Somerset Island, Canada

Photo: Arctic Watch
Photo: Arctic Watch

It’s almost midnight. Usually you’d be sound asleep right now. But the sun is still shining. Brightly shining. And a pod of white whales is breaching the water in front of you. There’s no way you’re going to bed anytime soon.

You’re watching the beluga whales 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle at the Arctic Watch Lodge on Cunningham Inlet. It was an adventure just to get here. First, you traveled to Yellowknife, the already remote capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories. Then you flew 4.5 hours north—into Nunavut, through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and over the Northwest Passage—to Somerset Island.

Though it’s Canada’s twelfth-largest island, Somerset is uninhabited. Stone ruins, tunnels, and whale bones prove that the Thule people once lived here. The Europeans didn’t arrive until the 19th century though. They explored the island by sled, built Fort Ross, and ultimately deserted the hard-to-reach trading post. Only occasional Inuit caribou hunters used the island after that. At least until 1999. Then a Canadian polar explorer built this seasonal lodge.

Photo: Arctic Watch
Photo: Arctic Watch

The Arctic Watch Lodge isn’t your typical hotel. Nor should it be. The great room is part lounge, part restaurant, and part interpretive center. Regional artifacts and traditional Inuit clothing, old fossils and geological maps fill the library. Arctic char sashimi, Baffin Bay turbot, and homemade bread are served for dinner. Okanagan Valley wines and expedition stories are shared at the communal table. When it’s time to attempt to sleep, you’re sent to bed with a hot-water bottle and an eye mask. Your tented cabin is comfortable with a queen-size bed and a thick Pendleton duvet. Your packing list included everything from neoprene boots to long underwear to sunscreen. Don’t forget the sunscreen. Though the weather could change at any moment, it’s usually clear and sunny this time of year. The sun won’t starting setting again until September.

But the endless sun gives you plenty of time for fun activities. When the strong rays wake you up after just a few hours of sleep, run up Nansen’s Ridge for a panoramic view of the Northwest Passage or hike on Mars Mountain’s red soil. Return to the lodge for a hearty bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. Get certified to drive an ATV and then drive one by burly muskoxen on the Muskox Ridge Trail to Garnier Bay. Keep an eye out for a white Arctic fox along the way. Visit Cape Anne, a 1,000-year-old archeological site, to see the ancient remains of houses built with whale bones. Watch for a polar bear and seals as you kayak between nearby islands. Paddleboard along the Cunningham River, a spectacular glacial canyon. Ride a fat bike—a souped-up mountain bike—across the tundra, where king eider ducks are nesting.

Plus stop every single time you see a beluga whale in the water. The whales are easily distinguished by both their color and lack of a dorsal fin. As many as 2,000 whales spend the summer in this area. Females are nursing their recently born calves. Others are molting—shedding old skin—against rocks in the relatively warm water. While you’re in awe of the massive creatures and their stunning summer home.

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