Expedition Journal

Heart of the Arctic

Jul. 18–Jul. 30, 2017

© Danny Catt

And then—what’s the most-anticipated announcement on any Arctic trip? Polar bear. You might wait days or even weeks to hear it. So it almost felt too soon when those words crackled over the loudspeaker. “Bear ahead, port side, eleven o’clock.”

Map

Heart of the arctic 2017 expedition map
  • Day 1: Kangiqsualujuaq (George River)
  • Day 2: Akpatok Island
  • Day 3: Douglas Harbour
  • Day 4: Digges Islands / Cape Wolstenholme
  • Day 5: Kinngait (Cape Dorset)
  • Day 6: Mallikjuaq Territorial Park
  • Day 7: Kimmirut (Lake Harbour)
  • Day 8: Resolution Island
  • Day 9: At Sea
  • Day 10: Kapisillit Fjord
  • Day 11: Nuuk
  • Day 12: Kangerlussuatsiaq Fjord (Evighedsfjorden) / Kangaamiut
  • Day 13: Kangerlussuaq

Day 1 – Tuesday, July 18

Kangiqsualujuaq (George River)

Coordinates: 58°41'N 65°56'W

Weather: Cloudy with a fresh breeze

We were in for the ride of our life.

How do you begin a journey to the Heart of the Arctic? From the least polar place possible—in the damp hot of Ottawa, in the storied Château Laurier, in the sleepy dark of a Tuesday morning. As early as 04h00 we stumbled from our rooms to the ornate and echoing lobby of this famous hotel. Adventure Canada staff members appeared at our elbows, making off with our bags. Shuttles hurried us to a private air terminal. At dawn we found ourselves aboard a succession of planes—“Air Inuit” inscribed upon their fuselages in bright syllabics. We lifted off, and the busy urban world slipped from view. Good riddance! We were Arctic bound.

Day 1 disembarking planes

© Danny Catt

Below, hour by hour, the woodlands thinned. The lakes multiplied. The land went wild. Most of us made a tech stop in Kuujjuaq, the dusty metropolis of the Nunavik region of northern Québec, hard against the Koksoak River. One plane landed at the Naskapi outpost (and erstwhile mining boomtown) of Schefferville, just north of the Labrador border. We refueled, lifting off again.

We were all headed for—what was it called again? The K town. Kangiqsualujuaq, or George River. A half-hour later, we were “on approach,” dropping through the clouds. Down below we saw worn peaks, patches of jack pine, rumbled rock. A broad, crag-flanked inlet. Grey-green waters. Our ship! The Ocean Endeavour sparkled like a toy, motionless and stoic.

And then we were down, piling from the planes into this easternmost of Nunavik villages, population nine hundred or so. A local bus trundled us through town, past rustic, colourful homes perched on stilts above moist tundra. Locals waved, zipping by us on four-wheelers. Kangiqsualujuaq, we were told, means “really big bay,” and when we arrived at the shore we understood the name. Hidden somewhere in the distance lay our vessel. In rushed the tide, one of fastest in the world. The breeze freshened, then freshened some more. Zodiacs approached, and wooden pallets were laid out as a makeshift dock. We were shown the boarding technique—sit, spin, slide. Shoremen, grunting, pushed us off into the surf. We were in for the ride of our life.

Day 1 Zodiac arrival

© Danny Catt

The shrieking wind, the in-racing tide, the outflowing current of the George River, all churned the sea into a fury. No matter how cautiously our drivers proceeded, there was no avoiding the waves. We were inadequately attired, we realized, still in our suede jackets and city shoes. Seawater doused us by the bucketful, down our boots and collars and mouths. Is it possible to get sick from drinking too much salt water? Some of us laughed at the grim absurdity of it; others just hung on. The Zodiacs wallowed forward. After thirty or forty minutes we finally reached the ship: Truly, a port in storm! Dripping, giggling, shivering, we boarded.

Fast forward, now, to relaxation. We were kicked back, cozy, in the library and lounge, swapping tales of our derring-do. I thought my glasses would be washed off my face! That’s nothing, I had to stuff my camera in my armpit! The Ocean Endeavour had pulled up anchor. We were off. An occasional iceberg drifted by.

Day 1 lifeboat drill

© Danny Catt

Eventually, a lifeboat drill happened (this is where to muster, how to don your lifejacket, where to report to your lifeboat). Then came a whirlwind introduction to the Adventure Canada staff: thirty-one of them, with skills ranging from ornithology to videography, plus— in the flesh!—Margaret Atwood. (The younger crowd was more thrilled about Survivorman.)

Dinner was in the Polaris Restaurant—chicken piccata, baked ziti, corn chowder, and a welcome glass of wine. We met fellow passengers from New Zealand, Virginia, Gatineau, and everywhere between. After desert, thoroughly spent, most of us made for our rooms. Pulling the curtains or screwing shut the portholes, we were lulled to sleep by the hum of the ship’s giant engines. Ottawa seemed a lifetime away.

Day 2 – Wednesday, July 19

Akpatok Island

Coordinates: 60°22'N 68°09'W

Weather: A bluebird day

"Bear ahead, port side, eleven o’clock."

After our first day’s rambunctious conditions, we were thankful to rise to a bluebird day—placid breezes, kind seas, and all-around pretty weather. We were afloat on Ungava Bay, that great crescent of water scooped out of uttermost Québec. A few of us had forgotten to turn off our early-morning alarms from yesterday. Gaaah! Some made it to Tanya’s Early-Morning Stretch in the sunny Meridian Club. Most of us snoozed ‘til half past seven, when we were awoken by the mellifluous tones of our expedition leader, Matthew James.

"Good Arctic morning," he said. "It’s gonna be a heckuva day."

Day 2 Akpak murre

© Danny Catt

We breakfasted on omelettes to order, java and juice, fruit galore. Then we filled the Nautilus Lounge for the Mandatory Safety Briefing. After learning not to disturb archeological sites, not to scare birds off their nests, and not to pet polar bears, it was down to the mudroom to be assigned to a locker and fitted with galoshes. Need a bigger size? Smaller? Two left feet? So stylish! We were shod, now, for adventure.

In late morning, the lectures began—the first of dozens we would enjoy over the next week and a half. The hyperkinetic George Sirk introduced us to the “Birds of the Arctic.” He himself was something of a bird, flitting around and chirping brightly, sketching real-time drawings of fulmars, falcons, snow buntings, and the like. It was lovely fun.

And then—what’s the most-anticipated announcement on any Arctic trip? Polar bear.

You might wait days or even weeks to hear it. So it almost felt too soon when those words crackled over the loudspeaker. “Bear ahead, port side, eleven o’clock.” A mad dash ensued, up, left, back, down, right. Oh for Pete’s sake, which way’s the bow? Directions sorted, port-side crowded, we adjusted our binos. There it was, on the scree slopes of an island called Akpatok, right next to a gushing waterfall. We were a long way off, so the bruin appeared small, but there was no question. Our first bear! Our appetite was whetted for the afternoon Zodiac cruise.

Day 2 polar bear Akpatok Island

© Stephen Gorman

Akpatok—the place of akpats, or thick-billed murres—lived up to its billing. Forty-five kilometres long, twenty-three wide, and hundreds of metres high, it is a battleship rearing up from bitter waters. We launched into now-frothy seas, the swell surging and plunging at the gangway. But once aboard the Zodiacs we enjoyed a much milder ride than yesterday. We motored about a kilometre to the crenelated limestone scarps. Here is among the world’s foremost rookeries for thick-billed murres, a seabird that is penguin-like in both coloration and awkwardness. We gaped. They were nesting by the hundreds of thousands in nooks on the vertical stone. The place shrieked and stank and swirled with life. It was glorious.

Where there are bird cliffs in the Arctic, there are bears. Sure enough, as we approached shore we saw another creamy bear, patrolling the cliff-bottom for a free meal—a fallen egg or unfortunate hatchling. Later, two more bears, including one at the water’s edge, grand and fearsome, feasting on a baby murre. Even more surprising, some of us saw walruses! At least two were in the waters, occasionally rearing their great tusk-laden heads to peer at us curiously.

Day 2 Zodiacs cruise Akpaktok Island

© Danny Catt

When we returned to the ship, it was time to learn about the basics of polar botany at Dawn Bazely’s presentation “Amazing Arctic Plants,” and about the rudiments of northern geology with Paul Mortensen’s “Geology of Our Trip.”

Next up, an Inuit welcome, with Myna Ishulutak, Caleb Little, Jennifer Kilabuk, and famed carver Billy Gautier. Myna taught us to say “Who are you?” (kinauvit?) and “My name is...” (uvunnga...). Caleb and Billy squared off in a contest of Inuit games—the high kick, the muskox push, leg-wrestling. Jennifer demonstrated the use of her beautiful amauti, nestling our youngest guest, Margaret Atwood’s grandson, Alder, in her hood.

After the nightly recap and briefing came the captain’s welcome, with champagne all around, plus an introduction to the Ocean Endeavour’s senior crew. Finally, we were treated to an evening performance by guitarist and singer Ella Swan, whose ethereal voice mesmerized us as the midnight sun rolled along the sea.

Day 3 – Thursday, July 20

Douglas Harbour

Coordinates: 61°54'N 72°38'W

Weather: Fair conditions turning to sputtering drizzle

This place was pretty much perfect.

Framed by wrinkled ramparts 2,000 feet high in places, we were in a classic northern fjord, its telltale “u-shape” revealing that it was the handiwork of ancient glaciers. Divots in the dark slopes cradled the remains of last winter’s snow. Yet some of the hillsides glowed a verdant green. There, caribou, in packs of a dozen or more, marched about jauntily, munching lichen and basking in the glinting sun. They were in heaven. So were we.

This was Douglas Harbour, our destination for the second morning of our polar journey. After breakfast (and an introduction to the Young Explorers, a cadre of youthful researchers conducting projects while on board) we descended to the gangways by colour group. We were getting good at this—boots and lifejackets on, binos and cameras hermetically sealed in drybags, keycards ready for signing off the ship, Zodiacs boarded with a modicum of dexterity, thanks to the trusty “sailors’ grip.”

Day 3 Barrenground caribou Douglas Harbour

© Michelle Valberg

Again, the seas were a-splash. Cautiously, our Zodiac drivers ferried us the kilometre or so from the Ocean Endeavour to the head of the fjord’s western arm. A lonesome ringed seal monitored our passage, its sleek head peeping from the waves like a periscope, its mind likely boggled by our presence. Where we landed, a friendly slope of grass ran down to the sea to greet us. We ditched our lifejackets and formed three teams: the vigorous hikers, the leisurely walkers, and the so-called shore explorers. The vigorous ones set off first, led vigorously by bear-guard John Blyth and host Danny Catt. A fantastic trek ensued, following game trails into a gorgeous valley with caribou all around.

The leisurely walkers followed in their footsteps, seeing much the same wonders but at a less-breathless pace. And the shore group stayed put. Why go racing off when there’s a wealth of wonders right at the landing? They gawked at harlequin ducks and snow buntings, lateral moraines and outwash plains, prickly saxifrage and mountain avens. This place was pretty much perfect.

Day 3 caribou Douglas Harbour

© Michelle Valberg

But as we were returning to the ship, the sky began to glower. We boarded just in time. Sputtering drizzle began. The Ocean Endeavour drew in its anchor and retreated whence it had come, out of the natural amphitheatre of Douglas Harbour and west along the rock-ribbed Ungava coast.

Lunch happened (more food!), then presentations (more learning!). Did you know that Inuit people migrated across northern Canada in just a generation or two, perhaps seeking precious iron or trade goods? That’s what we learned from archeologist Lisa Rankin in “The Thule settlement of the Canadian Arctic.”

Have you heard of Thanadelthur, the Chipewyan peacemaker and guide; Ida Pfeiffer, the intrepid Austrian collector; or Ada Blackjack, the only survivor of the doomed Karluk expedition? We learned about them all in Milbry Polk’s “Women who explored the Arctic regions.”

Did you know that Kristian Bogner is an amazing photography teacher? His “How to Capture Spectacular Images” proved it to be true.

Dinner was prime rib—hats off to Francis Itoumbuo, the ship’s remarkable French chef. Afterwards, birthdays were celebrated. Narendra Seeram, the Guyanese maître d', doled out cake, and the Adventure Canada staff belted out their signature tune, “The world’s a better place because you’re in it.” It was amazing.

Myna ishulatak in pang hat

© Stephen Gorman

Myna Ishulatak

Even more amazing? Myna’s film, Qipisa. It’s about the camp on Baffin Island where she spent the first thirteen years of her life—and about her efforts, later in life, to reconnect with that place and her people. She lit a qulliq (a traditional Inuit stone lamp), passed out popcorn, and showed the movie in the Nautilus Lounge. Afterwards, someone asked what she planned to do with the movie.

She mentioned she was keen to distribute it, but hadn’t yet found funds. Instantly, passengers took up a collection. Tears flowed. By the trip’s end, more than $5,000 would be raised.

Day 4 – Friday, July 21

Digges Islands / Cape Wolstenholme

Coordinates: 62°33'N 77°49'W / 62°34'N 77°30'W

Weather: Wind working itself into a gale

On to Plan C!

A cloak of sea-fog clutched the Ocean Endeavour as we arose for the fourth day of our sail through the heart of the Arctic. We were steaming westbound through Hudson Strait, riding a gentle green swell.

After a leisurely breakfast we pulled into sight of land—Digges Island, named by ill-fated Henry Hudson for his patron, Dudley Digges. The islands huddle off the extreme northwestern corner of the province of Québec, marking the turn south into the great liquid vastness of Hudson Bay.

After breakfast, we enjoyed presentations: “Tracking Seasonal Sea Ice Change” by Cam Gillies, a question-and-answer session with artist Rob Saley, a talk by passenger Jane Horner called “Cape Dorset, Centre of Inuit Art,” and “The Future of First Nations in Canada” by distinguished guests of Adventure Canada, Phil Fontaine and his partner, Kathleen Mahoney. Phil and Kathleen discussed the challenges faced by Indigenous Canadians, but also offered rays of hope— related to First Nations businesses, education, and governance. The pair also provided a poignant history of the Canadian residential school system and the recent Truth and Reconciliation process, and ended by urging all of us to join in making Canada a place of justice for all of its residents.

Day 4 Cape Wolstenholme cliffs

© Michelle Valberg

Amidst these talks, Matthew James, the Expedition Leader, was scrambling. The wind outside was working itself into a gale, and roaring from the wrong direction. As the vessel approached our intended landing spot, MJ’s fears were confirmed. Breaking waves were battering the beach, making a landing impossible. Time for Plan B. Perhaps we could land on the far side of Digges? We stayed tuned for further developments.

A half an hour later the Ocean Endeavour had swung along the island, where more bad news emerged. Here, too, the wind was furious. What to do? Thwarted by the gusts, we made like true adventurers. On to Plan C!

The vessel made for Cape Wolstenholme, just east of the Digges Islands at the shoulder of Québec. Here, three-hundred-metre granite sea cliffs sprang from the cold depths, forming a safe haven for nesting seabirds: thick-billed murres, black guillemots, Iceland gulls, and a small number of puffins. For more than an hour we sailed past them, all of us out on the outer decks, binoculars and cameras in hand, craning our necks toward the sky. Birds wheeled over, waterfalls pouring down from the heights, mists wrapped the place in mystery.

Day 4 Digges Island tundra

© Lee Narraway

Then, after dinner, we finally got a chance to set foot on Digges Island. The wind had mellowed, so we boarded the Zodiacs and puttered into a protected little harbour. Once we’d switched our galoshes for hiking boots we proceeded to explore a luxuriant tundra valley, framed by low stony hills and cut through by a gurgling stream. Arctic marvels abounded, from moss campion to caribou antlers, from old sledge runners to lemmings’ nests, from ground-hugging dwarf willow “trees” to a meditative waterfall bouncing down the rocks.

Perhaps best of all, Birdman George had trained a spotting scope on a pair of gyrfalcons nested on a rocky ledge. We cued up to peek into their lives. They were regal, relaxed. Who could blame them? What a place. What a day.

Day 5 – Saturday, July 22

Kinngait (Cape Dorset)

Coordinates: 64°13'N 76°32'W

Weather: Drenching sunbeams

“There is life in everything.”

On an expedition through the Canadian Arctic, it’s easy to lose track of time. After all, the bears, icebergs, and sea-cliffs don’t care what day it is, so why should you? But for those of us who happened to check our calendars this morning, we discovered today was Saturday. It felt like a weekend.

Sunbeams drenched the Ocean Endeavour. We were gliding north across the Hudson Strait, through a molten sea, shiny and gracefully undulating—the calmest waters of the trip. Rising into view off our bow was legendary Baffin Island: the grandest isle in Canada, the fifth largest on Earth, and the cultural epicentre of Nunavut Territory. This, truly, was the High North.

Day 5 Nunavut Canada flags

© Danny Catt

After breakfast, MJ briefed us on the day’s plan—our much-anticipated visit to the mecca of the Inuit art world, Kinngait (Cape Dorset). Then Labrador carver Billy Gauthier took the mic, speaking to us from the heart about the link between art, Inuit lifeways, and the Arctic land.

“Stones speak to me,” he said. “There is life in everything.”

Billy also gave us some tips in interacting with artists in Cape Dorset (don’t haggle, but don’t feel pressured to buy), and urged us to collect art that moves us—art that grabs our hearts.

After lunch, it was time to head for town. We booted up, strapped on our lifejackets and marched from the mudroom to the gangways. Zodiacs scooted us across an embracing harbor where freighter-canoes bobbed on their mooring-lines. From the surrounding crescent of grey stone hills rose quaint homes, weather-beaten oil tanks, tin-clad stores, and shiny government offices.

Day 5 Kinngait ink and press

© Danny Catt

Local guides met us at the beach; clustering around them, we set off for a walking tour—to the Dorset hotel, to the Inuit Art Gallery, to the wee visitor centre, and of course to the legendary print studio. There, famous printmakers showed us how they apply ink to etched stones to make the famous annual Cape Dorset print collection. For a few of us, devoted connoisseurs of Inuit art, it was like being in the front row at a rock concert. We struggled not to squeal.

Day 5 Kinngait Artist Qavavau Manumie showing print

© Danny Catt

Artist Qavavau Manumie shows one of his prints.

After the formal tour, many of us went poking around on our own. Some back to the galleries to purchase vivid prints and exquisite soapstone carvings, others to mail postcards from the Arctic, others to snap up snacks and “Kinngait, Nunavut” t-shirts at the local grocery store. Then, with “last Zodiac” time approaching, it was back down to the landing, booting and suiting up, and bidding goodbye to the bevy of kids playing beside the Zodiacs.

But the fun wasn’t done. Having been welcomed into Cape Dorset, we returned the favour. Two Zodiac-loads of Kinngaitmiut, including the mayor and the local Mounties, came back to the ship with us—first to offer a throat-singing demonstration and discuss their community and their culture, and then to be fed and entertained.

The entertainer? Les Stroud, a.k.a. Survivorman. It turns out he’s not just the world’s most famous woodsman. Acoustic guitar in hand, harmonica in mouth, he rocked the Nautilus, belting out an energetic repertoire of eco-themed original songs and covers.

Day 6 – Sunday, July 23

Mallikjuaq Territorial Park

Coordinates: 64°14'N 76°33'W

Weather: Sea flat as glass, sun ablaze

We were off, buzzing toward adventure.

We arose this morning with the Ocean Endeavour still at anchor off sleeping Cape Dorset, the sea still flat as glass, the sun still ablaze. The croaking of ravens echoed over the waters and, amazingly, fat bumblebees bumped along hull of the ship. True summer days are a rarity on Baffin Island. We were certainly blessed.

Our morning routine had by now become familiar—the wakeup call at 07h30, an indulgent breakfast (today: banana, blueberry, or chocolate-chip pancakes), then gearing up for excursions. We swaddled ourselves in bright waterproof gear, descended to Deck Three, and shuffled forward in queue down the tight corridor. At the gangway door, the cool, rejuvenating Arctic air washed over us. We stepped out into the glinting brilliance, filling the Zodiacs ten by ten. We were off, buzzing toward adventure.

Today would be the reverse of yesterday. Those of us who yesterday had explored the archeology of Mallikjuaq Territorial Park now headed into town. The rest did the opposite: we were ferried across the bay to Millikjuaq.

Day 6 Mallikjuaq botany

© Danny Catt

Disembarking at a narrow sand beach, we proceeded up a lush hillside bedazzled with low-bush fireweed. Near the top of the ridge were the indentations of nine homes of the ancient Thule—the predecessors of today’s Inuit. These circular structures were semi-subterranean, partially dug into the south-facing slope, with stone walls at the base, ceilings braced with whale ribs, and roofs of skins and sod. Beside was a pond positively littered with walrus, beluga, and seal bones—a testament to the region’s rich hunting.

Farther along, we encountered other relics of pre-contact Inuit life: a goose blind where hunters stalked foul; a deadfall trap made of heavy stones for harvesting Arctic foxes; inuksuit (distinctive Inuit cairns shaped like people); and a stone kayak stand, designed to keep the sleek sealskin boats dry and out of the reach of hungry dogs when not in use. Our Adventure Canada artist, Rob Saley, sat amongst these artifacts, painting them back to life.

In the afternoon, we pulled up anchor and slipped across quicksilver waters, tracing the Baffin coast eastbound. In the various lounges, presentations were made: George Sirk (he’s not just a birdman!) on “Nanook from birth, through life, to death”; Jerry Kobalenko (motto: “The worse, the better”) on his remarkable photographic treks through “Arctic Eden”; and, of course, Margaret Atwood. The grand dame of Canadian literature has been travelling with Adventure Canada for the past twenty years, along with her almost-as-famous husband, Graeme Gibson.

Day 6 Margaret Atwood presentation

© Danny Catt

She delighted us with the wry and trenchant story of her life, from her childhood days in a remote entomological research camp in northern Quebec to her achievement of fame, which saw her hobnobbing with Canadian royalty the likes of Mordechai Richler, Alice Munro, and Buffy Ste. Marie.

On the out decks, meanwhile, our keen-eyed wildlife spotters kept vigil, documenting the appearance of free-wheeling fulmars, madly flapping murres, and herds of harp seals vaulting through the sea. Down on it all poured the brilliant sun, making the polar ocean feel not so unlike the Caribbean.

Day 7 – Monday, July 24

Kimmirut (Lake Harbour)

Coordinates: 62°50'N 69°52'W

Weather: Glorious weather

She said yes.

Here’s what happened today: Soccer and seal-skinning. Hiking and Inuit high-kicking. A game of Arctic Bluff and a landscape of Arctic bluffs. And, oh yeah—that fantastic marriage proposal.

It started off, as per usual, with glorious weather—the sun gleaming, the wind nil, the sea fast asleep, and the clouds as gentle and buoyant as Arctic cotton. After coffee and breakfast, the Nautilus filled for another day of Adventure Canada University. Irrepressible botanist Dawn Bazely showcased the link between “Arctic Plants and People”—how the latter utilize the former in myriad clever ways. Lisa Rankin took us along on the “The Long Journey of the Tunit.” Matt Ayres presented on “Past Arctic Climate Change: New Insights from Old Documents.” And Kristian Bogner offered a workshop on “Immersive Storytelling and Adventure Photography and Video.”

Our minds now spilling over with learning, we headed for the outer decks. We sunbathed, and took photos of ourselves sunbathing, because who woulda thunk it? We gawked seals and seabirds. And we thrilled at the navigation into Kimmirut, our destination for the afternoon. We were in a hard-shouldered fjord, islands scattered everywhere, channels maze-like. A lattice of crimson reefs seemed to block out path. How would we get through? The answer soon became clear. The Ocean Endeavour engaged in a nimble ballet, making deft twists and spins, dancing through the labyrinth. We were clear. Kimmirut was off our bow.

Day 7 walking in Kimmirut

© Danny Catt

As we Zodiacked in, we were delighted. In Inuktitut, Kimmirut means “the heel,” for the white marble knob across from the landing. The town is built in a natural stone amphitheatre, with nearly every home enjoying a view of the sea. Little colourful structures clung to the rocky bluffs, their yards lush with willows and vivid with tundra flowers. At the centre of it all lies a placid cove—the inspiration for Kimmirut’s English name, Lake Harbour.

Our guides showed us their town—the old Anglican church, the cemetery, the RCMP post, the original Hudson Bay post, the Co-op and Northern stores. Better yet, they regaled us with tales of recent events, including about how killer whales were scaring off the local seals.

Day 7 Kimmirut Inuit games

© Danny Catt

We packed the high school gym for a demonstration of Inuit games—the one-foot and two-foot high kicks, the one hand reach, the seal hop. What began as an exhibition quickly escalated into a rivalry, pitting three young Kimmirutmiut against Billy Gauthier and Dawson Freeze. Astoundingly, Dawson defeated all comers in the one-foot high kick, while Billy proved himself king of the seal hop.

Then it was time for the soccer game—the Mighty Murres versus Kimmirut in the battle of South Baffin. The field was a gravelly intersection at the centre of town, the goals were prone to collapsing, the teams were everyone and their dog. It was never quite clear if we won or lost or tied. No matter: glory was ours.

For the final Kimmirut activity, we embarked on a mass march into the hills north of town, following an ATV track that is, officially, part of the TransCanada Trail. The dusty route ascended various knobby summits. We got glorious looks at Soper Lake, our ship, the town, and further outcrops rising in the distance, some capped with inuksuit and many verdant with fireweed.

Day 7 Kimmirut soccer game

© Danny Catt

As in Cape Dorset, we then brought several Zodiac-loads of Kimmirut residents back to the ship to dine with us. This time, though, we were in an Adventure Canada first. One of our local guides, Jake, took the opportunity of dining in the Polaris Restaurant to propose to his girlfriend, Ning. There he was, down on one knee by the desert bar, ring proffered expectantly. Herman the waiter crooned them a song of love in his sonorous baritone. She said yes. Tears were shed, and not just by the betrothed.

Finally, we wrapped up the night with a game of Arctic Bluff. It involved devising fake and real meanings of weird words, like “slumgullion.” Which was the true definition, and which was fraudulent? Amazingly, Margaret Atwood did not win.

Day 8 – Tuesday, July 25

Resolution Island

Coordinates: 61°15'N 65°09'W

Weather: Bright overcast

It was whimsy and wonder incarnate.

Today would be all about ice—the sea ice blocking us from Frobisher Bay, the mighty bergs from Greenland that had drifted this way, and the creatures (oh, the creatures!) that prowl this crystalline world.

At wake-up, the sky was a bright overcast, the winds non-existent, the dark bluffs of Baffin ganging the northern horizon. For the first time, floes specked the sea. After breakfast, the captain nosed the good ship into the pack. This was the stuff! The infamous sea-ice, in chunks as dainty as dinner plates or as great as football fields, was barricading us from two of our ports-of-call, Iqaluit and Pangnirtung. Yet here amongst it, it was hard to hate. It seemed magic: iridescent, pure, dreamlike, gossamer, alive. Like nature’s own chandeliers, the ice tinkled and flashed. It was whimsy and wonder incarnate.

Day 8 icebergs at sea

© Danny Catt

When the captain opened up the bow deck, we poured forward, keen to get even closer to the ice and its marvels. In the distance, deceptive Arctic mirages—fata morgana—hovered like bright islands in the sky. The exposed underbellies of the floes glowed an eerie aquamarine. Seals frolicked—ringed seals, mostly, but also harps. The ship picked its way dexterously through the puzzle, only occasional bumping a berg. We learned the ice’s names—bergy bits, brash, growlers.

In places, the pack was loose; perhaps one-tenth of the sea was covered. Elsewhere, the wind and the waves had conspired to clump it together into rafts that our vessels didn’t dare bully through. When the captain found himself in a cul de sac, we backed out and tried a different way. In this manner—slowly, slowly—we sailed south toward Resolution Island.

Polar bears on ice floe close up

© Kristian Bogner

The afternoon brought different delights. Billy offered stone-carving demonstrations on the back deck. Matt lectured about “Historical Climatology.” Rob led a drawing workshop. Cam Gillies discussed “Amazing Adaptations of Arctic Birds.” Myna presented a mini-course on how to speak Inuktitut. And our hotel manager, Eckart Redlich, told us all about the secret life of the Ocean Endeavour. At the start of the season we carried 8,000 bottles of wine. We’ve drunk half of them.

Finally, just as the sun was dropping down, the perfect nightcap—an announcement that bears had been spotted. Off our port bow, at rest among the floes, lay a creamy mother and cub. We lined the top deck and crowded the bow. As the bears and the ship drifted closer together, the floes glittered with the winking of flashbulbs. The bears arose, swinging their heads in order to get our scent, sniffing at the air so intensely they were nearly licking it. We marvelled at the awesome claws, their rippling haunches, the water dripping from their buttermilk hides. Eventually they slipped into the sea and paddled off, and we all looked at one another, shaking our heads.

Heart of the Arctic indeed.

Day 9 – Wednesday, July 26

At Sea

Coordinates: 62°44'N 57°42'W

Weather: Overcast skies and smooth seas

Even far from sight of land, the Arctic was alive.

Sea days are slow days, but that’s OK. Sometimes it’s nice to sleep in, slow down, mellow out. Our wake-up call this morning came at the leisurely hour of 08h30, a full hour later than normal. We nursed our coffees, went back to the omelet station for seconds. We cozied up in the library, or scribbled in our diaries up in the Aurora Lounge, or got a bit of exercise, strolling laps around the Level Six deck. There would be no landings today, as we were miles from land, crossing the Davis Strait from Canada to Greenland. We were fine with spending the day kicking back.

As per usual, there was no shortage of morning programming. Up on the top deck, Cam Gillies and Deanna Leonard hosted a question-and-answer session about northern wildlife. John Blyth unfurled a variety of old maps in the Meridian Club for “Historic Admiralty Charts of the Arctic.” Participants circulated among the charts, quizzing John about where Sir John Franklin had got to, which channel is the Northwest Passage, and why Baffin is called Baffin. Meanwhile, former AFN Grand Chief Phil Fontaine offered a lecture called “Reconciliation and Moving Forward,” which was frankly inspiring.

Day 9 birds at sea

© Danny Catt

On the outer decks, sightings of sea mammals went into overdrive. The Davis Strait offered perfect viewing-conditions: dead-smooth with overcast skies, keeping glare off the water. A pod of pilot whales revealed themselves. Then a pair of fin whales, the second-largest creatures on Earth. Then, a squadron of harbour porpoises. Even far from sight of land, the Arctic was alive.

The afternoon was much like the morning. In “A Polar Bear Ate My Chocolate,” peripatetic adventurer Jerry Kobalenko regaled us with hair-raising tales of his encounters with Arctic predators in Nunavut and Labrador. Rob Saley showed his film, “Arctic Artists.” Martin Aldrich led yoga sessions in the Meridian Club. Adventure Canada’s northern staff held a Q&A about life in the Far North. There were tours of the ship’s bridge, where officer Wesley (“Like Wesley Snipes, but Phillipino”) explained why the Ocean Endeavour would likely not hit an iceberg—and what would happen if we did.

Day 9 Canada mask

© Danny Catt

At 18h00, our Canada Day Theme Party commenced. This was Canada’s 150th birthday, after all, and Adventure Canada has never missed a good chance to celebrate. Lots us arrived in the Nautilus Lounge costumed as our favourite Canadian historical figures—there was Laura Secord, Robert Service, Alex Trebek. Concept costumes were even more popular. Remember the polar bear and narwhal? The Tim Horton’s cup? The Canadian tuxedo (jeans and a jeans shirt with a jeans jacket!)? And how about that long-form census? What could be more Canadian than being self-deprecating and funny?

Day 9 Canada Day costumes

© Danny Catt

Late in the evening, a few of us remained on deck. The Davis Strait was like a millpond. The Greenland coast was somewhere ahead, beyond the far horizon. There’s something spiritual about being on a ship out of sight of land. It’s both humbling and empowering, like gazing up at the vast Milky Way. That’s how it felt.

Day 10 – Thursday, July 27

Kapisillit Fjord

Coordinates: 64°26'N 50°16'W

Weather: Possibly the hottest day in Adventure Canada history

Some of us licked icebergs to cool off.

Today we awoke to possibly the hottest day in Adventure Canada history. Having crossed the Davis Strait without incident, we found ourselves at the gateway to a web of dizzying fjords radiating out from the Greenland Ice Cap. At around 07h00 we passed Nuuk, the Greenland capital. From a few kilometers out it barely seemed real. There, against a backdrop of jagged silver peaks, rose a busy metropolis—high rises, jet planes, the bustle of urban life. We would be visiting the city tomorrow, but for now we would remain as we’d become accustomed—in the wilderness.

We steamed on by, into the fjords of Greenland. Some of us spent the morning in presentations: Aaron’s “Greenland: A Little Introduction to a Really Big Island,” Les’s “Adventures in Life, the Arctic, and Around the World,” and Lisa’s “The Greenland Mummies.”

Most of us, however, revelled in the sunshine. Dozens of us reclined in the deck chairs; shorts and t-shirts were more common than toques and gloves. Our naturalists narrated the scenery, providing explanations of how glaciers scoured the fjord-sides and which seabirds were soaring by the bow.

Day 10 enjoying sunshine on the back deck

© Danny Catt

After a few hours of idyllic sailing, we dropped anchor at the head of Kapisillit Fjord: a placid basin ringed by lush green tundra slopes and peaks of several thousand feet. The little village of Kapisillit perched at one corner, while an array of cabins speckled the shore, some proudly flying the red and white Greenland flag.

Our Zodiac drivers ferried us to land. We divided into four groups. The vigorous walkers struck out on a long march, dropping into the neighbouring fjord, which was choked with ice so thickly that it was more berg than water. (Some of us licked icebergs to cool off.) The moderate walkers followed in their tracks, reaching a high vista from which to view the ice. The leisurely walkers, meanwhile, headed the other direction, across verdant meadows to a freshwater lake. And our beach-combing group explored the landing site, replete with intertidal creatures, birds, plants, and brilliant sunshine.

Day 10 group photo Kapisillit Fjord

© Danny Catt

The local “cottagers” were as entertained by us as we by them. Several boated over to say hello and ask where we were from; one even provided us with a fresh-caught char that, once aboard ship, was delivered to Chef Francis for future hors d'oeuvres. The fish wasn’t the only local culinary acquisition. Members of our crew came ashore to harvest mussels from the shore; they, too, would turn up on our plates. Best of all, glittering glacier ice was harvested and brought back to the ship. During the evening social hour, it fizzed in our drinks, releasing oxygen trapped eons ago.

Then, in the evening, the ship turned about and charted a different route back toward Nuuk, steaming through Nuuk fjord. A more blissful sail has never been. We idled on the decks, wine glasses in hand, bathed in balmy golden sunlight, ogling chiseled peaks and baby-blue bergs. At one point a humpback whale frolicked for us, rolling in the placid sea and showing off its flukes. Who was more delighted: it, or us?

Day 11 – Friday, July 28

Nuuk

Coordinates: 64°10'N 51°44'W

Weather: Cool and fresh

Paved streets and broad sidewalks!

Today we arose in Nuuk harbour, the busiest Arctic port in the Western Hemisphere. What a difference this was from tiny Kimmirut and low-key Cape Dorset. Outside our portholes, shipping crates were being manhandled by giant cranes. Totes of fresh shrimp were stacked skyward. Vessels moored and unmoored, horns blared, the reek of fish and fuel filled the air. After a week and a half in the quiet wild, we found it somewhat overwhelming.

Day 11 city of Nuuk

© Danny Catt

Today we would spend all day in Nuuk, with the Ocean Endeavour “alongside”—meaning tied up at the wharf. A dry landing! After breakfasting we disembarked, marching down the stairs into the cool, fresh, thoroughly Greenlandic air. It was exciting to be here.

For some of us, the day would start with a bus tour. A local guide loaded us aboard and pointed out attractions as we trundled uphill into town. Our heads swivelled left and right like fans at a tennis match. Paved streets and broad sidewalks! Traffic lights! Pedestrians in leather pants and heels! Office towers! Eventually we wound our way to more rustic regions of the city—the golf course, tucked amid rocky outcrops; the airport at the base of snow-capped mountains; the ski trails that led back toward the icecap.

Day 11 walking to Nuuk cathedral

© Danny Catt

Others of us opted for a walking tour. We began at Nuuk City Hall, where we were wowed by Hans Lynges’ thirteen-panel tapestry depicting scenes from Greenland’s past. Then we made our way to Inatsisartut (Parliament), where we gathered in the visitors’ gallery to learn about Greenland’s Home Rule Government, which is cautiously seeking independence from Denmark. Onward we went to the hilltop Nuuk Cathedral, watched over by a statue of Greenland’s first missionary, Hans Egede. Next: the stupendous statue of Arnakuagsak, the Inuit sea-goddess, who rises and sinks twice a day in the tides of the Old Harbour.

Day 11 guest photographs Inuit sea goddess statue Nuuk

© Danny Catt

And finally to the national museum. Its alcoves are home to innumerable treasures, but none are so gripping as the legendary mummies. Entering the darkened back room, some of us literally gasped: here, just inches away, lay four people, including a baby—clad in fine hides, their skin papery, their lips and fingernails exquisite, their expressions haunting. Inhabitants of a place called Qilakitsoq, they died around 1475 CE and were found by hunters half a millennium later. Having been mummified by the polar air, they are the best-preserved early peoples ever found in the Arctic.

The formal tours over, we indulged in what amounted to shore leave: a half-day of free time to eat, shop, and snap photos in this sunny polar metropolis. Many of us migrated to the Katuaq—Nuuk’s cultural house, whose undulating walls mimic the waving of the Northern Lights. The café was a choice lunch spot. We ordered espressos and reindeer burgers, pints of Tuborg and muskox sausages, and carried them out to the sidewalk tables, where we could people-watch. What a parade it was, of Greenlandic families and office-workers and teens and tourists—an intriguing mashup of Arctic, European, and North American looks, languages, and fashions.

Day 11 Nuuk Inatsisartut building and statue

© Danny Catt

Shopping followed. We prowled the pedestrian core, home to high-end qiviut boutiques, a whale-meat butcher shop, plus the library (free Wi-Fi!). Some of us bought Danish delicacies in the Pisiffic grocery store; others bought t-shirts at INUK Design; others, Greenlandic jewelry. Then, slightly sun-struck and somewhat poorer, we returned to the ship. In the Nautilus, we were treated to a preliminary Adventure Canada farewell by Cam, Deanna, and Myna—too soon! The captain, too, said his goodbyes. We took heart that we still had another day aboard. In the evening, the sea was liquid gold, bedazzled by sun rays. We steamed northbound, to the tantalizingly named Eternity Fjord.

Day 12 – Saturday, July 29

Kangerlussuatsiaq Fjord (Evighedsfjorden) / Kangaamiut

Coordinates: 65°58'N 52°46'W / 65°49'N 53°20'W

Weather: Perfect Polar Dippin' weather

What do you do after gawking at a glacier?

This morning we found ourselves in Evigshedfjord—the fjord of eternity. As advertised, it was heaven. Again the North was friendly, with tender breezes and radiant skies. We were floating in a blue-green tongue of ice water. Around us were the tallest peaks in western Greenland, their shoulders draped with glaciers in various states of retreat. At the base of the mountains, lush tundra formed a ramp down to the waves. Most notably, a vast and gleaming ice-face presided over the valley, beckoning us to visit. And so we did.

After breakfast, it was into the Zodiacs. Our drivers ferried us to within a few hundred metres of the glittering glacier. Its top was like meringue, tufted with jutting white peaks. On its snout, recent calvings revealed the deep glowing blue of dense ice, only recently exposed after more some 10,000 years of compression. Here and there, faucets of meltwater disgorged into the sea. A few pieces of ice crumbled and bounced down.

Day 12 Kangerlussuatsiaq Fjord of eternity

© Danny Catt

At the centre of the ice face, a granite monolith had, over the past decade, emerged from beneath the snow; Iceland gulls now used it a rookery, safe from sneaking foxes. Nearby, grounded bergs allowed us to get up-close with the ice. As big as automobiles and far heavier, the bergs glittered in the sunshine as the heat, wind, and water worked them, carving out myriad forms.

What do you do after gawking at a glacier? Swim beside it, of course. Back aboard ship it was now time for the feared Polar Dip. Those of us who were brave or crazy enough mustered in the mudroom in our terry-cloth robes, shivering in anticipation of the chill to come. Staff assured us that a doctor would be present. Great! Then, like so many penguins, we shuffled down to the third-level gangway.

Day 12 polar dip

© Danny Catt

Even from deep in the queue we could hear the shrieks; hapless swimmers would file back past us, dripping, flushed, and grinning in a dumbstruck fashion. Too quickly we were at the front of the line. Robe off, down the gangway, cowabunga. For half-a-second the cold was merely bracing. Then panic set in. We practically levitated back up the ladder. Crew members proffered towels and vodka. Before we knew it we were breathing again, and then laughing, receiving slaps on the back that we were too numb to feel.

Day 12 BBQ lunch

© Danny Catt

Lunch was a special treat: a barbecue on the back deck. Where else can you sail past icebergs while feasting on ribs and chicken wings? After lunch, we Zodiacked into the town of Kangaamiut, famous for ridiculous beauty. The prettiness started before we even got there: in front of town, a humpback frolicked. Ashore we enjoyed gospel hymns in the Lutheran Church. We toured the adorable museum, its rooftop decorated with polar-bear-shaped gables.

We were treated to a demonstration of seal-flensing down by the waterfront, and in the centre of town, a Greenlandic mask dancer, her face demonic and her movements both cartoonish and carnal, sent us scurrying shyly away. We snapped hundreds of photos of the houses, alternately red, green, blue, and yellow, that perched gracefully on the stone slopes. Best of all, we clambered up hundreds of rickety steps to emerge at the lookout above town, where the view in every direction was Edenic.

Day 12 Kangaamiut town mountains

© Danny Catt

The night was capped off with a talent show—or rather, variety show. Many among us were bold enough to showcase our skills. Young Mark, age eleven, told Arctic-themed jokes. Swedish Stefan touched our hearts with his recitation of Abba’s Dancing Queen (“dyoo can dance, dyoo can yive”). And our golden-toned waiter, Hermann, delighted us with covers of Henry Belafonte and Elvis Presley.

Day 13 – Sunday, July 30

Kangerlussuaq

Coordinates: 67°00'N 50°42'W

Weather: Greenland’s best weather

The appointed hour came and we took our final Zodiac ride to land.

Our final day in the Heart of the Arctic dawned just as stellar as the previous ones: smiling sun, sweet breezes, flat water. The Ocean Endeavour was at anchor at the head of the longest inlet in west Greenland, Søndre Strømfjord. Off the bow, up beyond the mountains, we could catch the tiniest glimpse of the gargantuan Greenland Icecap. Aft was whence we came—the Davis Strait and Nunavut.

Too late last night, or too early this morning, we’d packed. Parkas and dry-pants, binoculars and zoom-lenses, sunscreen and bugspray. (Our rubber boots we left down in the mudroom, thank goodness, never to be worn again.) By 08h00, our bags were out of rooms; the ship’s crew scoured the halls, schlepping our stuff below decks. We hung out in the library or the lounge, reading, chatting, saying our goodbyes. The appointed hour came and we took our final Zodiac ride to land.

Day 13 Kangerlussuaq selfie

© Danny Catt

Bouncing buses conveyed us over a jarring, willow-lined track—our drivers explained it was the longest road in Greenland. Some of us headed off on the private ice cap tour, a long journey that for some reason never quite reached the ice cap. Others of us wandered in town. Kangerlussuaq, once called Bluie West-8, was built by the Americans in World War II. It still looked like it. It was a rambling, rangy, dusty place of Quonset huts and barracks. But here, thanks to Greenland’s best weather, is Greenland’s main airstrip.

Day 13 Kangerlussuaq plane

© Danny Catt

In time, our plane arrived. We boarded, lifted off, marvelled at the ice beneath us. Five hours later we were back in the warm dark of Canada.

About the Author

Aaron Spitzer

Aaron Spitzer

Historian, Political Scientist, Journalist

For more than twenty years, Aaron has obsessively explored, studied, documented—and yammered about—the world’s polar places.

For a decade he ran Up Here, the journal of Canada’s north, which in 2010 was named the country’s best magazine. Before that, Aaron edited Canada’s northernmost paper (Nunatsiaq News), the world’s southernmost paper (Antarctic Sun), and the highest-circulation paper in the Alaskan “Bush” (Tundra Drums).

Aaron recently left Arctic journalism for Arctic academia. He earned a master’s degree in Northern Studies at the University of Alaska in 2015, and is now working on his Ph.D. at the University of Bergen, Norway, where he examines the opportunities and challenges of Indigenous governance in the circumpolar world.

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