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Insider Insights: Articles

Welcome to the Arctic: Day 4

(Mark Robinson)

(Mark Robinson)

By Mark Robinson
Wednesday, November 20, 2013, 12:49 PM

SEE ALSO: Welcome to the Arctic: Day 3

Despite the fact that I felt like I’d just closed my eyes, I was far too excited to on board an actual research ship in the Canadian Arctic and so I dragged myself out of bed way before the morning wake up call went out.

A quick shower and then I headed down to the front deck to take a look around at the Arctic landscape (actually, we were still south of the Circle, but close enough). The sun was shining brilliantly and the fog was completely gone. The light glinted off the nearly still surface of the water below and while the wind blew past cold the sun was hot on my face. A few clouds hung in the brilliant blue sky but it was quite literally the perfect day.

In the sea around the ship masses of ice hung in the water, ethereally blue below and bright white above. Little chunks drifted past us as the ship made it way through the field of ice. Larger pieces bumped and scraped along the hull making low booming noises as they were shoved aside by the steel. All around us the ice bobbed and danced in the wake of the Ioffe, but with the water like glass, barely had any motion otherwise.

As I watched out over the ice field, a sudden puff of vapour heralded the arrival of a species that I’d been waiting to see. A pod of whales was paralleling our ship and as they came to the surface to breathe, their exhalations puffed into the cold air. Aaron (who had wandered on to the deck just after me) grabbed a pair of binoculars and trained them on the puffs.

“Bowheads,” he declared, “ Yup, definitely. You can tell by the V shaped cloud. And they’re pretty common around this area.”

Whales. Bowhead whales were now part of my morning routine. I love the Arctic.

As we ate breakfast, the ship continued on into a large bay. At the far end the small town of Pangnirtung lay huddled on the rocks of Baffin Island. Actually the word huddled isn’t strictly correct. More like, sprang up. As we pulled closer to shore just off the beach, we could see the town spread out along the edge of the water. Behind it, an airfield was quite evident. As the ship began to settle into anchor, I watched a propeller driven aircraft lock into a glide path and make it’s way down to the runway. Dust puffed up from the ground as the plane bounced to a landing. That meant that the runway wasn’t asphalt but actual dirt. Definitely a whole different world than southern Ontario.

We dropped anchor and the ship came to a full halt. The One Oceans crew busied themselves getting the Zodiacs ready. It wasn’t long before we were speeding across the water towards the beach. There was no dock so we had no choice but to make a wet landing. Luckily, we had been equipped with some serious rubber boots (called Wellingtons) and getting off into the water wasn’t that big a deal. Walking around the town in them was not my first choice so I strapped my hiking boots around my neck. When we finally hit the beach the driver drove the boat as far up onto the rocks as possible and we prepared to disembark. Getting off the boats wasn’t exactly easy, but the idea was essentially “the higher the drier,” The further you could get to the front of the boat, the less water you had to step into. Good theory in practice and although I almost got a bootfull, I just managed to keep myself dry.

(Mark Robinson)

(Mark Robinson)

The beach was a mixture of rock and sand, not easy to walk on, but still alright. We spent a bit of time chatting with a few locals who came down to the beach to greet us. Once everyone had landed, we walked up into the town. It was a dry, dusty kind of place that reminded me strongly of the towns I’d seen in the panhandle of Texas. Without the snow and ice that I expected to see on Baffin Island, it really looked just like a cowboy town. The biggest difference was the lack of big trucks and the addition of both snowmobiles resting outside of every home and the qamuticks that were all over the place. Dogs were everywhere and we’d already been warned that these were not pets. Trying to give them a scratch was NOT recommended if you had a strong attachment to your fingers.

George and I wanted to get some shots of the town and we knew that a new art centre had been built in the town so that was our first destination. As we walked up the street towards the centre, the dust puffed up from under our feet and blew across the road. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. The Arctic region is a desert so there’s very little snow or rain fall and what does fall tends to disappear quickly in the summer. Winter is an entirely different story.

We got up to the centre and it was a decent sized building with brand new signage. The sign was in both Inuktituk as well as English. The Inuit language is very interesting and almost pictographic in it’s written form. When there’s a full sign of it, it becomes almost a graphic design in its right. George and I set up the cameras and did a few bits introducing the place and finally after we’d made everyone else wait for us, we went inside.

(Mark Robinson)

(Mark Robinson)

This was the first time I’d ever viewed homemade Inuit art close up. I was amazed at the intricate carving in the whalebone and soapstone. Animals were the predominate theme at all scales. From tiny earrings to massive whalebone vertebrae almost every sculpture was of a polar bear, or a whale, or a seal, or fish. There were paintings and tapestries of wilderness scenes and even those had many animals.

Wait, tapestries?

Yup, medieval style tapestries are made in Pangnirtung thanks to a government program from years ago. When the Inuit began to modernize, their nomadic lifestyle was no longer as important for survival. That lead to the creation of towns and villages that were permanent. However, this also lead to the problem of few jobs being available in the far north. Mining was too expensive at the time and while fishing was possible, only a limited number of boats could work at any given time. So, the government came up with a variety of plans to help out. One of those was creating programs that encouraged the creation of art. In the case of Pangnirtung, weaving was introduced to the women of the town in the 190’s as a livelihood opportunity. It was also a way of allowing the people to represent their culture and tell traditional stories. It’s become an important part of the town and tapestries have been exported around the world.

George and I spent about an hour in the centre filming and getting interviews with various people. The looms weren’t running at full steam, but we got a chance to see at least one of them working. It’s a fascinating and complicated process and I have no idea how they manage to make so many varied and interesting works of art so quickly. I wanted to pick one up for Beth but the prices started at 250$ and went up from there. Ummm, yeah, not going to happen on this trip anyway. Even the earrings were 70$. I don’t begrudge the artists the money as they’ve worked hard on their art, but I just didn’t have that kind of money.

The hills behind the centre with their hiking trails and streams began to beckon and George and I finished up with a few last shots and then headed east through the town. The streets were dusty and covered in a kind of gravel and that gradually gave way to a dirt packed trail that led up into the hills alongside a crystal clear stream.

As we began to hike up the trail, we noticed a bike and a couple of kids by a big pool created by rocks in the water. And one of them was just toweling off. They’d been swimming! Seriously, swimming in the stream that was probably the same temperature as the water that you get when you yank on the blue lever on your water cooler. You know, the one that tastes awesome because it’s cold enough to freeze your teeth? I officially decided that these kids were more manly that I could ever hope to be and one of them was a little girl.

Much chastened, we headed up the trail towards a large waterfall that we could just catch a glimpse of about a kilometer away. And that’s when the mosquitoes struck. One moment there was nothing and the next, we were being dived bombed by the biggest flying bloodsuckers I’d ever seen. Big hairy mosquitoes began to buzz around my head and landed on my arms. The extreme (for the Arctic) heat of the day (it was round 14 C) was both good and bad. Good in that I could be wearing a t-shirt, bad in that it meant bare arms are really good mosquito bait.

Lucky for me, the mosquitoes were in the mood for Greek that day. They were slow and while they landed on me, didn't bother to immediately bite. I could watch them wander on my bare arms, nuzzle my skin a bit and then wander off. George on the other hand went from normal to furiously itchy within a few minutes. I filmed him smacking at himself with a kind of gleeful satisfaction. I owe him a few from the pranks he’s played on me in Tornado Alley.

We made our way up the trail towards the top of the hills and along the way, I could see grasses, flowers and small bushes among the rocks. The trail wound its way around huge boulders and ducked down closer to the water here and there. George and I had to film the hike up and that’s harder than you might think. The only way to film it with any semblance of having something for the editors to use later is to set up the camera, walk past it and then repeat. A lot.

It took forever, but we finally made it up to the waterfall. I walked down the slope close to the water while George set up the shot. We did a little back and forth to show off the falling water and by the time we’d gotten a few shots George was making noises like he was going to tear something off of someone. The mosquitoes were moving in with a vengeance and now even I was getting bit.

We decided that as awesome as the view was and as vivid the green of the landscape, the wildlife was becoming too hostile for continued operations. We packed up the cameras and headed for ship. It was a bit of a hike, but a scruffy little dog accompanied us on the way back, for a little while at least. He had great fun running alongside us and by the time we arrived back at the town, he was bored of us and wandered off among the houses.

As we walked back through the town, we noticed an Inuit artist working on a walrus sculpture. He was using a traditional Inuit tool – a high speed, industrial Dremel. Getting things done quick is often more important than being completely traditional. The piece looked like it was going to be beautiful when it was finally done, but we didn’t have time to wait for even an industrial Dremel, so we thanked him for the demonstration and continued on to the ship.

By the time we’d reached the beach, the Zodiacs were already ferrying people back to the Ioffe and we ended up on the last one to head out. This was not the last time we’d make it just in time to get back.

Lunch was another feast and I managed to get through it by skipping the soup serving. Yeah, I know, it’s tough to explore the Arctic. Especially when there’s only four courses a meal. I even had to order my own food! All joking aside, the chefs did an incredible job of preparing a massive amount of food for the whole ship everyday. Three meals a day plus snacks for over 50 people for breakfast, lunch and dinner can’t be easy.

The afternoon consisted of a lecture in the very bowels of the ship put on by Mathias. He talked about polar bears, their habitat, ecology, etc. It was like being back in university only without the panic that exams were coming. And a little less alcohol.

Not too much else exciting went on after that. A bit of free time that I used up by standing on the top deck and watched the seas drift by as the Ioffee headed out and away from Pangnirtung. We were on course to rendezvous with the Arctic Circle itself the next day…

(Mark Robinson)

(Mark Robinson)

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