SAFARI IN THE POLAR DESERT


I am wearing three pairs of socks, two thermals, three shirts, a sweater and an expedition jacket, but I am still freezing. The arctic wind slashes against my face as we ride east on qamutiks, or komatiks, authentic Inuit wooden sledges pulled by snow scooters, to base camp. For five hours our small group swishes over the frozen ice of Eclipse Sound and along the shores of the majestic Sirmilik National Park, part of Baffin Island. I am burring my head deep into the warmth of my fluffy but colossal parka, hiding from the icy wind. Visions of tropical islands pop up into my mind. Did I make the right decision of traveling to this very remote Artic part of the world? But then we reach the ice of the floe edge. Arriving here is a breath taking moment, not just because the cold, Arctic air makes my lungs tingle, but because I am standing before a dazzling white desert of icy sea with only several dramatic icebergs in the distance. The only colors are the deep blue sky and some yellow forms in the distance. The qamutiks skate closer and those small, yellow dots grow into a dozen of tents: my otherworldly home for the next five days.
I am in Arctic Canada where a frozen sea awaits me together with a comfy base camp. It's better not to venture into this unknown wild alone. It took me three flights and almost 10 hours from Ottawa to get here. Pond Inlet has just over 1000 inhabitants, mostly Inuit and a mix of "Southerners" living and working here. It is a tiny, somewhat peculiar community with a couple of small hotels, no restaurants, two shops and no bars. The snow that covers this hamlet during a very long and dark winter starts to melt around the end of May. Arctic Kingdom has set up our base camp on the ice, some 70 kilometres away from town. They looked for the perfect spot: next to the bird sanctuary of Bylot Island and close to two grandiose icebergs frozen in the landscape.
At the floe edge guide Mike drops a hydrophone into the icy water so that we can hear the outlandish sonar sounds below the surface. I am detecting Star Trek-like echoes and noises from bearded seals and whales while I am gazing across immense swathes of frozen Atlantic. There is something immensely calming and soothing about it. "You know, it is a virus. When you have it, once you're bitten, it draws you back to the (Ant)Arctic. I call it the Polar virus," says Mr Heiner Kubny from Switzerland who has travelled more than 50 times to Antarctica and into the polar regions of Russia, Canada and Svalbard. Mr. Heiner is sitting extremely relaxed next to me at the border of the floe edge while enjoying the views and snapping away with his huge camera.During the summer months, the air temperature in the Arctic swings between just below zero and five degrees, depending on the wind chill. Greyish, cold weather with snow in the air and feisty winds that rattle my tent at night quickly changes into tranquil skies and a spooky mist covering the top of the giant tabular iceberg in the distance.
We embark on a walk beside a majestic iceberg in the footsteps of a huge polar bear. The guide measures the size of the animal by its tracks. "I think it's a female, but a big one." We explore the wide area around base camp on sledges while stopping now and again to admire the views, test the telephoto lenses or to warm ourselves with some hot coffee and tea. For a "top of the world" sensation, Mike suggests we climb a pinnacle shaped iceberg. "This might be your only chance to stand on a berg that is thousands of years old," he smiles. But then the floe edge calls again where some narwhals have been spotted. Unfortunately, the brown silhouettes with their legendary ivory tusks disappear quickly in the still ocean and nobody is fast enough to snap a picture. The females come to check the floe edge first, to see if it's already possible to swim through cracks in the ice to feed during the summer months in the rich waters off the Baffin Island fjords.
On my last day in this frozen world, the sky is covered in eerie black clouds; the air is cold and the top layer of ice looks and sounds like the crust of creme brulee. Back on the floe edge, Mike entertains us by trying to attract whales while making wide arm gestures. "Oh rise up, mighty Leviathans! Rise up!" he calls. Then it happens. Whether by sheer good luck or Mike's pleas, we get very up close and personal with a giant bowhead whale. The animal is feeding just below the pack ice, right next to the edge where we are standing. Every ten minutes it sticks its massive head above water to gasp some air, while looking at us inquisitively. We hear its loud breathing and smell its fishy breath. Everybody is awestruck and deadly silent. "Amazing! Any closer than this and it will be lying next to me in my tent," jokes Mr Babis Bizas from Greece, a passionate traveller who has been to every country is the world, twice. "This makes my Arctic trip completely worthwhile."Baffin Island is by far the best spot in the world to witness these rare animals, but the narwhal migration varies every year, so it all depends on Mother Nature. The best time to go, is mid June. For polar bear viewing there are much better options then this part of the world.

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