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National Park adventure: Where the narwhals are

About midnight, on the floe edge looking toward Bylot Island.

Kent Nickerson

To celebrate Parks Canada's 100th anniversary, we asked for your stories and photos. Reader Kent Nickerson writes:

In early June of 2010, I joined a tour looking for polar bears and narwhals off the coast of Bylot Island in Sirmilik National Park. As we were all ice-certified scuba divers, we hoped to see the animals both above and below water.

We arrived in the village of Pond Inlet via Iqaluit where a teenager offered raw seal meat as a delicacy. The warm hospitality was touching.

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The next day saw us in cargo sleds pulled by snowmobiles over 50 kilometres of ice sheet to a base camp on Bylot Island.

Our party set up tents on the apparently dry ground, but any sustained pressure would ooze up a puddle from the spongy earth. This was my first experience with tundra and its damp springiness made a pleasant surface for walking. An inukshuk on a nearby hill attracted some exploration, but a small mountain (about 270 metres high) covered in thin mist beckoned.

Much of its slope was a treacherous scree of fist-size blocks of granite. After a sustained scramble to the top, the vista to the north was a cascade of even higher snow-covered peaks. By now, it was about 10 p.m., but the hazy sun still stood above the peaks. Climbing back down, I saw a few animals: an Arctic hare in grey summer fur, a line of geese and a vole running through a crevice in the tundra. The sun never did set, and I joined my campmates to sleep with tuques and sweaters pulled over our eyes.

The next day, we made the 15-km sled to the ice floe edge and set up camp. Distant mountains in the hard afternoon sun looked like a Group of Seven painting. Ice took on the most beautiful blue tinge imaginable.

We geared up and took turns diving off the edge to look at life under the floe. Arctic water is clear enough to put the Caribbean to shame. Heading under the 60-centimetre-thick ice sheet afforded wonderful scenes: mats of algae clinging to the ice, jellylike creatures sporting bright multicoloured chaser lights inside their bodies, krill hiding in pockets and inverted cathedrals of large ice blocks.

The Arctic underwater soundscape is also far from barren. I volunteered to listen to an underwater microphone for narwhals, which make loud clicks when feeding on the bottom. A pod of these sound like a typing pool. It was the middle of mating season for ringed seals, however, and the water was full of their ghostly descending trills reverberating in the deep channel.

Throughout our stay, we passed many icebergs frozen into the ice. One day, we found a stabilized berg with an opening in the ice and decided to dive it; what followed became the high point of the trip. Descending into marvellously clear sea water, I took a few seconds and waited for the ice-cream headache to subside. My thermometer read -18 C. The berg bottom extended below me like a massive golf ball with foot-wide dimples.

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An ice tunnel near the surface glowed with a variety of colours filtered from surface sunlight. A pool of exhaled air collected at the top and shimmered like mercury, making this womb of ice even more surreal. I turned to follow the slope down and my safety rope allowed me to see where the ice shelf started to turn under. Looking down in the blue-green light filtering through the ice, the berg bottom descended into the yawning blackness below. I felt very small - and a bit unnerved.

After six days in Sirmilik Park, we returned to Pond Inlet tired, sunburned and satisfied. Many people have an idea how wide Canada is from coast to coast, but few know how vast it is in latitude. I want to go back.

Special to The Globe and Mail

GlobeTravel wants to hear about readers' experiences in Canada's national parks. Had a good time in Terra Nova? Loved La Mauricie? Send your stories and photos here. We'll run the best ones in our series.

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