Thursday, June 13, 2013, Ottawa

Snow Bunting
Snow Bunting
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
I was wakened at 5:30 this morning in Pond Inlet by the songs of Snow Buntings, the last I am likely to hear for a long while.

As we were walking to the nearby airstrip after breakfast, Mark asked me whether I’d do another week at the camp if I could. My response was that now that I have clean hair, I’d love to do it, though it’s hard to imagine how another week could produce a day that would match yesterday morning. Certainly, I could happily sit watching Narwhals pass by for many, many more days.

While we were waiting in the airport, Jo and Elaine pointed out a small hand-written sign on the wall saying, “Are these yours?” Beneath it hung a mitten and the cover for the eyepieces of a Swarovski binocular. They knew I’d noticed my binocular cover was missing while we were on the journey to camp a week ago. I rushed to claim the cover (who knows whether it’s mine, but it fits), and the man told me it had come up from Clyde River. He tried to persuade me to take the mitten, too, but that clearly didn’t fit. How kind of them to have gone to so much trouble to save me the hassle of having to negotiate Swarovski’s over-designed website to order a replacement.

More thoughtfulness became apparent after our plane took off for Clyde River. Mark told us that the pilot had asked him whether there were any keen photographers aboard. When told that there were, he had said that he’d give us “a little whiz around”. What a treat! He flew the plane low along the path we’d taken yesterday, reversing our trip from a few thousand feet up. He flew along above the center of the inlet, which gave us splendid views out both sides. The photo opportunities were glorious.

We spotted the iceberg we stopped at yesterday, looking utterly insignificant.

View of iceberg from the air
“Our” iceberg embedded in the ice floe
(Photo courtesy of Jenny Varley)
(Click on photos to enlarge)
Looking at the leads across the ice below us, I finally understood the maneuvers the drivers used to cross them. I could see that there were good-sized leads that went clear across the inlet (several miles), but looking down I could see that they weren’t actually continuous as I had thought from seeing them on the ground. Instead, one segment would stop and another would begin following the same trend but displaced by a few feet. Thus, all our swirling trips back and forth across the inlet were not just to find a narrow place to cross the lead, as I had thought at the time, but rather to find a route that took us through the offsets between the segments of the leads. Luckily, Jenny got a photo of this that explains it better than my words.
Discontinuous leads in the ice floe
Lead in the ice floe
(Photo courtesy of Jenny Varley)
Discontinuous leads in the ice floe
Discontinuities zoomed
(Photo courtesy of Jenny Varley)
Qamutiqs passing between leads
Zigzagging across the ice yesterday
(Photo courtesy of Emma Southall)
When the plane reached our camp, I fear the pilot had to make an attitude adjustment to compensate for most of the passengers having moved to one side of the plane. I couldn’t see out a window, but I saw photos afterwards. The pack ice that came in yesterday morning (white in this photo) was still in place and went on for miles beyond the (blue) ice floe where we were camping. Our camp from the air
Pack ice beyond the floe edge
(Photo courtesy of Jenny Varley)
Amazingly, Sarah managed to zoom in on the camp. Our camp from the air
The camp from the air
(Photo courtesy of Sarah Garrett)
When the plane finally turned south, it stayed relatively low, which let us appreciate the immensity of the glacier-covered mountains and frozen inlets. I amused myself along the way trying to pick out glacial features. We had another short stop at Clyde River, after which the clouds came in and there were no more views. We landed at Iqaluit in light snow.

The Iqaluit airport had a Coke machine that didn’t tell me it was out of Diet Coke until I’d put my money in. (Jo had changed a $5 bill for me on the plane so I could use the coins to get a Diet Coke at the earliest possible moment.)

Elaine and Ryan and Mark were staying in Iqaluit for a few days, so we hugged them goodbye before dashing into the center of town to shop for Inuit art. As she shepherded us into the gallery, our minder from Arctic Kingdom told us that we must be out in fifteen minutes and that she was going to the office to get taxi chits for us to use in getting back to the airport. I had no trouble at all in finding a serpentine owl I liked very much (and that didn’t use Narwhal or Walrus tusk — there were many beautiful pieces that did). As the owl’s spread wings were obviously fragile, the shop attendant packed it in hot foam for me. The box was still warm to the touch as I stuffed it into my backpack before running out to the taxi. We all made it back to the airport before the security gate opened.

Inuit owl carving
While waiting to board the plane to Ottawa, we discussed books about the High Arctic. Mary recommended The Land of the Long Day by Douglas Wilkinson (1956), available online here. She said that she thought there was an associated film, which I later found online. Jenny wrote out a slip of paper suggesting that I read The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic by Melanie McGrath. It tells the story of the half-Inuit son of Robert Flaherty (the maker of the 1922 documentary Nanook of the North) and of the treatment of the Inuit people who were transferred “voluntarily” to the far north by the Canadian government in the 1950s, a Cold War tactic to reinforce Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic Archipelago.

I spent the flight to Ottawa reading Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places by Bill Streever, which I really recommend. As the plane came down out of the clouds, we were all marveling at the sight of green forests, pretty farms, and then the city of Ottawa. As we neared Ottawa I began having a massive allergy attack. My body must have been shocked to encounter grass and tree pollens again after so long in the barren Arctic. I was coughing my head off by the time we landed.

I did get a Diet Coke finally before joining the others at the luggage carousel. In my exhausted state, I found it a great relief to have somebody else doing the organizing. After we’d all collected our bags, we paraded our trolleys over to the place where we’d been told to turn in the duffles of “rented kit”. Once that was done, we all hugged Kate goodbye, as she is flying straight home tonight to be with Mike. Then Graham organized three taxis to take the rest of us into the city to the same hotel we were at before. As I was still sneezing and coughing like crazy, I just wanted to crash. I hugged everybody goodbye in the hotel lobby and disappeared to my suite.

As soon as I was there, I phoned Lee and we talked for 34 minutes. It was so good to hear his voice! He told me about the pair of Downy Woodpeckers bringing their three fledglings to our peanut feeder. I jabbered my head off about my adventures. He and our beloved refuge had survived a week of very heavy rain without much damage.

Later he sent me email that he’d checked me in for my flight to Newark tomorrow. He will meet me there.

I dined on granola bars and went to bed well before dark, happy in the knowledge that I will be able to throw away the biodegradable toothpaste as soon as I’ve brushed my teeth in the morning.

Tomorrow I will be home with Lee in verdant New Jersey.

Our garden

Lee in our garden
Lee in our garden (with Serene Lady)


The group has kept in touch since we all returned home still excited about our wonderful trip.

I have particularly enjoyed seeing everybody’s photos. You can find more of them on these web pages:

Perhaps the most stunning photo I’ve been sent is this one from Tom Lennartz. He took it on an Arctic Kingdom trip to Hudson’s Bay last fall. It shows an Arctic Fox “playing” with a young Snowy Owl. Tom said they watched the two of them doing this over a period of five days.

Arctic Fox and Snowy Owl
Arctic Fox and Snowy Owl
(Photo courtesy of Tom Lennartz)
The group has naturally been following the news from the north, so we were all agog when less than two weeks after we left the ice, another group of Arctic Kingdom’s guests had the experience of having their ice floe break off and go adrift. They were at Arctic Kingdom’s other spring camp site, in Arctic Bay (somewhat to the west of where we had been). The camp remained intact, so they had food and such, but it was still a serious situation. A dozen Inuit hunters were stranded at the same time, but they ended up on a separate piece of ice. All made it to safety within a couple of days.

Then on June 30, we received an email from Sandra Omik, Sam’s wife (quoted with her permission):

This is Sam’s wife, Sandra — he asked me to send some pictures — on June 29 after his last outfitting tour, Sam went back to the floe edge with his younger brother on his own time — Sam woke up with the ice completely broken off right on the edge of his tent — the floe began drifting away — thankfully he had a satellite phone to which he called me and in turn, I called local search and rescue. 23 Inuit, including young children, were stranded with all their snowmobiles, qamuti, equipment and gear. Thankfully, there was a Coast Guard ship nearby and their helicopter picked up all of the stranded hunters back to town. Strong winds had cut the floe off.

Earlier break up of ice is occurring more often, making it unpredictable and oftentimes confusing for hunters. Sam and I used to go to the floe edge as late as July 7.

Thank you for all the wonderful pictures you have shared — Sam really appreciated them. Sandra Omik

Sam adrift From the drifting floe
From the drifting floe Rescue helicopter
In a later note, she added:
I used to go to the floe edge every year with Sam but when the ice started breaking up earlier sometime in between 2000 and 2005, I could no longer go as it was unsafe to travel on the floe edge with children — I often miss the floe edge but feel much safer in town.

In both cases, the Inuit hunters lost all their gear. Clearly, the Polar Bears are not the only ones suffering as the result of the loss of sea ice.

Love to you all,