Safari...Nunavut Style

When I was 25 years old, I scraped together every penny I had and fulfilled a life-long dream by heading off on safari to Africa. I longed to see exotic and dangerous wildlife in its natural surroundings, to experience other cultures, to enjoy their art and sample their cuisine. After travelling for two straight days, crossing eight time zones and arriving so dishevelled that I knew neither whether I was coming or going, I arrived in Kenya and did indeed have the trip of a lifetime. But it was some years later that discovered that I could have saved myself a lot of time and energy and simply flown three hours north from Ottawa for a very similar—and equally rewarding—experience right here in my own country!

Africa is synonymous with safari. Indeed, the very word safari is Swahili for 'journey', and it's the first place most people think of for an epic wildlife experience. And while it's hard to beat the Big Five and the adrenalin rush of a lion or an elephant encounter, it's by no means the only place to have that safari experience.

In 12 days on Baffin Island, Nunavut, I had wildlife experiences to match anything I have had in Africa. I saw unrivalled scenery; not only browsed some of the world famous Inuit art but actually bought it from the artists themselves; ate some wonderful local dishes...and even picked up a few words of Inuktitut. And on the last day of my adventure I glimpsed two beluga whales in the morning and slept in my own bed that night!

Canada offers some of the greatest wildlife experiences in the world, and the greatest of adventures lie in Nunavut. There are the simple treasures, like sitting on the spongy tundra in blazing summer sunshine surrounded by wildflowers and idly watching lemmings run around my feet and snow buntings flit across the sky. There are the mighty treasures like watching bowhead whales surface amid a field of icebergs, their spray soaring skyward, their tales flicking high, and all without another boat or indeed a single sign of humanity anywhere in sight. And there is the truly unforgettable treasure: a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with a polar bear.

Polar bears have long topped my "Must-see" list and although I had read notices of recent polar bear sightings, heard heart-stopping tales of polar bear encounters and observed polar bear warning signs, as my trip wound down I began to think that I would miss one of the world's greatest predators on this, my first trip to the Arctic.

As Dan and I removed our packs from the small plywood cabin we had shared while spending a few days on the land east of Cape Dorset with Timmun and Kristiina Alariaq of Huit Huit Tours and their family, I spied something swimming across Andrew Gordon Bay. At first I assumed it was a seal as bearded and ringed seals were often sighted, but then a flash of white trailing the black head caught my eye. I grabbed my camera and peered through the lens: polar bear!

My excitement was massive...tinged with maybe a little bit of trepidation, all too aware that nothing separated us from this apex predator except a narrow strip of water. Dan was soon at my side with camera in hand. Timmun quickly joined us armed with both camera and rifle. The enormous male clambered up onto a rocky island opposite and gazed at us, his nose sniffing the air. Earlier in the trip we had attended a polar bear safety briefing run by Parks Canada prior to hiking in Auyuittuq National Park and we knew that most polar bears when faced with human presence will move away. This one could smell us, hear us and see us...but clearly he hadn't attended the briefing because he plunged back into the cold, blue waters of Hudson Strait and, veering off 90 degrees from his original course, headed straight to us.

Timmun fired a couple of warning shots, but the hungry bear was undeterred. Soon he was on the land, now separated from us by barely 100 feet of rocky shoreline. Timmun fired again, while calling to Kristiina for more ammunition. The bear reared up on its hind legs and stared at us before dropping down and continuing forward aggressively. Timmun fired again, his bullets loudly ricocheting off the rocks. My heart was pounding, my throat was dry. I had complete faith in Timmun's judgement and aim...but it's hard not to be perturbed when 1,000 lbs of bear come looking for a snack at the Outpost cafe.

With the bear perhaps 50 feet from us and Timmun having fired five warning shots, his sixth shot finally did the trick and the bear turned, trotted back into the water and headed to the far end of the bay.

We all turned to look at each other, adrenalin-pumped smiles crossing our faces from ear to ear.

"I've never seen one that big or that aggressive," Kristiina said, unsettling words from someone who has lived in Cape Dorset since 1976. "I knew Timmun could have shot him," she added, referring to her husband who had lived and hunted in these parts for his entire life. "But that's the last thing we want to do. I'm so happy you guys saw a bear, and that it was such a great experience too."

During my time in Nunavut I had experienced the wonderful warmth and hospitality of the Inuit people; eaten Arctic char taken  just minutes earlier from an icy glacial river; seen the legendary art created by the master carvers, artists, weavers and printers - and marvelled at sunset-streaked snow-capped mountains. But you'll have to forgive me when I admit that my overriding memory of a truly unforgettable trip was my polar bear encounter.

People travel the world for experiences like that, and yet for us they're just a few hours away. The next time someone asks me if I have been on safari, I'll say yes, and then tell them about my morning in Andrew Gordon Bay.   

Text and Photo by Simon Vaughan