Shaped by generations of an Arctic-dwelling people, home to the planet’s most amazing polar wildlife, Nunavut, Canada, is not a destination but an experience.
Story and Photos by Simon Vaughan | for Outpost Expeditions
We are Team Outpost, and we’re a handpicked crew of thrillseekers and expeditioners, assembled in three teams who will spend the next few weeks crisscrossing Nunavut, Canada’s most northerly territory, in search of adventure and culture and history—from Auyuittuq National Park in the east, to the Coppermine River in the west, and north over the Arctic Circle to Pond Inlet. And—to everything in between and beyond!
By kayak and ATV, dog sled and boat, foot and air, Team Outpost will trek, camp, ride, cruise and paddle. We came mostly for its spectacular scenery and wildlife, its world-famous art, its limitless outdoor opportunity—but plan to keep a sharp eye open for its most elusive of creatures, most indomitable of species: the great Canadian polar bear.
Now, as we peer down, the coastline of Baffin Island comes into view. The world’s fifth and Canada’s largest island, Baffin is synonymous with earnest exploration, rugged adventure and wilderness. We descend over a rocky land peppered with lakes and marked by glacial claws, patches of snow and occasional ice-clogged rivers. Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital, suddenly appears off the plane’s wing—there is no warning, no suburbs—clinging to the hillsides around Frobisher Bay in a riot of colourful disorder, like some abstract interpretation of an East Coast fishing community.
Emerging from the aircraft, we pause at the top of the stairs and scrutinize the tarmac for polar bears disguised as baggage handlers before sprinting to the bright yellow terminal building. The entire airport vibrates with the promise of adventure. Here, there are no shiny-shoed business travellers buried in smartphones; instead we are amid a throng of locals heading home, scientists and engineers heading North, and international travellers sporting fishing rods, backpacks and hiking poles.
Through the terminal window, the tarmac teems with every rugged Canadian bush plane and cargo aircraft imaginable, from Buffalo to Hercules, Twin Otter to Turbo Beaver.
Iqaluit isn’t just the capital, it’s also Baffin Island’s central hub. On a piece of land the size of Spain but free of any railway line or highway, the best way around—and in many cases only—is by air, and that means transiting through Iqaluit.
Team Outpost Takes to the Tundra on Baffin Island
How can air smell smooth or go down clean, like it feels up here? We’re already discussing this among ourselves, but clearly the conversation is rhetorical.
No sooner have we found our Northern feet, than we head off to do some ATVing with Arctic Kingdom. An ATV is not just a recreational vehicle for Nunavummiut (as people from Nunavut are known), but it is a common mode of transport: the 21st century equivalent of the dog sled. The roads of Iqaluit and every other community buzz with the quad bikes, as people head out to shop, fish or hunt, go on the land, visit friends… or just pick up Timbits.
We don helmets and drive through the town, out to Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park. The park is one of Nunavut’s most accessible, a favourite recreation spot. Every weekend, locals gather for barbecues and picnics or to engage in a spot of fishing. Iqaluit means “place of many fish,” and it’s the bountiful Sylvia Grinnell River from which it derived its name. One of 20 territorial parks, heritage rivers and designated places administered by Nunavut Parks, Sylvia Grinnell offers hiking trails, interpretive station, lookouts and Arctic wilderness that is within strolling distance of downtown. Bizarre and delightful.
The park sprawls over distant rolling hills and plays host to archaeological sites, great birdwatching and the chance to spot Arctic hare, Arctic fox and even caribou. Re-mounting our ATVs, we skirt around the outside of the park perimeter, following a muddy, rock-strewn trail along the banks of the river. The water tumbles well below us, while dotted along the spongy tundra are tiny cabins and large canvas tents where locals come to fish or camp or just be on the land.
As we move deeper onto the tundra, the terrain becomes more chaotic: deep pools of mud, jagged rock features and nearly vertical inclines challenge us at constant intervals. The mud forces us to winch, the rock forces us to move slowly and the inclines test our ATV skills.
We manage just fine, and the experience of riding the land is unforgettable.
We stop for lunch at a spot that overlooks the river, pressing hard against the leeward side of a shack. Heavy grey clouds straggle wispy fingers across the high ground, while wildflowers and berries, Arctic cotton, dwarf birch and purple mountain saxifrage decorate the verdant landscape.
“Ever seen a polar bear here?” we ask Brian, our guide, thinking back to a warning sign we’d seen in the park earlier. Originally from British Columbia, Brian is young, quiet and an exceptional ATV pilot who has a permanent grin plastered across his face—we can’t help but wonder if Nunavut is casting its spell on him, too.
“I’ve never seen one here,” he answers. “I saw one out on an ice floe in the spring, though. He’d caught a seal, and we watched it feeding before it slipped back into the water.”
At this point we should likely stress it’s not that Team Outpost has a thing for polar bears; we’re up here for all the adventure on offer. But we’ve only seen one in the wild once or twice before, and are perhaps a tad preoccupied with a potential sighting.
The following day it’s back to the airport. First Air isn’t your usual airline. Inuit-owned, the carrier provides a lifeline between the South—as the rest of Canada is referred to in Nunavut—and all of the territory’s communities; not just for passengers, but fresh produce, medicine, and just about anything else you could imagine.
Tundra Camping in Auyuittuq National Park
Following announcements in Inuktitut, English and French, our aircraft climbs skyward, leaving Iqaluit behind and moving ever closer to the Arctic Circle. Our destination is the community of Pangnirtung, which sits just off Cumberland Sound, is surrounded by mountains on three sides and a fjord on the fourth, and has a population of 1,300. As our aircraft approaches the airport it turns on a dime, then makes a dramatic landing beneath a set of jagged mountains. We are thrilled.
Pang, as it’s colloquially known, is not only a centre for Inuit artwork but also a gateway to one of Nunavut’s most magnificent parks, Auyuittuq. After dropping our bags at The Auyuittuq Lodge, the town’s only hotel, we stroll the dusty streets and visit the Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts and Crafts, which houses magnificent tapestries, weavings and lithographs. We stop at the century-old Hudson’s Bay Company buildings, before heading to Auyuittuq’s park office.
Auyuittuq was established as a national park reserve by Parks Canada in 1976, but upgraded to a national park in 2000 and spans more than 19,000 square kilometres—from Pangnirtung Fjord to North Pangnirtung Fjord near Qikiqtarjuaq on Davis Strait. Renowned for its scenery, the park offers some of the country’s most spectacular hiking and rock climbing. Our Parks Canada guide Billy unfurls a map and shows us the route we will take during our trek.
“The boat will drop us off here,” he says, pointing to a spot at the very end of the fjord. “That’s where we start our hike. We’ll continue up and get some good views of Mount Odin before returning for our pick-up the next day.”
Just as Team Outpost was about to make its customary enquiry about resident polar bears, Billy leads us into a small theatre and right by a taxidermic version of the object of our interest.
“We’ll show you a polar bear safety video now. There are lots of polar bears around Auyuittuq, so it’s important to know how to avoid them. But if you can’t avoid one, you need to know what to do.”
With that the lights are dimmed and we sit in riveted silence, watching a sobering video of people shouting and screaming at curious polar bears, waving their arms and firing flares. Back in the hotel lounge, we ask if anyone had seen any polar bears.
“I saw one today,” a voice sounds from the other end of the room. We turn to see Nicolas, a professor of oceanography who had arrived in Pang aboard the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen the previous day.
“It was swimming near the entrance to Auyuittuq just as I was returning from the park,” he says. “Looked like a big one, too.”
At that we eye each other nervously—even as we’re hoping to mimic the experience—before returning to our rooms to pack for the trek ahead. The next morning, after a delicious breakfast at the lodge, we load our stuff into a Parks Canada truck for the short drive to the harbour.
“We have some of the highest tides in the world, more than 10 metres,” explains Delia Siivola, Auyuittuq’s park manager. “We time the departures to get as close to the park entrance as possible; otherwise you have to hike further. Hope you have a great time!”
Our boat heads down the fjord, magnificent towering mountains crowding in on either side, with a flawless blue sky overhead. Behind us, Pang slowly disappears and we see icebergs dotting the entrance to Cumberland Sound. The landscape consumes our senses; every second we move into the park offers an endless display of ageless, untouched beauty.
Enormous glaciers dominate the tops of mountains, cracked and broken, some of them spewing water that cascades into web-like streams which the fjord swallows. Immense boulders sit strewn about the land, surrounded by countless fragments of ancient mountains that have lost pieces of themselves to time and gravity.
After an hour, the fjord has narrowed to a shallow river; we pull up beside a large boulder and leap out just beneath Overlord Peak. An enormous wolf paw print glistens in the cloying mud.
“Arctic wolf,” says Matthew, one of two Parks Canada guides who is accompanying us. “Biggest in the world here.”
We head away from the fjord and go inland, following the Weasel River. The echoing boom of falling rocks resounds off the sheer cliffs, as we continue toward the impressive Mount Odin. The terrain offers us no ease—deep moss and lichen swallow our feet with every step, and giant remnants of landslides cut across our path, forcing us to climb the unstable, 45-degree mounds left in their wake. Occasionally we hear the distant cry of a raven, and it’s the sole reminder we are not the only living things here.
With barely any nightfall now—daylight runs almost 24 hours this time of year—we continue our trek until late in the day. Our first attempt at a river crossing proves as dramatic as the scenery, with its icy waters churning and frothing in a kind of glacial maelstrom. We’d been warned to expect difficult crossings, but this one beat even Matthew.
“I’ve never seen the river this big,” he declares, pointing out the alternate route we’d have to take. Soon afterwards, we catch our first glimpse of Baffin Island’s highest peak, the mighty Mount Odin, soaring 2,147 metres above the tundra. It wouldn’t have been beyond belief if we’d been told that the towering pinnacle had been carved by thunderbolts from Valhalla itself—on the tundra, it looks fantastic. Soon we stop to pay homage to a spot that marks the Arctic Circle, before continuing and spying Mount Thor; not as lofty as Odin, but even more spectacular.
“That’s the greatest vertical drop [of any mountain] on Earth,” Matthew tells us. “Over 4,000 feet [1,675 metres] of sheer cliff.”
By this time we are thoroughly exhausted, and break to camp for the night near Schwartzenbach Falls, serenaded by the sounds of utter silence as we drift to sleep. Early the next day we continue our trek, leaving Odin and Thor behind, and follow the Weasel River back to our pick-up point.
The river crossing that had foiled us the day before taunts again, even as we try our luck anew. Emboldened by clear air and Norse legend, we plunge in, our feet instantly numbed by the cold water. The river pushes and pulls, defiant-like, almost as if it’s driven to sweeping us away; but we forge on and are invigorated by the challenge and eventual triumph.
“You did well,” Matthew says, as we reach the far bank, wet boots squelching on rocks. “Your confidence out here has grown.” We are strangely flattered by the comment.
We’re now back at Overlord Peak, at the entrance to the park, and put our weighty packs down on the tundra, perching on them as we await the boat home. Mosquitoes gently hum by but don’t stop to bite, as if they too respect our achievements. Or maybe we just smell really bad.
“Most polar bear sightings come near the water,” Matthew tells us, breaking the silence. He is a capable guide, prepared for such a sighting, and as we wait there, half hoping, half fearful, we know we’re in good hands.
The Whaling Station at Kekerten
“Where are you heading today?” local carver Peter asks, as we leave the hotel the next morning. We tell him Kekerten, and he replies, “That’s better. We look out to the sea, not into the land. There’s more food that way!”
Fifty kilometres from Pangnirtung, right within Cumberland Sound, sits the island of Kekerten, formally a 19th-century whaling station that is now a Nunavut Territorial Park.
“Watch for walruses,” says Jamiesie, our captain, as we board a boat that takes us to the park and navigates in and around incredible icebergs to get there. “One was spotted here yesterday, on an ice floe.”
We don’t see any walruses but do see ring seals, and, in spectacular fashion, plenty of bowhead whales. Our first encounter comes as a funnel of water erupts unexpectedly in the distance.
“Bowheads!” someone screams. We scramble to various parts of the boat, readying our gear to capture the moment. Jamiesie pushes it to maximum speed and cuts the engine a few yards from the pod; it bobs in an undulating, rhythmic dance, and the rapid click of cameras is broken only by groans and puffs from the pod as they breach in succession. Closer, we must get closer.
“Can you take us closer, Jamiesie?” we ask.
“Bowheads are dangerous and very aggressive,” he shoots back, which just adds to the drama. “If we get too close, they can flip the boat. So we stay well clear.”
The pod slowly vanishes, one by one, as they dive deep into the dark Arctic water. Just like that, the moment has passed, almost in the blink of an eye.
Kekerten was a successful whaling station in the 1850s and 1860s, and as we walk around the old site, past the blubber drums and rusting equipment and through a graveyard of whale bones, we can’t help but wonder if the bowheads we had encountered are distant relatives to the ones that lay before us.
The Great Polar Bear Sighting!
As the snowy owl flies, Cape Dorset on Baffin Island lies about 550 kilometres southwest of Pangnirtung. Not being a snowy owl, however, we fly via Iqaluit and arrive around midday, just ahead of a massive blanket of fluffy white fog that rolls in and envelopes the island.
“We were completely socked in for two weeks once,” says Kristiina Alariaq of Huit Huit Tours, as we head down to the waterfront. “No flights, nothing. The stores began to run out of fresh food. Then the fog lifted.” Kristiina and her husband, Timmun, highly skilled wilderness guides, had invited Team Outpost to join them on the land for a few days.
“This will give you a real taste of Inuit life,” Timmun explains, as we load the gear into a freighter canoe for the trip to their boat. Once packed, we head into the fog-shrouded Hudson Strait for the 80-kilometre journey to Andrew Gordon Bay. The sea is as still as a mill pond, which is just as well given the limited visibility.
We ease past rock islands and hazy Inukshuks perched on pinnacles like ghostly sentinels. Seals surface and lazily survey us before disappearing with a plop. Along for the ride are the Alariaqs’ daughter Nak, their granddaughter Kimmie and grandson Tapau.
This is what the Alariaqs like to do best: leave town and head off camping, the way their ancestors had done for centuries. To be able to join them was a great privilege, both humbling and inspiring. The voyage remains uneventful, even out here, and eventually the fog lifts and we follow the coastline before turning into the bay.
“Do you get polar bears here?” we ask, wondering if northerners ever get tired of fielding that question from southerners. But with true hospitality, Kristiina simply says “yes,” and adds we’ll hear all the stories over dinner later that night. Timmun then steers the boat toward the shore and we quickly offload our supplies.
He grabs his rifle and heads for the small cabins set back from the shoreline where we’ll overnight it. “He’s checking to see if there are any polar bears around,” says Kristiina.
Their camp had been built over the course of several years. No electricity, bar a small portable generator to run the radio and other basic appliances, and no running water, except from neighbouring rivers. In winter, they make the trip across the ice by snowmobile, the rest of the year by boat. They bring enough food for the first day, after which they are dependent on what they catch.
“Any of you ever use a rifle?” Timmun asks, handing us a Winchester with an impressive scope. “You don’t go anywhere without a rifle, and you keep it by your side at night when you sleep.”
Later, as we huddle around the table in the main cabin, Kristiina points at the large plexi-glass window.
“See the scratches?” she asks us, referring to a series of ice-skate marks. “Polar bears come around the cabin and stand on their hind legs to look in the big window. One pushed in that end window when we were asleep, and his head was inside before we even woke up. Luckily, we scared him away, but the window is still bent. Another time we arrived to find a bear asleep in the cabin. He’d pushed open the door while we were away. You don’t mess with polar bears.”
Behind their little station were ancient Thule and Dorset campsites. Stone circles and cairns, some still with human skulls and bones inside.
“They’ve never been studied,” Kristiina says. “Some may be thousands of years old. They were likely living much the same way we live when we come here, except for the plywood and the generator.”
Lemmings dart across the spongy tundra, hiding beneath rocks, as Kimmie and Tapau try to catch them. We set off for the river to collect some water, rifles slung over shoulders and eyes alert for company. Over dinner, we hear more polar bear stories and tales of what it’s like to live on the land of the Canadian Arctic.
“Tomorrow we go fishing,” says Timmun. “No fish, no dinner!”
Team Outpost slept soundly that night in our cabin, situated well away from the family’s main shelter, so as to act as a decoy for hungry bears. (Clearly, we’re joking.) The next morning is cool and clear. Seals bob in the bay, while black and white plovers hop across the rocks. We take the boat out to the Iqalugaaqjuit River; while we vainly cast lines into the crystal water and eider ducks sweep by,
Timmun rakes in several enormous Arctic char. Back at camp, we clean the fleshy salmon-like fish, before slicing them into cubes, using the traditional Inuit ulu curved knife, then eating it raw. No soy, no lemon juice, just unbeatably fresh, unspeakably delicious fish. Meaty but creamy, like churned butter.
Over the coming days, we hike the tundra and hills, and accompany Timmun as he hunts for seal. On the last morning we board up our cabin and carry our supplies back to the boat. Near the shore we sit on a rock, gazing out at a seal hundreds of yards off swimming in the bay, resignedly accepting that another part of our expedition has passed, polar bear free.
The seal continues to make its way across the water, when suddenly it turns and we see a big black nose and a big white head. Given Team Outpost’s encyclopedic knowledge of all things seal, we know this doesn’t fit the description—until we realize, of course, it’s not a seal and never was a seal. Suddenly, someone grabs a camera.
“Polar bear, polar bear in the bay!” we scream in high-pitched but (we’d like to stress) highly controlled voices. Timmun grabs his rifle and comes alongside. The bear climbs onto a small rock island in the bay, its enormous body sopping wet from the swim.
It turns its head, takes one look at us, changes direction and plunges back in, heading—incredibly—directly our way. Kristiina tells the children to go to the cabin. Timmun loads the rifle for contingency. As the bear approaches the shore, Timmun fires a warning shot; the crack stings our ears and rings dramatically out across the tundra.
The bear climbs out of the water again, just sniffing the air and watching us. It feels like he’s looking right at us, almost human-like, and in fact, it’s what they’re known to do. Several more warning shots zing off neighbouring rocks, sending splinters into the air. The bear edges forward, then rears up onto its hind legs, clearly wondering if he’s invited for lunch. Suddenly, he drops to all fours and begins cantering forward. Timmun calls for more ammunition. More shots slam off surrounding rocks. At 50 feet and counting things become tense and our palms get sweaty, even as we’re standing there, mesmerized.
“We can’t let him get any closer,” Kristiina says solemnly. Finally, a sixth shot landing near an enormous paw gives him pause for thought, and he turns and charges back down the beach. Additional shots drive him back into the water and toward the other end of the bay.
“Wow,” says Kristiina. “I’ve never seen one that big or aggressive. I think he could smell our fear.”
“The Inuit say that if you talk about polar bears too much, they will come,” says young Nak, as Team Outpost shuffles its feet and gazes at the ground bashfully.
As we make the return trip to Cape Dorset, the bear initially follows us along the shoreline, until distance reduces him to a speck. We sight bowhead whales, more seals and even a distant orca, and all are spectacular; but it is the polar bear that dominates conversation.
Stories Told Through Soapstone and Tusk
After hot showers at the Dorset Suites and an amazing dinner of caribou stroganoff, we set off to explore Cape Dorset, one of Canada’s most famed arts communities. In the 1950s, Canadian artist James Houston travelled to the eastern Arctic to work as a civil administrator. While there, he came across small Inuit carvings that so impressed him he took them back to Montreal. Eventually, he was hired by the federal government to encourage and develop Inuit art based in Cape Dorset.
Behind a house, we find Toonoo Sharky busily carving an enormous block of soapstone. In most towns, the buzz of a power tool suggests construction; in Nunavut it says art. Toonoo was standing over his work, covered in dust, and deftly wielding chisels and rotary tools. Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Toonoo began carving at age 10.
Now in his 40s, his hands bear the scars of that toil, while his face displays satisfied contentment. In a back room he shows us piles of rock and stone, caribou bone and walrus tusk, all waiting to be transformed by his enormous talent.
In Search of Narwhal by Kayak
The northernmost community of Baffin Island is Pond Inlet. Sitting on Eclipse Sound, about 645 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, Pond is often referred to as the “Jewel of the Baffin” because of its spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife. It has been a centre for hunting and fishing for thousands of years.
Team Outpost Baffin came to Pond Inlet to join Black Feather Adventures on a kayaking expedition, on a kayaking expedition in search of the rather mysterious narwhal—which we were happy to focus on, now that the great polar bear sighting had passed.
Departing from town in the late afternoon, we sail west to Curry Island, slipping past mighty Bylot Island with its snowcapped peaks. We continue west through Baffin Bay in the Arctic Ocean, before setting up our first camp and packing our tandem kayaks with all the food and gear needed for the expedition.
The next morning, before anyone else has stirred, Team Outpost heads off on a solitary hike. Climbing to a nearby summit, we gaze out to sea and spy a lone narwhal, perhaps half a mile away. The legendary creature surfaces briefly amid choppy water, before continuing on its way. It bodes well for our Arctic quest.
“If the weather’s not good,” explains our guide Steve, “we’ll explore the land. We can take a look at some of the ancient campsites that are all over these islands.”
There’s a strong and silent beauty to northern Baffin. The Arctic Ocean can be a perfect mirror reflecting endless skies and snowcapped peaks one moment, or rolling white-tops the next. It is a humbling area of magnificent eloquence, and as we paddle we are accompanied by our thoughts on this, as well as by friendly seals that follow in our wake or swim by our kayaks.
Throughout our Nunavut expedition, our campsites are often neighboured by ancient sites that offer a connection to the past as well as an appreciation for the challenges of life here, both then and now. Bones are scattered around the ground: whales, seals and even human. Birdlife is plentiful and the silence is so profound that the exhalation of a surfacing seal carries far across the incredibly crisp air, and the sounds of bowheads even further.
Although no one complains, our narwhal expedition runs short of one thing: narwhals.
“Narwhals tend to steer well clear of kayaks,” Steve says. “When we see them, it’s usually from the land. But we’ve never had a trip without seeing one yet.”
We continue to paddle, the kayaks getting lighter as we use up our supplies. Clear skies are broken by gale-force winds and Arctic rains. Voluntarily emerging from our warm sleeping bags is at times tough, but only until we smell fresh pancakes and brewing coffee drifting from guide Bella’s campfire, and awake to yet another spectacular vista.
Eventually, the time comes to rendezvous for the boat trip back to Pond. All but one of the elusive narwhals has lived up to its reputation.
This was part of an original Outpost Expedition to Nunavut, Canada. To read more from Baffin Island, read our feature story on kayaking in Pond Inlet.