Remember to Look Down: My Arctic Awakening on Somerset Island

December 4, 2017 Special Guest Author

Editorial and Content Manager for Beyond Luxury Media, Katie Palmer is a homebody with wanderlust, a city girl who loves wide-open spaces, a lowbrow fiend with highbrow dreams. Above all else, she is happiest after the first bite of dessert.

Somerset Island, home of Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge, ablaze with moss, lichens and wildflowers under the midnight sun. Photo Katie Palmer

Somerset Island, home of Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge, ablaze with moss, lichens and wildflowers under the midnight sun. Photo: Katie Palmer

“Remember to look down”, urged our guide, Dave, whose wandering part-Welsh, part-Canadian accent and infectious enthusiasm had our group hanging wide-eyed on his every word. “There’s a tiny kingdom beneath our feet.”

The tundra crunched, squelched, scratched and splashed beneath my muck boots as we hiked across Somerset Island, the terrain changing suddenly from lunar-like shale to quick-mud – “If you feel your feet beginning to sink, run quicker”, was the advice from Dave – and then unexpectedly from grassy meadows woven with downy Muskoxen fur to crystal-clear, stony bottomed streams.

The Call to Wild Arctic Adventures and Vast Open Spaces

The landscape, at first glance, appeared barren and unforgiving. There above the northern tree line, where the conditions are too harsh for shrubs to grow far from the ground, not a tree or a bush speckled the greyscale that stretched impossibly far into the distance – from the wide, clear river that carved its way towards the sea, to the darker, foreboding undulations on the horizon and above, to the broad, three-dimensional sky. There was so much sky. Not only up, but left and right too – it stretched around us, unencumbered in all directions: a dizzying panorama impossible to capture in one frame.

Bull muskoxen face off and fight for dominance on the barren Arctic tundra near Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge. Photo Nansen Weber

Bull muskoxen face off and fight for dominance on the barren Arctic tundra near Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge. Photo: Nansen Weber

For some time I had been drawn to the Arctic without knowing exactly why. It wasn’t until I was confronted with endless space that it dawned on me: living in the city, I had grown accustomed to a lurking sense of claustrophobia; the wide-open, barely inhabited Arctic was the antidote.

Save for a cluster of tented structures (our home for the week) that stood stubbornly white against a mottled backdrop atop a cliff, dwarfed by the vastness of their vicinity, this bleak canvas bore no scribbles of civilisation – nor, initially it seemed, of life. No buildings; no roads; not even the possibility of bumping into another person, there being no one on the island but us and only 200 people in the world further north than this: the most northerly lodge on earth. Even in the remotest of places, I have never before felt so utterly isolated.

But the closer I looked, the more I realised there is actually life everywhere in the Arctic, surviving and thriving against the odds. Like an optical illusion, that grey expanse is actually a blend of colour: every shade of juicy green moss and wispy grass; yellow Arctic poppies; purple saxifrage; snowy pom poms of cotton grass; and bright orange lichen pushing persistently through the crags and crawling over rocks – none more than a few centimetres tall, the world in miniature.

The stunning, surreal Cunningham Inlet as captured during the spring melt by the team at Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge. Source Biking on the Arctic Ocean

The stunning, surreal Cunningham Inlet as captured during the spring melt by the team at Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge. Source: Biking on the Arctic Ocean

On one balmy afternoon (by Arctic standards), as we summited a hill big enough to make talking a second priority around ten kilometres inland and 220 feet above sea level, we felt the crunch of shattering sea shells underfoot; we looked down, disconcerted, and only a few paces away the 8,000-year-old bones of some unfortunate whale emerged jagged from the ground like a surrealist Dali painting. We were standing on an ancient seabed, now overlooking the distant ocean.

This is a trip that will stay with me for the rest of my life. There’s something spiritual about the Arctic; something that makes you feel you were meant to have that experience in your lifetime. It’s a sense of peace, and you know that all is great with the world. I just wish that everyone on the planet would have a chance to experience that.” - Jeanne Beker, media personality and author.

As we stared, perplexed, Dave explained the process of isotonic displacement, comparing the earth to a sponge: however long you put pressure upon it, when that weight is removed the earth will reassume its original shape. This particular patch was busy righting itself (at a rate of around an inch per year, which is apparently lightspeed in geological terms) after the most recent ice age, some 12,000 years ago.

Arctic Expeditions Highlight the Unbelievable, Showcase the Impossible

Again, my sub-consciousness experienced a jolt. In my fast-paced, ever-changing world, stumbling across an artifact so old would be almost impossible, save for in the glass case of a museum (and even then very rare). The idea that those bones had rested untouched in that exact position for so long was a sharp reminder of how isolated this place was; of how connected it is with the past. Time seems to pass slower in the Arctic, where there are fewer people hurrying it along.

Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge guide Tessum Weber alongside an ancient Thule sled made of whale bone. Photo Katie Palmer

Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge guide Tessum Weber alongside an ancient Thule sled made of whale bone. Photo: Katie Palmer

Another day, as we maneuvered our roaring ATVs over the craggy terrain to explore the floe edge under a swirling mass of threatening grey clouds, our convoy stopped suddenly, silence filling our ears as, one-by-one, engines were switched off. Tessum – another guide and oldest of the Weber boys (or should I say men, since he’s well over six foot and recently engaged), whose family of intrepid explorers own the lodge – had something to show us. We hovered over him, breath bated, as he crouched conspiratorially and gently moved aside a tiny, makeshift shelter constructed out of flat rocks to reveal what looked like a miniature bow; in fact it was a piece of muskox horn meticulously carved into a bow drill for lighting fires, the craftsmanship recognisable to the trained eye as that of the ancient Thule people.

“Of the vast uninhabited territory of the Canadian High Arctic, why is this modest little inlet so special? This is why. A beluga whale delights in being while mothers and calves play in the nursery shallows of the Cunningham Inlet. For millennia, only but polar bears and Inuit have seen this joyous show.” - Will Robson, freelance journalist and photographer.

The crucial and most fascinating detail, though, were the copper rivets that would once have held the string in place: since the Thule didn’t have the means of mining metal, these minute, rusted pegs – so easily overlooked, but for the guides’ eagle eyes and insatiable curiosity – were tangible evidence that Viking ships had once endured the perilous journey into the infamous Northwest Passage, their passengers landing on Arctic shores not to rape and pillage, as their unsavoury reputation would suggest, but to trade peacefully.

Like the whale bones, this discovery awakened a deep sense of awe; I was overwhelmed with the idea that in this special part of the world, I was one of the privileged few who would tread the same ground as these historical people – ground that has remained untouched since they were here, and will (hopefully) remain untouched for many years to come.

From Arctic Watch’s Rugged Isolation Comes Connection and Sheer Joy

As I drove back towards home and the promise of a slap-up dinner, surveying the empty, unearthly landscape and pondering those people who’d been here all those thousands of years before me, I felt somehow more connected with the world. Loosening my vice-like grip on the handlebars, I let my body sway with the motion of the ATV, relaxing and for the first time enjoying rather than fearing the growling power beneath me.

Just at that moment, the heavens opened and huge snowflakes began tumbling towards me, bright white against the angry sky. I lifted my face, stuck out my tongue, and smiled.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at PureLifeExperiences.com.

 

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