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Northern Venture, Part 1: to Sea Otter Harbour, August 6, 2013

posted August 10, 2013

We headed north on Tuesday the 6th with Mack and I riding in the Polaris Ranger, known here as a “side by side,’ with John Lucas Jr driving, and with John Lucas Sr riding his “Quad” ATV towing a trailer. The route north is an established trail for only a few km, after that you choose your own trail. The Lucas family go this way mainly in winter by snowmobile to hunt wolves and polar bear at the north end of the Island. It is a rough ride! The machines are amazing in what they can do and the drivers are incredibly good at driving them. I would not want to be in the driver’s seat. As the backseat driver, with the best view and opportunity for videography, I found myself totally involved in reading the tundra, watching the immediate foreground and “planning” the moves so that I could be braced for the jars and bumps and sudden stops or swerves. Two hands hanging on, always, and the camera safely stowed on my lap, but ready to use at any stop.

On the way to Sea Otter Harbour, we travelled on the high ground inland rather than the coast because of the myriad rivers, streams, gullies and “swamps” nearer the coast. Though travel on the beaches is fast and possible for long stretches, you can regularly be forced to backtrack for miles when faced with an unexpected break in the beach where a river has chosen a new channel to the sea.

We stopped for smokes and snacks, and at interesting sites like Moses’ Knoll which seems to be a collapsed pingo, and a hill with an old tent ring and small hearth, proof that people have travelled this way for thousands of years. The “Aulavik” in Aulavik National park (on the north end of the Island) means, “the place people travel to.”

The major rivers all flow west to the sea; Kellet River, Lennie River, Big River, and Sea Otter River. We passed Lucas Creek named for John Sr’s Dad, Bertram Knoll for John Jr’s maternal grandfather, Nasogaluak River for a local traveler and hunter who died in a plane crash. So much history just in the place names!

Wildlife sightings: lots of Snow Geese as this is a major nesting area, hence the Banks Island Bird Sanctuary (for which I had to get a permit to enter); several pairs of Sandhill Cranes, a brownish version of the Whooping Crane, whose calls are wonderfully wild and carry great distances; two Peary caribou bulls, curiously curious; lots of Snowy Owls hanging around the flightless Snow Geese (the geese are moulting their wing feathers now and run across the tundra with their still flightless young, away from us; and a herd of 15 muskoxen, too concerned about the courtship behaviour of the herd bull to pay much heed to us (we did not try to get close); and an Arctic fox who high-tailed it as soon as we appeared over the horizon.

We had one long forced stop to replace the main drive belt on the Ranger, another when both machines got bogged down in a bog at the same time. We had to un-hitch the trailer and use it as anchor to winch the ATV out, then use both trailer and ATV, plus a lot of heaving, to pull the Ranger out. Once on the “road” again we had a fast drive down the sandy banks of the Sea Otter River to our first destination at Sea Otter Harbour. I think the place is named after a schooner called Sea Otter. As we arrived and set up camp, the fog rolled in from the sea. I was able to investigate a small old camp site close by, where old tin cans, bones of seal, foxes and polar bear were numerous. After a supper of caribou and potatoes, and “Eskimo doughnuts” prepared by John’s wife Brenda, Mack and I went up the hill in the fog (Mack was the gun bearer as our wildlife monitors were fixing mechanical problems).

It was a moving experience to visit the lonely graves on a hill top in the fog and realize that somewhere nearby was a village once occupied by only half a dozen familes, on an open Arctic coast with only a once-a-year contact with the mainland. The five grave markers are all of weathered wood and mostly unreadable. Muskoxen rubbing their shedding wool have knocked over four of the five wooden fences and grave markers. At least two of the graves were children. We could make out “RIP” on all five, a few words on others, the dates 1931 and 1932, but names on only two; “NAKITO” and “BABY GIRL… CHICSICALUK.” We hope that this information has been recorded by the familes somewhere.

The Canadian Arctic Expedition passed this way many times preparing the way for Stefansson’s quest for new northern lands. Although I have not been able to pinpoint their use of this particular spot, it was very satisfying to finally be on the west coast, to see the ice that held them up 100 years ago, and to know now for sure; that we could not have made it in the small boats, and that the Bernard Explorer or any other ship, short of an icebreaker, could not have made it either.

The long eventful day ended after midnight, with a cold wind, heavy fog, a comfortable tent, a cool sleeping bag, a leaky therma-rest on rocky willow roots, and lots of snoring, but at Sea Otter Harbour! I couldn’t ask for more!