The Magnetic North

At Arctic Watch Lodge, 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle, explorer Richard Weber takes you on a tour of the tundra past in comfort and style. Welcome to the middle of nowhere

By Mark Hacking
Published in the June 2008 issue of enRoute 

Arctic Watch Lodge in Nunavut photo via Sprung.com

Arctic Watch Lodge in Nunavut, Canada. Photo: Sprung.com

My first invitation to visit the High Arctic is not that compelling. The offer: Ride shotgun with Arctic explorer Richard Weber as he drives a bulldozer across the Northwest Passage from Resolute Bay to Cunningham Inlet. This, I think, is certifiably insane: The frigid trip is 80 kilometres and the bulldozer, which was originally needed to lengthen an airstrip, tops out at five kilometres an hour.

Instead, I sign up for a more comfortable option: spending a week in August at Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge. Located 800 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle and run by Richard, his wife Josée Auclair and sons Tessum and Nansen, the lodge – actually a smattering of kitted-out white yurts – is nestled in Cunningham Inlet on Somerset Island. The season is short but intense: The lodge is only open five or six weeks each year, but during that time you have all the wilderness you need at the front step of your yurt. Cunningham Inlet is one of the best spots in the world to watch migrating beluga whales, which come here in July and August to moult.

I decline the bulldozer ride across the polar ice – which is, by most accounts, melting at an alarming rate – so I can see the High Arctic at its most beautiful and, I discover, its most dangerous. I pack my hiking boots knowing that I’m in good hands. Richard is the only person to complete seven expeditions to the North Pole, including one of the most extreme. In 1995, he and Russian doctor Mikhail Malakhov braved -60ºC temperatures to become the only unsupported trekkers to travel 1,500 kilometres from Ward Hunt Island to the North Pole and back. (They chronicled the trip in their book Polar Attack.) Josée, meanwhile, earned her legs as a guide on trips such as last year’s all-women expedition to the South Pole. On paper, they seem like the last people you’d expect to open an upscale resort.

Although Arctic Watch is in the middle of precisely nowhere, we’re a pampered bunch: hot-water bottles for our beds, fresh-baked bread and steaming apple cider by the fireplace in the lounge. There, we spend evenings reflecting on the day’s activities, the tales becoming more absurd as the midnight sun toys with our internal clocks. Sleep-deprived giddiness takes hold. There’s still some degree of roughing it. Even in this harsh environment, Richard is an exacting guide, and our days are measured by 16-kilometre hikes and 14-kilometre kayak trips (though most groups, he admits, do less). Over the week, we will be introduced to the Weber Mile. As in, “We start the raft trip just over that ridge. It’s no more than a mile.” Forty-five minutes later, our ragtag group is still hiking up the ridge, the rafts are nowhere in sight and Richard is powering across the spongy permafrost and fractured shale so quickly that he has to stop every 10 minutes to wait for us to catch up. The Weber Mile – actually about four – illustrates a kind of self-deceit among explorers; this is the type of mind-play you need to survive when the elements and bears conspire against you. (Two armed guides don’t hurt.)

Vast is too small a term to describe the landscape. Measuring 24,786 square kilometres, Somerset Island is the 45th largest island in the world. But the High Arctic is hardly barren. Rolling hills, expansive valleys carpeted in gravel, and cliffs that meet the low-flying evening clouds halfway mark the land­­-scape. There are ice caves, spring-fed waterfalls and a craggy 300-metre-deep canyon carved by the Cunningham River. Cresting a ridge to the east of Arctic Watch, we visit Gull Canyon. It’s a verdant oasis – a Shangri-La of the Far North. To the southwest, rose-coloured hills called Red Valley rival those in Utah for sheer drama. Overhead, the midnight sun casts everything in a golden glow. The history of the High Arctic is tattooed on the land. On the highest plateaus, we come across whale bones, some dating back, we are told, as far as 8,000 years. At Cape Anne, we visit the ruins of a centuries-old Thule stone house. It’s difficult to imagine the Thule, sitting in their tiny abode on the southern shores of the Northwest Passage, surviving even a single winter.

arctic-watch-lodge-1The next day, we pass the Thule site again in a test of our own survival skills. It’s the third annual Northwest Passage Marathon, and I am recruited to be a personal guide for one of the eight runners, riding an ATV loaded with spare clothing, food, drink and pepper spray to fend off the bears. The marathon skirts Polar Bear Point, which today lives up to its name: A whale carcass has washed up on shore, and a pack of about two dozen polar bears are picking it clean. We detour, leaving the bears looking like distant white tumbleweeds.

Five kilometres into the race, my can of pepper spray falls off the ATV. I don’t notice until much later. Then, around the halfway mark, the walkie-talkie battery runs dry. I am now completely unarmed. Fortunately, Hiro, a Japanese guide who has climbed Mount Everest, is with me. With his weathered face and quick laugh, he shares the Webers’ love of the High Arctic. He also has dynamite eyesight: He spots whales that are so far away they register only as minor ripples on the surface of the water. As Hiro and I ride through Red Valley, we stop to drink from streams and take photos of our marathoners forging ahead. Like me and Hiro, they’ve bonded. Sabine, a teacher from Berlin, and Cassidy, a decorator from Colorado, run lockstep to complete the entire 42-kilometre distance. The adventure is just beginning.

Writer Mark Hacking is based in Toronto

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