The Arctic Circle Map

We have reached a completely wide open area of white wasteland which seems to stretch on forever. We are as remote from any kind of civilisation as it seems possible to be. Sometimes the mists close in so that we are like ghost riders, other times the air is so clear we can allow tremendous distances to occur between our ski-doos without losing sight of eachother. Suddenly three massive snow mounds loom up in front of us, looking like ancient burial sites and we stop to circle and admire. They are a freak of nature and although they look as if they have been there from time immemorial, Looty assures us that they were only formed recently and will not last long. Here the forces of the elements can create and destroy their own sculptures in days or even hours.

We find the bodies of two dead seals and Looty thinks they were left there by some hunters for food for their huskies at a later date. I wonder how they would know where to find them but I guess that’s part of their hunting and guiding skills. We come across a few seal holes, just a centimetre or two across, made by the seals for breathing when they are swimming under the ice for long stretches. There are about 1,000 seals around and they like to breathe every four to five minutes although can stay submerged for much longer periods. In the Arctic there are six different species and they live in various regions usually with their own kind. The six are bearded, spotted, ribbon, harp, hooded and ringed.

The Arctic Circle Map Photo Gallery

Each female will give birth to just one pup out on the ice in the early spring. The pups need to grow the protective, insulating layer of blubber as fast as possible if they are going to survive in the freezing waters. Two breeds have particularly fast-growing pups, the hooded and the harp and therefore they are found the furthest north. The harp pups, called yellowcoats, grow from 10 kg at birth to 34 kg within 12 days; incredibly, the hooded pups, called bluebacks, weigh 42 kg within just 4 days. The mothers have very fat-rich milk to speed this process. During this feeding the mother is considerably weakened and loses about a quarter of her normal body weight. That’s the main reason why a seal will only have one pup. Seals are slippery creatures physically and mentally and are difficult to catch. Polar bears are reckoned to have only a 5 per cent success rate in hunting them. The seals have short claws on the ends of their flippers which enable them to obtain a very sure grip on the ice. They can glide effortlessly and dive to depths of 500 metres where they can remain for up to 28 minutes. When the Inuit find a seal hole they usually mark it and stake it out to try and catch the seal. The usual way is to stand back about 10 cm from the hole to avoid being seen and when the seal swims to the hole to breathe, shoot to one side. Then cut the ice away to see if the seal was killed and the body is still there. We wait for a while but fortunately no seal appears and we drive off again.

Looty tells us some stories about the animals of the Arctic. It’s important not to over-romanticise, as here the law of survival is paramount for man and animal. The polar bears are fierce creatures and need to hunt as well to survive. If they can catch even a whale they will do so and they are always looking out for such an opportunity. Looty tells about a recent occasion when a group of beluga whales were trapped by shifting ice and every time they surfaced the bears were waiting by the ice hole and tearing off pieces.

The bears would also jump on top of them to weaken and damage them. Some of the whales were eventually so weakened the bears could pull them out of the water. A few of the Inuit had tried to help by punching extra holes in the ice to allow the whales to surface elsewhere and give them a greater chance of avoiding the bears. When the ice eventually broke up in that area as the warmer weather approached, the remaining whales were able to escape. There was very little else anyone could do, as it is always necessary to let nature take its own course. It is certainly something to ponder about and to remember how important it is to not interfere in the laws of nature.

We reach a magnificent blue ice formation that is a truly spectacular sight and stop to try and climb it. But it is sheer ice and without an ice axe to cut into it and create foot and hand holds it proves impossible. We travel on for several kilometres, stopping when we want, eating our sandwiches, drinking our tea, coffee, brandy sometimes, but mostly just to marvel at the incredible beauty of it all. We are all in great spirits and start swapping stories. Changing the setting to fit in, I tell the story of the huge polar bear that stomps into the furthest bar, in the last town, on the edge of the North-West Territories. The barman and the customers are quite literally frozen to silence by his sudden appearance. The bear goes straight up to the counter and leans his massive arms aggressively right over it, his hot breath spouting out like fire. ‘I . . . want . . . the largest . . . glass . . . of beer . . . you . . . have.’ The terrified barman finally stammers back, ‘OK, but, but, why the big pause?’ Looty gets it right away but Fabian takes a moment or two. They shouldn’t have encouraged me and I can’t resist one more; a three-legged dog shuffles into a Territories bar, reminiscent of the old Wild West cowboy saloons. He barks out, ‘I’m looking for the man who shot my paw.’ It’s definitely time to move on.

We climb back on our ski-doos. Just as we are moving off we hear, rather than see, a sudden flurry as a creature dives hastily through a water hole. Looty who is more sharpeyed, becomes very excited and declares it was a walrus, which is fairly uncommon to find around here. It would be a really rare treat if we could see one. He gets off his ski-doo to inspect the hole but after a few minutes finally decides it would not be beneficial to wait around as it’s unlikely to return for several hours. What a great pity! I would love to have seen one in the flesh, so to speak, but instead content myself with finding out more about this odd and comical-looking creature.

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