Wednesday, June 12, 2013, Pond Inlet, Nunavut

Pond Inlet, Nunavut
Where We Are Tonight
Pond Inlet, Nunavut
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)

Narwhal and pack ice
Narwhal and pack ice
(Click on images to enlarge)
This was our last morning out on the ice, so not a minute was to be wasted, but, having gotten up in the middle of the night for the bear, I slept until after 6. Even so, I had to wait a while until Sarah came along before going out to the floe edge (their request that we not go out there alone seems perfectly reasonable after last night’s Polar Bear visitation).

We were greeted by the sight of still water with Narwhals swimming in both directions. We noticed that the line of pack ice that had been on the horizon last evening had moved in closer overnight but was still distant. We didn’t know it then, but we had just two hours to see Narwhals before the pack ice came crashing into our beloved floe edge.

Sarah and I were gradually joined by the others as the camp awoke. To avoid making Philip and Katie carry yet another meal out to us on the edge, Mark suggested that we go get plates and bring our breakfast out, but the Narwhal viewing was so good that a lot of scrambled eggs and bacon just sat there getting cold.

Elaine was able to make a video of a mature male Narwhal swimming along in front of our edge. If you watch carefully at the end, you will see him raise his tusk out of the water just before his final dive reveals his fluke.
By the time she made that video, we were all aware that the pack ice was moving in and that it seemed to be accelerating. I had zoomed in on it around 8 and could see that the chunks in the pack were massive. By 9, it was clear from the ice blink that the pack was really extensive.
Pack ice
Massive pack ice
Ice blink
The ice blink above it
Wounded Narwhal
Narwhal with bullet wound
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
The Narwhal parade kept coming. We had females and young and tusked males and were particularly pleased to notice a young male with just the beginnings of a tusk.

It was heartbreaking to see that so many of the Narwhals had visible bullet wounds, often raw red marks on their beautiful mottled grey skin. Each village has a quota on how many Narwhals can be “harvested”, but those that get away, though dying or wounded, are not counted against the quota. It was painful for me to watch one who seemed to be moving rather slowly; it had a big wound visible on the back of its neck very near the spinal cord. Elaine got this photo of a wounded Narwhal yesterday.

As the pack ice moved closer, the Narwhals were forced closer to our floe edge, which made a feast for us all. Narwhal tail
Narwhal and pack ice
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
The crash came just before 10. I made a video of the last few moments, but didn’t get the actual crash because (not unreasonably) Tom moved us all back fifty feet from the edge just before the impact.
In fact, the crash was pretty much a non-event in that it made no noise and we didn’t feel any impact, but the edge of the floe did crumple and we were suddenly faced with a massive wall of ice that went on further than we could see, in place of the open sea we have been enjoying since we arrived.
Crumpled floe edge Wall of ice
And perhaps it was my imagination, but I swear I did see some up-and-down movement along the crack through camp we’ve all been so blissfully ignoring.

Since it was almost time for us to pack up and leave, I commented that it was probably not a bad thing that the pack ice had come in. It meant we weren’t going to have to tear ourselves away from the Narwhals, as they weren’t likely to be visible in all that jumble of ice. But Mark pointed out wistfully that if we had been able to find any of them in there, it would have made for very interesting photographs.

And then something really amazing happened.

Crack in our ice floe
Crack in the ice through camp
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
As we were all still standing there in awe looking at how much our world had just changed, somebody spotted a Polar Bear out on the pack ice a kilometer or so to our left. It seemed to be heading to our floe, but then (somewhat worryingly) we lost track of it when another bear was spotted a kilometer or so to our right. We tracked that one as it clambered through the pack ice and onto the floe, passing between our camp and the CBC camp. With our binoculars, we could see that the folks at the other camp were aware of it. As it drew closer to them, they fired warning shots, which caused it to head away toward the mountains.

I found myself astonished that I had actually myself photographed a Polar Bear! Ryan, of course, had gotten a photo of it looking cute and fluffy rolling over to take a snow bath.

My best Polar Bear photo
Polar Bear taking snow bath
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
And, better yet, Elaine had managed to get a (really must-watch) video of it as it traveled through the pack ice and explored our ice floe.
At the same time that I was taking my last photo of the Polar Bear as it strolled toward the mountains, Jenny was taking one of our Polar Bear guard dog (who is undoubtedly worn out from nursing those three puppies).
Polar Bear leaving Guard dog asleep
(Photo courtesy of Jenny Varley)
By then it was time for us all to scurry to our tents and finish packing to be ready for our 11am departure time. How could anyone have scripted a more spectacular finale to our time on the ice?

After we’d gotten the qamutiqs loaded, we got together for a group photo:

Qamutiq train
(Photo courtesy of Tom Lennartz)
And then we set out on our 90-kilometer journey back along the ice to Pond Inlet. Qamutiq train
If you would like to share some of the qamutiq experience with us, try these three videos that Elaine made (she doesn’t apologize for the unsteady image — that is definitely part of the experience):
What it’s like to ride a qamutiq:
Going over a lead in the ice:
Freeing a snowmobile stuck in the slush:
The day was brighter than when we’d made the journey before, so the scenery was even more stunning. There was more meltwater atop the ice, which made for dramatic reflections. We couldn’t stop taking photos. I will indulge myself by showing you four of mine:
Pond Inlet Pond Inlet
Pond Inlet Pond Inlet
Those reflections were so perfect that sometimes when I looked out into them from the whizzing qamutiq, my brain told me that we were in danger of tumbling down into the sky below us.

I rode with Emma again and shared her dismay when she spotted a male King Eider floating in a pool atop the ice along the way and couldn’t ask anyone to stop to let us look at it closely (it was the first one we’d seen not flying). At that moment, we were zigzagging back and forth across the inlet to get through a series of cracks in the ice, so I had difficulty even keeping my eyes on the eider, let alone trying to view it with binocular or camera. I was also disappointed that we didn’t stop at the rumored Gyrfalcon’s nest, which seems to have been overlooked in all the effort of moving us back to Pond Inlet. (But that’s my only disappointment of the entire week.)

Luncheon on the ice
Lunch stop
Kate, Sarah, Graham, Margaret, and Mark
(Photo courtesy of Jenny Varley)
We stopped once along the way for a light meal. Philip put out a lovely spread, oysters, many excellent cheeses and accompaniments, “And,” he said with a small shudder, “M&Ms.”
When we stopped to inspect a good-sized iceberg embedded in the sea ice (and to let the overburdened snowmobiles cool off), Philip fetched ice from the iceberg for us to melt and drink, “ten thousand year old water”. Tom demonstrated the echoes from the inlet wall; everybody photographed the very photogenic iceberg; and I had a chance to chat with Sam, who has recently returned to Pond Inlet after a decade in Iqaluit where he’d gone because there are so few jobs in Pond Inlet. He loves the job with Arctic Kingdom, but it’s seasonal, of course. However, he is confident of his ability to live off the land. He expressed regret that many of the children now speak only English. So much is lost when a language goes. Iceberg embedded in ice floe
Mary in front of the iceberg
(Photo courtesy of Jenny Varley)
Purple Saxifrage in bloom
Purple Saxifrage
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)
The iceberg was close to the rocky wall of the inlet, the first time we’ve been near enough to touch it. Some of the folks went for a short climb. Elaine was able to photograph Nunavut’s official flower, the Purple Saxifrage.
We had to stop twice along the way because snowmobiles and qamutiqs had run into deep slush atop the ice and bogged down. Getting them free was a big job, though one the drivers clearly understood well. The water was sometimes over their boot tops, so I fear most of them ended up very wet and cold for the rest of the trip. Elaine found herself being carried piggy-back from one of the foundered qamutiqs to a drier place to stand while her qamutiq was being freed. Piggy-back ride
Elaine being rescued by Angus
(Photo courtesy of Ryan)
We are so used to being alone that it was almost shocking when we encountered another group of snowmobiles and qamutiqs coming out from Pond Inlet as we were going toward it. Emma muttered, “Tourists!”

We were back on land about 5:30, being greeted by the families of the guides. We carefully avoided stepping in the seal blubber as we piled our duffles onto a single qamutiq that a bunch of men hauled from the ice up to the road so that the bags could be loaded into a truck. And then we began the long trudge up to the hotel ourselves. Wearing so many layers of clothing, we found this to be no fun at all. (I quickly realized that I should have taken Tom up on his offer of a ride in the baggage truck.) I was deeply grateful that Emma and Jo stayed back with me and even carried some of my gear and the heavy clothing I was shedding. I would have been in trouble on my own (for one thing, given my entire lack of a sense of direction, I would likely not have found the hotel by myself). I was really done in by the time we got up to the hotel. I drank three glasses of water even before emailing Lee that we were back.

But then I took a glorious hot shower. It’s so nice to have clean hair again! (Of course, I could have been brave like Jo and showered every day while at the camp.) My face is very pink from windburn and my skin feels rather flayed, but at least it’s clean.

Running a bit late, I joined the others in the hotel dining room, where Rita had prepared a roast beef dinner for us. While we got our marching orders for tomorrow, I delighted in the fresh grapes.

In the lobby after dinner, some local artists were selling their work. Very tired, I glanced briefly at what they had laid out and decided I didn’t want anything. The search image I had in mind was a sculpture of a Narwhal or a Snowy Owl. It was only later that I realized — I really am exhausted — that the beautifully made snow goggles they were offering would have been a perfect memento, for one of the things I most admire about the Inuit is their wonderful technology. They achieved so much with such limited raw materials.

I went back to our room and dumped out all the bags and emptied out all the pockets so that I could reorganize my luggage to be ready to return the duffle of rented clothing at the airport in Ottawa tomorrow. (That really brought home to me that our wonderful adventure is almost over.) I had things back together and out of the way by the time Kate returned from a quick trip to Pond Inlet’s general store, the Co-op, where she’d bought a package of lovely fresh cherries. The mind boggles at what the supply chain for fresh cherries (and grapes) must be like here.

While Kate did her own reorganization, I settled down to savor the week’s worth of emails I’d gotten from Lee and to exchange several more notes with him. We’ve never been out of communication for so long before; I can’t wait to talk to him. While I’ve been frolicking in the North, he has been hauling gravel to improve the paths at our local wildlife refuge. He checked me in for my flights tomorrow and convinced me that the weather at Newark is going to be so bad that it wouldn’t make sense to try to change my Ottawa to Newark flight to tomorrow. He also confirmed that the plane we’ll be taking out tomorrow is already in Pond Inlet and that the weather looks good, so the flight should leave on schedule. (Getting out of Pond Inlet can sometimes be unpredictable because of its extreme weather.)

Lee working at our local wildlife refuge
Lee working at Rogers Refuge

Feeling very daring for wearing nothing under my nightgown (not even a single layer of long underwear), I crashed at 9:30.

It was only later that I learned that while I was falling asleep, Elaine was photographing a Sandhill Crane flying over Pond Inlet! Sigh. Sam tells us that they are called “Tatiggarjua” in Inuktitut, which translates to “Big Bird”. He says that they are very shy and are seldom seen but from afar. The north part of Baffin Island is at the very northern edge of their breeding range.

Sandhill Crane
Sandhill Crane over Pond Inlet
(Photo courtesy of Ryan and Elaine)