By E’Louise Ondash
Our group is gathered around a pile of black rocks on the tundra near Cape Dorset on the southwest coast of Baffin Island in Nunavut. Local guide Niviaqsi Alariaq explains that this is the grave of a sailor – possibly Portuguese – who ventured here in the 1800s to hunt and died in the process. Because the tundra is frozen all year, the dead are laid to rest above ground and rock domes are built over them.
To my surprise, Alariaq invites us to peek through the openings between the rocks to see the skeleton. Hesitant at first, I finally realize that he wouldn’t have made the offer if it wasn’t sincere. I peer through the pile and see what looks to be lower arm bones that are partially covered with earth.
It’s a sobering moment, but also the kind of up-close-and-personal experience we’ve had every day while traveling with Adventure Canada. Our 13-day Heart of the Arctic expedition has taken us to the waters bordering northern Quebec, Nunavut, and the west coast of Greenland. Our home is a cabin on the Ocean Endeavour, a 190-passenger vessel, converted Russian ferry. If you want lavish suites, casinos, fancy floor shows, ice sculptures and flaming desserts, this is not the cruise for you.
If you want to see, do and learn, Adventure Canada is the tour for you. And not to worry; the accommodations are comfortable, clean and efficient, the housekeeping staff attentive and thorough, and meals and snacks excellent. The chef also provides well for those with special dietary needs. (I have celiac disease, so gluten-free eating is a must. I always had plenty of delicious options.)
In the heart of the arctic
Perhaps best of all is the Adventure Canada staff. Their numbers include experts in geology, zoology, biology, birding, art, environmental science, photography, culture, music, and natural and human history. Others are adept at driving Zodiac rafts, survival techniques, emergency response and monitoring for bears and other dangerous critters. (Yes, they carry guns.) To a person, they are patient, willing and anxious to share their expertise and experiences.
This Heart of the Arctic tour also featured well-known Canadians who made presentations on various aspects of Canada’s history and culture.
Phil Fontaine, a First Nation’s activist who has done much to raise awareness about abuse suffered by indigenous students in Canada’s residential schools, gave us a thumbnail history of where the movement is now and where it needs to go. His wife, attorney Kathleen Maloney, who has represented victims of abuse in residential schools, added to the story of Canada’s indigenous peoples and their current legal battles to obtain reparations.
To the delight and surprise of many, well known Canadian author Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale) was aboard and relayed the story of her life and literary career.
There also were representatives of the Inuit community: artist/sculptor Billy Gauthier and award-winning documentarian Myna Ishulutak.
Briefings on the day’s excursions and lectures on pertinent topics were held several times a day, depending on when shore expeditions were scheduled. These presentations always deepened our experiences because, for most, this was an unfamiliar part of the world.
With one exception – the day we spent at sea getting to Greenland – we rafted to shore daily to hike, explore the area’s geology, plant and animal life, and meet residents of Inuit communities. Excursions always offered several levels of activity, from strenuous to leisurely, and the staff was eager to help those who were less-than-nimble.
The first Inuit community we visited was Cape Dorset (population 1,500) on southwest Baffin Island. Several residents escorted us about town to visit art galleries (20 percent of the town’s population are recognized artists) and to meet artists who demonstrated soapstone carving and printmaking. Our second day in the area brought us to the outskirts of town to see archeological sites.
In the community of Kimmirut (population 400), south of Cape Dorset, we took a walking tour led by locals; watched Arctic games in the school gym; ate freshly grilled Arctic char (a delicious local fish); visited with artists as they worked; and watched a seal “flensing” (skinning). Those who were brave enough to try raw blubber proclaimed that it tasted somewhat like butter.
A team of Ocean Endeavour passengers challenged Kimmirut’s soccer enthusiasts to a game. Locals beat visitors 5-4, but we losers had a pretty amazing cheerleading team that included two mascots, pompoms and bubuzelas, which were co-opted by the local kids.
That evening, 21 Kimmirut residents came aboard the Ocean Endeavour for dinner, including three women in native dress who demonstrated throat singing, a form of entertainment and competition during the long, dark Arctic winters.
I also had the privilege of chatting with two women who explained the social norms and structure of Inuit families. For instance, women who have multiple children willingly give a child or two to women who are unable to have children. There is a lot of unofficial adoption between friends and relatives, which may be of no consequence as everyone is everyone’s cousin.
The spirit of community is strong in these small Arctic settlements because it really takes a village to survive.
Fascinating flora and fauna
On Digges West, an uninhabited island where we may have been the first visitors in centuries, we discovered ground-hugging tundra flowers of every color and a spectacular, multi-level waterfall. In Douglas Harbor, we saw herds of caribou and birds found only in the Arctic.
And on Akpatok Island in Ungava Bay, we watched two polar bears watching us. Later, in the ice-laden waters just south of Resolution Island, we came within a few yards of two polar bears – a mother and her teen-aged cub. Mom stood on an ice floe for an amazingly long time “defending” her cub against our 450-foot ship. The bears eventually turned and swam off to a much quieter piece of ice.
And in the tiny Greenland community of Kangaamiut (population 300), we were treated to a concert by an angelic sextet that performed in a beautifully maintained lavender sanctuary.
The last few days of our Heart of the Arctic adventure was spent on the southwest coast of Greenland. The Ocean Endeavour sailed into the stunning Kapisillit Fjord, north of the capital Nuuk. We took what we now laughingly call the “the hike from hell,” a deceptively difficult trek over tundra to the edge of Greenland’s ice sheet. The seven-mile round trip was rewarded with the discovery of an otherworldly scene – chunks of crystal ice floating in a pool of cobalt water. On the horizon we could see the edge of the ice sheet, which covers 80 percent of Greenland.
Greenland’s capital city
Our day in the capital city of Nuuk (population 17,000) was eye opening. Our guide, Margaret, who spoke excellent English, escorted us to both city and federal offices and explained Greenland’s government. The contemporary interiors of the buildings were obviously designed with workers’ physical and psychological health in mind. Offices and hallways have generous windows and greenery to ameliorate the effects of many months of darkness, and office furniture looked generously ergonomic (think Ikea on steroids).
Perhaps most surprising is that in Greenland (population 57,000), there is no private ownership of property. Most residents live in apartments; single-family homes are rare. Those who want to build must petition the government. If permission is granted, one can own the home but must lease the land.
One big draw in Nuuk is the National Museum of Greenland, which houses many precious cultural artifacts and the Qilakitsok mummies. Eight amazingly preserved bodies, including an infant with Down’s syndrome, sit behind glass. The mummies are believed to be hundreds of years old. There were accidentally discovered in 1972 by two Danish hunters, and were naturally preserved (freeze dried) because of the graves’ locations which kept the bodies shielded from rain and exposed them to strong, drying winds.
Other museum treasures include intricately beaded Greenlandic clothing, and an almost complete umiak or skin boat.
For information on Adventure Canada’s Heart of the Arctic schedule, visit http://www.adventurecanada.com/
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran newspaper journalist who has won 35 awards for her investigative reports and feature writing. She currently writes weekly travel features for The Coast News in San Diego County (http://www.thecoastnews.com/category/columns/hit-the-road/) and for several travel and medical websites. For more commentary, photos and video, visit www.facebook.com/elouiseondash