By Joan Larsen
There are very few untouched wildernesses remaining in our world today. Even as a quite young child, my dream was to explore the most remote islands I could find on our globe. The High Canadian Arctic – until lately – remained isolated islands, mostly inaccessible with their nearly year-round ice. It was the home of the lord of the ice – the majestic polar bear – who roams at will, scattering harmless seabirds who fly up at his approach. I couldn’t miss seeing that.
I would find a way.
One of the world’s largest icebreakers, Kapitan Khlebnikov, would give the thickest ice a try, taking on 90 hardy people – who couldn’t believe their good luck. The heads of World Wildlife Fund and Audubon Society were on board. In open water, we could use the Zodiac rafts on board, weaving around the pack ice or icebergs. And, in this land in summer, the sun never sets so we could be on shore night or day, depending on weather conditions.
Those of us who were in “survival of the fittest” mode would climb upward for the more spectacular views we would get the higher we got. The filigree coast of Baffin Island was just plain gorgeous!
But this island is home to the largest of the world’s narwhal populations and numbers more than 60,000 whales. Once you see that narwhal tusk – which is actually a long hollow tooth up to 10 feet long protruding from his upper jaw – you will find that other whales pale in comparison. Narwhals don’t have sword fights with their tusk. They don’t spear their favorite snack – polar cod – with it either. It is just there! (We ran across a local hunter in this land of subsistence living who showed us his narwhal tusk that was about 8 foot long, saying that it will bring him $1000 US. These people are so poor that this is an enormous amount of money for his family!)
Hanging over the rail became a spectator sport for we never knew what would pop out of the ocean. Ringed seals knew they were gorgeous, stretching out on the ice like cover girls, waiting to be photographed. Walrus, obese, slovenly looking and utterly charming creatures, would pick up their sleepy heads and look at us. Their eyes were tiny and obscured by long white tusks and whiskers so you could barely see them. When they tired of being ogled, they “plopped” into the sea.
There we circled every island, touching base in our Zodiacs on those that had archaeological sites or graves of explorers of the 1800s who managed to get there in one piece, but found the ice hemmed them in from a return trip. The stories were poignant and mesmerizing. Our ship’s flag unfurled at half mast as we visited the most tragic of Arctic shores, the overwintering site of the 1845 Franklin expedition that was trying to discover a Northwest Passage so long ago. The bleached grave markers told their own tale of this fateful time in exploration.
I wanted to be sure I did not go home without seeing the famous Arctic sentinels, the musk oxen, making sure our guides would make the effort to find them. And we did! I find it hard to believe that these amazing Ice Age animals still exist in the modern world.
Being close to a polar bear is not a casual moment. Polar bears are big; they can weigh up to 1400 pounds… and we saw them on land and on the ice everywhere. Although they would only be shot in self defense, our guides carried firearms at all times… and insisted that those on shore remained fairly close together. Unlike grizzlies who I found can pick and choose, polar bears look on humans as a very delicious meal.
The little bears, born last Christmas, are vulnerable to attack by adult hungry males so will be the mother’s close companions for 2 years… and we were so fortunate to see so many in a single expedition. But we did see major signs of global warming that already was affecting the Ice Bear most of all. It is he who is dependent on the creatures of the sea for food. When the floes melt, there is no pull-out spot for seals and others to lounge. But while I have seen polar bears swim some miles between the present floes, exhaustion noticeably sets in and without a place to rest, he is going to be lost. I have already seen a few close calls. Thoughts of what effects there will be as our planet warms – and yes, I have seen the effects of the warming in the Antarctic as well – is devastating me.
The magnificent Arctic blues and mauves of the skies still reign over the High Arctic, framing landscapes that seemed to have no equal. The native towns were few and far between, with dogs and dog sleds far outnumbering the people population – who largely lived off the land. But it was the birds, the tiny flowers coming out of a layer of snow, and the magnificent creatures of the land and of the sea, only seen rarely in other places, that were the pieces of memory that will forever remain.
These islands were places of the heart.
“Travel is about that gorgeous feeling of teetering into the unknown.”
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”