Arctic Expedition – Baffin Island & Greenland

Our anticipation is high! Seeing fjords and soaring peaks, icebergs and glaciers, glimpses into the lives of the people who call the Arctic home, and hopefully coming across some species of wildlife – for me a polar bear sighting would be the ultimate!  Our cruise booked through Fresh Tracks Canada is with One Ocean Expeditions. What a fabulous summertime adventure ahead!

Baffin Island here we come!

Our very own renowned Canadian Arctic! The starting point for our expedition is Ottawa, from where First Air delivers us to our first stop – Iqaluit, the provincial capital of Nunavut!  

We are let loose to wander the community at our leisure. Pedestrians stay to the sides of dusty roadways with vehicles passing to and fro. Welcoming smiles greet us everywhere.

Our Arctic Photos

Unique architecture catches our eye. St. Jude’s Cathedral is shaped like a super-sized igloo. Nakasuk School is constructed of fibreglass and is built to look like a two-storey ice block.

Visits to grocery stores show shelves stocked with product similar to our southern stores, but for much inflated prices. We learn there is only one ship annually for all non-perishables, from canned goods to shampoos/lotions, and also for furniture, hardware, electronics, and such. Still the shelves could hold more even with the yearly summer shipment having arrived, making us wonder how much is left to choose from after the long winter months. Planes do bring in perishables and special orders throughout the year, but winter weather often deters these shipments. Huge fuel tanks are filled once a year – and must be rationed. We take so much for granted.  

What! A Tim Hortons!!  Can’t pass this Canadian Icon by!  Coffees and doughnuts go down real good.

It is time to be transferred by zodiac to our home-away-from-home for the next eleven days – the RCGS Resolute. 

Our deck four cabin could not be more deluxe!   A welcome cocktail, the first of many fine suppers, an orientation by the crew and getting our warm parkas, waterproof bib-pants and muck boots fitted is taken care of – we feel set for anything and everything!

Circumnavigating Monumental Island in Davis Bay by zodiac is on the next day’s roster, but a blanket of dense fog makes zodiac travel unsafe and sightings of wildlife along the shores impossible. 

Plan B works for us – our first sighting of one of the massive icebergs drifting on the currents towards Labrador and Newfoundland. Breathtaking!

Pangnirtung (meaning place of the bull caribou) is our venture the following morning. The weather is sunny and the temperature is a balmy (for the Arctic) +12Celsius!  

We meet up with Megan, a most engaging local Inuit lady, who will be our community guide. In the Angmarlik Visitors Centre, she stands beside a bowhead whale skull for size perspective.

Megan is a perfect model to show off the museum’s samples of beautiful hand sewn fur clothing and to peek coyly from a traditional summer tent.  Ninety-five percent of the 1500 population of Pangnirtung are Inuit.  Indigenous peoples have inhabited this land for 4,000 years.  

This community nestled between mountains and sea is known for its carvings, prints and textiles, and we are blown away with the beautiful array of arts and crafts in the Uqqurmiut Centre.  Up a set of stairs we are privy to where artisans create their works, and where lithograph and prints are housed with a catalogue of the collection. 

Another room is full of brightly coloured skeins of thread with ladies at work, such as this lovely Grandmother (Aanaq in Inuktitut) weaving fabric on a loom.

It is on to the Community Hall where we are treated to bannock and small cubed pieces of narwhal…yes, narwhal – one of the smaller Arctic whales, the male of which has a long forward-pointing spirally twisted tusk developed from a canine tooth. This local delicacy has a mild “of-the-sea” taste with a chewy consistency and is eaten with salt or soy sauce.

Locals move to the centre of the hall to regale us with some amazing traditional ways, such as this demonstration of how to light up a kudlik, the crescent-shaped stone lamp used in traditional igloos; for light and heat, to melt snow for water, dry clothing, and heat food. In addition this little lamp causes the interior walls of the igloo to melt slightly adding to the strength of the structure. Our kudlik expert makes a wick of artic willow and cotton grass. She grins saying, “In the old days a friction method was used to light the wick – today I use a Bick”.  The flame burns the oil from animal blubber without smoke.

Let the games begin! A 30-ish aged fellow performs the High Kick, considered one of the most challenging Inuit games. The goal is to kick the ball with one foot while in the air and then land on the same foot!  He does this several times, each time raising the sealskin ball higher for increased difficulty. We applaud this amazing feat of control, strength and coordination.

Inuit throat-singing begins. In the customary manner two ladies stand face to face holding each other’s arms. With no instrumental accompaniment one singer leads by setting a short rhythmic pattern of sounds, which she repeats leaving brief silent intervals between each repetition. The other singer fills in the gap with another rhythmic pattern. As a song goes on the pace becomes faster and faster, with each trying to outlast the other, and is fun to see the one not able to keep up burst into laughter.

There is never a dull moment on board our ship, with entertaining presentations by the crew and guests on topics relevant to our voyage – wildlife, local culture, and environmental issues.

Alex, our Inuit gal won our hearts with her most interesting cultural revelations; such as when naming a child after an ancestor, the child takes on the personality traits of this person and their respected place with others. “I have a much older uncle to whom I smilingly address with “hi son” and he responds “hi mom” – being that one of my given names was his mothers.”  Another sharing Alex undertakes is tutoring us to spell our names using the 47 letters of the Inuit language alphabet.

Eric, the scientist on board, enlightens us on how sheet plastic and containers are not the only pollutants, but microfibers from clothing materials released with every laundry load are spilling into the oceans, which like all plastics break down but never disappear. Zooplanktons are mistaking them for food; hence the movement up the ocean food chain. Eric shows us a water sample taken that day through a microscope, and it’s shocking to see the amount of thread-like fibres floating around the miniscule plankton organisms. Approximately 60% of the clothing we wear consists of synthetic fibers made from plastics including acrylic, nylon, and polyester.

Day four of our expedition brings us to Cape Mercy, and luckily Mother Nature shows us mercy with brilliant sunshine for our venture on shore.  Oops! A polar bear is spotted by our guides along the Cape’s dramatic cliffs – so no hiking today as a polar bear can outrun even an Olympic Gold Metal sprinter. Our binoculars follow this huge fellow wending his way down the cliff side to meander along the shore – an awesome spectacle with the dark sand outlining his glistening coat of white!  It’s my Birthday today and I could not have asked for a more wonderful gift! 

After another scrumptious lunch, zodiac cruising along the shoreline is on.  Is that a chunk of ice? No it’s a bobbing head.  Low and behold a polar bear is swimming about 100 meters away from our fleet of zodiacs! We watch ready to turn and leave if his curiosity brings him nearer. Probably the same bear we saw on the shore is the crew’s take, given their territorial nature. 

Photo by Ralph Robinson

Some with paparazzi-type camera lenses were able to capture this big fellow, such as photographer Ralph Robinson who graciously shared this fantastic shot with us. Find more of Ralph’s photos on Instagram: @ralphrobinsonphoto

Sunshine Fjord the following day…and it lives up to its name with brilliant rays! A good day for a hike up tundra coated mountains.  The “moderate” climb turns out to be in the “difficult” category, especially with our clumsy muck boots and trying to step on the rocks in respect for the mosses and plants that are all about us.

Our expedition guide points to a low growing plant saying, “This is Arctic Willow which can live over 200 years”. Arctic cotton grass with their miniature white balls of fluff dot the hillside.

Snow buttercups add a dash of brilliant yellow. Mountain Sorrel competes for attention in red.  I can attest to this plant’s leaves, which are packed with vitamin C, are very tart to the taste. My sampling continues with a few pea-sized wild blueberries – sweet and juicy! The view from the top is worth our effort – and here it is! 

Back on board our ship we sail to where Sunshine Fjord straddles the Arctic Circle – 66 degrees, 33 minutes north latitude!!   My heart pounds with the excitement of yet another bucket list desire coming to fruition, and Rick’s mile-wide grin says the same!

Our time in Canada’s Arctic communities was awesome indeed! We bid farewell to Baffin Island and push out into the broad expanse of Davis Strait, our ship’s bow pointed towards Greenland.

Our Arctic Flickr Photo Gallery

Exploring Greenland!   

The evening of our crossing we are privy to a spectacular setting sun.  Our excitement is in the stratosphere!  Our boots-on-the-ground in Greenland, the largest island on earth, will fulfill yet another bucket list wish, and be the 126th country we have visited to date!  

Our first Greenland day has a surprise in store.  Captain Hans Soderholm makes an unscheduled turn into a bay. Everyone rushes out to the bow of our ship for a view of the spectacular Eqip Sermia Glacier. Known for its iceberg calving with thunderous roars, this giant is silent today.

In our upper mind awareness is how 80% of the country is covered by a massive layer of ice – known as the Greenland Ice Sheet. This leaves only the edges of exposed land for human habitation, with most settlements found on the western coastline of the country.  It is also the least-densely populated country with about 57,000 residents of which 88% are Greenlandic Inuit (including Inuit-Danish mix) and 12% are Danes and other Europeans.   

Our ship docks at the port town of Qeqertarsuaq (pronounced ke-ker-tar-sou’ak) on Disko Island off Greenland’s coast. Renowned Viking, Eric the Red, paid visits to this island sometime between 982 and 985.  This locale is believed to have been used as a base for summer hunting and fishing by Norse colonists.  Skip to 1773 when a whaling station was founded by the Danish, prompted by the large amounts of whales found off these shores.  University of Copenhagen’s Arctic Station is located here, which is the oldest continually manned station in the Arctic.

After loading up on a high energy breakfast, we leave the ship to wander around the town. This small hardy community is home to 850 people. The large wooden houses are in every shade of colour with lawns and flowerbeds.

We make it back to our ship in time for a zodiac ride to view the basalt cliffs that evidence the island’s volcanic origins.  We motor our way through the jagged rock faces staring up at breathtaking patterns of swirls, arcs and Lego-like stacks fashioned by nature’s whim. Glacial melt water spills over the cliff in waterfalls. A gigantic cave yawns like the maw of some fantastical creature.

Atop the cliffs the landscape transforms from black rock to lush green growth in the mineral laden soil.

The following day we arrive at Ilulissat Icefjord (aka Jacobshavn Icefjord), a UNESCO World Heritage site for the dramatic and awe-inspiring wonder of icebergs calving from the Ilulissat Glacier into this fjord. On the world scale, it is one of the most active glaciers moving 40 metres a day, creating an estimated 50 cubic kilometres of ice annually.   

After docking at the town of Ilulissat we undertake a land hike through the town then onto tundra-protecting boardwalks to the fjord edge to view the massive accumulation of icebergs that have calved from the glacier.

An otherworldly icy white silence spreads out before us.  It is a most humbling experience to sit on a rock and reflect nature’s majesty and how this ice-world is changing. We find it difficult to pull ourselves away from this captivating sight.

During an afternoon zodiac cruise around the gargantuan icebergs at the mouth of the fjord, we are regaled by the sprays of surfacing whales, following their fins until they dive again with a splash of their tailfins.

Back in town we find our way to the museum tracing the area’s history and the life of local-born explorer and hunter Knud Rasmussen (1879-1933), credited with being the first European to cross the Northwest Passage via dog sled.

And speaking of sled dogs, they are everywhere in the community; the older ones tied by their pens, the pups frolicking loose with some coming over to sniff us out.

Sisimiut is our next stop. This town has a population of 5,500.  As we have come to expect, the brightly painted houses are prominent against a back drop of towering granite cliffs.

We find the museum housing amazing artifacts from archaeological excavations of the ancient Saqqaq settlements near the town dating back thousands of years. Outdoor exhibits are an old church and a reconstructed traditional Greenlandic peat house.

Back on board ship all eyes are focused on the waters below for a “kayak rolling” demonstration by a former Greenland kayak champion.  Oohs and ahhs and applause are in order!

This kayaker must have inspired about a dozen of our fellow passengers to brave the frigid water with a polar plunge off this ship-side zodiac…while content in our down filled parkas we snap photos.

Our last evening’s cruise is up one of the longest fjords on the planet – Sondre Stromfjord. Our ship’s chefs have prepared a grand farewell supper attended by the Captain; a time to bid farewell to the crew and friends.

The following morning zodiacs transport us to shore for a great time in Kangerlussuaq, a key Greenland post. A tundra buggy with no suspension rattles us along a pot-holed road towards the Greenland icecap, where we have time to hike up on paths sided by tundra to view this astounding icefield. What a fine place to have a picnic I muse seeing tables dotting the area. 

With rumbling stomachs we are pleased to learn we will lunch in a tent set up by a lakeside restaurant. I burst out laughing when I see what is being served. All along the drive I kept my eyes peeled hoping to see a long-straggly coat muskox, and my “shucks” of not seeing one out the window is lightened by heaping servings of cooked muskox – a beefy tasting local cuisine must!

A large USA airbase being here during WWII left the 550 population of Kangerlussuaq with one of Greenland’s largest commercial airports. Buses transport us there for the final hours of our Artic adventure before departing back to Ottawa.  

The memories of our Arctic journey are many and varied. The stunning sights of Baffin Island and Greenland will always stir memories of the dazzling tundra colours and the animals that have adapted to the challenges of these northern lands. The wonderful hospitality of locals was heartwarming. We come away with admiration for the resilience and resourcefulness needed, especially during the long dark frigid winter months.   

A lasting and unexpected impression of the Arctic is that of great silence, wherein even sounds in the communities seem amplified; a vehicle passing, a sled-dog howling, the laughter of a child.

And staring up at a high-rise sized iceberg from our ship’s deck or overlooking the massive ice floes from the tundra, a mere whisper is of uncanny significance. This desolate yet calming beauty touches our souls.  

High in the Arctic

More Arctic info:

Fresh Tracks Canada

USA & Canada: 1-844-440-2028

UK: 0800-917-5924

Australia: 1-800-992-872   Other Countries: +1-604-737-8743

One Ocean Expeditions

Photo credit (swimming polar bear):

Ralph Robinson   

Instagram: @ralphrobinsonphoto

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