A Boatload of Kids

IMG_2212Working at Adventure Canada certainly has its highlights. Every voyage brings new peak experiences—that’s part of what keeps staff, as well as passengers coming back time and time again.

The best part is, you never know what’s in store in a given season, on a given trip, even on given day.

This spring, on my seventh trip with Adventure Canada, I finally had the opportunity to bring my wife and two kids aboard as we travelled the Mighty St. Lawrence from Quebec City to St. John’s. Better yet, it turned out we were not the only family with children on the trip.

In all there were eleven kids, every one of them a pint-sized explorer brimming with enthusiasm for what each new day brought.

The highlight of the trip for me was driving the Zodiac with all eleven of those kids on a morning cruise around Percé Rock and Bonaventure Island. The feeling of excitement and freedom was as fresh and stimulating as the morning breeze. To see kids embrace the fullness of nature’s bounty and the glory of a day at sea made an impression that will last a lifetime for me—and perhaps for them too.

Here’s the best shot we could get, with waves and wind (I got big props for taking a selfie stick along!). Clockwise from left, here are kids Olivia, Julianna, James, Leah, Ethan, Dylan, Jasper, Alexander, Islay, Brian, and Sage, plus parents Tammy, Steve, Cedar, Alana, my wife Meghan, and me—the luckiest Zodiac driver in the world!

It just doesn’t get better than this.

Nunatsiavut celebrates ten years

Bustling Nain, Nunatsiavut

Imagine coming from a small community, in a mostly undeveloped district, of a remote region of an isolated province of a very big country. You wouldn’t feel far away, especially if your homeland was rich and beautiful, culturally vibrant and blessed with a unique history and heritage. But it might just take a while for the rest of the world to know your story.

That’s what life must be like for the inhabitants of Nunatsiavut—the self-governing territory of the Labrador Inuit. As Nunatsiavut celebrates its tenth anniversary, many Canadians remain completely unaware of the word, or the region it defines. This is a pity, because Nunatsiavut is both a proud Inuit homeland, and a unique Canadian story.

Traffic in the Torngat Mountains

Ten years ago, when the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement went into effect, binding the Inuit of Nunatsiavut, the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Government of Canada, it culminated decades of work and struggle for recognition by the Inuit of Labrador, who have dwelled in Nunatsiavut (“Our beautiful land”) for centuries.

The agreement, among other things, establishes the Inuit right “to make their own laws relating to cultural affairs, education and health”. It covers 72,520 square kilometres of land, of which more than 15,000 are owned outright by the Inuit. The agreement also established Torngat Mountains National Park, one of the most beautiful natural wilderness areas in Canada, or anywhere.

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At anchor off Torngat Mountain National Park

Adventure Canada has been a proud supporter of Nunatsiavut since before the Agreement was ratified. Our expedition cruises to the region are an important cultural and economic contribution to Nunatsiavut, and we proudly employ Inuit from the region as culturalists, bear guides and boat drivers. Visits to centres like Hopedale (the seat of government) and Nain (the administrative centre) and to important historic sites like Hebron and Ramah help create markets for local goods, and foster among our passengers a sense of the wonder and importance of Nunatsiavut.

Please join all of us at Adventure Canada in celebrating this important milestone. Nunatsiavut, you’ve only just begun!

Visit Nunatsiavut on Adventure Canada’s Greenland and Wild Labrador voyage, June 29-July 11, 2016. Book before December 18, 2015 and save up to 30% on available berths!

All photos by David Newland.

The Northwest Passage!

A legend made real: that’s how the Northwest Passage feels for those who have the rare privilege of travelling there. The mythical sea route between Europe and Asia holds a peculiar fascination. The many failed attempts to find, and later, to traverse the passage through the ice-choked waters of what is now the Canadian Arctic archipelago only increased its lure and its lustre, through the era of exploration to the present day.

The story most associated with the Northwest Passage, that of Sir John Franklin‘s lost expedition, deepened last summer with the discovery of the wreck of his flagship, the HMS Erebus, on the sea floor off King William Island, by the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition.

Yet the great irony of the Northwest Passage is that a route across the North American Arctic had long existed—in the form of the migration and hunting routes of the Inuit and their predecessors. The recent increase in loss of sea ice due to global warming makes all the more poignant the oft-overlooked fact that the Northwest Passage traverses the Inuit homeland.

And of course, even before the ancient human presence in the North, whales, seabirds and other migratory creatures delved the waters of the Passage, while seals, walrus and polar bears depended on its sea ice for food.

All of this is very much on the minds of travellers aboard our Northwest Passage excursions. There is the place, and then there is the sense of place—which is exceedingly difficult to express. This video, by film maker Jason Van Bruggen, with its impressionistic, highly cinematic approach, comes as close as anything we’ve seen to conveying the magic, and the mystery of the Northwest Passage.

Travel the Northwest Passage with Adventure Canada:
Into the Northwest Passage, August 26-September 11, 2016.
Out of the Northwest Passage, September 11-26, 2016.

Bidding farewell to Bill Freedman

Dr_Bill_FreedmanIt’s a sad and reflective time for Adventure Canada: beloved AC staffer Dr. Bill Freedman has died of cancer at 65.

It’s difficult to imagine Bill as anything other than ALIVE. He practically defined that word, with his boundless enthusiasm, his unflagging cheer, and his remarkable passion for the preservation of the natural world.

Bill was a true original: fun, funny, and astonishingly well informed. An ecologist, researcher, and professor of biology, Bill was also an environmentalist whose efforts helped preserve vast swaths of land in a natural state. A brilliant communicator with an evident love for all living things, Bill combined scientific rigour with infectious humour and energy.

geniusBill had travelled with Adventure Canada in 2007, but I first encountered him in 2013 on a video conference about Adventure Canada’s planned trips to Sable Island. I could not help but smile from the moment I saw him on screen with his trademark walrus moustache. It was as though the animated Einstein character from Office 97 had come to life! And Bill’s detailed extemporaneous lecture on the ecology of Sable Island merely underscored the mad-scientist image—one he appeared to relish.

A few months later, I got to know Bill well: we were roommates on my first Adventure Canada trip, Into the Northwest Passage in 2013. Bill’s charm, his zeal for nature, his lengthy presentations chock-filled with facts, fun, and occasional eyebrow-raising humour endeared him to staff and passengers alike. But he was also a man of many small kindnesses: he would share his cookies with a staffer on the run; offer his elbow to an elderly passenger. He once threw me a pair of mittens when he knew I had to make a frigid Zodiac trip, stoically putting his own cold hands into his pockets.

When Adventure Canada launched our inaugural trips to Sable Island, Bill was there in all his glory, expounding the virtues of coprophilous fungi, which might otherwise have been outshone by the rare birds, seals, and horses that make the island oasis home. He travelled with AC again that year, up the coast of Labrador. Sadly, it would be his last trip with us.

Bill showed great courage and fortitude when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. His Facebook posts cheerfully detailed his current condition and prognosis. We often speak of people ‘battling’ cancer; Bill, ever the scientist, expressed his situation instead as a series of carefully presented facts, and thoughtfully interpreted options. Occasionally, he’d lampoon his own progress reports—posting a picture with a watermelon over his face, or one of himself as a child with a wry update.

But perhaps the most touching of Bill’s posts was a recent one of his daughter Rachael, proudly pregnant. Bill’s joy was evident, as was his sense of the continuity and beauty of life itself.

Despite his great gifts and his impressive resume, what stood out most about Bill was his heart. Though his wife George-Anne did not accompany Bill on his Adventure Canada trips, she was ever-present in Bill’s constant fond references and anecdotes. His children, Jonathan and Rachael, were likewise a source of great joy and pride for Bill.

DrBillInTireBill was such an easy-going guy, and such a remarkable character, that his extraordinary achievements as a scientist and conservationist might easily go unmentioned. He certainly never tooted his own horn. Yet Bill authored more than 100 scientific papers, publications and textbooks. He had been the chair of Dalhousie University’s biology department and was a professor emeritus. For more than twenty-five years, Bill volunteered with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, serving as a regional and national chair and literally writing the book on the history of the organization.

In honour of Bill’s work with the conservancy, which led to the preservation of vast areas of land, a 150-hectare site at Prospect High Head, Nova Scotia has been named the Bill Freedman Nature Preserve. In addition, the Dr. Bill Freedman Science in Conservation Internship has been established in his honour.

Adventure Canada will be making a donation to the NCC in remembrance of Bill. We wish all love, warmth and healing to George-Anne, Rachael, Jonathan and all of Bill’s extended family and friends. Bill showed us all how to live more deeply. He will be deeply missed.

 

The Labrador Revelation

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Margaret Atwood scans the coast of Labrador, looking for birds and bears

What does Margaret Atwood know about Labrador that the rest of us should?

Having visited The Big Land several times aboard Adventure Canada voyages, the author of The Labrador Fiasco has had the unusual experience of having seen this extraordinary region of Canada first hand. With her keen eyes, the veteran birder and traveller is a valued addition to the wildlife-spotting team aboard the Ocean Endeavour.

Many Canadians, if they think of Labrador at all, think of it as a backwater of the already-distant province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

But Atwood and her fellow voyagers know that Labrador has a unique culture and diverse history all its own. Numerous First Peoples made their homes here in a rich history dating back thousands of years. Thule, Maritime Archaic, and paleoeskimo artifacts abound. Ramah chert from this ‘remote’ region was traded widely across eastern North America. Today, the region is home to Inuit, concentrated on the coastal region, with Innu communities at Sheshatshiu and Davis Inlet.

Viking explorers reached these shores, which they called Markland, by 1000 AD. They were the first of the European visitors. Red Bay, Canada’s newest UNESCO world heritage site, was home to a Basque whaling station through the 1500s that comprised the New World’s first export industry.

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Adventure Canada geologist David Bathe and explorer Milbry Polk in Red Bay

Portuguese, Spaniards, English and French all plied the Labrador Sea for whale and fish. Later came Moravian missionaries from Germany, whose abandoned outposts now dot the coast. The resettlement of the people of Hebron and other missions is a painful chapter in Labrador history. Medical missionary Wilfrid Grenfell’s humanitarian work drew volunteers from around the world, and sent many Labradorians for training abroad.

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Remains of the abandoned Moravian mission at Hebron, Labrador

Today’s visitors to the Labrador coast are often shocked to realize the scale of Labrador: 294,330 sq km, more than twice the area of Newfoundland. And much of that is rugged mountain coastline, where the human spirit is humbled by geography rendered sublime.

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The Ocean Endeavour in Eclipse Harbour, Nunatsiavut, Labrador

A mere one percent of Labrador is developed. The region’s largest city has fewer than 10,000 citizens. There are few roads in the south, and none in the north.

Ships and boats are still the best way—often the only way—to visit the extraordinary locations that dot the virtually unpopulated coastline along the Labrador Sea.

Yet the biggest thing about The Big Land is the people. Hardy, thoughtful, hard-working, and welcoming, the people of Nunatsiavut are survivors—there are many hard stories here—whose hardship has not hardened their hearts.

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Brass band welcome, Nain, Labrador

From the brass band playing from the wharf in Nain, to the bear guard scanning the landscape of Nachvak Fiord, to the culturalist revisiting her abandoned home at Hebron, to the grandfather welcoming his toddler granddaughter from Toronto, the people of the Labrador coast show themselves at every turn to be the most welcoming of hosts.

Among a myriad of surprises and aha! moments, that’s the Labrador revelation. Perhaps that’s what keeps travellers like Ms. Atwood coming back time and again.

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Exploring Torngat Mountains National Park by Zodiac

Royal Canadian Geographical Society and Adventure Canada present , June 29-July 11, 2016.

All photographs by David Newland.

Exploration is for Everyone

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AC passengers enjoy the midnight sun while exploring Ragged Island, Nunavut

The June issue of Canadian Geographic magazine names Canada’s Greatest Explorers. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the minds of those who seek new horizons—and return to tell the tale.

In our epoch, the poles, the peaks, and even the moon have all been visited, mapped, and made familiar. Exploration is no longer just about being the first one there (and back). As editor Aaron Kylie, diver Joe MacInnis, and author James Raffan all note, today’s explorer also has a responsibility to tell stories.

Director, diver, and documentarian James Cameron understands this implicitly. Having created two of the great popular myths of our time in Titanic and Avatar, he has also delved the ocean depths, whose stories most of us can only know through such work.

Likewise, Jill Heinerth, who has explored the iceberg caves of Antarctica and swum with Team Sedna, an all-female snorkelling expedition from Labrador to Greenland. Team Sedna brought back a story of disappearing sea ice that affects us all.

It’s important who tells the story—and where the story came from. Louie Kamookak gathered oral history from Inuit elders that would prove essential to finding the Erebus, Sir John Franklin’s flagship, off King William Island. Louie’s work reminds us there is a vast web of indigenous oral tradition only now being given its due.

Too frequently, we picture an ‘explorer’ as a bearded man, pitting himself against the unknown. Women like ocean rower Mylène Paquette are changing that perception. We must remember that some of history’s greatest feats of exploration have been undertaken not by lone trekkers, but by family units, migrating, on foot or horseback or by boat, all over the world. The umiaq, or ‘women’s boat’ played a pivotal role in the pre-European exploration of the Arctic.

We must consider that when known places are visited in novel ways, new and important stories are born. Think of Rick Hansen’s Man in Motion tour, or the empowering trek of the Cree youth who walked from James Bay to Ottawa, at the height of Idle No More. Are artists who plumb the human experience, like Buffy Ste. Marie or Leonard Cohen or Margaret Atwood not explorers, too? What of the philosophical journey of Jean Vanier?

Ilulissat ice fjord, Greenland

AC passengers at Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland

Most importantly, we must remember that exploration is not just for heroes. Every one of us faces the terra incognita of his or her own life, an exploration we symbolically enact when we travel. We are forever exploring not just the new places we may visit, but the vast frontiers of our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual geography as well.

As with the living legends among the 100 Greatest Explorers, it’s the stories we come home with that matter most. That’s what makes exploration for everyone.

Adventure Canada is proud to have worked with Louie Kamookak, James Raffan, Jerry Kobalenko, Mike Beedell, Edward Burtynsky, Geoff Green, Bill Lishman, David Pelly, Peter Rowe, Mark St-Onge, and David Suzuki—all listed among Canada’s 100 Greatest Explorers. Congratulations to all!

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Farley Knew

The late Canadian author, environmentalist, self-promoter, and shit-disturber Farley Mowat was born on this day in 1921. Nearly ninety-two years later, on May 6 of 2014, he died. Between those dates Mowat led a legendary life. A polarizing personality, he was widely loved and yet frequently reviled.

Pinocchio MowatIt’s Mowat’s storytelling that will remain his greatest legacy, and drew his most vociferous criticism. “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story” was his mantra, and Mowat was duly dubbed “Hardly Know It” by many serious scientists, experts, and ordinary folk—especially Northerners—fed up with his penchant for myth-making. Saturday Night magazine depicted Farley Mowat as Pinocchio in a cover story that catalogued his errors, exaggerations and outright fibs.

For his part, Mowat claimed his wildly popular books—he sold 17 million of them, all over the world—brought much needed attention to serious causes: the starvation of the Ahalmuit (People of the Deer); the demonization of wolves (Never Cry Wolf); the plight of whales (A Whale for the Killing), seals and other marine life (Sea of Slaughter).

The factuality of Mowat’s work may often be sketchy, but his skill as a storyteller is undeniable. As Up Here noted in a reevaluation in 2009, (Farley Mowat: Liar or Saint?) the North has been hard on its writers at the best of times, and Hardly Know It might well have been reviled for his unpopular stance even if he’d been a stickler for accuracy.

LiarOrSaint

Certainly, if history judges his books by their emotional substance, Farley Mowat’s legacy will be a favourable one. Sympathy for wild creatures was once considered sentimental. Criticism of British and Canadian patriarchal authority in the North was weak-kneed. And advocacy for the Inuit way of life was anything but common when Farley Mowat first put pen to paper.

These were ideas Mowat introduced, and stood by, early on in his career. All are clearly in evidence in his Top of the World Trilogy. This compendium of old explorer’s journals, spanning several centuries, edited with commentary by Mowat, is well worth re-reading now: it’s vintage Mowat, and yet, published in 1973, it was well ahead of its time.

Favouring overlooked, underdog explorers like Samuel Hearne, Francis McClintock, and Captain Thierry Mallet, Mowat’s selections and commentary subvert the typical hero narrative, heaping scorn on hapless colonizers of the North acting on orders from far away, including the otherwise iconic Sir John Franklin.

Such views are common, if not dominant today, even in the South. Would that be the case without Farley Mowat? Clearly his most egregious missteps and misstatements will not stand the test of time, nor should they. But on what would have been his ninety-fourth birthday, perhaps we can admit that on some subjects, at least, Farley Knew It after all.

Editor’s note: the late Farley Mowat travelled as a special guest aboard Adventure Canada expeditions in 1995 and 1997. Among his many contributions he taught us invaluable lessons about garnering cheap publicity.

For a definitive take on this issue, see Ken McGoogan‘s thorough and beautiful overview of Farley Mowat’s literary legacy from the National Post.

Expedition to the End of the World

It’s one thing to travel; it’s another thing to travel without a specific destination in mind. It’s still another thing to travel to where few—if any—have gone before.

Expedition to the End of the World, from Danish writer-director Daniel Dencik chronicles such a journey, one that has an immediate appeal to Arctic travellers. The scenery, shot on the ice-choked Greenlandic coast, is achingly beautiful. But this film subverts the ‘nature film’ genre, creating not so much a portrait of a journey, or of a place, but of a late Western state of mind.

The premise is simple: a multi-national group of artists and scientists sets sail aboard an old wooden schooner for fjords along the northeast coast of Greenland, newly accessible due to climate change. That should be a straightforward story to tell. But there’s a catch: while exploration is the obvious purpose, the real goal of the expedition is shrouded in mystery.

ExpeditionToTheEndOfTheWorldHow many are aboard? We never get a clear picture. Where are they actually going? Somewhere up the coast of Greenland. How long are they at sea? We don’t know. How did they come together? Again, we don’t know. Most importantly, what are their motivations?

This last question is the key to the film’s hidden heart. Through a series of vignettes featuring individual artists, scientists, and ship’s crew, we learn that each traveller is really on his or her own, unique journey.

Amid genuine moments of discovery—potential new species of tiny sea creatures; evidence of human habitation revealed by retreating ice—there are quiet scenes beneath pristine mountain ranges, surrounded by looming ice, cruising through limpid waters. And silly moments, too: a scientist trying to wrestle a salmon bare-handed; the launching of a flying Zodiac, quotes from Futurama. The film veers from unnerving, to hilarious, to breathtaking, in bathetic lurches, just as the soundtrack jumps from Mozart to Metallica.

Ship of destiny, or ship of fools? This truly is an expedition ‘to the end of the world’—not just to the polar region, but to the edge of our own knowledge about the world, and, with the looming threat of climate change, perhaps of the world itself.

The symbol is too compelling to ignore: what are we all but passengers aboard a single ship, sailing for parts unknown, with no real goal in mind…and no clue what happens next?

Yet the journey, for all its unsettling moments, is a sublime one; the characters are so compelling, the landscape so beautiful, and the story so compellingly told, that we must conclude that it has been worthwhile.

And that perhaps, as with Expedition to the End of the Earth, it will all come out well somehow in the end.

Visit the coast of Greenland on these amazing Adventure Canada voyages:

Heart of the Arctic 2015
Arctic Explorer 2015
Into the Northwest Passage 2015
Out of the Northwest Passage 2015
Greenland & Wild Labrador 2016
Heart of the Arctic 2016
Arctic Safari 2016
Arctic Explorer 2016
Into the Northwest Passage 2016
Out of the Northwest Passage 2016

C.W. Nicol: The Raven’s Tale

CWNicolC.W. Nicol is one of those writers whose own life is a dramatic story in itself. Born in Wales, he now makes his home on a nature preserve in Japan, having made stops along the way as a game warden in Ethiopia, a bird researcher in the Canadian Arctic, and as a writer aboard a whaling ship.

Today Nicol is a well-known nature author and advocate in Japan, but his work ought to be required reading for Canadians interested in the North.

TheRavensTale

The Raven’s Tale (Harbour Books, 1994) is a perfect example. As Robert Bateman notes of this wondrous work whose characters are Arctic animals:

The artist in me revelled in the colours, forms and moods of the Arctic landscape. The naturalist in me nodded in recognition at the detail of appearance and behaviour of all the creatures. C.W. Nicol carries us through a world of drama and vitality in a way that captures both the surface and the soul.

It is the expression of surface and soul that makes The Raven’s Tale so compelling. Like myths of old (and kids’ books of late), The Raven’s Tale gives voice to the creatures of the Arctic landscape.

The story is one of an unlikely friendship, between a three-legged fox and a lone wolf. Beginning with the eponymous raven, the animals of the Arctic—fox, wolf, owl, hare, lemming, caribou, seal, orca, polar bear—each tell a part of the pair’s great journey over land and ice from their own unique points of view. Thus The Raven’s Tale, unfolding through the eyes of the denizens of the North, reveals the intricate web of relationships that binds all creatures to one another, as to the land and sea and sky.

Simply phrased and lightly told, with great care for the unique voices of each creature, The Raven’s Tale would make wonderful reading for children. Yet the story, like the Arctic landscape itself, is much deeper than what is easily seen on the surface.

Ultimately, what The Raven’s Tale expresses is a cosmology of kinship that is the abiding spirit of the Arctic.

Travel with C.W. Nicol aboard our Heart of the Arctic expedition, July 17 – 29th, 2015.

 

What NOT to do around icebergs

Adrenaline junkies are paradoxical people: they tend to evoke equal parts admiration, and dismay.

On the one hand, people who laugh in the face of danger help us expand the boundaries of human endeavour. On the other, their habit of doing potentially deadly things on purpose displays one of humanity’s most perplexing traits.

Watching Aweberg (now streaming at SnagFilms) highlights both aspects of the difficult balance. A self-portrait of a couple of ice-climbers determined to climb icebergs, the film reveals a little of what drives courageous athletes (literally) to new heights.

Despite serious warnings from a series of experts, lead climber Will Gadd is determined to scale a berg, for the thrill and the challenge of the climb. And while the resulting attempts make for fascinating, nerve-wracking viewing, (the film won the Special Jury Award at the Banff Film Festival) they also amount to a virtual list of what NOT to do around an iceberg.

Icebergs are nature's own abstract sculptures.

Icebergs are nature’s own abstract sculptures.

Adventure Canada expeditions frequently encounter icebergs on our east coast and Arctic excursions.

When we visit Greenland, as we do several times per summer, we see bergs in numbers and sizes that put the imposing, but relatively small bergs in this film to shame.

In Ilulissat, Karrat Fjord, Uummannaq, and other locations along the Greenland coast, the icebergs loom like small mountains. The cracking, tipping, splashing and crashing of these glacial remnants is one of nature’s most thrilling scenes.

Ilulissat ice fjord, Greenland

Ilulissat ice fjord, Greenland

The beauty of icebergs is awe-inspiring, as the title of the film suggests. But true awe includes a healthy dose of respect. We view icebergs from a distance (equal to no less than two to three times their height), knowing that they can flip at any moment, creating a deadly wave in the process. We never touch them, let alone land on them. To try to climb something that is by nature in the process of breaking up is to enter the realm of insanity.

As a Zodiac driver, I’ve seen the waves generated by icebergs breaking up wreak serious havoc more than a kilometre away. And that’s about how far I’d want to distance myself from the antics of these brave (but foolhardy) ice-climbers. To their credit, these guys quit when they realized all their instincts, all their training, and all the warnings were on the money.

As Will Gadd and partner, Ben Firth, and their crew learn in the course of Aweberg, the expert advice they got at the beginning is dead right: icebergs are NOT for climbing. Watch this film for its scenery, for its glimpses of life in Makkovik, Labrador (and an appearance by Expedition Team member Jason Edmunds’s dad, Randy).

But especially, watch Aweberg for a perfect primer on what NOT to do around icebergs.

View icebergs safely on our expeditions to the east coast, Greenland, and the Canadian Arctic in 2015. Choose your trip here!

James Raffan: Circling the Midnight Sun

CirclingTheMidnightSunAuthor, paddler, and inveterate traveller James Raffan sets himself a daunting task in his latest book: to make his way around the Arctic Circle, by country, culture, and community. In a time when climate change threatens ways of life that have endured for generations, Raffan hopes his journey may highlight some of the ways northern peoples have been most affected by the changes wrought during the past century or so.

That makes it all sound simple. In fact, it’s anything but. What “Circling the Midnight Sun: Culture and Change in the Invisible Arctic” reveals first is that a journey along the Arctic Circle, like the issues it explores, is complex, difficult, and often disheartening—though potentially rewarding. Raffan’s circumnavigation of the planet at 66.6 degrees North, which takes place piecemeal over the course of three years, spans the Arctic territories of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. He travels by virtually every imaginable means, from sled and snowmobile to Adventure Canada’s own former expedition cruise vessel, the Sea Adventurer.

As Raffan makes his way along the ice roads and airways and (emerging) shipping lanes of the Arctic in a journey totalling more than 17,000 kilometres, a pattern begins to emerge: having cleared snarls of red tape and managed to put a first foot forward in the direction of his next (often terribly remote) destination, Raffan, white-knuckled, wide-eyed and keen, winds up in the car, tent, boat, shack, or sled of one generous host or fixer after another, whose insights he carefully and gratefully chronicles.

To Raffan’s own surprise, a similar story seems to arise in every place: for the indigenous peoples who live along the Arctic Circle, from the Sami to the Gwiich’in to the Inuit, climate change is far less a concern than the sweeping cultural changes that have preceded it. Everywhere he goes, the author finds savvy people whose most fervent wish is not to reverse global warming, nor to return to some ancient way of life. Rather, it is to “control their fate”—a key phrase. From Alaska to Siberia, this is the shared goal of the people of the north.

Amid the evocative-sounding names of people, places, languages and nations that make up his travelogue, Raffan introduces a bewildering array of advocacy groups, umbrella organizations, NGOs, territorial and tribal governments. Many (though certainly not all) of these are devoted to ensuring indigenous and northern voices are head amid the din of global politics and the rush to access Arctic resources. This is good news, in a way. Yet the mere necessity of their existence points to the scope of the changes facing people who until recently have been entirely dependent on the land and sea for their sustenance.

And so we meet a shaman with a cell phone, and a reindeer herder who sells Amway. We learn how control of resources may give Inuit Greenlanders a fighting chance at autonomy while the indigenous peoples of Siberia struggle to adapt to the collapse of communism, and Nunavut’s children face a future utterly unlike the one their southern compatriots may enjoy. We learn that while the Arctic comprises a mere six percent of the Earth’s surface, for the millions of people who live there, it is home. That home is changing—it has always been changing. Arctic people, we learn, are everywhere proud adapters. But the key to adaptation is a healthy, thriving, resilient culture: the very thing that is most at risk as climate change, resource extraction, new shipping lanes, communications technology and globalization leave the Arctic directly in the path of ‘progress’.

Raffan

The story of any journey is ultimately the story of change. For James Raffan, the change is a personal one: he quickly comes to understand that the imaginary line he follows is just that; roads and rivers, whales and caribou know nothing of lines of latitude. That’s part of what makes his journey interesting. More slowly, Raffan comes to a deeper understanding, personified by the ravens that appear wherever he goes. Symbolizing thought and memory in ancient Norse myth, they reveal to the author, and ultimately to the reader what is truly at stake in the Arctic. We have seen Thought wander, and the results are distressing. But what if we were to lose Memory? The results would be catastrophic. Memory is language. Language is culture. Culture is people. The people of the Arctic represent a critical element of the Earth’s own memory.

The lesson is there for the learning, and to learn it, we, like James Raffan, need to come full circle in the north.

Join James Raffan on Adventure Canada’s voyage Out of the Northwest Passage, September 5-21, 2015.

Circling the Midnight Sun:
An Evening with James Raffan

Royal Canadian Geographical Society Spring 2015 lecture
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
at 7:00pm EST
Canada Aviation and Space Museum
11 Aviation Parkway
Ottawa, ON
K1K 2X5

Kathleen Winter: ‘Boundless’

Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage
Kathleen Winter, August 2014

Boundless_Kathleen_WinterIn 2010, on a last-minute invitation from Noah Richler, best-selling author Kathleen Winter joined an Adventure Canada trip through the Northwest Passage. Winter and her cohort left the coast of Greenland bound for Kugluktuk, Nunavut by way of Ilulissat, Karat Fjord, Baffin Bay, Dundas Harbour, Pond Inlet, Beechey Island, and an infamous uncharted rock off King William Island…

Four years later, Winter’s memoir of that journey, Boundless, appeared in bookstores across the country, garnering excellent reviews. The Globe and Mail praised its “inexorable narrative drive and its keen attention to humanity“, while the Toronto Star noted Winter’s “graceful, poetic, shimmering prose“.

Naturally, I was curious. But having twice travelled a similar route with Adventure Canada as a Zodiac driver and host, I took my time before diving into Boundless. Would my own memories be compromised by reading someone else’s thoughts about places I’ve been to, and people I know?

To my relief, Boundless isn’t the sort of travel memoir that rehashes experiences, day by day and note for note. Winter’s writerly transit of the fabled Northwest Passage (a term she thoughtfully deconstructs) is hers alone. The roles of the various staff, the unique and sometimes frenetic shipboard experience, and all the daily work that goes into making the experience memorable for the passengers really fade into the background in this tale.

Adventure Canada promotes the thrill of Zodiac excursions, the emotion of cultural exchanges, the magnificence of the surroundings. But Winter’s is a journey of the mind, through memories and ideas and the notions we are made of. Taking a cue from the late folk singer Stan Rogers in his anthem Northwest Passage, Winter boldly traces ‘one warm line’ of her own.

Speaking of Rogers: from among over a hundred possibilities among the passengers, staff, and crew, Winter chooses but a few characters on whom to focus. Nathan Rogers, the folk icon’s son, aboard as the trip’s musician, becomes a confidant; we learn that he is tracing his own warm line where his father never went. Geologist Marc St. Onge baffles and beguiles with his enthusiasm for this rocky realm where cataclysm is laid bare. Sheena McGoogan’s watercolour workshops help Winter express what she cannot say. Inuit culturalists Berndadette Dean and Aaju Peter are by turns thoughtful, troubled, resolute, and wise, colouring Winter’s received Anglo-Canadian mythology of the North with insights into Nunavut—Our Beautiful Land.

Kathleen Winter at Karrat Island, Greenland

Kathleen Winter at Karrat Island, Greenland

This very real and contemporary place is more complex and ancient than any myth, as Winter and a few quirky passengers with whom she feels a quiet kinship learn along the way.

Stuffing tufts of musk oxen fur into her journal, donning a woollen beard, sketching an exquisite suit of ladies’ long underwear, Winter colours outside the lines of the classic maps of Meta Incognita.

Dancing on the ceiling of the captain’s quarters, sometimes silly and sometimes serious, Winter subverts the monolithic myth of Exploring the Great White North as she discovers that this journey, like all great journeys, really happens within.

One of the things I love about Boundless is that for Winter, the sublime and the mundane intermingle freely. Surrounded by the splendour of the Arctic, which defies description, she is led instead to remember and to muse over her own earthly passage. As she does, she dissolves the dotted lines across the maps we’ve worshipped, and instead brings the reader into reflection on the things that really matter: what we believe, how we live, whom we love, why we’re here. Boundless, indeed, is the territory of the heart.

Boundless was long-listed for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction. Winter’s previous book, Annabel, won the Thomas Head Raddall Award and was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Awards in 2010. Annabel was also shortlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction and was a Canada Reads selection in 2014.

Join Kathleen Winter on Adventure Canada’s voyage to Newfoundland and Wild Labrador, July 5-17, 2015.

Our Ice is Vanishing – Sikuvut Nunguliqtuq

wright colour section1

Who belongs to the North—and crucially, to whom does the North belong? Arctic writer, scholar and advocate Shelley Wright seeks to answer these questions in her eye-opening new book, Our Ice Is Vanishing / Sikuvut Nunguliqutuq.

Untitled-6As reduced sea ice in shipping lanes creates new opportunities for transport, travel, habitation and resource extraction in the Canadian Arctic, Canada has re-engaged with the issue of Arctic sovereignty. Wright’s book underlines the fact that when push comes to shove, it takes more than a map to prove who owns what.

Ask the Inuit: In terms of habitation, tradition, and use, the Canadian Arctic belongs to them. And, as Wright notes, Canada’s political claim to the Arctic hinges, in large part, on Inuit occupation. The creation of Nunavut cements that fact in law.

But can colonial Canadian notions, and traditional Inuit notions of land, ice, and sea be reconciled? Herein lies the challenge.

How do we balance elder wisdom, Inuit tradition, European history, Canadian law, and global politics? Considering what ice (by turns ancient, changeable, life-saving, deadly) means in these differing frameworks, Wright spins a kaleidoscopic portrait of the Arctic.

polarbear[1]The polar bear – living icon of the North – has been widely seen as a bellwether for the Canadian Arctic, and Wright touches on nanuq‘s symbolic role in the way the North is perceived elsewhere. But it is the resourceful, constantly adapting Inuit, their language and their relationship with the world who are at the heart of this work.

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Wright’s ability to illustrate the complexities – and incompatibilities – of intertwining world views makes this book an invaluable resource for those interested in understanding the Arctic today. Subtitled “A History of Inuit, Newcomers, and Climate Change”, Our Ice Is Vanishing / Sikuvut Nunguliqutuq is essential reading for would-be citizens of the Great White North.

Shelley Wright has travelled with Adventure Canada several times; many of the pictures in the book were taken on our trips. This summer, Shelly will join us for a special Arctic launch of Our Ice Is Vanishing / Sikuvut Nunguliqutuq on our Northwest Passage: West to East voyage.

Photos in this article courtesy Shelley Wright/McGill-Queen’s University Press.

 

There’s LIFE in those rocks!

RaggedLakes

One of the highlights of the summer for me was an evening hike around a series of small lakes on Ragged Island, near the northern tip of Baffin Island, Nunavut.

The rocky heights of the island were grey and rugged, much like the familiar contours of the Canadian Shield. (You might say I took them for granite.) But as we climbed above the scanty tundra, it became clear the rock in question was anything but granite. In fact, we learned, it was limestone, albeit of a kind I’d never seen before: grey and granular, almost like sandstone; swept smooth in places by wind and water, or broken into boulders that were strewn every which way.

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But wait, I wondered, how can it be limestone? Isn’t limestone made of organic life forms? Yet we’re so far north, and we’re so high up, and this rock shows no signs of fossils or indeed of any organic origin. What gives? A fellow hiker assured me that the rock was very old, and the planet had shifted monumentally since its creation – but my question remained.

The answer awaited me the next day on the Rock Table, an ad-hoc display collected by a very dynamic Geology Club that formed early on in the trip.

Geology

One of those club members, passenger Mark Sleep was a former professor of geology whose passion for his subject was infectious. Mark wrote an amazing letter to explain the mysterious limestone of Ragged Island, and placed it on the Rock Table for all to see.

It says, in part:

This is a sample of one of the oldest limestones IN THE WORLD… There were NO CORALS at this time to produce limestones. There were no CEPHALOPODS (squids, ammonites, nautiloids, etc.) There were NO LAMELLIBRANCS (BI-VALVES) (mussels, razor shells, etc.) There were NO GASTROPODS (coiled shell creatures like snails.) There were no COCCOLITHINA (microscopic creatures that secreted the trillions of exoskeletons that form chalk.)

So where did the waters of this PRE-CAMBRIAN limestone get the carbonates to precipitate out as this sample? The answer is probably the first EVER organisms on Earth — the blue/green algae that go back to about 3,200,000,000 years ago! (give or take a half an hour!!!)

This is a sample of one of the oldest limestones IN THE WORLD! WOW!

I’ll never look at rocks the same way again. In a very tangible way, in the Arctic I came to appreciate the deeper meaning behind the work of the passionate geologist. Rocks may not be living things, but these rocks contain a record of the origins of life itself. WOW is right!

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Picture-perfect Passage

The crow's nest was the perfect place to capture movement around ice.

Gregory Coyes’ perch was the perfect place to shoot icebergs.

Travelling aboard the Sea Adventurer to Greenland and the Canadian Arctic is a documentarian’s dream come true. Cameras are everywhere on our trips, of course, but other, less common methods of capturing the moment were in evidence too on our recent trip Into the Northwest Passage: an old fashioned sketch book, a hi-tech remote controlled video helicopter, and a newfangled audio recorder all played their parts.

Here are a few documents of documentarians in action, capturing aspects of their amazing Arctic experience—a picture-perfect Passage.

Staff archeologist Lisa Rankin in Sisimiut, Greenland

Staff archeologist Lisa Rankin in Sisimiut, Greenland

Bill Freedman had a scientist's love for the natural world.

Bill Freedman had a scientist’s love for the natural world.

Musician Charles Spearin gathers found sounds in Greenland

Musician Charles Spearin gathers found sounds in Greenland

Shooting for a Chinese reality show, near Uummannuuq, Greenland.

Shooting for a Chinese reality show, near Uummannuuq, Greenland.

The ice off Karrat Island, Greenland was a wonder.

The ice off Karrat Island, Greenland was a wonder.

A sketchbook captures impressions a camera may miss.

A sketchbook captures impressions a camera may miss.

Noah Richler with Resolute Bay bulletin board

Noah Richler wanted to remember the Resolute Bay bulletin board

Filmmaker John Houston is pretty handy with a camera, too.

Filmmaker John Houston is pretty handy with a camera, too.

How do you do justice to a 16km2 tabular ice floe in Baffin Bay?

How do you do justice to a 16km2 tabular ice floe in Baffin Bay?

The ill-fated remote controlled helicopter videocam was brilliant while it lasted.

The ill-fated remote controlled helicopter videocam was brilliant while it lasted.

Former HBC post, Dundas Harbour, Devon Island

Former Japanese governor Akiko Domoto at HBC post, Dundas Harbour, Devon Island

Supply cupboard, Dundas Harbour HBC post

Supply cupboard, Dundas Harbour HBC post

Barney Bentall gets creative with his camera

Barney Bentall gets creative with his camera

Searching for musk oxen, Croker Bay, Nunavut

Searching for musk oxen, Croker Bay, Nunavut

At the foot of Executioner's Cliffs, Icy Arm, Nunavut

At the foot of Executioner’s Cliffs, Icy Arm, Nunavut

Ice off Greenland was endlessly fascinating.

Ice off Greenland was endlessly fascinating.

National Geographic's Bruce Bi documenting a drum dance

National Geographic’s Bruce Bi documents Lynda Brown & Lamech Kadloo’s drum dance

One of the great photogenic plants: Arctic cotton.

One of the great photogenic plants: Arctic cotton.

Icebergs are nature's own abstract sculptures.

Icebergs are nature’s own abstract sculptures.

10 Arctic Surprises

After six months working behind the scenes as Adventure Canada’s creative director, I’ve just returned from my first trip Into the Northwest Passage, travelling from Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, to Resolute, Nunavut as a Zodiac driver, musician and host.

The adventure was everything I’d hoped it would be: inspiring, invigorating, educational. And like any great voyage, this one featured its share of surprises, too. Here are a few things I hadn’t expected.

Icy Arm, Baffin Island

Icy Arm, Baffin Island

1) Geology rules. Until I visited the Arctic, I had never really seen geology for what it truly is: the continual reshaping of the planet itself, measured in millennia. Where soil is thin, human habitation scattered, and forest non-existent, geology is everywhere, eternal—and endlessly fascinating.

Ilulissat, Greenland

Ilulissat, Greenland

2) Europe is closer than it seems. Though Inuit culture looms large, western Greenland displays its Danish influence strongly. In busy ports like Sisimiut and Ilulissat you can buy Thai food in an Internet cafe, and watch publicly funded transit buses wend their way among brightly painted modernist houses surrounded by sled dogs.

Ice off Karrat Island, Greenland

Ice off Karrat Island, Greenland

3) Ice is amazing. From the massive chunks calving off Greenland’s Store Glacier, to the berg the size of a city block grounded in Ilulissat, to the 16 km2 floe we circumnavigated in Baffin Bay, to the slushy pans that blocked our transit of Bellot Strait, the Arctic ice never ceased to amaze.

Sled runner, Dundas Harbour

Sled runner, Dundas Harbour

4) Things last a long, long time. Detritus around former Hudson Bay posts, scraps and bones from traditional Inuit camps, tin cans from John Franklin’s expedition, foundations of Thule houses: all these items and more are preserved almost perfectly at scattered landings among the fiords of the Far North.

The Sea Adventurer

The Sea Adventurer in Karrat Fjord

5) The Arctic is huge. It’s not just that there’s a lot of area north of the Arctic Circle. The water, the landforms, the glaciers, and even the history of the Far North are epic-scaled. Lancaster Sound, for example, which we crossed three times, is the width of a Great Lake. Davis Strait takes more than a day to steam across, in good weather. Baffin Island covers over half a million km2. Devon Island is the largest uninhabited island in the world. The works of man are dwarfed. It’s humbling.

Coastal Greenland

Coastal Greenland

6) Water, water everywhere. If you’re like me, you probably pictured the Arctic as a vast expanse of either ice, or tundra. But when you visit by ship, during the relatively ice-free summer months, you begin to understand the importance of the ocean. The communities face seaward. The animals directly or indirectly depend on ocean life and ocean currents. And in a territory almost entirely without roads, the ocean (or the sea ice on it) supports travel, too.

Fort Ross, Devon Island

Fort Ross, Devon Island

7) It’s still wild. Over the ten days we spent in the Canadian Arctic, covering over a thousand kilometres, we saw four vessels other than the Sea Adventurer: a navy ship, a Students on Ice sailboat, a private yacht, and a Coast Guard icebreaker. While there’s a lot going on in the Arctic, including resource development, tourism, art, research, and education, the activity is concentrated mostly in the relatively few small communities. Between them lies a whole lot of space to explore.

Resolute Bay, Nunavut

Resolute Bay, Nunavut

8) It takes a village. The Inuit are an incredibly adaptive, resourceful people, among the most vital and successful of indigenous cultures active today. And while they developed many tools and technologies to survive on the meagre resources of the North, it’s clear that the central principle of their success was ‘together we stand.’ The family, the clan, and the community survive by collective effort. In the Arctic, no one can make it alone.

Arctic cotton, Sisimuit

Arctic cotton, Sisimiut

9) Small is the new big. The running joke is that if you’re lost in the woods in the Arctic, just stand up. Haha. True, you won’t find plants taller than, say, an Arctic poppy of about 15 cm in height, and most of what’s growing on the thin soil in the brief summer thaw is even smaller. But you really could get lost, fascinated by the incredible (and beautiful) array of plants, fungi, lichens and insects that have adapted to thrive on the tundra.

Woolly bear caterpillar, Dundas Harbour

Woolly bear caterpillar, Dundas Harbour

10) It’s alive! Despite desert-like conditions, permafrost, cold, long months of darkness, ice, wind, and just about every other challenge you can imagine, life thrives in the Arctic. Algae grows on the underside of ice pans, feeding phytoplankton that feed krill that feed fish that feed seals, walrus and whales that feed bears (and people.) Bird cliffs host tens of thousands of breeding pairs of kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots, murres and other seabirds. There are jellyfish and snails and clams; spiders, caterpillars, even bees. It’s a forbidding environment and an unforgiving one, but the Arctic in its way is as alive as any place on Earth.

Spider Saxifrage, Port Leopold

Spider Saxifrage, Port Leopold

Arctic Fox, Beechey Island

Arctic Fox, Beechey Island

Lynda & Lamech, Radstock Bay

Lynda & Lamech, Radstock Bay

Ilulissat ice fjord, Greenland

Passengers and staff at Ilulissat ice fjord, Greenland