Baffin Island and Greenland Explorer
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It’s been said that the Inuit have over 50 words for what we simply call snow, and I wouldn't be surprised if they have nearly as many words to describe the shades of blue found in the Arctic. I've found this amazing part of our planet to be stunning beyond what I can adequately express in words. At times it appears monochromatic, punctuated by bursts of color. It's absolutely wild. Certainly impressive. Captivating. Almost unfathomable. The Far North holds many surprises for travelers who venture to the land of the midnight sun. And although I had traveled to the Arctic before, I continued to be surprised by new sights and experiences when I recently explored Baffin Island and Greenland.
My journey began in Iqaluit, capital of Nunavut, on Baffin Island. Nunavut is the northernmost, largest, and least populated of the Canadian territories. Honestly, I knew very little about this recently established territory, but after picking up the local bilingual newspaper on the plane, my world began to expand as I was introduced to Inuktitut syllabics. It's heartening to see the preservation of the Inuit language in this swiftly changing world. Inuit represent about 85% of the population in Nunavut, and they are adapting to life in a rapidly developing region.
Our small group took a look around the town, visiting a cultural center, museum, park, and the site of several historic Hudson's Bay Company buildings. Excitement started to build as we saw peekaboo views of our ship waiting for us in the bay. After a windy Zodiac ride from a jetty on the outskirts of town, we were welcomed aboard the Akademik Ioffe. I love this ship! There's a certain romance about traveling aboard a Russian research vessel. It's not about the thread count of the linens or the onboard amenities, but about the intrigue of where this sturdy and very stable ship will venture. And while the surroundings are on the simple side, there's an undeniable luxury in traveling on a flexible itinerary with an outstanding expedition team that aims to delight everyone aboard.
Sailing out of Frobisher Bay, we were treated to a liquid gold sunset as we set off for more remote parts of Baffin Island. We awoke to a foggy morning the next day, and at breakfast we were briefed on plans for a Zodiac cruise around Monumental Island. Offshore from Baffin Island, Monumental Island is a great place to search for wildlife. Hoping to see a polar bear, walrus, and perhaps some birds, we boarded Zodiacs and set out into the mist. Seeing a polar bear within five minutes of our first Zodiac excursion was a good indication this was going to be a fantastic expedition! There she was: a healthy bear on the rocks close to the waterline. We maintained a respectful, safe distance as we slowly floated by and made sure everyone had a good view. Then we just sat and watched her as she watched us. As our cameras snapped away, she sauntered closer to the water giving us an even better view of her. It was a simply breathtaking, unforgettable encounter. This wasn't the first time I had seen a polar bear in the wild, but the magnificence of seeing such a powerful creature in its natural habitat washed over me anew. We reluctantly moved on, circumnavigated the island, took photos of the first icebergs we encountered, and returned for one last look before navigating back through the fog to the Ioffe. Our "first bear" was still there, and our adventure was off to a wonderful start.
By the next morning we had emerged from the fog, and we were treated to brilliant sunshine upon entering Cumberland Sound. One might expect to see one or two Bowhead whales in this historic whaling area, and before our scheduled wake-up call our Expedition Leader announced that Bowheads had indeed been spotted. Five of them! Their blows were marvelously backlit by the morning light, and we watched as they gracefully surfaced. Seeing so many Bowheads before breakfast was a wonderful way to launch our day. Several options awaited us in Pangnirtung, a beautifully situated hamlet that is the gateway to Auyuittuq National Park. The kayakers headed out for their first paddle, others took a scenic hike, and I focused on getting a better sense of the Inuit culture. For me, spending time in the art gallery was a must, as the artists of Pangnirtung have earned international acclaim for their high quality weaving, printmaking, and traditional arts. I wrapped up my time in Pangnirtung by exploring the interpretive displays at the Angmarlik Visitor Center, learning about their past and chatting with the friendly staff about the present. There's so much more to understand and explore in this part of Baffin Island, and it’s a place I’d like to visit again.
As we continued northward, ever changing conditions took us to an area with heavy sea ice in hopes of spotting polar bears. A new place brought new experiences, and we had our first real “ice day.” We set out in Zodiacs under a striking blue sky to explore a maze of bergy bits. It was a calm day with gentle swells, so conditions were perfect to pull the Zodiacs up on a large ice pan and step out onto the sea ice. I hadn't experienced this in my prior Antarctica and Arctic trips, and it was amazing! But the firsts didn't end there, and it was thrilling to spot a mother and cub, as well as a very fat and happy bear feasting on a fresh seal later in the afternoon…both things I had never before witnessed. All in all, we saw seven bears on the ice in fairly close proximity that day.
With each passing day presenting new experiences and excitement, it could seem they were "just another day" on an expedition trip! Yet every place has its own charms and highlights, and for me the best part of the adventure was yet to come...after our final day on Baffin Island and a day at sea en route to Greenland.
Arriving in Qeqertarsuaq, on Disko Island, the world at once seemed brighter and more colorful. Greenland has a distinctly different feel from other parts of the Arctic that I've explored. We stepped through a whalebone arch into a charming village of brightly painted buildings. While some of our group set off on a hike to a nearby waterfall, I was enamored with the sculptural ice in the bay. What a magical place for beachcombing! The shore was bestrewn with a glittering array of gems, and never before have I wondered if what I was about to pick up was a piece of tumbled beach glass or a frosty chip of glacial ice. I listened to waves lapping against the rocks as I watched the light shift and change on towering icebergs off the beach, and I wished I could stay a little longer. Back onboard the Ioffe, refusing to miss a moment of soaking in the beauty of this place, I ordered lunch from the bistro menu and posted myself on the bow as we passed by a parade of ice and humpback whales. The ice was even more spectacular as we ventured deeper into Disko Bay. Against a backdrop of dark basalt cliffs and a green hillside, we explored a gallery of icebergs by Zodiac. I am endlessly fascinated by their forms, the hues of blue, and the varied textures of the bergs. We saw some flip and calve; they are ever evolving works of art. To make a fantastic day even more memorable, the Ioffe's thoughtful staff surprised us on the water with cold beer, soda, and disco music...very fitting!
The source of all this dazzling ice was our next destination. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Ilulissat Icefjord is the mouth of one of the world's most productive and fast-moving glaciers. It is spectacular! In true expedition style, we were out on the water before breakfast to explore the bay. Colossal chunks of ice towered before us, and it was almost incomprehensible that we were literally only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Anywhere else, I would have surmised we were facing snow-covered mountains instead of fragments of a glacier migrating out to sea. Later that afternoon, a walk through the picturesque town took us to a viewpoint offering another perspective on the glacial ice-stream. Pausing to appreciate the grandeur of this little-known spot was, for me, the pinnacle of the expedition. I could never tire of such stunning and ever-changing beauty, and that day, Ilulissat joined my "favorite places on the planet" list. Back on the ship in the afternoon, we enjoyed a festive BBQ on the back deck and sailed away under a vivid blue sky. It was a terrific way to say farewell to the densest concentration of icebergs most of us will ever see.
Onward we sailed to Sisimiut, a busy fishing town, and the dramatic Søndre Strømfjord for more sightseeing and hiking opportunities. At the head of the fjord, we had one more adventure awaiting us after disembarking in the small settlement of Kangerlussuaq. Before heading to the airport for our charter flight back to Ottawa, we drove through plains, semi-desert valleys, and mountains to reach the Greenland ice cap. The moraine landscape was fantastic! Covering most of Greenland, the ice sheet is roughly three times the size of Texas, contains about 12% of the world's glacial ice, and averages about 5,000 feet in thickness even as it is declining. Standing on the second largest ice body in the world, yet realizing I would be home the very next day, was an unexpectedly surreal experience.
Saying goodbye to Greenland was bittersweet. As our plane ascended, I gazed out my window over the turquoise water of the fjords to the gleaming ice sheet. Reflecting on my experience over the prior ten days, I almost couldn't believe the journey I had taken. Instead of checking the Arctic off my wishlist, I added Greenland to the list of places I hope to return...and I understood how much more there is to see and experience in the Far North.