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After Drifting For Hours On Arctic Ice Floe, 20 Tourists Are Safe

A group of tourists got a bit more adventure in the Canadian Arctic than they wanted Tuesday, after they realized the ice floe on which they were camping had split off and begun drifting into open water. The 20 tourists and their guides were finally airlifted to the mainland Wednesday afternoon.

The tourists were part of a week-long expedition hosted by Arctic Kingdom, a company that offers "Arctic safari" trips to guests who camp on Baffin Island and other areas to see animals such as polar bears, bowhead whales, and narwhals in their natural habitats.

But Tuesday morning, the guides woke up to realize their group was camping on top of an ice floe that had become disconnected from the shore in Admiralty Inlet, off the coast of Arctic Bay, Nunavut. They used GPS technology to confirm that their camp was drifting away, then called for help with radio satellite phones.

Graham Dickson of Arctic Kingdom says the company's guides are trained to stay far from the edge of the ice when they establish their campsites. He says strong tides from this weekend's Supermoon and strong winds caused an unexpectedly large chunk of ice to break off the mainland sometime between Monday night and Tuesday morning.

When the ice, which was reportedly about 5 kilometers long, broke off, it took the entire camp with it.

Dickson says the Arctic Kindgom camp atop the ice floe included dining rooms, cooks, and 300-square-foot tents. "Our people had all the comforts of home in their safari camp," he said.

Many of the guests on the expedition were comfortable, happy, and easygoing throughout the rescue, Dickson says, noting that many of them were experienced world travelers.

Yvonne Niego of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police says that it is fairly common for people to get stranded on ice floes moving away from land in this area.

"Annually we receive this sort of call for help, but it is usually just one to two people who get stranded," Niego says. "This is the first one over several years that is this large.... it's a bit extraordinary."

And with limited ability to land aircraft and helicopters, rescue efforts in this region are difficult, Niego says. The tourists received a survival kit delivery from the Royal Canadian Air Force Tuesday, which included large rafts in case the ice floe split.

Later, the tourists were able to get back on land, after their floe drifted toward the shore again. There, they waited in a small cabin with supplies and food, until a military helicopter picked them up.

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