Ice and Land—Impressions from Baffin Island, Nunavut

Museum mineralogist Paula Piilonen and research assistant Glenn Poirier spent a week in August as part of a geological mapping project on Baffin Island in Nunavut. It was their first time doing fieldwork in the Arctic. As Paula writes, getting there is part of the adventure and the landscape leaves lasting impressions. 

I’ve travelled all over the world, for work and for vacations, but being in Nunavut I always feel the furthest away from home. Even Iqaluit is a different world, with the feel of a frontier mining town rather than the capital of Canada’s newest territory. Spending a week on Baffin Island makes you realize how much of our country is still wild and untamed. It is stark and desolate with no sign of life, but at the same time beautiful and breathtaking.

Glenn Poirier and I landed in Iqaluit on July 29, 2012, as a starting point for our fieldwork on Hall Peninsula, in the south of Baffin Island.

Two hikers walk along a rocky hillside of a river valley.

Dwarfed by the landscape, Glenn and Paula search for gems on the Hall Peninsula. Image: Serge Basso © Canadian Museum of Nature

Iqaluit is home of the Canada-Nunavut Geoscience Office (CNGO), the leaders on the Hall Peninsula mapping project. After meeting with the office scientists, we explored Iqaluit and hiked the trail along Frobisher Bay to the original town of Apex. To our surprise, Iqaluit has two Tim Hortons outlets. No need to suffer from caffeine withdrawal!

Man holding his thumb up with Tim Hortons store in background.

Glenn gives his approval at finding a Canadian Institution in Iqaluit. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

On the morning that we were supposed to fly from Iqaluit to the Hall Peninsula camp, we woke up to an astounding sight—for the first time in 30 years, old sea ice from Baffin Bay had been blown by the winds and currents into Frobisher Bay and had filled the harbour.

With weather at the Hall Peninsula camp delaying our flight, Glenn and I took the time to wander among the ‘icebergs’ at low tide, marvelling at their size and colour, stopping to take numerous pictures and even to taste the ice!

Large chunks of ice in harbour.

Chunks of ice in Iqaluit harbour provided a unique diversion while Paula and Glenn waited for the weather to improve. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

Unknown to us, the same ice that had us enthralled and amazed was wreaking havoc with fellow museum scientists Kieran Shepherd, Jennifer Doubt and Paul Hamilton who were part of the team on the Students on Ice expedition—they were trapped in Iqaluit with no way of getting to their research vessel anchored in the deeper water of Frobisher Bay. (They finally got out thanks to a special evening operation by the Canadian Coast Guard.)

Back at the CNGO office, we studied topographic maps of southern Baffin Island with a group of elders from Pangnirtung, Nunavut who were scheduled to fly with us to the camp. They showed us locations of the best hunting, fishing and whaling sites, as well as possible localities for carving stone and gems. Their collective memory for the land they live on is outstanding.

The fog at the camp finally lifted and we were cleared for take-off and landing. After unloading spent fuel barrels from the Twin Otter plane, we loaded our equipment and personal gear and took off from the Iqaluit airport.

Small red plane in front of airplane hangar.

The Twin Otter used to get Paula and Glenn to their base camp on Hall Peninsula. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

Flying over the tundra along the coast, across fjords and glaciated outcrops, it was hard for my mind to take in the vastness of Canada’s Arctic. It is almost possible to do geological mapping from the air—everything is exposed!

Thirty minutes later, we landed on the tundra at the Hall Peninsula camp. It was a bumpier experience than we were expecting (nothing that a little work on the Twin Otter tail wouldn’t fix!). After unloading the plane, we got our first look at “home” for the next 5 days: a dozen canvas Logan tents and four large half-dome canvas shelters on the shore of Happy Lake.

Four half-domed shelters on flat terrain.

Fog rolls in at the Hall Peninsula camp. These shelters include the communications tent, kitchen and showers. Image: Paula Piilonen © Canadian Museum of Nature

The living arrangements were complete with a hot water shower, a generator, satellite Internet and phone—all the comforts of home with an amazing view in the fresh Arctic air. Sleep comes early in the field, wrapped up in a sleeping bag inside your tent, listening to the calls of the loons on the water.

And with that, having arrived and settled in, we eagerly anticipated heading into the field to explore and collect. More about that next week.

About Paula Piilonen

A mineralogist with the Research Division at the Canadian Museum of Nature.
This entry was posted in Arctic, Fieldwork, Research, Rocks and minerals and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Ice and Land—Impressions from Baffin Island, Nunavut

  1. iriscutforth says:

    Just remember that Baffin Island is private property and there is a deed on file with the Quebec government so that no one can take over mineral deposits as it belongs to the Inuit. It came with a high price so mineralogists beware close to a million dollars or so. Got that much money?

  2. prkralex says:

    There is the $298.5m project includes expansion and refurbishment of the airport’s facilities.This airport was opened in the 1940s. The traffic at the airport has been increasing at a rate of five percent per year since 2000. The airport improvement project was initiated to handle the increasing traffic and meet the increasing demands of the passengers.

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