Out of the Northwest Passage
This narrative accompanies a slideshow that I have about my 2019 trip from Kuglugtuk, Nunavut to Kangerlusuaq, Greenland. The video of the slideshow is on my Vimeo site.
The Northwest Passage
I have long been interested in the compelling history of the Northwest Passage. Through my own reading and research, and by hearing from Adventure Canada experts with whom I travelled, I have learned much about what is currently understood about the history of this region, particularly its infamous shipwrecks.
For centuries, explorers searched for a shipping route from Europe through the Arctic waters to Asia. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that someone made the complete passage. Roald Amundson, in his ship Gjøa, navigated successfully using a route that took him through Rae Strait.
The stories of the quest for a passage are riveting. Perhaps the most famous of all is that of Sir John Franklin, who set sail in 1845 with two very well-provisioned ships. Franklin and his men never returned. Search expeditions were largely unsuccessful. Explorer John Rae was the first to discover significant artifacts from Franklin’s expedition and to learn about the crew’s fate from the Inuit who lived in the area.
Piecing together the clues from various sources—notes, artifacts found on land, three bodies buried on Beechey island, accounts from Inuit in the region—we now know that Franklin’s ships became bound by ice in 1846 near King William Island. He died in 1847. In 1848, the crew abandoned the ships and attempted crossing the tundra by sledge. It is likely that the men perished because of scurvy, lead poisoning, starvation, and extreme weather. John Rae had evidence that some men had turned to cannibalism, although the British refused to believe it at the time. That evidence is now well-supported.
What of the ships? The HMS Erebus wreck, rediscovered in September 2014, sits at the bottom of the sea near the hamlet of Uqsuqtuuq (Gjoa Haven), Nunavut. The HMS Terror was located in September 2016, north of the Erebus. In both cases, oral histories passed down by local Inuit were instrumental in the Parks Canada expeditions that pinpointed the locations of the wrecks.
For me, one of the big appeals for the Out of the Northwest Passage adventure was a chance to see this history firsthand. Prior to the trip, Adventure Canada recommended that I read Ken McGoogan’s Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage. It turned out to be great preparation, as not only would I get to sail in the wake of these intrepid explorers, but there was even a chance that I could visit the site of the HMS Erebus wreck. I knew there were no guarantees.
Arriving Above the Arctic Circle
The Northwest Passage Day 1
The cruise through the Northwest Passage started in Kugluktuk, a remote hamlet in Nunavut, Canada located above the Arctic Circle. Kugluktuk is neither accessible by road nor does it have a deep port capable of berthing our ship. Kugluktuk does not have regular air service, but it does have an air strip. So my journey began in a chartered AVRO RJ85/RJ100 turbo prop from Calgary.
We drew the short straw in that we were assigned to flight 1 with a 5:00 AM lineup for check in. After security we waited at the gate until boarding time.
After about two hours of flying (and being fed breakfast on the plane) we landed in Yellowknife to fuel up and empty the lavatories. We weren’t allowed to leave the plane during this time. We had a limited view of Yellowknife both from the air and the stopover, but due to the gold and diamond mining, and wilderness activities, it was bigger than I expected. After about 45 minutes or so, we took off for Kugluktuk, about an hour flight.
Located at the mouth of the Coppermine River in the territory of Nunavut, Kugluktuk was renamed as such in 1996. Nunavut was separated from the Northwest Territories in 1999. A little over 1,400 people live in Kugluktuk. Although it has had a record high in the 80’s F, the average high in August is in the mid-50’s F.
When we arrived at the Kugluktuk airport, I understood why there was a need for the earlier tech stop. There is really nothing there. The terminal is a small building that can’t fit many people. The restrooms can’t handle the crowds.
Ride share businesses like Lyft are non-existent, as is public transportation. Our expedition leaders arranged for a school bus to shuttle people from the airport to the Kugluktuk community center, but many of us chose to walk.
The day was cold, hovering around freezing, with a slight wind and an occasional snow flurry. It was a good day for a brisk walk. The airport was in the outskirts of town, so we walked past meadows and got a good view of the ship.
It would be our home for the next 17 days. There she sat, in the water, waiting for us. It would be some time before we could board. The ship had to clean up from the last guests and ready the cabins for us.
Being above the tree line, the vegetation is all short. Once in town there isn’t much of it, as dirt roads and simple homes make up the landscape. The social center of town is the community center. It houses regional offices and a large multi-use auditorium where people can gather for dances, sports, and other social activities.
The townspeople were friendly, smiling, and talkative both during our walk through town and in the community center. The town seems mainly to populated by Inuit, although we met a non-Inuit couple and their giant white dog who had recently moved there.
The town welcomed us to the community center where we could get coffee and outfitted with our blue Adventure Canada coats. Many townspeople set up tables to sell handicrafts—children’s clothing, mittens, and other items. They also invited us to visit the cultural center next door.
When the ship was ready, they radioed for us to meet at the dock where Zodiacs would ferry us to the ship. But first we were given a lesson in Zodiac safety, including what to do if someone falls into the cold waters. The transfer process was slow because each passenger and their carry ons had to be searched and passports checked upon embarkation. Our checked bags arrived later, as they went through the ferrying and searching process separately.
After embarking, we were immediately send to the dining hall to eat, as our schedule was a bit off. After lunch we went to our room to relax and wait for luggage.
About 16:00 we had a short briefing about the ship in the main Nautilus Lounge. We were sent to our rooms to await the call for the Abandon Ship drill. The drill took awhile to go through, making me wonder if we’d actually make it off in a real disaster given the time that the roll call took.
Although this photo makes light of the drill, a few years ago, a ship on this same route struck a rock and had to be evacuated.
After the drill, we went back to the room to settle in again before the Inuit welcoming ceremony. Ten Inuit people participated in the ceremony. After an Inuit blessing, one of the Inuk woman lit the Qulliq, a traditional Inuit lamp. That was followed by a drum dance. What a great way to start a voyage!
As the sun set, we pulled out of Coronation Bay and steamed on to our next destination.
A Sea Day: Learning Lots and Hearing Rumors
The Northwest Passage Day 2
At 8:30 AM the mellifluous voice of our expedition leader, Jason Edmunds, drifted out of the speaker in our cabin. “Good morning. Good morning Ocean Endeavour.” Then he told us our position (latitude and longitude) and reminded us of what we were to do next, which was eat breakfast. Then he ended our wake-up call with a pithy quote.
“Travel is more than seeing sights; it’s a change that goes deep and permanent in the idea of living.” – Miriam Beard
Today turned out to be a sea day—steaming through Coronation Gulf. Our onboard marine biologist, Pierre Richard, said that this part of the ocean is too shallow to support the nutrients necessary to attract marine mammals and birds. So even though I went out on deck to look for wildlife, I found none. Just a flat sunny landscape for most of the day. The Adventure Canada staff kept us busy indoors with lots of talks.
Thirty-nine people make up the Adventure Canada (AC) staff. These are people responsible for the trip, not the ship. (The ship crew is a completely different company that leases the ship and crew: cabin staff, stewards, cooks, engineering, navigation, and so on.) The AC staff are talented people—a botanist, Inuit culturists, geologists, photographers, artists, musicians, an ornithologist, marine biologists, high Arctic adventurers, archeologists, a land claim specialist, naturalists, writers, historian, a medic, and a cruise director. Many of these people are also certified Zodiac drivers. Another subset are trained to monitor for polar bears and deter a bear if necessary (they carry guns with rubber and real bullets).
Today I learned about:
Polar bear safetyArcheology sites and how to behave around them
An introduction to Inuit culture by Susie Evyagotailak, an educator, language consultant, and amazing beader.
An introduction to the birds of the arctic by Judy Kennedy, who was with the Canadian Wildlife Service for 30 years.
An account of a trip taken by Mike Beedel (http://www.mikebeedellphoto.ca/), an extreme adventurer, photographer, and guide.
The History of the Franklin Expedition and the Search for the Erebus & Terror given by a guest from Parks Canada—the woman who manages the Erebus & Terror archeological sites.
My brain was full by the end of the day! I learned a lot, but when the bar staff passed out champagne for the evening Captain’s welcome, I was ready for it. And even more happy that the after-dinner program was a concert by on-board musician Mashall Dane.
During the day rumors were floating around that we might be the first ever visitors to the H.M.S. Erebus site. Both the Parks Canada and the AC staff were buzzing with electricity. They wanted to talk about it, but they didn’t want to disappoint us. Parks Canada chose Adventure Canada as the beta testers for visits to the Erebus. But over the past few years the ship made five unsuccessful attempts due to poor weather conditions. Would this sixth attempt be successful?
This is a 3-D printed model of the Erebus wreck, as reconstructed from imaging files. The guide to the image is below.
The H.M.S. Erebus wreck, discovered in September 2014 after having gone missing in August 1845, sits at the bottom of the sea near the hamlet of Gjøa Haven. The visit, if it was to happen, would be to the archeological barge Qiniqtiryuaq that sits over the wreck as well as to the R.V. David Thompson, the research vessel where the scientists stay during their short research season. We were still two days away from the location. The weather forecast wasn’t promising. Stay tuned!
Jenny Lind Island
The Northwest Passage Day 3
“Remember, no matter where you go – there you are.” An Irish Proverb
No one knows why an Arctic island was named after the Swedish opera star Jenny Lind. She toured North America from 1850 to 1852 but there is no evidence that she ever visited the Arctic. I assume a Swedish captain who was an opera fan chose the name. Today would be our first foray off the ship, and it would be to Jenny Lind island.
Jenny Lind is a migratory terrestrial bird site for such species as Canada goose, lesser snow goose, and Ross’s goose. It is also home to a number of mammals including musk oxen, fox, and caribou. Polar bears are a possibility, which is why the ship sent a scouting team to ensure we wouldn’t run into any. If the team sees polar bears, we can’t land. If they don’t see polar bears, then the bear monitors form an armed perimeter within which we humans can roam. Today, I signed on to the advanced hiking group, so we brought an armed bear monitor with us.
The Canadian arctic is essentially a desert. The land is flat. The plants are very tiny. It’s difficult to imagine that something as big as a musk ox could find anything to eat, but they do. We are traveling at the end of the summer, which is why we haven’t yet encountered any sea ice. Our ship is not an icebreaker, so the captain choses routes that minimize ice travel. I think he is being super cautious because this boat almost didn’t make it into the Northwest Passage and had to be escorted by a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker for part of the way.
Both the desert conditions and the lack of ice surprised me. Like many people, I thought the Arctic would be more like Antarctica, but with polar bears running all over. I learned to look for and appreciate the small things—Arctic willow, saxifrage, wintergreen, lichen, and Arctic mushrooms.
Someone spotted a few musk ox, so we spent most of our hike trying to get a closer look. Most of us started calling them musk dots because all we could ever see were some dark dots on the horizon. Even with magnification, it wasn’t possible to identify them definitively. We were definitely scraping to find mammals although we did encounter a few birds. Most of the migration was over. It seemed the animals had moved on as well.
I saw a number of dead things—birds, a fox head (below), vertebrae, and discarded antlers. There was also evidence of the goose migration—feathers and lots of poop. At this time of year, Jenny Lind was desolate.
At one point I looked back at the ship, which was situated such that it looked as if it was grounded and abandoned. It reminded me of the many explorers who overwintered in the Arctic. To make any progress looking for a northwest passage or other resources, expedition ships committed to several-year journeys. At this latitude long summer days turn to long winter nights and impassable icy oceans. The ships, beset with ice, and their crew would sit and wait.
A Visit to the HMS Erebus
The Northwest Passage Day 4
“I think over again my small adventures, my fears. These small ones that seemed so big. For all the vital things I had to get to and reach. And yet there is only one great thing, the only thing to live to see the great day that dawns, and the light that fills the world.” - Inuit Song (unknown)
For centuries, men searched for a shipping route from Europe through the Arctic waters to Asia. It wasn’t until 1906 that someone made the complete passage. Roald Amundson, in his ship Gjøa, navigated successfully using a route that took him through Rae Strait. The stories of the quest for a passage are riveting. Perhaps the most famous of all is that of Sir John Franklin, who set sail in 1845 with two very well provisioned ships. Franklin and his men never returned. Search expeditions were unsuccessful. Explorer John Rae was the first to discover significant artifacts from Franklin’s expedition and to learn about the crew’s fate from the Inuit who lived in the area. Piecing together the clues from various sources—notes, artifacts found on land, three bodies buried on Beechy island, accounts from the Inuit—we know that Franklin’s ships became bound by ice in 1846 near King William Island. He died in 1847 and Captain Crozier assumed command. In 1848, the crew abandoned the ships and attempted crossing the tundra by sledge. It is likely that the men died because of scurvy, lead poisoning, starvation, and extreme weather. John Rae had evidence that some men had turned to cannibalism although the British refused to believe it at the time. That evidence is now irrefutable. What of the ships? They were assumed sunk, but the question was where? They weren’t in the area where they were ice locked. The HMS Erebus was found in September 2014 in Queen Maud Gulf. The HMS Terror was found in September 2016, in a location north of the Erebus. In both cases, stories passed down by local Inuit helped to pinpoint the location of the wrecks.
Parks Canada manages the sites jointly with the Inuit. Underwater archeologists found the wrecks to be in excellent condition, filled with artifacts. Last evening, they brought reproductions of many of the artifacts and showed us video footage and photos of recent discoveries—information that had not yet been released. This is the china used on the ship.
Each site is off limits to the public and boats must keep out of the protected area around the sites. Inuit Guardians camp out on land close to the sites to keep watch. Parks Canada arranged to test a public experience with passengers from the Ocean Endeavour. This would be the sixth attempt in three years. The others were all scrubbed due to weather. Despite some windy weather and ocean chop, this day looked to be one of success. The plan was for us to visit the Inuit Guardian camp, the research barge Qiniqtiryuaq, and the RV David Thompson research ship. My group would be the second to go. We would travel in Zodiacs. Shortly after the first group departed, we were told that the visit to the Inuit Guardian camp was cancelled due to wind and high wave action on shore. The Zodiac drivers couldn’t ensure a safe landing. Instead, the Inuit Guardians (a heartier bunch than us passengers) would come to the ship for the day and give presentations about their role. The good news was that the barge and research ship visits were still on, although we were cautioned about the tricky transfer from Zodiac to vessel.
We headed to the Mud Room, suited up, and disembarked onto the Zodiacs. It was windy and a bit choppy.
Out on the horizon we could see two tiny vessels. The one on the left is the research barge and the other one is the research ship.
The R.V. David Thompson is about the same length as the HMS Erebus. The Erebus was home to 129. I believe the captain of the Thompson said there were 15 people on board his ship. The sailors on the Erebus must have been cramped.
When we approached the David Thompson, I saw a rope ladder and immediately realized this would NOT be the way to embark. Fortunately I was tall enough to scooch my butt up on to the deck. Others had to be dragged and lifted.
Our first stop was the dining area to see all the high tech toys used by the scientists. These are some of the cameras they use. The one on the left is for high quality video for use in documentaries. The contraption on the right is a drone. The smaller camera in the back is what they use to fit in tight spaces where they can’t go. They also showed us an ROV and a quick-and-dirty sonar-like imaging device which they use to scout an area. If they find something, they then use a slow, high quality scanning device.
We then went upstairs to meet the captain and the scanning engineer. Both had been on the project for years and recalled the excitement of seeing an image finally form of the wreck. It was a tight space, but we got to see the scanning workstation and images of the HMS Erebus.
We disembarked and sped across the water to the research barge. It seemed a bit wavier but our driver did a good job positioning the Zodiac without getting it stuck under the barge. By this time, everyone realized rope ladders were sheer folly and that the scooch method was best for those tall enough. Otherwise, the men on the barge would pull up the passenger.
The barge had three main areas, each one made from a shipping container. One was an archeology lab where they catalog artifacts and start the desalination process in an effort to preserve the objects. We were shown all the new finds for the day, but were not allowed to photograph them as the information was still confidential. We saw a boot, a bottle, and a metal object yet to be identified. Another container housed an air compressor and a warm water circulator. These were to make diving for extended periods comfortable. Rather than carry tanks of air and wear a wet suit, a diver breathes air sent through a hose and wears a warm suit. The warm suit is an underwater garment through which warm water is circulated continuously. The scientists claim is it like being in a spa. Unfortunately for today’s diver, they turned off the circulator due to noise. They needed the relative quiet to conduct the tour for us.
The third container is the dive monitoring team. They watch and communicate with the research diver. The scientists consult a map of the HMS Erebus to get grid numbers that are used to catalogue any finds.
A series of tubes are connected to the diver—air to breathe, exhaled air, warm water, camera, light, and communication. The diver uses an underwater pencil to make notes. This diver had to come up to get another pencil while we were there.
Surfacing for a Pencil
The barge was so fascinating that it was difficult for me to leave. But with 164 passengers, all wanting to experience the HMS Erebus, our time was limited. The tours continued throughout the day. In the evening Parks Canada and one of the archeologists gave another presentation. I really appreciate that the research scientists gave up a day of research for the sake of science communication. Their research season is never longer than 6 weeks and can be much shorter due to weather. Last week, the wind was so bad that they had to tow the barge to calmer waters, postponing some of their work. Before the ice forms, they close up the barge and move it to a safe winter location. They take the R.V. David Thompson to southern Canada where the team can access it easily from their lab in Ottawa. One year they were unable to move the vessel south due to early ice. Everyone—Parks Canada Rangers, Inuit Guardians, Adventure Canada staff, research scientists, and passengers—felt the day was a resounding success. I could almost hear a collective sigh of relief when the last passenger climbed aboard. No one had fallen into the water. No one had tripped over the dive cables or knocked into the artifacts. No one had dropped anything off the Zodiac onto the wreck. It was an amazing day!
Uqshuuqtuq or Gjøa Haven?
The Northwest Passage Day 5
“People travel to far way places to watch in fascination the kind of things they ignore at home.” Dagobert Runes
No matter which you choose, the name of this hamlet is difficult to pronounce. Uqshuuqtuq is the Inuit name and Gjøa Haven is the name given after Roald Admundson stayed there with his ship Gjøa. Uqshuuqtuq, in the language Inuktitut, means “a place with plenty of blubber.” Because of the daily Inuktitut lessons on the ship, I can venture a guess as to the pronunciation—“uk shuk tuk.” Gjøa Haven (pronounced Joe Haven) means “a harbor for the ship Gjøa.”
We visited Gjøa Haven this morning. Our first stop was the Heritage Center where the exhibits told about Inuit culture in parallel with information about Amundsen (who they loved) and the Franklin expedition. Amundsen valued the practical knowledge of the Inuit from clothing to diet to hunting practices. He realized this knowledge as the key to survival in the Arctic. The Inuit loved Admundson because he showed respect for them and adopted their practices. This is in contrast to many of the British explorers, and a contributing factor to the demise of the Franklin expedition.
The Heritage center is the building onto which the Parc Canada plans to build a museum for the Erebus and Terror shipwrecks. Gjøa Haven is the closest to the H.M.S. Terror wreck and is where the Inuit Guardians who guard the wreck live.
Visitors to the Arctic hamlets are so rare that the Inuit welcomed us through song and dance. Songs are passed from one generation to the next, as are the dances. When visitors arrive, like our ship, the community finds whoever is around and brings them in to sing and dance. The woman who sang was not expecting to sing to a crowd today, but she graciously accepted because the other singers were unavailable. I was hoping we would be treated to throat singing (a specialty of Inuit women), but that was not to happen today. Still, the performance was wonderful.
After the rousing community center welcome, we walked around town and to its boundary where we visited the Inuit memorial to Roald Amundsen, perched on a hill with a great view of the town and harbor. We also stopped at the Post Office, located in the Northern Store.
Gjøa Haven is very remote. Like most hamlets in the Arctic, they get supplies delivered twice a year to supplement the “country food” harvested from the land and sea (whale, seal, char). The shipping costs drive up the price of the food to outrageous amounts, especially in a community where there is so little work. Those who can hunt share their bounty with the elders and those who are unable to hunt. The community looks out for each other.
A Polar Bear and Beluga Whales
The Northwest Passage Day 6
“The land returns an identity of its own, still deeper, and more subtle than we can know. Our obligation to it then becomes single. To approach with an uncalculating mind and an attitude of regard.” Barry Lopez
When I woke up today, I looked forward to taking a watercolor workshop from Canadian landscape artist Andrew Sookrah. After breakfast I ambled up to the top-deck lounge and settled in with art supplies. Andrew was in the middle of his introductory lecture when our trip leader’s voice came over the intercom to announce our first sighting of sea ice and a polar bear. Do I run or do the polite thing and stay in the workshop? When the captain announced that he would turn the ship so we could get a good view, I decided to stay in the workshop for a least 10 minutes. The ship had to obey the laws of physics, so I knew it would take some time to change course. Still, half the workshop participants ran out the door immediately. After a few minutes the lure of the polar bear was too strong for me. I apologized and left. Andrew ended up on deck as well. He was kind enough to reschedule the workshop for a later time.
The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is classified as a marine mammal but they are as comfortable on ice and swimming as they are on land. This bear was on a huge chunk of blood-streaked ice eating a seal. The blood either indicated that the seal put up a fight or that the bear likes to play with its food.
Everyone was on the top deck with eyes glued to the bear and fingers pressing cameras. The bear ripped off chunks of the seal as sea gulls kept a respectful distance. Would the bear share its catch with them? No! They would have to wait until the bear moved on and left the carcass.
There are regulations about how close a boat can get to a bear and how long the boat can linger. Our time was up before the bear finished eating. We set sail for Conningham Bay, a place were Belugas frequent.
The entry to the bay is narrow enough to allow polar bears to catch beluga whales. It’s also not reachable by ship. We hopped into Zodiacs to explore the bay. We saw many whales, a few whale skeletons on shore, but no bears. Whales are elusive creatures. It’s easy to spot the disturbance they make in the water and to see an occasional back, but these whales weren’t hopping out of the water to greet us.
This day, like most, ended with a spectacular sunset.
High Winds but High Spirits
The Northwest Passage Day 7
We know little of winds, despite the powers of science. The substance of wind is too thin for human eyes, their written language is too difficult for human minds, their spoken language is mostly too faint for the ears.” John Muir
We deviated from the historic Northwest Passage by sailing through Bellot Strait. This helped us avoid sea ice that we would have encountered on the northerly trajectory. It also placed us on a direct route to Fort Ross. The plan for the day was to land via Zodiac at Fort Ross. But due to high winds, the Fort Ross disembarkation was cancelled.
Fort Ross was the last trading post established by the Hudson's Bay Company. Founded in 1937, the fort is strategically located at the eastern end of Bellot Strait and at the southeastern end of Somerset Island. Severe ice conditions made the post economically unfeasible because it was difficult to reach. It was operational for only eleven years. The former store was recently refurbished and is now used as a shelter by Inuit caribou hunters from Taloyoak and an occasional refuge for researchers. We stood on deck to see Fort Ross as we passed it. Then went inside for a day of shipboard activities that included:
A lecture on polar bearsA talk on the HMCS Labrador, a Canadian Icebreaker on which the father of one of our geologists served
The rescheduled water color workshop with Andrew Sookrah
A drum dancing workshop with Joe and Susie
A demonstation of Inuit games by Jason (and a chance to try them)
An opportunity to taste country food (caribou, narwhal, whale,and seal—all raw)
A spectacular sunset
A concert with Marshall Dane
Beechey Island: Dying in a Desolated Land
The Northwest Passage Day 8
“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water. Its substances reaches everywhere. It touches the past and prepares the future.” Loren Eisley
Today was another very windy day. We sailed past Prince Leopold Island, a migratory bird sanctuary whose vertical cliffs are ideal for nesting. After slowing to view the birds from the top deck, we moved on to Beechey Island. We landed there by Zodiac.
The harbor of Beechey Island is where Sir John Franklin stayed during the first winter of his expedition with the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The ships would have been beset by ice and the crew would have to endure darkness and bitter cold. Three of Franklin’s men are buried on the island—John Torrington, William Braine, and John Hartnell. A fourth body, that of Thomas Morgan, is also buried on Beechey. In 1854, he was on a vessel that was searching for Franklin.
In the 1980’s the bodies were autopsied to find the probable cause of death—lung disease and lead poisoning. The lead could have come from the solder used in the cans of provisions, but there is also a theory that the water distiller was leeching lead.
After Franklin’s expedition went missing. the people searching for Franklin built and supplied a house just in case the expedition were alive. The remains of Northumberland house are still on the island. Unfortunately, Franklin never found it.
When I walked around the island, it was difficult to imagine spending a winter here. The place consists of tiny pebbles. Although the sea is rich with life, nothing much grows on the land. What does grow is very tiny.
Today, Derek was one of our polar bear monitors. The monitors ensure that we can walk around without running into a bear. They scout each landing spot before we arrive and then maintain a perimeter within which we can walk.
Dorset Glacier and More Bears
The Northwest Passage Day 9
“Believe me my young friends, there is nothing absolutely nothing half so much worth doing as messing around in boats.” From Wind in the Willows
This morning we took a Zodiac tour of Dorset Glacier. The ice was amazing! The kayak program also started. Kayaking was an add-on charge. The requirement was the ability to roll a kayak, so I opted not to do it.
After lunch we were scheduled to land in Dundas Harbor, but the scouting party found too many polar bears roaming aournd, so it was canceled. Instead we had a Zodiac tour to view wildlife. We saw bears in the distance, seals, and lots of birds.
74 Degrees North
The Northwest Passage Day 10
“A journey is a person in itself, no two are alike. All plans, safeguards, policies and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” John Steinbeck
We were supposed to visit the hamlet of Grise Fjord today, the most northern hamlet in North America. But due to a death in the town, they asked us to wait a day until they could have the funeral. They wanted to welcome us in the community center, but they needed it for the service.
Instead, we sailed to Smith Sound and did the usual wet Zodiac landing followed by a hike. The scenery was stunning. Like most places in the Canadian Arctic, this place has a stark beauty. Although it looks barren, it has many, many plants. You just have to look down, and even sit down to appreciate these miniatures.
Today was also our most northern day—74 degrees north. The original plan was to get to 79 degrees north in a day or two, but the prediction for that area was for high winds and high waves. The Captain decided it was in our best interest to change course. Otherwise, he’d be fighting the waves in one direction and we passengers would likely be crawling on the floor to get around…and vomiting. Not a pretty sight. As usual, the sun and sky proved to be spectacular.
Ausuittumiut (Grise Fiord)—A Claim to the High Arctic
The Northwest Passage Day 11
“Adventure happens, but not punctually!” T.S. Elliot
A day later than planned, we made it to Grise Fiord. The funeral that was supposed to happen yesterday did not because the plane transporting the body couldn’t make it until today. The town still welcomed us, but we would not have the celebratory singing and dancing. Instead we would get a walking tour of the town, then assemble in the community center for a short welcome. Our on-board musicians Marshall Dane and David Newland would provide entertainment.
Grise Fiord has a sad history. This is the official statement:
“In the early 1950’s, Inuit families from northern Quebec and north Baffin Island were brought here to reinforce Canada’s claim on the High Arctic. The nearby “old village” is still used today for camping and hunting. Some of the original families stayed, some left and others decided to come. The Ausuittumiut (people of Grise Fiord) who remain are proud Inuit who revel in the quiet traditional lifestyle where hearing your own footsteps is as familiar as the sounds of nature.
Our guide, Larry, is one of two survivors from the 1950’s relocation. He told us a more detailed version. About eight Inuit families were forced to relocate and were dropped off in a fairly inhospitable area (the “old village”) where there was no way to escape. Living conditions were difficult for the Inuit, who had been taken away from their communities and support systems.This forced migration allowed Canada to claim to the high arctic. It turns out that you need ordinary people, not military installations, to assert this authority. So the Canadian government used the Inuit. Larry talked to us for quite some time. It was heart wrenching to hear about the hardships of his family, both the physical and mental strain. It took Larry (and others) decades to be at peace with the past. He concluded his story by telling us he proudly flies the Canadian flag at his home.
The Canadian government erected a monument in Grise Fiord to honor those who were relocated. After standing by this monument when Larry told his story, we walked to the community center. David gave a short talk to pay our respects to the deceased community member. Marshall led us in singing Amazing Grace. David sang a song, Monument, that he dedicated to Grise Fiord and is on his most recent CD Northbound
Grise Fiord, like other high arctic hamlets, get supplied only twice a year. However this year, Resolute Bay ended up using the barge that was supposed to supply Grise Fiord, so the stocks were down in the store. At least one-third of the shelves were empty when I went in. The next supply ship was supposed to arrive within the month. I hope it did. Once the ice sets in, transportation is just about impossible.
A Day at Sea: Heading for Greenland
The Northwest Passage Day 12
Today we head for Greenland. It's a day to kick back and relax. I signed up for a beading workshop given by Susie, one of our Inuit staff and a carving workshop, given by another Inuit staff, Derek.
The only other carving I've done is using soapstone from Ennis, Montana, which is quite soft, soft enough to carve with a knife. The soapstone Derek supplied was extremely hard, requiring a file and a good deal of arm muscle. I didn't get far.
This carving, however, is something I bought from an Inuit artist. Having tried my hand at carving, I can appreciate the creativity and work that went into it.
I did much better beading. Susie has many talents, beading is just one of them. She is also a great teacher. She showed us how to bead a daisy pattern. I was much more successful at this. The beads were very tiny.
Tasiusaq, Greenland: Lots of Vegetation!
The Northwest Passage Day 13
“We shall not cease from exploration, at the end of all of our exploring we will arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T.S. Elliott
Greenland is quite different from the pebbled and rocky land of the Canadian Arctic. It’s thick with vegetation and very squishy to walk on. The lushness invited us to lie down and rest. It feels like a TempurPedic mattress. The only caveat is that you have to find a spot that doesn’t have goose poop, as the geese recently migrated from here.
Tasiusaq means “an inlet that is like a lake.” It is located in the Upernavik archipelago, a large group os islands on the coast of northeast Baffin Bay. It is one of the earliest settled places in Greenland. The Thule people, ancient ancestors of the Inuit, left many archeological sites, including the remnants of the sod house you see here. Susie one of our Inuit staff explains the history.
One of the on-board botanists warned us that we would become obsessed looking at tiny plants. I did, as you can see by the photos of such things as black lichen and arctic cotton. It was a treat to see so much vegetation, so densely packed. I did manage to rise up and take a look at the lake and the inlet. What a gorgeous place.
A Disko Day
The Northwest Passage Day 14
“Those who contemplate the beauty of nature will find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” Rachel Carson
Today we took the Zodiacs through Disko Fjord to Qeqertarsuaq, also known as Disko Island. It is largest island along Greenland’s coast, separating Disko Bay from Baffin Bay. Disko Bay has an average depth of 400 meters and average water temperature of 3.5°C due to an underwater mountain ridge that traps warm salt water. Sounds great for swimming!
The plan was to hike on Disko Island, return to the ship for an outside BBQ, and then jump in the water for a polar plunge. After dinner, staff and passengers could raid the costume trunk for Disco clothes and start dancing.
Ilulissat and Ilimanaq: The Unexpected Guests
The Northwest Passage Day 15
The Greenland icecap meets the sea at the Ilulissat ice fjord via the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier. It is one of the most active and fastest moving glaciers in the world. Today we were to take a tour of the ice and then disembark via Zodiac, in the town of Ilulissat (population 4,900 people and 6,000 sled dogs). (History buffs will recognize that Knud Rasmussen, a well-known polar explorer, hailed from this town.)
“Come, my friends, tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite the surrounding furrows; for my purpose holds.” Tennyson
During the night, ice moved in and blocked the town, making it impossible for our Zodiacs to get to it. In fact we couldn’t even see the town due to the foggy and rainy conditions, and the density of the ice. We weren’t deterred! We set out in the Zodiacs despite the weather and wended our way through the ice so that we could see the mouth of the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier. A couple of the Zodiacs had engine problems, so we lended assistance to get them started or towed. This is perhaps why the Zodiacs travel in pairs.
Jason, our expedition leader, scrambled for an alternate activity to the town visit. He found a much smaller town, population 150, just down the coast and gave them a call. “Do you mind if 164 of your best friends pop in for a visit?” That’s how it came to be that we visited Ilimanaq. The rumor was that the town wanted to increase tourism, although I’m not sure they had this many simultaneous visitors in mind.
The allure of this town was the view from just outside its perimeter. A short uphill hike brought us to a view of the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, just the other side of the fjord from where we’d been in the morning.
Ike most small arctic town, there were many canine residents. We were told not to approach the dogs, as they are all working dogs. Both in the high Canadian arctic and here in Greenland, dogs are not pets. They are referred to as “working dogs” who earn their keep by pulling sleds in the winter.
Sisimiut: Muskox Burgers, a Polar Plunge, and the Aurora
The Northwest Passage Day 16
Sisimiut is the second-largest city in Greenland, after Nuuk. Although it is seventy-five kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, warm currents keep it ice free year-round. As a result, it has a pier, so our ship was able to dock. It was the first dock we’ve seen on the entire trip. It was a new experience to walk off the ship onto paved streets
“Without new experiences, something inside of us sleeps. The sleeper must awaken.” Frank Herbert
A local took us on a walking tour of the town and the local museum, after which we were left on our own. Like most of towns in Greenland, the houses were painted bright colors. In the past, these colors indicated what went on inside—store, hospital, school, and so on. Now I think the people are carrying on the colorful painting as a tradition.
This town actually had restaurants and hotels and businesses! We opted to forego the ship food, as we got a tip on a restaurant that serves muskox burgers. Yum! Back on board, we learned the town gave us permission to jump in their bay. This would be the last opportunity for a polar plunge north of the Arctic Circle. Would I have the nerve? While I was working up the nerve, a local gave a kayaking demonstration in which he continuously rolled his kayak for at least 30 minutes. He didn’t freeze, so I was encouraged that I could survice a 10 second plunge.
The polar plunge was well organized. We were to assemble in the Nautilus lounge dressed in our swimsuits and a robe. Only those committing to plunge were allowed. We got leis, party horns, and other festive paraphernalia and then learned the polar plunge chant. When we were sufficiently pumped up, we paraded through the ship to the mudroom and then the door to the ocean.
We proceeded one-by-one. First, we were given a life belt. If something happened, like dying from heart failure, the crew could drag us in. When it was my turn to plunge, I put on the belt, jumped, then immediately sprang to the ladder and came out. The crew was ready with a towel and a shot of vodka, which I tossed. Yes, it was cold, but invigorating. Later, we each received a polar plunge patch and were treated to a chocolate extravaganza after dinner. As you can see from the photo, not everyone participated.
After 16 days above the Arctic Circle, conditions were finally favorable for us to see the northern lights. (Photo by Glen Gould.)
Kangerlussuaq: The Final Stop
The Northwest Passage Day 17
Kangerlussuaq is located at the end of a 190 kilometer fjord, one of the longest in the world. It used to be a military refueling stop for the USA during World War 2. We’d be flying out of their airport. It’s a small town, without a dock big enough for the ship, so we were shuttled to the land by Zodiac. And then bussed to the town, which was about 15 minutes away.
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Our flight wouldn’t arrive until late afternoon, so we went on a “Muskoxen safari” to search for the elusive creature. The bus took us to the top of a mountain that was outfitted with some sort of communication equipment, most likely installed by the US for military purposes, but I’m not sure what it’s used for today. We were able to see the Greenland icecap in the distance. What a dramatic landscape!
On our way back to the airport, we finally saw a shabby-looking muskox by the side of the road. It was too close to the road, so we had to stay in the bus to admire him. Like bison, muskox can be aggressive.
Seventeen days, two countries, and amazing journey. With all the adjustments to the itinerary, this is the final route.