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THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE - BEAUTY BEYOND IMAGINATION
 
(2011 - Spring/Summer Issue)

Writer: MICHELLE VALBERG



Imagine feeling as though you were the first to ever walk on the land that lay beneath your feet.   

Much like receiving an unexpected gift, I experienced that incredible feeling on a trip through the elusive Northwest Passage with Adventure Canada on board the Clipper Adventurer. It was my first trip traversing the mysterious passage; however it would not be my last.

It has been said that if you are lucky enough to visit Canada’s Arctic, you will be struck by “Arcticus Feverous.” Well—I caught the fever and it forever changed my life. 

Island Explorations

Our first expedition aboard the Clipperin the Northwest Passage took us to Prince Leopold Island. This island is in the Qikiqtaaluk Region of Nunavut, Canada, located at the northeastern tip of Somerset Island. The stunning and sheer vertical cliffs of sandstone and limestone rise more than 245 metres above sea level. Prince Leopold Island is a migratory bird sanctuary with thousands of black-legged kittiwakes, thick-billed murres, and northern fulmars that breed on the cliff ledges. The breathtaking vision of ice formations surrounding majestic cliffs rendered us silent as we manoeuvred our way through them in our Zodiacs.

The site of some historical and significant Arctic explorations, Beechey Island is extremely rocky and desolate. In 1845, Sir John Franklin chose Beechey Island as his first winter encampment. He was commanding a new but ill-fated search for the Northwest Passage aboard the HMS Erebusand Terror. In 1851 the site was discovered by British and American search vessels. They found a large stone cairn as well as the graves of Franklin’s crew—Petty Officer John Torrington, Royal Marine Private William Braine and Able Seaman John Hartnell. There was no written record of where Franklin planned to sail the next season. Steeped in so much history, I felt honoured to be on this island as we walked along the rocky beach and watched the light play its magic on the shore.

 At the first sign of daylight, we felt an unfamiliar sensation: the ship breaking through the ice. Glancing out our porthole, we were treated to an unbelievable sight that prompted us to jump into our woollies and head for the deck to experience first-hand what it felt like to sail through this famed and complex passage. It was the first time I had ever seen a fog-bow and the ocean was still and calm. Overwhelmed by the serenity, I stood on the deck for hours watching the ice go by and absorbing the sensation of utter tranquility.

Memorable Moments

There are many memorable “first” sightings on a trip to the Arctic but none, in my view, as spectacular as the first confirmed glimpse of a polar bear. Our first polar bear sighting came as we made our way through the Bellot Strait. Not to be outdone, only moments after that spotting, several narwhals made their presence known to us. Could it get any better? Well, it did. That day we saw 19 polar bears in all. A true cornucopia of so much nature had to offer: sensational scenery combined with arctic wildlife. 

As we continued our way through the Bellot Strait to Fort Ross, the rock faces and hills were full of colour and textures. In the distance, we spotted the last Hudson’s Bay trading post established in 1937, a weathered and isolated reminder of the introduction of trade to the north. Situated on the Bellot Strait at the southeastern end of Somerset Island, it was operational for only 11 years as severe ice conditions rendered it too difficult to access and too costly to operate. As a result, the island remains uninhabited. It was eerie walking into the building and trying to imagine life here so long ago.

We had seen no signs of civilization for days, until we descended upon Gjoa Haven, a community of a little more than 1,000 people, located on King William Island. Happy to see visitors, we were greeted by a near-full community welcome that included performances of Inuit songs and dances in the community hall. We were even treated to freshly-baked bannock. We visited the school and, as we walked within this beautiful yet isolated community, we met and spoke with several of the Inuit living there. Many of the things we encountered on our walk were unfamiliar to us but to the Inuit, just part of everyday life. We saw arctic char hanging to dry, grizzly bear, polar bear and caribou skins hung outside of the homes, a muskox head lying on a front yard, seal skins that were being stretched—and with every new encounter, we felt blessed to witness Inuit life in a community so far away from anywhere.

Our next few days were spent discovering land and islands along the Northwest Passage route to Cambridge Bay. We hiked hills, spent time observing a small herd of caribou, watched a muskox just below us on a hillside, and even saw a spider (with eggs on her back) crawling along a rocky, barren beach. Tiny flowers blossomed everywhere amongst million-year-old rock. Overhead, we watched a peregrine falcon fly. All our senses were in overdrive.

It was when we were charged by a barren-ground grizzly bear on Bathurst Inlet, that we realized we were experiencing our most exciting moment. We were, as we always were with Adventure Canada, protected by guides with guns. When the bear ventured too close, our expedition leader fired off a flare and the bear ran up the side of the hill in seconds—a hill that had just taken us two hours to climb. Although exhilarated by the fear that comes with any terrifying encounter, we were in awe of what had just happened.

The community of Kugluktuk is located at the mouth of the Coppermine River. We were all very thrilled to hear we would be taking the Zodiacs up one of the most scenic rivers in Canada. Our destination was Bloody Falls—about 15 kilometres upriver.

Once we had traversed as far as we could go by Zodiac, we disembarked and followed our guides on foot along the river’s edge. A noisy arctic ground squirrel welcomed us while two golden eagles, which nest throughout the summer along the steep cliffs of the falls, soared above us. Our hike was peppered by the occasional scent of Labrador tea as we walked along the bright and beautiful fall-coloured tundra. Basking in the serenity of it all, it was hard to reconcile the fact that back in 1771, when Samuel Hearne was exploring the falls, he witnessed the massacre by the Chipewyan who killed up to 20 Inuit women, men and children. Hence the name Bloody Falls.

On our final night, nature bid us goodbye with an extraordinary send-off: a spectacular dance of the northern lights. What a way to end a most amazing adventure!

The Northwest Passage is steeped in rich history, beautiful people, remarkable wildlife and unimaginable beauty. If you are lucky enough to experience it, you will feel more Canadian—and when you depart you will leave with a purpose: to come back, as soon as humanly possible, for more.

Travel Planner

Arctic Kaleidoscope . . . The People,Wildlife and Ever-Changing Landscapephotography exhibition by Michelle Valberg is on at the Canadian Museum of Nature until May 29, 2011.

For more information on Northwest Passage expeditions, visit Adventure Canada at adventurecanada.com.

 
 
 
 
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