For those of us who had served on such ships many times before – adventurers, historians, biologists, geologists, musicians, photographers or mere creatures of curiosity – returning to the Arctic (aboard L’Austral, one of the newer, sleeker and more luxurious to ply these waters), we all wondered: What differences would we notice in this broad and pristine land?
Climate change, and with it cultural change, were advancing in the Arctic – that much we knew – but the exact impact it might have had on all the familiar places and people was uncertain. At the same time, the familiarity of the undertaking, its rituals and patterns, gave reassurance: There would be Zodiac cruises, “wet” landings (when everyone has to clamber out into the shallows near shore), polar-bear guards, safety briefings, and always the slow scan of the horizon. Whales, of course, were dearly sought – but with them every variety of life: sea mammals, bears, birds, fox, muskox – all those creatures that had adapted over the millennia to the challenge of survival.
There’s something reassuring about the variegated colours and stout squareness of Greenland houses, spreading out like spilled Lego blocks onto the grey-green stone of its coast; their huddle is a kind of welcome. At Ilulissat, the Icefjord did not disappoint; in fact, warming has sped up the ice river’s current, hurling even more massy bergs seaward. Some drift south – the iceberg that sank Titanic likely came from here – while others head north to their eventual grounding and melting. In Uummannaq – “the heart-shaped one,” named after its looming two-lobed mountain – we saw signs warning residents to run to higher ground when the alert sounded, as a wave driven by a collapsing berg the previous year had put the waterfront underwater.
But it was beyond this, deep into the inland waters of Canada – the Northwest Passage – that was the ultimate destination of our voyage. Made famous by explorers such as Sir John Franklin, this fabled passage is impossible to merely visit. It can, though, be passed through – ice allowing – which gives it a high place on people’s bucket lists. We were to go where Franklin sought to go, and failed – he and all of his 128 officers and men vanished into these waters in 1845.
The Inuit have been here for thousands of years, living, hunting, thriving in a land where 19th-century explorers could barely seem to survive; it was their oral traditional knowledge that finally led the way to finding Franklin’s lost ships. And so, fittingly, the introduction to the Passage takes place in Pond Inlet, whose position at the head of Lancaster Sound puts it on the route of every expedition cruise.
We witnessed the lighting of the qulliq – the seal-oil lamp – and a lively demonstration of Inuit games, followed by drum dances and throat-singing. Down by the waterfront, near a replica sod house, an elder prepared tea and bannock over a heather fire. And yet, even as the passengers receive these performances of Inuit culture, they doubtless look around them and see that “Pond,” as it’s usually known, still has more than its share of poverty.
Here, the regular influx of passengers in their matching parkas can be both welcome and unwelcome; on our arrival we learned of a previous group who walked all over the road, blocked traffic and paid no attention to the local guides’ instructions.
In 1927, the German physicist Werner Heisenberg introduced his “uncertainty principle” – it reminds us that “seeing” something (that is, bombarding it with electrons) will alter the state of what can be seen (since it’s electrons one is bouncing electrons against). In the Arctic, the same principle holds true; to visit a place or a people is to alter the place or people visited, no matter how much care one takes to respect local customs, step lightly or wash one’s boots at the bio-security station.
If the cruise ships come, they will build it – a cultural centre, a harbour (we were all impressed to see Pond’s new one with its massive stone breakwaters); if those who visit purchase the work of local artists and sculptors, then those artists will be ready with the kind of work that visitors value. There’s a danger that the Arctic could become a sort of colder Caribbean: a network of communities increasingly dependent on tourism and changed in ways that will make those visits more attractive to the visitors.
Yet, we are all visitors here, our presence a temporary one, a reminder of the short span of human beings’ own earthly existence as well as of our self-made perils to come. Often, when seeking to show the mass and heft of an iceberg, photographers will look for a perspective that shows people or Zodiacs beside it – how much larger it seems then! But at the same time, it makes the people smaller, and in this vast frozen zone, the entire economy of the Earth says the same: We humans are far smaller than we appear to ourselves.
All efforts to mark this landscape seem foredoomed, worn out in advance, like an attempt to settle on Mars or some other distant planet. One can bring along the accoutrements of home – some mystery novels, a sewing machine or a bottle of Hudson’s Bay Company whisky – all found inside the abandoned RCMP post at Dundas Bay – and yet not ever be at home.
Two of the three earliest constables assigned to this station met their deaths here, one by suicide and another in what was described as a “walrus hunting accident.” A third constable buried his fellows at a flat spot on the hills above, hand-crafting grave markers out of wood and nails. The RCMP have since displaced these with large granite headstones, but their presence here is as strange as their absence would have been in a cemetery down south.
Beechey Island, of course, is the star of the show when it comes to ruins, remains and memorials. It’s so popular that every ship has to schedule its date, and its time well in advance. The Franklin story is becoming better known, particularly since his two ships, Erebus and Terror, were found in 2014 and 2016. Now, each year, divers from Parks Canada’s underwater archaeology team work on the wrecks, and each year, new artifacts, new relics of the lost are brought forth. For many passengers, the graves on Beechey of three of Franklin’s men – and one of those who came searching for them – are a sort of sacred ground, the only lasting marker of Franklin’s endeavour.
If you’re willing to bend …
As we sailed further westward, there was a persistent absence of wildlife. Or, to be more precise, the absence of those “large mammals” that everyone was so eager to see. As we were reminded before we set off for Edinburgh Island, there was “plenty to see if you’re willing to bend,” and bend we all did to spy out the microcosm at our feet.
All manner of moss and lichen, woven together in the tufted round of the muskeg, rewarded our gaze with their bright heraldry: blueberries, bearberries and tint, twisted willows with their vivid orange and red leaves. Above them, here and there, the observant among us saw muscid flies – which if at home might be mere houseflies – but which have recently been shown to be the most important pollinators of a largely bee-free Arctic. There is only the bombus polaris – an ungainly thing, slower than its southern cousins – but we never spotted one.
Searching for ice in the Beaufort Sea
In Stan Rogers’s Northwest Passage, he sings of finding “the hand of Franklin / reaching for the Beaufort Sea” – a goal that Franklin and his men did not live to achieve. For those of us aboard L’Austral, what we were reaching for was not the sea but the ice upon it. Knowing how central a habitat it is for so many Arctic mammals, everyone hoped that, at long last, we might see more bears in their natural environment. The few we had seen so far were but distant foragers, appearing briefly as tiny mayonnaise blobs on brown hills.
And we were not disappointed: By day’s end we had seen at least 18 bears, several of which were close enough to watch with the naked eye. For anyone who has only seen polar bears in a zoo, seeing so many in the wild is a revelation; the sheer scale of this vast agglomeration of ice floes would render the largest zoo in the world a mere thimble of space by comparison.
And yet, in all its seeming enormity, the ice we saw was significantly less extensive than in previous years. There will be less and less ice as the years tick by, and so much depends upon it: the microorganisms that thrive around its underside; the fish that feed on them; the beluga, narwhal and seal that eat the fish; and last of all the bears who feast on such sea mammals – a great chain of being that comes unhooked in the absence of ice.
Finally, after 22 days in the Passage, our voyage neared its end in Nome, Alaska. Here again, another of the harbingers of warming rattled its sabre, as an unusual threat – originally a tropical typhoon – wandered north and threatened our landing. We waited for a moment of calm in the storm, and just managed to unload the passengers and us staff on the ship’s two tenders before the wind rose again. As we flew on the first leg home aboard our chartered plane, the storm whipped the bay below, flooding the streets where we’d been walking only a few hours before. High winds fanned a fire at the Bering Sea Bar and Grill, a local landmark; by morning it was but ash and ruin. By then, most of us were home, or heading there, returning to a world that felt less predictable by the moment. Amidst the chaos, only one thing was certain: We would be back.
Keep up to date with the weekly Sightseer newsletter. Sign up today.