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Postcards from Arctic Floe

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 south.

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 seek.

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 direction.

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 surface.

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 trip.


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