TRAVEL by Eric Mackenzie Lamb
For those of us from the Caribbean, it’s nothing new to hear visitors enthusiastically tell us how lucky we are to live in an island paradise. (Often, there’s even a hint of downright envy). And, of course, we inevitably react with a smile. After all, we remind ourselves, what better way to help sustain our vital tourism industry than by word of mouth?
Now, imagine hearing those same comments while visiting an archipelago so totally different from our own surroundings that It might as well be on the far side of the moon. Or even Mars.
Where on earth could this be? The answer: Somerset Island, in the Canadian High Arctic.
Courtesy of Wikipedia
While Nevis lies only a little over a thousand nautical miles from the Equator, Somerset Island (also known as Kuuganajuk in the local Inuit language) is situated at almost exactly the same distance from the North Pole. And both are blessed with the stunning beauty of nature, each in a different way.
The launching pad for my own visit to the middle of nowhere began from the city of Yellowknife in the Canadian Northwest Territories, aboard an ATR-72 charter flight operated by Summit Airlines on behalf of Quark Expeditions, a tour company specializing in polar expeditions. In a little less than an hour, we had crossed the Arctic Circle, then continued straight North for another two and a half hours.
Gazing through the window, I soon realized that not a single tree could be seen, only a vast expanse of tundra, small lakes, and the occasional river. Even from this height, the colours were breathtaking. It was, after all, the last week in July, the height of the Arctic summer, when the region’s vegetation, especially moss and lichens, scrambled frantically to bloom and propagate before the inevitable return of a seemingly never ending darkness.
Even for me, being a pilot myself, landing at our destination was one of the most amazing aeronautical feats I’d ever experienced. First of all, there was no runway per se, only a strip of mixed dirt and gravel within a narrow winding valley. Gusts of wind literally shook the aircraft like a child’s toy as we made our final approach swerving low over the tundra. Definitely not for the faint of heart, I told myself.
And then, after a deafening roar from the reverse thrust of the propellers, it was done. We were safely back on the ground. We had arrived!
But our own arrival at the Arctic Lodge, which would serve as our home for the next eleven days, was still a short adventure away. After a warm welcome at the bottom of the aircraft’s stairs by the lodge’s owners, Richard Weber and his wife Josee (more about them later) we were taken across a river in a rubber dingy, then driven by ATV up a dirt trail into the hills. Our luggage followed us in another (and rather unusual) type of vehicle.
About twenty minutes later, our convoy came to a stop in front of a row of canvas tents, each about the size of a conventional log cabin and with a room number at its entrance. This was the Arctic Lodge’s own version of a luxury hotel, complete with walrus tusks.
And, as we soon discovered, no detail had been overlooked to make our stay as comfortable as possible. Aside from the tent’s double insulation, a solar powered heater, its own toilet, and a surprisingly warm and comfortable bed, it was less than a minute’s walk to the main tent which would serve as a social gathering place, lecture room, and dining hall with its own kitchen, all under one roof. Thanks to a satellite system, we could even access the Internet.
We were also given a somewhat poignant message during the staff’s welcoming speech. Important. Please do not go hiking by yourselves beyond the tent area, whether by night or day. And look carefully through the viewing screen before you unzip the front flap of your tent. Polar bears can be very inquisitive.
No need to add the word hungry. The message was clear. After a brief moment of silence, conversations resumed with gusto and beer glasses started to clink again. In any case, I thought to myself, most of these guests were already well seasoned travelers to remote parts of the world. Otherwise, why would they even be here instead of on a cruise ship in the Caribbean?
Over the following days, we made numerous excursions, including the sighting of beluga whales and musk oxen. Even a polar bear (from a safe distance). Most of our guided outings were by ATV (all terrain vehicles) which, for most of us, required a considerable effort in order to learn how to drive the machines without jerking or skidding, especially if we braked too hard. But it didn’t take long. And the unforgettable scenery we saw along the way was well worth the effort.
No less fascinating was when I began to learn the story of how Arctic Lodge first came into being, and what inspired it.
Against all odds, Richard Weber, along with his wife Josee Auclair and their two sons, Tessum and Nansen, chose to pursue their dream to create one of the world’s most unusual and remote tourist destinations. After numerous challenges, especially those involving transportation of basic building materials and other items to the middle of nowhere, Arctic Watch Lodge was finally completed in 1995 and opened for business shortly thereafter. The Weber family has run it ever since.
But there’s much more to this story. From an early age, it seems that Richard was fascinated by snow. He began learning to ski at just age 2, joined the Canadian Cross Country Ski Team in 1977, retired with 20 national titles, and represented Canada in four world championships. A mechanical engineer by training, he was undoubtedly influenced by his father, a geophysicist and glaciologist.
But Richard Weber’s most daring adventure (and there were many), and for which he became world famous, began in the winter of 1995, when he and Mikhail Malakhov, a fellow skiing enthusiast from Russia, accomplished the first ever unassisted ski trek from Canada to the geographic North Pole and back. With each man physically pulling a sled loaded with vital survival rations, their round trip took 107 days and covered a distance of 1500 kilometers while, for much of the time, they had to endure almost total darkness and temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees Centigrade.
And that wasn’t their only challenge. On their return trip, with summer just around the corner, it had now literally become a race against time. During their frantic rush to get back to Ward Hunt Island before the drift ice began its breakup, they slept for only twenty hours over eight days. Even then, their attempts to make it back to solid land sometimes came only a knife’s edge away from disaster and almost certain death.
But in the end, they did it. And yet another amazing chapter in Arctic history had been written for posterity.
Josee and Richard Weber
As for myself, my visit to the Canadian High Arctic will forever remain a memorable experience. But now it’s time to board my return flight while the weather permits (one can never know when things might suddenly change at these high latitudes) and get back to that other island.
Yes, you guessed right. The one with the coconut palms.
For further information about the Arctic Lodge, go to: firstname.lastname@example.org