You know those dreams that jolt you awake because you feel like you’re falling? That describes each of my mornings aboard the Ocean Endeavour, Adventure Canada’s trusty vessel that was ferrying our group through the Northwest Passage. I would literally roll a bit too far towards the end of my twin bed and poof! I was up and at ‘em. I had been travelling with a group of writers, biologists, and explorers for about five days when we reached the “shelter” of Arctic Bay, one of the first inhabited areas in the stretch of the Northwest Passage that we had covered so far.
Every member of this trip was inspired to take it for different reasons: some for bird watching, others to explore the ruins of the archaeological landscapes, and some because… well, when else would I get to do this? I believe that all were keenly interested to learn what it was like to live up here, literally on top of the world.
This was one of the harshest climates on earth – even Polar Bears have a hard time! We had been learning about the Inuit community during our travels and how they survived – even thrived – in these conditions. We were all so excited to meet the people who lived up here. I, for one, was also really excited to get on dry land.
The snow was nearly blinding but we had no trouble plowing through in our pedal-powered tanks. It was all very quiet, save for the distant sounds of the sled dogs, of which there were hundreds.
Among our crew we were lucky enough to have Edna Elias serving as our cultural guide, educating us on Inuit history and customs. She lived in Kugluktuk, a town at the outer reaches of Nunavut, where we had embarked on our Arctic adventure. She had introduced us to traditional Inuit cuisine aboard the ship, which was primarily raw meat from both land and sea; maktak (raw Narwhal), caribou (also raw), seal (think filet mignon meets tuna), among other things. She taught us about traditional throat singing and the close-knit communities that the Inuit formed across the Arctic Circle. Towns were generally small and customs varied a bit from place to place. But each community, though perhaps separated by thousands of miles, was part of a larger culture of Arctic survival.
Based on the law governing Nunavit, a semi-autonomous province in Canada, any ship intending to make landfall must be accompanied by a local from the community. We were lucky to bring a woman aboard who was gracious enough to tell us a bit about her community and welcome a ship of strangers to her home. We began the disembarkation process – splitting into small groups of 8-10, gearing up with rain pants, boots, and winter coats – and headed to the zodiacs to disembark. It was a quick ride and as we reached the shores of Arctic Bay, it began to snow lightly.
Not many people make it up to Arctic Bay, so tourism is quite the novelty and seems to draw everyone out. Even small family-run shops that would normally be closed opened up just for us.
A still smaller group of passengers, myself included, planned to mountain bike around the village to see as much as possible. We were to be led by explorer and all-around Arctic extraordinaire David Reid, from Scotland. Once outfitted on bikes with the equivalent of snow tires, we were off! We cruised along the bay and explored the small airport and power generating stations on the outskirts of the village. The snow was nearly blinding but we had no trouble plowing through in our pedal-powered tanks. It was all very quiet, save for the distant sounds of the sled dogs, of which there were hundreds.
We circled back and came to the town center to see some of the homes and shops. No sooner had we begun to break into smaller groups than we found ourselves faced with a smiling child blocking our path, holding a broom upright so that it towered over her. She was giggling and her nose was running – pure joy radiated from her colorful ski jacket.
We were soon joined by an older girl of 8 or 9 years. She asked if she could show us around, and of course we accepted. She walked alongside our bikes, as the smaller child shuffled behind, broom in tow. The older girl pointed out her house, as well as that of her younger companion. She was so excited to have visitors and her exuberance was palpable. Both children asked that we sign their bright ski jackets. Not many people make it up to Arctic Bay, so tourism is quite the novelty and seems to draw everyone out, even in what we might consider inclement weather. Even small family-run shops that would normally be closed opened up just for us.
We were so lucky to have the opportunity to visit this northern oasis. The warmth that we were shown by our small tour guides, as well as the others that we encountered, was enough to make up for the freezing temperatures a thousand times over. Their joy colored the otherwise barren landscape.