Exploring the Arctic

Written by  Denise Mattia

USA Arctic-Bay
Standing on the shores of Resolute Bay I unzipped my Anorak, let the foggy mist envelop me and breathed in clean, fresh, cool air, a welcome relief from the relentless humid summer heat that lingered in the Northeast.

I departed New York on an Air Canada flight, overnighting at the Ottawa Hilton Garden Inn and boarded a chartered plane the next morning with 27 guides, 140 Canadian, U.S. and Australian passengers of all ages with whom I’d sail for the next 10 days. Resolute Bay is the jump-off point for North Pole expeditions. From there, participants are ferried to the Ocean Endeavor for daily expeditions in Zodiacs.

Chartered by the tour company, Adventure Canada (www.adventurecanada.com), the 450-foot vessel has had several improvements since her maiden voyage in 1982. In 2015 the vessel was upgraded, making her more comfortable. Experts in various Arctic fields conduct daily lectures on Inuit culture, climate change, the early explorers, archaeological findings, mammals, birds and flora and fauna in the ship’s lounges. They also serve as “captains” of the zodiacs and as guides during explorations along Baffin Island and Greenland.

It was rainy and raw the first morning as we embarked the bleak, barren Beechey Island, where famed British explorer John Franklin and his 128 men perished in the winter of 1846 while attempting to find the Northwest Passage. Only the ship’s detritus and three graves remain. Three of our members sank into a quicksand-like frost boil (an upwelling of mud that occurs in permafrost areas). The intrepid octogenarians returned to the ship unharmed, muddy and delighted for the new experience.

For the next nine days the sun shone brightly. A polar bear dipped into the Bay for a meal, a trio of muskoxen grazed on Arctic scrub, whales spouted and several curious seals ventured close to the zodiacs. We hiked up desolate, rocky cliffs that were once reefs swarming with warm-water fish, visited the spooky grave, where RCMP Victor Maisonneuve committed suicide in 1926 at Dundas Harbor, the loneliest outpost in Canada, after which his partner, William Stephens shot himself, and zipped on zodiacs among ice floes at spectacular fjords. Images of up close and personal with animals in the wild were dispelled when we were informed that Canadian Law does not allow interaction with wildlife. Rifle-bearing guides accompanied groups during excursions, more to scare off predators than to protect us.

In addition to acting as guides, Kathleen Merritt and Heidi Langille are proficient in Inuit throat singing. Originally conceived as a game of vocal breathing between Inuit women, the contest is a series of non-stop repetitive, rhythmic vocalizations. Kathleen lost when she stopped and laughed. The audience applauded both.

Throat singing continued during an excursion to Ikpiarjuk with Inuit women who wore “Annuraaq”, the traditional animal skin garments, with amutis (pouches) sewn into the shoulder to carry babies. When not performing, however, the community’s fashions are contemporary - colorful T-shirts, jeans, sneakers and down-type jackets are the mode of the day. Although too shy to speak, the children posed for photos with appealing charm.

On land four-wheel motorized vehicles are the method of transportation; I walked the few miles to the heart of the community center and the “Northern” value store, where food and construction materials are delivered by sea or plane. Most everything can be purchased here, although seal and whale meat remain staples of the Inuit diet. I sampled boiled blubber, which was tasteless and chewy, but the salted, fried variety was tender and surprisingly delicious.

Rather than hike up an incline at the uninhabited Dundas Harbor, one afternoon I flopped on the soft turf with resident botanist, Dawn Bazely, where in small patches around us we found False mayweed that resembled daisies, Arctic blueberries, white heather and a variety of other plants. How refreshing this was from looking at concrete in New York.

On another day I hiked along the unpaved roads at Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet). The settlement, surrounded by nothing but water and distant mountain ranges is hauntingly beautiful. Yet it’s a growing iron ore industry, boasting an airfield, a Community Hall and the local co-operative, where locals hang out or buy a variety of goods brought in from Montreal. I met Jane, a young Inuit woman who was forthright in her modern ideas about women, schooling, careers and family. Generally, it’s a culture where the norm is to bear children, she told me, glad for the gradual change. At the community center I learned the Inuit are a proud people, happy to share their challenging games, lilting songs and joyous dances.

From Baffin Island we sailed into Greenland’s spectacular Illulissat Bay. Our zodiacs dodged icebergs and fishing- and whale-sighting boats, docking finally at the village, where shipmates Daina, Kim and I marveled at the contemporary architecture of Danish influence on the Inuit town.

Still, we had come to view the Icefjord, Greenland’s marvel of the north and one of the fastest and most active glaciers in the world. Reaching the end of the nearly two-mile boardwalk, we climbed high up on the rocks to view the amorphous ice sculptures flowing to the sea.

Suddenly someone shouted, “WHALE!” There it was, in a break in the ice – dipping, surfacing and spouting. We froze at the spot, watching the leviathan until it disappeared. The sight was the culmination of an amazing adventure into the Arctic.   

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