Less than six months after leaving Summit Station Greenland, thinking I might never return to the Arctic, I found myself headed North once again. Never say never!
A few weeks prior I had received a call asking if I would be available to fill in as the trip leader on a 12-day alumni trip with my alma mater: a cruise to Baffin Island and West Greenland. I would be expected to give several lectures on my experience in the Arctic and be the point person for our group. Due to the size of the ship this would be a combined trip with alumni from three other colleges as well. I jumped at the opportunity.
After meeting as a group in the Canadian capital city, Ottawa, we continued via small plane to Iqaluit, Canada. Iqaluit sits near the head of Frobisher Bay and is the capital of the Nunavut Territory. At 63°44′55″ North and 68°31′11″ West it is south of the Arctic Circle, but the soil is so bare there are almost no trees. The landscape surrounding the town is comprised of glacially scoured hills dotted with lakes and ponds. That first day we got a tour of the town and had some time to explore on foot. The population of Iqaluit is roughly 8,000 and it’s economy is based on fishing, tourism, and the airport. Art is valued in communities all around the Arctic, and Iqaluit is no exception. Statues and sculptures can be found scattered around town and large colorful murals cover otherwise bare walls.
There are three official languages of Nunavut: English, French, and Inuktitut. While the spoken language is somewhat related to other Arctic Inuit languages the written Inuktitut language is based on the Cree syllabary in contrast to Greenlandic and the Alaska Inuit languages which are based on Latin.
Later that afternoon we were brought via bus to a beach where we were met by a handful of zodiac skiffs and crew. We boarded in groups and off we went!
The ship was the Akademik Sergey Vavilov – a retired Russian research vessel now used primarily as a cruise ship in the Arctic and Antarctic with oceanographic researchers on board during their transits between the two poles. Our luggage was already onboard and we were met with a welcome and safety briefing before settling into our cabins.
The next few days were spent sailing along the South Eastern shore of Baffin Island. Sea ice, high seas, and heavy winds prevented the first planned shore excursions, but we sighted several Bowhead whales, many sea birds, and some dramatic views of the rugged shoreline through the clouds.
Our first stop was a small village called Pangnirtung, Nunavut located just north of Frobisher Bay. Here we were given time to explore on foot and treated to several demonstrations at the local community center of traditional throat singing, some of the Arctic Winter Game events, and the lighting of a qulliq lamp by one of the elders. In town we toured craft shops displaying beautiful carved statues and jewelry as well as a collective weaving workspace and a renowned printmaking shop.
At the head of the bay is Auyuittuq National Park, a dramatic glacially carved landscape with tall peaks, sheer walls, and winding fjords.
Our final shore excursion on Baffin Island was at Cape Mercy. Once a Cold War Distant Early Warning (DEW) line site, the now automated radar station still stands forlorn atop the hill. It was a grey day with a biting wind blowing, yet beautiful and raw. We spent several hours hiking around the beach and hills. One of the most exciting sights was the discovery of polar bear remains. The presence of the claws and skull indicated a natural death (these are the trophy items poachers rarely leave behind) and the dead grass around the bones suggested the skin had rotted away in place. The bones had been scattered likely by scavengers such as fox and eagle. On the zodiac ride back to the ship we cruised around impressive ice formations admiring their surreal shapes and brilliant light.
It was a quick visit and soon we returned to the ship and headed back into the Davis Strait. The hope was to sail North to find more solid sea ice, where we might also find polar bears, before turning East towards Greenland. During this time at sea, and throughout the trip, each of us leaders presented lectures on a variety of subjects: Current events and political issues, Marine mammal adaptation to warming ocean temperatures, Arctic Climate Change in general, the History of Arctic Exploration, Ice and Marine Ecosystems, Arctic Science Support and Winters on the Greenland ice sheet.
It was during this segment that we crossed the official Arctic Circle: 66°33’ North. Unlike the arbitrary lines of longitude, the Arctic Circle, like the equator, marks a physical aspect of our planet. Above this line the sun never sets on the winter solstice. Many of the guests on board had never crossed into the Arctic and were very excited. A small celebration was held with toasts and photographs.
After a day and night spent chugging through thick fog and rolling seas we finally reached the sea ice edge. All eyes were glued to the horizon as we scanned the sea ice and fog for polar bears…there were a couple of false alarms, until we indeed spotted one! It turned out to be a mother, with two cubs. She moved slowly, navigating through the rough and broken sea ice, her cubs in tow. We edged as close as we dared, given the ice and waves, and there they were: unmistakable through binoculars and zoom lenses! Our polar bear sighting achieved we departed Canada and sailed East for Greenland.