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!

Mark_Sleep_Note

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

Baffin Island: a hot spot for art

When you think of the arts, what’s the first place that leaps to mind?

Places like Paris, New York, and Berlin are seen as the centre of the art world—but when it comes to creating art, remote Baffin Island, Nunavut, holds its own.

The communities of Pangnirtung, Kinngait (Cape Dorset), and the territorial capital Iqaluit with its many galleries are havens for gifted artists. Their world-renowned tapestries, limited edition prints, and soapstone carvings have put South Baffin on the map for many collectors and aficionados around the globe.

Combining contemporary technique and approach with traditional influence and values, the artists of South Baffin play an important role as ambassadors for the Arctic, its extraordinary landscapes and wildlife, and the very dynamic culture of the Inuit people.

Art and culture expert Carol Heppenstall has been guiding tours to Baffin Island for two decades. Here’s how she describes the experience:

Twenty one years ago I was asked to plan an arts tour to one of Canada’s most prolific locations – Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. The Inuit had been making “art” as we southerners define it for over 45 years in communities such as Iqaluit, Pangnirtung and Cape Dorset (now Kinngait). Here was an opportunity to visit these artists in their own communities and watch the creative process first hand. Those beautiful soapstone carvings, wool tapestries and limited edition prints all had their inspirational source in the land of the midnight sun. I am privileged to return to this, my first endeavor with the “Art is Adventure” programs. While a younger generation of artists has replaced those first elders I knew, the process of personal expression continues.

South Baffin draws art collectors, adventure travellers, bird watchers, animal lovers and Canadians passionate about our northern heritage. Summer is an ideal time to visit, as the days will be long, the sun high and bright, flowers blooming, birds on the wing and flowers on the move.

New York? Old hat. When it comes to art, South Baffin is a hot spot.

Join Caroll Heppenstall in South Baffin this summer, July 18, 2013 – July 25, 2013.