• Kangerlussuaq: The Final Stop

    The Northwest Passage Day 17

    “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”  Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

    Kangerlussuaq is located at the end of a 190 kilometer fjord, one of the longest in the world. It used to be a military refuleing stop for the USA during World War 2. We’d be flying out of their airport. It’s a small town, without a dock big enough for the ship, so we were shuttled to the land by Zodiac. And then bussed to the town, which was about 15 minutes away.

    Our flight wouldn’t arrive until late afternoon, so we went on a “Muskoxen safari” to search for the elusive creature. The bus took us to the top of a mountain that was outfitted with some sort of communicaion equipment, most likely installed by the US for military purposes, but I’m not sure what it’s used for today. We were able to see the Greenland icecap in the distance. What a dramatic landscape!

    On our way back to the airport, we finally saw a shabby-looking muskox by the side of the road. It was too close to the road, so we had to stay in the bus to admire him. Like bison, muskox can be aggresive.

    Seventy days, two countries, and amazing journey. With all the adjustments to the itinerary, this is the final route.

  • Sisimiut: Muskox Burgers, a Polar Plunge, and the Aurora

    The Northwest Passage Day 16

    “Without new experiences, something inside of us sleeps. The sleeper must awaken.”  Frank Herbert

    Sisimiut is the second-largest city in Greenland, after Nuuk. Although it is seventy-five kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, warm currents keep it ice free year-round. As a result, it has a pier, so our ship was able to dock. It was the first dock we’ve seen on the entire trip. It was a new experience to walk off the ship onto paved streets.

    A local took us on a walking tour of the town and the local museum, after which we were left on our own. Like most of towns in Greenland, the houses were painted bright colors. In the past, these colors indicated what went on inside—store, hospital, school, and so on. Now I think the people are carrying on the colorful painting as a tradition.   

    This town actually had restaurants and hotels and businesses! We opted to forego the ship food, as we got a tip on a restaurant that serves muskox burgers. Yum!

    Back on board, we learned the town gave us permission to jump in their bay. This would be the last opportunity for a polar plunge north of the Arctic Circle. Would I have the nerve? While I was working up the nerve, a local gave a kayaking demonstration in which he continuously rolled his kayak for at least 30 minutes. He didn’t freeze, so I was encouraged that I could survice a 10 second plunge.

    The polar plunge was well organized. We were to assemble in the Nautilus lounge dressed in our swimsuits and a robe. Only those commiting to plunge were allowed. We got leis, party horns, and other festive paraphenelia and then learned the polar plunge chant. When we were sufficiently pumped up, we paraded through the ship to the mudroom and then the door to the ocean.

    We proceeded one-by-one. First, we were given a life belt. If something happened, like dying from heart failure, the crew could drag us in. When it was my turn to plunge, I put on the belt, jumped, then immediately sprang to the ladder and came out. The crew was ready with a towel and a shot of vodka, which I tossed. Yes, it was cold, but invigorating. Later, we each received a polar plunge patch and were treated to a chocolate extravaganza after dinner. As you can see from the photo, not everyone participated.

    After 16 days above the Arctic Circle, conditions were finally favorable for us to see the northern lights.

    Aurora photos by Glen Gould

    A Touch of Red

  • Ilulissat and Ilimanaq: The Unexpected Guests

    The Northwest Passage Day 15

    “Come, my friends, tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off,  and sitting well in order smite the surrounding furrows; for my purpose holds.” Tennyson

    The Greenland icecap meets the sea at the Ilulissat ice fjord via the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier. It is one of the most active and fastest moving glaciers in the world. Today we were to take a tour of the ice and then disembard via Zodiac, in the town of Ilulissat (population 4,900 people and 6,000 sled dogs). (History buffs will recognize that Knud Rasmussen, a well-known polar explorer, hailed from this town.)

    During the night, ice moved in and blocked the town, making it impossible for our Zodiacs to get to it. In fact we couldn’t even see the town due to the foggy and rainy conditions, and the density of the ice. We weren’t deterred! We set out in the Zodiacs despite the weather and wended our way through the ice so that we could see the mouth of the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier. A couple of the Zodiacs had engine problems, so we lended assistance to get them started or towed. This is perhaps why the Zodiacs travel in pairs.  

    Jason, our expedition leader, scrambled for an alternate activity to the town visit. He found a much smaller town, populateion 150, just down the coast and gave them a call. “Do you mind if 164 of your best friends pop in for a visit?” That’s how it came to be that we visited Ilimanaq. The rumor was that the town wanted to increase tourism, although I’m not sure they had this many simultaneous visitors in mind.

    Jason invited the town to lunch on the ship. I don’t know how many took up the offer, because during the time they were to be on the boat, we were to be walking around town. Nothing was open except their small grocery. Or I should say there was nothing much to be open!  They must have pop-up shops at other times of the year.

    The allure of this town was the view from just outside its perimeter.  A short uphill hike brought us to a view of the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, just the other side of the fjord from where we’d been in the morning.

    LIke most small arctic town, there were many canine residents. We were told not to approach the dogs, as they are all working dogs. Both in the high Canadian arctic and here in Greenland, dogs are not pets. They are referred to as “working dogs” who earn their keep by pulling sleds in the winter.

  • A Disko Day

    The Northwest Passage Day 14

    “Those who contemplate the beauty of nature will find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”  Rachel Carson

    Today we took the Zodiacs through Disko Fjord to Qeqertarsuaq, also known as Disko Island. It is largest island along Greenland’s coast, separating Disko Bay from Baffin Bay. Disko Bay has an average depth of 400 metres and average water temperature of 3.5°C due to an underwater mountain ridge that traps warm salt water. Sounds great for swimming!

    The plan was to hike on Disko Island, return to the ship for an outside BBQ, and then jump in the water for a polar plunge. After dinner, staff and passenges could raid the costume trunk for Disco clothes and start dancing.

    Disko Island was even more lush than our last stop, in that there were grasses at least a foot tall growing in the water. There were lots of small plants on the ground along with black and white lichens. As you can see from the photo, the sky was roiling with clouds, and that meant wind. When we returned to the ship, we had to contend with a lot of chop when disembarking from the Zodiacs. The waves were far too high for a safe polar plunge and a pleasant BBQ. The plunge was rescheduled and we ate indoors.

    Neither wind nor waves would stop the Disco! After checking out the Disco outfits sported by the staff and many of the passengers, I opted to get some rest.

    Arctic Mushrooms

    Black & White Lichen

  • Tasiusaq, Greenland: Lots of Vegetation!

    The Northwest Passage Day 13

    “We shall not cease from exploration, at the end of all of our exploring we will arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”  T.S. Elliott

    Greenland is quite different from the pebbled and rocky land of the Canadian Arctic. It’s thick with vegetation and very squishy to walk on. The lushness invited us to lie down and rest. It feels like a tempurpedic mattress. The only caveat is that you have to find a spot that doesn’t have goose poop, as the geese recently migrated from here.

    Tasiusaq means “an inlet that is like a lake.” It is located in the Upernavik archipelegoe, a large group os islands on the coast of northeast Baffin Bay. It is one of the earliest settled places in Greenland. The Thule people, ancient ancestors of the Inuit, left many archeological sites, including the remnants of the sod house you see here. Susie one of our Inuit staff explains the history.

    One of the on-board botanists warned us that we would become obsessed looking at tiny plants. I did, as you can see by the photos of such things as black lichen and arctic cotton. It was a treat to see so much vegetation, so densely packed. I did manage to rise up and take a look at the lake and the inlet. What a gorgeous place.

    Arctic Cotton, used by the Inuit for lamp wicks

  • A Day at Sea: Heading for Greenland

    The Northwest Passage Day 12

    “Keep your face in the sun and you’ll never see the shadows.” Helen Keller

    Today we head for Greenland. It's a day to kick back and relax. I signed up for a beading workshop given by Susie, one of our Inuit staff and a carving workshop, given by another Inuit staff, Derek.

    The only other carving I've done is using soapstone from Ennis, Montana, which is quite soft, soft enough to carve with a knife. The soapstone Derek supplied was extremely hard, requiring a file and a good deal of arm muscle. I didn't get far.

    I did much better beading. Susie has many talents, beading is just one of them. She is also a great teacher. She showed us how to bead a daisy pattern. I was much more successful at this. The beads were very tiny.

  • Ausuittuq (Grise Fiord)—A Claim to the High Arctic

    The Northwest Passage Day 11

    “Adventure happens, but not punctually!”  T.S. Elliot

    A day later than planned, we made it to Grise Fiord. The funeral that was supposed to happen yesterday did not because the plane transporting the body couldn’t make it until today. The town still welcomed us, but we would not have the celebratory singing and dancing. Instead we would get a walking tour of the town, then assemble in the community center for a short welcome. Our on-board musicians Marshall Dane and David Newland would provide entertainment.

    Grise Fiord has a sad history. This is the official statement:

    “In the early 1950’s, Inuit families from northern Quebec and north Baffin Island were brought here to reinforce Canada’s claim on the HIgh Arctic. The nearby “old village” is still used today for camping and hunting. Some of the original families stayed, some left and others decided to come. The Ausuittumiut (people of Grise Fiod) who remain are proud Inuit who revel in the quiet traditoinal lifestyle where hearing your own footseps is as familiar as teh sounds of nature.“

    Our guide, Larry, is one of two survivors from the 1950’s relocation. He told us a more detailed version. About eight Inuit families were forced to relocate and were dropped off in a fairly inhospitable area (the “old village”) where there was no way to escape. Living conditions were difficult for the Inuit, who had been taken away from their communities and support systems.This forced migration allowed Canada to claim to the high arctic. It turns out that you need ordinary people, not military installations, to assert this authority. So the Canadian goverment used the Inuit.

    Larry talked to us for quite some time. It was heart wrenching to hear about the hardships of his family, both the physical and mental strain. It took Larry (and others) decades to be at peace with the past. He concluded his story by telling us he proudly flies the Canadian flag at his home.

    The Canadian government erected a monument in Grise Fiord to honor those who were relocated. After standing by this monument when Larry told his story, we walked to the commuity center. David gave a short talk to pay our respects to the deceased community member. Marshall led us in singing Amazing Grace. David sang a song that he dedicated to Grise Fiord and is on his most recent CD Northbound 

    Grise Fiord, like other high arctic hamlets, get supplied only twice a year. However this year, Resolute Bay ended up using the barge that was supposed to supply Grise Fiord, so the stocks were down in the store. At least one-third of the shelves were empty when I went in. The next supply ship was supposed to arrive within the month. I hope it did. Once the ice sets in, transportation is just about impossible.

    David Newland

    There is a monument
    Made of cold hard stone
    A woman and a child
    Together, alone
    Out to sea they stare
    Where a ship once went
    And left them there
    Like a monument

    In a settlement
    On a rocky ledge
    Where the wind is cruel
    On an island’s edge
    Does anybody care?
    What was done, what it meant
    They took the people there
    To make a settlement

    Is it sentiment
    That we shed these tears
    For these hard lives lived
    These long lost years
    The flag still flying high
    Flapping like a tent
    What we occupy
    Is it sentiment?

    This is your testament
    This place you’ve known
    Where you lived your life
    Where flesh meets stone
    Where you stood, you stand
    In this long moment
    You are of the land
    It is your testament
    It is your testament

  • 74 Degrees North

    The Northwest Passage Day 10

    “A journey is a person in itself, no two are alike. All plans, safeguards, policies and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”  John Steinbeck

    Today the trip took us. Originally we were supposed to visit the hamlet of Grise Fjord, the most northern hamlet in North America. But due to a death in the town, they asked us to wait a day until they could have the funeral. They wanted to welcome us in the community center, but they needed it for the service.

    Instead, we sailed to Smith Sound and did  the usual wet Zodiac landing followed by a hike. The scenery was stunning. Like most places in the Canadian Arctic, this place has a stark beauty. Although it looks barren, it has many, many plants. You just have to look down, and even sit down to appreciate these minatures.

    Today was also our most northern day—74 degrees north. The original plan was to get to 79 degrees north in a day or two, but the prediction for that area was for high winds and high waves. The Captain decided it was in our best interest to change course. Otherwise, he’d be fighting the waves in one direction and we passengers would likely be crawling on the floor to get around…and vomiting. Not a pretty sight.

    As usual, the sun and sky proved to be spectacular.

  • Dorest Glacier and More Bears

    The Northwest Passage Day 9

    “Believe me my young friends, there is nothing absolutely nothing half so much worth doing as messing around in boats.” From Wind in the Willows

    This morning we took a Zodiac tour of Dorset Glacier. The ice was amazing! The kayak program also started. Kayaking was an add-on charge. The requirement  was the abilty to roll a kayak, so I opted not to do it.   

    After lunch we were scheduled to land in Dundas Harbor, but the scouting party found too many polar bears roaming aournd, so it was canceled. Instead we had a Zodiac tour to view wildlife. We saw bears in the distance, seals, and lots of birds.

    Polar Bear Feasting on a Beluga Whale

    A Group of Curious Seals

    Northern Fulmar on a Mission

    Another Great Day

  • Beechey Island: Dying in a Desolated Land

    The Northwest Passage Day 8

    “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water. Its substances reaches everywhere. It touches the past and prepares the future.” Loren Eisley

    Today was another very windy day. We sailed past Prince Leopold Island, a migratory bird sanctuary whose vertical cliffs are ideal for nesting. After slowing to view the birds from the top deck, we moved on to Beechey Island. We landed there by Zodiac.

    The harbor of Beechey Island is where Sir John Franklin stayed during the first winter of his expedition with the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The ships would have been beset by ice and the crew would have to endure darkness and bitter cold. Three of Franklin’s men are buried on the island—John Torrington, William Braine, and John Hartnell.  A fourth body, that of Thomas Morgan, is also buried on Beechey. In 1854, he was on a vessel that was searching for Franklin.

    In the 1980’s the bodies were autopsied to find the probable cause of death—lung disease and lead poisoning. The lead could have come from the solder used in the cans of provisions, but there is also a theory that the water distiller was leeching lead.

    After Franklin’s expedition went missing. the people searching for Franklin built and supplied a house just in case the expedition were alive. The remains of Northumberland house are still on the island. Unfortunately, Franklin never found it.

    When I walked around the island, it was difficult to imagine spending a winter here. The place consists of tiny pebbles. Although the sea is rich with life, nothing much grows on the land. What does grow is  very tiny.

    Today, Derek was one of our polar bear monitors. The monitors ensure that we can walk around without running into a bear. They scout each landing spot before we arrive and then mainatin a perimeter within which we can walk.