Baffin Island Trip


Eileen L. Keelan


We had so much fun on our Arctic trip last year that we decided we'd like to go back and look for a few of the things that we did not get to see. So, Brian spent the early part of the winter exploring the internet for places to go and ways to get there that would fill in some of those gaps. After a great deal of searching, he finally located a place, Pond Inlet, on Baffin Island, and an agency, that looked hopeful.


Excerpt from the first letter we sent to Marian at Tununiq Travel & Adventures: "[We] are interested in visiting Pond Inlet this summer to see marine mammals, nesting birds and arctic plants...Ideally, we would like to have a floe edge trip of four or five nights plus three days or so to explore around Pond Inlet...Of the less common species, we would especially like to see bowhead whale, walrus, and polar bear."


From her response: "Travel on a long sled (qamutik) pulled by a snowmobile, operated by an experienced Inuit guide. At the floe edge, the landfast ice meets the open waters of Baffin Bay. There, you may see the narwhal or unicorn of the sea, polar bears from a safe distance, seabirds, seals and perhaps the rare bowhead, the largest whale to occur in Arctic waters."


A great many e-mail messages were sent back and forth over the next few months. Our friends, Jim and Ellen, from California were going to join us for the trip and we worked hard to accomodate everyone's schedules: theirs, ours, the animals', and that of the landfast ice. We finally settled on a ten-day trip, meeting in Ottawa on 15 June, and traveling to Baffin Island together.


Until recently, Baffin Island was part of the Northwest Territories. In April 1999, the NWT split, with most of the offshore islands forming the new territory of Nunavut, 85% of whose inhabitants are Inuit.


We flew out of Ottawa on Friday morning, 16 June, landing a few hours later in Iqaluit, the new capitol of the new territory. We had enough time between flights to take a tour of the city via taxi, seeing the new government buildings and searching for caribou on the tundra. Then it was back to the airport for the flight to Pond Inlet.


Marian met us at the airport and we made arrangements for the evening. Of the twelve rooms at the motel, only one was available, due to two conventions in town and a problem with the plumbing. So, after eating dinner together in the motel dining room, Jim and Ellen went to their room and Brian and I went off with Marian to her house where we displaced one of her sons from his bedroom for the night.


The following day we spent hoping to depart for the floe edge. Unfortunately, the winds were too high and we spent the day in town instead. After eating breakfast, we hiked to the dump and the sewage ponds, two not-so-scenic wonders (which no birder would think of missing) in search of interesting gulls, shorebirds, and waterfowl. After lunch, the afternoon was spent walking most of the way out to the drinking water pond. Marian served dinner at her house and then we moved to the motel.


Conditions were still not good enough to depart for the floe edge the next morning, so, after breakfast, we hiked all the way to the water pond, where we had a few nice birds, such as Baird's sandpiper and red-throated loon. This excursion took the entire morning so we really had to rush to get back to the motel in time for lunch. The meals were served cafeteria style and, because there were so few people to accommodate, the serving window was only open for about fifteen minutes (truly a narrow serving window of opportunity!). We made it back in time for a lunch of omelet sandwiches, mashed potatoes, and oatmeal cookies.


Marian came into the dining room as we were finishing and said that conditions were still uncertain, so we decided to hike to Salmon Creek; we'd be back in time to leave in the evening, if it were possible. We had just set out when Mike, Marian's husband, caught up with us and said we had the go-ahead to at least travel to Bylot Island, directly across Eclipse Sound from Pond Inlet.


We got our stuff together and down to the ice where it was loaded on the sledge. We sat inside, leaning against the gear and covered with blankets. Our Inuit guides, Mathias and his assistant/cook Julia, rode the snowmobile that pulled the sledge.


A couple of hours of travel on the ice brought us to Bylot Island. Brian went to let Julia know that we were going to go exploring while she and Mathias set up camp. She replied, "Don't hurry back", which we hoped meant "take your time". We saw a few flowers in bloom and heard a snow bunting singing from the top of an eroded cliff, its song filling the steeply sided valley.


Dinner was ready when we returned, a delicious meal of caribou stew; Brian, the vegetarian, had a sandwich of Arctic char. The six of us crowded into the mess tent which was kept comfortably warm by the Coleman stove. There were three camp stools and a variety of wooden food boxes and coolers to sit on. After eating, we had hot chocolate, then went to our tents and to bed.


Brian was awake long before -- well, long before what would have been dawn, had there been a dawn, which there wasn't exactly since we were enjoying twenty-four hours of daylight. Still, there he was, wide awake at only three a.m., so he decided to go exploring. He hiked to the top of the plateau where he had a magnificent view of a braided river valley bordered on one side by hoodoos, spectacular eroded columns of soft rock. On one sat a magnificent white phase gyrfalcon; none of the four of us had ever seen this color phase before, so it was one of the primary targets of the trip.


He returned shortly before seven. We had hot chocolate and breakfast, then Mathias and Julia led us on what, for most of us, was the first hike of the day. We climbed a steep hill, where we saw a caribou track, the only evidence we had of caribou besides the one at Iqaluit. Then, up another steep slope from which we looked down and saw the white phase gyrfalcon that Brian had seen during his morning constitutional. We set up the telescope and took turns gazing down at the bird where it sat on top of a hoodoo.


Then, we clambered down yet another slope to a river bed. We set up the scope again and saw the gyrfalcon from below. It is always nice to be able to circumnavigate your life birds (or color phases). A pair of hikers came by and pointed out the gyrfalcon's nest and we saw fluffy babies in it.


Mathias and Julia showed us the hoodoos up close, the other reason for visiting the riverbed, then returned to camp and left us to explore them on our own. Julia gave us bag lunches of sandwich, cookies, and a juice box before they left. Returning to camp along the riverbed, the route advised by Mathias, was quite eventful. There were exciting river crossings, an impromptu swim, and ice-berg hopping that included a near-baptism in Eclipse Sound. We eventually arrived back at camp in various states of wetness ranging from fairly drenched to completely-soaked-from-head-to-toe, as well as being sunburned. We changed into dry clothes and hung wet things from tent poles and inside the cook tent to dry. Some equipment never recovered from the trauma. Our own recovery was considerably advanced by the arrival of Julia at the tent door with bowls of hot fish stew.


The next morning, we were up around seven a.m. and left camp shortly after ten a.m. on an all-day sledge (qamutik) trip to the floe edge. We stopped to see black guillemots nesting on a ledge; Mathias climbed up to check for eggs but found none. Glaucous gull nested here too. Lunch was at a pre-planned stop at a gyrfalcon nest in a crevice in the sea cliffs, but we did not see the birds. We reached the floe edge at dinner time. There was one other group there, somewhat disgruntled because they only had one day in their schedule at the floe edge and their best find was bearded seal, with no birds more unusual than king eider.


The sledge ride had been long, windy, very cold, and bumpy -- but fun! Still, after reaching camp it was good to go for a walk and stretch out a bit. We saw a number of new species: thick-billed murre, northern fulmar, common and king eiders, and ringed seal, the latter a new mammal for us.


Now that we were at the floe edge, we had a possibility of seeing polar bear. To make sure that we saw him before he saw us, Mathias and Julia took turns standing guard with a rifle during the night.


After breakfast in the morning, we piled into the sledge to run along the floe edge and look for birds and mammals. The ice got too thin as we went north so we returned to camp and continued for about a half hour to the south. We finally stopped at some open water, near a hunting camp, and had nice looks at some of the same birds, but saw nothing new. The wind that had kept us land-bound had also piled huge ice chunks up against the floe edge, making it difficult to find the open stretches of water that were necessary to locate birds and narwhals.


Back at camp, we had caribou spaghetti for lunch then spent the afternoon in the sledge, driving around the ice flow to look for polar bears. Mathias took a wide loop out over the floe beyond the hunters' camp, and finally saw a polar bear! It was one of the most exciting moments of the trip. We all had good looks at the bear through binoculars and scope. We watched him shift position from all fours to up on his hind legs to look around. Eventually we saw him run off, his hind legs swinging out widely, as if on snowshoes. He was a beautiful creamy color. Ellen asked Mathias how old the bear was and Julia translated, "He's a boy and he's old." Then she laughed and said, "I guess I should say he's an old man." We moved up for a slightly closer second look than headed back to camp. This was Brian's 150th species of mammal that he has seen in North America, an impressive total.


On the way back, we passed some hunters leaving with their kills. Julia said one of them was her brother and that every year he goes shrimp fishing in "What's that place? Newfoundland! He brings home good shrimps." She also explained that the hunters' drag the seal skin behind the sledge in order to clean it as they go.


In the morning, we returned to the small section of floe edge that was accessible. The sea fog was pretty bad but there was a youngish polar bear feeding on remains by the hunters' camp, to which we walked to view the bear. It was only 100 yards (Jim & Brian), 200 yards (hunters), 400 yards (estimate based on image size in telephoto lens), or six feet (Eileen) away! Eventually it swam by, regained the ice, swam again, and foraged quite close to the qamutik. After about three hours, the fog lifted for less than an hour, but that was long enough to see that there were many hundreds, perhaps close to a thousand, thick-billed murres in the water and on ice, like penguins, and that small numbers of dovekies were present as well! Jim and Ellen had seen only one dovekie before, in Holland. Brian and I had seen some on St. Lawrence Island but I didn't see the birds well enough to count them.


We also added arctic tern to the list and saw a jaeger, probably pomarine. We left the floe edge about one p.m. and returned to camp for a quick lunch before packing up. We started the long trip home, going by the shore of Bylot Island again. We stopped at an archaeological site with the remains of partially sunken sod houses and a burial mound of rocks that Mathias called a "cache for humans". That evening, we camped at the gyrfalcon eyrie. Snow buntings were singing and a gyr wingtip was visible on the nest (it was a white phase).


Brian had another one of his early mornings so he walked to the gyrfalcon eyrie, adding hoary redpoll to the list. The redpolls were calling as they flew along the tops of the cliffs. He did not get back to sleep but later heard and saw the brown phase gyrfalcon replace its white mate on the nest.


The sledge ride back was slow and very rough. We stopped for lunch only about seven miles from Pond Inlet at an especially beautiful spot where the surrounding mountains were reflected in the meltwater on the surface of the ice. When we were at Bylot Island, we collected the meltwater for drinking and cooking water. Out at the floe edge however, we melted snow instead of using meltwater because of its salt content.


Back at the motel, about three p.m., we took showers, stopped at the visitors center, and had dinner. Then we took a six-hour hike to the Salmon River which was 8 km round trip. We returned via the high tundra ridge, hoping for arctic hare, but without luck. The walk was delightful though, our warmest, calmest weather of the whole trip. We had excellent luck with shorebirds, finding two pairs of common ringed plover, a lifer for Brian and me, and seeing white-rumped and Baird's sandpiper displays (the former aerial plus one wing raised, the latter with two wings raised) at incredibly close range. The Salmon River was very scenic, especially from the high tundra ridge, and we photographed the midnight sun almost on the summer solstice.


The next day we flew to Ottawa and then drove back to Rochester. We were a little disappointed to have missed seeing narwhals and perhaps a few more species of arctic birds, due to the unfortunate timing of the wind blowing four miles worth of icebergs up against the floe edge. However, we did get to see shorebirds on the breeding grounds, white phase gyrfalcon, ringed seals, and experience the excitement of travel by qamutik; and last, but never least, polar bears!