Near the Top of the World

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A guest post by Vern Turner. Photo by Michelle Valberg.

Before the blush is off the memory…

I decided not to make this essay a travelogue. This journey is one that simply must speak for itself. Adventure Canada runs these tours, and each of you will have to lead your own journey to and through them. I hope to give the reader an idea about a special place on the Earth that few of us get to see. That’s a good thing, because those of us who get to see it, appreciate it so much more than if it were something seen on every giant cruise ship commercial, and ruined by these behemoths of over-the-top luxury.

The west coast of Greenland and the east coast of Baffin Island are laced by fjords of various lengths carved by glaciers of various sizes. The cliffs may be a thousand feet high of defoliating granite that plunge into the clear water of the Davis Strait, or just rocky shores with boulders and moraines from previous glacial activity. It is a land of ice. Ice from millennia gone carved this land. We could see it from the air as we flew into our little air strip, a former U.S. Air Force base. We saw tundra and pools of water, but always there was ice. The icebergs we saw from 30,000 feet looked like flecks of dandruff on the collar of the sea, but when we were next to them in our Zodiacs they were city blocks carved by water and melting into shapes too complex for mere descriptive prose.

Since there was almost no dark time, we could see our new world just about any time we were awake. The seas stayed calm and the skies clear for us the whole trip. The reflections of the rock and ice on the glassy seas made for spontaneous art shows every moment of every day. We stopped at several villages along the way and even had some on-shore walkabouts to view artifacts of human attempts to find the infamous Northwest Passage in wooden ships. I wonder if those ancient mariners were as mesmerized by the raw and savage beauty of the Arctic as we tourists were. Theirs was a pursuit for a trade economy. Ours was one of using our economic successes to be able to see the place where life hangs on by a thread.

The tallest plant I saw was about one metre tall, and that was at our most southerly point, the airport where we landed in Greenland. Every thing else was less than thirty centimetres tall. Short growing season, you know. We spent the next five days visiting the fjords of Greenland and were allowed the luxury of seeing some humpback whales, several kinds of seals, birds galore, and some polar bears wondering who we were. Our walkabouts on shore were accompanied by armed guides to prevent us from trouble should we stumble upon a bear, especially a mother with her cub. 

From the observation deck, I watched icebergs slide by like giant sentinels of the sea. Some were tabular, having sheared off from some distant glacier as it moved toward open water. Others were multifaceted with shapes like solid clouds; one could play games by seeing shapes in them. Those bergs that had recently rolled had surfaces pocked with small depressions from the action of the water. The Zodiac excursions into the berg fields were especially awe-inspiring as we could literally get close enough to touch them.

Then, there’d be a loud crack! An iceberg calved into separate parts. You could see the fault lines on some of the bergs and see mini-waterfalls defining where the next break off would be. The crack was often followed by the sound of something very large being dumped into the water. Watching an iceberg half the size of our hundred-metre ship bobbing like a toy certainly makes one feel tiny. One had to keep realizing that an iceberg towering over the Zodiac by tens of meters and as long as a football field was only showing us ten percent of its volume. It takes some persistence to keep things in perspective.

Each new destination brought new and unique geography to our senses. We were fortunate to have a glaciologist/geologist on board who described the history of the rocks we were seeing and the dynamics of how the ice shaped them. It was her first trip to this part of the Arctic and she was, at first, moved to tears and speechless awe by what she saw. I was next to her as we stepped out onto an outer deck and felt a similar wave of wonder pass over me. There are just certain moments of magnificence that strike one dumb. For me, that was not much of a challenge, but this place…this place did me the service of resetting my wonderment program.

We were once anchored in a large bay at the end of a fjord so some travellers could visit a village on shore. I stayed aboard and basked in the sunshine of the fantail observation deck. The water was almost dead calm. There was barely enough wind to riffle the water, but the icebergs loomed in the distance as white monsters guarding the peacefulness that can occur nowhere else. On the shore, the colourful buildings of the village offered a paradox to the raw, natural beauty of the sea, the mountains and the ice. It was always the ice that captured my attention because of its impossible geometry and regal, aesthetic beauty. It struck me as a “no wonder” moment for those aboard guiding us as to why they love the north so. 

Then, there was a large ripple breaking the surface and the absolute tranquility. Then, another. I pulled the binoculars to my eyes to see harp seals doing what they do best. Three of them were swimming and diving while staying submerged for about five minutes between appearances. They just appeared. I never saw them coming until they were there. It was just me and the seals. Yes, I know. My fertile imagination was working overtime.

The only day it rained was our departure day from Resolute Bay in the archipelago west and north of Baffin Island. This was our highest latitude at just under seventy-five degrees north. I began to see how hard this country is during winter and inclement weather. For humans to live and work there, a special constitution is required. Not minding the dark for months has got to be a real challenge.

On the other hand, living for the beauty of the good days has its offsets. As our plane circled Resolute, before it entered the rain clouds, we caught a glimpse of our ship anchored in the bay waiting to collect its next human cargo to retrace the steps we took back to Greenland. The arms of the harbour, in their desolate look of dun-coloured rock, embraced the steel of the sea and accentuated the ice bergs here and about. It was quite a sight and I couldn’t help but feel that my earlier adventures no longer stood alone as “a trip of a lifetime”. I came to realize that the trips I take IN my lifetime are what are most important. This is a trip of a special nature that will resonate with me for the rest of my life. The new friends I made and the moments of overwhelming silence among the ice fields will be there for me forever.

Vern Turner travelled with Adventure Canada aboard our 2016 Arctic Safari expedition with his wife. They hail from Marble Falls, TX. Click here to find out more about upcoming expeditions like this one!