Canada Travel Guide

Visiting These Nunavut Islands Will Make You Feel Like an Arctic Explorer

PHOTO: City Escapes Nature Photo/Shutterstock

Nunavut’s Button Islands, perched near an upwelling of nutrient-rich water, are the Arctic equivalent of an African watering hole.

Only the bold wander into polar zones where amenities are few, weather is as unpredictable as the wildlife, and traditional knowledge as valuable as technology. But if you venture to Nunavut’s Button Islands, a string of barren islands covering 20 square miles in Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, you’ll leave feeling like an arctic explorer.

Perched near an upwelling of ocean waters laden with nutrients the Button Islands attract birds, bears, and marine mammals; in a landscape where food is scarce, and wildlife hard to find, it’s the Arctic equivalent of an African watering hole and a must-see for animal lovers.

What’s a Nunavut?

It’s an Inuktitut word meaning our land and it’s the name of Canada’s newest territory, formed as an Inuit homeland in 1999. It’s rich in mineral wealth but short on roads and sunbathing opportunities—temps seldom pop above 50 degrees Fahrenheit in July. Four times as large as Spain and covering almost a quarter of Canada, Nunavut is bereft of trees but offers adventure willing to brave isolation and rugged comfort, bragging rights.

Button Islands Are Really out There

No one lives on the Button Islands and few people visit. Located two hundred miles south of Nunavut’s Baffin Island as the sea bird flies, getting here requires a boat. Or two. Most visitors arrive on one of two expedition cruise ships plying northern waters. One Ocean Expeditions anchors a short distance from the Button Islands each summer, disgorging passengers bundled in down and neoprene onto inflatable boats for a frigid safari.

Fighting strong currents and choppy waters, the dinghies wind their way into the island channels, searching for nature’s northern bounty. “The combination of cool, food-rich waters and the abundant and exotic wildlife make the Button Islands a compelling place to visit,” described Canadian ornithologist Geoffrey Carpentier, “Sheer cliffs rise out of the sea allowing seabirds, such as the Black-legged Kittiwake, to nest in relative safety, albeit predators such as the Gyrfalcon, Golden Eagle, and Arctic Fox will visit looking for dinner. Seals abound in the food-rich waters but the big draw has to be Polar Bears.”

Faster Than a Polar Bear

The barren rocks at first glance seem to offer no hiding spots for predators. Until you realize that nearshore is a slumbering polar bear; his eyes picking up your presence long before you spot him. The fluffy white coat would seem to flag its presence but the glare of harsh Arctic sunlight off nearby boulders blurs the lines between rock and fur. Fortunately, you’ll have a guide who reads the landscape better than you.

Although the bears seem relaxed, they are anything but. Male bears can be the size of 10 men and swim for days. They hunt by surprising seals on the ice so once the ice melts they subsist on their body fat and a few snacks of bird eggs or seaweed. Without seals—one seal provides the energy of over 100 double cheeseburgers—summers are hungry times.

While bears can’t outswim a seal, they can outswim and outrun you, so guides carry a rifle. With over two-thirds of the world’s polar bear population roaming Canada’s north, your odds of seeing one are good.

How Much Bird Poop?

Bobbing a few feet offshore, your nose may twitch at the smell of all that bird guano but your ears will rejoice at the arctic symphony of northern fulmars and screeching kittiwakes, the water beside you erupting into foam as athletic harp seals punch through the surface hunting for fish. Kittiwakes, a small, dainty-looking gull, live most of their life at sea but gather in large colonies in the Button Islands each summer to nest.

Sheer cliff faces remove the welcome mat for foxes and other land predators. Nestlings call from nests tucked into slate grey ledges, while adults wheel overhead, swooping and diving for food. Unhatched eggs can fall to the rocks below where scavenging polar bears lick up the scrambled eggs.

British Explorers and German U-Boats

It’s easy to get lost in this vast land and it’s hard to be found. More than 200 years before doomed explorer Sir John Franklin disappeared in the arctic, Sir Thomas Button headed an expedition to find the Northwest Passage and Henry Hudson (of Hudson Bay fame) whose crew had mutinied and put him adrift in an open lifeboat. Button found neither and lost one of his own boats to sea ice. The Welshman returned home to a knighthood and with a few islands bearing his name.

A few miles south of the Button Islands at Labrador’s Martin Bay, a German U-boat made the only known armed landing in North America during WWII and set up an automated weather station. No one knew it was there for three decades until a German researcher plumbing archival photos spotted a reference.

The North Isn’t for Sissies

Exploring the Button Islands brings home the real challenges that still exist for arctic travel. With no cell phone coverage, your weather forecasts arrive via your ship’s captain. He may have worry lines and with good reason. Much of the arctic waters are poorly charted and boats can encounter unexpected hazards; a cruise ship got hung up on a rock in 2018 and had to be evacuated quickly.

“The combination of cool, food-rich waters and the abundant and exotic wildlife make the Button Islands a compelling place to visit.”

If something goes wrong, self-rescue is your best chance of survival. Dinghies cruising the Button Islands do so in groups; if one flips or has engine problems, you and your fellow travelers can help each other. The motor club doesn’t have an office here.

Expedition cruise ships like One Ocean Expedition’s vessels follow government regulations and sustainable tourism guidelines. One Ocean Expeditions uses Marine Gas Oil, fuel with lower emissions and easier to clean up in event of a spill and travel at slower speeds to reduce fuel usage.

Your Soul Will Thank You

A few days without Wi-Fi and little sign of human settlement will awaken your powers of conversation and observation. You’ll notice the ship’s flag change direction, feel the swell of ocean currents under your feet, and smell the first drops of rain before they hit your forehead. You’ll realize you were strong enough to explore a landscape seldom seen.