I am in Ottawa tonight and can hardly believe I’m here, because it means
that I’m on my way tomorrow to the north edge of Baffin Island!
You’ll see the place at the intersection of the red crosshairs on this
It was less than a week ago that I found out that this was going to happen to me, so it’s still a bit unreal.
Where I’m Going Tomorrow
North Edge of Baffin Island
Five years ago, Lee and I had a wonderful cruise in the High Arctic on an old
Soviet icebreaker, the Kapitan Khlebnikov, which took us up to almost
81.5 degrees north. The whole trip was a delight, but there was one big
disappointment: we didn’t see Narwhals.
In nearly every village our ship stopped at, we were told there’d been
Narwhals through hours earlier, but we saw nary a trace of them.
So, a couple of years ago, when I first heard of a company that was offering trips to camp on the edge of the sea ice in the spring to see Narwhals as they waited to enter their summer hunting grounds, I suggested to Lee that we do it. Because a long sledge trip over bumpy ice would be required, however, he (given his bad back) wasn’t enthusiastic.
The Kapitan Khlebnikov
(Click on images to enlarge)
|A few months ago, I happened to learn that Mark Carwardine, the noted naturalist and wildlife photographer, was to be leading one of these trips. We’ve used Mark’s whale fieldguide for years all around the world, so assumed that a trip with him would be a good one for finding whales. But, more importantly, we knew him to be a passionate birder. It makes me purely miserable to go into the wilderness in a group where one isn’t allowed the time to stop to look at the birds. I felt sure that that wouldn’t happen when traveling with Mark.|
Mark Carwardine and Douglas Adams
Last Chance to See
We first became aware of Mark in 1990 when Douglas Adams (the author of The
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) spoke at the National Theatre
in London about Last Chance to See, a new book that he and Mark had
written together. They’d been traveling around the world visiting
near-extinct animals and making a
programs about them for BBC Radio. The book told of their
trials and adventures along the way. Though I am a huge h2g2 fan,
Last Chance to See quickly became my favorite of Adams’s books.
In 2009, BBC aired a television series, also called Last Chance to See, that followed Mark and Adams’s friend Stephen Fry as they revisited the places and creatures Mark and Douglas saw twenty years before. It, too, is a real delight. (The series is available on DVD, and Mark wrote an accompanying book.)
The original Last Chance to See included Adams’s charming
description of Mark as a birder (in the Warden’s garden on New
Zealand’s Little Barrier Island during their quest to see a Kakapo):
It’s clear that such a man can be trusted to stop to look at the birds no matter how many whales there are.
Lee acknowledged that with Mark leading it this would be a dream trip but, not unreasonably, still didn’t want to go. He encouraged me to go by myself, but that seemed altogether too selfish, so I didn’t sign up. Some weeks later, however, I had a bit of a health scare. It proved to be nothing in the end but brought home to me again that one really must seize the day. I decided to sign up for the trip but, by then, alas, there were no places left. So, I put it out of my mind.
Then last Thursday morning, I received a real bombshell of a note from Mark’s assistant Rachel:
Wow! We’d returned from our 40th wedding anniversary trip to the UK only
two days earlier and Lee’s 50th Reunion at Princeton was beginning that
afternoon. Lee’s Princeton roommate Stan was about to arrive to stay with
us through Reunions. I had to tell Rachel that I was very interested but that I
couldn’t do anything about it until I’d finished cleaning the
The real challenge seemed to be acquiring the appropriate gear quickly enough, especially this time of year, but Rachel sent my measurements to Arctic Kingdom, the company running the tour, and found that even on such short notice they could rent me the heavy-duty parka, pants, and boots I’d need for living on the ice. They couldn’t provide the recommended gloves and hats (multiple layers of each), but I thought I could probably find something that would do. So, we said yes.
Lee managed in between attending Reunions events and being a P-rade Marshal to
do the international funds transfer, make the airline reservations, and arrange
trip insurance. (It is important that I have trip insurance with evacuation
coverage in case the ice floe breaks up while we are out on it and we have to
be rescued.) Rachel stayed at her desk almost around the clock to work with us
and reserve the necessary internal flights and hotel rooms and to process the
mountain of required forms as I managed to get them filled out and faxed to her.
By the end of the day on Friday, the three of us had everything done and I was
officially signed up.
Reunions was great fun despite the background of preparations for my trip and we enjoyed having a chance to visit with Stan, whom we hadn’t seen in ages.
Lee as P-rade Marshal
Melinda as Class of 1963 Spouse
It seemed auspicious, when Lee and Stan and I were walking through the Woodrow
Wilson School plaza after the P-rade, to discover that somebody had decorated
the Ai Wei-wei Chinese Zodiac bronzes there, and that the horse had been
transformed into a unicorn.
The source for all the images of a unicorn horn one sees from the Middle Ages to the present is the beautiful tusk of a male Narwhal.
|Once I was signed up for the trip, Rachel sent email to the other people in our group introducing me, and I was touched to receive notes from several of them welcoming me warmly. I am particularly looking forward to meeting Kate, the wife in the couple who had dropped out. In the end, they decided that she should come, which will get her back in time to be there when her husband Mike has his surgery and allow him at least to share the experience through her. Kate and I will be roommates, and they have both been very gracious in making me feel welcome in Mike’s place. (Kate is the only other American in the group. Born near Houston, she is now a University Lecturer at Oxford.)|
Meanwhile I was receiving encouraging notes from our virtual daughter Tiffany,
a molecular biologist who worked on Devon Island with the
Mars Society one
summer while she was in graduate school. Tiffany has all the Arctic gear I
need (and some that I don’t), but there was no way she could get it
from California to Princeton in time for me to use.
(I’m particularly fond of this photo of a space-suited Tiffany visiting
one of the inuksuit on Devon honoring lost astronauts. For more on this,
Tiffany didn’t get a good look at Narwhals while she was in the Arctic that summer, though she did find a cache of Narwhal tusks under a bed in a hotel in Resolute. She and I are both sorry that she can’t come with me on this trip. I am sure she would love the snorkeling in Baffin Bay.
After Stan left on Sunday morning, I started ransacking closets and drawers as
I worked through the extensive checklist of recommended gear. I found much but
still needed serious gloves and a few other things. On Monday, one of the folks
at our local outfitters took me down to their basement storage room to go
through the winter stuff and I found most of what I still needed. The last
item Lee and I ticked off was the biodegradable toothpaste, which took some
dedicated shopping to find.
All my gear was ready by yesterday afternoon, and I flew to Ottawa today, arriving still a bit out of breath. It was a relief to find the duffle of rented clothing waiting for me when I checked into the hotel. All is well.