It’s a well known fact to those who live in the north – there are more opportunities here. Not just for well paying jobs and great adventures, but for unsolicited opportunities to get up close and personal with all kinds of interesting folks. I know someone who hosted Sarah Ferguson at his house. And another friend was in a photo shoot with the Prime Minister when he came to town. I know a pilot who flew the royals Kate and Will’s entourage on their honeymoon to Blachford Lodge, and then sat on a nearby rock while they went out canoeing.
I had my own such experience lately. Really it was more of a brushing up against something great, rather than directly experiencing it, but it was pretty fabulous all the same. Kurtis, our Baffin island guide, suggested I sign up to work with One Ocean Expeditions, a company which runs cruises in both Arctic and Antarctic waters. I jumped at the chance. A bit of work as a ship board emergency physician in exchange for a free cruise sounded like a wonderful opportunity to me! In September, Kurtis contacted me to ask if I could be the ship doctor on the Sergey Vavilov as it traveled with passengers through the Northwest Passage, from Cambridge Bay, Canada, to Greenland. It nearly killed me to turn down this opportunity, however I’d already committed to traveling to nearby Gjoa Haven (another high Arctic community) to do a medical clinic that same week. I knew Kurtis was on the ship when he contacted me, as he was lucky enough to be part of the expedition searching for the Franklin expedition at that time. (He was picked up by the ship in Pond Inlet at the end of our trip there. How romantic is that? Can you imagine?)
I imagine most of Canada at least is aware of the search for the missing Franklin expedition. Its a compelling adventure story – the initial search for the Northwest Passage in 1845, ships frozen in the ice, then lost, a grieving widow, multiple searches over decades, a cache of bodies and weird artifacts, Inuit reports of crazed white men, and suspected cannibalism. The Canadian government has been searching for the missing ships for the past several years. And, wouldn’t you know it, a few days before I would have boarded the ship to go to Greenland, one of the two missing ships, the Erebus, was found.
It was discovered right where Inuit oral history had said it might be. Near O’Reilly Island, a small island just a short distance south of Gjoa Haven on King William Island. (Gjoa Haven is on the southeast point.)
When I arrived in Gjoa Haven just a few days later, the small community was buzzing. The coast guard ship The Wilfred Laurier was in town, anchored just off shore, very near to where Amundsen anchored his boat the Gjoa for two winters in 1903, just before he became the first man to finally sail the northwest passage.
Our federal minister Leona Aglukkaq was also in town, meeting with the local Inuit community and I suspect quietly celebrating the vindication of Inuit oral history. (I actually met her on my previous visit, without recognizing her, and I’m a bit embarrassed to say that when I had the ear of the federal minister of health, my only question for her was if she had ever eaten polar bear, and what it tasted like. In my defense, we were watching a documentary of traditional Inuit camping practices at the time. Thankfully I didn’t voice aloud my private quip to that question: “Tastes like chicken?” Turns out being close to greatness doesn’t always rub off.)
But my favorite part of my visit was meeting Ben. Before I tell you about that, I should tell you a bit about staying in a northern hotel. Its not what you might expect. There is a chain of hotels across the high arctic, Inns of the North, and there is one in each town. Good thing too, because there is certainly no other accommodation options, if you don’t have a tent. The hotels can be as simple as an Atco trailer, or, as in the case of Gjoa Haven, a full sized hotel building, with several rooms and a dining room. One of the more hilarious aspects of staying in a northern hotel is that one doesn’t reserve, or pay for, a room. You only get the bed, and the management is free to give the other bed to someone else. (Martin and I thought the hotel rate in Pond Inlet really wasn’t too bad at $225 per night, but we didn’t know that was only for one of us.) I shared a room for one night with a lovely young lawyer on her regular court circuit through town and it wasn’t too bad at all. The dining room experience was fun too. The hotel proprietress decided where we would each sit, and introduced us to each other before the meal. I really enjoyed my evenings visiting and chatting with the various people staying at the hotel – a visiting social worker, construction workers building the new high school, a telephone line repairman in for a few days, and Ben. Turns out Ben was also on the Sergey Vavilov, along with Kurtis, when the lost ship was discovered. It was of course an exciting time for him, and all the more so as he was filming a documentary on the search for National Geographic. Now call me crazy, but few things get me as excited as the prospect of making a documentary film some day. I had a couple of nights to chat with him about his experience and his craft, and it was a wonderful time. I heard more about what the expedition hopes to find aboard the ship – perhaps Franklin’s body itself, or the ship logs, apparently sealed in copper tubing. I look forward to seeing his film someday, and I wonder if another friend of mine, a composer, who creates sound tracks for National Geographic films, might also work on the project. The world is a very small place sometimes, and greatness seems everywhere.