Wednesday morning, 4AM. Early in September, the day is still 18 hours long, but the day is getting shorter 20 minutes a day! It gets shorter so quickly that by the first day of Autumn Sept 21, the day and night are equal length. Then the day rapidly vanishes, followed by two months of darkness. The sun doesn't rise very high in the sky this time of the year. The sun only gets up to about what we'd see at 8 or 9AM in summer. On the first day of Summer June 21, the summer circles the sky and never sets, but it only gets as high as what we'd see at 9 or 10AM.
Up and out into the tundra. The definition of "tundra" is a treeless arctic plain, permanently frozen beneath a thin layer which thaws for a few months a year. This area was covered by more than a mile of ice during the last ice age, and a couple of feet down, the ground may have been frozen since then.
This ground is by no means lifeless. There are many kinds of plants here (more on these later) which help feed the musk oxen, the caribou, and the arctic hare, to name a few.
This is the outlet to the river which comes down to the Arctic Ocean. The river is east of Cambridge Bay (visible on the right.) We came here to try and fish. In the background on the left is the loran tower, which was the town's first communication tower back in the 1950's.
The weather was nice, which meant at least 40 degrees, with breezes of no more than 20mph.
My fishing was a success, which meant I left here with as many lures as I started with. No fish though.
This lady walked miles out of town, to one of the small lakes to do some fishing. She came back empty-handed this time.
Just behind them is the town's cemetery. I'm sure even the residents here get cold feet in winter.
We were on our way to Mount Pelly when I stopped for this picture. Mt. Pelly is a large plateau near Cambridge Bay, and one of the highest points on the whole Victoria Island. Looking at this photo, you can get an idea of how isolated these cabins are.
We have stopped at Ovayok/Mt. Pelly Park. There are no buildings, but there are hiking trails for miles around here. There are even archeological sites from up to 1000 years ago. Long before the Inuit, the Dorset culture occupied this area as far back as 900AD. Inuit legends speak of "First Inhabitants", who were driven away by the Inuit. According to legend, they were "giants", people who were taller and stronger than the Inuit.
(Note: It's not hard to be taller than the Inuits.)
Clarence took our photo to prove we had been here.
You may remember I said in a previous chapter that the Inuinnaqtun language only had three vowels - a, i and u. But in many ways, the language is changing. Words have many spellings. While "Ovayok" is even on the sign, I have seen an earlier spelling, "Uvajuq." Mt. Pelly is known as an "esker," which is "A long, narrow ridge of coarse gravel deposited by a stream flowing in or under a decaying glacial ice sheet."
Close by Mt. Pelly are two other eskers, Lady Pelly and Baby Pelly.
According to the local legend of Ovayok, the three esker mountains were once a family of giants who died of starvation while walking across Victoria Island in search of food, and then turned to stone.
The lakes are clear and cold. They are unfrozen for no more than about three months a year. The larger ones have a lot of fish, but you wouldn't know it from what we accomplished. Being an "arctic desert," the area doesn't get a lot of precipitation, but what it does get it holds onto really well, because of not much evaporation and water doesn't sink into the ground all of which has permafrost. As a matter of fact, the warmest place in winter is at the bottom of these lakes, where the deepest water is the densest, and that is at about 38 degrees.
Out along the tundra main road, a husky is chained near the owner's cabin. He's left there for days at a time with a large meat bone and all the water he can drink. The area appears to be a rough scrub grass. This is the road we took each day going out on the quad vehicles for hunting and sight-seeing. Couldn't go much more than 15 kilometers per hour - about 10mph. We timed our return trip each day to take the "Arctic Highway," which was the beach when the tide was out. After a day of bumping around, it was nice to head back to camp running smoothly at 35kph.
The sun sets late, and differently up here. I know that back home, when the sun is on the horizon, we can expect a certain amount of twilight. I know from experience that on the equator, the sun drops straight down and it's BLACK twenty minutes after the sun goes down. So up here, we were way out on the tundra and the sun is near setting.
An hour later, the sun is still setting. Finally, back at the cabin, I took this picture about 10PM.
the migrants. It breeds in the Canadian tundra north of the Arctic Circle, and spends much of the rest of the time over the open Atlantic and Pacific ocean. It feeds mainly on fish, but in the tundra its diet is mostly lemmings (a small rodent.) We attracted it to photograph with bits of the musk ox meat.
This little arctic fox could be seen hundreds of yards away, carefully approaching the site of our musk ox kill. The arctic fox has adapted itself to some of the most extreme weather on the planet.
It has very thick fur, and a heat-exchanger system in its paws to keep them from freezing while keeping its core temperature warm. Its rounded body shape, with short legs, tail and ears means there is less surface area to lose heat. The arctic fox will eat any meat it can find, and with its keen ears it can detect small animals in their burrows under the snow.
As winter comes, the fur will change to white.Back to Top
At first very cautious, it probably came within ten feet of us as we fed it bits of the musk ox.
The Sandhill Crane is the largest game bird in the arctic. Considered by some the tastiest game bird in the north, they call it "Sunday Turkey." I found I couldn't get very close to photograph these birds, and needed by longest lens to get them. Adults are almost 3 feet tall, and have a wingspan of 6 feet. They should be flying south soon to Southwest United States and Mexico, and return for breeding season in May. They are omnivorous and will eat insects, frogs, rodents, berries, seeds, and waste grain in fields.
By far, the most dangerous animal in the Arctic is the Arctic Hare. Fortunately, it is only dangerous during the day but is a bunny wabbit at night. Arctic hares are larger than their southern cousins. They manage to survive on a diet of any vegetable matter they can find - woody plants, roots, bark, moss, and lichens.
Mr. Blazis managed to get off a shot and bag this one just as it was about to take off his foot. We toasted it with hunting songs and a bottle of wine with our rabbit stew.Back to Top
The muskox (Ovibos moschatus) is called omingmak meaning “the animal with skin like a beard.” The muskox is an arctic animal more related to sheep and goats than to oxen. It is well adapted to the severe conditions.
Beneath their long, shaggy outer coat is an undercoat of very fine hair called "qiviut" which is eight times as warm as wool. Much of this qiviut is shed in clumps in the spring, and the Inuit harvest it to make very warm, very expensive sweaters. Qiviut yarn can go for $40-80 per ounce. The Inuit have for generations stuffed qiviut into their mittens to make them warmer.
Muskox live in wet areas during the summer, and feed on any plants they find - grass, reeds, and anyother ground plants. In the winter, they dig through the snow to find their food. It is amazing that these
animals can subsist on such a low-nutrition diet.
Out on the tundra, you take any help you can get. This old kitchen chair was just sitting there. Kneeling down on the rocks was no fun. My knees still hurt. Photographing the musk ox was quite hard. The animals are brown, tan and fuzzy, on a background that is brown and tan. That's tough on contrast and hard for a camera to focus.
Calves are born singly in the spring, and weigh 150-225 pounds after a year.
Muskoxen as a species have changed little since the ice age. It is believed they migrated to North America over 100,000 years ago, and lived at the same time as the American Mammoth. The musk ox survived the last Ice Age and migrated north as the glaciers receded. It is estimated that there are between 80-125,000 musk ox living today.Back to Top
Musk oxen exhibit a typical defensive behavior when threatened. When faced by a single predator the musk oxen will stand in a line shoulder-to shoulder, with the largest animals in the front. When there are multiple threats, like several wolves, the musk oxen will form a circle, with the smallest and weakest in the center and the most powerful ones on the outside. This has been very effective for tens of thousands of years, until they were hunted by man with guns. In past years, whole herds were killed when they stayed in one place.
Mark bagged his one allowed musk ox. Fees paid by hunters for the privilege are substantial, and help support the land, the people, and their culture.
Clarence and Devin rapidly go about their business, dressing the animal. (Why do they call it "field dressing" when they are really undressing the animal??
Mark will get the head and upper part of the coat ("the cape.") Mark and I get quite a bit of meat. It is frozen to bring back to the U.S.
Devin will take the rest of the coat to be used for his own purposes. More of the meat goes to town, and the rest feeds the tundra animals, like the arctic fox shown earlier.
Driving around the tundra on a Quad is very tough on the back. When you're bouncing across the tundra, you hope the suspension is good. The one I was on, there were hand-holds, which I used to hang onto for my life. That's not a smudge on the photo.
We came back through a considerable amount of mud.
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