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My So-Called Job

My So-Called Job

What's it like to wake up to stunning Arctic vistas, watch polar bears all day and hike across the tundra--and get paid for it? Just ask Jimmy Thomson.
By Jimmy Thomson
Apr 20
From the April 2015 Issue

Tony Beck is getting tired of Northern Fulmars. Holding up his binoculars on the ship’s bridge, surrounded by passengers in their cold-weather coats ready to run out to the deck at a moment’s notice, the kickboxing-champion-turned-naturalist stares out into the grey sea, its choppy surface ringed with a light fog, broken only by a few gliding birds.

"Have you been to the Antarctic?"

He asks the passenger beside him.

She replies that she hasn’t. 

Still watching the lumpy waves, Tony completes the thought. “It looks a lot like this.”

That very morning, midway through our Iqaluit-Resolute route along the east coast of Baffin Island, we had seen our first polar bear before breakfast. It sat on a pan of ice the size of a golf green, surrounded by other small chunks of rapidly decaying sea ice that seemed alive in the long-period swell, undulating in the morning light. It was instant pandemonium: bare feet were jammed into boots, jackets thrown on over pajamas, and cameras snatched off desks without batteries or memory cards.

If you're on board the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, you might be helping out with the ongoing search for Franklin's expedition remains this summer. Courtesy Mark Cowardine/One Ocean

The giant ship edged closer. The bear sat up, catching our scent, and turned around but stuck to its small raft, watching us over its shoulder. The clicking cameras crescendoed every time the cream-coloured bear moved, yawned, shook its coat like a dog or lay down. Gasps and laughter accompanied every step and roll, even amongst us guides. I’ve spent hundreds of hours watching bears year after year, and the same grateful feeling and uncontrollable smile still overcome me every time. 

Behind the bear, the cliffs of southeast Baffin Island were lit up between low clouds, a view that nanuq notwithstanding would’ve been reason enough to step out to the deck on this cold morning. It was the view we woke up to, day after day: the midnight sun still low on the horizon, flooding the west-facing cliffs with light. 

Minutes later, a mother and calf bowhead whale passed within a ship’s length of us, momentarily distracting our attention from the alert bear. The giant whales, the second-heaviest animals ever to live on Earth, are also some of the longest-lived. They were hunted to the brink of extinction for their blubber and long baleen plates, but today bowhead whaling is limited to a few Inuit hunts each year. An infant bowhead, just a few years into a life that would likely last until we were all long gone, was being cautiously shepherded by a mother whose memory could extend back to the era of industrial whaling in the Canadian Arctic.

All of this had happened only hours before, yet there we were that afternoon, desperately leaning against the windowsill of the bridge as if to will the ship forward towards our next adrenaline high.

MY FIRST JOB as a teenager was at a café in a sports facility, Calgary’s Talisman Centre. I was a cashier (and a lousy one), taking orders and mild abuse for seven and a half seemingly endless hours broken up by a furtive lunch break in the pool bleachers. At night, I would go home and dream that my customers from the day were in my house, complaining about my mom’s cooking and knocking on my bedroom door for more straws. 

"The first time you come for the adventure, the second time for the camaraderie, and the third time because no one else will have you."

In a way, working as a guide on an expedition cruise ship is that nightmare, and I’ve lived it gladly for part of each year for five years. My “job” is an eccentric grab bag of duties ranging from driving Zodiacs to giving presentations on wildlife or Arctic sovereignty disputes to vacuuming the floor of the bar. I carry a firearm on tundra walks and I carry luggage off airport shuttles. 

Make sure photographers don't become polar bear snacks... Jimmy Thomson

For two weeks at a time, twice or three times every summer, my workday starts at around 7 a.m. and usually wraps up by 10 p.m. There are no days off. I eat every meal with clients. There is no private space—I share my tiny cabin with another staff member—nor are there special staff-only spaces. 

The other side of the coin is that I have no commute in the morning, I never have to wash dishes, and my day is planned for me. 

But I only do this seasonally. My colleague, Nate Small, has been working as a kayak guide in the Arctic and Antarctic for three years, and doesn’t plan to settle anywhere anytime soon. “The first time you come for the adventure, the second time for the camaraderie, and the third time because no one else will have you,” he says, quoting a long-forgotten source. Between cruises, he does stints in Churchill, Manitoba for the polar bear season. He keeps most of his stuff in a few boxes at his parents’ home in Kenora, Ontario.

Many people in the industry live this way. My boss, Boris Wise, and his partner Eva Westerholm have been travelling together for years, sharing a cabin slightly smaller than Eva’s Volkswagen van she left in Whitehorse before boarding the ship for the summer. 

For my part, I need some semblance of stability and at least one foot on solid ground, so for the past five years, I’ve taken only tentative dips into expedition life, feeding my Arctic curiosity. My parents, both Arctic experts who have been working on expedition ships for decades, first put me in touch with a company they knew was hiring. G Adventures (GAP then, before legal threats from the jeans purveyor) had a ship sink in the Antarctic, and lost many of their staff. 

The staff didn’t drown; they just left for other opportunities while the company was replacing the Explorer—so, fresh out of a biology degree, I signed up for a season in Norway’s spectacular Svalbard archipelago. 

I didn’t really know how to drive a Zodiac, fire a gun, or, in fact, how expeditions worked yet, so I cut my teeth in an unpaid three-week stretch in the British Isles, an internship of sorts with the now-defunct Polar Star Expeditions.

Then it was up to the Arctic, and over the next three months I saw my first polar bears (two play-fighting yearlings), and was followed through an abandoned Russian mining town by an Arctic fox. I drove a boat through my first Arctic storm, soaking everyone aboard in the process, and actually grew tired of seeing fin whales, with their predictable behaviour and low profile. I forgot that girls my own age existed. It was an exhilarating, exhausting three months that convinced me of two things: I could never do this full-time, and I could never fully do without it.

UNLIKE, SAY, A CARIBBEAN cruise, you wouldn’t hop on an Arctic expedition just to relax and enjoy the nightly entertainment and all-you-can-eat buffet. One passenger tells me he’s there to check some Arctic birds off his life list; another woman in her 60s had “done Antarctica, done Spitzbergen,” and just wanted to see more of the polar world. An elderly couple from New Zealand tells me they had watched a documentary on sea ice, and were overtaken with the desire to get close to it. 

Over breakfast after our bowhead whale sighting, an ebullient woman approaches my table wearing a whale-tail necklace, whale earrings, and a whale t-shirt, and makes the distressed-looking man across from me promise, promise, to come see the whales next year in Baja, California.

But for many, the highlight is going to town. Outside Pangnirtung’s community centre, a woman converses with an Inuk man for the first time while he sits astride his ATV, a freshly hunted walrus head mounted on the hood. Inside, European-descended tourists dance with the locals in familiar Highland reels, a legacy of the Scottish whalers who hunted bowhead whales in Cumberland Sound in the 19th century. Last year Inuit hunters from Pang caught a bowhead, and there are figurines carved from its baleen for sale. 

...and don't steer the Zodiac off course. Jimmy Thomson

WE'RE SAILING INTO ICE. The ice charts that expedition leader Boris Wise posts next to the chart mapping our course begin to hem in our options. The ice chart colour coding runs from green (1-3/10ths of the ocean’s surface covered with ice) to red (9-10/10ths). Our destination, Resolute, is surrounded by red. Our robust research vessel, the Akademik Ioffe, can handle ice, but not that much. We might have to reroute.

The passengers are hardly fazed. Maybe having seen much of what they have come here to see—polar bears, bowhead whales, sea ice, Arctic communities—has already ticked enough boxes that reaching the far end of our journey doesn’t seem as important anymore.

My first year in the Canadian Arctic, our trip up the Labrador coast to Iqaluit was cut short by a solid red Frobisher Bay. The ice had packed in during the spring breakup and remained, blocking traffic in and out. Likewise, a trip in my second year required an icebreaker escort to make it through the Northwest Passage’s narrowest point, the Bellot Strait. We tucked in behind the
Henry Larsen for two full days, following at full speed in its wake like a running back behind a burly offensive lineman. 

Sure enough, a couple days later the decision is made to turn around and sail south to Iqaluit. The ice hasn’t budged, and even if it did it would have nowhere to go. Resolute Bay remains so packed with ice that getting ashore would be impossible. The passengers, having been assured at the outset that the trip was not a cruise but an expedition, take it in stride when Boris stands up in the dining room to deliver the bad news. Cruises are predictable; expeditions adapt.

There are two realms to the office of a staff member: the ship and the Arctic. The ship is chaotic. Early in the morning, I am woken up by an overhead announcement, and I proceed to the noisy dining room. The ship itself is vibrating from the engines, and tones and rhythms—clattering, clicking, rattling and ringing—emanate from every surface. The anchor chain drops with a sound like a hundred bowling balls funneling down a staircase. Passengers chat excitedly about the day’s landing or a wildlife sighting. 

When it’s time to land, I exit the hot mud room to the brisk air outside and I hop in a Zodiac, motor rumbling, and accelerate until the drone of the engine and the hiss of the water beneath the boat are the only sounds.

Coming to land, I gradually enter the calm of the Arctic. I decelerate until individual waves are audible against the boat’s pontoons, and eventually cut the engine to glide noiselessly to shore. The shore here, like any beach, is a border. It separates the chaos of the ship from the silence of the land. I shoulder my firearm, and hike out to my lookout spot somewhere up above the landing site. I can hear the crunching of gravel and snow under my rubber boots, I can hear birds, and I can hear coffee swishing in my thermos. 

This is the time when I’m technically in the most danger, and stories abound of guides stumbling across sleeping or hidden polar bears. So far I’ve only had a handful of close encounters with a bear, and the closest time I didn’t even know it until later. 

I was standing guard at the time, waiting at the end point of the passengers’ hike. I noticed a heavy fog gathering around me. I couldn’t see more than a hundred feet, a distance that a motivated polar bear can cover in about three or four seconds. I called the expedition leader, who instructed the ship to blow its horn—time to go. Now. With the passengers loaded, the few staff remaining on shore hopped in the last Zodiac, and as we drove past the point where I had been standing just minutes before, we noticed a bear meandering along the beach. It paused to sniff my lookout point, then examined every inch of the small hut where the passengers had just been visiting.

That may be the story I frequently conjure up to convince unruly passengers to stay close to the firearm handler in charge of keeping them safe, but it’s not the norm. The norm is a spectacular hike, with just enough adrenaline to keep sharp. 

It’s a long walk from the shore to the top of the nearby lookout point, but without trees for reference it’s nearly impossible to gauge how far. When I reach my station, I take my first real look around and everything is clean. The snow on the higher mountains is white like fresh linen, the glacier face creased like crumpled paper, and the tiny plants at my feet are too low to blow in the wind. They just sit defiantly in their phalanxes, protecting their remote real estate; their tiny corner of the vast Canadian Arctic. For a few moments, I have peace.