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Arctic Jubilee Expedition 2012 + The joys of flight delays in the Canadian Arctic

As I am writing this note, a British-Canadian team of 7 is on Ellesmere Island having the world’s most remote tea party and sending a Loyal Greeting to Queen Elizabeth II congratulating her on her Diamond jubilee! What a cool idea!

Initially, the team’s goal was to summit Mount Barbeau this weekend and, therefore, send the greeting from the highest peak in the Queen Elizabeth Islands (previously known as Parry Islands, this group of islands was renamed in 1953 in honour of the Queen’s coronation). But, Mother Nature slightly changed their plans. Despite initial delays in Resolute because of weather conditions, the team did so well once on Ellesmere Island that they reached their goal earlier than expected and summitted Mount Barbeau on Thursday, May 31.

Arctic Jubilee Expedition 2012 on top of Mount Barbeau, Queen Elizabeth Islands, Nunavut. May 31, 2012

As it was a bit too early for them to send the greeting (they wanted it to be part of this weekend’s big celebrations in London), Plan B was to summit Mount Whistler on Saturday and send the greeting from the top of the second highest peak of the group of islands. Unfortunately, as they reported on the expedition’s blog: “due to the peak itself being shrouded in thick cloud we used the opportunity to practice crevasse rescue.” They ended their post : “We ended the day by deciding that our tea party and toast would be the best way by far to celebrate HM Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Proud to be sending a Loyal Greeting to the Queen from the Queen Elizabeth Islands in the Canadian High-Arctic.” The next post should indicate whether or not the Royal reply has been received.

My interest in the Arctic Jubilee Expedition was triggered by the fact that two of the participants were actually colleagues of mine during the Polar Educators Workshop held in Montreal about a month ago:

  • Antony Jinman (Britain), polar explorer and founder of Education Through Expeditions, an organisation which connects explorers and schools and aims to “amaze and inspire children and adults alike whilst educating them about the world around them”. Antony is the leader of the expedition. He is actively involved in setting up the new Polar Educators International network
  • Johnny Issaluk (Canada), a world renowned Inuit Games athlete, youth mentor and recipient of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee medal for his efforts towards “improving the health and wellbeing of Nunavummiut”, was one of the experts who came to share his knowledge of Inuit culture with us.

Johnny Issaluk participating in the "Arctic knowledge perspective" roundtable discussion

Just a few days before their departure, I saw a call for help from Antony asking if any of the polar educators would be able to assist in answering the questions they would be receiving during the expedition. I knew this opportunity would allow me to learn just as much as the students from the 350 participating schools in the UK and Canada would. So, here I am, part of the “panel of experts” answering questions to the best of our knowledge and sharing what we know about the Canadian North.

The following question was submitted by the South Hampstead High School as the team was being held up in Resolute: What problems might you encounter due to the delay in your journey?

Well! This question very quickly brought me back to July 2005 when I was delayed twice. First, I was held up for two days in Resolute on my way to Somerset Island, then, a week later, I was delayed for 7 days on Somerset Island before I could return to Resolute to take my flight back to Ottawa. The first lesson I learned on my very first trip to the Artic is: flexibility! Flight delays are a daily occurence in the High Arctic and you have to accept that the odds are you will be delayed at some point.

So, I thought I would take advantage of this blog to relate some of my experiences of being delayed and include some photographs to help students get a better feel for what the hamlet of Resolute looks like.

Resolute is an Inuit hamlet of about 230 individuals. It is the second northernmost community in Canada. As you can see from the photos, it has been set up in an environment which is very desert-like. The town is made up of only a few streets none of which are paved.

Hamlet of Resolute, Cornwallis Island, Nunavut, August 2007

Resolute, Cornwallis Island, July 2005

You can easily imagine that there are no red lights in Resolute, just a couple of stop signs.

Stop sign in Resolute, Nunavut, July 2005

Besides people’s homes, the buildings I remember seeing were the Co-op (the town’s only store), the anglican church, the community center, the school, the RCMP station (police) and a couple of hotels.

Resolute's anglican church located on the hamlet's main street

On my first trip to Resolute, I was part of a group of 12 heading to Somerset Island for a one week stay at the Arctic Watch lodge. Our stopover in Resolute was to be for a couple of hours only but fog covering Somerset Island, just a few kilometers away across the Northwest Passage, forced the chartered Twin Otter to postpone our departure. It actually took two days for the conditions to clear before we could head out.

The main grief that this delay caused was that extra lodging and food costs were being added to the cost of the week on Somerset Island while our time on the island was actually diminishing with everyday going by!

The good side of the delay was that it allowed us to walk around Resolute and get to meet some of the local people. I remember one lady in particular who was setting up a few caribou skins to dry in front of her house. Her husband had hunted the caribous and she was planning on making coats and boots out of the skins.

Caribou skins drying - Resolute, Nunavut, July 2005

We also got to meet several other travelers who had to deal with a similar situation. There were prospectors heading to a place they had to keep secret, inspectors going to Alert, as well as scientists from NASA aiming to go to Devon Island to perform tests on the prototypes of the robots to be sent to Mars! Cool! Resolute might be a small hamlet but looking at the guest book of the South Camp Inn is just astonishing! I would never have guessed that so many people come by and that these individuals come from everywhere on the planet and from all walks of life.

The highlight of our unexpected stay in Resolute came on day 2 when Marty & Hans, a couple from Norway, proposed that we play a Viking game. First, we had to find pieces of wood. Not an easy task when the closest tree is thousands of kilometers away!! But we did manage to find some suitable construction material, borrowed a saw and cut up the 18 sticks we needed. We divided the group into 2 teams: the Europeans played against the North Americans. The game was simple: each player had put a stick into the ground at its feet and with another stick had to try to make one of the other team’s sticks fall. The first team to succeed in making all of its opponent’s sticks fall was declared the winner.

Playing the Viking's game in Resolute, July 2005

We had just started to play when, out of nowhere, local children appeared. They started by simply watching from a distance, and then, slowly they got closer. Soon children were surrounding us and they wanted to learn how to play the game! Everybody had a great time. At supper time the kids went back home and told their parents. It didn’t take long that Azziz, the owner of the hotel, heard about it. The parents asked him to thank us for taking the time to play with their children.

Children watching the Viking Game in Resolute, July 2005

A week later, on the day the chartered plane was to come pick us up on Somerset Island to bring us back to Resolute for our flight back home, we were told that it would be delayed by about one hour. This delay was not because of weather conditions but because the pilot had “errands” to do on other islands first. This delay meant that all of us were going to miss our First Air flight. Sure, we were to board the next scheduled flight: in 3 days time! Things might be different today but in 2005, in Resolute, there were flights going south only twice a week: once on Saturday, once on Wednesday. This automatically meant that our stay on the island was being extended by 3 days. I was thrilled!!! But most people were in shock realizing that they were going to miss work and/or personnal commitments. The owners of the Arctic Watch Lodge were also in shock as it meant they would have to deal with twice as many people since the new group of tourists was still coming in! The first questions to go through their minds must have been: Do we have enough food for everybody? Will everybody have a place to sleep? Somerset Island is uninhabited except for this lodge which operates for 5-6 weeks each summer. So you can’t call to order extra pizza or send extra guest to another hotel in town.

Foodwise, everything was okay for a few days. Tent assignments were reshuffled. Marthy & Hans, the Norwegian couple, were sent to stay in the scientist’s cabin (a cabin used for 30 years by a biologist studying Cunningham Inlet’s belugas) and one of the guides opted to sleep outside on a wooden platform.

One of the guides' temporary set up on a wooden platform. A bit windy, no?

Scientist cabin at Cunningham Inlet

Once the shock of the delay had passed, once everybody’s boss had been informed that we would not be showing up at work, we all got back to enjoying and making the most of our extended stay. On the Tuesday evening, the owners of lodge asked to talk to the 6 of us who were scheduled to take the Resolute-Ottawa flight the next day. Their seriousness told us that something was wrong: First Air had just informed them that there were only 3 seats left on the plane. Within seconds, my decision was made! I was to stay on the island till Saturday! That left 5 people to fight for 3 seats. For others, the decision was more difficult. Not getting on that flight meant that some would be missing their overseas flight back to Europe, some had no vacation days left or major commitments they couldn’t miss, etc. Everybody but me decided to take their chance and to get on the chartered flight back to Resolute hoping that a couple more spots would open up on the plane to Ottawa. In the end, they all wan their bet and got on that plane. As for myself, I was nicknamed “The Arctic Watch refugee” 😉 My passion for the North had just begun!

How would you have reacted if you had been our shoes both times we were delayed? How would you have reacted if you had been the shoes of the owners of the lodge?

Hope this has given you a bit of insight into one of the realities of the North! Have a great day! Till next time!
France Rivet

1 comment to Arctic Jubilee Expedition 2012 + The joys of flight delays in the Canadian Arctic

  • Pitro

    It was a delight for me to read your answers. Very captivating! I am sure that what ever incomfort you
    encounter among your trips, you always remember that
    they are part of the pleasant memories.

    I am sending a toast to the Artic Jubilee Expedition
    as I was watching the parade on the Thames River
    drinking my cup of English Breakfast Tea!

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