June 30, 2006

The Journey to Ellesmere Island

Yellowknife, Northwest Territories to Resolute Bay, Nunavut – (Day 2)

At 7:30, with rain threatening from an overcast sky, we get disconcerting news at the First Air cargo office. No way will the plane be able to take all our stuff the way we have it packed. Undaunted and determined, we get creative. We can each check 2 pieces of luggage, so we consolidate the food into three boxes. The stuff-able things like tuna-in-pouches and the bags of M and M’s get tucked into the pockets of polar fleece jackets and crammed into corners of the bulging duffel bags. And miraculously, it all fits. If anything bursts, we hope it will be the M and M’s and not the tuna. My scuffed old duffel is now strapped with duct tape to pinch hint for an over-stressed zipper that has finally given up.

Lugging our fat backpacks, we struggle onto the plane to Resolute Bay, our last commercial flight on our odyssey to the High Arctic. The final leg to Ellesmere Island must be by charter plane since no commercial flights span the hundreds of miles to this almost inaccessible destination. The charter flight is very costly, and weather conditions often make departures and arrivals difficult. Long delays, sometimes for days, can take place. Dave’s permit allows him to work in an area where there is a small weather station, and since this is a government facility, more paperwork and clearances are needed to allow the flight to land there.

The commercial plane to Resolute lands at Cambridge Bay for refueling and to take on passengers, but there’s a delay because of the need to change aircraft due to a mechanical problem. Another moment of mild panic – will our supply boxes get left behind? We try to watch the baggage carts as they load the replacement plane, but then we get fatalistic and figure what will be will be. We can survive without the tuna. The M and M’s are another matter altogether. M and M’s are a basic food group along with Werther’s caramels.

Resolute Bay, Nunavut

We (and the luggage!) arrive at Resolute late in the afternoon where we are greeted by Rhonda Peterson, the cheerful proprietor of a comfortable motel near the airport. We ask Rhonda how we can get into the hamlet of Resolute, a distance of 5 miles. Without a moment’s hesitation, she tosses us the keys to her vehicle. “Just leave ‘em in the ignition when you get back,” she says.

Resolute, established in the early 1950’s by the Canadian government when it relocated groups of Inuit from Baffin Island, hangs on determinedly despite its isolation and a struggling local economy. The children are beautiful, their faces alight with smiles. In a village of 150 people, it has not been necessary to instill in them a fear of strangers. They are openly curious about us, and with unabashed directness, they ask Nancy and Dave why they are so tall. Me they can relate to better in terms of adult height. During his 20 years of travel to Ellesmere, Dave has established some firm and lasting friendships. The proprietor of a local inn lends us parkas in anticipation of low temperatures and cold wind on Ellesmere. He insists there is no rental fee and waves away our protests and efforts to pay him. “Just bring ‘em back. You lose ‘em, you own ‘em!” he says with a smile. Another example of the hospitality and the generosity of people in Canada has just been logged onto our mental scorecard.

June 29, 2006

“Four to Get Ready, and Four to Go!”

Minneapolis, MN to Edmonton, Alberta to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada – (Day 1)

Getting to the High Arctic is a lot of fun – AND a lot of hassle. Flying to any destination these days has the potential to be chaotic in terms of delayed and cancelled flights, lost luggage and missed connections. But journeying to Ellesmere Island is a major challenge even for the most intrepid traveler. We figured that adopting a sense of humor would help us solve the problems that were sure to arise (and did!). For this reason, we start our trip journal by inviting readers to share some of the daunting details of the 2500-mile trek. But anyone who wants to skip the recorded events of “getting there” and head right to “got there” can bypass Days 1 and 2 and head directly for Sunday, July 1 – Day 3.

On the flight from Minneapolis to Edmonton, Alberta, we dig out the maps of Canada that Ted Spaulding has laminated for us and review our travel route. We are used to thinking of Minnesota as “up north,” and it is – especially if you live in Virginia. But we are headed for a destination 2500 miles north of the Twin Cities. An assortment of serious winter gear has our duffels straining at the seams and our arms aching from lugging these cumbersome bags around. It’s hard to get a mental grip on the prospect of cold weather with 90-degree temperatures and suffocating humidity, impossible to imagine we’ll soon need the warm clothes in our luggage - the long underwear and the insulation-lined boots, the wool socks and wind-stopper gloves.

We have a 7-hour layover in Edmonton, and we need every minute to shop for enough food for two weeks. This foray to the grocery store is organized and hilariously chaotic at the same time. Dave has a carefully-prepared list which includes everything from A to Z – Apples to Zip-lock bags. Ignoring the curious glances of passersby, we unload our grocery carts at the front of the store and pack our supplies into sturdy produce boxes.

But we run into a problem when we check in for our flight to Yellowknife – too much stuff. However, Canadians are willing and resourceful problem-solvers, and two airline agents at First Air knock themselves out helping us rearrange our gear so it can accompany us to Yellowknife. We are forewarned, though – getting everything on the plane for the once-weekly flight from Yellowknife to Resolute Bay, tomorrow’s layover on the long journey to the edge of the polar ice cap, might be a problem. That plane will be a turbo-prop, and it is fully booked with passengers bound for the remote Inuit hamlet on Cornwallis Island. We resign ourselves to the possibility that we may have to choose between ditching the Kool Aid or the carrots, the cookies or the salami.

Despite the late hour of our arrival in Yellowknife, Dean Cluff, the Regional Biologist for the Great Slave Region in Canada’s Northwest Territories, meets us at the airport. We are always so glad to see Dean with his infectious laugh and his cheerful warmth. We get to bed as early as we can, though. We will have to deal with this potential luggage problem at the crack of dawn. We decide to throw ourselves on the mercy of the cargo agents at First Air, one of Canada’s two airlines serving the far north. If all else fails, we will keep the bags of M and M’s and give the apples to the cargo agents.