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On Top of the World
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Sierra Magazine
On Top of the World

Midsummer on Baffin Island, where the sun never sets on the polar bear's empire and staying alive is a round-the-clock job.

by Paul Rauber

When my friends learned that I would be traveling to Baffin Island in far northern Canada, they had no end of advice. Michelle knew someone who had once fallen through a hole in the ice who thought it important to remember that, seen from below, ice is black while the hole is bright. Marty the financial maven reported evidence of insider trading in Eskimo Pies, and thought I might like to invest. My mother reminded me to dress warmly.

And while the "risks" section of the trip brochure from Canadian River Expeditions was surely meant to be helpful, it tended to excite the imagination in various disagreeable ways. "There is the possibility of injury while traveling on sleds behind dog teams and snowmobiles over the ice and snow-particularly over rough ice and cracks," it warned. "Almost entirely, the snow and ice we travel on is on the ocean and the ocean itself may pose a risk, including drowning and hypothermia." Not to despair, however: "The one-piece suits that can be rented are 'floater' suits with excellent buoyancy and also offer some degree of thermal protection if in the water." I had no idea what a floater suit might be, but was pretty sure that I wanted one.

The risks continued: "At the edge of the camp the dog teams are staked out and serve as the alarm system should a polar bear happen to wander nearby." Furthermore, "while our Inuit guides tend to be more cautious traveling with tourists than when out hunting on their own, it is still possible that a piece of ice with the group on it could disconnect from the land-fast ice and drift out to sea."

Exactly that happened two weeks before our departure, when 142 Native Alaskan whale hunters floated off into the Arctic Ocean and had to be rescued by helicopter. Then, as we flew toward the tiny village of Resolute ("Musk oxen will charge-keep a safe distance," advised the in-flight magazine), came word that ten Inuit schoolkids from the northern Baffin community of Pond Inlet were on an unplanned trip toward Greenland after the ice they were camped on broke free and started drifting out Lancaster Sound. Rescue was not immediately possible, given the same bad weather we were flying into. Curiously, no one seemed very worried; there is a strong presumption, I learned, that Inuit can take care of themselves in nearly any situation.

The kids were supposed to have met up with a school group from Arctic Bay, rendezvousing at the northern tip of the island, not far from where we were headed in our Twin Otters, the workhorse planes of the far north. (More in-flight musk ox stories: a whole herd had been discovered frozen upright near Bathurst Island. "They had apparently tried to dig down to get at some food, and when they discovered there was nothing there but sea ice, they just gave it up.")

School Party II also had its share of misadventure. The kids were playing radios and making too much noise to notice the polar bear that entered their camp and stuck its head in the tent of the biology teacher. Awakened by the uproar, the group's guide, Simon Qamanariq, stumbled from his tent to find the bear between him and his qamatiik, the sledge pulled by his snowmobile, where he kept his rifle. All there was at hand was a tea kettle, which Simon threw with a clatter at the polar bear's feet. While the bear was distracted, Simon ran for his gun and got off a few rounds, sending the bear running.

At about the same time, we were flying over Lancaster Sound, the huge waterway that eventually proved to be the Northwest Passage that Lewis and Clark, Lord Franklin, and all those other early explorers were looking for. In the winter the inlet is entirely frozen. Now, in early June, the ice was starting to break up, and narwhal, beluga, and right whale were starting to gather at the floe edge waiting for an opportunity to move through. We followed this jagged edge south, huge regular squares of ice breaking off beneath us like western states set adrift.

No schoolchildren were visible, but we could see the tracks where polar bears patrolled the floe edge looking for snacks. I spotted a snowmobile, and then a row of white canvas tents lined up on a desolate, snow-covered beach-Cape Crauford, our camp. After several suspicious passes, the planes landed on the ice, and a parade of snow machines with qamatiiks came out to greet us.

Our party of 21, including veteran Canadian River Expeditions guide Johnny Mikes and naturalist Mark Graham from the Museum of Nature in Ottawa, was part of an experiment in ecotourism. On April 1, 1999, a large chunk of what is now the Northwest Territories will become a somewhat amorphous governmental entity known as Nunavut, which will have an 80 percent Native majority. Although the precise mechanisms have yet to be worked out, Nunavut will have its own legislative body and a need for new economic opportunities. Since these at present are largely limited to government work and a few zinc mines, the Canadian government has decided that tourism, however unlikely it might sound, is worth a shot.

And here stood Cape Crauford's first tourists shivering in a snowstorm, at least until we got into the promised survival suits, which proved snug as could be but of a garish orange color meant to facilitate sea rescues rather than complement complexions. (The suits were accompanied by little booklets with further straight talk: even wearing a survival suit, you'd be lucky to survive three hours in 50-degree water. If the shore is more than a mile away, forget trying to swim: doing so cools the body 35 percent faster than staying still. Best to hug the knees close to the chest to conserve heat in the vital core areas, and pray.)

Here in camp, our core areas were warmed by kerosene heaters and caribou skins to sleep on. When not out on the ice, however, most of our week was passed squeezed into the mess tent, drinking coffee and eating bannock, the northernmost variant of the fry bread so beloved by Native peoples of North America. (Imagine a freshly fried doughnut hole with a texture like angel food cake and you will approach the glories of bannock. Most often eaten at breakfast, bannock also travels extremely well; while we were out on the ice waiting for wild creatures to reveal themselves, our guides would unveil great mounds of the still-warm, golden nuggets, the perfect accompaniment to the snow tea made on ubiquitous Coleman stoves. The first day several of our modern, health-conscious party quailed at the thought of all that deep-frying-but that was only the first day. Thereafter we anticipated bannock when it was coming and missed it when it was gone. I miss it still.)

The source of bannock and other culinary marvels was Martha Naqitarvik, wife of the camp leader, Olayuk Naqitarvik. Martha's brother Abraham served as a guide, along with her brother-in-law Aimo, whose wife, Koonoo, helped in the kitchen. Other friends and relations from Arctic Bay also joined us, many of them monolingual speakers of Inuktitut. There were also squadrons of young children, several of them adopted, their birth parents having succumbed to alcohol or AIDS. (Alcoholism and drug abuse are widespread in the larger Baffin settlements like Iqaluit.) The kids flourished here in the freedom of the camp, running about at all hours in the midnight sun. Little Nigel proudly showed off a Labrador longspur he had winged with a stone; we begged him to let it fly off, to which he happily agreed, as it afforded him the opportunity to catch it again.

Our setup, in short, was basically that of a hunting camp, the main difference being that we were hunting wildlife-viewing opportunities, not shooting opportunities. That was the theory, at least; Simeonie Akpalialuk, the Nunavut tourism consultant who had joined us, claimed that 50,000 birders a year were ready to trek up to the Arctic for the sole purpose of crossing rare ivory gulls off their life lists.

Our photo-safari vision soon began to fray, however, particularly with the arrival of kettle thrower Simon Qamanariq with his ill-behaved dog team and old-fashioned qamatiik. Simon was looking for employment-"as a guide," he specified, lest anyone try to make him wash dishes. I'd seen his name on a list of potential guides, where he was identified by an Arctic Bay wag as a "Greenpeace supporter"-a joke, because in fact Simon's favorite occupation was shooting seals, something he did regularly and very well. He bore more than a passing resemblance to the late Japanese samurai-film star Toshiro Mifune, and loved being the center of attention, posing proudly with his antique .22 with its hand-carved stock beside whatever animal he had just dispatched.

By late afternoon of the second day the weather cleared enough to attempt an outing, although we still had to bundle against the cold. We soon learned the drill: Olayuk would opine as to where we would most likely see wildlife, and we would pile onto the qamatiiks, either lounging atop stacks of caribou skins or sheltered inside tiny covered structures called iglulas, which gave the sled the aspect of a gondola. In the old days the qamatiiks were pulled by dog teams, as ours were on occasion, but snow machines are faster, can pull greater loads, and don't fight.

Rather than the neat Santa's reindeer arrangement one sees in the Iditarod, Baffin dog teams are arrayed in a chaotic fan. These dogs are not pets: a whip is liberally deployed to urge on the shirkers. They sleep tethered to stakes in the snow, and get a handful of seal meat once or twice a week. The dog teams of Ipeelie Koonoo and Kalluk Ettuk were a lovely, uniform cream color; Simon's was a motley, scrawny lot, half covered in mud and terrified of the shallowest pools, unable to distinguish them from open water.

We were traveling under overcast skies above the open water ourselves, on shore-fast ice two to eight feet deep. After bouncing over a short field of "pressure ridges," where plates of ice had crushed up against each other, we traveled west over smooth ice, roughly paralleling the floe edge, beyond which was drifting ice and open water. We crossed a set of polar bear tracks where a mother and two cubs had detoured to see if a small rise contained a seal den-or so Simeonie interpreted the evidence for us. But it took Doreen from Ft. Worth, Texas, to spot the bears swimming among the ice floes a couple hundred yards out. Looking through the spotting scope, Johnny Mikes announced that one of the cubs was riding on its mother's back; Abraham claimed it was impossible until Johnny handed him the lens.

A short while later, Olayuk spied four walrus slumbering on a small ice floe, about 250 yards out. One had a broken tusk; another-the youngest, Simeonie insisted-was in continual danger of being pushed off. "Can you tell what they ate for breakfast?" I teased. "Oysters," he answered authoritatively. (Walrus hunters, it turns out, treasure the half-digested oysters in the beast's stomach, which are a traditional delicacy-a sort of boreal ceviche.)

While we awaited further developments offshore, Johnny hauled out his hydrophone, a speaker box attached to a microphone that we dangled off the edge of the ice, allowing us to listen in on the surprising cacophony of the undersea world. Everyone gathered around, none more fascinated than the Inuit, who after all have a professional interest in the ways of sea creatures. Johnny identified the sounds for us: the falling-bomb whistle of bearded seals, the chirping of beluga (whalers used to call them "canaries of the sea"), and the squeaky-gate call of narwhal. The kids tried making bearded-seal noises in hopes of attracting one. Simeonie, too, liked to yell at animals in their own language. "Ooooh-ahhhhh!" he'd bellow at the sleeping walrus-who paid him no attention.

After several hours, most of our party got cold and tired and returned to camp. A handful of us remained lined up at the edge of the ice, binoculars trained on the walrus-berg, which wind and tide were bringing ineluctably closer; I could see steam rising from their backs in the soft, peach light of the midnight sun.

The sixth sense we call luck caused Mark Graham to glance up the floe edge in time to see the polar bear before he was upon us. A young male was shambling in our direction, about 150 yards off. "As soon as he gets our scent, he'll run off," promised the old hands. A hundred yards out, the bear reared up on his hind legs and sniffed the air-before lowering his head and continuing toward us.

There was no indication of aggression and none was needed: he just kept coming. When the bear was 60 yards away, Simeonie suggested that perhaps we should get going. We dashed to the qamatiik, backward glances confirming that the bear was likewise quickening his pace. Fortunately, the snow machine started on the first try, and Simeonie drove directly at the bear. Startled, he wheeled and fled to the water, jumped in, hauled himself out on a nearby floe, turned back and snarled.

He then began to run east-alongside us, as it turned out, as we headed for home. We were so busy watching for him on our left that we almost missed the mother bear and twin cubs galloping hard on our right, also heading for the shelter of open water. Alarmingly, our trajectories were converging, and if we hadn't stopped we would have ended up with polar bear cubs in our laps.

Back in camp I retired to my tent to change out of my survival suit and enjoy a much-needed nip of the whiskey bottle before joining the others in the mess tent, where my comrades' dramatic story of bears galore was getting a highly skeptical response. "Okay Paul," people demanded, "is it true what they say about all these polar bears?"

I looked blank. "What polar bears?" I asked innocently.

The next day a snow machine from Arctic Bay arrived with the good news that the kids on the ice floe had finally been rescued, but they had to leave behind $50,000 worth of snow machines. It also brought a new, larger mess tent. Despite a lack of directions, the Inuit staff slapped the tent together in short order, in a manner totally exotic to us southerners.

No one told anyone what to do -- rather, whenever a problem arose, everyone would gather around, murmuring softly in Inuktitut until a consensual decision was reached and work resumed. The new setup also featured a small generator to run Martha's toaster, and I soon developed a Pavlovian response to its starting hum in the morning. It was one of the few available means to mark the passage of days in a place where the sun never sank lower than 7 degrees above the horizon.

This fact became universal knowledge in our camp thanks to Gisela Gibbs, a grandmotherly adventurer from Hamburg, who delivered a detailed lecture one evening in German on how to calculate the arctic sun's angle of declination. Also locally famous were the better anecdotes from Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams, which people kept reciting to each other despite the fact that nearly everyone had read the book. One concerned a southerner and an Inuk (the singular form of which Inuit is the plural) standing by the floe edge.

The Inuk suggests that they step back, and no sooner do they do so than a walrus that had been hiding underwater explodes up and lands on the very spot where they had been standing. Lopez's laconic explanation is that this hunting technique "is an old polar bear trick." This became an all-purpose explanation for any sort of sneaky activity, like snatching the last piece of bannock. "Old polar bear trick," someone would sagely intone.

We started venturing farther afield, heading east along the frozen edge of Admiralty Inlet, the large fjord cleaving Baffin's top. Not ten minutes out of camp on our first excursion in that direction, Simon shot a 90-pound ringed seal as it sunned itself beside its air hole. The ice is liberally dotted with such holes and seals as we travel along; the cautious dive for cover at our approach, the curious end up as supper. Doreen asked whether the seal was male or female. "Male," responded Simon, pointing to a hole in its lower belly. Doreen looked confused. "It has an interior organ," Simon said. "He only brings it out when he needs it." She still looked mystified. "He lives in the water. It is very cold in there," Simon explained.

Simon proceeded to dress the seal with a showman's flair, drawing his razor-sharp knife down the belly, carving around the head and flippers, and pulling the skin free from the two-inch layer of blubber. He spread out the skin, cut a long, narrow thong from it, and punched a dozen holes around the perimeter of the hide. Piling on choice organs and pieces of meat, he laced it up tight into a neat package. Our party watched with rapt attention. "That's not how we do it in New York," said Shelly Friedman. Just as dogs in the Arctic are not pets, hunting is not recreation; it's how to stay alive.

That day and each following we continued out to whatever portion of the floe edge was unencumbered by pack ice, sometimes traveling an hour or more to get there. The sun was now blazingly bright. A good day to test your sunglasses, said Simeonie: "If they aren't good enough, you go blind." When the ice was smooth we could race along under the huge sky, strange futuristic travelers like extras in a northern remake of The Road Warrior.

The landscape was mesmerizing in the same way the desert is, and indeed at times it felt as though we were crossing a salt flat in Nevada. The palette was at least as stark: the arctic landscape reveals itself in subtle variations of white, black, blue, and gray. After a while, nothing seems of any importance save the journey and the ice and the light of the midnight sun: soft, forgiving, and magical, capable of revealing all.

Each day our journey brought us to a different spot along the floe edge. We went there because this is where nearly every arctic life-form congregates. The summer sun nourishes phytoplankton on the underside of the ice, which nourish arctic cod, which nourish seals and whales, which nourish orca, polar bears, and Inuit. The latter don't go for any old seal, though. Bearded seals are better for making the traces of dogsleds, and adult-male ringed seals -especially in midsummer-taste awful. If you ate one now, said Abraham, you would belch up a kerosene-like gas for days. The take of other animals is limited by quota to maintain stable populations. The community of Arctic Bay, for instance, is allocated 100 narwhal and 12 polar bears a year.

The hunting was not always easy, either for Inuit or sightseers. The ice was breaking up faster than usual this year (possibly thanks to global warming, whose most devastating effects are expected to hit the Arctic first), so migrating whales were not obliged to pass before us. We spent several cetaceanless days at the floe edge, drinking tea and eating bannock while watching the seals bobbing offshore watching us. Abraham passed out what he called "Eskimo cheese"-unadorned chunks of raw caribou fat. "This fat is not fattening," he insisted. "It's like a vegetable."

Finding few takers, he lay on his side at the floe edge, singing tunelessly and scratching his foot on the ice, trying to mimic the sound mother seals make to summon their young. The point was to lure the seal close enough so that once shot, it could be hauled in with a gaff or grappling hook. Johnny tried to discourage gunfire, arguing that it was unlikely to improve our chances of seeing wildlife. This policy was causing a bit of tension, because Olayuk's mother, our camp elder, had put in an order for seven seals-none of which, to our guides' chagrin, they had yet procured.

Earlier that day Simon had missed an easy shot; when our sled passed him, he was shooting at a hastily arranged target, to see if his sights needed adjustment. (His aim was not in question-the day before we had seen him casually bring down a passing king eider with his ancient rifle.) Now he sat off by himself, sullenly carving a piece of soapstone. "They won't let me shoot, so I carve."

Equally frustrated, Jobie Issigiatok roared off in his snow machine, returning ten minutes later dragging a ringed seal behind him. The hungry guides fell to butchering it, snacking on bits of still-steaming liver and esophagus. (The word Eskimo is from the Algonquian Eskipot, meaning "eaters of raw flesh.") Bits of raw liver were being handed out, and I would have tried some had not Mark Graham just finished telling me how riddled with intestinal parasites they were. So I waited for some parboiled intestine. I also tried some blubber, but only after a bite of liver-any other method, said Abraham, would be "unnatural."

At 10:30 p.m., we were ready to return to camp. Simon spotted a year-old ringed seal 20 feet offshore. "Can I shoot this one?" he asked. "Simon, do what you do best," replied Johnny. "Thank you very much," he replied curtly. As soon as he dispatched the seal, Abraham and his friend Ikie set out in the kayak to grab it; at this time of year, especially before the seal has put on a lot of new fat, it will sink within a few minutes of being shot.

Moments before we departed, Simon's gun blared again and another seal was brought in. A seal bobbing offshore next to Simon Qamanariq is a seal with a death wish.

As the days passed we found ourselves more and more enmeshed in Inuit life. Some of the women wangled an invitation to visit Martha's tent. "Like a garden," they reported, full of colorful hangings and soft skins. The kids followed us on our jaunts each day, amusing themselves by throwing snowballs-with impressive success-at passing fulmars and kittiwakes. (Just as there are no pets and no recreational hunting, play has a purpose: in the Arctic, a good arm is a survival skill.) On the long trips home the kids would fall asleep, and we would have to hang on to their jackets to prevent them from falling off the speeding sleds.

Our excursions were punctuated by a wide range of mechanical difficulties, which were always resolved successfully and on the spot. For example, late one evening as we traveled last in the qamatiik caravan, Jobie's front suspension broke. His open-end wrench was too small to remove the broken part, so he filed the wrench down until it fit. Later, a snapped suspension rod was repaired by prying the snowmobile open with a harpoon, heating one end of the rod on a Coleman stove, and carving new threads in the other end with a Swiss Army knife.

Whenever Aimo's snow machine overheated, we would pause to throw snow on the engine. We once encountered a lone guy in the epicenter of nowhere who had his entire engine disassembled and spread out on his qamatiik. He had broken his crankshaft, and was converting his two-stroke motor to a one-stroke motor. We didn't offer any help because he didn't need it. His kettle was on the boil, and a brace of ducks lay in the snow. When we passed that way again the next day, he was gone.

That night I sat up late, writing up my notes. Simon sat next to me, drinking coffee and working on a carving. "It looks very boring, writing," he said.

Our last full day was the third in a row with unusually bright, warm weather. The sea ice was covered with puddles and melting rapidly, necessitating long detours. Simon took one sledful due east to see the cliffs of the Borden Peninsula, where hundreds of thousands of fulmars nested, while others elected to stay in camp. I clambered onto Olayuk's departing sled, intent on seeing whale. After several fruitless hours at our usual spot on the floe edge, we loaded up and continued east toward Cape Charles York. I wondered whether Olayuk was taking our inability to find narwhal or beluga personally; as we blasted through ridge after ridge, careening violently, I began to see him as Ahab in his monomaniacal pursuit of the Small White Whale.

Hours later we came to rest beside a grounded iceberg around which had marched a polar bear of scarcely believable size; I photographed its prints using my Swiss Army knife for scale to quiet the skeptics at home. To my relief, we soon retreated to the floe edge, where Johnny's sled had stopped. We arrived just in time to see two 20-foot mottled silver and black narwhal surface 30 yards out. In the hush you could plainly hear their labored breathing as they stored up air for a long swim under the ice; it sounded like a dying person on a respirator. Then they were gone. We could go home.

It was well past midnight when we entered the mess tent for a festive last meal of seal stew, sweet-and-sour seal liver, and a famous dessert I had always wanted to try: whipped caribou fat with berries. (It was heavenly, sweet and smooth and lighter even than whipped cream.) Over dinner we learned of the narrow miss that Simon's party had experienced. On the way back from the bird cliffs, Simon was about to drive over a puddle on the ice when he realized at the very last moment that it was actually open water. He swung his snow machine violently, and his fully loaded qamatiik missed falling through the ice by inches. The most frightening thing, his passengers said, was the look on Simon's normally stoic face; when he came into the mess tent, hours after the incident, he was still visibly shaken.

The next morning, I found myself in my now customary position in the back of Olayuk's qamatiik, scanning the horizon for seals, bears, whale, and dodgy bits in the ice. Our patience was rewarded with a pod of beluga swimming right by us before diving under the ice: seven plump gray females and a large white male, curving high out of the water before sounding beneath our feet.

We also encountered, for the first time, opposing traffic: Abraham's handsome brother Moses, who was returning to Arctic Bay after killing a narwhal. He had the bloody four-foot horn to prove it, in addition to a large load of meat and the tail lashed to his qamatiik. The tusk he would sell for $200 a foot to the Japanese buyer who would come through in September. The meat he would use to feed his dogs.

That afternoon the Twin Otters returned to take us back to the land of green vegetables, microwaves, anonymous meat, and canned dog food. After shedding my survival suit, I realized, I would be far more insulated from the rough mechanics of human life than here on the jagged northern cusp of the world, where survival can mean killing cute sea creatures at close range and eating their flesh raw. Back home we might shudder at such goings on (over our steak tartare and sashimi), but standing here at the edge of the arctic ice, I had nothing but admiration for the skill, knowledge, and good humor of my Inuit hosts. They made me proud to be a human, and determined to be a more competent one.

I went home and sharpened all my knives.

Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra.

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