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“Since I was 5 years old, my brother and I have been running around the Arctic tundra, catching fish and chasing polar bears,” says Nansen Weber, as he steers our boat through the undulating waters of Ennadai Lake, an icy, 52-mile-long body of water in the heart of Nunavut, an expansive territory in the remote stretches of the Canadian Arctic.
Our destination is near Caribou Point, one of only two titled markers accessible from Arctic Haven, a post-and-beam, green-energy-powered lodge his family has owned since 2011. Positioned on a sandy esker—a long, serpentine hill deposited by meltwater leftover by retreating glaciers in the last Ice Age—the lodge sits in an uninhabited region of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago’s rugged, albeit fragile, wilderness.
“If we go in quietly, we can slowly sneak up to see these caribou,” motions Nansen as he spots three antlers protruding from a nearby bluff through his binoculars. He kills the engine as we near the small islet, and I slip into the water to follow him around the craggy shoreline, an ideal position landing us downwind of the caribou. We crawl to the top of the bluff, where it’s flat, and lay on our stomachs, inching ourselves forward. We come within feet of the animals as they munch on dewy grass, unstirred. With one snap of a twig, they spot us, ensuring their dash for open water. They leap into the stormy torrent of Ennadai Lake, swimming with fury to the mainland shore, their antlers bobbing above the water.
This, I learn, is a typical day in the office for Nansen and his family of tried-and-true Arctic adventurers—mother Josée Auclair, father Richard Weber, and his older brother Tessum Weber. Through Weber Arctic, they operate the most northerly fly-in lodge on Earth at Arctic Watch, the first-ever heli-skiing adventures to the Arctic Cordillera range by way of Baffin Island Heliskiing, and Arctic Haven, a lodge allowing a select group of lucky travelers, like me, a front-row seat to North America’s largest migration.
Set in the treeline of the desolate Canadian Barren Lands, I arrived at Arctic Haven from Yellowknife, the nearest human settlement, nearly 450 miles away. After landing at the lodge’s own airstrip in a Dash 7, I learn Richard built the runway after landing over five aircraft loads of equipment on the frozen lake ice, in winter. Similarly, he drove a bulldozer over the frozen Northwest Passage to build the airstrip at the family’s more northerly lodge, Arctic Watch. Although astounding, this pales in comparison to Richard’s most harrowing expeditions—he completed the first surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean from Russia to Canada and he’s the first person to successfully reach the North Pole, roundtrip and by land alone and unsupported.
Before settling into my wooden abode, I’m greeted by Josée, the matriarch of the family and a pioneer who has led women-only expeditions to both the North Pole and the South Pole, and her son Tessum, who holds the record as the youngest person to reach the North Pole on skis. They introduce me to a group of safari veterans who are, like me, here to see North America’s most incredible mammal movement. It’s here, along the banks of Ennadai Lake, where the biannual migration of nearly 250,000 Qamanirjuaq caribou barrel through the lands, weaving an intricate pattern of trails and tracks to form a spectacle akin to the great migrations in Africa. From above the treeline in Nunavut's Kivalliq region south to the Nunavut-Manitoba border, the caribou follow eskers and iced-over lakes to reach their summer calving grounds, a southward, 300-mile journey in which Arctic Haven is in the center.
Over the next several days, I discover a land abundant with wildlife: black bears, muskoxen, tundra swans, eagles, wolves, and wolverines. I learn to catch one of the lake’s trophy-sized Arctic trout—chef Justin Tse sashimi’s it on site to pair with the lodge’s selection of premium, made-in-Canada wines—is an achievement only second to capturing a perfectly crisp midnight photo of the Northern Lights. But it’s only when I board the lodge’s own helicopter for an excursion that I grasp the extent of the Canadian Barren Lands, a remote area with many faces: granite rock beds sit side-by-side boggy marshes and cobalt pools and desolate expanses are etched in caribou tracks, which disappear when the land becomes lush, thick treeline.
On my last expedition, I set off with Nansen and Richard to hike the area’s tallest peak. The Webers call it Bear Mountain, but it’s really a 400-foot hill. We pass an abandoned wolf’s den before reaching the top to discover an inukshuk, a cross-shaped stone marker made by the Ahiarmiut to serve as a navigation tool in the frozen north where, in the snow, everything looks the same. As the original inhabitants of Ennadai Lake, the Ahiarmiut were known as the Caribou Inuit, as they were the only Inuit to sustain their livelihood from caribou hunting. There are no Ahiarmiut here today, only artifacts of their lost civilization—following the Hudson Bay Company’s arrival to the region, Ahiarmiut were forced to relocate to Nueltin Lake, a journey over 60 miles southeast of Ennadai Lake to an area where caribou are scant. When that failed, a second forced relocation to Henik Lake ensued, where many Ahiarmiut starved. But here, atop the highest peak in the region, it’s easier to get perspective on how immense this landscape is, where the Ahiarmiut once flourished, unbothered.
"Look around,” sighs Nansen, as he, like me, tries to make sense of the region’s magnanimity. “It will probably take us 10 years to fully map the area, but that’s what I’ve been doing on my days off. I go as far as I can for an entire day to see what I find, then I come back overnight. Each time, I’m surprised by how many shorelines, hills, and gullies I discover.”