The Great White North – Baffin Island

Camp Sam Ford Fjord

The Journey

Baffin Island has been a dream of mine for many years and the sheer proximity of this Arctic destination and joining an expedition there was challenging. Small communities called Hamlets, spread over hundreds of miles only accessible by air or long journeys across ice, snow and rugged landscapes with snow mobiles. Exploring this part of the world would prove difficult.

The climate is cold, -20 degrees as I leave the comfort of the small airport at Clyde River. But the journey had just begun. Our Inuit guides set up the snow mobiles and the komatik, a small sled made of wood with a tiny box that barely fits 2 people, lined with mattresses to cushion the ride. This was to be our transport for the 6-hour long journey to Sam Ford Fjord. And probably one of the most uncomfortable modes of transport I had ever experienced.

As we set off excited about the destination, the road to Sam Ford Fjord was bumpy, cold and long. And when you are curled up in a wooden box with a stranger, being tossed around, you get to know that person well. Combined with the extreme conditions this was how I would spend the next 7 weeks travelling from south to north in Baffin Island, Canada.


Base Jumpers

The Base jumper camp on Baffin Island was over 100km from the Clyde River community. So, we were pretty much out in the middle of nowhere. The Base jumpers were eager to get up on the mountains and start jumping. The place was spectacular, like nothing many of us had seen before. A remote frozen fjord where Inuit people hunt for survival. Fishing the frozen fjords or hunting for food. They live off the land.

As a non-base jumper, I got to experience the excitement through their eyes. It was such a diverse group with so much in common. In their down time they regale tails of adventure and lost comrades, while looking for any distraction to help wile away the time when conditions are not quite right for jumping. It’s a waiting game as weather dictates every move. But when the time is right the jumpers are out in full force. Climbing mountains for half a day to get to a jump point that lasts less than 45 seconds. The sheer determination and passion for adventure that many of these guys and girls had was inspiring.

Helicopters assist with the base jumpers getting to their exit points. But even the Heli pilots are cautious and conscious of the unpredictable winds that gust through the valleys below. One Exit point on the mountain spire called Broad peak would be my introduction to being on top of the mountain where the group launch themselves off the sheer cliff faces.  It was exciting to watch, and I can only imagine the adrenaline running through the jumper’s bodies as they take that first step off from over 5000 feet above sea level.

Each jumper has their own process; spiritual, methodical but always personal. The comradery between the group is strong, with old friends reunited again or new faces being accepted into the jumping community. So many walks of life and many different nationalities all come together combining their collective knowledge and experience to conquer these untouched peaks.

They teach us how to make an igloo and the craft that has been handed down through many generations. The igloo becomes a personal project for one of the team leaders as they construct a space to get more people into the living areas and kitchen where most congregate for meals and general socialising.  This has become a routine after 10 days in camp.

The discussion often turns to safety, procedure, common sense. No one wants to see anyone get hurt and there is emphasis on the importance of a safe environment and supporting the group through learned experiences, but in the end each jumper knows they are responsible for themselves and their actions alone. This is something that each person acknowledges and accepts.

Sam Ford Fjord is an adventure playground, hiking mountains that have rarely been visited or ice climbing glaciers that wind through the valleys below, even a simple snowmobile trip is an adventure, as we travel across frozen sea ice, fresh snow and unexplored locations. Always aware that large predators roam these valleys in search of seal pups that are hidden in snow caves with easy access to the sea ice. Although vast and white, you get an overwhelming sense of endless space, but there are hidden dangers all around and a reminder that you cannot get complacent at any time.

One thing that is true, I am always cold! It amazes me how well the Inuit have adapted to the freezing cold conditions, some days I awake to a snow-covered tent as the moisture from my breath freezes during the night when the temperatures drop to -20, -30 or less. No matter how much gear you wear, there are extremities that feel the cold. Toes and fingers are constantly cold, and I am perpetually rewarming these parts of my body.

Stuck in Clyde River

One constant in Baffin Island is change, this is prevalent with flights, weather conditions often delay or even ground flights in this part of the world. So, I spent 3 days in a hotel waiting for the next available flight, and although much more comfortable than my tent in the snow and wind howling 40km/h sometimes sitting still can be just as bad. But it did give me the opportunity to walk around the small community and watch the locals going about their day to day lives in this harsh environment.

The landscape is shrouded by snow and ice and the only sign of wildlife is the large number of crows that scatter across the landscape looking for scraps of food. A team of Husky’s were chained up in the distance awaiting their next outing or for the season to change so they could work again. But a visit to these impetuous canines was good for morale and who doesn’t love these adorable dogs. As soon as they see you coming, the barking commences and the excitement of new people around them, unfortunately I really had nothing to offer in terms of food or relief from their location on the ice. But nonetheless it is great to see these beautiful creatures in their Arctic environment.

But despite my brief delay, I was getting ready to head out to Qikiqtarjuaq, to visit some of the most amazing national parks in this part of the world. I knew I would be back in Clyde River in a few weeks’ time to explore yet another part of the fjords, sea ice and coastal regions on the 300 km trek to Pond Inlet. This would be an epic part of the journey and I was certain there would be so many adventures ahead.

Getting to Qik

I managed to get a flight from Clyde River to Pang 4 days later than planned but it was good to be back on track and look forward to my next stop on the journey to the great white north. Qikiqtarjuaq is home to the Auyuittuq National Park and holds some of the most amazing landscapes in Baffin Island. The snow-covered fjords contain dramatic icebergs frozen in the sea ice over winter. Structures that tower above the vast white expanse to the open ocean or more precisely the floe edge. In April polar bears have left their dens and move out towards the sea ice to the rich hunting grounds. But getting to the ice edge is not that easy, even with snow mobiles we run into obstacles and ice barriers that prevent the machines from getting any further. But there is still so much to explore. The fjords lead to glaciers and the open ocean where steep clifftops are home to migrating birds in the summer.

The amazing thing about this part of the world is the overwhelming sense of space, the great white north stretches for a thousand kilometres and there is literally nothing in between the far stretching towns. Exploring the landscape means 12 hours on a snow mobile doing over 200km a day, but it is the only way to really grasp the magnitude of this place and see the dramatic landscapes. Mountains and fjords covered in sea ice stretching far into the open ocean appearing to have no end. I am pleasantly surprised each day as we see more and more of this beautiful place.

The thing about this part of the world is you spend a great deal of time waiting; waiting for flights, waiting for weather, waiting for nature, but the rewards are high once you get past these challenges. On one occasion we were searching the sea ice and looking for wildlife, we had travelled 190km that day and decided to stop near an iceberg to have a coffee break, unbeknownst to us on the other side of the iceberg was a Polar bear. We finished our coffee, got back on the snow mobile and headed out, almost immediately our guide spotted the bear tracks and then saw the bear heading towards the iceberg where we took our break.

We were so excited, we had travelled so far and been rewarded with this beautiful sighting. The bear continued to rest around the iceberg and climb to higher ground but always very aware of our presence but not threatened at all. The moment lasted for about 30 minutes, but it felt like so much longer. But after his long rest he continued into the see ice and off into the distance beyond the reach of our snow mobiles. We were happy to see this majestic wild animal in its habitat and sad to see him leave but touched by the very special moment up close and personal with a Polar bear.

The hardest thing to deal with in this part of the world and one of the most heart-breaking moments for me personally, was watching trophy hunters (non-indigenous) walk into the hotel and talk about how they just shot and killed the same polar bears we were watching the previous days. Even more sickening being told there was a piece of the Polar Bear on the kitchen bench if we wanted to eat a piece.

I know it is not popular to talk about hunting and the barbaric practice especially as it happens with so many endangered species in all parts of the world but hunting these majestic creatures with such a nonchalant attitude shows the disconnect. Trophy hunting vulnerable or endangered species to a point that future generations may never see these animals in the wild is very short sighted. Apologies about the rant.

The sheer enormity of this place is unfathomable, and every day the terrain, landscape, environment and even the ice was different. Some of the most amazing natural structures can be found in this area of national park. Bird cliffs towering above the fjords, glacier tongues that touch the sea ice and the mountains at both ends, but the overarching sense of never ending space is a constant.

Next stop, the floe edge

Each year the sea ice slowly breaks apart and reveals the open ocean, how and when this might happen is somewhat unpredictable. It means ice is breaking apart and the ocean is opening up, which in turn attracts the wildlife. We start our Journey back in Clyde river consolidating all the equipment we need for the camp and the planning required to journey 400km along the sea ice towards Pond Inlet.

Travelling on average 100 km a day we took 4 days to get from Clyde to Pond stopping in some of the most scenic places along the way. Campsites that demonstrate the vastness of this big beautiful landscape.  Along the way an increase in fresh polar bear footprints in the snow peaked our interest as we perused the horizon for hours on end as we drove the snow mobiles across the frozen sea ice.

For me I spent a lot of time in the back of the komatik which meant I felt most of the bumps in the ice along the way.  But still it was an amazing way to get from point A to point B which was the whole aim of this stretch of the journey. Getting to Pond Inlet to set up camp near the flow edge for a spectacular few weeks ahead that would see us dog sledging, snow mobile journeys in search of wildlife, Hot air Balloon rides over spectacular mountain ranges, icebergs and the inevitable return of spring as the ice breaks apart.

The first sign of open ocean for me was exciting. The culmination of 7 weeks in the Arctic was my driving desire to see the floe edge as it breaks apart and triggers one of the most amazing wildlife aggregations in this part of the world. Hints of polar bears had been teasing me for weeks and a brief yet extremely memorable encounter with a beautiful Polar bear in Qik, left me wanting more. But what I was really here for, was to see the elusive Narwhal, these amazing creatures, unicorns of the sea, mythical looking mammals that frequent the floe edge in large numbers. Fingers and toes were crossed.

Pond Inlet

Pond Inlet is a small town situated at the base of the inlet with a spectacular mountain range of Bylot island as the backdrop for this remote town in the north of Baffin Island. The journey in and out of town was not only breathtaking but was an indication of what life in these remote areas might be like. It was also thwart with obstacles and challenges, especially with the ice starting to separate, there were large leads, or cracks in the ice stretching across the inlet from end to end. Some we looked at with caution as the gap was not enough to cause too much of a problem for the snow mobile, but others could be quite dangerous and finding the right route to get across these cracks created issues of safety and the notion in the back of our heads that these sheets of ice could break apart and drift out to sea with you and your campsite still intact. Becoming a moving base of operations which, no one wanted.

Out at camp less than 4km from the floe edge, we spent our days searching for bears or sitting by the floe edge waiting for marine mammals to pass us by. It really is a waiting game, as the ice moves in and out of the fjord daily so you never know when it will open up and the animals may appear. As we moved along the floe edge we had glimpses of walrus in the distance and reports of Narwhals and even a Bowhead whale, but no sightings.

However, the bears were starting to appear, and we managed to see several Polar bears over the period we were out on the ice. All along the ice there are seals basking but never too far from their open holes in the ice, their escape if predators try to approach. We were lucky if we got within 50 meters of a seal before it would quickly slide back into the hole and disappear. The bears try and position themselves in snow drifts or low to the ground, so they can sneak up on an unsuspecting seal. But 9 times out of 10 they fail.

They have an incredible sense of smell, we followed one bear for many kilometres that had picked up the scent of a seal carcass left behind by the Inuit hunters. The bear was on a mission and had little concern for us on the snow mobile, eventually he found the carcass and quickly proceeded to devour the fresh kill. Sea gulls lined the outskirts like scavengers waiting for a morsel of the kill.

The landscape is phenomenal, and the expanse leaves you lost for words, this part of the world is truly unique. I wanted to see more and know more about where all the animals come and go to. It left me wanting to see this part of the world at different times of the year to understand the changing seasons and the life cycle of its inhabitants.

One of the highlights of this trip was getting to go up in a Hot air balloon with John Davidson, an extremely experienced Balloon pilot that had spent many years flying balloons around the world. It was 1:30am in the morning the endless sun was already up, and conditions were calm, no wind, visibility for 50 kilometres, perfect! The process of setting up the balloon and getting it in the air was hypnotic to watch, and we all had this down pat after a few practice runs.

The balloon laid out on the sea ice, slowly expanding as the fan filled air from the base. Once inflated enough, the propane burners fired up and pushed the warm air into the balloon as it expanded and dominated the white landscape. You couldn’t ask for a more picturesque scene. The next stage was getting the group into the basket, while maintaining a balance of the basket and ensuring the Balloon did not start to move away. 1, 2, 3, we jumped in one after another. We were off, the burners fired, and we rose higher and higher. The view was spectacular, the air was crisp but the was literally no wind, so it felt like we were suspended 2000 feet above the sea ice.

Looking down we could see seals, little black dots next to their escape holes, the flow edge looked so close and so vast from this height. But it was the silence that would be so memorable. No wind, no sound and a 360-degree view of Pond Inlet and Bylot Island. Such an amazing experience and one that you don’t often get in this part of the world. Flying high in a hot air balloon, simply breathtaking.

The next few days would see us exploring the floe edge for our endless search for narwhals, although the weather had other ideas. Two days before we had to leave, the wind picked up and shook our tents to their limits. We prayed to the god that it would ease so we could continue our search for Narwhals, but it wasn’t working. 60 knot gusts pommelled our tents. I was laying in my tent watch a movie on my iPad when the entire tent shook, and a gust of wind ripped it from the ground up into the stratosphere. I felt I was in the Wizard of Oz or even Twister, as my enclosed movie viewing tent became a permanent open-air cinema. I think this was the signal, it was time to leave the camp before things could eventuate further, plus I had nowhere to sleep anymore. We packed up our gear and headed for the community of Pond Inlet and the warm inviting comfort of the local hotel.

My long journey was soon coming to an end, I had travelled 2000km in a komatik, across rugged terrain, sea ice and endless white landscapes, stretching the length of Baffin Island. 7 weeks on the ice in -30-degree temperatures. This was probably one of the rawest expeditions I had undertaken, but also one of the most rewarding. This part of the world has not defeated me but only made my conviction stronger, I look forward to further exploration and adventure in the future.