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.

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

A (bottlenose) whale of a tale

bottle nosed whales (1)

A unique wildlife encounter is the highlight of any Adventure Canada cruise, and on the recent Heart of the Arctic voyage, one curious – and rare – creature stood out from the rest.

Crossing the Davis Strait, we were approached by some northern bottlenose whales who obligingly “posed” for photos for more than 30 minutes.

These unusual whales are similar to bottlenose dolphins. We were all able to stare down at their big, bulbous melons and pointy beaks. These unique features help them dive to great depths while hunting their favourite food: squid.

bottle nosed whales (3)

The whales danced around the Sea Adventurer, sometimes swimming upside down right beside us, to get a better look at us strangers. The encounter, in the middle of the open sea, was a true highlight for all aboard, made even more special by the fact that so little is known about this species.

This northern bottlenose whale siting was a first for most people onboard, even those with years of Arctic expedition experience.

bottle nosed whales (2)

One very well-travelled guest, Mary Curry from Adventure Life, said this was “the single most incredible wildlife sighting I’ve ever seen!”

Which goes to show you never know what surprises await in the Arctic. You might say, this sighting was a fluke.

bottle nosed whales (5)

Photos courtesy Franz Wusitz, Hotel Manager, Sea Adventurer.

Gorgeous Greenland

Greenland – Rough. Real. Remote. from media.gl on Vimeo.

Whatever your current impressions of Greenland, you’re bound to have your eyes opened by this stunning video.

Featuring Red Bull trial biker, Petr Kraus, this trailer for the video series Greenland – Rough. Real. Remote is beautifully shot, superbly edited, and just as compelling for the ears as it is for the eyes.

We couldn’t watch just once, and we bet you won’t either.

You can find out more about the making of this film from the crew at 99backcountry.com

SouthGreenland_Fiord
Visit Greenland this summer on one of these Adventure Canada voyages:
Scotland to Greenland, June 12 – June 24, 2013
Heart of the Arctic, June 24, 2013 – July 6, 2013
Arctic Explorer, July 27, 2013 – Aug. 6, 2013
Into the Northwest Passage, Aug. 6 – Aug. 20, 2013
Out of the Northwest Passage, Aug. 20 – Sept. 5, 2013
Greenland & Wild Labrador, Sept. 5 – Sept. 18, 2013