of the continuing cold temperatures, there wasn’t much water in the creek, and so the waterfalls were less showy than they could have been.

Climbing down the slope

Climbing down the slope

At the waterfall

At the waterfall

We were back at the lodge for lunch, which was soup, fresh bread, roast beef, and banana cake. But this isn’t what usually happens here—the standard procedure is all-day excursions with a picnic lunch, and that’s what we will be doing tomorrow.

Bladder Campion

Bladder Campion

After lunch we went out and learned to operate the ATVs, of which there were four different kinds. Some were much easier to use than others. Neither of us learned all four kinds, but we took a spin down the old airstrip in at least one. Once we were all done with the “training” phase we picked one to drive and off we went.

Gentlemen, start your engines!

Gentlemen, start your engines!

We picked a four-person ATV which looked like a golf cart on steroids and Paul drove that, with Rosemary and one of the Karens as passengers. However the route we took was not nearly as flat as the old airstrip; in fact it included creek crossings and steep slopes, so we kept falling behind the people with smaller and faster machines. It took a while to learn to just drive the machine at full throttle whenever possible.

Crossing from floe to floe

Crossing from floe to floe

On scary ice

On scary ice

We stopped at the edge of the bay where there was still ice, and there were belugas nearby. But walking on the ice was disconcerting, especially when we had to cross from one floe to another by stepping on completely transparent ice. We also stopped at a place where some Thule-period artifacts were stashed under a rock. It was interesting to think of people who lived there in weather colder than today’s, with only stone tools to hunt whales with.

Thule artifacts

Thule artifacts

On the way back the wind came up and started to blow snow flurries into our faces, so by the time we got back to the lodge we were all slightly damp. However our parkas kept us warm. Dinner was beef tenderloin with roast carrots and salad, followed by Raspberry Eton Mess. Another great meal!

Posted in Nunavut | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Arriving at Arctic Watch Lodge

July 12, 2017

Today was our second attempt to get to the lodge, but the weather forecast today was much more in our favour. We had breakfast at 7 am and checked out; our departure from the hotel was at 8:30 am with the flight leaving at 10 am. Sure enough everything went smoothly and we were in the air shortly after 10 am. This time we sat on the other side of the plane, so when we went over the gold mine about an hour into the journey we could look down and see it.

Cambridge Bay was a very brief stop, just long enough for us to use the washroom. Yesterday the airport had been empty, but today it was full of people all waiting for the Air North flight to take off. We sped on directly to the lodge, and when after just under two hours of flying we landed on the lodge’s dirt airstrip we all cheered!

Cambridge Bay’s baggage carousel

Cambridge Bay’s baggage carousel

The area was definitely a lunar landscape, with gravel and rocks everywhere, but if you looked closely the ground was scattered with flowers. After getting off we walked the tundra for a few minutes. The temperature was close to freezing and there were snow flurries, but we had our expedition parkas so it wasn’t too bad. The wind stung our cheeks and our hands (shouldn’t have left the gloves in our packs). Soon we arrived at the river, where some of the staff rowed us across in rubber boats.

The group after arrival

The group after arrival

The lodge is entirely made up of tents, with one large tent in the middle and two rows of sleeping tents beside it. We all met in the “great room” and were given hut shoes to put on, followed by tea and home-made macaroons. Here we met all the staff and we were told about the camp procedures.

Arctic Watch Lodge

Arctic Watch Lodge

We were now in the Central time zone, so we had to change our watches from 2:30 pm to 3:30 pm. This seemed a bit arbitrary to us, since we were in an isolated location with 24 hours of daylight, but there was probably a good reason for it. We learned what time the daily meeting was (8 am), how to use the toilets (don’t let the water run), what to do if you wanted to go out for a walk (get a radio and bear spray from a staff member), and so on. And finally we were given our hut assignments; we were in the Canada Goose hut, which was on the outside row with an unobstructed view of the Cunningham River estuary.

Canada Goose hut

Canada Goose hut

We got ourselves settled in to our room and then had a quick look around the camp. Dinner was at 6:30 pm and it was really good, as it should be since the staff included not only a chef but also a sous-chef. There was roast chicken, potatoes, and salad followed by carrot cake for dessert. We all introduced ourselves one by one, but with 26 guests we still didn’t know most of the names.

Purple Saxifrage

Purple Saxifrage

After dinner we went for a walk, armed with the radio and bear spray. It was nice to stretch our legs and see the land. We were joined by Dave the dentist from Tucson and Karen the obstetric nurse from Florida, and after wandering around for a bit we settled on following the road down to the bay. We didn’t see any belugas but we had been told they had started to arrive. By the time we got back to the lodge it was 10:30 pm—it’s easy to stay up late when it doesn’t get dark. But the generator goes off at 11 pm and then there’s no more heat in the rooms, so that’s basically bedtime.

Posted in Nunavut | Tagged , , | Leave a comment