It’s a truly epic Arctic showdown.
On one side of remote Walrus Island in Nunavut, a big, fat polar bear struts around, as if he knows he’s the largest land-based predator on earth. He draws closer and closer to a herd of hundreds of walruses, most of them still groggy and soaking up the thin rays from a watery sun. A few of these cartoonish creatures rouse themselves long enough to sound a few vibrations of discontent. And then, what appears to be the alpha male – an animal weighing up to 900 kilograms, with massive tusks flashing in the early light – calls out, deep and guttural, almost a growl.
“That’s the warning call,” explains Angulalik Pedersen, an Inuit naturalist seated next to me on a zodiac lolling about nearby in the dark, undulating, absolutely frigid waters of northern Hudson Bay. The alpha draws himself up, ready for this age-old challenge, as the polar bear saunters in his direction, just around the corner. The riders in our little rubber boat, binoculars raised, camera shutters clicking, draw a collective breath.
I am witness to this animal rivalry because I am passenger on board the RCGS Resolute, a small ship newly acquired and renovated by British Columbia-based One Ocean Expeditions. Designed to sail some of the remotest regions on Earth, it is my home in this wild place for 10 days, sailing from Iqaluit through freezing Frobisher Bay and down across the Hudson Strait, skirting the southern edges of Baffin Island. Along the way, I will experience some the best of this subarctic region, from arts to culture to wildlife and the vast, endless landscapes way up here, well above the tree line.
Upon leaving Iqaluit, we steam through masses of brash ice, the hull of the ship, strengthened for this purpose, firmly, and sometimes loudly, pushing it aside. At Kimmirut, our first port-of-call – a small hamlet of a few hundred and site of the first Hudson Bay trading post on Baffin Island – we’re welcomed warmly by residents. Told that we’re the only ship to visit this year, they’ve organized village tours and pulled together a Northern-style barbecue, complete with fresh bannock and Arctic char, on the grill.
I taste both, then sit for a bit inside a tupiq, a tent traditionally made of seal skin, chatting with an older man who tells me that, beyond our visit, today is exciting for another reason: it’s the first day of the caribou hunt. Residents here have already bagged three this morning. "We share the meat – we have a community feast, just like this one,” he says.
Sailing west, we pass icebergs the size of islands, complete with aquamarine lagoons, skirting a rugged landscape devoid of settlement, arriving the next day at Cape Dorset. A village of some 1,400 housed in multicoloured homes huddled along rocky, undulating hills, almost a quarter of the labour force here have declared “artist” as their occupation. We spend two days at anchor in the Inuit art capital of the world.
On the first, local guides organize passengers into small groups and we march up a hill to visit the print shop at the Kenojuak Cultural Centre, where every year a series of stone cuts and lithographs – released collectively as the Cape Dorset Annual Print Collection – are produced. Perhaps the most famous was Kenojuak Ashevak’s Enchanted Owl, created in 1960, which now hangs in the National Gallery and has become an emblem across the Far North. We also tour through a gallery where ship passengers form a queue to snap up carvings of seals, bears and inuksuk for a fraction of the price they’d pay at galleries in “the south” (arctic shorthand for the whole world that sits below the extreme north).
On the second day, a handful of us are privileged to enjoy a private ramble around town with Nancy Campbell, a freelance curator and Inuit art expert who often works with the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in the suburbs of Toronto. Moments after we climb out of the zodiacs and come back ashore, Campbell points out the small workshop across from the Co-Op store, where artists used to gather on a daily basis, before the town opened the cultural centre. “In the winter, they had to put a rope across the road between the drawing studio and the coffee shop, so people didn’t get lost, or blown away,” she says, pointing ahead.
We visit the high school, where preparations are under way for a parade to showcase students’ art and, on the way out, a little further down the road, we bump into Mathew Nuqingaq, a renowned Inuit sculptor and jewellery artist, whose work has been featured at Paris Fashion Week and worn by Prince Charles. Unassuming in jeans and a T-shirt, ambling down the street on his own, he’s in town to hold a workshop on making designer snow goggles – one of his specialties. He brightens when I ask him whether he sees promise at the high school. “Oh yeah, for sure,” he says with a smile.
Back on board, about a dozen residents join us for dinner and afterward three of them – sisters Maava and Jessie Toono, with Nuvalinga Kingwatsiak – stride to the stage in the ship’s lounge. They each wear an amauti, a traditional parka beautifully designed and adorned with beads and old pennies, the latter gathered from early transactions with European traders. As they joyfully demonstrate throat singing, another member of the community, Silaqqi Alariaq, interprets what we’re seeing, noting that this art form began as a game to pass long, dark, winter nights. “The first one to laugh – she loses,” Alariaq explains, almost laughing, herself.
From Cape Dorset, we steam on, stopping to tromp around the tundra at Erik Cove, a now-abandoned trading post, also motoring the zodiacs up a long, winding inlet, past a series of waterfalls, and later, circumnavigating Akpatok Island in Ungava Bay, where we spot two more polar bears, trotting along the rocky beach.
And, watching that great Arctic showdown on Walrus Island, a thrill goes through our zodiac. After rounding the corner and getting dangerously close, the bear eventually retreats, watched carefully, every step of the way, by the alpha walrus. We depart, taking a little spin around the island, spotting hundreds more of these curious creatures, most of them still asleep, a few banding together to swim out toward us, together. And then we make our way back to the ship, rolling back through the dark water, more of the vast north to navigate, just ahead.
The writer travelled as a guest of One Ocean Expeditions. It did not review or approve this article.
Purpose-built for polar expeditions, the ice-strengthened, 123-metre RCGS Resolute features large, comfortable cabins in six categories, as well as libraries and lounges with sweeping 180-degree views of the sea, plus a fully equipped fitness centre, hot tub, sauna and steam room. Meals are served in two venues – the dining room and a bistro with a lighter, more casual menu. All voyages include an expedition gear package that includes good rubber boots, windproof jacket, waterproof backpack, bib pants and binoculars. Fares for the 10-day South Baffin Explorer: Art, Culture and Wildlife start at US$7,995 (for each person, double-occupancy).
Guests can either book their own flights, or fly on the charter provided by the cruise line on First Air, round-trip Ottawa to Iqaluit (US$1,995 a person). In Ottawa, One Ocean provides a courtesy desk and a preflight briefing at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, a classic, luxury hotel steps from Parliament, which has recently completed a multimillion dollar renovation.
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