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ARCTIC CRUISE - ADVENTURE CANADA EXPEDITION
TO NUNAVUT AND GREENLAND

Story and photos by

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. This is the captain speaking. It's 6:40 am. We're now in Isabella Bay, on the east coast of Baffin Island. Bowhead whales are all around us."

Passengers stand on bow of ship. Bellot Strait, Nunavut.
Passengers stand on bow of ship. Bellot Strait, Nunavut.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Doors slam as passengers rush to the top deck, after throwing warm jackets and pants over their pyjamas. It doesn't matter that it's 2 degrees C on this bright September morning. Nor does it matter that 87 per cent of the passengers are over 50 years old. Scanning the sea with binoculars and telephoto lenses, we're having the time of our lives.

We are a diverse group of 100 singles and couples from British Columbia to New Brunswick. Four couples are from the USA and Europe. "Being single or a senior is not a deterrent," says Nesta Leduc, a retired doctor from Whitehorse, Yukon. "I'm in a three-bed cabin with two women I didn't know before the cruise. You make friends."

Resolute Bay

Our 12-day Adventure Canada Arctic cruise began with a chartered flight from Ottawa to Resolute Bay, Nunavut. Located on the south shore of Cornwallis Island, at nearly 75 degrees N latitude, the community of 229 is an aviation hub.

People in Zodiacs view bergy bits and glacier in Croker Bay, Devon Island.
People in Zodiacs view bergy bits and glacier in Croker Bay, Devon Island.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

In 1947, it was an airstrip and weather station called HMS Resolute. The federal government moved Inuit families to Resolute in the 1950s to assert Canadian Arctic sovereignty. With no vegetation, it looks desolate. But Resolute Bay is not lifeless.

"A polar bear wandered through town this morning," said the bus driver who drove us from the airport to the shore where Zodiacs (inflatable rubber boats) transferred us to the ship. "It got into a shed and stole two seals." We didn't know, then, that we would soon have the opportunity to taste seal meat.

Charter flights

Charter flights also brought us back to Ottawa, after the cruise ended in Kangerlussuaq, (population 490), a former U.S. military base near the edge of the Greenland icecap. Charter flights from Ottawa and back were not compulsory, but virtually everyone took them.

Why? The charters included transfers between airports and the ship. Flights corresponded with ship embarkation and debarkation times. If flights were delayed, Adventure Canada staff ensured that passengers didn't miss the cruise.

There are no commercial flights from Kangerlussuaq to Canada and, the bottom line for most passengers, the charter flights were cheaper than scheduled flights!

Ports of call

Eager as schoolchildren on a field trip, we looked forward to our Arctic cruise. Our Canadian Arctic destinations included Beechey Island (site of three graves from Sir John Franklin's Northwest Passage expedition), Devon Island (the largest uninhabited island in the world) and the communities of Pond Inlet (population 1,245) and Clyde River (population 850) on the north and east coasts of Baffin Island.

After crossing Davis Strait to Greenland, our itinerary featured Qeqertarsuaq (population 1,032) and Ilulissat (population 4,400, the third largest town in Greenland), across Disko Bay on the mainland.

Couple on Somerset Island near Franklin Strait
Couple on Somerset Island near Franklin Strait
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Shore excursions

Community visits lasted two to three hours, as did hikes to archaeological and historical sites. We could take Zodiac shuttles back to the ship earlier, if desired. After organized tours, we had free time to explore the towns. Zodiac excursions to view birds and icebergs ranged from one to two hours, depending on the weather.

Nesta Leduc recalls her most memorable shore experience. "While other passengers explored Fort Ross [abandoned Hudson's Bay Company buildings on Somerset Island], I observed a polar bear up close through Adventure Canada's high-powered scope."

As long as a sofa, and as heavy as five adult men, the polar bear was climbing a hill behind the HBC post. He sniffed the air, then flopped down on the rocks and fell asleep with his head resting on a massive paw.

Clyde River

Beth Lech, a retired French supply teacher from Peterborough, Ontario, told us that this Arctic cruise was her fifth Adventure Canada trip. (One-quarter of Arctic passengers are repeat cruisers.)

"During our Clyde River visit, a little girl asked if I were a grandma. After I assured her I was, she asked if she could call me Grandma. Suddenly, I was surrounded by little kids who asked if they could call me Grandma too. I had a marvellous time touring the town with my 'grandchildren.' When I left, they called out: 'Goodbye Grandma.' It was so moving."

Viewing 90-ton bowheads from Zodiacs in Isabella Bay was another highlight for Beth. "We were so entranced when a bus-size black whale rose up and exhaled, just 15 feet away that no one even thought about taking pictures!"

Ellesmere Island

Thérèse Perron, a retired public servant and sociologist from Quebec City, combined our cruise with the one that immediately preceded it, arriving in Resolute Bay the same day that our cruise departed.

While the other passengers disembarked and we boarded, she simply stayed on the ship. The prior cruise went farther north in Greenland, then across to Ellesmere Island and Grise Fiord, the most northern civilian community in Canada. Ellesmere Island is just 26 kilometers from Greenland, at their closest points.

Passengers photograph iceberg in Baffin Bay near Cape Graham Moore, Bylot Island.
Passengers photograph iceberg in Baffin Bay near Cape Graham Moore, Bylot Island.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Icebergs

"I dreamed about the North for a long time," she said, "but I was worried if I took only one cruise, I wouldn't be able to return for the second. With back-to-back cruises, I only had to pack once. The scenery is extraordinary. I'm crazy about icebergs and glaciers. I love viewing them from Zodiacs."

At Croker Bay, Devon Island, curious ringed seals popped their heads out of the sea to watch us zip between icebergs, some covered with resting seabirds. The powder blue and snow white icebergs ranged in size from massive castles to tiny toy boats.

Aaron Russ, our expedition leader, hauled a small bergy bit into our Zodiac. Crystal clear, it resembled a glass sculpture. Back on the ship, he chopped it up. As the 5,000-year-old freshwater ice cooled our drinks, trapped air bubbles made them fizz like champagne.

Cruise advice

An Arctic expedition is not for vacationers who want poolside lounging, casinos and formal nights. "If you're thinking of going to the Arctic, sooner is better than later," advises Nancy Burgoyne, from Sidney, BC. Beth Lech agrees. "It is a strenuous trip, but I didn't want to miss a single thing."

"I was afraid I couldn't keep up with the group hikes," says Thérèse Perron, "but they always have two groups, one for people who want good workouts, as well as a slower group."

"You need to climb up and down gangway stairs and get in and out of Zodiacs," adds Linda Miller-Legault, a semi-retired caregiver from Montreal. "But crewmembers help."

"The best way to prepare for Arctic cruising is to read the pre-departure information from Adventure Canada," says Al, Nancy Burgoyne's husband. The guide includes information on Inuit culture and art, Arctic history and explorers, marine and land mammals, birds, icebergs, glaciers, ship and Zodiac procedures, a detailed packing list and an extensive reading list.

Learning vacation

Last year, Linda Miller-Legault joined three Adventure Canada trips. "We saw a polar bear on an ice flow, next to the ship, humpback whales breaching and muskoxen 500 feet away," she says.

"For me, these cruises are a learning experience. I couldn't complete university, so I'm catching up now. The resource people make Adventure Canada cruises stand out above others."

Resource experts discuss Inuit culture with passengers.
Resource experts discuss Inuit culture with passengers.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

On Linda's first cruise, resource staff included authors, Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, joint honorary presidents of Birdlife International Rare Bird Club, and Inuit art supporter and filmmaker, John Houston.

Indigenous culture

One of the 17 resource experts available to passengers on our cruise was Aaju Peter. Born in Greenland, she now lives in Iqaluit, Baffin Island. Aaju speaks English, Greenlandic, Inuktitut and Danish and can read German, French and Latin.

Aaju Peter is a performer of Inuit drum dances and songs, a collector of traditional law from elders for the Nunavut Department of Justice, a lawyer, a mother of five, an interpreter and a translator. With her guitar, she taught us Greenlandic and Inuit songs, with which we could thank communities after their cultural performances.

Aaju Peter demonstrates soapstone oil lamp.
Aaju Peter demonstrates soapstone oil lamp.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Aaju has designed traditional sealskin outfits, based on drawings by Martin Frobisher (1535-1594). Also a designer of modern Inuit sealskin garments, she arranged a fashion show with passengers serving as models. Inuit seamstresses sew Aaju Peter's designs in their homes. Garments are made to order and sold through the Nunavut Development Corporation.

Oil lamp

Dressed in traditional clothing, Aaju explained the use and history of soapstone oil lamps. She was unable to answer all the questions after her one-hour soapstone oil lamp demonstration, because "It's time for our next shore excursion, and I have to get my rifle and defend you!"

Each time we explored the tundra, assigned staff patrolled the perimeter of our large designated walking area, looking for polar bears. If a bear approached (none did) they would not try to kill it.

"We just shoot the ground in front of it," explained Pakak Innuksuk, one of our Inuit guides."The noise and rising dust from the shot scares the bear away, so you can return safely back to the boat." (Yes, Virginia, you aren't in Toronto anymore...)

Arctic wildlife

Resource staff provided 22 well-attended one-hour lectures. Natalie Asselin, a Winnipeg-based marine biologist, who studies belugas and narwhals in the Arctic every summer, enriched our knowledge about marine mammals. Jack Seigel, a 30-year naturalist guide and retired professor of environmental studies at Seneca College in Toronto, enlightened us about the Arctic environment and tundra wildflowers.

Our ornithologist was Bill Lishman, known for his ultralight flights with migratory birds. Most shore excursions offered bird watching. A cacophony of squawks greeted us during our Zodiac excursion to Cape Graham Moore's towering cliffs, where thousands of murres and kittiwakes nested on narrow ledges.

We viewed and discussed the Cannes Film Festival award-winning Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) and Journals of Knud Rasmussen with their lead actor, Pakak Innuksuk, from Igloolik, Nunavut. Jayson Kunnuk, also from Igloolik, captivated us with his grandfather's stories about walruses and polar bears.

Latonia Hartery, archeologist, guides group through Thule site on Devon Island.
Latonia Hartery, archeologist, guides group through Thule site on Devon Island.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Archaeological tours

At Caswell Tower, on Devon Island, Latonia Hartery helped us identify Thule qarmat homes, constructed with rocks, bowhead whale skulls, jaws and ribs. A Newfoundlander, Latonia completed her PhD in circumpolar archaeology at University of Calgary. For many summers, she has directed excavations at the Bird Cove-Plum Point Archaeology project in northern Newfoundland.

"A qarmat," she explained, has a semi-subterranean base with partial stone walls and sod roofs. Sometimes qarmats were covered with layers of skins over whalebone frames. Thule are ancestors of today's Inuit. They first appeared about 800 years ago, spreading out across the Canadian Arctic and Greenland."

Arctic explorers

Ken McGoogan, author of Lady Franklin's Revenge and seven other books, brought Arctic explorers to life. We effortlessly cruised through channels that had choked their ships with ice and followed their footsteps to the graves of Franklin's sailors.

McGoogan and John MacDonald, a former Hudson's Bay Company employee and a 40-year Arctic resident, helped us comprehend life in abandoned HBC buildings at Fort Ross and the desolate RCMP outpost at Dundas Harbour.

Carol Heppenstall comments on Inuit polar bear sculpture. Adventure Canada cruise.
Carol Heppenstall comments on Inuit polar bear sculpture. Adventure Canada cruise.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Inuit art

Art expert Carol Heppenstall taught us about Inuit artists and how to care for stone sculptures: "Give them a pat. The oil from your hands enhances the patina."

Born in Winnipeg, and now living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Carol Heppenstall is a faculty instructor at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia, the University of Toronto and the Art Gallery of Ontario. She hosted a Show and Tell so we could admire the sculptures that many of us bought from Inuit artists in Clyde River and Pond Inlet.

During each shore excursion, artist-in-residence, Jeremy Down, painted a canvas and composed songs about the wildlife, scenery and historical sites that we experienced. He sang them, accompanied by guitar, during daily pre-dinner recaps when we discussed the day's highlights and upcoming activities. One day, he conducted a sketch class on shore.

Mother carries baby in amautik parka pouch. Pond Inlet, Baffin Island.
Mother carries baby in amautik parka pouch.
Pond Inlet, Baffin Island.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Camaraderie developed among passengers during shared experiences and open-seating meals (buffet breakfasts and served lunches and dinners with meat, fish and vegetarian options). During free time, we visited the captain and viewed charts on the bridge, borrowed books from the library, and chatted over coffee, tea and cookies.

Organized activities ranged from a whiskey label contest to a (brief!) polar bear swim, and a variety show, showcasing the musical and comedy talents of passengers and staff.

Country food

We also tried traditional Inuit foods, or country food, as the Inuit call it. Aaju Peter obtained raw seal meat from a villager and offered passengers small pieces, which she cut with an ulu (half-moon shaped knife). The raw seal had the taste, texture and appearance of liver. We each had seconds.

At Clyde River, we enjoyed a community feast after performances of singing, dancing and traditional games by adults and young people. The menu? Frozen raw Arctic char (chopped up with a hatchet) and freshly picked bilberries, which looked and tasted like small blueberries.

Meeting local people

After performing, two throat-singers told us how they made rhythmic low-pitched sounds representing birds and animals. We tried, but couldn't duplicate them.

A mother showed us how she placed her giggling baby into the pouch behind her amautik, a traditional white woman's parka with a hood. One little girl carried a docile puppy in her amautik.

Passengers watch Inuit drummer and singers perform on stage. Pond Inlet Nattinnak Centre, Baffin Island.
Passengers watch Inuit drummer and singers perform on stage.
Pond Inlet Nattinnak Centre, Baffin Island.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Inuktitut lessons

Although everyone spoke English, the Inuit appreciated our attempts to speak their language, even if it were a simple qujannamiik (thank you).

The daily posted itinerary included an "Inuktitut word of the day." Aaju Peter conducted a one-hour Inuktitut 101 class. Just before the Inuktitut lesson finished, the captain announced: "There are walruses off the bow of the ship." The class dissolved as everyone headed to the decks with cameras and binoculars to view the walruses.

Qeqertarsuaq

We had opportunities to meet Greenlanders, as well. Our much-anticipated soccer match between passengers and residents of Qeqertarsuaq was cancelled, due to rain, after a week of perfect weather.

Instead, we explored the town on foot. Dwight Throop, a retired school principal from Etobicoke, Ontario, walked to the school. Classes were finished, so villagers sent him to the teacher's home.

"The teacher spoke excellent English and invited me inside to compare notes on Greenlandic and Canadian schools. He even offered me some roast caribou that he had prepared for dinner," said Dwight, when he joined us at the little red Lutheran Church in Qeqertarsuaq. We later learned that, after Greenlandic and Danish, English is the most commonly spoken third language.

Ilulissat and Disko Bay, Western Greenland
Ilulissat and Disko Bay, Western Greenland
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Ilulissat

Greenland's buildings are as colourful as crayons. In Ilulissat, they face Disko Bay, which brims with icebergs calved from the seven kilometer-wide Jakobshavn Icefjord. The northern hemisphere's most prolific glacier sprints forward one meter per hour, creating so much ice that, if melted, it would supply New York City with water for one year.

From Zodiacs, we viewed the icebergs and fishermen catching Greenland halibut, as fulmars circled above. Back in town, a woman greeted us from her balcony, which was decorated with caribou antlers. Sled dogs watched us as we talked to a lady wearing the national costume of Greenland with its colorful beaded shoulder covering (nuilarmiut).

Somerset Island

Unscheduled landings were equally enticing. The captain could cancel landings because of weather, pack ice or lurking polar bears, but he could also arrange stops in places where ships have never visited.

During one unscheduled stop at Somerset Island, Nunavut, we discovered an archaeological site. Latonia Hartery (who has a Class 1 permit, which allows her to identify sites) estimated that the Paleoeskimo rock tent rings could be 2,500 to 4,000 years old. "These homes and tent rings could be Pre-Dorset or Dorset," she told us, "because both cultures used a mid-passage, the parallel transect that cuts the house in half."

After ensuring that none of us trampled artifacts inside, she recorded the site and GPS location for the Department of Cultures, Language, Elders and Youth at the Nunavut Government, which later confirmed the discovery. Latonia named it False Strait 1-Elsie Payne, in honor of a deceased family member.

Whale watching

We made another incredible discovery in Isabella Bay, on Baffin Island's east coast. From our Zodiacs, we watched a pod of bluish-black bowhead whales rising and submerging like submarines around us.

Bowhead whale surfaces near Zodiac. Isabella Bay, Baffin Island.
Bowhead whale surfaces near Zodiac. Isabella Bay, Baffin Island.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Suddenly, someone noticed a white whale, which was much too large for a beluga. We asked our marine biologist guide, Natalie Asselin, if it could be an albino whale.

When we returned to the ship, Natalie e-mailed Benjamin Wheeler, a senior marine biologist, who was doing environmental research in Isabella Bay. Ben's response astounded us.

He suggested that the 'albino' whale was Naluaqtaliq, previously called Adlaalook. He explained that this white whale was first recorded by Kerry Finley in the early 1980s. It occasionally reappears in Isabella Bay. Ben last saw it in 2001.

Examination of photos of this white whale indicated that it was extremely old. According to Ben Wheeler, older bowheads are believed to whiten as they age.

"The Inuit of Clyde River believe Naluaqtaliq is an old male, which leads the bowheads on their migration," he explained in his e-mail. "An elder, whom I interviewed, said he remembered stories of this whale from his father, grandfather and grandfather's father at the time of whaling."

Arctic tundra

Ataa Sund, Greenland, was another unscheduled landing. Passengers enjoyed a walk with ship photographer, Mike Beedell, whose Canadian Arctic accomplishments include the first sail-powered catamaran journey through the Northwest Passage and the first kayak circumnavigation of Bylot Island.

Tundra
Tundra
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

From a distance, the Arctic tundra looked devoid of life, but up close, the tundra is a colourful tapestry of wildflowers, stunted trees, mosses, lichens and berries. There were surprises, too, like the broken caribou bones, left by a wolf, and the beluga whale vertebrae that we discovered.

What wasn't a surprise was that several passengers, including Thérèse Perron, had booked another Arctic cruise before our voyage ended. "If you like nature and the wilderness," she advised, "you should go for it."


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Adventure Canada: www.adventurecanada.com

More things to see and do in Nunavut:

Nunavut - Birding, Wildlife and Whale Watching

Nunavut - What to See and Do on Arctic Vacations

Inuit Culture, Games and Tools

Lonely Planet Greenland and Arctic