An Arctic Trip

Vincent Lam, Globe and Mail
August 25, 2002

I t was almost dark when our expedition leader, Stefan Kindberg, announced that we were about to sail across the arctic circle. I went out on the wind-bitten deck to see it. In elementary school geography I had learned of the lines which divide the earth into its symbolic sections. The equator, I had imagined, was a place of vast solemnity having equal portions of the earth weighed above and below it. Above the Arctic Circle I had pictured a sudden change from trees and telephone poles to a land of vast ice and yapping sled dogs. Standing on the bow as we entered the arctic, I now saw that the wild, daunting landscape was very similar to each side of this geographic demarcation.

We were sailing in a lingering orange dusk. The late summer sun hung in the horizon. Orange light glowed from the ice and jagged mountains of the Sondrestrom Fjord, which rose around the ship. Our vessel, the Akademic Ioffe, was a Finnish-built ship sailed by a Russian crew, and operated by an Australian company for this Canadian trip. We had sailed from Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. At the airport in Kangerlussuaq, there was a sign which informed disoriented air travellers that the North Pole was 3 hours and 15 minutes away, New York 4 hours, and Moscow 5 hours and 20 minutes away. A red-fringed arrow pointed to each destination for any polar pilot who might need this assistance. Our plan was to sail amongst the fjords and icebergs for several days. Then we would cross Davis Strait and continue up the coast of Baffin Island

Standing on the deck, I was astonished by the cold purity of the air. It swept sharply down from the Greenland icecap, over our ship. It was as if any tainted wind had frozen over the icecap and fallen down onto it, leaving only the clear air that I breathed. This air blew irregardless of our crossing of the Arctic Circle, but I felt tied to my human ideas of geography, and therefore thrilled having reached the 'Arctic'.

In 19th century Europe, arctic exploration held a prestige comparable to the American space program in the 1960's. It was at once an obsession of the general public and the domain of a few explorers who were celebrated then as our astronauts are today. In the 1500's, the Northwest Passage held the lure of easier access to Asian trade goods for Europe. The search for this route made it clear that even it were found, it would be too treacherous for commercial navigation. However, the trophy of this passage continued to lure, and Sir John Franklin set sail in 1845 with two generously equipped ships and England's expectation that he would complete this task. Margaret Atwood was aboard our modern trip north. She said, "The Franklin expedition was probably the turning point – the moment when people stopped providing rational explanation for their actions." Perhaps Franklin pointed to the start of adventure travel for its own sake.

Franklin and his men disappeared. Their ships, the Terror and Erebus, have not been recovered. Evidence points to an end of madness, cannibalism, and ultimately death for the men of this voyage. Ironically, the search to uncover their fate resulted in the completion of much of the mapping of the North American Arctic.

Our trip through the frozen landscape was much more comfortable. The Akademic Ioffe was originally built as a scientific ship. Now in its second life as a Peregrine Expeditions arctic cruise ship, it was equipped with zodiacs to ferry the hundred passengers from ship to landing site, views of the ocean from every cabin, and a 'mud room' in which to leave behind the cold, wet apparel of arctic travel and enter the warm haven of the ship. The menu varied daily, with dishes such as caribou consommé with fresh cranberries, and barbequed arctic char on deck while cruising amongst icebergs. Daily onboard presentations during this Adventure Canada tour were given by authors such as Margaret Atwood, Graham Gibson, and John Geiger, as well as naturalists, archaeologists, and art historians.

Each day we disembarked from the ship to visit small towns and large landscapes.

In Itilleq, a town of 138 people on a coastal island within a fjord, we played soccer. It was the town against the visitors. The soccer field was the only flat spot on the town. Around this patch of ground, there were rocky juts of land on which sat bright wooden-sided houses. Most of them were propped up to a level by stilts, and alongside lines of laundry hung lines of drying fish. It was a fast and dusty game, with at least fifty players on the field. Graeme Gibson, author and one of our trip naturalists, remarked to me that soccer is a wonderful game because any number can join in and play. The rules are simple. "It probably started out just like this – with one village against another village and all ages playing." Of course, our strange floating village was our ship. On a porch not far from the game, a man was cutting up a freshly killed caribou. He cut off a raw piece from the ribs for me. I thought that in the meat I could taste the mosses that the caribou had been eating. One of the wives of an Itilleq player was unhappy that her husband was playing soccer. She said that her husband should be out fishing. "Who will put milk on the table?" The town won. Final score six to five.

Aaju Peter was one of our Inuit guides, and once lived in Itilleq. Born Greenlandic, she is a fluent speaker of six languages, a law student in Iqaluit, and a hypnotic singer. She said that the town was happy that the population was now 138. It was 136 in January. More were born than had died. Itilleq has existed as a trading station since 1847. It has no fresh water, but recently an osmosis desalination plant was installed, so that they no longer need to bring water from the mainland by barge.

In the pass between the hills, there was a thicket of white crucifixes upon grave mounds of spongy earth. At this place, the eye could see equally well down into Itilleq and to the other side which was a stretch of craggy land, then quiet grey water, and behind this the coastal mountains. The graves were all mounds, because it was not possible to dig deeply. On the graves were fabric flowers, which were as bright now as when they were laid. Most of the graves were not marked or identified. Auju said that this is because everyone here knows who was buried in each place. Many of the crosses were small, and the mounds they guarded were also child-sized.

On a shining, bright morning we visited Disko Bay. Here the icecap of Greenland falls into the ocean, shedding 20 million tons of ice daily. These office-tower sized ice cubes are initially jagged and angular. Their undersides become worn by water and sea life. I saw a berg crack, and after this sound like quiet lightning, the pieces of ice rebalanced themselves, rotating in the water to reveal the sculpted belly of the iceberg. At night, our ship crept forward. Standing on deck, I could see the spotlight above me focused on the nearest berg. The light slowly swivelled its bright flat light, making the ice glow like a cold spirit-being on the water as the ship hummed past it. Ice pilot Steve Gommes, was on the bridge. Once the ship cleared one berg, Steve swung the spot light upon the next berg, and it jumped into view from the dark. In this way, the ship passed slowly along one berg and then along the next. Steve, from Dartmouth, was a Coast Guard ice-breaker captain for over 20 years. He explained to me that the Akademic Ioffe is rated to push ice, but not to break it. If the ice was sufficiently soft and small, and we were not going overly fast when we hit it, we would only dent the ship.

"Pilgrimage depends on someone else having made an exploration first," said Margaret Atwood, delivering a lecture entitled Creating the Literary North: The Raw and the Cooked. The pilgrimages of the religious life are to Jerusalem, Mecca, and other sites of religious transcendence. The pilgrimages of geography depend upon personal obsession. Travellers dream of a world lived differently, and desire a connection with that world. The precedence of previous explorations sketch the dreams which push us forward.

Sir John Franklin set off as an explorer, in the sense that the Northwest passage was not yet completed for the maps of Europe. Yet he too was a pilgrim in that the Inuit lived and travelled across the expanse in question, and enough of the arctic was mapped from the east and the west that geographers felt they knew where the passage should lie. Franklin and his Royal Navy men were hoping to claim their geographic prize by completing this area of travel. John Geiger, author of several books on arctic exploration, was aboard our trip as we traced some of Franklin's last journey. In John's book, Frozen in Time, and in his lectures aboard ship, he pulled together evidence which tells the Franklin story after they were last seen in Disko Bay and then disappeared. The crew's first winter was spent in Beechey Island, where three of the men died and were buried. They continued north in the spring. Accounts of the Inuit later told of white men abandoning their ice-bound ships near King William Island, and dragging small boats southwards. The Inuit later found mutilated bodies that had been cannibalised along this sad journey, and the corpses of the last of the Franklin crew. Margaret Atwood pointed out that we can consider Franklin as a literary romantic hero. In these ranks, she said, "When he took up arctic exploration, it was mandatory that he die." This occurrence guaranteed heroic status.

Kabikitsak is on an unhabited stretch of Greenlandic coast north of Ummannaq. Its name means 'The sky hangs low'. We landed here to see the remains of Thule houses and gravesites. The Thule people preceded the Inuit, and occupied Kabikitsak from the 15th century to the early 20th. Their houses were framed with whale ribs and covered in skin. The buildings were in a bowl surrounded by cliffs. The only viable approach to this place was by sea. The graves were in low cairns of stone, and through gaps in the stone slabs I could see human skulls and skeletons which looked comfortable in their resting places. Jane Thomson, a lecturer on Inuit culture at the University of Calgary, assured me that the Inuit don't mind respectful grave visitors. "The dead like to be visited and like to be talked to." As we visited the graves, rain wept down the walls of rock around us. Icebergs floated in the mouth of the bay. Sea mammal bones poked up white through the moss. At Kabikitsak, the Gronwald brothers discovered mummies accompanied by elaborate caches of clothing. The pants which the mummies wore were made of twenty separate pieces of skin, and were tailored to provide warmth where needed, ventilation where required, and to be beautiful. The Thule did not leave pyramids or temples, but the greatness of their civilisation is evident in their arts of survival.

We crossed Davis Strait in good weather with calm seas. The air felt cold though the autumn sun looked hot. We were conscious that this was the same time of year that the Franklin party set sail across the strait, and north towards their first winter at Beechey Island. The water was still open as we headed north. When the sea ice begins to form, it freezes at sixty metres per minute, the crystals spreading across the surface like a magic spell.

North of Clyde River, all of our landings and hikes were preceded by a shotgun-bearing polar bear patrol. One of the most fearless carnivores in the world, we hoped to see bears only from a safe distance. On Devon Island, we saw a mother and cub feeding on a walrus at the edge of the water. We approached cautiously in the zodiacs. The bears stood, eyed us with curiosity, and then settled down again with their meal. With no natural predator, the bears seemed to have no hint of fear at our presence.

On the day we approached Beechey Island, we could see three graves through the binoculars. Soon we could see the site with the eyes alone. John Geiger, who has spent many seasons in the arctic, said to me, "Everything looks different when you come back. Things you thought were in one place are in another." John's book, Frozen in Time, addressed the century-old frozen graves at Beechey. These bodies were exhumed and autopsied by Owen Beattie, and were found to contain highly toxic levels of lead. Geiger and Beattie argued that Franklin's men, using the newest food preservation technology of that time – lead-soldered canning, were driven mad by highly toxic levels of lead

Beechey Island is a scarcely protected cove, and on the day that we landed it was grey with the wind shrilling across the water. There was only stone scree and rocky cliffs, not even the low mosses that grow in other places. The grave markers were originally in stone. Then, the originals were replaced by fibreglass replicas in fear of the originals being stolen. Now, the ones which stood very erect and straight over the grave sites were nondescript markers identifying the dead in a modern script. They could have been from a modest grave anywhere in Mount Pleasant cemetery. The replicas were likely stolen because they resembled the originals, and therefore the replacements deliberately lacked character. Souvenir snatching knows no bounds. There was little to see in this place which provided some of the few remnants of the elaborate Franklin Expedition. This lack of visible evidence compelled Victorian society to speculate desperately about the fate of the expedition. Lady Franklin championed first the search for her disappeared husband, and when it was obvious that he and his crew must be dead, the search for their remains. She railed against evidence pointing to cannibalism amongst the crew. Later, however, recovered notes indicated that Franklin had died well before the desperate end. As Margaret Atwood pointed out, it was essential to Lady Franklin that her husband was not a cannibal, "Otherwise he wouldn't have been a hero, he would have been a chef."

Even today, there is an ongoing Canadian-Irish expedition which is pulling magnetometers over the ice off King William Island, hoping to find the Terror and Erebus preserved in those cold waters.

As we sailed from Beechey Island, sea ice began to appear ahead of the ship. The ice pans were broken and jagged. Mostly they were flat, but in some places they were upright in spires and peaks.

The plan was to reach Port Leopold, on Somerset Island. That night, the Russian sailors moved back and forth on the bridge between the panels of controls, talking briefly to one another. On the radar screen, I could see that we were almost surrounded by ice. The path of the ship was traced on the monitor, and in a wide arc I could see that the ship was now heading back in the same direction from which it had come. We had been sailing for an opening in the ice pans which had closed in the time it had taken to reach this place. With that passage now gone, the ship was turning away from a field of ice that was thickening around us. At times, a hollow clanking would ring out as the ship hit ice and pushed it to one side. A small balcony jutted from each side of the bridge further than the edge of the ship's hull, and from time to time one of the sailors would walk quickly out to this balcony and see how close the hull was passing to the grey shapes of ice.

We were not able to reach Port Leopold. I was quietly glad that we were stalled. It would have been too easy. For the Inuit, this was a landscape which provided for their sustenance but was a hard place that required all their survival knowledge. For the European explorers of the 19th century, this was a land of desired discovery and often horrific failure. It would feel wrong for us to be able to casually sail into every place which we desired. We had already been blessed with fantastic sailing seas almost each day. I was quietly relieved that the weather had decided that we would not enter Port Leopold, hopefully saving us somewhat from the error of pride in our travel.

Instead, we went out in the zodiacs to the sea ice and walked on the floes. Like little tropical birds in our Gore-Tex feathers, we pecked at everything with our cameras, and posed with puffed-out chests standing on the edge of this momentarily stable raft of translucence and cold. Just like such birds, we would die very shortly if our protective cage – the Akademic Ioffe, were to forget us on these drifting ices. Feeling safe with the noses of the Zodiacs pulled up on the edge of the ice and their engines idling, some passengers made snow angels on the granular surface of the ice floes. Others played ping-pong on the ice until one of the paddles was accidentally stepped on and broken. The mures and the fulmars wheeled in the air at the edge of the water. Several of them snatched and dove for the pieces of fish they had torn apart which floated on the surface of the water nearby.

A traditional Inuktituk poem translated into English reads,

The curiosity of a child has no limits. It's the same yesterday as now.
A flood of questions.
What are you doing? Are you happy? How far have you come?

Explore photographs from Vincent's journeys to the Arctic and Antarctic