“I felt as if I had dropped into an unknown realm”

Author Jonathan White takes an eerie, unnerving stroll under the ice
“I felt as if I had dropped into an unknown realm”

Illustration by Eoin Ryan

For most people, walking on cracked ice is nerve-wracking enough. My challenge was going to be walking under cracked ice. I’d been writing a book on ocean tides, and Lukasi Nappaaluk, an Inuit elder I knew from my research, had told me about a tidal phenomenon I wanted to witness for myself.

Lukasi is from Kangiqsujuaq, a tiny village 1,000 miles north of Montreal. The Inuit outpost sits on the edge of Ungava Bay, which, along with the Bay of Fundy, has the world’s largest tidal range, at more than 54 feet. Lukasi told me that when winter conditions are just right, experienced hunters chop holes in the bay’s three-foot thick ice and, during a four-hour period while the tide is out, shimmy into the hollow regions below to walk on the sea floor to forage for fresh blue mussels. All this must be done before the incoming tide traps them—a window no one wants to miscalculate. As scary as it sounded, I couldn’t resist Lukasi’s invitation to join him.

Lukasi asked me to call every couple of weeks during the winter, but each time I did the conditions weren’t right. Finally, in February, he said, “Come now.” The next day I grabbed my gear and flew aboard progressively smaller planes from my home near Seattle to Montreal, then to Kuujjuaq, and finally, aboard a single-engine cargo plane with no other passengers, to Kangiqsujuaq.

I’d been eager enough to rent special arctic gear for this trip, but when I settled onto the passenger seat of Lukasi’s snowmobile, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. We sped across the frozen surface of Wakeham Bay, a 2.5-mile-wide slab of ice that heaves up and down with the big tide, leaving its edges strewn with automobile-size ice blocks—not a human-friendly landscape. Lukasi, after inspecting several jagged openings in the ice, found one he liked and began chiseling with his tourq, a long steel rod sharpened on one end. He wasted no time, no strokes—we needed to be efficient.

Having carved a hole about 20 inches in diameter, Lukasi climbed down and disappeared into the gloom. I was ready to follow, but the hole was too small to allow me to do anything but put my arms down and slide. So, I did. I dropped into the void, landing six feet below in a pile of ice, rock and seaweed.

I had left the bright, frigid upper world behind and entered a dark, warm underworld. My glasses and camera fogged instantly. As my eyes adapted, I noticed the tent-like cavity had a five-foot-high center ridge with sides that tapered out, leaving a forage area of about 20 feet wide and 100 feet long. The seafloor dropped in places, allowing enough head room to stand upright. Muted blue light penetrated from above where the ice was thin or fractured. Bits of seaweed and detritus clung randomly to the ceiling—evidence of the last high tide.

As I adjusted to the eerie surroundings, my breath shallow and quick, I felt as if I had dropped into an entirely unknown and unexpected realm, as if the tiny hole carved by Lukasi allowed us to slip mysteriously not just under the ice, but beneath the surface of the sea. Here, in a dreamlike state, I felt inside the body of the ocean.

I pulled off my gloves and probed under the rockweed where mussels were plentiful. With a twist, they easily tore from their holdfasts. I watched the tide, too, as it lapped against the ice and rock in the lower reaches of the cave. I knew it would soon swell, like a long inhale, into every crevice of this coastline, lifting the ice and collapsing our ice cave with it. I wondered how long Lukasi would allow us to stay.

In no apparent hurry, Lukasi crushed a mussel against a rock and, with a few deft strokes, splayed the bivalve on his open palm, scooped out the soft yellow body and popped it in his mouth. He prepared one for me. “Accidents do happen down here,” he said, as I chewed the sweet, springy meat. “Three years ago, the ice shifted and a woman was trapped. We got her out just in time.”

Lukasi put a few more mussels in his bag and stood. “We should go now.” I left no gap between us as we scuttled toward the escape hole.

Above, shafts of white evening light cast long shadows. We loaded the snowmobile and I climbed on, clasping fistfuls of Lukasi’s jacket as we glided back toward the village. Signs of the rising tide were everywhere: Stress fractures had opened like veins, and the once-crumpled ice nearest to land lifted and flattened. As we approached the head of the bay, the boxy houses of Kangiqsujuaq, painted red and blue and yellow and suspended on spindly posts, were a comforting sight.

Jonathan White is the author of Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean; jonathanwhitewriter.com