Holy cow! – More wildlife beckoned at Quaqtaq. Smaller than Kangiqsujuaq, this hamlet houses around 315 people. It has an airport, hotel, school and hospital, but I headed straight for the harbour where a man called Bobby was waiting. He transported me to nearby Diana Island in what looked like a traditional Canadian canoe -but actually concealed two powerful engines. The grassy atoll was deserted; I spotted a few clumps of brown wool strung amid the grass but otherwise it seemed we had the place to ourselves. Then Bobby stopped and gestured uphill.
At first I thought they were cows but, as we got closer, I realised they were bigger. Musk-ox. With giant curled horns and scraggy light-brown and white coats, they resembled prehistoric bison. They eyed us warily as we moved past, the larger ones standing in front of their young. When they decided we’d got close enough, the ten-strong herd began to run, shaking the earth. It was like standing in the bottom of a bass drum. Exhilarated, we left the musk-ox to their idyll and headed back to the village. As we tore through the water, bearded seal popped up to check out the commotion, then a minke whale emerged to accompany us home, giving the odd spurt from its blowhole. I couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the night.
Bear on board – Word of a polar bear sighting on the edge of town circulated at the hotel the next morning. Perhaps it was a good omen for my final trip, to Akpatok Island with the armed pilot. Akpatok is actually part of neighbouring territory, Nunavut, but has been under Nunavik protection since 2008. In winter, when ice connects this massive 903 sq km landmass to the mainland, polar bears cross over. When their route back melts in summer, many remain stranded. This makes it an ideal place to spot them. So there we were, staring at Akpatok’s giant cliffs. These cliffs provide nesting sites for thick-billed murre, an important food source for polar bears. But the bears didn’t seem to be hunting today. Instead Kuujjuaq fireman David Mesher, who had stayed overnight on the boat, showed me photographs of polar bears swimming; he explained that he and the crew slept in shifts to ensure they didn’t take on any furry white stowaways…
Almost on cue we heard a commotion upstairs – a bear had been sighted. We ran to the deck and captain Johnny cut the engine. I was visibly shaking with anticipation. As we drifted, a large male polar bear emerged above a slither of snow. He raised his head to sniff the air – our scent had attracted him. He looked at us and then at the drop beneath his feet as though contemplating the descent. Even from this distance I could tell he was huge but I wasn’t worried. The trip may have started with guns but the only shooting now was with cameras. I gazed at the bear, my nose fizzing as I tried to stop myself from crying, and mused how much like Nunavik he was: unexpected, wild, tear-inducingly beautiful and simply unforgettable.