We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
– T.S. Eliot
Story and Photos by Andy McGuire
For two weeks in mid-September I traveled to the Canadian Arctic with a group of nearly 100 other travelers, organized through Adventure Canada. After flying from Ottawa to Resolute (which lies at the 75th parallel), we boarded the Lyubov Orlova – the Yugoslavian-built, Maltese-owned, Russian-manned, Canadian-chartered, double-hulled ship that would be our floating home for the next two weeks.
From Resolute the ship travelled down the east coast of Baffin Island, crossed the Davis Strait for a three-day visit to Greenland, and returned to Baffin to complete the east coast of the island, ending in Iqaluit. The trip was sponsored by the Walrus Foundation and was as much a tour of Canada’s polar region as it was a crash-course on all issues Arctic – and I was eager to learn. We were equipped with a resource staff team of about 15 professionals ranging from marine biologists and other scientific folk to musicians, writers, and academics working in the humanities. Every day three different resource staff members each delivered lectures on various topics pertaining to Arctic wildlife, Inuit life, and northern political issues, which were followed by discussion. Needless to say, much learning happened during the trip, academic and otherwise.
There were many things I witnessed that I was only accustomed to seeing in movies, magazines, and books: snow-capped mountain ranges littered with glaciers; icebergs the size of city blocks and stretching higher than apartment buildings; watching one hundred walrus sunbathing on a tiny island in Frobisher Bay. We visited many small Inuit and Greenlandic communities and were warmly received at each destination as guests rather than tourists. What follows are a few excerpts from my journal noting a few of the moments that will remain highlighted in my own memory of travelling through the far north.
Saturday, September 13, 2008
This morning the ship anchored off of Beechey Island. This small, desolate island situated near the 75th parallel is a significant site in the history of Arctic exploration, specifically the quest for the Northwest Passage, a trade route that, when mapped, would historically link the Pacific and Atlantic oceans via the Canadian Arctic. In 1845, Sir John Franklin set sail in search of the Passage, yet he and his entire crew would eventually perish as a result of hypothermia, tuberculosis, and lead poisoning. It is here on Beechey Island that the graves of three of Sir John Franklin’s men were discovered in 1851 by British and American vessels. The common belief among forensic archaeologists and many academics is that the men died largely due to lead poisoning, caused by the lead-soldered cans storing their food. To this day, the three men on Beechey Island remain the only members of Franklin’s crew whose bodies were ever found.
It was an appropriately gloomy day for our visit. Stepping out of the zodiac and onto the beach I felt a very real and pressing sense that this small patch of land demanded my respect. It was the sort of feeling one usually gets when visiting important historical sites, but this place in particular was terrific in its remote barrenness. It was difficult to reconcile the fact that three men – including one my age, 25 – died marooned on this island at the edge of the world, yet I had just enjoyed a coffee and muffin before going ashore. Our fellow passenger and resident Newfoundland musician, Daniel Payne, sang the traditional song “Concerning Franklin and His Gallant Crew” a capella as we stood in front of the graves. It was a very moving and fitting tribute to Petty Officer John Torrington, Royal Marine Private William Braine, and Able Seaman John Hartnell, who are still stranded in the imagination of Canadians on Beechey Island.
Sunday, September 14, 2008
It’s now late afternoon and I’m back on the ship after visiting Pond Inlet, a small community with a population of about one thousand people on the northwest corner of Baffin Island. Houses in Pond are modest in size and unornamented; they are built simply for living. There is little industry in this remote Arctic town. The town’s Economic Development Officer Colin Saunders tells me that, from an economic standpoint, the community relies heavily on the annual seal hunt, which last year brought in over $100,000 for the community. Because the town lies quite far north geographically (around the 72nd parallel), the cost of living is astronomical compared to the south. To get goods to Pond, the shipping cost is about $14/kg, and federal subsidies reduce the cost to about $12/kg. As a result, the Inuit woman in front of me at the local co-op grocery store spent over $430 on a single, small box of canned and boxed food, plus some bread and milk.
Saunders also gave me insight into the seal hunt, which Sir Paul McCartney opposes. Our southern view of the hunt ignores the reality of the intimate and respectful relationship between the Inuit and the seal. As a southerner it was very interesting to learn, in the most direct way possible, about the dynamic existing between southern perspectives on life in northern communities such as Pond and the reality of life in such northern towns.
The reality was that everybody I passed smiled and said hello to me, and almost all of the children I passed would stop to ask where I was from and chat. I enjoyed myself tremendously in Pond, wandering around town, talking and laughing with locals – simply being there. Although the box of Pop Tarts I treated myself to cost six dollars, I would highly recommend that any Arctic traveler add Pond Inlet to their itinerary.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Today was a full day of chugging across the open waters of Davis Strait en route to Greenland. Earlier this afternoon, Franklyn Griffiths, a resource staff member representing Walrus magazine, lead a discussion entitled “The Politics of the Northwest Passage”. The issue of Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic, and, in particular, our claim to ownership of the Northwest Passage, has been debated for some time between polar nations, including the United States, Russia and Canada. Griffiths explained that other polar nations agree that the Passage – that is, the water and its contents – belongs to Canada. However, the United States and others maintain that the Passage is an international strait because it connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Beaufort Sea and eventually the Pacific, and thus it is not necessary for foreign vessels to “ask permission” before using the waterway.
The issue is management. For instance, consider a hypothetical situation involving an ill-equipped, poorly maintained and perhaps even poorly-manned foreign vessel entering the waters of the Northwest Passage, crashing and spilling its contents into Canadian waters. Perhaps the most obvious question would be who would “pick up the bill” for such a massive clean-up endeavour, since the cost of operating in the Arctic is enormous. Griffiths suggested that spending money to defend the passage against such disasters is senseless considering the narrow window of usage (approximately two months during the summer). Instead of focusing on Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic, Franklin suggested the dialogue be focused more on the idea of stewardship: management rather than protection. “If the Arctic were to become a geographical area of conflict,” he says, “we would all be in trouble.”
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Early this morning the ship anchored offshore from Uummanaq, Greenland, population 1,500. Translated as “heart-shaped”, the small community on Greenland’s northwest coast derives its name from the immense heart-shaped mountain adjacent the town. In Uummanaq one sees a handful of beautiful small, pastel-coloured homes and a modest harbor, suggesting the presence of a fishing industry. Besides the presence of a vibrant fishing industry, the visible differences between Greenlandic and Canadian Inuit communities can also be attributed to the fact that Greenland, although governed by home-rule, still receives around three billion dollars annually from Denmark.
The highlight of my visit to Uummanaq was hearing a performance by the local church choir, which had just returned the previous day from a European tour that ended in Paris, France. Unfortunately, between Paris and Greenland a few members came down with bad colds. Despite being a few members short, the small choir beautifully performed a number of Greenlandic hymns and traditional songs. The performance was made more special by the church, built in 1935 from Precambrian granite taken from the heart-shaped mountain. Although the church itself is not yet 75 years old, physically it is much older as it was made from stone approximately 2.8 billion years old. It seemed to me profoundly poetic that any church, let alone a small church in a remote Greenlandic community, should be built from nearly three billion year-old stone taken from an immense heart-shaped mountain. To further this romantic image, after construction was completed it was realized that the mountain’s contour had coincidentally been traced in the contour of the mortar holding together the wall directly behind the altar. It was nothing short of magical listening to the local choir perform in this church that quietly exists on Greenland’s northwest coast.
Friday, September 19, 2008
At mid-morning the ship arrived in Ilulissat, Greenland, after successfully navigating through the minefield of icebergs ranging in size between a truck and Prince Edward Island. Running along the south side of town is the Jakobshavn Fjord, a watershed of ice stretching 200 miles back up the Greenland icecap that drains the fastest-moving glacier on the island. In the warmth of the summer, the glacier can advance up to 100’ per day.
I walked to the far edge of town, up a path leading to a viewpoint nestled in the rocky hills that surround town. Standing on the hillside, one can overlook the traffic jam of icebergs slouching towards the sea from the mouth of the fjord, and at the same time turn and follow the fjord itself stretch inland in a compact cluster of ice as far as the eyes allow. Strangely enough I didn’t feel the urge (or perhaps the need) to bring out my camera. A photograph wouldn’t properly convey the sheer immensity and scale of the natural wonders to be found here. This was the type of place where one needs to simply spend time and be there, a place where giant white remnants – ruins if you like – of the last Ice Age are still visible.
Many fellow passengers kidded me for being the youngest person on the trip (by an average of about fifty years), but standing on the hills outside of Ilulissat and beholding the surrounding landscape of Precambrian rock and the ice fields, I hoped that everyone felt quite young.
Returning from the trip was only the beginning. The first night back I found myself outside of Kingston driving 60km/h on an 80km/h road, feeling as though I was driving ridiculously fast. The pace of life is one of the most distinguishing features of my Arctic experience. While there, I was too immersed in the immediacy of it all and didn’t consider things that now seem obvious, like the fact that no roads led out of the remote communities we visited. These internal roads weren’t even conducive to driving 50km/h, meaning that, our southern concept of pace is fundamentally different than that of the Inuit.
The pace of Inuit life is a reflection of the landscape that is their backyard. Change in the Arctic landscape tends to occur in centennial increments. For instance, since the glaciers have receded, the land itself is rising out of the water due to the alleviation of the weight of the glaciers—a process called “isostatic rebound” – the effects of which take the form of one-meter ridges, visible on most beaches, which mark old shorelines, occurring roughly every one hundred years. It is as though the land keeps a slow record of itself, one that is “readable” and available to anyone who takes the time to notice.
After having been in such a “slow” place – not to mention watching the land crawl by from aboard a sluggish ship – it was quite a sharp contrast returning home and being catapulted back into the fast-paced ways of the south, which, ironically, involved riding the clutch from mid-Toronto all the way to Milton on my way back to Waterloo. Two entirely different worlds converged in my head. And I thought of the Eliot lines that introduce this article.