This summer was a dream come true – my mom and I took a ship through the Northwest Passage. It was an amazing experience, with a depth that is hard to articulate. For so many reasons – seeing the land and sea of the high Arctic, the culture there, both ancient and current, being on a One Ocean Expedition, and being part of the staff as the expedition doctor, the wildlife we encountered, and the fabulous people we spent 2 weeks with on the ship.
We started in Greenland, where we boarded our ship, the Russian Akademik Sergei Vavilov, which is a modest ocean going vessel strengthened for ice travel. On board were 85 passengers, mostly from Canada, 25 One Ocean Expedition staff members, and some 45 Russian crew, led by Captain Beluga.
We sailed down the long fiord of Kangerlussuaq, and up the coast of Greenland, with 2 stops at towns there, although we could not reach shore at Ilulissat, due to the massive amount of icebergs in the harbour that day. The community that we did spent time in, Sisimiut, seemed wonderful. Colorful well kept homes, friendly people, a thriving and bustling energy, a harbour full of boats, and thriving traditional culture. For instance, we saw a kayak rolling demonstration by a man in a traditional Inuit model kayak, which is custom made for his body, and with a sealskin drytop. We also saw a great deal of ice – mostly icebergs calved from the massive glaciers of Greenland. This is hard and sharp ice, particularly dangerous to ships.
I was sorry not to get to shore in Ilulissat, as the glacier there is enormous, and responsible for a most of the icebergs that are carried down past the Maritimes. Apparently as the ice is calved off it can be caught up near the glacier, only to suddenly overflow into the bay, causing sudden and massive amounts of ice there. The scale of all that ice is not visible in my photos, but it took us 1.5 hours to go about 8 km by boat, weaving our way around immense icebergs and through smaller floating bits.
From Greenland we spent 2 days crossing massive Baffin Bay, to northern Baffin Island. We stopped in Pond Inlet, which was a return for me, as this was the place Martin and I started our kayak excursion from last year. Pond Inlet is a stunning place on the water, full of scenic mountain and glacier views, and a friendly Inuit community.
Once we left Baffin Island, to head north into Lancaster Sound, we were in the high Arctic. This is a place of utterly barren land, mainly rock and ice, and perhaps a bit of short grass. It is not a place that people have historically been able to survive in over long periods of time, and in fact one of the most shocking and shameful examples of the Canadian government’s attitude to aboriginal culture in times past (don’t get me started on how they are doing now) was that they relocated several batches of Inuit families from further down south, to various small settlements in the high Arctic. And then left them there to starve to death. This was probably an attempt at asserting Canadian sovereignty, in order to create a stronger presence in the Arctic. There are several examples of such communities in the region, and we visited one on Devon Island. Three policemen and a few Inuit families were dropped off at Dundas Harbour, and forgotten for 3 years, until the survivors were rescued. One of the amazing things about the high Arctic is that buildings and artifacts from time immemorial are still abundant. Things don’t rot or break down quickly, and without too many people around there is not much scavenging either. Along with the more recent artifacts from the last 100 years, we saw Dorset and Thule homes, and of course, the artifacts from the time of the exploration of the Northwest Passage by Franklin and by all those who came to find him. (More on that later.)
I will leave you here for now, here on Devon Island on a warm summer’s day, shortly after the northwest passage has opened for the first time this year. You can imagine Franklin’s ships sailing by, and perhaps on such a day as this, fine and calm. Although they were not the first humans in the area, they were the first Europeans, and most probably the first humans to attempt to find the passage, and so they would have no doubt felt like they were sailing into the unknown, to the very ends of the earth.
Stay tuned for many more stories and photos to come from this remarkable part of the world.