Friday, June 7, 2013, On the Ice at 72° 39’ N, 75° 51’ W

We began the day in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, at the tip of the orange arrow below, but we ended the day at our camp out on the ice floe, at the tip of the red arrow. Obviously, this NASA photo was taken in summer after the sea ice had melted, but the entire channel between Pond Inlet and our camp is frozen now. Our camp is right at the edge of the ice looking out onto open water.

Camp On the Ice
Where We Are Tonight
Camped on the Ice, Baffin Bay

Kate and I woke very early in our shared room in Pond Inlet this morning, which gave us time for a walk down to the edge of the frozen sound, where we met John, our Aberdonian, who’d been out photographing even earlier than we. Together we rejoiced in the beautiful view across the ice to Bylot Island. Walking back, we paused for Ravens and Snow Buntings. Children waved and called to us.

By the time we got back to the hotel, I felt confident that my too-large boots are going to work out if I wear enough socks (as long as I don’t get charged by another Muskox — there’s no point in trying to outrun a Polar Bear).

Back in our room, Kate cleverly used some duct tape to mark our initials on our boots, which are identical to everybody else’s and must be removed every time we enter a building. I managed to get in one last exchange of email with Lee, who is awaiting a tropical storm, hard as that is to imagine here, before Kate and I joined the others for a pleasant breakfast.

Bylot Island
Bylot Island from Pond Inlet
(Click on images to enlarge)
After breakfast, we all walked back to the village culture center for our orientation by a National Park ranger. We aren’t actually planning to go to the Sirmilik National Park, but it’s a possibility (there is an important archaeological site there that I would love to see), so we need permits. That meant filling out a rather tedious form, because it is a somewhat dangerous place.

Most of the orientation was devoted to viewing a video about Polar Bears and how to deal with them (and how to avoid attracting them). I now know how to tell whether a bear is interested in eating me or is afraid of me or is just curious. The advice to “fight for your life” in the first of those cases is undoubtedly sound but probably useless. We were shown various non-lethal (for both parties) ways of persuading bears to lose interest, most of which involved looking as big as possible and making as much noise as possible.

Narwhal Skull
We were then invited to walk a short way to visit the park headquarters, which has a nice little museum with archaeological artifacts and mounted animal specimens. Perhaps most impressive was the skull and tusk of a large male Narwhal. We got to touch the baleen from a Bowhead Whale and see Willow Ptarmigans and Arctic Foxes in both their summer and winter attire and a huge Arctic Hare in its year-round white.
Bowhead Baleen
Bowhead Baleen
Willow Ptarmigans
Willow Ptarmigans
Arctic Fox and Arctic Hare
Arctic Fox and Arctic Hare
Arctic Hare
Arctic Fox
(The last time Lee and I were in the High Arctic, we got to see an Arctic Fox, almost invisible in its summer colors, hunting along the base of a bird cliff. The Arctic Hares we found on Ellesmere Island were totally visible and totally fearless, solid rectilinear creatures who didn’t bother to move away as we walked by.)

By noon, we were all out on the ice below the town and getting ourselves and our duffles loaded onto the sledges that were to take us to the floe edge. The sledges, which are made of wood, are called qamutiqs. The design is traditional, but today the runners are covered with a strip of slick, hard plastic, and the qamutiqs are drawn by snowmobiles more often than by dogs. Tom told us that though qamutiqs have no suspension, the chairs they’d bolted onto theirs do. (After the first mile, I doubt any of us were convinced of that.)

Qamutiqs Loading the Qamutiqs
The qamutiq trip along the frozen inlet to our camp (about 50 miles) was a wonder. All along, we had beautiful mountains on both sides, blue with streaks of white where the snow had escaped the wind in crevices. We started around 12 and arrived around 5:30. Luckily, the wind was traveling in the same direction we were, so the weather seemed mild.

Sitting in the qamutiq before we took off, I remembered that my Irish great-grandmother Maggie Kihoe immigrated to the U.S. from Canada when she was a child by riding a sledge across one of the Great Lakes. This experience made me see that bit of family history more clearly than before.

The Frozen Inlet
Melinda and Emma in a qamutiq
Melinda and Emma en route
(Photo courtesy of Jenny Varley)
I was joined in the qamutiq by Emma, a feisty British biology teacher who has taught in several places around the world, both in Southeast Asia and in Brazil, but who has recently returned to Britain and has just found a job there for the fall. I found her to be a real delight.
Ringed Seal
Our first Ringed Seal
We had barely started out when we spotted our first seal (a Ringed Seal) out on the ice, and I was pleased to have a subject that would hold still while I fumbled with the zoom to get this very distant photo.

I soon came to the conclusion that Lee had made the right decision for his back; the ride was indeed rough, as we crossed pressure ridge after pressure ridge, but I loved the whole thing. Wikipedia says:

The key feature of the qamutiq is that it does not use nails or pins to hold the runners and cross pieces in place. Each piece is drilled and lashed, providing a flexibility of movement that can endure the pounding of travel on open sea ice, frozen land, ice floes and across the heavy ice of tidal zones.
That flexibility was very obvious as we moved rapidly along the bumpy ice. A more rigid sledge would quickly have been torn apart. At times when the qamutiq flexed, I found myself holding on tightly for fear of being thrown out, but we were fine.
We stopped for lunch when one of the snowmobiles broke down. Katie Mathieu, the assistant cook for the camp, was traveling with us. She is a delightful young woman with a winning smile who has traveled the world cooking and is greatly enjoying her first experience of living on the ice. She quickly laid out an inviting array of sandwiches, fruit, and hot drinks for us on one of the qamutiqs.

Parts for repairing the snowmobile were on hand in a capacious toolbox built into the back of one of the qamutiqs, and the Inuit drivers were obviously old hands at doing such repairs, so the delay wasn’t long.

We stopped again to inspect “the big crack”, a lead in the sea ice all the way across the inlet. The ice appeared to be about 6-8 feet thick, and we could see yellowish seaweeds growing in the water.

Inspecting the Crack The Big Crack
The drivers had no difficulty getting the snowmobiles and qamutiqs across the crack. We were told that when things get bad enough, they untie the qamutiqs, jump the snowmobiles over the cracks, and then throw a rope back across to reattach the qamutiqs and pull them over. That didn’t become necessary, and, indeed, we felt almost nothing when crossing such cracks.
The highlight of the trip for me was a low flyover of a flock of Long-tailed Jaegers (Long-tailed Skuas), a life bird for me. I was unprepared for how lovely they were, almost tern-like. (I think of jaegers as being fierce rather than graceful, like the Great Skuas that thumped Lee and me on the head when we were walking along the road on Fair Isle a few years ago.) Long-tailed Jaeger flying
Long-tailed Jaeger
(Photo courtesy of Jenny Varley)

The temperature dropped as the day passed but the clothing worked well. I can see that the trip back, going into the wind, could get to be something of a trial. Ninety kilometers was a long way, but it was a great experience.

(The only mishap of the whole day came while we were getting ourselves out to the qamutiqs on the ice below Pond Inlet. Kate and Jo and Sarah made the mistake of stepping in some seal blubber in the snow. It looks innocuous enough, just a cream-colored smear, but it’s apparently the stickiest stuff on the planet. The people around them told them they’d never get it off but suggested kerosene. By the time we got to camp, it was spreading from their boots to their pants and beyond. Later in the day, however, Kate came up with a technology that seems to be new to the Arctic, wipes designed for removing water-proof mascara, and that helped some.)

Stopped along the ice
When the previous group left camp, the decision was made to move the camp across the inlet, as the ice was failing where it was. So, in two days, the whole thing has been moved several kilometers, a rather massive undertaking using only snowmobiles and sledges for the transport. The crew who were putting the camp back together had done an amazing job but weren’t quite done by the time we arrived.

We were delighted when they told us that they’d seen a couple of pods of Narwhals going by while they worked.

The camp has seven tents of a style that is being referred to as “Arctic Yurt”; these are for the guests. Another half dozen more traditional yellow canvas tents house the staff. In addition, there is a bathroom yurt with chemical toilets and hand showers (which I can’t imagine using even though there is hot water) and a double yurt for the kitchen and dining area. All of them have been placed atop sheets of plywood to provide some insulation for the ice. I was surprised that there was so little meltwater atop the ice in the camp, but then Tom explained that they’d drilled half a dozen holes through the ice to drain it.

Our camp on the ice
Our camp on the ice
Mark Carwardine
Mark Carwardine
We just left our bags in the qamutiqs as Mark led us straight to the floe edge, which is only about 150 feet from the camp. Standing there, we look out onto open sea with just a thin line of white pack ice out near the horizon. Behind us is the still-frozen inlet lined on both sides by snow-frosted mountains. It is all incredibly beautiful.

And we are almost entirely alone. In the distance to our left is a small camp where there’s a photographer Mark knows. In the distance on our right is another camp with some photographers from the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Luckily, there seem to be no camps of Narwhal hunters anywhere in the vicinity.

At the floe edge we found some little blue folding chairs, one for each of us to use during our stay. We quickly formed a love-hate relationship with these, as they are not altogether stable on the bumpy ice and have a tendency to dump us onto our behinds. (I think I would have chosen three-legged rather than four-legged seats for this environment.) At any rate, most of the group had immediately whipped out their cameras and tripods, so there was little sitting being done. Melinda Varian
I soon had a second life bird for the day, King Eider. Long flocks of those were whipping by at eye level — real eye candy. In some cases, Common Eiders, handsome birds themselves, were mixed in with the King Eiders.
King Eiders in flight
King Eiders in flight
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
Common Eiders in flight
Common Eiders in flight
(Photo courtesy of John Chapman)

The most common bird in the water beyond the floe edge is the Thick-billed Murre (Brünnich’s Guillemot). They and the Kittiwakes have a nest cliff not far away from the camp and are busy hunting to feed their young. The murres often dive under the ice below our feet to get algae from the underside of the ice and then bob up just in front of the floe edge like bathtub toys. Thick-billed Murre
Thick-billed Murre, aka Brünnich’s Guillemot
I was impressed when Jenny spotted among all the murres a pair of Dovekies (Little Auks), another black-and-white alcid, but slightly smaller and with a very short beak. I’ve a weakness for alcids and was really delighted to see Little Auks, which I have seen only once before. (Great Auks, alas, are extinct.)
Dovekie (Little Auk)
Little Auks
(Photo courtesy of Jenny Varley)
Great Auks
Great Auks
John James Audubon
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
We soon had more flights of Long-tailed Jaegers, as well as of Long-tailed Ducks, who were looking almost as spiffy as they did when Lee and I saw them courting during the Cape May Bird Observatory’s “Longtails in Love” event in February. Longtails in Love Poster
At one point, Mark and a few of the others saw some very distant Narwhals but I didn’t get on them, alas.

We stayed out on the floe edge for so long (and were so reluctant to go in) that the camp chef Philip Heilborn and his assistant Katie brought dinner out to us, steaming hot fajita wraps, really delicious and very welcome.

Philip Heilborn
Philip Heilborn bringing us dinner, bless him!
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
As the evening progressed, the sun circled the sky and the light grew ever lovelier. I used the cold as an excuse to make a couple of trips to the dining tent to make myself hot chocolate, but the floe edge is really quite comfortable with the clothing we have on. Sky at 9pm
The sky at 9pm
Around 10pm we were called in for an orientation. When Tom introduced the staff, he described Katie as the only farmer in the Arctic. She has a small plastic greenhouse in front of a window in the dining tent (near the stove) where she is growing a variety of sprouts to make salads for us.
Yurt interior
Elaine’s Panorama of the interior of an “Arctic Yurt”
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
By the time we were done with the orientation, the camp was all put back together, so we could go into our yurts. This can hardly be counted as camping out! Each yurt has two real beds and a table with a power strip (the generator is on for a couple of hours a day to allow us to recharge camera batteries and such). For seating, we bring our little blue chairs in from the floe edge.

Having had so little sleep last night, I was ready to turn in. Emma helped me lug my duffles from the qamutiq and Kate filled my water bottle with boiling water, which (covered with socks) made a comforting way to keep toes warm. We followed Tom’s instructions to remove the felt liners from our boots to air them and to change into dry socks before going to bed. Though the tent has a small heater, Kate and I agreed that we didn’t want to leave it on overnight. I was pleased to discover that the sleep mask I’d brought to help me get to sleep in the 24-hour sunlight has the advantage of keeping my nose warm. (I find that I can sleep comfortably by wearing multiple layers of long underwear and multiple pairs of socks under my flannel nightgown, plus a woolen cap and light gloves.)

After I was asleep, the others saw a Peregrine Falcon. Those I can see in New Jersey, fortunately, so I wasn’t distressed to hear about it. If it had been a Gyrfalcon, on the other hand, I would have regretted my good night’s sleep.