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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.