Heli-hiking at Arctic Haven is a fantastic way to explore the tundra during the caribou migration. Arctic Haven guide Emilie shares her experience this past September.
Mornings start with coffee. At home or the wilderness of Nunavut, the importance of good coffee isn’t to be underestimated. Behind the espresso bar, I make cappuccinos and americanos and the smell of freshly ground coffee beans slowly draws guests out of bed. First come the early risers, many of whom have walked down the esker for a quiet morning fish. Later, those who stayed up late under the lights of the aurora will drift by for their morning cup. While I spend most of my day as a guide, my mornings as a barista are often a great way to catch-up with guests before the day starts and something I always look forward to.
Shortly after breakfast, the espresso machine is turned off and I pull on my muckboots and backpack. Today we’re headed out in the helicopter. The bird gives us a new vantage from which to see the land and access to the high ridges and caribou trails that we will hike later that day. Our pilot Benkt, gives his safety briefing and moments later we are inside the machine which gently shakes as the engines warm up.
We lift off under blue skies and scattered clouds. Excited energy is only exacerbated when the initial g-force of the lift causes your heart to drop into your stomach. Benkt chats into our headsets and the lodge quickly falls out of view. In the distance, rolling hills of black spruce reveal numerous kettle lakes, a remnant of long departed glaciation. I only get a few words in about glacial deposition, before a group of caribou come into view and cause a stir in the back as everyone adjusts for a better view. Thankfully, Benkt knows what he is doing. The helicopter first banks left revealing nearly a dozen females with their babies, and then circles a second time in the opposite direction to ensure everyone gets a good view from the window beside them. Caribou are the only member of the ungulate family in which both males and females have antlers. This time of year, the males are shedding their velvets and will lose their antlers in late autumn following the rut. The females have much smaller antlers which they keep throughout the winter. We linger above this group only a few moments longer before continuing on, knowing there are hundreds more caribou in the vicinity.
Eyes glued to the window we fly over a landscape on fire, the fall colours turning the tundra rich colours of red, purple and orange. Below us, caribou fleck the sandy eskers and marshy tundra. We take our time as we head north, pausing to observe the many groups of caribou below and finding a deep appreciation for the vast landscape. After flying up the western edge of Ennadai Lake, we eventually put down on a point of land with numerous of caribou.
Here we turn east from the helicopter and hike through a stand of beautiful larch trees on the verge of turning golden. As we walk we feast on the bounty of berries at our feet, saving just enough room for the homemade bread, cheeses and meats waiting for us at the heli. Knowing there were caribou just over the ridge, we hike below its crest hoping to remain discrete. But we weren’t the only curious ones. Less than ten meters above us, a caribou pokes its head over the roll. First one set of antlers, then another, and then two more. Our sleuthing mission scrapped, we slowly sit down and allow the curious caribou the right of way. For what felt like hours, we sat in silence and awe as the caribou continued to casually forage and make their slow advance.
A humbling experience, I found myself deeply rooted in the present and wishing they had stayed longer. As if waking from a trance we walked on, and eventually looped back towards the helicopter. Lunch, a few more stops along the way home and dozens more caribou rounded out another excellent day out on the land. More on Heli-hiking at Arctic Haven.