Iceland to greenland zodiac glacier

Seeking New Worlds Above the Treeline

We had been advised to expect the unexpected; that the itinerary was “subject to change without notice” because everything depended on the weather and the seas.

By Frances Frisken

Getting There was not Easy

The pilot’s voice was calm; matter-of-fact. “Well folks,” he said, “we’re going back to Iqualuit.” It wasn’t a surprise, given that the airport at our destination, the Greenland town of Kangerlussuaq, was now hidden by the hills receding behind us. It was even reassuring. We’d already been circling for several minutes and the pilot had told us that fuel supply could be an issue if we circled very long.

And we couldn’t land because a small plane had blown a tire on the airport’s sole runway just before we got there and the runway was not yet cleared. So we flew for another hour and a half back to Iqualuit, capital of the Territory of Nunuvut, where we had already spent an hour in the plane while ground crew repaired a mechanical problem, aided by telephoned advice from their Ottawa headquarters.

1 Prince Christian Sound Jessie Brinkman

Passengers out on deck in Prince Christian Sound. Photography by Jessie Brinkman Evans.

And so began our two week Adventure Canada tour of Greenland and Labrador in late September 2018, when snow was already beginning to settle in the holes and crevasses of the rocky northern landscape. We had been advised to expect the unexpected; that the itinerary was “subject to change without notice” because everything depended on the weather and the seas.

We had not expected, however, to have to prove our flexibility even before we joined our cruise ship, the Ocean Endeavour. Originally built in Poland for the Russian Navy, this ship had undergone several upgrades, the most recent of which had fitted it out for travel through arctic ice.

It holds a maximum of 198 passengers; our number totalled 191. It also carried an Expedition Team of 33, 8 ship’s officers and a large number of staff (many of them from Central and South America). Bill and I were part of a subgroup of 19 passengers recruited by Al and Lin Pace, owners of Canoe North Adventures in Orangeville, which was one of several organizations that partnered with Adventure Canada for this cruise.

PULL QUOTE

The Itinerary

We got to Kangerlussuaq on our second try, to be taken by bus over a bumpy track and in zodiacs (large inflated rubber rafts) to the ship, to be heralded as being among the very few people in the world who had crossed the Davis Strait three times in six hours.

Before that first evening was over we were called out on deck to see a display of northern lights – a mysterious streak of metallic green across a dark sky. An early wake-up call the next morning introduced a typical day filled with activities: a mandatory lifeboat drill, a zodiac visit to the face of a glacier, an afternoon visit to Kangaamiut (a small fishing village on Greenland’s west central coast), and an on-board “Introduction to Greenland” by one of five “culturalists” on the Expedition Team, all of them members of indigenous communities.

The day ended with a concert given by Jordan Harnum, Newfoundland musician and songwriter, who had already sung to us while we waited on the plane in Iqualuit. He continued to do so for the rest of the voyage, sharing his responsibility for our entertainment with Dave Paddon, a retired airline pilot who had grown up in Labrador but retired to St. John’s.

Dave specialized in “recitations” – amusing or poignant stories in verse that he writes himself about people and events that stir his imagination.

Amy Van Den Berg Jessie Evans Hvelsey Greenland

Amy Van Den Berg fuelling up on coffee in Hvelsey, Greenland. Photography by Jessie Brinkman Evans.

The next morning we travelled south to Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, principal economic hub, and home to one quarter of the country’s population. This bustling city of roughly 17,500 people boasts “new suburbs, apartment developments and two traffic lights,” as well as enough construction cranes to make Toronto visitors feel at home.

From Nuuk we crossed the Davis Strait back to Canada, to anchor in the deep water outskirts of Kangerlusssualujjuaq, an Inuit community near the mouth of the George River on the east side of Ungava Bay.

We would visit that community the next evening before proceeding in a southeasterly direction along the north coast of Labrador, stopping along the way to visit abandoned Inuit settlements, the beautiful Saglek Fiord in the majestic Torngat Mountains National Park, and the town of Nain, administrative capital of the semi-autonomous region of Nunatsiavut (meaning “Our Beautiful Land”), so named by the Inuit who reached a Land Claims Agreement with the Canadian government in 2005.

Iceland to greenland presentation

Onboard presentations by expert expedition stuff are designed to deepen your knowledge and connect travellers with the places we visit. Photography by Jessie Brinkman Evans.

Our final stop in Labrador was Indian Harbour, site of a Grenfell Mission cottage hospital established 125 years ago close to an Inuit winter settlement.

From there we crossed the Strait of Belle Isle to the northernmost point in Newfoundland, stopping to visit l’Anse aux Meadows, the Parks Canada reconstruction of the only site of Old Norse settlement so far discovered in Canada. After a final shore visit to the Terra Nova National Park we headed for St. John’s and then home.

Binoculars Ocean Endeavour

A passenger searching for sea birds and marine life. Photography by Jessie Brinkman Evans.

Apart from whales and seabirds the wildlife was usually a long way away and had to be pointed out by people who were adept at spotting movement in a landscape dotted with dark rocks and clumps of snow. Nonetheless we learned a lot about it and much else from the many talks, films and slide shows that complemented shore visits and zodiac cruises.

What we got, in fact, was a crash course in the history, geography, geology, archaeology, flora and fauna, people, culture and governance of the eastern Arctic, given by people who had lived, worked and/or studied there.

(One of these was York Biology Professor Dawn Bazely, who includes research of Arctic plant life among her areas of specialization.) As if that weren’t enough, passengers could attend one or more workshops on such offbeat topics as throat singing, song writing, spotting or counting wildlife, “rock petting”, the Inuktitut language, wood carving, photography and more.

In short it was a trip so filled with new information, new experiences and new impressions that everyone who took it was likely to remember it differently. All I can do is describe what for me were some of its highlights.

Zodiac approaching the immense glacier in Kangerluluk

A Zodiac approaching the immense glacier in Kangerluluk fjord. Photography by Jessie Brinkman Evans.

Memorable excursions

For the many different sensations and impressions it left me with, the visit to Kangiqsualujjuag on Ungava Bay was the most enjoyable but also the most uncomfortable excursion of the entire cruise.

It began on the morning of Day 5 when a “packing party” of volunteers gathered in the main lounge to fill 25 large duffel bags with hockey equipment bought with money donated to Project North, a not-for-profit organization committed “to enhancing and improving the lives of children in Canada’s North.”

(This particular excursion was organized by Michelle Valberg, co-founder of Project North and an award-winning photographer who travelled with us both as cruise photographer and as a Nikon Ambassador.)

That same gathering saw the self-selection of a team of volunteers (aged between about 30 and 60) willing to play a ball hockey game with a team of local youngsters. Formed at the same time was a team of volunteer cheerleaders to back them up.

PULL QUOTE

Kangiqsualujjuag was our first wet landing, which meant donning rubber boots, waterproof pants and the teal blue rain jackets that all passengers were given before leaving Toronto.

We got to town in time for a brief visit to a food tent where two cheerful local grandmothers in traditional clothing served tea with bannock, which they made on a grill over an open fire. We then headed to the arena to join a large turnout of the town’s population, come to watch the presentation of the hockey bags and cheer on the local ball hockey players...

Their team won the game by a score of 11-1 despite the best efforts of Adventure Canada players and their pom-pom waving, vuvuzela blowing cheerleaders. The only goal for “our” team was scored by Al Pace, owner-operator of Canoe North Adventures and head of the group we were with.

Zodiac Passengers Searching

Passengers admiring the sights of Greenland. Photography by Jessie Brinkman Evans.

Then it was back to the shore to hunt in the dark for our borrowed rubber boots among the piles left there when we arrived, followed by a long wait in a cold rain for our ride back to the ship.

This trip, the night’s final adventure, took 25 minutes but seemed to last for hours as we headed into a sleet filled wind, huddled into our rain jackets and clinging to ropes while the zodiac bounced crazily beneath us.

“My parents would never do this,” commented our young zodiac driver (a vivacious young woman much loved by all) when we were about half way back, making me feel more adventurous and slightly less miserable for a fleeting moment. It was an evening I would never want to repeat but was very glad I hadn’t missed.

Hvalsey guide callum greenland

Callum Thompson providing interpretation of Greenland's largest, best-preserved Norse ruins in the area. Photography by Jessie Brinkman Evans.

Our first zodiac cruise two days earlier had been calmer and brighter, taking us in full sunlight through ice-spattered water as close to the face of a glacier as it is considered safe to go – close enough for people in a preceding boat to feel the spray when a large chunk of ice dropped into the water in front of them.

This was normal behaviour for glaciers we were told; what is not normal is the fact that pieces of glacier are breaking away much more frequently than they used to. Only a few years ago the glacier we saw had been much wider; now there were large expanses of bare rock at each end. This process is going on throughout the Arctic, making glaciers the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to evidence of climate change.

There were also excursions to the sites of abandoned Inuit villages, where we walked among the rocky outlines of former Inuit homes and the similarly marked locations of churches and community halls erected by Moravian missionaries, who began to settle on the Labrador coast in 1791.

Visitors could join guided walks of different degrees of difficulty, always preceded by bear monitors charged with ensuring that careless tourists did not get any unpleasant surprises. (We were given instructions on how to try to drive away a threatening polar bear – an activity that calls for a degree of self-discipline and clear-headedness that would be difficult to muster at such a time. Fortunately the challenge did not come up.)

Both polar bears and black bears roam most of the territory we visited, with the former being undiscriminating carnivores and so the most dangerous to come across.

And despite its being depicted in the south as a casualty of climate change we were assured that the polar bear population is not only healthy but also increasing. This trend is attributed to a rapid increase in the population of seals, one of their main food sources, as a result of celebrity-led attacks on seal hunting. What are declining rapidly are caribou, long a staple of the Inuit diet, a trend blamed both on overhunting and on a loss of habitat to industrial activities.

Zodiac Greenland Krista Godderham

Naturalist Krista Gooderham and happy passengers exploring by Zodiac. Photography by Jessie Brinkman Evans.

Some of us did see one black bear while on a zodiac excursion into Saglek Bay – a black smudge gorging on blueberries, or so we were told, in the middle of a large spread of ground cover in rich autumn colours – deep red, burnt orange, dark green, old gold – made richer by the late afternoon sunlight.

Because most of our trip was above the tree line, this blending of autumn colours in an otherwise austere landscape was a surprising and uplifting discovery.

To be continued...

First published in High News, in-house newsletter of Highgate Condominiums, Winter 2018.

About the Author:

Frances is an Adventure Canada traveller who joined us on Greenland and Wild Labrador expedition in October 2018.

First published in High News, in-house newsletter of Highgate Condominiums, Winter 2018

You can find her published work in The Walrus, Broadview magazine, and This Magazine.