Of fiords and bears and bergy bits

On Aug. 12, Kathy Young led 69 Arctic hydrologists, oceanographers and observers from every circumpolar nation on an expedition to Baffin Island. As chief delegate of the 17th International Northern Research Basins Symposium & Workshop, the Arctic hydrologist and York geography professor had been planning this seven-day conference on Cruise North Expeditions Inc.‘s Lyubov Orlova for two years. In this second of two instalments about the expedition, York communications officer Martha Tancock and professional photographer Robert McKenna document excursions to spectacular Pangnirtung Fiord, a wilderness park, and an island teeming with thick-billed murres and prowled by belligerent polar bears.

Day 4 – Fiords and flowers
Saturday, Aug. 15

Jason’s wake-up brought good news: The Lyubov Orlova was proceeding up Pangnirtung Fiord (above) on schedule, we were 20 miles below the Arctic Circle, the sky was clear and sunny, and the temperature was 11°C  – ideal for a hike near Auyuittuq National Park.

Steep rocky mountain slopes delivered surprises as we cruised up the spectacular and ancient Pangnirtung Fiord – patches of purple Arctic fireweed, a frothy waterfall, a solitary cabin at its foot. Snowcapped mountains patched with glaciers glistened under an intense blue sky in the distance.

We divided into three groups: the fast walkers, who sprinted as far and as high as they could behind restless adventurer Benoit Savard then tore back down to shore, where some stripped to their underwear and leapt like Finns out of a sauna into the frigid fiord; the hikers, who strode behind ornithologist and York grad Elizabeth Gow (BSc Hons. ’07, MSc ’09) into the middle distance; and the “plant” walkers like me who poked around the meadow close to shore with Arctic botanist Susan Aiken (left). (Photo by Martha Tancock.)

What riches she revealed. She’d never seen a grass meadow in the Arctic before, only sedge meadows. Here she identified silky Arctic sweetgrass, which doesn’t have a scent like its sister in the south. Except for the spiky aromatic Labrador tea, which was everywhere, Arctic flowers don’t waste their precious energy on producing scents. At our feet, in spongy hummocks and around rock outcrops, we found and tasted mushrooms, crowberries and blueberries. Our guide yelped when she spotted vistortia, a sort of Arctic peanut. She showed us how Inuit women roll wicks from cotton grass and use heather for bedding. We saw caribou scat and lemming holes, raven feathers and a finch-like pippet. When some of us ventured further up the slope – keeping within eyesight of rifle-bearing sentinels – she warned us to watch out for polar bears that sometimes sleep in the cool crannies between hills. This sedgey place, though, is more home to caribou and muskoxen.

Instead of the promised wilderness picnic, we enjoyed a barbecue on deck, warmed by the noonday sun.

Evening documentaries about Arctic and Antarctic expeditions topped an afternoon of papers on modelling hydrological variables and climate change. Research scientists and “explorers” Glen Liston and Mathew Sturm and two others marked International Polar Year (IPY) by snowmobiling 4,200 kilometres across Arctic Canada. For seven weeks in March and April, they followed rivers and crossed barrens and lakes to place themselves “squarely and firmly in the nexuses that changed the Arctic.” That included retracing part of 19th-century British explorer John Franklin’s ill-fated first expedition to chart the north coast of Canada.

Left: An iceberg close to Monumental Island

The second film documented Liston and other American and Norwegian scientists on an IPY overland scientific expedition to the South Pole in 2007-2008. Along the way, Liston drilled 90 feet to get 2,000-year-old ice core samples. He was also the one who descended into a hut buried deep in the snow, unvisited since the Russians left it, chairs neatly stacked on tables, in the 1960s.

Day 5 A monumental challenge and a Monumental polar bear
Sunday, Aug. 16

Scientists sounded a collective alarm today. There is no doubt that climate change is wreaking havoc in the Arctic, but without more data and better modelling they cannot make accurate predictions or provide a big picture of the impact. The evidence is clear. As climate warms, Yukon rivers freeze later, river ice breaks up earlier and there are more ice jams. In Alaska, sparse data makes it difficult to predict the impact of increasing drought and fires on water supply needs, fish passage and tundra travel. Heavy rainfall and warmer temperatures are thawing permafrost and causing landslides and soil collapse, but current data can only give a local, not a regional, picture.

Above: Thick-billed murres circle high over the cliffs of Akpatok Island

Keynote speaker Larry Hinzman, director of the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks, Alaska, underscored their message at the end of the day. “We’ve got some huge challenges,” he said. If we are to predict the environmental impact responsibly, he said, we have to start viewing the Arctic as a system and not focus solely on our own special areas. Work has already begun on developing a circumpolar modelling system that could be ready in 10 years.

Left: From left, geography Professor Kathy Young with two York graduate students, PhD candidate Anna Abnizova (centre), who helped organize the conference, and master’s candidate Jane Assini (right), who acted as a conference observer

We expected to see a colony of walruses on an excursion to Monumental Island in the Davis Strait today. Not a sign of them and we soon discovered why. A polar bear was swimming along the shore, disguised as a whitecap. We pulled up close and fell silent as it climbed ashore, stopping to sniff the air above and gaze in our direction then stepping nimbly over uneven rocky shelves. It was a male, according to naturalist Elizabeth Gow, because the urine stains were under its belly, not down its back legs.

Homeward bound we skirted an iceberg and got close enough to touch. On this excursion, two groups lifted bergy bits found later in Hudson Hurricanes, the cocktail of the day, concocted by bar manager Canina Clifford (BA Hons. ’07, MA ’08).  

Day 6 Task forces and titans
Monday, Aug. 17

We’re in luck. A calm sea and sunny weather make a trip possible to Akpatok Island in Ungava Bay. Akpa is Inuktitut for murre and there are millions nesting on the narrow ledges of the chiselled cliffs.

Right: Victor and vanquished on Akpatok Island

After final morning workshops where delegates proposed task forces on snow, precipitation and ungauged basins, conference business ended. By 1:30pm we were zooming toward the tan-coloured cliff walls shrouded in thick layers of white cloud – perfect camouflage, we discovered, for polar bears. But within minutes, we saw a mother and pup napping on the shore, then a male snacking on fallen eggs. As we motored further along the shore, a massive male ambled towards us, its front paws stained with blood. We rounded the point to see a fallen male with a deep gash on its forearm. We had just missed a clash of titans. We pitied the vanquished even more when Gow predicted his certain death. On the way back, we saw the victor cleaning his paws.

That evening, as the Lyubov Orlova chugged towards Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, our final destination, we dressed up for the captain’s dinner and toasted Kathy Young many times over for a job well done.  

Above: Sunrise over Hudson Strait