Hebrides

We had booked a tour to Madagascar for October 2016, and our flights there connected through London, as it happened. So we thought: why not spend a couple of weeks in Britain before the tour and visit somewhere like, say, the Outer Hebrides?

Now we knew we were taking a risk with the weather, going to the Hebrides in October. But as it turned out we had nine days there with essentially no rain! You’ll find our diaries and photographs in the web pages section starting here: Hebrides 2016.

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Europe, 2016

This was supposed to be our summer hiking holiday in Europe (including Britain of course). The hiking was less than satisfactory due to Rosemary’s injured knee, but as usual we made the best of things.

We stayed for about ten days in England and then headed over to Switzerland to start our hiking holiday. But as we were on our way to London City Airport to fly to Geneva we heard that Britain had voted narrowly to leave the EU. So our diaries and photographs are in the web pages starting at two separate locations:

England 2016

Alps 2016

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Lake District, 2016

We needed some walking, so we scheduled a week or so to go walking in England’s Lake District. Our trip was in April, so we were taking the risk that there might be snow. But as it turned out we had surprisingly decent weather. Our diaries and photographs are posted in the web pages section, here: Lake District 2016.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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

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