"I thought we were the only people in the world," says Thomasie Alikatuktuk reminiscing about childhood spent in a small camp close to Cumberland Sound in Canada's Arctic. Today, he is getting on in years, but still a busy man, making guest appearances on Arctic cruise ships and President of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, working internationally with the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. I'm a passenger on a week-long cruise from Kuujjuaq in Northern Quebec known as Nunavik to Baffin Island, Nunavut, and almost to the Arctic Circle. I'm in the 'true north.'
The group destined for Kuujjuaq and the Cruise North expedition gather at Trudeau Airport in Montreal at 8:30 a.m. On Inuit-owned First Air on a Boeing 737, divided by a bulkhead into passenger and cargo sections, we are offered a choice of a hot or cold breakfast. Friendships are formed before we land at Kuujjuaq in the northern Québec region of Nunavik, squished into the little baggage arrival hall (more of a large shed) to identify bags before transportation to the ship.
We pile into old school buses for the short drive to the modern City Hall that dominates this largely Inuit community. We are treated to demonstrations by local young people: throat singing, drum dances and acrobatic games before a buffet lunch of sandwiches, smoked salmon, vegetables with dips and fruit. Locals with children wander in and out of the hall laughing and chatting with us.
Soon we are back on the bus for our city tour, learning that this community of 2,200 is the region's largest. It lies in the sub-Arctic on the tree line. We see early 'matchbox' houses where large families somehow managed to live even though the structures look barely big enough for one! Our guide proudly shows us the new swimming pool complex, and we pop into the city's only store where everything is available from trendy plastic shoes to bananas to fresh flowers.
By mid-afternoon we assemble on a stony beach in a deserted harbour on the Koksoak River where large Zodiacs wait by the wharf to transport us, ten at a time, to the M.V. Lyubov Orlova, lying at anchor in the bay.
The cabins are plain but perfectly acceptable: not too small, with good cupboard space for clothes and cases and lots of hooks which turn out to be very useful with the many changes of clothing in the following days. All have outside portholes, small washrooms with a curtain in the corner for showering and lots of hot water.
We gather in the lounge for introductions to the ship and personnel. As it's a Russian ship, the officers, crew and doctor are Russian, but the fact that Chef Bruno and sous-chef Maxime both come from Montreal is encouraging. On hospitality staff, helpful and bilingual Michelle Groulx and bartender, Emily Emudluk, an Inuit, efficiently and promptly learn our drink preferences.
We are introduced to the expedition leader, Brad Rhees, and his staff who are American, Canadian and Argentinian, and learn something of what to expect on our
voyage. Later, we gather on deck to see the anchor raised and enjoy the passing scenery and beautiful western sky before finding the bar to toast the coming days.
At dinner we discover that there are to be three choices each night: one 'from the land', one 'from the sea' and the third a vegetarian choice. And there's a tasty first course and a dessert. Breakfasts and lunches are served buffet style with hot and cold choices, soups at lunch, sandwiches, yoghurt, fresh fruit and so on. Coffee and tea are always available in the lounge, accompanied by snacks, including yummy, freshly-made cookies. For our first dinner, choices are caribou bourguignonne, grilled Arctic char or vegetarian pasta. Dress is informal at all times.
Sleep comes easily though some of us hear the soft intercom announcement that fine northern lights are visible.
I awoke at 4 a.m. to find the sun pouring through my porthole. I squinted at the dazzling sunrise for a few minutes before adjusting the curtain and fell asleep for nearly three more hours. When I peeked through the porthole again, I was rewarded with my very first sighting of an iceberg.
After breakfast and a turn on the sunny deck in about 15°C., we assemble in the lounge for a talk by Shoshanah Jacobs, a PhD. Candidate, studying thick-billed Murres. Shoshana tells us about her work on these birds and the environment as well as some of her experiences in the field, where she's had exciting encounters with polar bears.
By mid-morning, we hurry to our cabins for our outdoor clothes, life vests and rubber boots as we've been told it's to be a 'wet' first landing, but we land dryly against the rocky 'platforms' on the west side of Akpatok Island from where we walk onto the pebble beach, a barren landscape of limestone dunes and golden cliffs. There's no wildlife in sight, but lots of Arctic flowers and some hike up a stony ridge to see the remains of an oil exploration camp, sadly abandoned before laws required such settlements to be dismantled.
On all our shore landings, we are accompanied by Bruce Qinuajuak, an Inuit member of the expedition staff, armed for our safety.
After lunch, it's into the Zodiacs again. We are not going to disembark this time, but we hope to see polar bears. We have travelled around Akpatok Island during lunch, and on the island's north-east corner, there have been sightings.
On this, our second outing, we count eleven bears and see the Murres, hundreds of thousands on the ledges of the soaring cliffs and filling the air above. Our first bears, a couple quite far away, climb on the rock falls between the cliffs. We round a beachhead and there is a large male at water's edge. He seems mildly interested in us as he ambles along the shore close, and we "ooh" and "aah" taking photographs.
We cruise further along the shoreline to witness a mother with two cubs. They are beneath the cliffs and have bloody faces and paws from feeding on injured Murres or their eggs. The mother spots us and scrambles down over the rocks, cubs frolicking behind her. Soon, they are paddling in the sea close to us. I've been blessed with many exciting experiences in my life including African safaris, but this was one of the best!
Back on board, we set sail again and warm up with coffee or tea, travelling north across the Hudson Straight, approaching Nunavut. Seas are calm, the turquoise sky slipping to orange, and a group of leaping harp seals herald the close of a wonderful day.
There is a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call this morning for those who wish to go ashore in Pritzler Harbour. We see eiders, glaucous gulls and hear a distant loon. We disembark at a lovely spot, different from the stark cliffs and desert-like landscape of Akpatok Island. Here are green mosses and lichens, tiny willow bushes with cranberries, blueberries and bilberries nestled between them, with pink fireweed and white Arctic cotton as backdrop. Our on-board botanist, Dr. Susan Aiken, was in her element as she identified everything and Jason Annahatak, our specialist on Inuit culture, explains the traditional uses for the plants we see.
Devouring breakfast, I miss the bowhead whale sightings some were fortunate to catch. Another Zodiac expedition is scheduled for later in the morning - a trip into a fjord-like stretch of water known as Nannuk Harbour, but before we enter the channel there's something to check out. It's a beautifully sculpted iceberg, mysterious in the swirling fog and glistening in the oft-appearing patches of golden sun. Again we are thrilled; we feel as though we are immersed in a special-effects movie! At the end of the steep-sided channel that is Nannuk Harbour, we see another polar bear wandering over a snow patch.
Some Zodiac drivers gather chunks of floating ice - 'bergy bits' - for Emily's bar, so special lunchtime cocktails are the order of the day, her special called Nunavut Sunrise; others have gin and tonics or even martinis. Hard to believe it's Monday morning in the Arctic!
The sea is calm, covered with fog, though there's soft sunshine above. Our excursion this afternoon takes us through the channels dividing the Lower Savage Islands. The fog clears and the sun warms us as we relax on the calm water. The Lyubov Orlova cannot navigate this channel, so she raises anchor and departs in order to meet us round the other side of the islands. It's a strange feeling, being afloat in small rubber boats in such an isolated place without our mother ship!
At our landing spot, we see a polar bear beating a hasty retreat up the hillside so we wait until given the all-clear by Bruce. Nevertheless, some cautious souls decide to remain close to the boats. The rest scramble up a short incline, greeted by a most glorious alpine-like meadow with a babbling brook, sparkling ponds and more of the lovely vegetation that Susan has introduced us too. It's sunny though chillier than the previous two days, and our photographs are great.
The Zodiacs race through the final stretches of the channel back to our ship. We all wave at each other. It's wonderful to see so many people, the majority of whom are seniors, having such fun!
The old movie, Nanook of the North, is shown in the lounge tonight. I watch for as long as I can before I creep to bed.
We made passage through the night again, and are now anchored off Monumental Island. It rains lightly, a magnificent iceberg between us and the island which again becomes the subject of many photographs. Monumental Island looms austere and haunting through the light fog, and we spot two large polar bears on a hillside. We spot a herd of about 12
walrus swimming along the rocky shore, turning occasionally to look at us and pose for our cameras.
After dinner, the movie, Atanarjuat: the Fast Runner, is shown in the lounge, but camaraderie growing (along with bar bills), and most stay in the bar area to socialize or 'help' with the on-going Scrabble game!
We marvel at Baffin Island's Cumberland Peninsula and enter Pangnirtung Fjord, welcoming aboard two park wardens from Auyuittuq National Park, our destination, renowned as one of Canada's most remote and spectacular. The Zodiac ride is long but the scenery is dramatic with mist-cloaked mountains rising on each side of us. We are warmly dressed in layers for this day trip with rubber boots for the expected 'wet' landing and hiking boots in our hands. We clutch packed lunches that chef has provided.
The tide is out and our wet landing, on a sloping shore dotted with massive boulders left by retreating Ice Age glaciers is muddy not wet.
We are divided into two groups: those who wish to walk quickly into Aksayuk Pass and those happy to enjoy gentler walks close to our landing spot and the park warden's cabin where quite a lot of adventurers have congregated and set up camp after their two-week hike from north to south in the park, crossing the Arctic Circle. We're at latitude 66° 25' north, a few miles south of the Arctic Circle and the farthest north that most of us have ever been.
Tonight, surrounded by the spectacular scenery of Pangnirtung Fjord and in the lingering sunlight of an Arctic summer evening, we enjoy a barbecue dinner on deck. We need only sweaters or light jackets as we gather to enjoy Arctic char, spicy sausages, salads and other accompaniments, and generous helpings of mulled wine. It is quite magical.
Overnight, we moved slightly south and awake riding gently at anchor off the community of Pangnirtung, our first town visit and we are keen to get going. Town guides greet us as we disembark from our craft and lead us to the community centre where again we are entertained by gracious townspeople who show off their skills at Inuit throat singing, games and sports.
There is a little museum as well as the historic remnants of a Hudson Bay trading post and a very fine gift shop, the Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts and Crafts, offering all manner of Inuit art and locally made crafts: soapstone sculptures, jewellery, original art works and prints and a variety of woven items.
The weavers of the Pangnirtung Tapestry Studio work in a spacious, light-filled studio behind the store and it was a great pleasure for me to spend a little time with these women, watching them work and admiring their creations. Adjoining the store, there is also the Pangnirtung Print Shop and an historical Drawing Archive. Our group makes many purchases.
Our destination this afternoon is Kekerten Historic Park. In brilliant sunshine and warm temperatures, we ride the short distance from ship to shore to explore this historic site, home to an American and Scottish whaling station in the late 19th century. There's a boardwalk here, though visitors are free to wander over the spongy tundra and many of
us walk uphill for a better view of the lovely, lush scenery while Bruce takes up his position to keep an eye out for bears.
Spread over a wide area we read the plaques and see the great cauldrons used for boiling the whale blubber, the foundations of buildings, an enormous bowhead whale skull, a beluga whale skeleton and a cemetery where the caskets are merely the barrels used for shipping the whale oil. Skeletal remains - including skulls - have spilled out from some of these. Our imaginations defy us as we try to picture what life must have been like here so many years ago.
A day at sea as we make our way south down Davis Strait en route to Frobisher Bay and Iqualuit, but plenty to keep us occupied such as Brenda Saunders, our polar bear specialist, able to answer many questions we still have. The next speaker, Thomasie Alikatuktuk recounts Inuit life and the importance of maintaining culture and language and respect for wildlife.
Early in the evening we gather in the lounge again for our farewell reception and some Russian style entertainment performed by the young dining room servers, many of whom have good voice and dance skills. Gathering for dinner we are sorry to see they have changed back into their white overalls, but a festive atmosphere prevails as we all enjoy our final dinner together.
This morning, we head up Frobisher Bay towards Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut. The harbour there is busy with naval and coast guard boats full of important-looking uniformed people strutting their stuff because the Prime Minister is in town. It's off to the airport for our flight back to Kuujjuaq and on to Montreal. We exchange contact details, hug and wave and "hope we meet again," and then it was over. Together we had travelled over two thousand miles, a once-in-a-lifetime experience in a spectacular and isolated land; a voyage every Canadian should make.
The Lyubov Orlova was named after a Soviet-era Russian actress and holds 124 passengers. On my cruise were 56 passengers, Canadians in the majority along with quite a number of Britons and a few French, Germans and Americans.
I took this cruise from 4 August. All talks are in English, although important p.a. announcements are made in French too.
Cruise North Expeditions Inc. and First Air are owned by Makivik Corporation, a non-profit organization owned by the Inuit of Nunavik that came into being in 1978.
The Baffin Adventure cruise was priced at US$3,895 pp. dbl. (Single travellers who indicate they are willing to share a cabin are guaranteed the double occupancy rate for that cabin, whether or not a roommate is found for them.)
Ann Wallace is editor of The Travel Society Magazine
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/