David Tanguay has always had a passion for travel and for learning from experiences. After graduating from the University of Montreal's business school, he moved to China to work for Starwood Hotels & Resorts. David joined the Quark Expeditions team on his return to Canada. He has since taken several expeditions to the Polar Regions and delights in sharing his experiences with the travel trade community.
A visit to Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge, Canada's most northerly wilderness lodge at 311 miles (500 km) north of the Arctic Circle, is an arctic expedition unlike any other. From late June to mid-August, travelers can explore the area around the lodge on Somerset Island and experience for themselves the trip that fashion icon Jeanne Beker recently called “magical, and very personal.”
Now I completely and truly understand what she meant! My own high Arctic adventure experience was an exceptional departure from everyday life; a step back to simpler but also far more challenging times in the untouched, pristine Arctic.
Your Ultimate Base Camp for Arctic Adventure
Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge hosts Richard Weber and Josée Auclair are polar explorers. Their son Tessum has followed in their footsteps, and their other son, Nansen, is a guide and wildlife photographer. Together with their team, the family has created a cozy, comfortable base camp for all kinds of adventures for travelers on Somerset Island.
Every morning after breakfast, expedition guides presented our Adventure Options for the day. Over the course of the week, we had the opportunity to get out in guided groups to kayak, hike, fish, ATV, bike the tundra, go stand-up paddleboarding and take photographs.
The adventure began long before I'd even set eyes on the lodge at 74°N. My journey began in Yellowknife, the capital of Canada's Northwest Territories, where we boarded a charter flight to Somerset Island. Usually, a comfortable flight is a pretty unexceptional experience, but not this time.
As we flew in over the lodge, right at the inlet, we saw all of these belugas in the water... I mean hundreds of beluga whales. We could see them so clearly, and it was a marine mammal display like nothing I'd ever seen before. It was truly spectacular.
The Cunningham River estuary is the summer home to hundreds of beluga whales, and as we would soon learn, our bird's-eye view from the plane was only the start of the adventure. That first day at Arctic Watch, I chose the kayaking Adventure Option and was soon gliding alongside those belugas across the surface of the bay.
There were about 500 belugas in the inlet, by our best estimation. And as we were paddling and taking it all in, they swam right underneath our kayaks!
Life at a Land-Based Arctic Expedition
South of the lodge, deep canyons provide challenging hiking and incredibly rewarding photography experiences. The Northwest Passage lies to the north, and west of the camp is an area called Red Valley, a popular Arctic Watch ATV destination. It was one of the adventures I opted into.
Two hours on the ATVs took us to this spectacular area high up in the mountains, where we could see the valley in front of us and the Northwest Passage in the back.
Our group had lunch outside before heading off to visit an ancient Thule settlement and one thing I'm sure I'll never forget it just how nice the weather was that high in the Arctic. We're talking about 10°C [50°F], so it was very comfortable in terms of weather conditions.
Somerset Island Is Home to Amazing Arctic Wildlife
Those conditions were perfect for seeing arctic wildlife in its natural habitat. With weather that nice, the wildlife was very active. Of course, the belugas were there, and we saw arctic hare, as well. We all saw lots of birds, and one hiking group saw 5 polar bears while they were out. Getting together in the lodge each evening to recount our day's adventures was one of the highlights of my trip.
One day, our entire camp hiked along the Cunningham River, then paddled back to the lodge in rafts and on kayaks and paddleboards. Halfway back down the river, we realized there was a herd of muskoxen nearby. We stopped and went ashore, walked up the hill a little bit, and saw about 14 muskoxen from a distance.
We approached quietly and slowly, maintaining a safe and respectful distance, but were still able to get a great look at the herd. That's the beauty of an arctic expedition, in my opinion. You never know what's going to happen, so you learn quickly to expect the unexpected.
A True Canadian Arctic Experience
Back at the lodge each evening, we enjoyed exceptional meals prepared by chef Justin Tse. Rather than simply providing sustenance, dining at Arctic Watch carried the arctic experience into the after-hours.
The quality of the food was absolutely phenomenal; everything was homemade, and fresh ingredients were brought up every week with the plane. It's a true Canadian culinary experience, because they bring in the cheese from Quebec, for example, and the salmon from the Atlantic provinces. Your dinner might be beef from Alberta with wine from British Columbia. It was fantastic and really, really fresh.
I've had the good fortune to travel on several polar expeditions, and Arctic Watch holds a special place in my heart. The sheer intimacy of the Arctic Watch experience made for an unforgettable expedition, with memories and relationships to last a lifetime. On some trips, you have to do what everyone else does. Because the group at Arctic Watch is so small, it means that you can have pretty much any experience you want.
Being able to have those experiences in a small group of just 26 people from different backgrounds and different cultures … well, by the second or third day, you feel like you're a family. The Weber family are also very good hosts.
Want to learn more about planning your own adventure at Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge?
- Read more Arctic Watch stories from expedition experts and travelers like you
- Get the Arctic Watch Adventure Guide
- Download your free Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge: Adventure and Wildlife at 74°N brochure