Wednesday, June 5, 2013, Ottawa

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 map.

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.

North Edge of Baffin Island
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
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
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 series of 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):

And there, stepping out onto the lawn, was Mike, the warden’s wife, with a tray full of tea things, which I fell upon with loud exclamations of delight and hello.

Meanwhile, I had lost Mark altogether. He was standing only a few feet away, but he had gone into a glazed trance which I decided I would go and investigate after I had got to grips with some serious tea. He was probably looking at the birds of which there seemed to be quite a lot in the garden....

We chatted for a while more and then Gaynor [their producer] approached Mark to record a description of the garden onto tape, but he gestured her curtly away and returned to the trance he had been in for several minutes now.

This seemed rather odd behaviour from Mark, who was usually a man of mild and genial manners, and I asked him what was up. He muttered something briefly about birds and continued to ignore us.

I looked around again. There certainly were a lot of birds in the garden.

I have to make a confession here, and it’s going to sound a little odd coming from someone who has traveled twelve thousand miles and back to visit a parrot, but I am actually not tremendously excited by birds. There are all sorts of things about birds that I find interesting, I suppose, but the things themselves don’t really get to me. Hippopotamuses, yes. I’m happy to stare at a hippopotamus till the hippo itself gets bored and wanders away in bemusement. Gorillas, lemurs, dolphins, I will watch entranced for hours, hypnotised as much as anything else by their eyes. But show me a garden full of some of the most exotic birds in the world and I will be just as happy to stand around drinking tea and chatting to people. It gradually dawned on me that this was probably exactly what was happening.

“This,” said Mark at last in a low, hollow voice, “is ...”

I waited patiently.

“Amazing!” he said at last.

Eventually Gaynor prevailed on him to bring himself back from his trance, and he started to talk excitedly about the tuis, the New Zealand pigeons, the bellbirds, the North Island robins, the New Zealand kingfisher, the red-crowned parakeets, the paradise shelducks, and the great crowd of large kakas that was swooping around the garden and jostling one another at the birdbath.

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:

This is ridiculously short notice I realise, but I have just had a couple have to drop out of the Narwhal Safari trip due to health reasons. If you are still interested in coming, I can now offer you a place. You would have to fly out to Ottawa next Wednesday. It is probably all too much to organise, what with the packing list for a trip like this. Let me know if you are at all interested and I could send you info right now.

Princeton Class of 1963 50th Reunion 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 bathrooms.

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 and Melinda at the P-rade
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.

Ai Wei-wei Horse as a Unicorn
Catherine Walter
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.

Tiffany on Devon Island

Space-suited Tiffany on Devon Island
(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, see this link.)

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.

Visit to an Inukshuk
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.