Camping Among the Polar Bears
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This bucket-list trip is both dangerous and delightful.
Camping often conjures images of family outings in a flimsy tent in the woods. But imagine poking your head from your tent to see a polar bear in the distance, or a narwhal just beyond the edge of the frozen ocean — your temporary backyard. That’s what awaits during an on-the-edge camping trip in Canada’s Arctic territory.
During a brief window in late spring, from around mid-May to the third week in June, before the landfast ice begins to break apart and becomes too dangerous to travel across, intrepid travelers can camp on the “floe edge.” Here, some 40 miles off the north side of Baffin Island, the frozen sea meets the open ocean, and a wealth of wildlife shows up to hunt.
Canadian company Black Feather is one of a few outfitters that operate in the remote area, arranging eight-night camping trips ($5,164) that depart from Pond Inlet, a tiny Inuit hamlet reached via a seven-hour flight from Ottawa. From here, tour participants travel for three hours inside qamutiks (traditional Inuit sleds) pulled by Ski-Doos over ice three meters thick. “It’s a very dynamic area,” says David Reid of Polar Sea Adventures. One afternoon we watched for four hours as hundreds of narwhals gathered at the floe edge and even took to “tusking” (the toothed-whale equivalent of a fencing match).
Tents are set 50 yards back from the ice’s edge, allowing a thoroughfare for the polar bears that’s “less intimidating.”
It’s here on the edge of the ice where you’ll spend your nights (but with no darkness; there’s close to 24 hours of daylight at this time), complete with air mattresses and down sleeping bags to keep you cozy in temperatures that hover around 36 F. Tents are set up in a line about 50 yards back from the ice’s edge, allowing a normal thoroughfare for the polar bears that’s “less intimidating,” says Conor Goddard, a Black Feather guide. But just in case a polar bear strays, a guide is on watch 24/7 with binoculars or a spotting telescope — and a shotgun. (The sound of a Ski-Doo engine starting is usually enough to scare away curious animals, Goddard says.) There have been a few close encounters when bears have ventured close to camp, though they didn’t show interest — just presented a photo op. When this happens, guides usually wake sleeping guests.
Polar bears aren’t the only risk at the floe edge. After all, you’re standing on the ocean. Reid says that there are stories of Inuit breaking off on ice floes and drifting out to sea. For this reason, tourist camping expeditions to the floe edge stop before the ice starts to break apart. And a week-plus of outdoor exposure will chill your bones. The camp has a warming tent with hot drinks and meals, but it’s important to dress warmly. My parka, wool socks and long underwear kept me plenty toasty.
But while there are risks, the rewards for a nature lover are profound. “It feels like you’re really in [the polar bears’] environment here,” says Goddard. “There’s a thin layer of nylon between you and them, and that’s pretty much it.”