We were bobbing gently in water off Coburg Island in the Canadian high Arctic, way too early in the morning, watching thousands upon thousands of thick-billed murres cling to impossibly high cliffs.
This is one of the Arctic’s best bird colonies, with a blanket of seabirds nesting on thin cracks in the rock. Murres, northern fulmars, guillimots, kittiwakes — the birders were going crazy.
And then we spotted the bear. He was healthy and young, maybe three or four years old. Perched on a thin, crumbly ledge, he watched the birds intently, mouth open, teeth showing as birds flew past. He was raiding the nests for chicks. Every few minutes, we’d spot him with another hapless nestling in his mouth.
The rest of those in the Zodiac boat — the mammal folk among us — woke up in a hurry. The snapping of camera shutters sounded like the paparazzi had landed, as our bear stepped gingerly from rock to rock and at one point, did a bodybuilder pull-up to reach a higher shelf.
“In 30 trips up here, I’ve never seen a bear in a bird colony,” said Matthew Swan, owner of Adventure Canada, the company running our cruise ship, Clipper Adventurer.
Jim Halfpenny, our bear guy, agreed that night during his lecture.
“We think we’re seeing an adaptation to the warming climate. The ice is disappearing earlier and freezing later. The bears normally hunt seals from the ice. Now it looks like they’re going for birds on the cliffs.”
And this was just the start of our nine-day trip through the high Arctic.
We’re talking very high Arctic here — a place where Churchill (the polar bear place) and Yellowknife ( Iceroad Truckers) are considered the tropical south. Our cruise took us to tiny, remote Inuit villages along with all the infamously disastrous sites of failed 19th century polar explorations where one wonders how nations could make heroes out of so many stubborn jerks.
First came assorted islands where all those explorers met such awful ends. There was the expedition of Englishman John Franklin, who was looking for the Northwest Passage. When he failed to return, it was the unsuccessful rescue missions that actually wound up mapping a good portion of the high Arctic.
As for Franklin and his men, it’s thought that lead poisoning played a part in their deaths. Lead was used then as a solder for canned food. Testing many years later showed lead levels 1,000 times what is allowed today. Plus, they simply didn’t eat like the Inuits, so scurvy also played a part. Though they left three graves on Beechey island, the remains of the survivors, who apparently tried to travel by land to civilization, have never been found.
There was also an American expedition, which failed not because the men under Adolphus Greely did anything wrong but because the American military ships didn’t leave supplies as planned.
After not getting re-supplied at their original camp, Greely and his men went south 300 miles to Pim Island in what basically looked like a large rowboat, where they expected to find emergency supplies. But nothing was there.
Pim, a scant 760 miles from the North Pole, is wretchedly bare and windswept, even in mid summer. There’s fresh water and that’s it. No game to hunt, no sheltering cliff. Nothing. The men built a low rock wall with their hands and lived for months under their overturned skiff, eventually, some think, resorting to eating their dead comrades.
Greely and only six of the original 26 were still alive when rescue finally arrived. Today, the rock wall remains with bits of clothing. And there’s now a plaque in their honor.
Meanwhile, the sad stories of the high Arctic didn’t end with just the expeditions. There’s also Grise Fjord, Canada’s most northerly community. Today there’s a thriving village of 135 people with a school, medical facility, telephone and Internet. But back in the early 1950s, when the Canadian government wanted to stake a claim to the Arctic and needed residents to do it, several Inuit families were relocated with promises of good hunting and the ability to return home in two years if they wished.
None of this turned out to be true and the families lived for two years in tents in that awful climate just 960 miles from the North Pole. The government eventually made a settlement payment and a formal apology and today the locals greet the occasional tourist, eager to demonstrate their clothing, their food and their way of life.
Eventually on our trip, we hit nearly 80 degrees north latitude. And had there been time, we probably could have sailed right to the North Pole. We didn’t start seeing serious icebergs, much less the thick pack ice I remembered from a previous trip in the 1990s, until heading south toward Greenland.
Finally, we had scenery that looked properly Arctic — cold, windswept, rocky, desolate, gray — and full of the most fantastic icebergs with sloping curves, sharp towers and slanted shelves, often cut with artful striations of trapped rock and dirt. We wove our way through them to the beach of Kap York, coming close enough to see pockmarks where seawater had eaten into the ice.
But if this is summer, imagine what winter must be like. No wonder the Inuits here who greeted explorers in the early 1800s believed themselves to be the only humans on Earth.
In the next few days, we visited other communities and other islands. And we walked to the tongue of a glacier where two young Inuits on our staff did a thrumming throat song in an echoing ice cave.
But the highlight of the trip was the town of Ilulissat.
Ilulissat’s crowning glory is Jakobshavn Glacier, the world’s fastest and most active glacier. It “creeps” at a rate of 4.5 miles every year (both toward the ocean and back again) and 18 to 20 tons of ice calve off it daily — yes, daily.
Though fishing, especially shrimp, is the town’s main occupation, tourism is big here. So there’s a boardwalk that goes from the edge of town through the tundra right up to that huge mass of ice.
The boardwalk, alone, is beautiful, lined with fluffy Arctic cotton and an endless mat of crowberries, which in August, are ripe for the picking. I started, of course, with those crowberries, which were so thick, you just needed to sweep your hand through the inch high ‘bushes’ to come up with a fistful. They were so sweetly tart, they made my tongue shiver.
Then it was on to the ice. At the end of the boardwalk, you can take trails up low rocks to this incredible overlook. Before us, as far as we could see, stretched a floating mat of ice — sloping frozen mountains along with smaller, bergy bits and even smaller cocktail cubes that heaved slowly back and forth with unseen currents.
I was tempted to eat my cruise ship sandwich at the overlook picnic table but decided, instead, to head for Ilulissat’s famous musk ox burger.
The burger, honestly, was worth the $23 price tag, not only for its flavor but also, frankly, as an experience. The meat was tender, with a hint of game that gently hits the roof of your mouth and, like one of our Inuit friends said, speaks of the land.
We wound up the day with a Zodiac tour of Disko Bay’s icebergs, threading our way through a white soup of bits, big and small. Dave, our boat driver and guide to all things frozen, grabbed a chunk of clear glacier ice for drinks, holding it up so his face was fractured by its crystal facets.
And then we heard a loud crack, followed by a rumble, followed by a huge splash. The entire side of a house-size iceberg had collapsed, disintegrating as it fell into the water in a gray cloud of ice crystals that looked like smoke. And then, the largest chunk rolled, leaving its smooth, translucent, green underside sparkling in the sun.
That night, we toasted the berg, the burger, the entire day and our entire trip with glacier cocktails of crystalline chunks that had fallen as snow — possibly before Neanderthals reached Europe.