Voyage Through the Northwest Passage
Word & photos by Julie Maris/Semel
A trek to the Arctic Northwest Passage and Greenland brings many life-changing moments: witnessing natural beauty, having the unique privilege to experience Inuit communities, being stunned by the sheer majesty of icebergs. Sadly, part of the experience is also to see how climate change and the rapid disappearance of the Greenland ice sheet can shatter our preconceptions about a pristine Arctic, and how these changes are affecting wildlife and native populations. All of these impressions remain long after a return to urban life.
We traveled aboard the Ocean Endeavour with Adventure Canada, a family run, hands-on company. Lecturers, with backgrounds in oceanography and mammals, were also cultural representatives who provided an abbreviated college semester for which there were no final exams. Among the staff were Inuits Anguti Johnston and Martha Flaherty, whose grandfather produced the seminal film Nanook of the North in 1922. They were instrumental in facilitating cultural immersion on the ship and in the communities.
Our zodiacs braced chilly winds to land at Etah, the starting point for the polar expeditions of Robert Peary and Knud Rasmussen. We hiked in the footsteps of these early Arctic explorers to the retreating face of the Brother John Glacier, 720 miles from the North Pole.
Orange-vested, gun-bearing staff set a perimeter on hills to ensure that polar bears were not in the area. A naturalist warned us that these bears, intelligent and curious, use their sense of smell and avoid humans, but younger “teenagers” have bravado and can be more dangerous. Muskoxen appeared as black moving-dots on distant multi-hued hills and a juvenile silvery-grey Arctic fox yelped and streaked across the path.
As the Ocean Endeavour approached Grise Fiord, Canada, lecturers discussed Nunavut land claims in the region and the conservation efforts of Parks Canada. The ship’s landing coincided with the annual arrival of a cargo ship bringing supplies and equipment that cannot be flown in on twice-weekly flights to the isolated community.
In 1953, Canada forcibly moved Inuit families from northern Quebec, with its lush tundra, more than six-hundred miles north to this remote spot, still home to 125 people. The government organized the relocation to secure Canada’s political territory and sovereign rights, though the Inuit suffered under the program, with little food and inadequate shelter.
Martha Flaherty, one of our guides, told us that her family moved here when she was a young child. She emphasized that “family and community are the heart of Inuit life,” and warmth was evident in the community’s welcome that included traditional Inuit Arctic games and throat singing, which incorporates sounds of wind and animals. The vibrations lull babies to sleep as they are carried in amauti, traditional parkas. Among the houses is an Inuit fisherman’s “summer” house, and just offshore we spotted rarely sighted narwhals, medium-sized whales with gnarled ivory spiraling tusks, as they fed.
In 2010 Nunavut Tunnagavik, the Inuit land-claims organization, recognized the sacrifices of the Inuit relocation and erected a monument plaque that reads in part, “They endured and overcame great hardship.”The traditional Inuit hunting culture that provides seal skins for garments, boots, and food is rapidly disappearing. Bowhead whales, narwhals, and polar bear hunting are limited by quotas, and when the European Community passed the 1983 law restricting the sale of sealskins, the Inuit lost 60 percent of their income and now require government assistance.
David Pelly, a staff member, discussed his book Sacred Hunt, in which he says the respect attributed to seals made for a successful hunt but it also reflected the Inuit’s respect for each other, especially the Elders, one of the eight core values in its culture. “The traditional Inuit belief is that all beings have a soul” and that “the hunter is creating a bond between his people and their environment. When the seal gives himself to the hunter, it is an act of sharing.”
The further loss of sea ice; the reduction of important ring seal breeding territory; commercial fishing of the food chain; oil spills, industrial pollution, the emptying of ships’ bilges; and the depletion of the whale population are major, ongoing concerns. Killer whales now migrate farther north, changing the Arctic marine biodiversity. This last and vast reserve of marine animals is threatened and the Inuit communities want to increase beluga conservation for growth and continued hunting.
Adventure Canada works with the Arctic communities to preserve and protect Inuit culture through the Inuit Heritage Trust and in partnership with Project North.
The center houses artifacts from the failed 1845–1846 expedition of Sir John Franklin aboard the HMS Erebus, discovered in 2014, and relics from the 1903–1905 encampment that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen established before navigating the Northwest Passage.
These polar explorations, along with presence of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Hudson’s Bay Company, influenced the Inuit landscape.
The increasing number of ships in the Northwest Passage is having an effect on the local culture, and passengers are also taking away lumps of coal, barrel staves, and other artifacts left on the island.
After three-thousand miles through amazing landscapes, with wildlife sightings, memorable cultural experiences, and visits to fragile archeological sites, the threatened future of the Arctic comes into focus. What remains at the end of the journey is the remarkable resilience and pride of the Inuit and a passage that was life changing.
© Julie Maris/Semel 2022
Julie Maris/Semel was a guest of Adventure Canada, which received the Phoenix Award in 2021. The award is presented by The Society of American Travel Writers “to recognize and honor organizations and destinations that showcase responsible, sustainable tourism, including conservation; preservation; beautification and anti-pollution efforts as they relate to travel.”