Postcards from Arctic
By: Gina Brown, Dartmouth, Canada
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant
I peek through the window of the six-seater airplane
in time to catch the sun' s rays illuminating a ridge of frosty
mountains. The pilot cuts the roaring engine and the plane rolls
to a standstill in Pond Inlet. He removes his headset and welcomes
us to Canada' s Arctic.
We might be in Canada, but it' s like landing
in a fairy-tale - with a blazing sun, royal blue sky and crystalline
ice sparkling throughout the landscape. We' re at the top of
Baffin Island, the world' s fifth largest island. It' s
north of everything - 400 miles above the Arctic Circle, the
nearest tree and Greenland is just a jaunt away.
I' ve signed up for a camping trip to the floe
edge - where the frozen ice mass meets the open ocean. During
summer, it' s a prime gathering place for narwhals, seals,
walruses, polar bears and thousands of migrating birds.
While waiting for our bags to come off the plane,
I' m surprised when a local asks me if I am from the “south”.
Born in Nova Scotia, I always viewed myself as an east coast Canadian.
I' m quickly catching on that things are different up here.
Canada' s newest territory Nunavut offers an
unusual contrast between things that are king-sized and pint-sized.
The territory stretches more than 2-million square miles across
Canada' s north and straddles three time zones, yet the entire
population of 29,000 wouldn' t fill a baseball stadium in the
We disembark the old-fashioned way - down
a flight of steps onto the makeshift runway - the frozen harbour.
Our host tosses our bags on the back of a pick-up truck. It' s
so bashed-in; it looks like it was halfway through a car crusher
when it escaped its destiny.
On the way to our hotel, he offers an impromptu
tour of Pond Inlet - population 975. He drives with
one hand on the steering wheel, which keeps the other hand free
to wave to his neighbours. In minutes we' ve covered the post
office, a couple of churches and the former Hudson' s Bay Company
store, a 400 year-old trading post.
It appears that every person in the village is outdoors,
which is not surprising given it is the first day of summer. He
reminds us we won' t see darkness during our week-long stay.
The midnight sun casts a playful spell over everyone
- including children who lark about in the streets, oblivious
to the southern notion of bedtime. In a place where it' s dark
24 hours a day for months at a stretch, it' s easy to see why
they love the endless days of summer.
The next day at the harbour, our guide prepares
a snowmobile and a traditional sled called a kamotiq, to
transport us 50 miles east of Pond Inlet. Over the next week, it
will be the only source for food, clothing and shelter. Packed with
the precision of a watchmaker, we' re the last cargo to be
placed between boxes of food, tents, survival gear, a Coleman stove
and a two-way radio.
Our Inuk guide whose name gets shortened to Mr P
launches us on our six-hour journey. In no time, breathtaking mountains
appear on the horizon. A massive glacier far away intrigues me and
I wonder if any people have set foot on it.
After several hours, we encounter our first lead”
- a crack in the ice anywhere from ten inches to ten feet wide.
Under the crack, you can see the frigid ocean. Summer temperatures
melt the ice, and as a result the leads expand, challenging those
who want to cross them. With safety in mind, Mr. P will try to drive
around the lead, but if it' s not possible then it calls for a leap
of faith - physically and mentally - to cross to the other side.
Mr P studies the situation, searching for the shortest
gap. When he' s ready, he motions to hang on and guns the engine.
Adrenaline kicks in as the snowmobile races toward the lead. On
cue, the snowmobile and komatiq lift off the ground, landing us
on the other side. In the back of the komatiq, the three of us cheer
and high-five each other, even though we' ve done nothing.
Elation is short-lived, as the komatiq grinds to
a halt in a pool of icy water. Mr. P jumps off the snowmobile and
checks the sled from every angle. It is truly stuck. Unfazed, he
rocks the komatiq out of the ice, one inch at a time.
With hundreds of pounds of cargo and people weighing
down the sled, we offer to help. He' s either being nice, or
knows we' d only be in the way - but politely sends us
a look that he' s got it under control. I watch his rubber
boots fill with crushingly cold ocean water - he ignores it.
After half an hour of Olympic-calibre wrestling, the sled is free.
Following the exertion, Mr P rustles up some hot
tea on the portable stove and hands me a steaming mug. I stir in
a spoonful of coffee whitener nicknamed White Death by
northerners, and break up the powder icebergs floating in my cup.
I take a sip and decide it's the best cup of tea I've ever tasted.
As we close in on the floe edge, we watch for the
open ocean on the horizon. With no trees in the Arctic, 360 degrees
of beauty captures my attention. If there are a hundred words for
snow in the Inuktitut language, there must be as many for shades
of white: aquamarine, azure, sapphire, emerald, indigo, sky and
royal, among others.
This ice mass will eventually break away into the
ocean, forming icebergs. For now, their distinctive shapes serve
as landmarks during our excursions. My fellow travelers and I start
naming them according to architecture. One iceberg the size of an
arena boasting three minarets becomes known as Taj Mahal,
while a statuesque beauty is dubbed Venus de Milo.
At the ocean' s edge, I spot miles of broken
ice known as “pack ice” piling up. Part of the fascination
of the Arctic is how quickly everything can change. One moment there's
a huge pile of pack ice at the floe edge, the next, an Arctic wind
moves it out to sea.
At the improvised campsite, the tents are pitched
on thick ice, only a few feet away from the ocean, which allows
us to observe the local marine life. A group of travellers set up
in the same camping area greets us like old friends.
A rustle in the water has people running to the
floe edge. A flirtatious seal pops its head out of the water capturing
our attention, then slithers back under in a coy game of hide and
After dinner we recount the wildlife seen earlier
in the day. With the sun still burning high in the sky, nobody feels
tired, yet we go off for a “rest” in the tent. I pick
up a book and fall into a deep sleep that ends nine hours later,
only when I hear snowmobile engines.
The other group of travellers prepare to leave.
As the guides pack, someone spots a narwhal and departure plans
are shelved. Considered one of the smaller whales, the narwhal looks
similar to a swordfish, measuring 20 to 25 feet long, including
its ivory "tusk".
Although called a tusk, it's actually an elongated
tooth measuring up to ten feet, with the longest ones sported by
males. Hundreds of years ago they were called the mysterious unicorn
of the sea and their tusks commanded high prices.
The narwhal glides through the calm ocean barely
making a ripple. Not a word is uttered by the spectators. At that
moment, we experience all encompassing silence. Imagine whatever
you normally hear - furnaces, washers, televisions, sirens,
kids playing, dogs barking, garbage trucks, planes - is suddenly
switched off. Add thousands of miles of motionless frozen tundra
and the sensation is overwhelming. When asked to sum up their experience,
many say "spiritual" is the only way to describe it.
Next morning we watch a fascinating moment in nature
- rush hour for migrating birds leaving the cliff in the nearby
bird sanctuary. Every 30 seconds, a row of birds about 20 across
and flying a perfectly straight line, zip past us in a southerly
We debate how the birds organize their departure
from the cliffs. Each row leaves precisely at the right moment,
as if being directed by a sophisticated traffic system. We decide
not to over-analyze but instead, simply savour the moment.
We can' t keep track of minutes let alone days,
and I' m shocked to learn that a week has passed. As the plane
heads south from the airport, Pond Inlet buzzes with people enjoying
the brief summer. In a few weeks, the bay will melt, the boating
season will swing into full gear, and it will look completely different.
Admittedly, I used to think of my country as an
east to west nation. But over the past week in the Arctic, my thinking
has come full circle. I now see Canada with four distinct compass
points. I also realize there is so much natural beauty in the north
and that as a “southerner”, I' ve barely scratched the
From the plane' s window, I glance back for
one last snapshot of Pond Inlet. I spot a lone kayaker off in the
distance and I decide I' d like to return for a summer boating