In July of 2017, the opportunity to visit Axel Heiberg was at my doorstep. This was a once in a lifetime experience… well, probably anyways. Travel in the Arctic is not an easy destination for the average traveler as it is expensive, the logistics can be difficult and overwhelming and the infrastructure doesn’t necessarily support a ton of tourism. At least this is true of the Canadian Arctic. Another beast separate from Scandinavia, Svalbard or Alaska. Untouched, pristine and vastly beautiful, this is one of the last great wildernesses on earth.
Axel Heiberg is the world’s 5th largest island and the largest uninhabited island. Without a single community on this massive land mass, the ability to ‘travel’ here is more or less obsolete. A temporary camp sets up through the summer months studying the glacier covering a large majority of the island, along with the odd other scientific expedition and cruise that frequents the island along its shores.
Working with Arctic Kingdom, I was camping inland in a polar desert valley. I was cooking for clients I am still unable to reveal on the 80th parallel. This was not only one of the most unique travel experiences I’ve had, but also in my career as a chef.
Flying out from Resolute Bay, Canada’s second most northern community, it wasn’t long before the twin otter plane was below the low hanging clouds and doing circles in the valley seen by few eyes inspecting the ground for a makeshift runway. Location chosen, we touched down skidding to a quick stop. Camp was erected in a matter of 36 hours and our clients arrived.
The cooking itself was nothing special to speak of, primarily consisting of dehydrated foods with barebones equipment. All weight had to be taken into consideration on these small private charters. To spice up the diet to some degree I was able to sneak by with a couple striploins, cases of chicken breast and pork chops having a few BBQ nights under the midnight sun. I remember most, grilling pork chops and roasting peppers in the extended golden hour at 4am.
In between feeding the camp 3 meals a day at sporadic times, I would venture off hiking the mountains. With each step I took it felt like I was the first to take them in thousands of years. The sights I took in were for my eyes only. The grandeur of this place was unparalleled. So unique, undisturbed for centuries, it wasn’t even comparable to the rest of the Arctic I’d seen. A true land before time feel. A dry and dusty landscape with glacial streams that sliced their way through. From a higher perspective the glacier could be seen at a distance.
While the views were a tough competitor, the wildlife was a highlight. The wandering Muskox occasionally roamed into the valley. Grazing as they could and moving nomadically. On one walk, my eyes lost on the horizon, I just about walked right into a white Arctic hare and had an Alice in Wonderland moment. Follow the white rabbit. BUT, what made my summer in the Arctic was my rare sighting of a pure white Arctic Wolf. Not even a close enough viewing to capture it with my camera, just watching this majestic lone wolf lurk in the distance with binoculars for a time left me speechless.
This island captured my imagination and a piece of my heart. The solitude is all encompassing and the raw beauty is wild and untamed. I know the chances of ever returning here are very slim, but this will be a memory that never fades. Like the movements of the wolf, it will remain in the shadows of my mind always there, but rarely seen.