A majesty of the North: Socially conscious travel at its finest

Photo: Town of Illulissat

It’s 5:30 a.m. The sun, that barely dipped bellow the horizon all night is rising over the Baffin Bay. I take a deep breath and taste the cool, salty air of the sea. I’m aboard the Ocean Endeavour, Adventure Canada’s 200 passenger ship, about half-way through the trip of a lifetime above the arctic circle.

As the van rumbled down the gravel road, taking us from our charter flight to the beach where zodiacs were waiting to take us to the ship, I had no idea what to expect. As I caught my first glimpse of Ocean Endeavour, my home for the next 12 days, across the arid landscape of Resolute Bay my heart skipped a beat. Here I was, thousands of kilometers from home about to discover the relatively untouched world of the north. An arctic expedition akin to the explorers of the past (albeit in much more luxurious accommodations).

Adventure Canada ship from Pond Inlet

My education about the North began as soon as we boarded the ship with a presentation from the people of Resolute Bay about Inuit culture. Two sisters demonstrated Inuit throat singing, one following the other before bursting into fits of laughter. Two young men showed us traditional Inuit games meant to prepare them for the strength and endurance needed to hunt. We were shown drum dancing, Inuit clothing and the lighting of Quliq, the oil lamp used traditionally for light and heat in Inuit homes.

And so began our voyage from Resolute Bay, along Devon Island (the largest uninhabited island on earth) and across the Davis Straight to Greenland. As is common with expedition travel every day’s itinerary was flexible. Adventure Canada staff and the crew of the Ocean Endeavour worked hard to adjust to weather and ice, which is a huge concern when cruising in the Arctic. The day we were supposed to go to Beechy Island, the final resting place of some of John Franklin’s men, we were fogged out. However it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the Adventure Canada team were able to alter the itinerary and take us to the Prince Leopold Island, which is a large protected migratory bird sanctuary. Thousands of thick-billed murres lined the majestic 265-metre-high dolomite limestone cliffs that rose through the remnants of the fog and out of the sea as we cruised around by zodiac, accompanied by the evening sun. It was magical. I thought to myself that if that was all I got to see I would be happy — It was just the first day.

Devon Ice Cap in Croker Bay

Each day after that seemed to top the last. We ended up making it back to Beechy Island where we had a beautiful day to hike on the cool desert island where Franklin’s men overwintered and search parties looking for that fateful expedition made their base. We also stopped at several places along Devon Island to hike and take in the beauty of the arctic landscape. We took a zodiac cruise to see the famous Devon Ice Cap which covers roughly 12,000 km2 of the island and visited Dundas Harbour which houses an old RCMP outpost as well as an impressive archeological site of an early Inuit settlement.

I could go on an on about the vast natural beauty of the arctic. The gigantic white and blue icebergs from the Illulissat icefjord in Greenland, towering above the ship like ice castles fit for a James Bond villain’s lair. Snow covered mountains rising out of the sea. Walruses chilling on the sea ice and humpback whales taking advantage of the rich feeding ground the fresh water melting from the glaciers creates in the summer months. A lone polar bear roaming the shore for its next meal.

 Faith, our tour guide

The landscapes of the Arctic are unlike any I have ever seen. However, what touched me the most about this remote and often harsh part of the world is its people. Adventure Canada is a tour company that values human connection and works hard at partnering with local communities to ensure their visit is beneficial, both for their passengers and the people who live there. In Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), Nunavut we were toured through the village by local Inuit guides. Mine was a teenage girl named Faith, the middle of five children, who was shy but proud to show off the town she called home. We were treated to a presentation of throat singing, drum dancing and the lighting of the Quliq in their community hall followed by a soccer game – visitors against the youth of Mittamatlik – a long standing tradition whenever the Adventure Canada ship comes to visit. The CEO of Adventure Canada, Cedar Swan, who was on our expedition was greeted by our hosts like she was family, making it clear that it was always a good day when the Adventure Canada ship was in the harbour.  

Swan is adamant that Adventure Canada will not run a trip to the Arctic without Inuit as part of their staff. In fact, Adventure Canada was part of the creation of a program that trains interested Nunavumiut in the skills they need to work on big cruise ships, certifications that would not otherwise be available to them unless they traveled south.

On our expedition five out of 34 Adventure Canada staff were Inuit including expedition leader and Swan’s husband Jason Edmunds. The pair met when Edmunds joined the Adventure Canada team in 2010 and they now have two little girls (Charlotte and Islay) who were also on the expedition. It contributed to the laid-back family atmosphere of the trip to have the little girls running around the ship and joining in on some of the shore landings and community visits.

Karen Nutarak lighting the Quliq

It is clear that family is a large part of the Adventure Canada experience. Many of the staff on board have been with Adventure Canada for many years and knew the founders of the company, Matthew and Bill Swan and Dave Freeze, since they began taking small groups to remote Canadian locations in 1987. Cedar says that as a family owned and operated company, they work hard at creating an accepting and fun atmosphere for all the staff and crew aboard the Ocean Endeavour, something that definitely trickles down and bolsters the experience for the passengers along for the ride.

 The knowledge aboard the Ocean Endeavour was overwhelming. With a geologist, glaciologist, several culturalists, botanist and historian (just to name a few) on board there was sure to be someone who could answer any question you might have about what we were seeing day to day. They all have a deep connection to the Arctic and several expressed their respect for how Adventure Canada runs their tours, partnering with the communities they visit and leaving the wilderness untouched. Inuk law student Robert Comeau is a staunch advocate for his people and a member of Adventure Canada’s expedition team. He says that he believes Adventure Canada is the gold standard for socially conscious arctic travel. “It’s not just having Inuit involved in the conversation but really directing it,” he says. “That’s why I appreciate working for Adventure Canada because they allow for Inuit to develop and influence policies that they have.”

My trip aboard the Ocean Endeavour was a once in a lifetime experience. I will never forget the colourful houses of Greenland, the vast fjords of Devon Island and the smiling faces of Mittimatalik. We exited the Davis Straight and entered the 190 km Kangerlussauq Fjord on our way to the airport just as it was getting dark on our last day at sea. I stood on the back deck of the ship and watched as the mouth of the fjord and my adventure in the arctic faded into the distance. I said farewell to the beauty and serenity of the north. “Until next time,” I thought.