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Notes from the frozen Arctic

I must have dozed off at some point, despite the bumping and the scraping of the sleds on the base of the qamutiik as we hurtled across the snow and ice. It was the second morning of our trip, and we were not yet in the rhythm of this strange and unusual surrounding. Our little caravan was made up of three skidoos, each pulling a qamutiik. The first qamutiik was a single-seater skidoo driven by the team leader, Terry and his qamutiik was loaded with fuel, heaters, and some of the camping equipment. The second was a double-seater skidoo driven by Nolan and the qamutiik was filled with luggage, two tent roof bars, a large cooler box filled with food, as well as Patrick and me. The third qamutiik, also a double-seater was driven by Silas and hauled camping equipment, food, stoves, and Ben.

A sudden stop woke me up; our guide Terry had spotted a musk ox a little way off the track. As we unwound limbs and sorted out the camera equipment we wanted to use, the musk ox stayed fixed in his spot, calmly chewing on what little vegetation he could find. He had dug through the snow and ice and found a clump of yellowed grass and it seemed satisfying enough for him. Terry explained to us that until recently this bull had led a herd of females for many years, but a younger and fitter had male picked a fight and defeated him.

As the muskox dug the snow to search for food, it seemed as though he was quite content to be relieved of the hefty responsibility as the leader of the herd. In fact, just a few days earlier, a member was killed by a pack of Arctic wolves. The defence system, so unique to the musk ox seemed to have broken down for an instant, giving the wolves the chance for a much-needed meal. This frozen landscape is harsh and unforgiving. Any opportunity for a meal however small or big is a welcome respite and can make the difference between life and death. In the meantime, we spent a good half hour with the musk ox as it pawed at the ground with food as its only agenda for the day.

We left the musk ox to his modest meal and continued over ice and snow for what felt like hours until our small caravan stopped again, this time for a musk ox carcass. Our guides walked around the carcass inspecting the wolf tracks as we three photographers looked at the carcass which was frozen solid. There seemed to be quite a bit of meat left on it, but we decided to press on in hopes of finding the pack of wolves further down the valley. The sloping mountains encasing the valley we were travelling in began to spread apart leaving a wide area in the centre. Visibility here is good especially with the sun shining brightly. A large herd of musk ox was spotted about 500m ahead of us, in the centre of the valley just in front of a narrowing. An approach by foot was deemed to be the best option and as we made our way towards them, the herd started closing in and forming their typical defensive wall. We must have barely been 300m from the herd when in an almost choreographed motion, they turned simultaneously and bolted up the hill on the far side of the valley.

Their thundering hooves kicked up ice and snow enveloping the herd in a wispy white cloud. It was time to return to the qamutiiks and come up with a plan. Terry decided to unhook his qamutiik and head out with just the skidoo and search around the area for signs of the wolves. An hour later he returned without coming across any evidence of the pack. After some hot tea and a lunch of steaming pasta, we decided to return to the musk ox carcass and set up camp on the opposite side of the valley in hopes that the wolves would return. Back at the carcass, we found a fluffy and rather adorable looking polar fox wrestling meat off the frozen remains. I spent time with the fox which was not too shy while Terry and his team built the camp. It wasn’t long before the cold began to seep through my layers, and it was time to take refuge inside the tents. The next morning, the wolves had not yet returned but this time there were two foxes on the kill. They were rather endearing with their unique way of running- bouncing on all fours in an amusing way and pausing intermittently to turn around and look at us, holding one paw up. They had quite a tough job wrestling the meat off the frozen musk ox. Chewing furiously to eventually tear the meat seemed to be the most efficient way to get anything of the kill. There was still plenty of food for the foxes having no other scavengers to compete with.

The next day was a white-out day and with the low visibility, we only made it to a hunting cabin in the middle of the frozen sea ice. As we approached the door, we saw that something had tried to force its way into the cabin. A polar bear had scratched at the door and when it did not give way, it had apparently drunk one of the fuel reserves before promptly vomiting it all out at the back of the cabin. It was still snowing with hardly any visibility by the time the boys had stoked the fires in the cabin to heat it up. They head back out to look for any signs of wolves in the area. Terry left us with bear bangers- “scare cartridges” for a gun to deter any bear from making an attempt at breaching the hut while the team was away. The temperature inside the cabin was just below freezing point, but being inside gave me a sense of being in a warm place conducive to a good nap. When I woke up the visibility had cleared up considerably and we all watched a delightful sunset across the icy Hoved Island towards Eureka Sound.

It was nearly four hours before our guiding team returned and they heated up some food after which we all dug hungrily into a tasty dinner of potatoes and chicken. As we packed up the next morning, any hope of seeing the polar bear had dwindled; there was no sign of it anywhere.

Travelling in a qamutiik is not for the faint-hearted. For those choosing to sit on the back on the cooler boxes, the icy wind whips your face constantly. The ground is not flat; the wind creates wave-like formations on the surface so the sleds of the qamutiik rise and fall with great thuds. The wind was too much for me to cope with so I spent most of the journey inside the shelter, in relative warmth. Clear blue skies awaited us the following morning. Instead of heading up towards Eureka Sound, the team agreed that we should pursue a more eastern route which would lead us to explore Vendom Fiord. On the frozen sea, the snow mobiles towing our heavily loaded qamutiiks managed an average speed of about 30km/h. We would stop from time to time, to make photographs of the amazingly beautiful and completely untouched landscapes and we even came across a remote rockface full of oceanic fossils. Approaching Vendom Fiord we encountered fresh wolf tracks. A solitary animal had crossed the sea ice in the direction we were heading. Further up towards the northern end of the Fiord, we discovered several sets of wolf tracks of what must have been two different packs crossing the are shortly before our arrival. After finding a suitably sheltered spot, we decided to pitch camp. Again, our guides team left us to scout the area on their snowmobiles. This time, the loaded hunting rifle stayed with us and instructions were confirmed about how to identify an approaching polar bear that has, in turn, identified us as its next meal.

I have had the privilege to spend days and nights in seemingly empty deserts. But with the snow absorbing even the slightest sound of a passing wind gust, being out in this polar desert made me realise that the only sound I could perceive now was that of my own blood circulation. Calm winter days in the high Arctic are dead quiet.

We pushed as far North as we could before we were forced to turn back. Vendom Fiord was our last campsite before we began our journey south. The landscape here was ethereal; snow, ice and mountains which form part of the Arctic Cordillera. The further north we travelled, the colder it seemed to get. In Vendom Fiord, the temperature dropped to well below -50 C; we had proof it was really cold when even our Inuit guides started covering up more seriously! By this time, many of our camera bodies had shut down and only the mirrorless cameras were up to the task.

Although photographic equipment manufacturers such as Nikon, Canon, or Sony will only guarantee fully functioning products in temperature ranges of 0° C. to 40° C., modern mirrorless digital cameras fare quite well even down to -25° C. However, once temperatures drop to below -45° C., activating any camera becomes tricky. With the Nikon Z9 cameras used on this expedition, batteries had to be removed from the camera and kept close to the body underneath at least two layers of clothing. Once inside the camera, batteries lasted only for a few minutes to maximum an hour before the cold shut them down. We used special gloves to keep our fingertips from freezing but still allowed a practical handling of the camera and lenses. A warning to photographers working in these temperatures: avoid touching the tip of your nose to the back of your camera, it could get stuck!

As we made our way slowly back to Grise Fiord, we were getting used to the cold and the environment but were disappointed at not having found the wolves. It was a heart-warming arrival in the hamlet; the headlights of the skidoos had been spotted from a distance and as we pulled into the village, people were gathering along the road to welcome us back home, chattering excitedly and asking about how the trip went. Their families were also very happy to see their boys back safe and sound. As we slept for the first time in a while in a heated house, we dreamt of returning to Ellesmere Island to find the elusive wolves.

A bit about the wildlife in this unique environment

During the short summers, finding food is easy enough but in winter, the land is covered knee-deep under snow and ice. Musk oxen survive on moss and lichen that they can dig out. In a beautiful example of symbiosis, ptarmigans are known to follow the herds as they move across the landscape, knowing that they can partake in the small amounts of food that are dug out. True to their nature, as we were observing the calm and supremely confident solitary male, a pair of ptarmigans fluttered down near us and edged closer to where the musk ox was digging, hoping for a bite to eat.

During the long winters, the musk ox coat comprises of two layers: an inner layer of short and fine wool called qiviut which is shed in summer and an outer layer of long, coarse, guard hairs that reaches their hooves and give their distinct bulky look. But their adaptation is not limited to their looks; the haemoglobin of musk oxen is three times less sensitive to temperature than that of humans. Moreover, being heterothermic, they have the unique ability to shut off thermal regulation in parts of their body allowing them to reduce the loss of heat especially in their extremities.

A unique behaviour of this species is its defence mechanism. When confront with a pack of wolves, musk oxen will hide their young within or behind the group and face outwards, forming a wall and presenting their broad horns. While this is an effective defence against their natural predators, this behaviour become their downfall once small firearms became widely used for hunting.

Meanwhile their main natural predators, the Arctic wolves are also highly adapted to this unforgiving environment. According to a scientific publication in 1973 by Kenneth Swan and Robert Henshaw, there is an increase in the blood flow in the foot pads of the wolves resulting in an augmented input of heat as well as a concurrent heat exchange and therefore a lower risk of exposure to the extremities. Their foot pads are also covered with a thick layer of fur, while their ears are small to reduce the risk of losing heat. Arctic hares meanwhile have shorter legs just like the wolves, fat accounts for 20% of their body weight and they can easily dig holes in the snow to escape the worst of the cold and storms.

In recent years, weather patterns have been unpredictable and there are instances where the muskox and hares cannot find sufficient food to survive. As their numbers plummeted so did those of the wolves which are almost entirely dependent on these prey species.

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