Cruising into Pond Inlet is a memorable experience. Having left Greenland's signature blood-red houses and soaring mountains 450 nautical miles (832.5 kilometres) behind us, Baffin Island's majestic steep-walled fjords give way to rolling tundra that almost disguises the tiny hamlet of Pond Inlet. Dirt roads lead to nondescript houses; the town's most prominent features are its hulking white fuel tanks and its name written in pale stones on the hill above.
The Akademik Ioffe is dropping anchor when a passenger asks, doubtfully, "Do people buy things here?"
The answer is yes. Artisans in Pond Inlet carve scenes of hunters stalking their prey into caribou antlers. They sew seal skins into beautiful mittens trimmed with fox fur. They whittle narwhal tusks down to tiny versions of the narwhals themselves.
Shopping might seem like a strange thing to think about when visiting the furthest reaches of our country, but for some travellers, the opportunity to bring home such rare artifacts is part of the allure. While it might seem frivolous, this is serious business: Their desire – and ability – to bring home pricey souvenirs is a vital part of the Arctic economy. But finding ways to integrate cultural practices into income opportunities is still a delicate balancing act this far north.
That day, passengers bought $4,000 in crafts from the visitors centre, according to the manager, Timothy Akoomalik. That's about average, but the numbers can be deceiving. With carvings going for several hundred dollars – a caribou rack-turned-cribbage board was snapped up for $250 – a few thousand represents only a handful of items. The profits are entirely reinvested into buying more art to sell, with about 75 per cent of the selling price going to the artists.
Some artisans strike off on their own in the hopes of pocketing a larger share. Darlene Simonie, a young Inuit mother, was outside the centre trying to sell a 1.6-metre-long, pure white narwhal tusk for $1,000 to French passengers from another ship.
Money also finds subtler ways into the community. Most cruise ships visiting Pond Inlet pay landing fees and hire guides to give tours, although there is no requirement to do so; some simply drop anchor and come ashore. Colin Saunders, the hamlet's community development officer, says that a mandatory $2,200 fee will be imposed starting this summer. In our case, the tour closed with a cultural show at the new community centre. Abbie Angetsiak was one of the performers, throat singing and performing traditional songs and dances with her cousins and young children.
"I love performing," says Angetsiak, who has been doing so for 10 years. Pulling off her traditional amauti, she explains that the $100 she makes for each show supplements her income while she perfects her English at the community learning centre.
With the cruise season beginning to lengthen because of perennially receding sea ice, Arctic communities such as Pond Inlet are discussing how far to go to attract ships. Some hunters complain that they scare off the animals; others become upset when outsiders refuse to play by local rules.
The French-flagged vessel, for example, would be there for two days without paying a landing fee, hiring tour guides or setting up a cultural show. They would also run the stores out of milk and produce. Laurielle Penny, director of Worldwide Quest, the tour company that chartered the Akademik Ioffe, takes a hard line on this kind of behaviour.
"I think they should be driven away with harpoons, if necessary," she says with a laugh. "It's a tribute to northern communities, quite frankly, that they even put up with it. … You try to land a ship like that in the Mediterranean … they would never be allowed."
Most companies do make an effort to have a positive impact. But that means making tough decisions on what to do and where to go. Communities that emphasize cultural development and tourism naturally end up being rewarded with more visits, as well as bonuses such as crates of new sports equipment. With the cruise season limited by Mother Nature, other potential ports such as Kugluktuk and Resolute miss out.
On the final trip across the Davis Strait, we travel back down the Greenland coast, and the contrast between the two countries becomes stark. Greenland's riches of shrimp, cod and halibut provide a good income for its people, and the Danish government subsidizes the economy to the tune of around $12,000 a person. The result is better infrastructure and a vastly different shopping experience. The passengers revel in Greenland's souvenir bonanza: Artist co-ops sell crafts in quantity and variety unmatched anywhere in the Canadian Arctic.
I pick up some gifts for friends at a glitzy airport shop: sealskin earrings, muskox-wool bracelets and a CD of modern Greenlandic rock. As we fly back over Baffin Island I look down and wonder if Simonie has sold her tusk yet.
The writer worked as a naturalist and zodiac driver aboard the Akademik Ioffe. Worldwide Quest did not review or approve this article.