Across the Northwest Passage

I just returned from the most incredible research trip cruising the Northwest Passage in the High Arctic. I was sailing on One Ocean Expedition‘s Akademik Sergey Vavilov, a Finnish-built, Russian-flagged but Canadian chartered expedition ship that is ice-strengthened for wild polar trips. It felt great to return to the Vavilov, which I sailed on in Antarctica last December researching my Great Global Bucket List book. Now, flying from Ottawa to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, I’d be joining 88 other passengers from around the world. We boarded the ship and headed up the ragged coastline (80% of Greenland, the world’s largest island, is covered by a thick ice sheet), arriving in the town of Sisimiut. It was like stepping into Iceland, or Norway, or northern Sweden. From there we spent two days crossing the Baffin Strait to the Inuit community of Pond Inlet on Baffin Island. Quite a contrast between the communities of Nunavut and Greenland! In Pond Inlet I went to the cultural centre to see some demonstrations of throat singing, one-footed high kicks, drumming, dancing and other Inuit games. You can’t believe you’re in Canada, but the local Co-op takes Canadian dollars (of course) and remarkably, you can get fresh veggies every day. Everything fresh is flown in, and the prices reflect this accordingly.

From Pond Inlet, Captain Beluga (yes, that’s his real name) steered the ship north into the Lancaster Sound, and the start of the Northwest Passage. Now we were firmly on the trial of the doomed Franklin Expedition. With the discovery last year of the Erebus, the flagship of the 1845 expedition that vanished, there’s been a lot of news and interest into the fate of Franklin and his men. The Vavilov was one of the ships instrumental in the discovery. Forensic scientists recently confirmed signs of cannibalism on recovered human remains found scattered along the coast of King William Island. The Erebus and sister ship Terror didn’t get very far before sea-ice boxed them in for two years in a bleak, desolate place called Beechey Island. We visited the wooden grave markers of three of Franklin’s men, lucky enough to have died of natural causes and not starvation. John Torrington, a 20-year-old sailor, was exhumed in the 1980’s and he’d been basically mummified by the permafrost. Beechey Island was a bone chilling place, all the layers I was wearing didn’t stop the chill running down my spine. The stark landscape of the islands was contrasted by my lively fellow passengers, delicious hot meals, stocked Scotch bar, and hot tub on board the Vavilov.

Hiking the tundra at Dundas Harbour on Devon Island, life in the Arctic was distinctly more colourful. Arctic cotton, poppies, willow and lichen practically glows under a bright sun. The colours on a clear day in the Arctic are unusually pure, as you can see in the images above. It took a while to find the famously scarce Arctic wildlife, but it was worth it when we did. Two large polar bears feasting on belugas on the shore of Conningham Bay. Hundreds of thousands of sea birds nesting on the dramatic cliffs of Prince Leopold Island. Some of the kayakers managed to spot some narwhals. I was more swept up in the history of the Franklin Expedition. How early explorers into the Northwest Passage suffered is beyond comprehension. In solidarity, I fell down a flight of stairs on my way from the hot tub to the sauna. How we suffer for our quests!

I’ll be writing more about this trip in the coming months, and it’s a terrific chapter in my upcoming book, The Great Northern Canada Bucket List (on shelves in February) as well as being featured in The Great Global Bucket List (on shelves in Fall 2016). Check out some of these incredible images taken by my talented photographer, shipmate and buddy Jeff Topham. Thanks to all my fellow passengers, One Ocean Expeditions, and the fabulous crew of the Akademik Sergey Vavilov!

Great Canadian Bucket List