The magic of expedition travel is how it invites the possibility for serendipity into people’s lives. When you remain open to change, stay flexible, and make the best out of what you have, truly amazing things seem to materialize out of thin air.
We were on a ship, where I was working as an expedition guide. The plan was to sail from Resolute through Fury and Hecla Strait, down the west coast of Baffin Island to Iqaluit. The sea ice, however, was one step ahead of us, and our optimistic attempts towards Fury and Hecla were unsuccessful. For the first three nights, our ship froze into the ocean’s surface in the middle of the night, barely making forward progress during the day. It was another world out there, and the nilas – the new-forming ice – wasn’t visible on our radar. The sight took your breath away; several mornings in a row I was the only person awake on deck at 5:30 AM, staring out at that ice forming along the horizon, surrounding the ship. You knew it meant winter when you saw it, felt it in your bones. The ice was a different animal altogether than the majestic sculptures of glacial ice I had grown accustomed to, somehow carrying more emotional weight. And where there was ice, there was life – as the sheets of ice creaked and groaned around the edges of our ship, we stood attentive out on deck, distant polar bears visible in every direction. It was magic like I’ve never seen. After a few days, however, our dreams of Fury and Hecla began to fade, and we realized we would have to reach Iqaluit another way.
Now, I knew where we were. With great anticipation, I had been watching the map day by day as we grew closer and closer to the community of Arctic Bay, where I had been planning to spend the winter photographing as a part of my Fulbright project. Having committed to the winter without ever having set foot there before, the whole idea of the place was still enshrouded in mystery. I didn’t have a place to stay arranged yet; in moments of insecurity I had begun to wonder if they were still open to the idea of having me come there at all, as I hadn’t heard back from my affiliate there in several months. I watched on the map as we approached Admiralty Inlet and skirted the south coast of Devon Island instead, heading onward to Resolute and then into Prince Regent Inlet. We were so close. I would stand out on deck, breathing the cold air, staring in awe at the mountains so similar to the pictures I’d seen of Arctic Bay. Almost there, I thought, dreaming.
And then it happened. As we began to avert our course – now moving towards the east coast of Baffin – Alex, our expedition leader, called me unexpectedly into his office. He was smiling. I sat down.
“I’ve just called Arctic Bay on the satellite phone,” he informed me. “They’ve agreed to host us all tomorrow afternoon. They asked if by any chance Acacia Johnson was on the ship.”
Words fail me here. Shocked. Overjoyed. In total disbelief? The man on the phone was Clare, my Fulbright affiliate who I had been in contact with for over a year. Not only would I get to visit the community in the summer, but my mother was also on the ship, and would now be able to understand just why I had been dreaming about it for so long. I still had to pinch myself when I saw the daily programs on the wall the next morning. Arctic Bay!
We approached land through dense fog, which dissipated as we arrived, forming a spectacular arc of fog like some mystical gateway. Through the mist, the bright red mountains and picturesque town of Arctic Bay loomed in glorious sunshine. I took it as a good omen, and we landed.
So it was that everything simply fell into place, or rather it had been in place all along, unbeknownst to me. Clare was there to greet us with a smile as we landed our zodiac on the beach, with genuine warmth and instant great news – he had found me a place to live! After so many months of long-distance communication, the only world to describe my first encounter there is surreal. Wandering the sunny, warm streets in amazement, I experienced every aspect of it as a new and future home, overwhelmed by the warmth and generosity of the community.
My perceptions aside, it was a phenomenal day for our guests as well. On the outskirts of town, a group of performers gathered to demonstrate seal skinning, the use of sealskin lamps, throat singing, ayaya singing, and traditional clothing. It was a beautiful, golden autumn day, with cottongrass glowing in giant fields along the roadside. The people were some of the friendliest I had met, arriving every which way by truck and four-wheeler to partake in the festivities.
For me, perhaps the most important part of the whole experience was meeting the wonderful family with whom I will live for the four months of darkness this winter, from November to February. The chance to meet them in advance was a luxury I never expected; the peace of mind that comes from knowing I will have such kind people to share a home with is difficult to convey with words.
I found myself nearly speechless for most of the day, amazed that this would be my home for the winter. The mountains around us shone every variation of red and orange; the beauty of the place was staggering. As I walked the streets, beaming children kept stopping me, eager for a hug or a high-five. It was hard to feel anything but sheer optimism about the upcoming winter, despite knowing that the landscape would be totally transformed under snow, ice and darkness. The fact that I had somehow chosen Arctic Bay intuitively, site unseen, still bewilders me. Yet there we stood.
As dusk fell upon the world that evening, the sky burned brilliant magenta, the full moon rising orange above the landscape. We invited our hosts back aboard the ship for dinner, the least we could do for them after such an outstanding day. We would meet again so soon, in November! Until then, though, we had a voyage to complete, I had research to do in Toronto, and a full season of autumn would come and go before I returned. Yet the immense serendipity of our visit, of being able to arrive in person before my project this winter, was remarkable beyond description. The stars had aligned.
The next day, we saw 500 narwhals.