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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.

Rideshare 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.

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