The McCauley-Gonzalez family visited Arctic Watch in July 2017. Joyce had long dreamed of visiting Arctic Watch and the experience proved to be transformative for the entire family. The family share some highlights of their trip and reflect on the significance and growth experienced along the way.
The McCauley-Gonzalez family are not your average urbanites. With busy lives and demanding careers, they find themselves seeking out destinations far from the rushed pace of modern society. These vacations take them to quieter corners of the world, to places where the family can connect and truly unwind. When I chatted with them over the phone, the family was enjoying spring break at the intimate ski resort of Smugglers Notch.
Eight years ago, Joyce was doing some research online looking for an Arctic destination to visit for Rico’s upcoming birthday. During her search, she stumbled across a photo of belugas at Arctic Watch. “I was completely mystified,” she said. At the time, Rico wanted to see the northern lights and their young son was still a preschooler. “But I could never get those belugas out of my head. I knew I just had to see them.”
The next big celebration came several years later. Joyce was planning for her fiftieth birthday and their son Benicio had just turned ten. With Benicio now old enough to appreciate a trip to the High Arctic and an important birthday to celebrate, Joyce’s mind returned to the belugas she had longed to see so many years ago.
In mid-July 2017, the family hopped on a plane and traveled north some 3,000 kilometres from their home in Montreal to Arctic Watch, a wilderness lodge owned and operated by the Weber family. At 74° north, Arctic Watch is situated on the northern shore of the uninhabited Somerset Island and is the most northerly lodge in the world. Before leaving, Rico was struck by the recognition that they would soon be completely above treeline. “It was incomprehensible to be so far North that the trees just disappeared. It was awe inspiring.”
The family quickly settled into life above the Arctic Circle and Fury, the lodge’s polar bear dog, found Benicio to be an ideal companion and capitalized on his boundless enthusiasm to throw sticks. At Arctic Watch, the various trips for the day are presented each morning and Benicio’s parents gave him complete autonomy to sign the family up for the day’s adventure. When asked about some of his favourite trips, Benicio replied, “The memory that comes to mind is when we kayaked for 16 kilometres and hiked for 5 kilometres. I was kayaking and my parents were paddle boarding. The water was so clear, it was beautiful. It was just really cool because I like being in the outdoors and I like camping a lot. So being up there and playing outside and feeling the cold was awesome.”
Joyce remembers an afternoon, several days prior, where the group had an intimate encounter with a herd of muskoxen grazing on sedges. She said, “As a parent, watching Benicio with Josée (the Weber family matriarch), crawling through the tundra towards a group of muskoxen was a moment I will always remember. The Webers’ knowledge of the Arctic fostered confidence and trust. We knew he was always safe and that allowed him to grow. We learned as parents that we can let him go, that was so huge for us.”
While the belugas were what brought the family to Arctic Watch, they left with so much more. Rico recollects the depth and magnitude of their time in the High Arctic, “When you try to explain the experience to your friends, they have a hard time understanding the majesty of it all. I remember hiking with Dave on the first day, and he stops the group and tells us to look at our feet. In that moment, everything slowed down. Looking at the tiny flowers and splashes of colour against the stark landscape, it all sunk in. You just don’t get it until you go.”
The experience has carried with them beyond the treeless expanse of the open tundra and back to the urban streets of Montreal. Joyce reflects on the growth and newly found perspective the trip has brought her son, “As a Canadian, I was so embarrassed that I knew nothing of the North. I am so happy to have given him that opportunity.” Later that year, Benicio won his regional science competition with his science project ‘Battle of Warmth: Qiviut or Wool’. Qiviut is the warm undercoat of muskoxen, said to be softer than cashmere and warmer than sheep’s wool. “To know that the North exists and is not just a big expanse up there has given me the reassurance that Benicio is always going to have an open mind,” she said.
What was once a dream became reality. Back at home, the beluga whales that first enticed Joyce and her family to Arctic Watch are now framed in a blown up image, this time with Benicio standing along the shore. “We see that picture every day and Arctic Watch is forever in our hearts,” Joyce concluded over the phone.
Learn more about the adventures we offer at Arctic Watch here