Dave Garrow Devon Island expedition map

The Pikialasorsuaq Expedition

By Dave Garrow, Guest Contributor

7 MINS

 

14 Jul 2022

The Pikialasorsuaq (The Great Upwelling) Expedition set out in May 2022 to explore, document, and better understand the ecology and physical processes that make the North Water Polynya, an area of open water surrounded by seasonal sea ice, the biological engine of the Canadian High Arctic, with the goal to bring this story back to Canadians and the world. 

The expedition was a success, with John McClelland and Frank Wolf joining me, traveling 310 kilometers over 21 days, self-supported by ski, through sea ice habitat off the northeast coast of Devon Island, over the Devon Ice Cap, and returning to Ellesmere Island (Ausuittuq) after a 75-kilometer crossing of Jones Sound. The team was able to travel to the edge of the polynya, at times 6 kilometers off land and 20 meters from the open waters of Baffin Bay, an area they named “The Wild Edge of Canada.” 

A better understanding of the ecology and physical processes shaping the region, including predator-prey dynamics, thermohaline circulation ocean dynamics, and the impacts of freshwater inputs (river and glacial run-off) on primary production were a few of the major successes of the journey. The team saw first hand how critical sea ice is to the overall functioning of the Arctic ecosystem, embedding themselves in core polar bear habitat for weeks. Through connections with Qikiqtaaluk Inuit and the team's personal experience, the expedition members better understand how changes in the quantity, quality, and spatial extent of sea ice are impacting Inuit travel, hunting, and inter-community relationships.

John McClelland and Dave Garrow stare into the cold, icy waters of Baffin Bay

Photo: Frank Wolf

John McClelland and Dave Garrow stare into the cold, icy waters of Baffin Bay during their May 2022 expedition to the North Water Polynya off the coast of Devon Island. As the team skied along the edge of the polynya, they dealt with 45-kilometer-per-hour winds shearing off sheets of ice and sending sea spray at their feet. With only four feet of ice below them, they wondered how long the sea ice would remain intact. It felt like being on a summit of a mountain far too long.

Dave Garrow and John McClelland enjoy the company of three female walruses hauled out on the sea ice

Photo: Frank Wolf

Dave Garrow and John McClelland enjoy the company of three female walruses hauled out on the sea ice. Walrus use the sea ice as a resting platform between dives for benthic mollusks, the same mollusks that cause them to emit an almost unbearable stench. Unlike the ringed seal, walruses are unwary and the team was able to get within 30 feet before they all slipped back through their breathing hole to feed again. Dave is looking over his shoulder as polar bear tracks littered the nearby shoreline. The bears were likely trying to hunt the walrus.

Close up of a walrus

Photo: Dave Garrow

Walrus share a close relationship with sea ice, using the ice as a resting platform between feeds. Walrus also use the drifting pack ice in the spring and summer to effortlessly travel between feeding zones looking for shelled bivalves on the ocean floor to eat. 

John McClelland cautiously investigates a maternal ringed seal den

Photo: Dave Garrow

John McClelland cautiously investigates a maternal ringed seal den. Ringed seals exploit gaps in the pile up of sea ice to create breathing holes and give birth to their pups in the spring under the warm, protective cover of the snow. The team encountered many of these seal dens that had been excavated by polar bears looking for seal pups to eat, a critical part of their diet.

The team investigates an excavated maternal seal den with polar bear tracks leading into it

Photo: Frank Wolf

The team investigates an excavated maternal seal den with polar bear tracks leading into it. The team traveled the sea ice along the northeast coast of Devon Island, embedding themselves in core polar bear habitat for three weeks. Rarely did a kilometer of travel pass without the team seeing tracks or evidence (seal kills, scat) of polar bear.

Polar bear footprints in the snow

Photo: Frank Wolf

Polar bears use two hunting strategies, both inextricably linked to sea ice, their hunting platform. The drag marks from these tracks show a polar bear running as it stalks a seal that has exposed itself on top of the sea ice. Stalking and still hunting are the two most common forms of hunting; without sea ice neither of these strategies can happen.

A polar bear walking across sea ice

Photo: Frank Wolf

After two weeks of traveling on the sea ice the team encountered a polar bear. While leaving the tent after dinner for the nightly ritual of a nip of whiskey they were startled to see this 900-pound male polar bear 100 feet from their tent. The Inuit use “feet” to size bears, not weight; this would have been a solid “nine footer.” The Sverdrup Glacier flowing off the Devon Ice Cap makes for a stunning backdrop.

A polar bear gets close to camp to investigate

Photo: Dave Garrow

Frank Wolf enjoys sharing time and space with a male polar bear that came to investigate the camp. This bear was very curious but did not pose a threat to the team, investigating their camp for 20 minutes and then heading off to continue the search for more ringed seals to eat.

A tent camp set up on the sea ice with a polar bear fence

Photo: Dave Garrow

The team carried a 12 gauge shotgun and every night would set up a trip wire perimeter fence attached to blank 12 gauge rounds. If a curious bear tried to investigate the camp, the charges would go off giving everyone (including the bear) some time to gather their thoughts. Using cracker shells and rubber bullets from the shotgun the team could safely scare off the bear.

Terry Noah and Nolan Kiguktak, local Inuit hunters and outfitters, teach the team about maternal seal dens

Photo: Frank Wolf

Terry Noah and Nolan Kiguktak, local Inuit hunters and outfitters, teach the team about maternal seal dens. The Inuit, like polar bears, rely on the sea ice for all aspects of their day to day lives. With changes to the quality, quantity and spatial extent of sea ice in the north due to climate change the Inuit way of life is rapidly changing as travel to hunting grounds and between communities is increasingly dangerous due to thin and unstable ice.

Two men ski across the windy sea ice landscape

Photo: Dave Garrow

Sea ice is an amazing landscape to travel through with its many, many forms and its constant state of flux. Here the team is winding their way through ice heaves as the ever present northeast wind batters them.

Frank Wolf skis along the sea ice past the toe of the Sverdrup Glacier

Photo: Dave Garrow

Frank Wolf skis along the sea ice past the toe of the Sverdrup Glacier, a tidewater glacier that is floating on top of the ocean. The interface between the toe of the glaciers and the sea ice commonly have seal breathing holes as this dynamic and always shifting interface makes it easy to maintain the hole open. Polar bear tracks were always reliably found near the toe of the glaciers.

 John McClelland stands beside a lead in the sea ice

Photo: Dave Garrow

John McClelland stands beside a lead in the sea ice. Leads (open water cracks in the ice) are used by seals and walrus as breathing holes and are important hunting grounds for polar bears. For the Inuit and expedition teams, leads in the sea ice are dangerous places often disguised by a skiff of snow from the strong northeast winds. Inuit traveling on snow machines and expedition teams on skis risk falling into the cold waters below.

Ropes overlaying a lead in the sea ice

Photo: Frank Wolf

A near miss of almost sinking into the cold waters of Baffin Bay after unknowingly skiing into a floe lead. The ropes in the picture were attached to the 150-pound pulk carrying all of the team member’s gear. The pulk was luckily detached allowing the skier to travel across the lead before sinking. Rapid changes in the quality of sea ice in the north is making travel unpredictable and dangerous, especially for Inuit who use heavy snow machines to travel between communities and hunting grounds.

Frank Wolf skis by a behemoth iceberg that had calved off from a glacier in Greenland

Photo: Dave Garrow

Frank Wolf skis by a behemoth iceberg that had calved off from a glacier in Greenland and was drifting aimlessly in the waters of Baffin Bay before getting encased in the sea ice for the winter. Glaciers throughout the circumpolar arctic are calving at faster rates due to climate change (warmer temperatures cause glaciers to “move” downslope faster, increasing the amount of ice that calves off the end). The expedition team used these building-sized icebergs as wind protection at night.

Frank Wolf looking very small beneath an impressive ice cave

Photo: Dave Garrow

Frank Wolf looking very small beneath an impressive ice cave at the toe of the Sverdrup Glacier off the edge of Devon Island. These ice caves are formed from freshwater run-off from the melting snow and ice of the glaciers. 

Dave Garrow is an adventurer, wildlife biologist, and long-time friend of Polar Bears International.