The expedition began at the mercy of the tides. Pack ice and thin ice littered the floe edge preventing us from safely having a viewing platform to catch sight of the migrating narwhal. The main attraction for just about everyone who makes their way to this northern corner of the world. An animal some still believe to be mythic or known as the unicorn of the sea, it is rarely seen by many eyes. The money shot of the tusk (actually an elongated left tooth that protrudes the upper lip) is what any photographer seeks or is at least hopeful for. As the ice slowly breaks away signifying summer is upon the north, the narwhal swim into the inlets feeding on polar cod to their yearly breeding grounds.
This also means hunting season is in full swing and even though the sightings through our few weeks spent here were minimal, tusks even more sparse, I got what I wanted. A taste of muktuk, the raw blubber and skin of the narwhal (sometimes beluga or bowhead as well). Frozen, then slightly thawed, a guide pulled out his knife and began cutting bitesize chunks on cardboard as the natural oils seeped into it. Small squares with a hatch pattern sliced about ¾ the way through. It resembled to me something you’d see on a buffet in an anime. Black skin, then a layer of stark white blubber and a coating of bright pink seemingly brushed across the top. Recommended to dip it in soy sauce, I had to try it naked first. A rubbery texture making in somewhat hard to chew, but the flavour was like a unique piece of sushi. Slightly fishy and nutty with a richness from the oils in the fat. A high source of vitamin C and D it is a favoured part of the diet here.
Since we couldn’t spot these spectacular marine mammals, we took the opportunity with the abundance of ice still surrounding the north end of Bylot Island and went to observe the bird cliffs. The migrating birds swarm the cliffs every year where they nest through the summer. These were to begin with primarily covered in Kittiwakes and upon our second visit the Murres had come to dominate sections as well. The snow littered with droppings and feathers from the occasional aerial battle, the cliffs themselves were stained with bird shit and the smell was to some degree overwhelming. This was risky business observing thousands of them in one spot, the chance of being bombed significantly increased. The squawking was constant and ear piercing at times, but I somehow enjoyed it.
While hundreds or thousands of birds are born here each year, where there is life, there must be death. Towards the middle of July the locals will dangerously scale these cliffs via ropes anchored into the rock walls to gather the Murres green shelled eggs. These go as a delicacy and for as much as 10 dollars each. On our way back to camp from the cliffs we had also spotted a Peregrine falcon feasting on a kittiwake grasped in its talons while pulling chunks of flesh away with its razor sharp beak. While creeping closer to the very aware bird of prey, once we got to close for comfort, he flew off to enjoy his lunch in peace. The circle of life.
It was now the last week of guests and the polar bears had been the most elusive yet, but our luck was about to change. After a day of being grounded in camp with near gale force winds ripping across the ice, we headed out into the still high winds. Restlessness and eagerness quickly sets in when the short time guests have here is shortened by the uncontrollable weather. On the search for the king of the Arctic we set out looking for fresh tracks to follow and hopefully get us within reasonable proximity of these majestic bears. Stopping briefly on top of an iceberg our lead guide got his binoculars and scanned the horizon in the direction of the tracks he had spotted. Sure enough in the far distance and only with his Inuit eagle eyes in this landscape he knew where it was. Back onto the qamutiks and within 15 minutes we had closed the distance to a safe viewing distance of about 20 meters. It was an adrenaline rush just being this close to the powerful animal, white with a golden hue, I had finally taken the only shot I really wanted all year, the ultimate reason I bought my new camera. Job done, but the day wasn’t finished with surprises.
At the floe edge for lunch, where ice meets frigid waters, the guests sit patiently and hopeful for the narwhal to finally appear while the guides sit on their snow machines listening to their VHFs (community radio channel). Apparently no one, hunters and other guides are having much luck, so we pitched our tents and I began warming soup and rolling a curried chicken wrap for everyone. As soon as I am about to deliver the first plate, just to the left of us, right at the edge, whoosh, a burst of air from a bowhead whale breaks the sullen silence of the crisp Arctic air. I nearly drop the food as I myself want to bolt for my camera. I hastily put the food back in the tent as I know no one is interested in eating now. He dove beneath us only to return 15 minutes later for another breath repeating this about half a dozen times. At the surface deep breathes hung in the air as he prepared for another dive to feed. Able to tell his last breath from his motions in the water, his fluke went up and disappeared yet again.
It truly is a special place up here in the Arctic, home of seemingly eternal darkness in winter and land of the midnight sun in summer. The sun merely curves toward the mountains in the west teasing you with the thought of night. It is inhabited by resilient and enduring people that have conquered the harsh conditions. The landscape, one of immense beauty, a dangerous beauty. Alluring, but deadly to the unaware. The wildlife unique and mysterious, but unfortunately could face disaster in coming years at the mercy of the warming temperatures. A part of this world that few think about, but attention should be turned towards and I only hope that it remains as it is for the future generations to see it as I have.