Onboard the Adventure Canada High Arctic Explorer at the top of the World
By Susan McKee
Cruises aren’t all centered around the swimming pool on deck and the fine dining on board. The best are more like a college seminar with field trips.
In August 2019, I went on assignment for GoNOMAD with Adventure Canada’s High Arctic Explorer cruise aboard the Ocean Endeavor. The idea was to experience the far northern reaches of Nunavut, Canada, and touch on the western coast of Greenland.
We were sent a reading list ahead of time, but since my acceptance on the voyage was last minute, I did all of my reading from the extensive onboard library as we cruised the Lancaster Sound and then Baffin Bay (my favorite book was Peter Davidson’s “The Idea of North”).
Coming along with us on the ship were experts in the region: a botanist, geologist, historian, glaciologist, archaeologist, ornithologist, biologist, a few book authors, and an art specialist — most of whom were on break from their “real” jobs as university professors.
Then there were the native Inuit who provided first-hand knowledge of the indigenous culture, and even lessons in Inuktitut, the Inuit language (all of us learned a new word each day — nanuq, for example, is polar bear).
Names and Faces
The staff musician, Tom Kovacs, has decades of Adventure Canada excursions under his belt. His extra talent? An ability to memorize faces and names.
By the second day of our voyage, he was able to walk around the main lounge and identify literally every one of the 164 passengers on the ship by their first name. Most were Canadians, but there also were Americans and Europeans in the group, along with a contingent from Down Under.
Each day there were a variety of lectures in the lounge: the prehistory of the North American Arctic, Arctic plants and people, Inuit governance, glaciers and the ice cap of Greenland, for example. There were workshops to identify marine mammals, and practice spotting birds from the deck. Photographers on staff gave shooting tips.
Several authors of books on polar topics talked about their work, as did John Houston, an expert in Inuit art who grew up in Cape Dorset, Nunavut. The Compass Room had coffee, tea, and cookies available 24/7 along with a carefully curated library of books about the Arctic, its inhabitants, explorers, wildlife, and plants.
Break time? There was a saltwater pool onboard and a hot tub, not to mention a sauna. One passenger prided himself on walking 60 “laps” on the sixth-floor deck every day.
Each evening, after dinner, there were music performances or games or movies in the lounge. The highlight was a costume party when the passengers dressed up as their favorite Arctic explorers (and prizes were awarded).
Another popular frivolity? The Polar Dip. Some 103 of the 164 passengers leaped gleefully into the almost-freezing water to claim bragging rights (and a great action photo of their exploit courtesy of the staff photographers onboard.
The experts on board mingled comfortably: they sat with us at dinner, drank with us in the lounge, and manned “field stations” during our trips onshore. They were always available for questions.
On one of our walks across Devon Island, I stopped to look at the complex tangle of tiny branches and leaves flat on the ground. Dawn Bazely, the botanist on board, saw my concentration and came over to explain that the plants were willow, specifically Salix arctica, the northernmost woody plant in the world.
It’s is a “tree” growing far above the tree line. The plant at our feet, she estimated, was at least 175 years old based on its “trunk” (which was about the size of my thumb). Remembering news stories about forest fires in the Arctic, I asked if these were the trees on fire.
Yes, she said, and the ground itself was burning — it was packed with partially decayed plant matter just like the turf in peat bogs.
Cedar Swan, the CEO of Adventure Canada, was aboard this voyage; her father was one of the company’s founders. She explained that having Inuit on staff provided invaluable local knowledge.
Martha Flaherty, for example, belongs to one of the families that were relocated from Inukjuuaq, Nunavik, to Grise Fiord, Nunavut, in the 1950s.
A filmmaker, author, and educator, she’s part of Pauktuutit, the Inuit Women’s Association of Canada. Martha led the sampling of two native delicacies for us: Arctic char and narwhal (both, of course, served raw).
Heidi Langille, a self-described Urban Inuk with family roots in Nunatsiavut, is (among many other talents) and accomplished throat singer.
The High Arctic is one of three regions where this type of singing or chanting is practiced (South Africa and Mongolia are the other two). It’s said to be one of the world’s oldest forms of music.
Among the Inuit, it’s usually women who are throat singers, and it’s something of a competitive sport. We had several demonstrations, each of which ended in much laughter as one or the other of the participants lost the thread of the melody and forfeited the competition.
We started in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, explored Devon Island, and visited Pond Inlet before heading east across Baffin Bay to the west coast of Greenland.
Because it’s a dependency of Denmark, the 58,000 or so indigenous Greenlanders had a somewhat more prosperous existence than the Inuit of Canada. After that? The long flight back to Ontario to head home.
A word about wardrobe: Adventure Canada provides a list of recommended apparel (which includes waterproof pants). A jaunty blue jacket is included in the cruise price, and they’ll loan you a pair of rubber boots for the inevitable wet landings.
You’ll find the boots more comfortable for walking on rocks if you bring along a pair of gel insoles, and a hiking stick is a very useful tool to keep your footing onshore.
Photos by Susan McKee and by Dennis Minty of Adventure Canada, the cruise company that hosted her on this expedition.
Susan McKee is an independent scholar and award-winning freelance journalist specializing in history, culture and travel. She travels widely and to amazing places–including Armenia, Chad, Finland, Mongolia, and Antarctica. A member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), she lives in Indianapolis, Indiana.