Bearly touching Ellesmere Island

Coming in at number 10 on the Top 10 Biggest Islands in the World list is Ellesmere Island. Not only is its size superlative, but it also is the most northly island in the world after Greenland and a few specks off its northern coast. As you might expect this far north, the land is mostly barren of vegetation but who needs veggies when you are a carnivore?

We visited Makinson Inlet on the southeast corner of Ellesmere and saw more polar bears there than anywhere else on our trip. They patrolled the beaches, looking for washed-up carrion or the chance to leap on one of the many beluga whales we also saw swimming tantalizingly close to shore (video).

One bear tore at the remaining fragments of a whale carcass on the beach (video), while bears lower-down the pecking order watched from a distance for their turn, including a mother and cub.

The only drawback of all that bear activity was that we couldn’t find a safe place to land on the island, lest we become the next dish on the bear buffet. In the end, we were able to hop ashore for about 30 seconds while our guide scanned the hills for bears. It felt like a special privilege to set foot at all on a place where humans weren’t in charge.

Wild Baffin Island

Imagine that the great geological monuments of the American West such as Yosemite and Zion National Parks were rising from emerald-green water and you will have some idea of what the east coast of Baffin Island looks like. Baffin Island is about 300 miles east of Greenland, in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. It looks small on a map next to its World’s Biggest Island award-winning neighbor, but is still a very respectable thousand miles long. And while we thought we had seen the pinnacle of dramatic landscapes in The Faroes and then Greenland, Baffin gives them both a run for their money in the Best Dramatic Scenery category.

We visited two uninhabited fjords on the east coast of Baffin Island, Buchan Gulf and Sam Ford Fjord (try saying that three times fast). Steep cliffs rose thousands of feet on either side. The rocks are three billion years old, some of the oldest on earth, and have been contorted over the ages with interesting shapes, textures and colors. Glaciers provided the icing on the cake, feeding giant waterfalls that looked like trickles from a distance. It was almost impossible to judge the scale of the unfamiliar landscape. On the few patches of land free of glaciers and flat enough to support plant life, there were miniature forests of colorful arctic plants. With the short growing season and scouring winter winds, plants adapt by sticking together and close to the ground. Willow trees can be hundreds of years old but only a few inches tall. Their leaves were just starting to turn color as autumn approached in late August.

The fjords of Baffin are also swimming with wildlife. The narwhal with its unicorn-like tusk is often described as “legendary” or maybe “elusive” but they were our frequent companions. Narwhals normally keep their horns underwater even when surfacing so they didn’t look much different than other kinds of marine mammals, but they were still thrilling to see, like a celebrity.

Swimming polar bears are a fixture of tear-jerking stories about global warming but bears who live near Baffin are used to ice-free summers. It is normal to see them cruising the fjords looking for a snack of washed-up whale or whatever else they can find. Their paddle-like paws are well adapted to swimming. Since they still have enough ice in the winter for their annual seal feast, the polar bears in the area are doing well. At least for now.

And here is a video of waterfalls tumbling down from a melting glacier, hopefully giving a little sense of the giant scale of the place.

Village life on Baffin Island

We visited two towns on Baffin Island: Clyde River and Pond Inlet. The Inuit people who populate the Canadian arctic didn’t traditionally live in towns, instead moving between small camps following the seasons and the natural resources. It was only in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s that the Canadian government began establishing towns, driven by a desire to assert sovereignty over the arctic and sometimes-misguided efforts to assimilate the inhabitants. Inuit were encouraged to settle down with a promise of amenities like schools but the line between “encouraged” and “coerced” wasn’t always clear.

In contrast to the colorful Greenlandic towns, the prefab houses in the Canadian arctic are mostly painted in pale tones, further muted by a layer of dust kicked up by ATVs buzzing around the unpaved roads. The generous financial subsidies that Denmark lavishes on Greenland are clearly not provided by Canada to its arctic citizens. Not only is the infrastructure more primitive but food in the grocery stores was exorbitantly priced except for a few subsidized staples. A single can of soda was $5.

In each Canadian arctic town we visited, residents volunteered to be tour guides, usually by signing up on a sheet hung on the bulletin board of the grocery store. None were pros and each offered a unique perspective on their home towns. Our guide in Clyde River was a retired teaching assistant. She was a woman of very few words, which might not be an obvious plus for a tour guide, but she had a welcoming personality and would unexpectedly open up to unselfconsciously tell us very personal stories in response to what we thought were innocuous questions. We heard matter-of-factly about her time in jail for drunkenness, her husband’s unsuccessful battle against cancer, and her father’s pet polar bear who would accompany him as a hunting partner. But even that initially sweet story had a grim ending when her father had to kill and eat his beloved companion during a harsh winter famine.

Inuit across the arctic from Russia to Greenland speak related languages that are usually intelligible to the neighboring region but become increasingly distinct with distance. The dialect used in Nunavut is called Inuktitut and written with this cool syllabic writing system that was introduced in the 1800’s. The other Inuit dialects are written with our boring old roman letters.

We weren’t sure how literally we should believe the story (especially since it ended with ghostly polar bear cubs showing up at her father’s death bed) but it was a good illustration of the close and complicated relationship that the Inuit have with their animal neighbors. They still rely on hunting for most of their food and/but have a longstanding ethos about respecting the animals. Killing an animal for sport or letting any of it go to waste would be taboo. The traditional foods of seal, narwhal and polar bear are all important parts of their modern culture and daily lives. They are still the only reliable and affordable food source in the arctic. We couldn’t imagine eating any of those charismatic animals. Yet we did. These “country foods” are so integral to what it means to be Inuit, as is the sharing of food, that we couldn’t pass up a tasting held for us at a local community center. The narwhal was prepared with a little bit of skin and blubber on each bite, as simultaneously chewy and silky as you might imagine with subtle taste like an extremely rich sushi. Both the seal and polar bear were more traditionally meaty with hints of liver. Laurel enjoyed the tastes and textures more than Brian but felt a queasy loss of innocence afterwards.

Cutting narwhal meat with an “ulu” — a traditional knife that is also symbol of Inuit culture.

The two high school girls who were our volunteer guides in Pond Inlet couldn’t have been more different from our taciturn Clyde River guide. Like small town teenagers anywhere in North America (and maybe the world) they were alternatively giggly, chatty, gossipy and bored (with small town life and occasionally with us, whipping out their video games). Their main concern was to keep us from getting hit by a speeding ATV on the road, which happened to a “rude French tourist” they were guiding earlier in the year. The attraction in Pond Inlet they were most proud of was not the work of the famous local stone carvers but the “most northerly Tim Horton’s”, an iconic Canadian snack and coffee shop. Their excitement was heightened even more when we offered to buy them their favorite frozen coffee drink, the Iced Capp. It was all they could talk about as we walked up the hill toward the restaurant, which turned out to be a counter tucked into the corner of a grocery store. Sadly, the Iced Capp machine was out of order, so they could only get a brightly colored fruitless fruit slushy. They bore their disappointment with barely a shrug, resigned to the difficulties of arctic life.

Our Pond Inlet guides seem to have recovered from their disappointment over the Iced Capp.

On our way out of Pond Inlet, we met a pod of orcas who were feasting on an invisible underwater bounty. The orcas in the region are a larger variety than we have back home because they take on bigger prey, usually other whales and dolphins. They looked to be a very healthy family with several babies. We learned to track submerged whales by looking for the crowd of seabirds overhead who are hoping for leftovers.