My wakeup call at the Hilton Garden Inn near the Ottawa Airport is scheduled for 5AM and the glowing red eyes of the alarm clock seem to taunt me as they blink the current time — 3AM. After nine agonizingly uncomfortable hours spent sitting in airport concourses and strapped into airplane seats, I’m finally in bed. Though it’s a king size bed, I find myself on top of the covers and courting the edge, afraid to get too comfortable, lest I oversleep and somehow miss waking up for what has been shaping up to be one of the most memorable trips of my lifetime.
I needn’t have worried. At 4:30AM I roll out of bed and blink my bloodshot eyes, knowing that more sleep just isn’t in the cards. I open the curtains and watch from my fifth floor window as the first colors of a vibrant dawn begin to creep over the horizon, illuminating a layer of fog clinging to the trees with a golden glow. As I head downstairs to the hotel lobby, I realize that this is the last sunrise I will see for nearly a week. Just one month after returning to Florida from the lush tropical rainforest of Costa Rica, I’m in Canada along with nine other journalists and photographers on a trip organized by Canada Goose to venture into a world of midnight sun at the top of the Earth. Our destination is Pond Inlet on the northern end of Baffin Island, north of the Arctic Circle, north of the tree line, north of any roads connecting to the outside world, north of everything familiar.
With an even split of men and women, half of us travel writers and the other half fashion writers, we make for a peculiar blend, but the laughs come easily and the group is strangely cohesive. With one journalist from Korea, two from England, one from Germany, one from Denmark, one from France, two from Canada, and two – including myself – from the US, we’re certainly a diverse collection, and though we’re headed to an area technically within the borders of Canada, it’s a place so physically distant and with a culture so unique that it seems thoroughly foreign.
Coffees are hastily poured and consumed in the hotel lobby and we’re soon piling into shuttles to the airport. Early morning in Ottawa’s airport means that the lines are short and our bags are quickly checked in at the First Air counter and we’re through security in a flash. As we walk out onto the tarmac to meet our plane, we’re given the first evidence that we’ll soon be in a very different place. Though this leg of our trip is on a Boeing 737, we’re ushered up the passenger stairs and into the rear of the plane. The front half of the plane is reserved for cargo, a necessity in the far north with its absence of roads, where planes serve as the best – and often only – method of transportation for food and supplies. Though the seating is limited, the service is not, and for the next three hours I find myself being continually shocked as the flight attendants bring forth steaming hand towels, a delicious breakfast, and warm cookies. If First Air, an airline completely owned by the Inuit of Northern Quebec, were to take up operations in the US they would make a killing with this service – the last decent meal I got on a US based airline that I didn’t have to produce a credit card to get happened nearly 15 years ago.
As we fly northeast, over Quebec and Le Fleuve Saint-Laurent, I watch as the roads criss-crossing the land become fewer and fewer until all traces of human-existence beyond the shadow cast by our plane on the clouds disappear behind us. Thick forests dotted with hundreds of lakes give way to bare rock and tundra as we leave the treeline behind. As I sip a cup of hot tea, I watch from the window as the grey rock far beneath us begins to slowly turn white as we fly onwards, painted by the icy brush of the North. Soon the entire landscape has vanished beneath the ice and snow and it’s difficult to tell the ground from the clouds.
We begin our descent into Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital and most populous city with just under 7,000 residents. Though Iqaluit lies to the south of the Arctic Circle near the southern end of Baffin Island, the climate is decidedly Arctic, and a chilly wind bites into my face and numbs my fingers as I step out of the warm plane into a light, misting rain that undoubtedly began its journey from the sky as snow. Our time in Iqaluit is brief, but I have enough time to wander the cold streets near the airport, taking in the sights and watching as my breath forms clouds that linger in the air and drift slowly away in the icy wind that gusts between buildings. Sled dogs tethered along a stream just a few hundred meters from the airport yelp and bark and howl and I beat a hasty retreat as I see an especially large dog headed my way, broken chain in tow.
We’re soon boarding a plane again, this time a much smaller one – an ATR 42 turboprop, the sort of plane you’d expect to be on when you’re headed into the wild…and for those with a fear of flying, the sort of plane that makes knuckles go white. Luckily, I love to fly and the chance to spend time in a plane like this is a rare treat enjoyed only when flying to remote destinations. Yet again, the aircraft is divided in half, with the forward section of the cabin filled with cargo. Our group of 12 fills much of the passenger seating and we’re able to sit where we’d like. I quickly lay claim to a window seat, where I know I’ll spend much of the flight peering out at whatever scenery manages to appear through the clouds.
I feel the engines gain power and we’re quickly airborne, rumbling into the sky as we fly over startlingly green rivers that snake their way through the rock. After a little over an hour in the air and we’re scheduled to land in Clyde River, a tiny dot on the map halfway to our final destination with a gravel airstrip that links it to the outside world. The plane shudders as the landing gear descends and I struggle to see anything from the window as a dense fog seems to grip the plane tightly with its grey hands. The runway is barely visible below, and the movements of the aircraft provide a link to the pilot’s mind as he banks the plane in a slow circle around the airstrip, considering his options, before deciding that a landing would be ill advised and climbing back into the sky.
“No Clyde River today,” our solitary flight attendant Alfredo informs the handful of passengers who were headed there. He tells us that they might get to Clyde River tomorrow….or maybe next week. In this land where weather is the timekeeper, schedules are merely hopeful suggestions, and the impatient traveler is quickly reminded that mother nature calls the shots here.
For our group that’s headed to Pond Inlet, this deviation means we’ll arrive even sooner, a fact that none of us is complaining about, but we keep our excitement in check, just in case the Arctic fates decide to put us in our place as well. Hundreds of blindingly white miles vanish behind us in a blur as we race above the clouds gripping Baffin Island. As we near Pond Inlet, a town north of the most northerly point in Alaska, towering mountain peaks rise into the firmament and the clouds begin to part as if they had anticipated our arrival. We glide through the sunlight and crystal-clear air and, with the slightest of bumps we’re on the ground, rolling down a dusty, unpaved airstrip and taxiing toward the airport – a one-room building with a small waiting area, posters on the wall, and a case of Inuit handicrafts.
We pile out of the airport like jubilant puppies, baggage in hand and eager to explore our new surroundings. Although the sun is high in the sky, it’s Monday evening, and our twelve-strong group is here in the Arctic until Thursday morning. In a few hours, we’ll be heading to an event where Canada Goose, in collaboration with First Air, has coordinated a shipment of sewing materials like fabric, zippers, buttons, and other supplies that will be given to members of the community at no cost. Since 2010, these resource center events held in isolated towns across the North have been held periodically to help give something back to the communities and to assist in keeping local culture and sewing traditions alive. The next morning, we’ll be headed out onto the ice for some Arctic exploration with Black Feather, a legendary wilderness tour company that will be taking us far out onto the ice where we’ll make camp along the floe edge, keeping watch for some of the incredible animals that call the ice home.
Outside the airport we meet Steve and Conor, our Black Feather guides who help everyone toss their luggage into the back of a truck. We hop aboard as well, straddling suitcases and gear for a short, bumpy ride to our hotel. The Sauniq Hotel reminds me of the “portables” from my childhood, those prefabricated mobile buildings converted into classrooms to deal with growing school populations. With no roads connecting towns on the massive landmass of Baffin Island, everything in sight has been either flown in or brought on ships, which are able to reach Pond Inlet during a brief window of time each year when the thick armor of ice which covers the sea and fills Eclipse Sound melts. Raised on metal stilts that shade a layer of ice fighting against the warming summer air, the hotel is modest in its looks, but with a knowledge of what goes into getting a building constructed in this harsh environment, it’s impressive that this town of nearly 1500 is as large as it is.
With our boots removed at the door, we’re soon checked in by Rita, the Sauniq’s manager. In this part of the world that sees fewer than 1,500 visitors a year (many of them in town for only a few hours when ships visit the harbor), our group of 12 is a big one and many of us find ourselves placed into the overflow hotel behind the dining room. I’ll be sharing a room with Kevin, Canada Goose’s Senior VP of Marketing, a former photojournalist whose love of the North is infectious. With our bags hastily deposited in the room and my camera battery charger topping off one of my 4 backup batteries (can you ever be too prepared?), we beat a quick path back into the daylight outside for a few minutes of exploration before the resource center event gets underway.
It’s soon time for the resource center event and while I’m expecting to see a good turnout, it seems that half of Pond Inlet has turned up and is waiting patiently to be let inside. We slip in ahead of the crowd and Kevin and Carrie, Canada Goose’s VP of Corporate Communications survey the room, making sure everything is set up properly. Tables piled high with colorful fabric, zippers, buttons, and velcro form a large U shape that would surely tempt me if I lived in the Arctic and wanted — or knew how — to make a winter coat. With the cost of everything here in the north multiplied by often more than four times a typical southern price, this initiative by Canada Goose and First Air clearly resonates with the community. The doors are opened and hundreds of Pond Inlet residents stream in. As the crowd swirls around me, eagerly collecting the ingredients for their perfect winter-wear, I’m struck by the warmth and depth of personality of everyone I meet.
The fabric is quickly dispensed and after a surprisingly hearty meal cooked by Rita back at the Sauniq Hotel, we venture yet again into the sunlight. As our group walks in the crisp Arctic air through the streets of Pond Inlet heading downhill toward the ice of Eclipse Sound, it’s tough to come to terms with the staggering beauty of my surroundings. To the west of town, an iceberg looms above the ice, its vast mass trapped by the frozen sea. To the north lies Bylot Island, part of the remote wilderness of Sirmilik National Park — its mountains and glaciers rising above the sound. To the west and south, the mountains and hills of Baffin Island tower in all directions. It’s like no place on Earth that I’ve ever been and I’m lost in thought as I walk down to the ice. With hesitation, I place my feet into the footfalls of the person in front of me – as a Floridian with no Godlike powers, my experience with oceans is limited to floating on them and diving beneath them. Walking on them is a new experience, but I quickly gain my ice legs with some reassurance that I’m at least a meter above the frigid water.
Cracks and crevasses line the ice like the sticky tendrils of an orb spider’s silken web, beautiful – but deadly. Like a V, the cracks widen as they near the surface, a dark onyx softening to a rich tannic brown. A wide, insurmountable crack marks the end-point of our short exploration, extending as far as I’m able to see into the distance, perhaps all the way to Bylot Island. More than two meters in width, its icy walls vanish into the obsidian depths while the evening sun sparkles playfully on the languid surface.
Camera in hand, I snap frame after frame of this mesmerizing scene, and I’m the last to leave the ice. I clamber up the rocky slope, and pause to talk with a young Inuk man that I meet while crossing over oil pipelines which snake their way around the town. Daniel tells me that he’s lived in Pond Inlet for his entire 17 year life and that he’s looking forward to going out onto the ice the following day on a hunting trip. I ask him what he hopes to get, and in the most soft-spoken of voices that I soon learn is the way nearly all Inuit speak, he tells me simply, “Whale.”
Though most teenagers the world-over are eager to leave their home town, Daniel tells me that he never wants to move away. While the town is small and the cost of living incredibly high, as I stand next to him gazing out over the glimmering Arctic sea ice, it’s easy to understand his deep love of this land.
Returning to the hotel, we meet up with our Black Feather guides Steve and Conor for a briefing on what we should know for our trip to the floe edge. Conor points to a spot on the map that’s far out at sea – our final destination right at the edge of the ice. Hats and gloves and large, waterproof boots are dispersed and we’re told what the plan is if we encounter a polar bear or fall through the ice.
Meeting adjourned, I venture out on my own into the night, illuminated not by a sliver of moon dangling from an inky sky, but by the sun — a fact that as a southerner, I simply can’t get used to.
Whirling round a sleepless sky, the sun is a welcome friend to the photographer, and I make my way to the river which flows through the center of town, shooting some long exposures before my fingers grow numb in the chilly air. Though I began my walk alone, I’m soon joined by Ken, a Black Feather guide who flew in from Iqaluit with us and will be guiding a trip departing the day after ours returns. An avalanche professional and expedition guide, Ken makes for a great walking partner – like most outdoorsman that I know, he’s comfortable exploring without loud chatter, a fact that suits me just fine and melds here in the North among a culture where silence is something of a virtue. We walk to the outskirts of town and scramble down a rocky slope to the beach and out onto the ice, closer to the massive iceberg.
Though it won’t set until August, the sun ventures toward the mountaintops, casting a golden glow on everything and giving even the cold, blue ice a warm blush of color. We photographers call this the golden hour, but unlike in the south where the sun retreats as swiftly as it arrives, the magical light never ceases. The silence out here is pristine, broken only by the occasional yelp of a sled dog tethered on the ice and by the distant whine of ski-doos motoring off on hunting trips. It’s nearly 1AM when we make it back to the hotel, and although I want to spend all night under the midnight sun, sleep is an unfortunate necessity that can only be put off for so long. Daylight streams through cracks in the curtains, but a deep slumber greets me in moments.
I add nearly 5 hours to my reservoir of sleep, hoping that will be enough to sustain me for the next day and night. Under a bright sun the following morning, I’m clad in a heavy assortment of clothing that makes my movements duck-like as I waddle across the slippery ice and climb aboard the qamutik I’ll be riding in along with Martin, a journalist from the Times in London and Guillaume, his photographer for the trip. Made entirely of wood, I’m trusting myself to the ancient knowledge of the Inuit, who have been constructing sleds without the use of nails or screws for centuries. With that in mind I realize that I’m in good hands, and with a rumble the Ski-Doos fire up and the tow rope grows taught and then, with a lurch we’re off, accelerating to the northeast over the ice. Racing across the white expanse of Eclipse Sound, the wind lashes out at our cheeks and I bury my face deeper into my scarf and snuggle into the bulk of my Resolute Parka as I struggle to keep my camera steady as the qamutik lurches and sways over the bumps and cracks in the ice. We go airborne for a moment, jolting back down and then back up again as the sled jumps over snow-piles.
While the ice beneath us is frozen solid, the snow that accumulates during the winter has begun to melt, forming pools of aquamarine that we glide through, throwing up a wake behind us. As we fly over these enchanting puddles, the thin layer of ice that forms on the surface of the meltwater crackles and pops under our weight. Snow-draped mountains draw nearer and the scenery is so heart-achingly beautiful that I blink away tears, driven as much by the biting Arctic wind as by the stark beauty of such otherworldly intensity that I’m surrounded by.
The dark bodies of seals vanish beneath ice as our qamutiks draw near, and for 65 kilometers we continue onward through this overwhelming landscape. We zig-zag along, hugging the edge of wide cracks filled with dark, eerily still water until our guides find a spot they somehow know to be suitable and we miraculously cross over to the solid ice on the other side.
Our camp grows on the horizon as we draw nearer, finally coming to a rest next to a row of orange and yellow tents, set up before our arrival. The floe edge is a hundred meters from camp, and we hurry to the edge, looking out over the placid sea in the direction of Greenland, invisible behind the horizon. Steve lowers a hydrophone over the edge and into the gelid gloom and we listen with fascination at the sounds of the deep. Though the water is still and the air silent as lines of white pack ice drift slowly across the surface like apparitions, the chorus beneath us could easily be a recording from the rainforest. Whistles, clicks, and chirps drift up from the depths and I feel incredibly lucky and so at peace.
Seabirds fly low over the water, following the line of the floe edge. Thick-billed Murres, peculiar birds which resemble penguins in flight, race back and forth in vast numbers. King and common eider ducks seem to be in less of a rush and they glide by at a more leisurely pace. Soon dark shapes breach the surface – narwhal! It begins with one, drifting lazily along like a log caught in a gentle current, but soon we’re seeing dozens of them, the ultimate reward after hours spent in the qamutik.
An animal about which relatively little is known about its life and behavior, these two ton mammals dwell in a world far beyond our reach, diving to depths of sometimes more than a mile in search of halibut, cod, shrimp, and squid. To see single narwhal in the distance would have been an exhilarating experience, but this….this is something else entirely.
The afternoon is spent in a state of wonder, and in the early evening we’re setting off again toward distant icebergs, where we’ll chip away enough ice to melt into water for drinking, cooking, and hand-washing during the rest of our time on the ice. We make it perhaps a kilometer before we come to an abrupt halt in our qamutiks near the floe edge. More narwhal, dozens and dozens of them scattered across the ocean’s surface as far as I can see, their long tusks rising from the water as they surface from their journey into the crushing blackness to the ocean floor. For nearly an hour we linger with these narwhal as they swim within a dozen meters of where we’re standing.
All of my senses are enveloped by this land of unsurpassed beauty as I stand beneath the glistening walls of a ten-thousand year old iceberg. I chew an icicle and savor this ancient water and back in camp I relax in the lounge tent as Conor and Steve prepare a gourmet meal for us.
In this Hyperborean realm of perpetual sunlight, I marvel at the sheer wonder that our group of ten guests, two of whom have never even camped before, is able to enjoy what amounts to nothing short of luxury. Thousands of miles from home, even for the native Canadians among us, we’re camped hours from the nearest town but so close to the floe edge that we can hear the narwhal breathing as they rest before plunging into the stygian depths beneath the ice that we stand on – ice that will have vanished under the relentless light of the sun by July. At this moment, far beyond the reach of cell phone signals and in a place where technology is all but useless, I find myself in heaven.
Flights to Pond Inlet (YIA) on First Air depart Ottawa (YOW) once daily at 9:15AM, Monday through Saturday. There are two stops along the way, and the final arrival time is 5:40PM.
The Sauniq Hotel has 20 double occupancy rooms available for $250 per person with private bathrooms, hot water, and cable TV. The airport is a five minute walk from the hotel and complimentary airport shuttle service is available. Wireless internet is accessible in the hotel, but connections speeds in the North are limited. Excellent food including made-to-order breakfasts and buffet style dinners with dessert, fresh fruit and an assortment of juices is available in the dining room for an additional cost.
Black Feather offers several scheduled trips into the icy wilderness around Pond Inlet from May through August. Skiing expeditions, kayaking trips, and adventures to the floe edge by qamutik offer a great opportunity for exploration and a chance to see rare the rare wildlife found around Baffin Island and along the line of life. For groups of four or more, custom itineraries can be created to suit your interests.