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Exploring the Northwest Passage

With climate change causing sea ice to melt, Canada’s infamous Northwest Passage, which eluded numerous 19th-century expeditions, is finally opening up to exploration. It represents a Victorian vision finally realised, but should this delicate marine environment really be our next tourism frontier?

Exploring the Northwest Passage
Polar bear on an ice floe. Image: Getty

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Beechey Island is monochrome, like a charcoal etching. Drifts of fresh snow stripe its rising foreshore like zebra hide. The hulking granite cliffs are blacker than night. The beach curves away towards neighbouring Devon Island, where a porcelain-white glacier glints through the spitting sleet: a fitting setting for a graveyard.

In 1845, John Franklin sailed to the Canadian Arctic in a bid to chart the last unknown section of the Northwest Passage. He was seeking the ultimate prize of the era: a seaway between the Atlantic and Pacific that would mean quick shipping routes to Asia. I was following the route on a 16-day adventure cruise. Judging from the headstones poking above the permafrost, it’s clear that Franklin didn’t get very far. Arctic historian Ken McGoogan, a guest lecturer on board our vessel, Ocean Endeavour, explains how Franklin’s ships were trapped by sea ice, forcing them to winter here. Three of his crew died that season.

“They were the lucky ones,” says McGoogan. “After the expedition continued south in 1846, the ships became trapped for years and all the crew died of sickness or starvation.”

Ultimately, they resorted to cannibalism — news that shocked British society at the time. Today, as the Arctic’s ice melts and the Victorian dream of a navigable trade route becomes a reality, the Northwest Passage’s Inuit inhabitants and wildlife faces momentous change.

The imperative driving the race for the Northwest Passage was to forge a trading shortcut high above the Arctic Circle — an alternative to the established route around the dangerous coastal headlands of Africa or South America. From east to west the passage runs through a frozen archipelago west of Greenland towards the North Pacific; skirting the roof of Alaska and slaloming through the immense Canadian wilderness of Nunavut, a region self-administered by scattered Inuit populations. I board Ocean Endeavour at Cambridge Bay in the passage’s western sector for a partial traverse eastwards.

From the 17th century onwards, McGoogan explains during an on-board lecture, the British navy’s countless expeditions ran into cul-de-sacs of impregnable sea ice. Centuries of epic failures culminated in the loss of Franklin’s 129-strong crew before the legendary Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen traversed the passage in 1906.

Amundsen’s success scarcely opened the floodgates, and throughout the 20th century the route remained untenable for commercial shipping. But now, thanks to climate change, that’s all changing. According to NASA, since 1980, Arctic sea ice has been melting at a rate of around 13% per decade. In 2013, the first bulk cargo carrier sailed through, reportedly saving $200,000 by taking this shortcut. The colossal Crystal Serenity cruise ship followed in 2016, carrying over 1,000 passengers, then in July 2017, the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica completed the earliest ever summer crossing.

Cometh the white men

Louie Kamookak lived in an igloo until the age of seven. Tales of Franklin’s failed missions populated his childhood in Gjøa Haven, the tiny hamlet on King William Island where we meet during a shore excursion. Inuits have a rich heritage of storytelling, with tales handed down through generations. “When I was young, my great-grandmother’s stories about Franklin were our entertainment,” he says. “An elder told me his ancestors found a lifeboat with dead kabloonas (white men) and a pot of human remains.”

The ice Franklin ran into here in the 1840s didn’t thaw during the summer, like it does today. “It was so cold then even our people fled this island,” says Louie.

Franklin’s sunken ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were discovered in 2014 and 2016, respectively, near King William Island’s southern tip. The Erebus was located where Inuit lore, interpreted by Louie, predicted it would be found. With an increasing number of cruise ships now crossing the passage, the island’s Franklin legacy means a much-needed injection of revenue for Gjøa Haven.

“Last year we had one or two ships but already it’s five this summer,” Louie says. “Unemployment is very high here. Maybe 80% and people survive on social welfare. We hope to get a new Franklin museum.”

The local community puts on a display of Inuit culture for visitors and I’m transfixed by a performance of throat singing by two women who clutch each other’s elbows as they emit rhythmic baritone growls like possessed beatboxers.

Other Gjøa Haven locals are equally likeable. George has picked up a morning’s work guiding us around. He tells us temperatures can plummet to -50C in January. It’s late summer now and snow is still piled up against the multicoloured wooden prefab houses, while the few roads there remain clear. Most homes have satellite dishes and skidoos now outnumber huskies. Locals grumble about exorbitant food prices at the community shop.

“That’s why we still hunt country foods,” says George, describing waiting all day at an ice hole to harpoon seals. The diminishing reserves of natural food and the impact on wildlife resources by climate change are a recurring theme during my voyage.

Beyond King William, Ocean Endeavour veers northwards up the Rae Strait then Peel Sound, avoiding the island’s west coast ice, where Franklin got stuck. I’m on deck spotting seals and watching drifting powder-blue icebergs with a one-way ticket to meltdown. By night, aurora borealis puts on a phantasmagorical light show.

Our next landing, on Somerset Island’s austere treeless tundra, sees us head out into Coningham Bay in rigid-inflatable boats. Our wildlife guide, David Reid, spots two polar bears resting on the crescent bay’s shoreline. Both have blooded muzzles.

“The bears have fed on beluga,” says David. “Belugas swim into the bay to rub their hide [during their annual moult] and sometimes get caught in the shallows. The bears wade out and nail them.”

He cuts the outboard motor. There’s a distant tweeting sound. “Whalers used to call them ‘sea canaries’ because of this,” David continues, pointing to a spot near the shore where a pod of ghostly white belugas have gathered, blowing jets of water into the air.

Like the bears, the Nunavut Inuit value the beluga’s nutritious skin. It’s a complex food chain, and David feels the threat climate change poses to Arctic wildlife is often oversimplified.

“The media always focus on polar bears,” he says. “Sure, they need sea ice to hunt seals and it’s melting. But they’re also opportunistic and I’ve even seen them chasing lemmings on land.”

The subject of climate change’s complexity resurfaces several days later in the remote Qausuittuq National Park, on Bathurst Island. Canada’s newest national park — 4,250sq miles of pristine Arctic tundra on the 75th parallel — was designated in 2015 and we’re the first commercial ship to visit it. Translated from Inuktitut as ‘the place of no dawn’, we access Qausuittuq in rigid-inflatable boats; nudging through a crust of sea ice that cracks before us like a crème-brulee crust.

On the snowy tundra are distant herds of muskox and endangered Peary caribou. The caribou’s white coats are barely noticeable in the snowfall but their small antlers, rising like stunted trees, give them away because no vegetation sprouts above ground level.

While examining polar bear paw prints the size of frisbees, ship scientist-in-residence, Professor Jackie Dawson explains that protecting these caribou was a key reason for designating Qausuittuq as a national park. She scrapes away snow to reveal the tundra is coated in an icy sheen. “It’s hard for the caribou to forage lichen in summer with this ice. Some people think climate change is all about warming but it’s a misnomer. It’s about extreme variability in climate. The Arctic is experiencing stronger weather, which brings less-predictable temperatures. The issue is nonlinear, there are going to be winners and losers.”

Jackie also tells me Inuit from the nearby hamlet of Resolute asked for Qausuittuq’s designation to protect their hunting grounds from oil and gas exploration. Commercial exploitation of the Arctic is no idle threat. Jackie’s own data from 1990-2012 shows commercial shipping — everything from cruise ships to iron ore transportation — trebled to 360 vessels a year. “I think it will be completely commercially viable within 50 years,” she says. As the Northwest Passage becomes evermore accessible, the risk of oil spills and other marine accidents increases, something that deeply concerns her.

exploring the northwest passage

Qikiqtarjuaq. Image: Getty

Unicorns of the sea

Beyond Beechey Island, we steam eastwards along the Northwest Passage’s main corridor, Lancaster Sound, where Canada is designating a 42,470sq-mile marine conservation area. It’s a key migratory passage for wildlife and I’m hoping to see narwhals — dubbed ‘unicorns of the sea’ and endemic to Arctic waters.

Keeping his expert eyes peeled on deck is Derek Pottle, an Inuit hunter and polar bear spotter from Arctic Labrador. “Hunting is important to us to make a livelihood and feed the family,” he says. “We stick to a strict quota for polar bears and nothing is wasted from any animal taken. If we didn’t look after the wildlife then there would be nothing left for us,” he adds, recalling chronic food shortages as recent as the 1970s.

Derek shot his first seal aged six. “When I was young, I didn’t grow up with television but the stories of my elders,” he says. “My heroes were hunters. I wanted to be like them. Hunting is the Inuit way of maintaining our connection to the land.”

Pond Inlet is a small Inuit community on North Baffin Island at the Northwest Passage’s mouth. Brightly painted wooden houses cluster alongside a stunning fjord framed by snow-dusted mountains. Here, another cultural show waits. Lamech Kadloo, an ageing drum dancer, sashays around the auditorium in moccasins, imitating the footsteps of a polar bear. The sealskin bodhrán he beats rhythmically is the size of a car tyre.

“We were forbidden to practice drum dancing in the 1950s and ’60s by Christian missionaries because of its association with shamanism,” Lamech says after his performance. Now he welcomes the chance to show visitors his heritage. “We’ve had 15 ships this summer already, Lamech says. “There’s not enough employment here, and the women make art and crafts to sell to visitors.”

This includes local seamstress Rhoda Armakalla, who, during a demonstration of how she transforms sealskins into knee-length kamik boots at her house, asks if I’d like a wedge of mataaq from her fridge. Moments later, I lay eyes on my first narwhal — albeit frozen. Rhoda dices the flesh with a curved ulu blade. The raw rind is hard and I grimace — consumed by a combination of guilt and dental concern.

Happier cetacean experiences lay ahead, spotting bowhead whales on Baffin Island’s fjord-indented eastern coast, where our final Inuit community awaits: Qikiqtaurjuaq, which is almost as taxing to pronounce as mataaq is to chew.

An old man with an accordion warms up for the inevitable cultural display with a soulfully discordant rendition of Amazing Grace. A narwhal hunter offers to sell me a narwhal tusk for $3,000. I explain importing it might land me in jail. He complains the narwhals are being frightened away from the bay by the cruise ships.

But the mayor of this 526-strong community, Mary Killiktee, remains upbeat. “We’ve only had four ships this summer. Some cancelled because icebergs blocked the bay,” she says, reminding us all that climate change is anything but predictable.

But, ultimately, the mayor sees melting ice bringing more shipping and with it, economic opportunities for Qikiqtarjuaq. I suggest this might change the community’s lifestyle forever? She pauses.

“No. When the winter is -30C, the ice will still form and we’ll go out on skidoos to hunt and visit our winter camps. Arctic winters are so beautiful.”

Arctic Big 5

Polar bears
The world’s largest land-based carnivore eats 40-50 seals a year, according to Adventure Canada wildlife guide David Reid. The global population is estimated at around 30,000, half of which can be found in Nunavut.

Two species are found in Nunavut: the larger, barren-ground caribou and Peary caribou. Both sexes have antlers. They’re lichen-feeders and reports from Baffin Island suggest their catastrophic decline is partly due to frozen summer feeding grounds.

These blubbery giants can nudge the scales at 1.5 tonnes; remarkable given their diet of molluscs (around 6,000 a day, located using sensitive whiskers). Fermented walrus is an Inuit delicacy, apparently delicious after being buried for several months. That said, it’s reputed to smell like a sewer.

This bison-sized herd herbivore grows to an average height of 7.5ft. It gets its name from the musky scent emitted by males during the mating season.

An Arctic whale, which swims in pods of up to 20. Known as the ‘unicorn of the ocean’ because of its long, spiralling tusk, which is actually an unwieldy tooth.

Published in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)