Hit the Road: Flowers bloom despite harsh Arctic landscape

Hit the Road: Flowers bloom despite harsh Arctic landscape
The reward for a treacherous tundra hike at Kapisillit Fjord on the west coast of Greenland is this view of a portion of country’s ice sheet. This 660,000-square-mile expanse of ice covers 80 percent of the country, and is second in size only to Antarctica’s ice sheet. Photo by Jerry Ondash

“Oh, my god,” exclaims biologist/zoologist Dawn Bazely, crouching on the spongy tundra, pointing to clumps of tiny, yellow flowers hugging the damp earth. “This is a golden saxifrage. I haven’t seen one of these since 1998!” 

Bazely, aka the Plant Lady, is calling to hikers coming ashore on Digges West via Zodiac rafts from the ship Ocean Endeavor.  The obscure island in Ungava Bay in northern Canada probably hasn’t seen human footprints for decades — or perhaps ever. Thus I’m feeling uncomfortable about treading over this ancient ground, said by geologists to hold some of the oldest rocks on earth.

Hikers on Adventure Canada’s “Heart of the Arctic” tour scramble up a hill to explore the landscape around Douglas Harbor on the coast of Hudson Strait in northern Quebec.Photo by E’Louise Ondash

Despite being tundra, the island, we discover, offers a surprisingly generous yield of delicate blossoms everywhere, — purple, blue, yellow, white, gold and crimson, sometimes growing in clumps, sometimes standing alone. They seem to defy the laws of nature, sprouting out of rocky crevasses and remaining upright despite the strong blasts of wind.

It is mid-July and Day 4 of Adventure Canada’s “Heart of the Arctic” tour. By my standards, it’s darn cold, but we are near the Arctic Circle and this is summer, so these flowers know that the time to strut their stuff is now or never. Winter will return all too soon. 

Digges West was not on our original 13-day itinerary, but packed ice in two of our intended stops forced a change of route. As luck would have it, our Plan B is a good one, and the tundra is proving to be intriguing.

After hiking further into the interior of the island, we discover a made-for-movies waterfall, cascading musically down several levels of ancient black rock.

At the bottom, the water fans out into small streams, which we hopscotch around and over. I can’t even guess how many years this water has been flowing with no human observers. We are beyond lucky to see it.

Two days later, on southwest Baffin Island, we gather around a circle of stones, stacked two and three high. Adventure Canada’s archeologist Lisa Rankin explains that these rocks were used to hold down circular tents where several Inuit families lived during the winters. Women and children stayed here, sleeping on platforms softened by bird wings and animal skins, while the men went hunting. They stored precious personal items in niches hewn from the hard earth. Oil lamps, which burned whale blubber, and soapstone pots were among Inuit’s meager but vital possessions.

These blossoms on Digges West, an obscure island in Ungava Bay in northern Quebec, seem to defy nature by growing in land that resembles a moonscape. Photo by Jerry Ondash

Several days later, on Kapisillit Fjord on the west coast of Greenland, we test our tundra legs. Traversing this ground is like walking on blocks of spongy foam interspersed with rocks and dried plants. The damp earth inconsistently gives way and we never know what the next step will bring. Add piercing sun and dive-bombing bugs (oddly, they don’t bite), and the going is frustratingly slow. I’m grateful for my hiking boots that give some stability to my ankles. 

There is a reward, however, for this incessant plodding: a spectacular ice field, actually part of Greenland’s ice sheet, comes into view. Distances are deceiving, so we have to walk another 15 minutes to get close to this spectacle — crystal chunks of ice floating in deep blue water like scoops of sherbet in a punchbowl.

We hang here for a while, loving the surreal scene, and also trying to avoid the trip back to the beach. Eventually, though, we must retrace our steps. Once back on the Ocean Endeavor, we find that our hike measured nearly seven miles — definitely deserving of beer and ice cream later.

For more information on Adventure Canada expeditions, visit www.adventurecanada.com.  For more commentary and photos, visit www.facebook.com/elouiseondash.

E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at eondash@coastnewsgroup.com

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