"Out on the land": Spotting Arctic wildlife

My colleague and arctic veteran Monte Hummel – President Emeritus of WWF-Canada – and I stand at the base of the fabled esker on the south shore of Victoria island, and although the sun hasn’t set here since May 21, and won’t until nearly the end of July, there before us is a frozen landscape of snow and ice as far as the eye can see.

James Snider and Monte Hummel (c) James Snider/WWF-Canada
We’ve made our way north to the community of Cambridge Bay to meet with members of the Nunavut Planning Commission, and following a productive series of meetings, some of our hosts have generously volunteered to take us “out on the land,” so that we can hopefully catch a glimpse of the wildlife that are so important to the livelihood and culture of Nunavummiut (“people of Nunavut”).

For me, sighting a caribou or muskox in the wild would be a momentous occasion. Although I’ve worked on arctic projects for a couple years now, including mapping mineral tenures on the calving grounds of the Beverly and Qaminirjuaq caribou herds, I have yet to actually see one of these animals in the wild.
For all of my high hopes, I wasn’t disappointed. Within minutes of stopping our two snow-machines at the base of the esker, we spot two ravens protecting their nest made of caribou antlers, dwarf willow sticks and muskox hair from a pair of rough-legged hawks, and in the distance we can see several sandhill cranes standing erect on the tundra.

NPC staffer, Cambridge resident, and our guide for the morning, Mike Townsend, suggests we venture around the far side of the largest “mountain” to see what else we can find.
We ride along the frozen surface of Grenier Lake until Monte signals to stop. He points to the horizon: three barren-ground caribou can be seen off in the distance, and to our left, mere feet away, a long path of caribou tracks can be seen winding through the snow, ending in another slightly larger group of caribou.

We decide to take a loop around the small herd and get a closer look without disrupting the animals. Back onto the snow-machines and over the hill, yet the caribou are still a distance away. Feeling somewhat disheartened that we hadn’t made it much closer, I’m delighted to hear someone say, “look to the left!” – over the next hill there is a large group of muskoxen!
The cold wind hits my face, as we fly along the surface of Long Lake back towards town, pleased to have seen not only caribou, but muskoxen as well.  To our right, we spot a large dark object nestled in the otherwise bright white of the snow-covered landscape. As we draw nearer we soon realize it’s a single muskox that has surrendered to the cold.  Although it can’t have been there long, the animal is frozen into the snow — a reminder of the harsh landscape even these resilient arctic animals must endure to survive.

As we finish the last leg of the trip back into town, we happen across another group of caribou in the distance and a single bull muskox, along with a pair of tundra swans, white-fronted geese, Lapland longspurs, glaucous gulls and snow buntings.  We’ve seen such a diversity of wildlife in little more than two hours that I can only remark to myself what an astounding place this is. It brings new life and reality to what’s at stake in the emerging Nunavut Land Use Plan.
I can only imagine what this place might look like ten or twenty years from now. Will there still be sea ice here in May? Will the community still rely on wildlife, like caribou and muskox, for their livelihoods? Will those species – those resources – still be there in sufficient numbers?
Despite all these questions, I hope that one day I can return here to see spring arrive on the Arctic tundra.