World on the Edge – Part 1, Arctic Kingdom

I was sitting in Kampot, Cambodia one morning checking my emails. Just a slow moving, relaxing day ahead of me and I noticed a message from a previous chef of mine that would change my plans for the near future. An offer I couldn’t refuse. I was recruited to be sous chef of an expedition with Arctic Kingdom to Arctic Bay, the northwest tip of Baffin Island well above the Arctic Circle. All expenses paid, the money itself not quite reflecting the amount of hours put in, but money isn’t everything. Just a few fun coupons and an experience of a lifetime. Most of all though it was that traveling ‘sickness’ coursing through my veins that sent me hundreds of kilometers north. Confirmation came when I was back in Thailand a couple months later and that was that. I bought a flight home to Toronto. Indonesia and Australia were going to have to wait, the Arctic was calling. It was a call of the wild, a call of the unknown.

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Upon landing in Toronto the reverse culture shock was surprisingly overwhelming, but I really didn’t have time to focus on that. Within the hour of being picked up from the airport I was in a meeting with the chef and recruiter. Jet legged after a day and a half in traffic I was extremely sleep deprived and shaking uncontrollably. I needed both hands to lift the coffee to my mouth and still thought I might chip a tooth. I focused all my waning attention on taking in a vast amount of information on the extremities of working and cooking in an ice camp. I had a busy 10 days to prepare myself before departure on my next and one of the most extreme adventures tapped me on the shoulder. I was ready whether I liked it or not. 15 months in the tropics and straight to the Arctic. Let’s see how this goes.

Breaking through the cloud cover over Baffin Island
Breaking through the cloud cover over Baffin Island

May 22, 2015, 3:45am… I was off to work on the expedition ‘Great Migrations of the Northwest Passage’, and my cab to the airport was late. This was an uneasy feeling as I’ve missed flights before. Nevertheless by noon I was in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut. Breaking through the cloud cover what laid out before my eyes was mesmerizing. Shades of blue melding with the smooth white snow. Lakes and streams running through the frozen hills of Baffin Island. We landed at an airport that looked more like a yellow submarine and headed for the staff house for a quick lunch before a tour of town. On the outskirts of town an old Hudson Bay Company building still sits. Long since used, but the history a building like this has being around since early colonization is tremendous. The vistas overlooking Frobisher Bay and the town itself were vast. The landscape plays tricks with your eyes as distances are much harder to gauge. Everything appears closer while actually many miles away. I can already see the draw some have here. Uniquely beautiful, quiet and peaceful.

Iqaluit airport a.k.a. yellow submarine underwater base thing
Iqaluit airport a.k.a. yellow submarine underwater base thing

We started the next day with the lengthy process of checking in 22 mostly oversized bags, as transporting anything up here is difficult. One box of frozen meats for the camp was already missing in action. This followed up with a polar bear awareness briefing and it was back to airport to find our flight cancelled. Heavy snow in Arctic Bay and no flights from Iqaluit on Sundays. We were either stuck until Monday afternoon or we flew over and further north to Resolute Bay in hopes that the return flight the following morning would be able to land in Arctic Bay. The choice was made with many extra dollars dropped and we were headed further north. Resolute Bay, Canada’s second northernmost settlement was a town of 120 or so people, quaint and windswept. Drifts piling to the height of houses. Checking into one of the two hotels (surprised there was two), which by my general standards of accommodation was immaculate. I took advantage of my few unexpected hours here devouring dinner and a hot shower before climbing to the top of a plateau for a panorama of town.

Resolute Bay
Resolute Bay

Backwards another couple hours and the plane was able to land in Arctic Bay. The next few days were spent in preparation, introducing ourselves to the local stores we were dealing with for produce and random necessary groceries we couldn’t ship up. Purchasing, sorting and beginning small amounts of food prep while meeting some of the local Inuit guides that would be taking us through their giant backyard. Walking through town everyone waved as they passed, children said hello with big smiles on their faces and asked for your name. It wasn’t odd to see kids out playing at midnight, running the streets. I guess since the sun setting is a seasonal phenomenon opposed to daily, the schedule of the locals reflects it. Interesting to observe a new culture in my own country. Smart, observant, helpful, self-reliant with a strong connection to their heritage and land in which they tread.

Arctic Bay, down at the ice
Arctic Bay, down at the ice

May 27, 2015, 6:30am… locked and loaded, or so I thought. Everything packed onto the qamutiiks, strapped down it looked as if we were about to head out. Well some of us were. Snowmobile troubles limited the amount we could haul in one trip so a second would be needed. This was going to be a long day either way so I volunteered to stay behind and continue with some prep work. Finally the sat phone rang to let me know when I had to be at the departure point (Victor Bay) for trip two, 6:00pm. Even though I was anxious to get out on the ice everything happens for a reason. The airport had called and our missing box that was already assumed gone arrived that evening. I picked up our cargo, loaded the truck with the remainder of the food and drove over the hills to Victor Bay. Not actually leaving until about 9:00pm once the second load was strapped down and machines refueled, it was worth every second of the wait.

Qamutiiks ready to load
Qamutiiks ready to load

The rope tightened, a slight tug and we were off on to the ice. The cold air whipping at my face we pulled out on to Admiralty Inlet. Past fields of pack ice, over cracks, cliffs towering above, this scenery is like nothing I’ve ever really imagined. I had an idea of what the Arctic would look like, but never actually thought I would see it through these eyes. As most majestic places, pictures can’t do justice. It was a bumpy ride, almost sent for a yard sale a couple times as I was later informed we were going twice the speed than allowed with guests. Well I wasn’t a guest and it definitely added another level of intensity. It was like an old wooden rollercoaster that you put your faith in but don’t fully trust.

Off onto the ice
Off onto the ice

It took just shy of two hours to traverse the frozen inlet to where camp was beginning to be assembled. Directly in the middle of the Inlet, kilometers of ice between us and the mountain walls on either side, this was home for the next few weeks. Unloading my gear and the food, we began on a quick organization of the storage tent/fridge. An hour later I walked outside, slapped in the face almost blinding, my first true midnight sun. Every day prior, it was still bright but the sun would tuck behind the surrounding mountains. This time, piercing right through the cloud spotted canvas right down on me, I couldn’t look away. Something I can’t fully describe seeing this for the first time. It was captivating, entrancing, hypnotic while also filling me with a sense of energy. A sight few get to see and even though it was messing with my head some, it was spell binding. Maybe it was the oddity of it all, the landscape it illuminated around me, but it took a half an hour to look away. I had three and a half more weeks to stare at this I realized and I knew much time would be spent doing just this. I hit my cot and was out cold.

My first true midnight sun
My first true midnight sun

To Be Continued…

 

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