Sunday, July 14, 2019

Arctic Vacation, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada: July 2019

Houseboats on Great Slave Lake, Yellowknife
The charter plane to Arctic Watch Lodge flew all of us from/to Yellowknife. Yellowknife is a little quirky as a town that began as a mining settlement of tents and cabins in the 1930s and grew to a territorial capitol in 1967. It sits on the northern shore of the Great Slave Lake the deepest lake in North America which is frozen or mostly frozen during eight months of the year.

This wasn't our first visit to Yellowknife. We were in Yellowknife one February probably 25 or so years ago. Yellowknife is a great place to see Northern Lights because the weather is mostly clear. It does snow, but it is so cold that the snow stays around until the spring thaw. It was so cold that February that one day without drying my hair I walked from the B&B to the taxi and my hair froze solid in seconds. It is so cold that we had to rent blue one piece snowsuits to survive. We looked like Smurfs.

We did see the Northern Lights several nights. One night we stood on the frozen solid Great Slave Lake and to the disconcerting sound of the ice groaning beneath our feet, we watched the lights dance overhead.

The houseboats that dot Great Slave Lake are here all year. In warm weather, residents use boats or canoes to get to the mainland, and in the winter they walk across the ice.

Houseboats and Jolliffe Island, Yellowknife
Yellowknife got its name because local aboriginal people, the Dene, used copper to make their knives. In the 1930s gold seekers and other immigrants to area referred to them as "Yellowknives." The name of the lake, Great Slave Lake, is derived from Dene people called Slavey.

Much of Yellowknife and Canada resides on rock known as the Canadian Shield. This rock is what is left of the world's oldest mountains. If you are lucky or unlucky enough to have a home on the Canadian Shield, then you do not have either a septic tank or sewer system and you also don't have water. You have a "honey bucket" to collect waste and you must have water delivered to another tank. The "honey bucket" must be periodically pumped by trucks that euphamisitically declare "Nectar of the Gods" on the back of the tank.

A muskox sculpture stands near Yellowknife's City Hall. In the winter it is covered with mosses and grasses instead of flowers.

A muskox with a clean coat at the Heritage Museum
Muskoxen were alive during the time of the Wooly Mammoth. Muskoxen are descendants from herds that lived in Siberia about 2.5 million years ago. They crossed the Bering Land Bridge to North America over 90,000 years ago (Prince of Wales Heritage Center).

Old Town Bikeworks
With plenty of time to explore Yellowknife on either side of our Arctic vacation, we visited most of Old Town. We talked to the owner of Old Town Bikeworks. His business rescues unwanted bicycles and fixes them up so that they are useful again. He then sells, trades, or rents those bikes. Every part gets recycled in some way. Spare bike wheels provide additional support to the interior of the shop's geodesic dome.

Derrald Taylor, Inuvialuit carver, from Tuktoyaktuk, NWT
We talked to some of the carvers in a building just behind the glass shop. They were getting ready for a big show/sale in Inuvik (extreme north of NWT) on the July 13 weekend and didn't have much on display. Most of the carvers were from Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean. The piece that Derrald Taylor is working on is a carving of two swimming walruses.

We did have a close encounter with a polar bear; this bear was stuffed and resides in the lobby of the Explorer Hotel where we were staying.

Yellowknife is a good place to hang out in the summer, but bring your mosquito spray.

Flying home very early on July 14.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Arctic Vacation, Somerset Island, Canada: July 12, 2019

On our last day at the Arctic Watch Lodge on Somerset Island we rode E-bikes on one of the trails and up the crest of a hill. Switching the E-bike into red for the climb made pedaling almost effortless. Unfortunately for Dan, his E-bike was incorrectly calibrated so he struggled up the hill with no electric assistance. At the top, our guide Drew rebooted and recalibrated his bike and riding was much easier for Dan except that we had no more uphills to navigate.

Looking down from the crest of the hill we saw seven muskoxen below. They were very far from us, but that was the largest group we had yet seen. While they were too far for me to differentiate, Drew told us that there were six bulls and one cow in the group. Mostly, they just looked like rocks from where we were standing.

We rode back to the lodge for our last lunch--pizza. We retraced our path to the airstrip and waited for the plane to land, disgorge new passengers and supplies, and allow us to board.

Landing on Somerset Island
From Somerset Island the plane detoured to Resolute Bay located a few kilometers on the other side of the Northwest Passage and on the southern tip of Cornwallis Island. The plane was picking up cargo and delivering supplies to this remote town. One of the pieces of "cargo" received was a lovely cat named Cookie. Cookie, in a cat carrier inside the plane, was on her way to the SPCA in Yellowknife. When we arrived in Yellowknife the SPCA person told me that Cookie was sent for neutering surgery and once stable would return to her owners in Resolute Bay. Life is more complicated in the Arctic.

Despite not seeing any whales or bears, we had a fabulous vacation, and I can't say enough good things about everyone at Arctic Watch Lodge that worked to make sure it was fabulous.

Arctic Watch Lodge, Somerset Island, Nunavut, Canada WeberArctic

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Arctic Vacation, Somerset Island, Canada: July 11, 2019

Last night wind from the north blew ice toward Somerset Island. Because there was a possibility that four-legged marine predators (polar bears) could be on the ice sheets, we drove to the northern coast of Somerset Island to see what we can see. We were in the group that traveled along the west side of Cunningham Inlet. Another group traveled along the eastern coast of the inlet.

While Cunningham Inlet is ice free quite a bit of ice has built up along Somerset Island's northern coast which is the southern portion of the Northwest Passage.

Sea Algaes attached to a chunk of ice
Polar Bear Skeleton
Alas, the only polar bear we saw was a skeleton found last year and reassembled near the trail. There was also a reconstructed vertebrae section of a bowhead whale.

Glistening Patch of Snow on Hillside

Two very distant seals on the ice
Back at the lodge, the other group told us that they saw one polar bear. They were looking far out on the ice, but the bear was next to the shore. The bear saw them first and ran away. That's when they saw it. It happened so fast they didn't get any photos.

No bears, no whales.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Arctic Vacation, Somerset Island, Canada: July 10, 2019

Today, as a group we're hiking and then kayaking or rafting or paddle boarding down the river to the lodge. The Unimoog took us to a "Badlands" trailhead. We hiked about 7km through another dramatic landscape. Guide Dave who knows his arctic botany, stayed with us while we took photos along the way. Because there could be polar bears anywhere on the island, our guides always carry shotguns that can be used to frighten off an aggressive bear. In the 20 years of Arctic Watch Lodge, they have not killed an animal.

Hairy Lousewort
Mountain Sorrel with a few white sticks of Witch's Finger lichen
There have been no caribou on Somerset Island for at least 20 years. Still, some skeletal remains can be found here.
Bones of a Caribou
Caribou Antler
Snow Saxifrage
Pants stuck in the mud for 14 years
Dave told us a story about a young boy who was a guest at the lodge 14 years ago. He was hiking with his family and Richard when his boots and legs suddenly became stuck in the mud. Nobody could free him from the mud. He had to take off his pants and Richard, using a kayak paddle, was able to help the boy to safety. His clothing remains where he left it mired forever in the hardened earth.

Sea Shells
Possibly as recently as 10,000 years ago, the 1-2 km thick ice covering Somerset Island melted or retreated allowing the land to gradually rebound like a sponge once the weight of the ice was removed. The land we're walking on was once in the ocean and many fossils and evidence of sea life are visible. We came across skeletons of two separate bowhead whales far inland on a hill 67 meters above sea level.

Fox Skull
This land, although cold, seems very much like a desert. There is little precipitation, the environment is harsh, and bones stay around a long time.

Lapland Longspur

Kayak put in
Dave with shotgun on left and Dan
Dan and I chose to kayak. After lunch we put on drysuits and helmets and paddled downriver 14 km to the lodge. I didn't take my camera for the kayak portion and so missed capturing the 80 meter high canyon walls along the way. The rock walls looked like crooked columns of badly stacked jigsaw puzzle pieces almost ready to fall over. The river current swept us along and soon we were pulling our kayaks on shore at the lodge.

Photo courtesy of Dave
It was another great day of adult summer camp fun.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Arctic Vacation, Somerset Island, Canada: July 9, 2019

Attack of the Jaeger
Today, we chose an all-day ATV drive to the "Badlands" guided by Richard and Vicki. By default or because in this group of people going to the "Badlands" we were deemed the most robust, Dan and I ended up driving solo ATVs instead of being passengers in the golf-cart like ATVs.

Quickly, we ran into another attacking jaeger. It was actually a jaeger pair, and we didn't see their nest. A few meters farther along and we saw a sandpiper hoping along next to the trail. She hopped right onto her nest which had been made less than a meter from the trail. She posed for us but didn't show us her eggs.

Sandpiper nesting in Arctic Willow
At the "Badlands" so called because of the cracked, mostly bare land, we finally sighted some muskoxen. There were four and they were far. We parked the ATVs and tried to sneak up on them as well as possible given that we were all dressed in bright yellow jackets and many of us have a hard time skulking as low as we needed to be so the muskoxen wouldn't see us.

The inner wool of the muskox coat is called qiviut. It is stronger and warmer than sheep's wool, softer than cashmere, it does not shrink in any temperature of water, and it is expensive. The qiviut can be painstakingly gathered from the ground after muskoxen have molted or removed from hides after a hunt. These males are in need of some serious grooming.

Even with the wind to our advantage, we were detected. The muskoxen moved slowly away and then ran away. We headed back to the ATVs for lunch and wildflower photos.

Photo courtesy of Brian of Canada
Arctic Avens
Flat-topped Draba
Flat-topped Draba
Arctic Poppy
Arctic Buttercup
As a group we gave stalking the muskoxen another try after lunch. We found two. We were once again downwind, and keeping low we managed to get much closer. When they noticed us, they sauntered farther away. We persisted stalking and trying to stay out of their line of sight. Eventually we found a green mound, formerly used as a lemming castle, from which to photograph. Despite favorable wind conditions, they saw the seven of us with our bright yellow jackets and colorful hats even though we were uncomfortably stooped or kneeling low on rocks behind the green mound.

When irritated or ready for a fight, muskox rub their noses on their forelegs to deposit musk (hence the name). These males were warning us. They pawed the ground and rubbed their forelegs. They warily and slowly moved away with more pawing and musk scenting suddenly turning their ire on each other.

Arriving at a shallow crevice, the muskoxen faced each other and slammed into each other's head. Qiviut flew and skulls crashed. They did that a few more times and then slowly sauntered off into the distance all the while keeping several meters from each other.

We walked back to the ATVs just as the rain began for our ride back to the lodge. Driving the ATV was fun after all. When in doubt, go fast. I did.