Cruising the Northwest Passage for polar bears, glaciers and wrecks

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He was gnawing on a seal, stripping the skin off the carcass and gorging on the fat, leaving a bloody trail across the ice floe as he paced about with his kill. This well-fed, young polar bear graciously tolerated the glaucous gulls waiting to poke at the leftovers. The robust seabirds screeched disapprovingly at a lone raven, but the scavenger stood his ground for a place at the Arctic dining table.

The shaggy bear, looking golden against the white ice, abruptly sniffed the crisp September air with his beautiful black nose and gave us a long, hard stare. We were spread across the upper deck of the Ocean Endeavour with binoculars and zoom lenses as the ship floated several hundred metres from the ice floe. The bear decided we weren’t a threat and returned to his leisurely seal feast.

The moments the Arctic gives you can never be duplicated, and this bear, on this ice floe, on this day in Nunavut is ours alone to cherish.

A floating classroom

The Ocean Endeavour calls in at Jenny Lind Island in Nunavut.

Jennifer Bain

Expedition cruise ships are making travel to the Arctic easier and yet only an intrepid few are drawn to the beautiful, barren but far from empty north every July, August and September. For this route — the Northwest Passage from Kugluktuk, Nunavut to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland — that ice-free travel window is just late August into mid-September. Adventure Canada occasionally needs icebreakers to help the 198-passenger Ocean Endeavour. The ice sometimes wins and the ship seeks new routes.

There are no consolation prizes here. Every Inuit community offers a chance to meet fellow Canadians living in harsh, isolated conditions. Every Zodiac landing turns up traces of the Inuit and their predecessors that lived here for thousands of years, and the explorers, Hudson’s Bay traders and RCMP officers that came after them. Every strait, sound, bay and channel might be home to narwhals, belugas, bowhead whales and seals. Polar bears, muskoxen and caribou abound. It doesn’t take long to know a thick-billed murre from a kittiwake, guillemot or razorbill, or to be able to identify the plants of the polar desert.

Mother Nature rules the Arctic

Expedition leader Jason Edmunds enters the restricted area for the Franklin wrecks.

Jennifer Bain

“These are remote regions where Mother Nature is still in charge,” expedition leader Jason Edmunds said to launch the 17-day journey. He asked us to be flexible and adaptable since there are no set itineraries when everything revolves around wind, ice and wildlife sightings. Without deep-water ports, we can only leave the ship by Zodiacs and only when the winds are manageable.

“This is a really big country,” Edmunds promised, “and when we turn one way, there is something else just around the corner.”

Getting our fill of Franklin

Beechey Island has the graves of three Franklin Expedition men plus another explorer.

Jennifer Bain

When Edmunds asked what we hoped to see, people shouted out polar bears, icebergs, wrecks, new parks, woolly mammoths, narwhal and the aurora borealis. Woolly mammoths weren’t on the table, but everything else was — including the holy grail of shipwrecks.

In 1845, Sir John Franklin left England with the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to find the Northwest Passage, a shortcut that traders hoped existed between Europe and Asia. Within months, both ships and 129 men disappeared in unrelenting ice in what’s now the Canadian Arctic. Dozens of search expeditions looked for Franklin’s men and one — that brought back a harrowing Inuit tale of desperate men turning to cannibalism to survive — was initially met with outrage and denial.

Famous wrecks

Parks Canada’s Thierry Boyer shows a model of the Erebus wreck.

Jennifer Bain

Franklin’s grave still hasn’t been found, but the bodies of some of his men have been and some showed proof of cannibalism. On Sept. 2, 2014, a Parks Canada-led team working with Inuit traditional knowledge and modern technology found the Erebus off the Adelaide Peninsula. Two years and one day later, the Terror was discovered nearby off the coast of King William Island. Parks Canada and the Inuit now jointly manage Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site and an underwater archaeology team explores the ships during the ice-free window of the Arctic summer.

For three years, Adventure Canada has had permits to enter the restricted waters and bring passengers aboard the research vessels. All five times Mother Nature has vetoed the trip. The company — a Mississauga, Ontario, second-generation family business that has been voyaging through the Northwest Passage since 2009 — keeps trying.

Making tourism history

Part of the Parks Canada research fleet is this diving barge, shown above the Erebus.

Jennifer Bain

“Life would soon lose its charm for most of us … if we could no longer pursue the unattainable,” Edmunds said the morning we hoped to venture to the Erebus, quoting American ornithologist/author Bradford Torrey. Edmunds, an Inuk from Labrador who is married to Adventure Canada CEO Cedar Swan, woke us up each morning with our location, the weather, the updated plan and an inspirational quote.

That day, the unattainable became attainable. The wind calmed so we could safely take Zodiacs from the ship to the RV David Thompson, the lead boat in Parks Canada’s research fleet, and then to the barge that its underwater archaeology team dives from. We saw six objects just brought up from the sea — two bottles, a decanter, leather boot sole, ornate wooden handle and tiny tongs that might have once picked up sugar cubes. We were transfixed by a live feed of a diver pointing to a newly discovered stack of the Royal Navy’s blue willow plates.

Meeting the Guardians

Six Inuit Guardians are flanked by Parks Canada and Gjoa Haven officials.

Jennifer Bain

The fact that it was Sept. 5 seemed auspicious. The Erebus and Terror were both found in the first few days of what clearly is a lucky Franklin month. We were honoured to be the first people to pilot Parks Canada’s visitor experience at the wrecks. As expedition host David Newland put it in his nightly recap: “It’s our story to tell now, too. We find ourselves on the pages of the history books, somehow.”

Hopefully the Erebus visits will continue, but there’s no telling what the weather will do next time. The only thing the wind did was block our visit to shore to meet the Guardians, the Inuit who camp near the wrecks to protect them from intruders and treasure hunters. The Guardians came to us instead with a local elder, proudly sharing stories before enjoying lunch and a ship tour.

Our fellow Canadians

Tour guide Norman Aquptanguaq shows visitors around Gjoa Haven.

Jennifer Bain

The Guardians are from Gjoa Haven, a hamlet of 1,446 on King William Island and the closest community to the wrecks. As we stepped off Zodiacs there the next day, a grinning Chris Kikoak, a security guard, shook our hands. At the community hall, Joseph Okpakok introduced mesmerizing drum dances by Adam Aglukkaq and then Jimmy Qirqut, both accompanied by singer Alisha Kammemalik. The Moon Dancers performed a spirited square dance, a Scottish tradition that has been embraced and tweaked by the Inuit.

Norman Aquptanguaq, a carver who trained last year to be a tour guide, showed me around. Ice blocked all the cruise ships last year, but we were the sixth to visit this year and so Aquptanguaq was glad to finally chat with strangers from around the world.

Daily life

A bust of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen is in the Gjoa Haven hamlet office.

Jennifer Bain

At the Northern store, four cobs of Green Giant corn cost $12.99. A four-litre jug of 2 per cent Beatrice milk should cost $29.06 but has been reduced to a still pricey $8.69 thanks to a northern food subsidy. It costs $16.99 for a jug of liquid Tide that can do 24 loads of laundry.

Aquptanguaq didn’t seem to want to dwell on the impossibly high cost of living so we went to the hamlet office to see a strangely sombre bust. The hamlet’s Inuktitut name is Uqsuqtuuq (“Place of Plenty Blubber”), but everyone calls it “Joe Haven.” It was named for Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the first European to travel the Northwest Passage aboard his ship the Gjøa. When weather forced the explorer to live in the community, he wisely learned Inuit hunting and survival techniques.

Respecting cultural differences

The Nattilik Heritage Centre has a northern facade with muskox and sunglasses.

Jennifer Bain

The outside of the hamlet’s Nattilik Heritage Centre features outlines of muskoxen, depicted as shaggy brown beasts with yellow horns and mouths twisted into smiles. The windows on the yurt-shaped building are cleverly framed with the rectangular sunglasses the Inuit long favoured to ward off snow blindness. Inside it’s all about the traditional Inuit lifestyle and the Franklin story, and the well-stocked gift shop sells local sculptures and art.

Celebrating the arts

Kristina Kuodluak models a treasured fur parka in Kugluktuk.

Jennifer Bain

Like in Gjoa Haven, the Kugluktuk Visitor Heritage Centre — in Nunavut’s most westerly community — showcases the Inuit story and doubles as a gift shop, but I bought red Arctic fox mitts from Rita Miyok on the street. Her 10-year-old son Deagan made them. Kristina Kuodluak didn’t have any takers for her boxer-style silver fox mitts, but zipped home on her ATV to don a stunning parka made from wolverine, caribou, wolf and Arctic ground squirrel that has been passed down to her.

It’s tough for southerners to grasp, but northerners can’t survive and thrive in this harsh, remote and wildly expensive environment without harvesting animals for food and clothing. On our ship, Derrick Pottle, an Inuk from Labrador, led country food tastings of seal, char, raw caribou and muktuk (raw narwhal fat with a chewy layer of skin). “I like to put my muktuk in the microwave to soften it,” confided Joe Evyagotailak, another Inuk culturalist on board with his wife Susie.

A chance to learn

York University professor Dawn Bazely talks botany on Jenny Lind Island.

Jennifer Bain

Nunavut humbles and astounds. Created in 1999 as part of a 1993 land claims agreement that earned the Inuit self-determination, Canada’s youngest territory crosses three time zones and makes up one-fifth of the country. Twenty-six communities have internal roads but aren’t connected to each other. The nearly 39,000 Nunavummiut are 85 per cent Inuit and speak one language with multiple dialects. Country food and harvesting is central to Inuit culture, community and well-being and so hunting — even in parks and conservation areas — is a right.

Inuit culturalists. some who double as polar bear guards, joined our cruise, as did a historian, botanist, marine biologist, bird conservation biologist, archaeologist, geologist, lawyer, musician, artist and explorer/author. They gave formal talks as well as informal interpretation as we passed places like the Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Tallurutiup Imanga (Lancaster Sound) National Marine Conservation Area, Conningham Bay where belugas rub themselves in the rocky shallows, and Zenith Point, the northern tip of the continent. They explored tough topics like colonialism, residential schools, the tuberculosis epidemic, relocations, unemployment, food insecurity, suicide and education and health-care challenges.

Breathtaking land

South Cape Fiord boasts a stunning canyon and small waterfall.

Jennifer Bain

There is much to learn so we don’t complain when weather scuttles a few shore visits to historical sites in Nunavut. “To be honest, it’s not really an expedition if everything goes right all the time — that’s a holiday,” said Newland, our eloquent host.

With that always in mind, we were grateful to land at Beechey Island, a national historic site where the Franklin expedition overwintered and buried three of its men. At South Cape Fiord, we explored a canyon and waterfall on mountainous Ellesmere Island. On most days, the September temperatures hovered nicely around zero.

As we left the Northwest Passage and headed to the eastern High Arctic, explorer/author Jerry Kobalenko reminded us that “even today this is no small feat. Last year no one got through.”

Glacial beauty

The Croker Bay glacier reaches right down to the ocean.

Jennifer Bain

Is it strange to feel intensely patriotic about a Canadian glacier?

In Croker Bay, in front of an astounding glacier with gnarly, jagged, streaked and smooth bits of varying heights in breathtaking shades of white, blue and dirty brown, I saw my first Canadian tidewater glacier. I’ve seen those — the kind that terminates at the ocean — in Alaska and Greenland before, but didn’t even realize Canada has them in Nunavut.

Marc Hebert, an adventurer from Whitehorse, killed the Zodiac engine so we could enjoy a few contemplative moments with the glacier. “Give us something, Mr. Glacier,” he quietly pleaded after reminiscing about the polar bears he once saw right here.

A final few moments

Passenger Seymour Hersh enjoys a Zodiac cruise by the Croker Bay glacier.

Jennifer Bain

The glacier had just calved a small iceberg and on it were two gulls — an impressive Iceland gull and a rare ivory gull. A harp seal popped its sweet head out of the ocean, shot us a mischievous look and disappeared. It’s as if he knew that in just a few hours we would witness a wildlife feeding frenzy with flocks of seabirds, frolicking packs of seals and half a dozen polar bears, including one feasting on a beluga washed up on shore in front of the rawest, most beautiful landscape you can imagine.

It’s soon time to travel across Baffin Bay to Greenland, but not before Nunavut says goodbye with a mighty show of glaciers — at one point I spot 15 from the ship’s deck — and icebergs, growlers and bergy bits too plentiful to count.

The sun sets on a Canadian iceberg in beautiful Nunavut.

Jennifer Bain


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