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Welcome into the Circle: Why Crossing the Fabled Arctic Boundary Is Cause for Celebration

Crossing the Arctic Circle is a feat that few bucket list checkers can claim. But what makes this invisible threshold so compelling? Aaron Spitzer gives us the ins and outs of the lands of the midnight sun and the midday moon, and suggestions for how to celebrate this geographic accomplishment.
Fun riding iceberg High Arctic

© Stephen Gorman

Disclaimer: don't try this at home, folks!

It’s always an occasion. Perhaps you’ll join your fellow travellers on the ship’s bridge, gawking at the digital charts, or on the back deck, studying GPS units and poking at maps. Perhaps it will happen at an evening recap in the ship’s lounge. A countdown will begin, drinks will be circulated, and cheers will go up. Or perhaps the Expedition Leader will come on the PA system in the late hours of the evening when most have gone to bed, to whisper the momentous event into sleepy ears.

Surrounding the vessel, you’ll see… nothing especially noteworthy. But there’s something you can’t perceive, invisible yet illustrious. The Arctic Circle. You’ve reached it. And, in doing so, you’ve entered a rarified world. Welcome to the province of true adventurers.

Kangerlussuaq fjord sondre stromfjord Greenland

© Lee Narraway

Kangerlussuaq Fjord (Søndre Strømfjord) is an Arctic Circle crossing point on many Adventure Canada expeditions.

The Arctic Circle is, of course, an imaginary line that girdles the top of the Earth at approximately 66°33′ North latitude. From here northward, on the winter solstice the sun doesn’t rise, while on the summer solstice it doesn’t set. This is the realm of the midnight sun, as well as the noontime moon—the true geographic Arctic.

Among early mariners, crossing the circle earned special privileges. A sailor who’d rounded Cape Horn was permitted, after dinner, to put one foot up on the table. Those who’d broached the Arctic Circle could put both feet up. Northern travel has always held allure.

Grimsey Iceland Zodiac cruise

© Michelle Valberg

A Zodiac cruise around the bird colonies of Grímsey, a tiny island straddling the Arctic Circle, is a highlight of our Iceland Circumnavigation expeditions.

When you put your feet up on the table here, you’ll be in distinguished company. The Arctic Circle slices through icy waters with alluring names: the Davis Strait, the Chukchi Sea, Foxe Basin. It touches just eight countries, traversing their northern hinterlands—Sápmi and Siberia, Alaska and Nunavut. On the North American side of the Arctic Circle, there are just two paved roads, one port, no communities large enough to be called cities, and barely ten thousand inhabitants.

The lives of these locals are of course intensely affected by the Arctic solar extremes. At Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut, not far above the circle on Baffin Island, the sun is up non-stop for a month and a half, from late May to mid-July. At Qaanaaq, in Greenland’s far north, the summer “day” is even longer: four months, from April to nearly the end of August.

Fjords surrounding Pangnirtung Nunavut south of Arcitc Circle

© Lee Narraway

At approximately 66°15′ North, the community of Pangnirtung, Nunavut and its stunning waterways rests just south of the Arctic Circle.

During this time, the sun spins endlessly in the sky. Noon looks no different than nine o’clock at night. Hunters wake in the evening and head out in their boats at midnight. Children frolic in the street in the wee hours of the morning.

And guests like us? We make the most of it, too. Perhaps an early morning visit to a bird colony. Maybe a late-evening Zodiac cruise. Or maybe you’ll hold a personal midnight vigil on the top deck, watching icebergs sail past, glinting in the rich orange sun.

Arctic sunset Ilulissat Greenland

© Dennis Minty

Ilulissat, Greenland at sunset

We’ll leave you with that image—and with this strange fact. The Arctic Circle is not fixed, but rather is moving northbound, creeping a rate of about forty-eight feet per year. That’s because the Earth’s tilt is presently decreasing, part of a natural, 40,000-year-long cycle. Hence, the Arctic is getting smaller. The circle will continue to inch poleward for another hundred centuries or so. Once it reaches approximately 68° North, it will stop, then begin trending southward again. The Arctic will once again expand.

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.