The Canadian Arctic Islands

Eastern part of the Canadian Arctic Islands. Resolute Bay is the main town, population around 1000.


Visiting the highest Polar region of Northern Canada is a privilege only very few people have and most are scientists. I was lucky having a research job with the University of Toronto in the eighties with the opportunity of doing several two-month field trips to Axel Heiberg Island and Ellesmere Island, part of the Canadian Arctic Islands[1]. The islands are located East of Northern Greenland, at the fringes of the Arctic Ocean, and mark the northern boundary of Canada. The climate and landscape resembles Spitsbergen as the islands are located at similar latitudes, around 75 to 83o North and surrounded by the sea.

For a history of this region see:

A summary of expeditions in the region is show in the picture below

Axel Heiberg Island at 79-81 degrees latitude has the same size as Switzerland or Holland, rough 300 by 150 km, a population of zero people and a small reseach station, a single simple cabin, near the 10 km wide Thompson Glacier [1] and was built in the 60's by glaciologists of McGill University of Montreal.

Ellesmere has the size of England with only 3 small settlements: Grise Fiord on the South coast with some 200 Inuits, the weather station Eureka [1][2] with a population of 10 in the winter and more, up to 50, in the summer, and Alert, the Canadian Army base for training the special forces.

Ward Hunts Island at the north side of Ellesmere Island is the starting point for the 800-km trip to the North Pole. Some adventurers do the 2000 km cross-Arctic Ocean trip from Russia and need to check in at customs in Eureka.

Several National Parks could be visited in the High Arctic but the one near Lake Hazen on Northern Ellesmere Island is the most remote and only accessible by a chartered plane at a high cost, see 90. Quttinirpaaq National park.

Field work and climate

The summer fieldwork season for most scientists lastsfrom late June to late August when the temperature is 1-4 degrees Celsius at sea level, colder in the mountains and near glaciers.

Real summer lasts perhaps for 1 week with temperature of 8 degrees Celsius, we called it T-shirt weather, but you can be ensured of a snowstorm, right after the nice summer week. Muskitoes would also come out during the a short warm period and although there were only a few hundred at the time, they are extremely persistent in search of blood.

Nightly sunshine

Being well above the tropic of Cancer, the sun is at an angle of 30 degrees to the South at noon and 20 degrees to the North at midnight, giving a feeling of a permanent sun of around 4-6 PM in the afternoon down South. To force a feeling of night and protect the eyes, I used sunglasses after 6 PM.


Helicopters and also small planes that can land in the wild by using a minimal landing area, are the only means of transportation. In August the ice breaks up and ice-breaker ships can access the sea-channels but often have to fight their way though ice floats.

Magnetic South-West

The compass points 270 West as,in the 80's, the magnetic North Pole is only 200-300 km North of Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island. It has now shifted further North.

Compass readings are unreliable due tointerference from solar magnetic storms combined with a weak horizontal field. For accurate readings solar compasses are used.

Access to Resolute Bay

Canadian Airlines has two-weekly flights from Montreal or Edmonton to Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island, the main government base [1] for supporting scientists in a region within a radius of almost 1000 km, spanning the entire Queen Elizabeth Islands. The flight from to Resolute Bay takes 6 hours, stopping over in Iqaluit, the former Frobisher Bay [1][2], now the capital of the Eastern Inuit Province. Resolute Bay has a gravel run way where specially adapted Boeing 737 passenger planes can land. They have blowers to prevent gravel entering the engines[1] and front-wheel covers so the

gravel thrown in the air by the tires doesn't hit the fusilage [1]. The Boeing 737 carries half passengers and half freight and tickets are expensive.

Safety rules were very strict. E.g. scissors and pocket knifes were strictly prohibited to carry as hand luggage. However, checking in three shot guns and a large box with 300 rounds of 12 gauge shut-gun ammunition as special luggage was no problem as they were put in the cargo hold of the plane. The check-in counter simply put a big red stickers on the ammunition box with the text 'explosives'.

Resolute Bay

Resolute Bay [1] [Satelite Image] has a native population of 400 Inuits, imported from Northern Quebec after the Second World War, with a promise of a better life as the sea of Lancaster Sound is rich in fish, Beluga whales and polar bears. The Inuits now live in the standard wooden houses typical of the North, small but with running water and toilets and they live mostly on welfare. The rest of the population consists of temporary workers, possibly up to 200, mainly in the summer, with most staying at the government base [1]. The airport hotel [1] is run by local Innuit and used by commercial companies and tourists.


Arriving in June Resolute Bay is still covered in snow and the sea between the islands frozen. Further North, on Ellesmere Island, there is more land and the temperature is higher. On Ellesmere Island, Eureka, the weather station, and Lake Hazen, the only national park allowed to be visited by tourists, are enclosed by mountain ranges and form a warm oasis with temperatures of 4-8 degrees Celsius in the summer. This is much warmer than the more common Ė1 to 2 degrees Celsius on the smaller islands.

Government base

The government base run by the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources [1] at Resolute Bay is the main logistics hub in a radius of 1000 km. Eureka is 600 km and 3 hours flying, and Alert at the Northern-most tip of Canada 1000 km and 5 hours flying.


The camping gear is on loan from the Geological Survey of Canada and shipped up as air freight. For a party of six persons it has a weight of some 600 kg. The storm-proof double-wall tents made of Egyptian cotton are the bulkiest with a weight of 25 kg each.


The food is shipped up from a supermarket in Montreal. As the temperature in the field is similar to a refridgerator, 2-4 degrees Celsius, bringing up fresh produce is no problem. Broccoli and lettuce last for 2 weeks, potatoes, onion, carrots and, least popular, cabbage for 2months. The only risk are freezing temperatures in early June that would freeze the produce.

Factory bread would arrive frozen and could last 6 weeks with proper attention by opening the bags when moisture settles on the inside of the bags. Especially hot spells of 6 - 8 degrees Celsius were trouble-some as the tents could heat up to 20 degrees Celsius.

We also had plenty of canned food, mostly as additionel food for after 4 weeks. Freeze dried ground beef, corn and green beans, 1.5 kg each served as emergency food and could last for 10 extra days and once we even needed this. The alternative was to shoot ma Caribou or her baby or ma Goose as the cute bunnies where hiding somewhere.


A Twin Otter plane with a maximum payload of 3000 pounds took us to the field. It can lands in freely picked spots on the tundra using big soft tires [1][2][3][4] which sounds extremely daring. The plane only needs 100 m to land and a straight clear space of 300 m, similar for taking off. The biggest risk is the thawed tundra where the tires would sink in the mud. Pilots look for dry or nearly dry places to land although this is not easy at the start of the summer.

A stuck plane is a disaster as the only other plane will need to land nearby to pull it out of the mud and for that day none of the two government planes would be available. In addition, the common poor flying weather conditions may stop flying for several days and tend to create cues of field parties that want to use the plane.


The weather station of Eureka [1][2] on Mid-Western Ellesmere Island at 80-degree latitude was our main local support base. A Bell-206 helicopter [1] is stationed for local camp moves and takes us to places in the mountains where the Twin Otter planes canít land.

Medical treatment

If there is a serious accident or illness, we would have a big problem as the nearest nurse is at a distance of 600 km in Resolute Bay and the nearest doctor in Iqaluit or Yellowknife, 3000 km travel South and some 3 days at the soonest after calling for help.

The biggest worry would be acute appendicitis,though uncommon over the age of 20.

Loosing a family member down South could mean missing a funeral. There was one occasion of a biologist who could not return home after his father died as a return trip South would cost him also a few hours in the helicopter anb 12 hours on the Twin Otter, a total cost of some 15000 dollars.

Field work

I spent 2 months in the summer of 1982, 1983, 1984, 1988 and 1989 on Axel Heiberg Island and Ellesmere Island. The camp moves were by helicopter as we had a lot of equipment, food and research material, typically over 300 kg for a 2-men fly camp.

All the field travel was done on foot in a radius of up to 10-15 km. Walking on the tundra was variable, muskeg [1] (frost heaved ground surrounded by hexagonal cracks) and loose rocks made the going rough.

Crossing streams could be treacherous. As a rule of thumb, you could cross a stream up to your knees in the morning using the waist high waders. At night the water level would come to your waist due to the warmer higher sun during the day. You needed a sticklike the radio mast pole for preventing to tip over by fast-flowing, icy cold water.

I fell in an icy-cold small shallow stream once by slipping on a rock and found out how difficult it is to get up when wearing a packsack as it drags you along in the fast running stream. Luckily I got only half wet and the camp was near.

Wild life

In the pristine, barren landscape you see many white Arctic hares [1][2], several foxes, cariboes [1][2] and muskox herds [1] and occasionally white wolves. The lemming [1][2] is at the base of the food chain for the carnivores and there are zillions if not more. Cariboes tend to approach you [1] as they do not know the scent of human being but quickly run off after sniffing you out [1].

The cariboes were slaughtered a hundred years ago by the infamous Peary, the so-called first (white) man to reach the North Pole,to provide food and fat for his polar expeditions. Sadly, the cariboe herds are still trying to recover. It is now generally accepted that he falsified his logbook, mandatory for proving that he reached the pole. He travelling initially 10-12 km a day which is reasonable but in the last week before reaching the pole suddenly he made 45-50 km which is impossible and his positions determined using a solar compass did not make sense.

Waking up in the morning with a muskox herd [1] of 10-20 animals close to the tent is a unique experience. As soon as they spot you, they quickly run off but luckily they have bad eye-sight. Approaching a muskox herd is not without risk. The herd forms a semi-circle and the dominant bull stand in front. You can approach them up to 100 meters but when the male starts snoring and digs its hovesinto the ground you better leave if you do not want to be chased or even thrown in the air by their horns. Lonely bulls [1] can be approached closer, up to 20 meters. Skeletons of muskox are common and the hard skull preserves best [1][2]. Once I had one student who wanted to be on the picture together while being chased [1], 'a jack-ass stunt'. Taking such a risk is totally irresponsible given the long time it takes to reach a hospital but common among students.

Luckily I never met any polar the sea ice does not break up until mid July and there is only little food for them in the region I visited. The biggest threat would be a two year old young polar bear just abandoned by the mother who had trouble finding the good foraging areas and accidentally drifting off into our area. These bears would be spotted easily by planes and helicopters and luckily this was rare.

One year I heard a distress call over the radio of archeologists camping near Alexander Fiord on Eastern Ellesmere Island who has several polar bears in the camp. A short focused conversation followed, first "Where is your meat?". We always store this in an aluminum box in a snow bank away from the camp to divert the bearís attention and this give us a warning signal when it rips open the box. The next question was: "How long can you hold out?" The archeologist answered they were very uncomfortable so in a hurry. A plane was sent to get them out after only half a day.

In lemming [1][2] years like in 1989 the number of lemmings is much higher and they are everywhere. E.g. you see tracks and tunnels in the snow [1] and under nearly every rock there seems to be a lemming hiding. I did not witness the so-called mass migrations of Lemmings but there is a theory that they migrate as the grass they eat produces a toxic substance in defense that makes them to wander to other places.

J¨gers, medium size birds, are very common and have nests on the tundra and chase you away when you get too close. Occasionally you see snow owls [1] and only only once I saw the extremely rare white falcons, Geier Falcons[1] which are in high demand in Arab countries fetching some 80000 a bird. Snow geese are common as well and can serve as a good diner [1] like Arctic hares [1][2].


There are no vertical trees in the area or even small shrubs and the largest living horizontal tree I saw grew on the surface [1].


As the temperature is only 2-4 degrees Celsius and you spent most of the times outside, within 2 weeks of arriving in the field everyone would get a strong cold which would last for a week. The boundary between comfortable and unconfortable is sharp.After one or two weekstemperatures of 3 to 4 degrees Celsius would be bearable as the body slowly adapts but you have to keep moving. Below 2 degrees Celsius you could not get used to the cold and you always needed to wear a coat, gloves and woolen hat permanently. A lunch below 2 degrees Celsius was a fight to stay warm as much of the blood seems directed to the stomach.

Going home

After 8 weeks of fieldwork and uncomfortable camping it was always exciting to go home, back to comfort. The first joy started with sitting on level chairs that do not sink in the ground, amazingingly comfortable. Next was the first shower in Eureka or Resolute Bay in the too hot barracks. Being used too much lower temperatures,any place over 8 Celsius was too warm.

Everyone would have lost significant weight, 5 for skinny types like myself but 10 -15 kg when overweight. I never really understood why even skinny personslost 5 kg as we had plenty of food, eating up to 250 gram of meat per day. It could have been simply stress,uncomfortable and cold camps combined with the urge for survival making you extremely agile so you burn plenty of calories.As a comparison, overweight wild animals only occur in zoos.