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Voyage Through the Northwest Passage

After a refueling stop in Sisimiut, north of the Arctic Circle, travelers in zodiacs cruise in Disko Bay, Greenland.

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.

 

At Disko Bay, an iceberg with medial and lateral moraine streaks has picked up rocks and debris during its slide down the 34-mile Ilulissat Icefjord.

 

 

Passengers overlook the Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier moves 25 feet per day, and calves with a thunderous roar over 20 miles of towering icebergs annually.

 

In Disko Bay, a humpback whale and her one-ton calf swim close to each other for protection and affectionately touch with their flippers; they remain together for about a year.

 

In Uummannaq, Greenland, a 250-year-old fishing village, colorful houses cling to a rocky slope above the harbor.

 

There are fewer sled dogs in Uummannaq these days, now that global warming is causing the ice to retreat and it no longer supports their weight.

 

A hike across undulating tundra, on Kingigtup Ilua, Greenland, with its crowberries, heath, and wildflowers, provides spectacular views.

 

At Kingigtup Ilua, an early Inuit settlement, vast spaces are unmarred by human footprints, revealing a pristine Arctic perspective.

 

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.

 

Etah is the site of a 4,000-year-old settlement, where sod and wooden sheds protect walrus and muskoxen hunters from katabatic winds.

 

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.

Grise Fiord, Canada, is on Ellesmere Island, in the High Arctic –– “the place that never melts” and the northernmost community on the continent.

 

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.

Anguti Johnston plays the drum, traditionally made of caribou and wood, to accompany songs and dances that express the “soul of the Inuit culture”; Inuit are stewards of the land and guardians of the environment.

 

Adventure Canada works with the Arctic communities to preserve and protect Inuit culture through the Inuit Heritage Trust and in partnership with Project North.

 

An Elder greets us at the Gjoa Haven Nattilik Heritage Center.

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.

Seal and fox fur traders once gathered at this 1937 house of a manager of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Ft. Ross, Somerset Island. The remote post overlooks Bellot Strait, with its narrow passageway and dangerous currents.

 

At Radstock Bay, Nunavut, the terrain shows signs of isostatic rebound, an elastic response to glaciers and ice sheets melting and the weight of the Earth’s crust. Also present are the Thule houses constructed of whale bones, stones, and sod from early settlements.

 

Members of the Franklin Expedition perished during the winter of 1845–1846 and are buried on Beechey Island.

 

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.

Hiking on Beechey Island, a stopover on several expeditions exploring the Northwest Passage.

 

At Radstock Bay, Nunavut, the terrain shows signs of isostatic rebound, an elastic response to glaciers and ice sheets melting and the weight of the Earth’s crust. Also present are the Thule houses constructed of whale bones, stones, and sod from early settlements.

 

Peel Sound, Coningham Bay, with its narrow and shallow entrance, attracted thousands of belugas churning its waters; six polar bears meandered nearby, unperturbed by zodiacs, whose drivers were careful not to stress the wildlife.

 

In Coningham Bay, the bear-costumed catering-director and Adventure Canada staff dispensed spiked hot chocolate to chilled passengers, displaying the warm rapport that comes with many seasons of working together.

 

With ever-changing weather, winds, and ice conditions, the voyage south past Tasmania Island can be treacherous; the ship’s captain requested a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker to assist and it slowly cut through pack ice for five hours.

 

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.”

 

 

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