At the Edge of the World: A Floe Edge Safari on Baffin Island
Some posts on this site contain affiliate links, meaning if you book or buy something through one of these links, I may earn a small commission. Read the full disclosure policy here. It was all thanks to one Google search. After developing an affinity for the Arctic after trips to Northern Norway and Greenland, and an interest in wildlife tourism after trips to Africa and the Canadian tundra, my Google search made perfect sense. I asked: “where can you see narwhals in the wild?“. The narwhal (or narwhale) is also sometimes called the “unicorn of the sea.” But, despite their fantastical-sounding nickname, these sea creatures are very much real. They are also very difficult for a person like me to see in real life. Thanks to my Google search, I learned that narwhals can only be found in Arctic waters around the northernmost parts of places like Greenland, Canada, and Russia. Harsh places that are not easy (or cheap) for most people to get to. Typical narwhal habitat But through the course of my search, I learned that there are a handful of adventure tour companies that try to get you there anyway. I then impulse booked the most expensive tour I've ever booked with a company called Arctic Kingdom. A trip worth the wait The trip I booked was called “Narwhal and Polar Bear Safari,” and I was SO excited for it. It's a tour that takes you out to the “floe edge” on Baffin Island in Nunavut where melting sea ice meets the open Arctic Ocean. They only run this trip 4 times a year in May/June, when the conditions are right to camp on the retreating sea ice and watch sea life at the floe edge. Life at the floe edge (yes, that's a whale tail!) The problem was that I originally booked this trip in February 2020 for a tour that was meant to happen in May 2020. The 2020 trip was obviously canceled and rescheduled for 2021. And then THAT trip was also canceled and rescheduled for 2022. So when I got the email in April 2022 that my twice-rescheduled tour was a go, I treated it like a skittish animal, moving slowly around my trip plans in case they disappeared again. But thankfully this time it really WAS happening. What transpired was one of the most incredible travel experiences I've ever had. I've been fortunate enough to do a LOT of cool things on my travels in dozens of countries around the world, but this trip to Canada's Arctic left a special sort of impression on me. Me loving every minute in the Arctic How the heck do I write about this? Part expedition trip, part wildlife safari, part glamping adventure, and part cultural exchange, it's been really difficult for me to sum up this tour in a way that I feel does it justice. I usually write about trips in an informative way to help others plan them, too. But I'm under no illusions about this specific trip: it's VERY expensive, fairly exclusive (they only take about 60 people each year), and pretty intense. I'm super privileged to have the resources to be able to do something like this in the first place, and it isn't a trip I expect many of you to book for yourselves. BUT. But. It truly was incredible, so I still want to share some of the experience with you if I can. Traveling in Nunavut's Arctic New friends, big smiles The Arctic has wormed its way into my heart, but is also one of the regions of the world most at-risk because of climate change. Yes, there's irony in traveling to a place that's so fragile, but perhaps some of my first-hand experiences can help you vicariously fall in love and care about protecting it, too. Arctic landscapes are incredible Stories from a floe edge safari on Baffin Island This post isn't really going to be organized or share much practical info. Instead, here are some vignettes and photos from some of the more memorable parts of this incredible trip. The journey itself is an adventure I'm sitting in the airport, sweating. This is actually fairly normal for me; I overheat easily when I'm wearing too many layers and dragging around luggage, and on this particular day I'm clad in winter boots and a fleece top, and carrying a very full camera backpack with a winter parka slung over my arm. It's June and about 70 degrees F in Ottawa – but where I'm heading it will barely be above freezing. What I'll look like where I'm going. In “summer” in the Arctic. It's Day 1 of my Arctic trip, and my final destination today is the town of Mittimatalik (AKA Pond Inlet), which is located on the northeastern side of Baffin Island in the territory of Nunavut. If you're not familiar with Canadian geography at all, Nunavut is a huge territory, and Baffin Island (which is the largest island in Canada and the firth-largest island in the entire world) sits almost entirely above the Arctic Circle. Pond Inlet is at a latitude of 72.7001° N, making it the most northerly point I'll have ever been. Nunavut is sparsely populated and none of its towns and cities are connected to others by road – meaning the only w
After developing an affinity for the Arctic after trips to Northern Norway and Greenland, and an interest in wildlife tourism after trips to Africa and the Canadian tundra, my Google search made perfect sense. I asked: “where can you see narwhals in the wild?“.
The narwhal (or narwhale) is also sometimes called the “unicorn of the sea.” But, despite their fantastical-sounding nickname, these sea creatures are very much real. They are also very difficult for a person like me to see in real life.
Thanks to my Google search, I learned that narwhals can only be found in Arctic waters around the northernmost parts of places like Greenland, Canada, and Russia. Harsh places that are not easy (or cheap) for most people to get to.
But through the course of my search, I learned that there are a handful of adventure tour companies that try to get you there anyway.
I then impulse booked the most expensive tour I've ever booked with a company called Arctic Kingdom.
A trip worth the wait
The trip I booked was called “Narwhal and Polar Bear Safari,” and I was SO excited for it. It's a tour that takes you out to the “floe edge” on Baffin Island in Nunavut where melting sea ice meets the open Arctic Ocean. They only run this trip 4 times a year in May/June, when the conditions are right to camp on the retreating sea ice and watch sea life at the floe edge.
The problem was that I originally booked this trip in February 2020 for a tour that was meant to happen in May 2020.
The 2020 trip was obviously canceled and rescheduled for 2021. And then THAT trip was also canceled and rescheduled for 2022. So when I got the email in April 2022 that my twice-rescheduled tour was a go, I treated it like a skittish animal, moving slowly around my trip plans in case they disappeared again. But thankfully this time it really WAS happening.
What transpired was one of the most incredible travel experiences I've ever had. I've been fortunate enough to do a LOT of cool things on my travels in dozens of countries around the world, but this trip to Canada's Arctic left a special sort of impression on me.
How the heck do I write about this?
Part expedition trip, part wildlife safari, part glamping adventure, and part cultural exchange, it's been really difficult for me to sum up this tour in a way that I feel does it justice.
I usually write about trips in an informative way to help others plan them, too. But I'm under no illusions about this specific trip: it's VERY expensive, fairly exclusive (they only take about 60 people each year), and pretty intense. I'm super privileged to have the resources to be able to do something like this in the first place, and it isn't a trip I expect many of you to book for yourselves.
BUT. But. It truly was incredible, so I still want to share some of the experience with you if I can.
The Arctic has wormed its way into my heart, but is also one of the regions of the world most at-risk because of climate change. Yes, there's irony in traveling to a place that's so fragile, but perhaps some of my first-hand experiences can help you vicariously fall in love and care about protecting it, too.
Stories from a floe edge safari on Baffin Island
This post isn't really going to be organized or share much practical info. Instead, here are some vignettes and photos from some of the more memorable parts of this incredible trip.
The journey itself is an adventure
I'm sitting in the airport, sweating. This is actually fairly normal for me; I overheat easily when I'm wearing too many layers and dragging around luggage, and on this particular day I'm clad in winter boots and a fleece top, and carrying a very full camera backpack with a winter parka slung over my arm.
It's June and about 70 degrees F in Ottawa – but where I'm heading it will barely be above freezing.
It's Day 1 of my Arctic trip, and my final destination today is the town of Mittimatalik (AKA Pond Inlet), which is located on the northeastern side of Baffin Island in the territory of Nunavut. If you're not familiar with Canadian geography at all, Nunavut is a huge territory, and Baffin Island (which is the largest island in Canada and the firth-largest island in the entire world) sits almost entirely above the Arctic Circle.
Pond Inlet is at a latitude of 72.7001° N, making it the most northerly point I'll have ever been.
Nunavut is sparsely populated and none of its towns and cities are connected to others by road – meaning the only way to reach Pond Inlet in June is by plane. And there's only one airline that flies there: Canadian North.
The travel day is a long one and includes two different combo cargo-and-passenger planes, one layover in Nunavut's capital of Iqaluit, one refueling stop, several hours of delays, and about 7 hours total of flying. And I don't even leave Canada.
Flying the length of Baffin Island from Iqaluit to the small landing strip in Pond Inlet reminds me a lot of flying across Greenland, with stark, treeless landscapes giving way to snow-covered mountains and eventually brilliant blue lakes atop melting sea ice.
We arrive in Pond Inlet in time for a late dinner at the Sauniq Inns North Hotel, the only hotel in the small town of roughly 1500 inhabitants. It's the sort of place where you leave your boots by the door and pad around the hotel in your socks.
Across the ice we go
After a night in Pond Inlet, it's time for the real adventure to begin. A light snow is falling as the 15 people and 2 guides in my Arctic Kingdom group load all our luggage into the hotel's pickup truck and don as many layers as we can. From here, we'll be spending the majority of the next 5 days out in the elements.
We're shuttled down to the edge of Eclipse Sound, where several local Inuit guides that the company works with are busy loading up large sleds and attaching them to the back of snowmobiles with rope.
Sledding through the Canadian Arctic might sound like a cute activity conjured up for tourists, but the sleds we're set to travel in are called qamutiiks, and have been used by Inuit peoples in the Arctic for hundreds – if not thousands – of years.
These sleds consist of a wooden box (sometimes with a roof/cover, sometimes not) sitting on top of wooden planks on two long runners. The planks are connected to the runners using only rope, to allow the qamutiiks to flex and shift as they bump over uneven ice and snow.
Traditionally, these sleds would have been pulled by teams of dogs, or just by humans. The advent of the snowmobile has obviously revolutionized life in the far north, but local hunters and fishermen still use qamutiiks every time they go out on the ice. (And, in this part of the world, the sea ice can be traveled on for roughly 7-8 months out of the year.)
In our case, our qamutiiks are also fitted with 4 padded tractors seats apiece, with pretty hefty springs in them to make the ride more comfortable.
We say hello to our Inuit guides, load up into the sleds, and soon are zipping off across the ice in the direction of our camp for the next 5 nights.
Camping on sea ice
There's not a lot of information (and even fewer photos) online about the camps that Arctic Kingdom and similar Arctic expedition companies use on a trip like this. So I think we're all a little bit surprised (in the best way) to find large tents set up on wooden platforms and a professional chef waving at us as we pull into camp.
This particular camp is set up each year in early May, used for 4 weeklong tours, and dismantled by the end of June.
The location of the camp differs from year to year, based on how the sea ice has formed. The team scouts possible locations and chooses one based on several different factors – the main one being that it's a spot close enough to the mainland that they don't think the sea ice beneath it will melt, or crack off and float away (no one wants their camp to float away in the middle of the night) before the season ends.
Our camp is set up near the mouth of Eclipse Sound, with the edge of Bylot Island to the northwest and Baffin Bay to the northeast. Our tents face the snow-covered mountains of Baffin Island, which makes for a pretty incredible view to wake up to each morning.
Each tent can sleep two and includes camp-style cots with real mattresses and pillows, and a propane heater that makes the tent so cozy that sometimes we have to open the ventilation flaps to let some of the freezing Arctic air in.
A camp generator runs power strips for a few hours each night so we can charge things like camera batteries. And as for lights? Well we don't need any since being above the Arctic Circle in June means 24 hours of daylight.
There's a large tent in the center of camp that serves as a dining room and lounge, with a few long tables set up. Hot water and coffee are available all day long, and a professional chef and his team whip up incredible meals three times per day using as many local ingredients (mostly meat) as they can.
And because I know you all want to know about the bathroom situation… There's no running water or showers in camp, but we all have tiny plastic camp toilets (just for pee) next to our tents, and there's a larger yurt in the center of camp with two dry flush toilets for everything else. The camp toilets are emptied daily, and all the waste from the main two toilets is taken back to Pond Inlet to be disposed of.
When we arrive, we get a brief introduction to our (incredible) camp crew, a demo on how to use the dry flush toilets, and a safety briefing about things like not wandering away from camp since polar bears live here.
The first glimpse of the floe edge (and narwhals)
Baffin Bay is as calm as glass when we see it up close for the first time. Our journey out to the floe edge in qamutiiks takes a little over an hour from camp – which sounds like a long time, but it was closer to 3 hours for the first group of the season, before the ice had really started to break up and melt.
The floe edge – called “Sinaaq” in Inuktitut – is where the sea ice that's still connected to land meets open water. And at this time of year, when the ice is melting and sunlight is super-charging algae and phytoplankton, it becomes a veritable feeding frenzy for everything from tiny marine organisms all the way up to 70-ton whales.
Most of us are hoping we'll get to see narwhals, those unicorns of the sea. The small whales migrate through these waters in the spring to their summer feeding grounds in the high Arctic, and we're crossing our fingers we'll be in their path.
It's estimated that there are more than 100,000 narwhals worldwide, with 75% of them living in Arctic Canada. The whales are considered “near-threatened,” which is a step up from endangered, but here in Nunavut it's legal for the Inuit to hunt them. Narwhals are an important part of the local diet (fun fact: did you know that narhwal skin is an excellent source of vitamin C??), and can be hunted without a permit by the Inuit.
When we arrive at the floe edge, the crew sets up camp chairs and a small tent with a camp toilet, and we all soak in our first floe edge experience. It's incredibly quiet, with little wind and only the occasional call of a sea bird.
The floe edge just looks like a normal shoreline, and I keep having to remind myself that we're standing on an ice shelf.
We stay for a couple hours that first evening, not spotting anything other than some sea birds and common eider ducks. But just as we're preparing to pack everything up to head back to camp for dinner, Peter, one of the older Inuit guides, points out into the bay and quietly says, “Narwhale.”
We all scramble for our cameras and spend the next half hour watching a mother narwhal and her calf surface quietly every few minutes not far from the floe edge.
The mother is a white-speckled brown, while her baby is a dark grey. Neither appear to have the famous narwhal tusk (which is actually a left front tooth that grows through the narwhal's head), but we're still so delighted to see these creatures with our own eyes.
We didn't know it at the time, but these narwhal sightings would end up being the best ones of the whole trip. That's nature for you: you never know what to expect.
A down day at camp
It's Day 2 out on the ice, and we've awoken to fog and wind. Billy, our head Inuit guide, says it's not safe to go out to the floe edge, so we have a slow morning at camp getting to know one another.
Our tour group is made up of people from at least 5 different countries, all either traveling solo or as part of a couple. We chat about our “real lives” over a delicious pancake breakfast, and sip coffee as one of our expedition leaders, Simon, gives us a short presentation about narwhals and Arctic sea ice.
Some of us return to the tents for a bit before lunch, while others start up a game of bridge. I sit at one of the tables in the lounge and start chatting to some of our Inuit guides who also now have the morning off.
Most of the local guides are young, in their 20s or 30s, but their cheeks and hands are browned and weathered by the snow-reflected sun and biting Arctic winds. Many of them are missing teeth – but they're all quick to smile, albeit shyly at first.
Ralph shows us photos of his baby son, and of himself and others in suits on their way to a traditional dance competition. Joby shows us photos of a polar bear he tracked and killed – and then his current favorite TikTok video. The internet has truly made the wide world contract a bit; no matter what your nationality, language, or religion, everyone can laugh over a silly social media trend.
Ralph and Brian share videos with us that they took on the tour the week before ours. The videos are of a large pod of bowhead whales breathing their big breaths near the edge of the ice. They've recorded minutes and minutes of footage, and show it to us with proud grins.
I'm struck by how privileged I feel that they're choosing to share this incredible place and little snippets of their lives with us, and try not to sound like I'm about to cry when I tell them thank you.
The next minute, though, we're all laughing as I “teach” some of the younger guys the “made you look” circle game (except without the punching). They think it's hilarious, and spend the next 4 days trying to catch me off guard with it.
And then there were whales
After lunch, Billy decides the weather has cleared up enough that we can head out to the floe edge. We don all our layers and load up into the qamutiiks around 2 p.m., and head out across the ice.
We stop at a different spot along the floe edge where the water is once again calm and quiet.
But while we get out to snap photos, a couple of the Inuit guys take their snowmobiles to scout further along the ice. They return half an hour later to tell us they've found a better spot, so we pack back up and move.
When we arrive to this new spot along the floe edge, it's teeming with thousands of squawking sea birds – which means there are likely other things around, too. It doesn't take long at all to start hearing the tell tale sounds of whales – very big whales – surfacing.
Soon we're surrounded by a whole pod of bowhead whales. I can't say I'd ever even heard of bowheads before this trip, but they are the fifth-largest whales in the entire world. They only live in Arctic waters, and these whales ARE endangered, with an estimated population of only about 12,000.
We would later learn more about bowhead whales from Simon (that they can live more than 200 years and weigh up to 100 tons), but at the moment we are just in awe watching them lift their ginormous heads as they lazily filter krill through their baleen.
The longer we sit and watch them, the closer the bowheads start coming to the floe edge, eventually swimming right up to it to dive quite literally under our feet.
The whale sightings are so good that our main guide, Jamie, radios back to camp and makes the executive decision that we should have dinner tonight out on the ice. We enjoy plates of chicken and vegetables as the whales feed and dive right in front of us, not turning back towards camp until well after 10 p.m.
Traveling by qamutiik
From a distance, ice looks flat and smooth. But the locals here know that the frozen ocean is dynamic and always changing. It's essential to their way of life – but also always a present danger.
Every day we take a slightly different route out of camp. Our head guide, Billy, leads the parade of snowmobiles and qamutiiks, using his decades of experience to pick the safest and smoothest path through the ice. The ice changes daily – sometimes hourly – and a route that was safe yesterday could be bumpy and filled with dangerous ice build-up today.
As we bump along ice hummocks, through slushy puddles, and across larger cracks called leads, I find myself constantly in awe of our guides and how intimately they can read the ice. I shouldn't be surprised, though – they start learning these skills (especially the men) from the age of 3 or so. Some of them starting going out on hunting expeditions on their own by the age of 10 or 11.
They see things the rest of us don't, whether it's a back-breaking ice hummock or some whales in a surprising place…
Meet the Crack Whales
We're headed back to camp one evening, all of us looking forward to a hot meal, when suddenly Brian, the Inuit guide who's qamutiik I've ended up in every day, notices that one of the snowmobile-sled pairs that had been behind us is missing.
Those of us in the sled worry for a minute, fearing we've maybe had another tip-over incident (we only had one, but one instance of guests being flung out of a qamutiik is enough, I'd imagine). But Brian shakes his head and says it's not an accident.
“Maybe they see something,” he says, and immediately whips our qamutiik around to backtrack and see what's up.
What's up, it turns out, is that another driver has spotted something very odd in a lead in the ice.
Leads are large cracks that open up in the sea ice. Often too wide to drive a snowmobile over, we've mostly been avoiding them. But this particular lead is currently being used by three curious bowhead whales.
Bowheads, like all whales, are mammals and have to surface in order to breathe. They sometimes do this in cracks in the ice. But, in this case, this lead is less than 100 meters from the open water, and bowhead whales are known to be able to hold their breaths for up to 90 minutes when they dive down into the depths of the Arctic Ocean.
The bowhead whales bobbing along in this lead and surfacing every minute or so are not trapped, nor do they really need to be surfacing right here. They don't appear to be feeding, either, which leads me to conclude that perhaps they're just playing.
Joby and Billy begin probing along the edge of the ice to determine how close it's safe to get, and then motion for us to get out of the qamutiiks to see these incredible animals up close.
You know it's a unique and special thing when even the local guys have their phones out to take videos.
I dub these our Crack Whales, and they end up being one of the highlights of the entire trip.
Snorkeling in the Arctic
Predicting what each day will be like out at the floe edge is impossible; the ice shifts constantly, and weather forecasts are really just a suggestion. But the crew is ready for just about anything.
We've been taking inflatable kayaks and dry suits out to the floe edge each day, hoping for mild enough weather and the right conditions for some water activities. And on our third day on the ice, everything aligns. The sun comes out, the wind dies down, and our bowhead whale friends are back.
Guides Jamie and Simon announce that it's time for kayaking – and snorkeling.
I'm first to volunteer to go snorkeling in the Arctic waters of Baffin Bay, and before I know it I'm squeezing into a dry suit and donning a pair of flippers.
We slide into the frigid sea right off the floe edge with Simon, and bob along the edge of the ice shelf. Not far away, a bowhead whale begins feeding, and another dives under the ice less than 100 feet from us.
Snorkeling is exhilarating, but also exhausting since the dry suits are so heavy and restrictive. We're only allowed to stay in the water for about 15 minutes before crawling (very un-gracefully) back out. The dry suits have done their job, though, and other than wet hair I'm completely dry!
Most of the other people in our group are either out in the inflatable kayaks with Jamie, or opting to just stay on dry land (er… ice, I guess).
More bowhead whales are diving right at the floe edge, and everyone still there is running to and fro with GoPros affixed to sticks and tripods, plopping them into the water to get footage of these often-elusive giants underwater. (The footage is pretty incredible – click here to watch some of it!)
Some of the younger Inuit guys are told they can try the snorkeling if they want, and I swear I've never seen anyone jump into a dry suit quicker.
A second group of snorkelers gets into the water – and this time a bowhead swims right underneath them! (Yes, there are rules about how far you need to stay away from wildlife, but the whales aren't aware of them, and don't seem to care about us weirdos in the water at all.)
The kayakers have their own encounters with the bowheads (the whales don't seem to care about them, either), and everyone comes back to the floe edge wearing grins.
A couple days later when we're watching some whale documentaries at camp and see a man spend DAYS out on a boat in terrible weather tracking bowhead whales only to never see one, I realize just how truly incredibly lucky we've been on this trip.
After a few days of excellent bowhead whale sightings, our guides decide it's time for a change of scenery. Instead of heading out to the floe edge on Day 4, Billy points his snowmobile towards the towering mountains of Bylot Island. This island sits across Eclipse Sound from Pond Inlet, and most of it lies within Sirmilik National Park.
We head for the northeastern side of the island, where the Bylot Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary is currently teeming with nesting birds.
The bird cliffs are a cacophony of sound when we arrive, and covered in thousands of nesting common murres and black-legged kittiwakes.
Some of us trudge through the deep snow and slushy ice to get closer to the cliffs, but eventually return to bird-poop-safe distance to just watch the birds wheel overhead.
The crew sets out camp chairs and our chef, Kevin, and Inuit guide Peter set up a makeshift kitchen and start whipping up a batch of fresh Inuit bannock. Bannock is a type of simple fried bread that some say was introduced to Canada by Scottish fur traders. Most Indigenous nations in North America today have some version of bannock or fry bread.
The type that Peter is famous for making is only made with a few ingredients: flour, water, and a hint of salt. Peter adds raisins, and fries the bread in lard (a key part that makes it Inuit bannock). It's served hot with some jam on top, and all of us go back for seconds (and thirds, some days).
As we settle down to eat our bannock, Dan, a former NYPD officer and our resident comic relief on the trip, notices a murre bird very ungracefully try to run up a small ice hill and fly away, only to sprawl out unsuccessfully on the snow. It tries again and again, and eventually scuttles off out of sight.
Dan points out the bird to Billy and Peter, asking if it's hurt or just stupid.
“The murres,” Billy says, “are stupider than stupid.” He goes on to explain that common murres – which resemble penguins when they're on the ground – are sea birds best suited to swimming and diving. They are heavy and have trouble taking off from the ground; the usually need to run across the water or jump from a height to build up enough momentum to take off.
Dan starts referring to the murres as “stupid chickens” (he calls all birds chickens, he says), and we watch as others struggle to take off from the ice. We joke that the stupid chickens might make a nice, easy meal for an Arctic fox or polar bear – but of course it's not really a joke at all.
Hunting polar bears
After we've had our fill of bird watching, Peter convinces Jamie that we should take the qamutiiks out and try to track down a polar bear. After all, the tour we're on is supposed to be a “Narwhal and Polar Bear Safari,” and so far we've only had a glimpse of narwhals.
Peter is regarded as the best polar bear tracker/hunter among our Inuit guides, and he goes out scouting to find a fresh set of polar bear tracks. He finds some, and we're soon off on a mission across the ice.
You'd think that polar bears would be fairly easy to spot on the vast, flat expanse of sea ice. But the bears are well camouflaged, and they avoid humans up here. Unlike the polar bears I'd previously seen in Churchill, Manitoba that are curious and will come right up to tundra vehicles, the bears on Baffin Island are stealthy and wary.
Because up here, polar bears aren't just predators; they're also prey.
During another quiet day at the floe edge, a few of us go for a short walk, following some old bear tracks in the ice. Inuit guide Joby comes with us, and I ask him about his favorite animals to hunt as we walk.
“Polar bear,” he says immediately, without even thinking. “And caribou because they're fast.” He shows me a set of gloves his friend's mother has made using seal fur, and tells me about some pants he's having made from a polar bear pelt.
I remember the photos he showed us earlier in the trip of a polar bear he'd hunted, and ask how long meat from one polar bear can feed a family for.
“Dunno.” He shrugs. “When we kill one, we share the meat with the whole community.”
There are a lot of people who hear stories of the Inuit hunting “cute” animals like seals and narwhals and polar bears and immediately brand the practice as outdated or cruel. But you only need to have one conversation with an Inuit hunter to realize that it's not.
The people who call the Arctic home rely on nature to provide them with what they need to survive, and they don't kill things just for the fun of it.
Indigenous peoples in Canada and other parts of the world do get special hunting privileges on their own land. (Or, the land that they've been forced to accept as theirs, but that's another conversation entirely.) They can hunt some things without permits, but need permits for others, depending on local populations and what's deemed sustainable.
They take preserving their traditions and preserving the environment for future generations equally as seriously.
(And, in case you're curious, no, we never saw a polar bear.)
Climate change and politics on Baffin Island
So how do the Inuit who call Baffin Island home view climate change? All of them we asked assert that it's very real; to them, they are living climate change, not just reading about it on the internet or hearing about it on the news.
The Arctic is warming at least twice as fast (if not 4x as fast) as other regions of the world, and all of our Inuit guides say they're already noticing changes just within their lifetimes. The sea ice is forming later and breaking up sooner, and is generally more unpredictable than it was even a generation ago. Migration and breeding patterns of certain wildlife are changing, too, which affects hunting seasons.
Someone asks Billy (who along with being one of our guides is also a Mittimatalik elder) how the locals view tourism in the larger scope of a changing Arctic. He tells us that there was discussion among the local elders about whether to allow tourism to return once COVID restrictions started to ease.
“I fought for it,” Billy says. In his eyes, tourism is important not just from an economic standpoint, but because he feels that it's important for people to see things with their own eyes.
As someone who has studied tourism development (I have a master's degree in tourism management) and who often grapples with my own role in promoting an activity that we know can have detrimental effects on the planet, I understand what Billy means. Yes, there's an economic aspect to tourism that can be important to local communities, but there's also a more intangible benefit of “showing, not telling” people about reality in a place.
For example, throughout our trip we learn about the effects of an iron ore mining company called Baffinland, which opened the Mary River Mine on Baffin Island in 2014. The company now wants to expand operations, and despite the mine providing more than 1000 local jobs, there have also been local protests over the expansion.
Billy explains that there are fears that an expansion of shipping through the protected Eclipse Sound (and a proposed railroad that would cut through caribou breeding and calving grounds further south) will further disrupt wildlife patterns.
It's all interconnected – the desire to preserve the natural environment and traditional practices, AND the need/desire to look at other economic options in a part of the world that is rapidly changing.
Mother Nature makes the plans
We see rapid changes during our 5 days out on the sea ice, too. Each day the floe edge looks different; some days it's calm and wide open, while on other days huge chunks of ice have been pushed in and we can't even get close to the edge.
I'm awed constantly by this ever-changing landscape, and take time every day to take some mental pictures alongside my digital ones. As I tell a few of my fellow travelers, how cool that we were literally the only humans on earth to see those exact views each day.
The changing ice foretells the changing season, too. The temperatures are warming in mid-June, and the brief Arctic summer is well on its way.
By the time we reach our last full day at camp, the top layer of ice has started to melt into big slushy puddles. Traveling the short distance from sleeping tent to the toilet or lounge becomes a game of hopscotch along the still-solid top portions of the ice. In just a few short weeks, where we're currently sleeping will be open ocean again.
Our last trip out to the floe edge isn't meant to be our last. But a freak, unforecasted snowstorm suddenly barrels down on us, and we are forced to spend the next 24 hours at camp. Kevin, our chef, scrambles to piece together an extra lunch and dinner as we roll with the new plans Mother Nature has given us.
Finally, at 6 p.m. on our last day, Billy declares the snowstorm over. He can once again see the mountains on Bylot Island, and we all hurry to pack up the qamutiiks and head back to Pond Inlet.
A few rays of sun peek through the clouds on the 3-hour journey back to town, and I'm almost alarmed at how slushy the top layer of sea ice is by this point. At some times, it feels like we're floating across puddles instead of driving. (The ice is still several feet thick, though, and still safe to drive over.)
When we finally return to the partially-melted harbor in Pond Inlet, many of the guides' wives and kids are there to greet them and welcome them home after weeks out on the ice with tourists like us. I find myself humbly emotional seeing these little mini reunions, and once again take time to acknowledge just how incredibly lucky I feel to be here at all.
Life in Pond Inlet
We spend one more night at the Sauniq Hotel in Pond Inlet, and have a couple hours the next morning to explore the small town. Had the weather cooperated more, we would have been able to attend a cultural performance the previous evening, but we're all happy to settle for seeing what “normal” life looks like in this town above the Arctic Circle.
We start at the Northern Store, lining up outside the supermarket-slash-post-office before it opens with some local men. We've learned that Pond Inlet (and this grocery store in particular) is home to the northernmost Tim Horton's coffee shop in the world, and so of course we want to visit.
I also go poking around the grocery store – which sells all the normal supermarket things alongside basic household goods – and am astounded at some of the prices. A frozen pizza that at home would cost $5-7 is $30 here; a single can of Bubly sparkling water goes for nearly $7. No wonder communities like this one still rely on hunting and fishing for so much of their food.
We visit the Co-op, too, which is a catch-all for everything from clothing to snowmobile parts. There's a small cafe inside where a bunch of local men are gathered for coffee, and the “parking lot” out front is filled with ATVs.
Everyone we meet is kind to us, but it's clear to see that life here is hard. There's no other way to put it.
I know from reading I did before my trip that, in Nunavut in particular, the suicide rate among Inuit populations is sometimes 10 times higher than in the rest of Canada. Indigenous communities here struggle with the same things many Indigenous communities in my own country struggle with – depression, abuse, addiction – born of generations shaped by colonial trauma and a forceful loss of culture.
I'm still so, so grateful to have had this experience, but wandering around Pond Inlet is a sobering reminder for me that I'm just a privileged tourist who flew in for a week and now gets to go home. I don't know what it's like to live somewhere like this, or what it's like to be part of a people that has endured so much.
Change is inescapable in a place like this, though, where the climate will force new adaptations and ways of life. I won't pretend like I have any expert advice or opinions, but I do hope the Indigenous communities here are provided with the resources they need to navigate this shifting identity.
When we bid farewell to a few of our Inuit guides one last time at the airport and “my” snowmobile driver Brian presses a small parting gift into my hand, I'm close to tears once again. I'm sure they won't really remember us after a full season of hard work and meeting so many people from all around the world, but I'm not likely to forget any of them.
I still don't know whether my traveling to this place has been a net positive or not – and maybe I'm just convincing myself that these moments mattered more than they did to make myself feel better.
But whatever else, I at least hope my stories and photos have given you a little glimpse into the wild, beautiful, and sometimes heartbreaking reality of life on Baffin Island.
Practical info, if you want it
If you ARE interested in saving up for a trip like this of your own, I know of three tour companies in Canada that offer floe edge trips like this in Nunavut. (There could be more, but these are the ones I know of.)
- Arctic Kingdom (who I traveled with; their floe edge trip seems to be the most luxurious – and most expensive)
- Black Feather (sounds fairly similar to the trip I did)
- Eagle-Eye Tours (they do floe edge tours in both Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay; their trips are cheaper, but you rough it a bit more)
Things to know about going on a floe edge tour like this:
- It's expensive. No matter how you look at it, this is a pricey trip. Some tours will quote the price of just the tour, but keep in mind that you also need to get to Baffin Island. And since there's only one airline that flies these routes usually just once a day, flight prices between Ottawa and Pond Inlet are often in the $2500-$3500 range for a roundtrip flight.
- Yes, it will be cold. Temperatures will likely only hover around freezing. Most companies will offer you a clothing rental option if you don't have solid winter gear. The waterproof boots are probably the most important item! (I did not rent any gear, but I also live in a cold place and have traveled to the Arctic before.)
- No, you probably won't have access to running water while you're out on the ice. This wasn't really a huge deal for me; you likely won't sweat much (if at all), so some baby wipe “showers” should be fine!
- You're going to spend a lot of time in the qamutiiks. Yes, your itinerary will tell you that you'll travel around on the ice in these sleds. But it probably won't stress just how *much* time you're going to be riding in these each day. Your camp won't be right on the floe edge (since it's always changing), meaning you may have to travel 1-2 hours to reach it.
- You may not see much wildlife. Nature is nature, and the images you see on the sales pages for all these tours are the best of the best. On my narwhal and polar bear trip, we saw zero polar bears and only a glimpse of narwhals twice. It will still be amazing, but just be aware that wildlife sightings are never guaranteed.