Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Arctic Adventures--From Northern Greeland through Canada's Northwest Passage

Three articles by KARIN COPE and MARIKE FINLAY-de MONCHY
(first published as a SUNDAY SPECIAL to the Chronicle Herald --Halifax, Nova Scotia Canada)  

I. High Arctic Revelation
Summer in Greenland overturns all expectations, illusions of northern waters
Sun. Dec 13 - 4:46 AM

Ilulissat, Greenland, nestled in the rocks, resembles a Nova Scotia fishing village.

The Clipper Adventurer. (Photos by KARIN COPE)

A mountainous iceberg in Ilulissat ice fjord.

Shipmates look like dots on the landscape while the ship is dwarfed by the mountains surrounding Karrat Fjord, Greenland. (Photos by KARIN COPE)

EDITOR'S NOTE: First in a three-part series about a voyage to the Arctic. Next week: birthplace of icebergs.

GREENLAND LOOMS over the map of North America, more than two million square kilometres of ice and rock, the largest island that is not a continent. With just 57,564 inhabitants, it’s the least densely populated country in the world. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to go there, particularly during the summer, the season of the midnight sun?
Is it true what we’ve been hearing, that northern waters will soon be ice-free? Should adventuresome ordinary sailors be tempted into Baffin Bay and beyond?

We wanted to find out, and so we signed on for a 22-day cruise with Adventure Canada aboard a Russian-built ice-class vessel, the 118-passenger Clipper Adventurer.

The itinerary called for us to fly from Ottawa to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, an international airstrip deep up a long, ice-free fjord where we’d board the ship. We were to sail up the west coast of Greenland as far as ice conditions permitted, stopping to explore various capes, fjords and islands.

Then we’d cross to Ellesmere Island, officially re-entering Canada in Grise Fjord, Nunavut, the northernmost community in the country.
A second leg of the voyage called for us to nose our way through the Northwest Passage, stopping for ancient archeological ruins as well as abandoned Hudson’s Bay Company and RCMP posts. We were also to spend time in northern hamlets from Resolute to Gjoa Haven and Cambridge Bay.

Although we’ve read many accounts of the north and are avid admirers of Inuit art, we had no idea what to expect. The north remained sketchy, unimaginable territory, a wild fantasy zone populated by deranged explorers, pelt-wearing hunters and ever smaller polar bears drifting on disappearing ice floes into a midnight sun.

Greenland was a cipher and the Canadian north nothing more than a series of large blank wedges on the map, sparsely populated frosty territories where grave social and environmental problems seemed to be unfolding.

If we prepared for anything then, we prepared for tragedy. But what we found were spaces so beautiful, so vast and so stunning that our sense of the order of the world has been utterly and completely altered.

There is a reason why travelers to the Arctic tend to return, inflamed by arctic fever. Nowhere else in the world is like this. It will defeat and reverse and meet every expectation you could possibly carry. This alone makes the trouble of the trip worth it. And yes, you will see polar bears and narwhals and bird colonies consisting of hundreds of thousands of individuals, and thousands upon thousands of icebergs glistening bluely in the sun.

It was late evening in early August when the Clipper Adventurer hauled anchor and began to steam the 168 kilometres down the Söndre Strömfjord to the sea. The temperature was a balmy 17 C and the sun was still high in the sky. (We were relieved by the warmth — we did not expect that — but also worried. Was this evidence of global warming or just summer in Greenland? In a month, we heard, it would be zero again.)
Energized by such intensity of light so late in the day — who expects to see shadows near midnight? — and the excitement of being in the Arctic, we remained on the deck throughout much of the night, watching as the ship ghosted between high cliffs of ancient metamorphic rock.

A guide told us that Greenland was the site of an ancient northern "ring of fire;" these cliffs in the fjord were some of the oldest visible rock in the world; more than one billion years old on the north side, and nearly three billion years old along the southern wall.

The sun set at around 11:30 p.m. but rose again at 2:30 a.m., so the sky never really darkened.
We waited above-decks to see what was around the next corner and then the next, and the next.

Each view was more extraordinary than the last: clear blue-green glacial waters, multicoloured cliffs marked by striking vertical black slashes, thickly grooved white glaciers flowing into the fjord or retreating up the mountains, a ruby ball of reflected sun striking ice, a cliff face, another cliff. And then, as we approached the sea, our very first "bergy bits."

The next afternoon we stopped at an abandoned research station in Faeringe Nordhaven Fjord. This was our first real walk on the tundra, our first real view of a landscape above the tree line.

Here’s what struck us about the tundra: how familiar the springy, peaty soil made of composted plant matter clinging thinly to bedrock, the fatty tiny leaves of northern succulents like Labrador Tea, the cornucopia of blueberries and crowberries, the stunted growth of the brush, the low carpet of brightly-coloured leaves, grasses and mosses; all were exaggerated reductions of much of the vegetation found on the windy, barren coastlines of Nova Scotia. Minus the ubiquitous black spruce, of course.

There’s a running joke in the Arctic: "If you get lost in the woods just stand up." Tiny arctic willow and dwarf birch trees, trunks no wider than your little finger, crawl horizontally along the rock. Because the trees are so small, you can see forever.

We were startled by an arctic hare on a ledge, watching us, its ears enormous, its fur brilliant white. Snow buntings and wheatears flitted from cliff to cliff. We waded through bogs filled with cotton grasses, photographed bright pink dwarf fireweed and lavender arctic harebells no larger than a thumbtack, picked edible mushrooms, tasted leaves, swatted midges.

"Everything is edible," our guide, artist and adventurer Jerry Kobalenko, reassured us.
"In the Arctic, no plant can waste energy creating the complex proteins that make up poisons."

Before heading back to the boat we climbed the highest ridge and looked around.
Our shipmates were tiny specks, like us. Water pooled on the ground everywhere, and echoed the landscape back to us: vast, lush, verdant, frozen.

II. Greenland’s iceberg factory
Glaciers spill into ice fjords filled with wildlife in a northern wonderland
Sun. Dec 20 - 4:46 AM

Ice plugs Karrat Fjord. Just visible in the background is the glacier responsible for much of the ice in the fjord. (Photos by Karin Cope)

Pakak Inukshuk and Aaju Peter perform a drum dance among the remains of an ancient Thule camp at Dundas Harbour, Devon Island, Nunavut.

The Greenland fishing village of Ilulissat.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of a three-part series of stories about a voyage to the Arctic Ocean by Eastern Shore writers Karin Cope and Marike Finlay-de Monchy. Next week: Sea ice and polar bears off Ellesmere Island.

WE WERE surrounded by thousands of icebergs.
As we headed north along the west coast of Greenland, the Clipper Adventurer steamed through a vast field of towering white fantasias, some trailing streaks of mud. Others seemed to emit a blue glow, above and below the water. Some were rough, some were smooth, some flat, others spiky. Sometimes, you could hear the ice hissing as it melted into the sea. Now and then, with a thunderous crack and splash, an iceberg split apart or became top-heavy and turned over.

Disko Bay, on the west coast of Greenland and 250 km north of the Arctic Circle, is one of the most prolific iceberg factories in the Arctic, and because the movements of the ice stir up the water, it’s also very rich fishing grounds.

Here, inside of Ilulissat Ice Fjord, an enormous glacier called Sermeq Kujalleq runs, like a massive river, from the ice cap to the sea. This is the most active glacier outside of Antarctica; every year, 35 cubic kilometres of ice flow into the sea here, where they crack off and create icebergs. As the icebergs calve, they crash and bang and create small tsunamis — signs on the beaches near the town of Ilulissat warn visitors to step back lest they be swept away.

We docked in Ilulissat, a shrimp and fish packing town with a population of around 5,000, and walked through town to the cliffs above the Ice Fjord, where thousands of icebergs are grounded against the sea bottom. They looked like the work of a mad city planner; huge glowing white architectural monuments ranged row upon irregular row.

Later we surveyed the Ice Fjord by Zodiac. Ice monsters — or perhaps angels — hovered over us. Light tumbled through strange keyholes high in the ice walls and bounced from one point to another. Newly calved icebergs were crusted with mud and stone; older bergs that had already rolled were smooth and sharply curved and clean. We traveled slowly among the behemoths, quietly, trying to keep a safe distance, in case they should roll or break apart.

Ice wasn’t the only attraction above the Arctic Circle, however. The air was warm (10-17° C) and the sun never set. Cam Gillies of Eagle Eye Tours helped us to see and identify kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots, ivory gulls, gyrfalcons, snow buntings, harbour seals and bowhead whales. We saw polar bears and muskox and three small fox kittens.

All the coastal towns we visited in Greenland — Ilulissat, Upernavik, and Qaanaaq — featured small brightly painted wooden houses, in deep blues, yellows, rusts, greens, ochres and reds, scattered across the bedrock. Steep staircases run up and down between the dwellings, and large insulated pipes carry power and communications lines across the rock.

We were welcomed warmly in every community by emissaries who came on board to greet us, to eat with us, to sing with us, and, in Upernavik, to challenge us to a soccer game. The Adventure Canada team was roundly trounced by a changing crew of fishermen and fish packers on lunch break, a man who scored a goal against us while taking a call on his cellphone, a mom with a toddler, and several elders.

Adventure Canada had secured the services of Aaju Peter, a Greenlander now living in Iqaluit, Nunavut.
A singer, clothing designer, legal student and able cultural interpreter and translator of English, Inuktitut, Danish and various Greenlandic dialects, Aaju traveled with us, taught us words and songs in Greenlandic and Inuktitut, and facilitated a number of conversations and exchanges with residents of the communities we visited.

In Greenland, where it is legal to sell wild game, Aaju often went ashore to purchase fresh musk ox, reindeer, Arctic char, and halibut for the ship’s galley. And one afternoon, on the tundra steep above an icy fjord, she spread a table of "country food" delicacies for us to sample: raw seal and whale meat. (Cooking this food is not only disgusting, according to most northerners, but it destroys all of its vitamins and essential nutrients.)

At 77° north, Qaanaaq is the northernmost hamlet in Greenland. Squeezed between mountains and the sea, the town spreads across desertic scree. Removed 153 kilometres from more hospitable terrain in 1953, to make way for the U.S. Cold War Thule airbase, Qaanaaq’s inhabitants survive by hunting narwhal, seal and long-line halibut fishing.

Housed in a building once inhabited by Knud Rasmussen, a small museum showcases the history, artifacts and artworks of the community. Here you can see explorer Robert Peary’s ethnographic portraits of his young Greenlandic wife in various states of "native" undress. The museum also details Peary’s theft of the bulk of an iron-rich meteorite that had supplied inhabitants of the entire Baffin Bay region with iron for tools for more than 1,000 years.

Qaanaaq might be remote, but it is not out of touch, nor have its residents ever been. Many of the "great" northern explorers and whalers owe their survival to the ingenuity, hospitality and hunting skills of these "Arctic Highlanders" as John Ross called ancestors of this community in 1818.

Today, Qaanaaq is home to the world’s northernmost breakdance crew. Dressed in unlaced high tops, slouchy pants, graffiti shirts and cool sunglasses and copping moves from Brazilian capoeira, these talented teens are obviously global citizens. They gave us an impressive show.

How far north did we get?

At 78° 13’ north, in the early morning in thick fog, the ship stopped with a mighty crash as we lurched up against impassable floes of very hard multi-year ice descending from the polar ice cap and clogging the narrows of Smith’s Sound.

For the last century or so, often ice-free in the late summer, this passage was, ironically, thanks to climate change and the increased melt and breakup of the polar ice cap — clogged by old, super-hard ice.
There was nothing to do but to turn around and head south until we could cross to Ellesmere Island.

III. A harsh beauty
Arctic exacted tribute from early explorers

Sun. Dec 27 - 4:46 AM

A view of Gjoa Haven from the beach on a foggy August day.

Graves of RCMP officers from the 1920s overlook Dundas Harbour. Apparently, the officers went a bit mad. It seems that one shot the other then committed suicide,* though of course, since they are both dead, no one else knows exactly what happened. (* In fact, this is incorrect--see end of article for correction.)

Passengers from the Clipper Adventurer cross the tundra to an abandoned RCMP post in Dundas Harbour, Devon Island, Nunavut. Fresh polar bear tracks have been sighted, so guide Aaju Peter carries her gun. (Photos by KARIN COPE)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Third and final part of a series about a voyage to the Arctic.

HEADING SOUTH through sea ice along the east coast of Ellesmere Island was hard. In fog, the Clipper Adventurer slowly hunted for leads along the floe edge. Occasionally we spotted a lone male polar bear on the pack ice accompanied by rare ivory gulls hoping for remnants from a seal catch.

At Coburg Island, we took a late-night Zodiac trip along high cliffs where thick-billed murres and other seabirds nest. Along with Prince Leopold Island in Lancaster Sound, Coburg contains a crucial rookery for seabirds feeding on fish, squid and shrimp in the storm-stirred Arctic. The sunny midnight sky was filled with half a million screeching parents and their fledglings.

We cleared customs at Grise Fiord, the northernmost Inuit settlement in Canada. Like Resolute, one of the coldest inhabited places in the world, Grise Fiord was created in 1953 by the federal government to ensure Arctic sovereignty claims.

Several families from subarctic Hudson Bay and Baffin Island had been assured of housing and ample game in these new hamlets.
When they arrived, there were no buildings. After great hardship, hunters learned where to hunt beluga and narwhal. These were northern deserts.

Years later, after an inquiry, compensation was paid to these settlers, but no formal apology ever offered. Despite government subsidies, housing, nursing stations, schools, air service, the annual sealift, and social insurance, living here is still a great challenge, especially for increasing numbers of youth who have few local employment prospects and little experience of the outside world should they finish school and decide to leave.

Devon Island, the largest uninhabited island in the world, is separated from Baffin Island by Lancaster Sound, one of the world’s most nutritious feeding grounds for marine animals. The RCMP station at Dundas Harbour, established in 1922, consists of derelict buildings and a well-tended graveyard. The site was abandoned after just ten years following the suicide of one officer and the death of another.

On Beechy Island we visited gravesites of three members of Franklin‘s 1845 search for the Northwest Passage. Even in the height of this tundra-flowering, luminescent summer, Dundas and Beechy seemed barren and desolate. In 1846, all 129 members of Franklin’s expedition perished. Ironically, the Canadian Arctic archipelago was charted by 81 subsequent expeditions launched, at huge expense, to search for Franklin or to relieve searchers.

During the long cold run through Peel Sound between Prince of Wales and Somerset Island, we studied ice charts from Environment Canada revealing extensive ice coverage in Bellot Strait.

Luckily the strait was sufficiently ice-free to enter. Afternoon sun at our backs illuminated high red rocky hills on either side. As we passed the northernmost point of continental North America, extremely strong eddies caused by the meeting of tidal waters from both the Atlantic and the Pacific stirred up many nutrients, attracting a plethora of marine life. Polar bears, including mothers with cubs, fished from ice floes or wandered high in the hills. Narwhals crossed our bow and grazed like slowly moving logs along the shoreline, their strange tusks barely visible. A bowhead sounded. Dozens of belugas spy-hopped, popping their white heads in and out of the swirling water.

Fort Ross, a Hudson Bay Company fur-trading post, established in 1938 and abandoned two decades later due to intractable ice conditions, lay at the east end of Bellot. Now derelict, it was obvious that the main house had been built to impress. The oval door frames, desks and cabinetry were crafted of fine woods. An adjacent building, in good repair, shuttered against marauding polar bears, still provides shelter for hunters, fishermen and sailors. Inside we found a working oil stove, plenty of fuel, bunks, a functional stocked kitchen, a logbook, even a bottle of rum!

Heading south through the Franklin, Ross, and Rae Straits, the fog froze on the deck. A northerly had blown broken-up ice from the high Arctic down through McClintock Channel and into Larsen’s Sound, named after Captain Henry Larsen nearly lost his ship, the RCMP vessel St. Roch, in the crushing ice of these waters. The second vessel to complete the Northwest Passage, the St. Roch was the first to do so in both directions.

Adventure Canada had insisted on hiring Capt. Kenth Grankvist, a Swedish ice master with 30 years of experience. Unlike many captains, he loves to work ice. For 36 hours in thick fog he never left the bridge, searching for leads through multi-year ice. Occasionally the hull met ice with a crash.

Finally the sky and the ice cleared as we approached Gjoa Haven, a sheltered harbour on King William Island. Elders and schoolchildren performed throat-singing and drum-dancing, then fed us fresh bannock. We learned about a birthrate so high that housing and medical care cannot keep pace. Prices for fresh fruit, vegetables and milk in the Co-op and North stores are outrageous. Life is hard here; each Canadian Arctic community we visited left us with many questions and no real answers.

The coast guard icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier, in narrow, shallow, twisting Simpson Strait, was just beginning to set and repair buoys for the late summer sea-lifts of heavy objects and fuel to northern communities.

On Jenny Lind Island, in Queen Maud Gulf, an abandoned DEW Line radar station, originally designed to detect Soviet nuclear bombers, was being dismantled.

A hike on vast Victoria Island revealed caribou and tundra swan. At Prichard’s Point we came upon a well-preserved wreck and our first driftwood, flowing up from below the tree line along the great northern rivers.

We travelled by zodiac up the Coppermine River to Bloody Falls, site of a massacre of Inuit by Dene hunters accompanying Samuel Hearne in 1771. Later, the summit of a red-bushed mountain revealed the winding path of the mighty Hood as it reached Arctic Sound.

At longitude 118° 13’ W, just before Amundsen Gulf, we toasted Amundsen’s first Northwest Passage as well as our own; it is still a navigational challenge, history in the making, and a life-altering experience of natural beauty!

Marike Finlay-de Monchy and Karin Cope are freelance writers who live on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore.


According to RCMP records, it is not really true, as the caption for the Dundas Harbour RCMP gravesite above states, that the officers buried in the graves at Dundas Harbour "had gone a bit mad" and were involved in a murder-suicide.  

The true facts are as follows:  The RCMP maintained an active post in Dundas Harbour from 1924-1933 and then 1945-1951.  The post at Dundas Harbour was part of an effort by the federal government to assert Canadian sovereignty in its northern archipelago.  While there are some signs of ancient encampments on Devon Island, prior to the establishment of Dundas Harbour detachment, there were no modern inhabitants on the island.  Life there was certainly lonely and very difficult.  In 1925, Inuit special constables and their families were assigned to the unit to help southern officers with the survival skills necessary to live in such a remote region of the north.

In June 1926, Constable Victor Maisonneuve committed suicide.  He was alone at a seal hunting camp at Croker Bay at the time. Then, a little more than a year later, in August 1927, Constable William Robert Stephens accidentally shot himself while hunting walrus.  Although the RCMP no longer maintains an active detachment in Dundas Harbour, the Arctic Bay detachment is responsible for making an annual grave inspection there.  As you can see from the photo, they maintain the graves very well.  Permanent granite headstones were put in place by the RCMP in August 1973.

I thank the Rev. LCDR (ret.) MacLean for bringing suggesting something was amiss with the story and requesting a correction to the record. I alone am responsible for the error; Marike played no part in my late and fanciful edit of the details at Dundas Harbour.

Karin Cope