Arctic Haven’s Outpost: Built From The Tundra Up!
For most Canadians, Yellowknife is already a long way up there. To us, Yellowknife is a bustling metropolis. It is the bookend destination of our guiding season- a place to call loved ones on the phone and order takeout. So what happens when a client asks if we can run a remote outpost camp 80km from our already-remote arctic lodge? We do exactly that- building it from the tundra up.
Building a camp on the open tundra, 80km from our lodge and over 1000km from Yellowknife meant several months of logistics and preparation. Buildings were positioned months in advance, equipment shipped by aircraft two months ahead. This changed the day we loaded two boats with all of the tools and materials needed to physically build the camp. Over the course of two days, operational systems were put into place and structures took shape. With the physical infrastructure assembled, gourmet meals planned by Chef Justin Tse and a hot air balloon and helicopter on standby, everything was in order.
And then it rained. And it rained some more. We were forced to change plans. Mother nature changed her mind.
Grey clouds developed in the expansive sky of the Arctic Barren Lands. Closing in on the typical blue sky, the clouds brought the worst weather we had seen all season. Overall, spirits remained high. I still remember the great enthusiasm among my group of hikers as we set off from the lodge in high winds and horizontal rain. Despite the uncooperative weather, we packed a lot into the lodge-based days. Among our wildlife sightings, the group saw black bears, quietly observed throngs of caribou, caught a glimpse of a wolf darting across the skyline, were humbled by a big bull moose as he dwarfed the nearby trees and we listened to hundreds of geese honking their way south. We mountain biked along caribou trails, heli-fished, swam off the boats, visited ancient historical sites and hiked sandy eskers, and open tundra. Evenings were relaxed - sauna and massage therapy.
With wildlife, adventure and a healthy dose of inclement weather accounted for, our attention turned to the night sky which had remained dark all week. Somewhere behind the clouds the aurora borealis danced. Seeing the lights was a big part of this trip but our time was running out. It is extremely rare to go several days without seeing the lights and everyone was willing the clouds to part.
On the eve of the second last day, the winds dropped and the rain slowed to a drizzle. The welcome change in the weather meant we could make the 80km journey by boat to the outpost camp. The outpost camp had remained a secret and guests packed their bags in eager anticipation of the morning's journey.
The morning of, a little black bear delayed our departure from the lodge. It was mid-morning by the time the wildlife excitement subsided and cameras found their place back in bags. We left from the back bay in two boats, Pangino and Quavik, and began the journey north. Arctic Haven sits on the cusp of treeline. Turn south and you quickly find yourself in the dense boreal forest that carpets most of northern Canada. Turn north, the black spruce begin to disappear and, without fanfare, the landscape morphs into open tundra. Around lunch time, we spotted a group of caribou grazing on the gentle slope above a welcoming sandy beach. Taking the hint, we landed the boats. Tessum takes off with a group of keen trackers to take a closer look at the caribou while the others opt to relax on the beach and enjoy a fire. Lounging on the beach, we celebrate the return of the sunshine and enjoy a typical picnic lunch, complete with homemade bread, manchego, smoked gouda, brie and a selection of meats.
One last stop brings our party to the site of an old radio station built in 1949. Here we enjoy sweeping views of the North Arm of Ennadai Lake. Fall’s vibrant colour palette paints the landscape with rich reds, warm oranges and splashes of purple. In the distance, we can see the outpost camp poised on one of the many small islands. This group of islands, among others, are often used by caribou to swim across the lake to avoid long open crossings. Fury, the Weber’s young shepherd, came along with us as the camp’s bear dog. As we motor into the bay, Furry is as anxious as the rest of us to get to land and explore.
The novelty of the outpost has everyone buzzing with excitement. While everyone else is exploring the island, Nansen jumps into the helicopter with four guests and they take off with fly rods in hand to the mouth of the Kazan. Back at the campfire, golden hour is upon us, the keg is tapped and friends sit around the crackling fire. A curious female caribou pokes her head over the rise. She pauses a moment to take a look at us and then trots right into camp with her head held high. Stunned, we sit in silence as she walks within a few meters of us before eventually darting off. The fishermen return, just in time for dinner, with giant grins and claims of the best fishing of the year.
Everyone takes their place at the long dining table, accentuated by a chandelier made of caribou antlers and a small wood burning fireplace. Arctic Haven’s chef serves a stunning three course meal that would rival the cuisine in any of Canada’s big cities. Working with a fraction of the space and tools, culinary talent on the tundra is showcased. A warm ambiance fills the dining room as food and wine are passed around the table. After several days of uncertainty, the guides and staff breathe a sigh of relief. Dinner service ends and everyone steps out into the crisp evening air. As if on cue, the northern lights take their place in the sky. Whoops and cheers can be heard from around the island as rivers of green and blue gracefully ebb and flow against the dark of the night. The music is turned up and the party continues well into the evening. With all efforts and plans at an end, the beauty of the aurora capped off an unforgettable day in one of the most remote and isolated corners of northern Canada.