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Not quite roughing it in Nunavut Add to ...

'Ah," Eoin Mowat crows as we skip from the Arctic Ocean into the air over Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, "nothing takes off like a Beaver."

Hunched at the controls wearing a battered leather jacket and ball cap, Mowat looks the part of the bush pilot, flying a classic 1956 de Havilland Beaver.

And this is serious bush country. To find its polka-dotted plains of brown and green tundra on a map, trace your finger north of Edmonton, past Yellowknife, and keep going until you fall off the northernmost edge of North America.

It's the middle of nowhere, in other words, and after 25 minutes in the air, we can see that it holds our destination: A huddle of red buildings on a slope overlooking an inlet - the home of Elu Inlet Lodge.

Martina Kapolak greets me on the dock. Along with her husband, Peter, she runs this small, out-there retreat in the Nunavut wilderness for those who love hiking, paddling and fishing.

From previous Arctic trips, though, I've learned that no matter what you've got planned, nature is truly boss here. You never know what you're going to see next: sunshine, a blizzard, a baby caribou wandering up to you while bleating for its mommy.

Still, there are some human surprises in store. Built on stilts, my cabin is rustic - all knotty pine, with caribou antlers mounted on the wall as clothes hangers - but it's also luxurious by Arctic standards.

So is dinner. The aroma of freshly baked bread soon fills the dining room. And when I first meet Peter, he has barbecue tongs in his hand and asks me a question I've never heard north of 60: "How would you like your steak done?"

Over a white tablecloth and a killer appetizer of smoked Arctic char, I meet the other guests as well. There are two Johns from Manitoba, both keen wildlife photographers. My cabin-mates are Elvira and her husband, Hans, Canadaphiles on their 28th visit from Germany and also members of the long-lens club.

After coffee and Martina's fresh apple-berry crumble, I head for bed.

The stars are so bright I could read a newspaper by their light. A wolf howls, then there's silence so profound that it feels like pressure on my eardrums. The kind you want to clear by yawning.

I sleep like the dead.

MUSK ROCK VIEWING

The next morning, it is sunny as we set off by motorboat through a labyrinth of islands and inlets - and eventually to a blindingly white shell beach. It all seems strangely Caribbean. If not for the chill (the average summer temperature is 10 degrees) and water that could flash-freeze your toes.

In fact, the shell beaches, left behind by retreating seas tens of thousands of years ago, are so vast they look like snow on satellite photos. We have a picnic lunch on the beach and suntan. Ring seals bark from the shallows and an Arctic fox lopes along on a distant hillside.

We then set off for a hike across the tundra. There are no trails, so we trek through a knee-high bonsai forest of miniature willows and wildflowers.

The grassy hummocks make it feel like we're walking on a spongy meadow of feather pillows, interrupted by stones painted with filigree, Technicolor lichen.

At one point, Hans thinks he spots a musk ox. Wrong.

Then John chimes in with another false alarm.

Peter just smiles. "Musk rocks," he says wryly, "very common."

Soon, though, Peter does whisper "musk ox," and we squint to spot them munching on tundra and snoozing in beds of shells as we grapple with telephoto lenses and tripods. "I count 33," an excited Hans says.

Like carpet bags on legs, the musk ox are scruffy with quivit, a fluffy under-fur used by the Inuit for clothing. There is the occasional testosterone-fuelled head-butting and snorting; Peter moves us closer, keeping an eye on the alpha male.

When they finally pack up and trot away a couple of hours later, they kick up showers of shells with their hooves.

Other days are equally eventful. When we climb to the 220-metre-high tabletop of Mount Elu, for example - where stone inukshuks (man-shaped Arctic trail markers) stand guard - Peter points out fox traps that could be 10,000 years old, an Arctic wolf and a distant grizzly.

On another outing, we motor to see nesting colonies of seabirds perched on a sea-cliff condo.

And one afternoon as I pick tundra blueberries outside my cabin, I watch hyper-active Arctic ground squirrels - sik-siks in Inuktitut - bouncing across the tundra.

And there are always those dinners to look forward to - a delicious parade of Arctic char chowder and fresh bannock bread, caribou stew and roast musk ox. Afterward, I grab a towel and head for a gazebo behind the lodge to soak in Canada's northernmost hot tub at 68.32 N.

There's human entertainment too: On our last night, a half-dozen of the Kapolaks's relatives arrive for the weekend. They bring traditional Inuit clothing. And while Peter tunes his guitar, his nephew, Nathan, shows off some drum dancing.

Since winter nights can be long in an igloo, the Inuit also have all manner of skill games made from bone and string (cat's cradle was invented here) and the visiting boys rig up a few in the living room.

The toughest is the high kick, a deceptively brutal and exhausting competitive sport in which you try to bring both feet up together to kick a ball suspended from the ceiling to chin-height. Bruised butts ensued.

MUSK OX VIEWING

Lest we get too carried away by human activity, however, on the morning of our departure the Arctic weather is bossy enough to keep our favourite bush pilot grounded in Cambridge Bay. Martina whips up lunch. I head for the hot tub.

"I'm going to follow that grizzly bear around this afternoon," John says.

We all laugh. Then look out the window - and five jaws drop simultaneously at the sight of an adolescent barren-ground grizzly, shaggy blond hair and all, strolling 20 metres away. We scramble, Road Runner-style, for our lenses as Peter grabs his gun, a protective measure in case the bear gets curious about us.

The rest of the day, we follow the bear's every adolescent move: from sitting feet-out in a blueberry patch filling his face to chasing sik-siks and standing up on his hind legs to sniff the breeze. We only stop, exhausted, in time for a late dinner, where giddy conversation includes ideas for new Arctic cuisine including lemming meringue pie.

But we're interrupted by the Kapolaks's niece, Chelsea, who speaks softly from the kitchen window. "There's a bunch of musk ox out there."

They move like ghosts through the last smudges of dusk, a column of prehistoric-looking beasts marching silently across the tundra.

It's a surreal sight as the Northern Lights kick in, shimmying green and red across the sky.

And then suddenly it stops. Something spooks the animals and they canter off, grunting up a hill, the thundering of their hooves echoing across the valley before they are gone.

Pack your bags

GETTING THERE

Cambridge Bay can be reached from Yellowknife or Edmonton on regular flights on First Air (1-800-267-1247; http://www.firstair.ca) and Canadian North (1-800-661-1505; http://www.cdn-north.com).

ELU INLET LODGE

Like many northern lodges, Elu is only open until Labour Day. Book directly with the lodge from $2,100 a person (1-867-445-8774; http://www.elulodge.com).

Or call the lodge's southern booking agent, Frontiers North (1-800-663-9832; http://www.frontiersnorth.com), now reserving one-week summer trips in 2009 starting at $5,199 a person.

Trips include the company's special interpretive guide and float plane access from Cambridge Bay. All meals and guided activities are also included.

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