CROKER BAY, Nunavut—Two miles across at the snout, the glacier girding Croker Bay forms a towering blue-and-white wall of snow and ice. Cracking and calving, this massive natural wonder—which runs back to an ice cap almost five times the size of Luxembourg—seems to vie for our attention, thundering as it casts off frozen chunks of itself, warding us away from Devon, the world’s largest uninhabited island. But, bundled up and creeping slowly along its intimidating face, my eyes, and ears, are fixed elsewhere, scanning icebergs out on the bay and listening carefully for the next time my guide’s radio will crackle to life, bringing news of their location.
Narwhals—that is, real-life aquatic unicorns—are swimming in the area. One of the world’s weirdest and most elusive breeds of whale, these “sea monsters” were, in centuries past, depicted by explorers and sailors as strange and fierce, with imaginative illustrators drawing portraits even weirder than today’s just-barely-understood reality. With a name inspired by death itself—”nár” is an old Norse word for “corpse,” so-called because their exterior reminded the Norsemen of a drowned sailor—historians believe these marine mammals were at least partially responsible for inspiring the myth of the unicorn.
“Look for their mottled skin,” the radio crackles, carrying the voice of marine biologist Deanna Leonard-Spitzer, as I scan the deep blue, ice meeting sea, for a long tusk, and the skin of a dead man.
I’m at the peak of a high Arctic adventure, sailing about 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle across a rarely seen land of icebergs and tundra. On a tour operated by Toronto-based expedition company Adventure Canada, we’re making our way from the northern edge of Baffin Island through the blue waters of Lancaster Sound toward Resolute, our final port-of-call, one of Canada’s northernmost villages and one of the coldest inhabited places on earth (the resident weather station has never climbed to 21 degrees C, and once recorded a temperature of negative 52).
Hosted by experts from the World Wildlife Fund (a partner on this voyage), the MS Ocean Endeavour, a small but sturdy vessel with room for about 200 guests, carries us to some of the most hidden and frigid parts of the “true north strong and free” on Canada’s 150th birthday, encountering little-known wildlife, landscapes, history, and culture, all of it experienced under the midnight sun.
Sitting in the comfort of the Endeavour’s lounges, sipping coffee as icebergs float past outside, Peter Ewins tells me that this part of the world is special, in part because the environment is still largely intact.
“We’re at the margins of human civilization. There are so few places in the world where you can stand there and see nothing man-made,” he says, with a smile. “You can turn 360 degrees, and everything is Mother Earth.” And, Ewins, a species conservation specialist with the World Wildlife Fund, adds that this part of the world even has its own sense of time.
A Timeless Pace Across the High Arctic
“This place marches to a slow drumbeat, there’s no rock and roll here,” he observes. “You can’t go fast if everything’s in slow gear.”
I experience that timeless pace—the stride of land barely touched by man—across the high Arctic. This phenomenon presents itself in Eclipse Sound, as we sail through a northern notch of Baffin Island, the sun fading, but never setting, as it casts an orange hue on a long line of snow-capped peaks.
I feel it as we spot a massive polar bear stalking across an ice floe on Lancaster Sound; just a shade darker than the snow, her size suggests a male, but the on-board experts determine that she’s a pregnant female who has packed on many extra pounds to survive several months of gestation, when she won’t be able to hunt. Seeming to pose for us as she stops and looks back toward our ship, the bear eventually disappears off the far end of the floe, still in search of a seal to eat.
And I see two examples of this timelessness as we land at Dundas Harbor. Walking past the bones (and scat) of walrus and arctic hare and muskox (the latter of which, found only at very high latitudes, emits a pungent odor to keep predators at bay), I catch a brief glimpse of an arctic fox, trotting along near a Thule indigenous whale-hunting site, before hiking across the spit of land to a now-abandoned outpost of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Posted here in the first half of the 20th century, Mounties were charged with the near-impossible task of preserving Canada’s sovereignty across this nation’s vast northlands. Posted in pairs, their two-year terms must have been impossibly lonely, here in this barren landscape. As I explore the small cluster of sheds and houses, not a stick of vegetation grows in sight of these stark, broken-down buildings whose hollowed out interiors reveal just a few items from the officers’ day-to-day life, including a couple that I’m certain helped pass the time—bottles of Hudson Bay Scotch whisky and fine old tawny hunting port.
Summers were spent at sea. “They would go out in boats for months at a time, to fly the Canadian flag and look for poachers,” explains Aaron Spitzer, Adventure Canada’s resident historian. Bundled up in a puffy jacket, head covered in a thick wool hat (called a “tuque” in Canada), he adds that this latitude was even too far north at the time for Inuit populations, and the officers’ sole connection with the outside world was a once-yearly supply ship. “Other than that, they had no communication, in or out.”
Keeping this in mind, we make our way west, into an ice pack that threatens to impede our ultimate progress to Resolute. Wintry weather is an ever-present challenge here, and expedition leader Jason Edmunds tells us, during one of our daily briefings, that his team is considering a number of options for the final couple days of our voyage, including flying home from an alternative landing site or, more exciting, an escort by a coast guard icebreaker. Plunging forward, we skirt the edge of the ice, using a combination of ice charts, modern instruments, and simple eyesight to find a way around the mass of multi-year ice.
In the end, the icebreaker proves unnecessary, as we manage to make an end-run around our frozen obstacle, spending the morning of our final full day on Beechey Island. Its flanks even barer, if that’s possible, than Dundas Harbor, I hop off the zodiac, one last “wet landing,” climbing from the water’s edge in my rubber boots to its brown, stony shores a series of gravestones, situated down near Erebus and Terror Bay, a place named for two ships that once spent some 10 months here, before sailing off into oblivion.
Infamously, Beechey was long the last-known stop of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition. Sailing from London to find the Northwest Passage, they over-wintered here in 1845, bearing the unbelievable cold by sheltering in the hulls of their ships, leaving scant evidence of their presence on shore—the remains of a sad little arctic garden, a stone cairn, and that handful of graves. Then these 129 sailors, scientists, and explorers—leaving behind three compatriots who perished in the cold—sailed into a centuries-old mystery, soon finding their ships locked into pack ice that would spell their ultimate doom. (Many 19th-century search parties were dispatched from Europe, but the Erebus and Terror weren’t discovered until just the past three years.)
I ponder this as I return to the Ocean Endeavour, a warm lunch and a snug cabin awaiting me on board. Before I sleep, I will take the ultimate polar plunge, leaping off the gangway into frigid 1.5 C waters in a supervised on-board tradition, joining the “arctic swim club,” and the next morning, I board a charter flight at Resolute’s tiny airport, headed inexorably south. But the ghosts of the north? The great, white bears and the dead-skinned whales and the specters of explorers who lived gloriously but died anonymously? Those frozen phantoms remain with me, still.
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling, in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.
He was a guest of Adventure Canada.