Arctic Enlightenment

We know more about outer space than our polar oceans. During British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s first visit to President Obama’s White House, he gifted Obama a framed commissioning paper for the HMS Resolute, a barque-rigged Royal Navy Ship that came to symbolize British-American goodwill when it was trapped by Arctic icebergs, rescued by an American whaler and returned to Queen Victoria in 1856. Until I traversed these north polar waters in icebreaker mode and landed on an Inuit island named after that ship, I’d only imagined defining resolute.

Sea carnivalites seek tropical breezes while cruise extremists deliberately voyage into polar fog—before the top of the world forever tips off its icy hat. My 2,000 nautical mile Russian icebreaker voyage through the Arctic’s Northwest Passage navigated the same bays and narrow, ice-choked channels that immobilized or killed explorers (including Henry Hudson) for 400 years until a crafty Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, completed the Atlantic-to-Pacific voyage in 1905. Tracking those really real men, we explored Canadian Arctic islands, most uninhabited, others home to native Inuit. This polar history lesson is spiced with hikes, kayaking and encounters with fringe-of-civilization survivors formerly called Eskimos. It’s another galaxy up here, where note-takers clutch pencils because pens freeze.

These expeditions define the inescapable escape, as no one can bail out. You’re on the boat for the duration, no matter what—losing track of days, severed from email, phone, television and Internet. A time machine warp of two weeks with no need for wallet or keys—currency and technologies are worthless. There’s nothing to tune out and a lot to discover.

Heat takes on incredible value in this environment and the Akademik Ioffe, a Russian icebreaker, provides plenty. Expedition cruising means no set itinerary; weather and ice can reroute ships at any time. Swerving off the business-as-usual curve and backtracking along Amundsen’s odyssey—uncharted in a my climate-controlled shelter—makes you contemplate the sacrifices made conquering the unknown.

The Ship
The 117m-long Akademik Ioffe, an ice-strengthened Russian research vessel, was converted to a passenger boat when the previous Cold War stalled. Originally designed for acoustic research—though the salty bartender winks that it was really a spy ship—it can produce 20 tons of potable water per day and is equipped with 747-engine-sized thrusters allowing it to fishtail around roving icebergs. It seems Russia, with 30 icebreakers, is well prepped to navigate this new frontier while the US has just one working icebreaker.

The often shallow and rocky Northwest Passage requires careful navigation—only shallow draft boats can pass. While this sort of “cruising” usually attracts mostly educated, well-heeled adventurers, I overheard two doozeys:

“Are there anymore undiscovered islands?”

“Do they speak pole-ish up here?

The Journey
The voyage started in Cambridge Bay, an isolated frontier settlement on Victoria Island. Like every hamlet in the High Arctic, “Christmas” comes in the form of one barge delivery per year, which means realizing one annual shopping list. ATVs buzz along dirt roads.
Pointing at a teenager’s ATV, I inquire, “That ATV must be fun on the beach?”

“We don’t have a TV,” he replies, indicating that I’m surely off the grid.

Nunavut, a 772,000 square-mile territory (one-fifth the size of Canada) was carved from half of Canada’s Northwest Territories in 1999. Nunavut has 34,000 permanent residents, mostly Inuit—the same number of people living on my New York City street. None of the 26 High Arctic communities are accessible by road or rail.

Houses are built high on stilts to avoid snow drift build-up, each with two external tanks, one for potable water and one for waste, respectively imported and exported by trucks. This setup makes residents ultra-conscious of their usage and disposal. I hadn’t thought much about my personal water usage until recently when two-thirds of my Manhattan apartment survival water—a medley of quart and half-gallon jugs—was depleted to flush my toilet during a water main break. Whoa.

At first, the High Arctic land scenery, if beheld by unromantic eyes, resembles a lifeless Montana mine-scape shrouded in February mist. But it was early September and winter soon laid a snowy frost on the drab but dramatic, brown, ice age cataclysm rubble. This desolate, inhospitable tundra is windswept and treeless, though, up close, many rocks are fluorescent with orange lichen. Tundra vegetation includes flowering plants, grasses, sedges, mosses and dwarfed shrubs. Cold, dead-brown buttes sprinkled with glacial debris flank the waterways. Occasionally, rocky cliff faces loom over the dark waters, chock-full of floating ice sculptures that accentuate the dazzling Arctic radiance.

These Barrengrounds define rawness. The coastal Barrens are brown, rolling, rounded mountains. A Mars-ish landscape designed by glaciers, the desert bleakness is inconstant and forbidding. Much of the time, you’re looking at three-billion-year-old rock in the form of huge cliffs that were once layers of ancient seabed—at the equator! As we moved north, we found a massive blue-green glacier churning down a valley toward a pod of Beluga whales—capable of a wide range of facial expressions. We also saw on-land Stromatolite’s domes—beach umbrella-top sized volcanoes that are a first sign of geologic life on Earth.

Encounters included polar bears, whales and brave, lone-wolf birds. Treading these lands is a sacred privilege that comes with environmental responsibility. Nothing is disturbed, whether it be lichens or caribou, who endure the longest over-land migration—2,000 miles—of any animal. Due to weather, waves and other nautical surprises, many landfall decisions are last minute.

Whales are plentiful; we learn to differentiate their “blow types.” Bowhead whales, with side-by-side blowholes (like ours) create a bushy blow, while narwhal whales have a straight, geyser-like blow. Other wildlife sightings include bearded seals, grizzlies and Arctic fox.

Arctic sea ice begins to form when seawater temperature is about 29-degrees, depending upon its salinity. The higher the salt content, the lower the freezing point. 50-percent sea ice coverage resembles an inverted cloudy sky or, for the geometrically challenged, like peering down upon a cloudy day from a plane cruising at 30,000 feet. Sea ice hues range from white crystal to Tunisian blue. The supernatural whimsy of wind-blown ice is magical in a terrifying way—ice accidents sink ships.

There are options to kayak throughout the voyage—the main craft used for hunting by the Inuit. Quietly paddling up to an onshore Grizzly bear seems to lend more credibility than motoring past in a Zodiac. It’s also high time to pause and redefine silence.

Syncing with the onboard Russian theme are the occasional onshore DEWline stations (abandoned, US-built Cold War Distant Early Warning radar and radio facility mini ghost towns). These US paranoia graveyards, like exercise bikes converted into clothes hangers, were ill conceived in the mid 1950s. Big, empty utility sheds, that once held secret guy stuff that never really worked, all sit next to decommissioned (knocked over) radar towers. These stations were an early indication of US/Canada cooperative tension, since the US just showed up and built them without permission.

Inuit hamlets aside, the only other human structures are long-abandoned Hudson’s Bay trading posts, typically nothing more than two old wooden buildings near the shoreline. It’s funny to arrive at desolate places like “Fort Ross,” where side-by-side huts barely mimic forts.

Inuit Customs
Inuit is used to refer collectively to these Arctic peoples. Inuk is the singular form of Inuit and is used when referring to an individual. People actually live up here, unlike Antarctica, which by law has no population except for visiting scientists. Known for centuries as Eskimos, the Inuit look like very well fed Thai people. Inuit’s noses have low bridges, like Asians, whereas Indians from lower North America have higher, stronger nose bridges. Blood typing has verified that they’re not related to Native Americans, likely because they arrived via different migrations.

Before “civilization” they had no class structure or recognized form of government. Money traditionally meant nothing (except perhaps, cigarettes). Children seem to be interchangeable, and traded amongst family and friends. There are no rules for the kids—Inuit don’t like to say no. Adoption is an integral part of society. The fluidity of kid transfers remains undramatic. They’re also not big on small talk, silence is accepted and normal—hellos and goodbyes are unnecessary. Hospitality requires no thank yous and handshakes are pointless.

Experts still argue about whether the Inuit were Bering Strait wanderers or Mongolian boaters. There’s also a theory imagining that lower North American Indians bullied them northward into the igloo way of life. Known for their Herculean stamina and contemplative personality styles, an unspoken cultural mandate is the sharing of everything.

Today, many younger indigenous Inuit live in hamlets, listen to iPods, watch satellite television and chat on telephones. Boats with outboard motors have replaced skin kayaks, rifles have replaced harpoons, snowmobiles have replaced sled dogs and prefab cabins have replaced igloos. But you still get a sense that they’re connected to their departed spirits.

Holman’s Dave Kuptana
Our second landfall on Victoria Island (NWT) was Holman, a seaside village of 400 known by the local Inuit as Ulukhaktok (ulu-hock-tock), which means ladies knife made out of copper. A string of boxy cabin homes rim the shore with a rise leading to an austere, picket fence-rimmed, squash court-sized graveyard. Near that edge of town, I met mellow but judicious, Dave Kuptana, a retired wildlife guide cum stone carver. Sitting outside beside his carving table and wearing snug-fitting, oversized mechanics overalls, he gently explained that the key to winning over Holman’s young people was insisting that they “follow our tradition” by “listening to your teachers.”

“Last winter,” he emphasized with squinting eyes, “we only got two polar bears.” This fringe of the Northwest Territories mandates that Holman as a whole can only hunt 20 polar bears; 10 for local consumption and 10 for visiting sport hunters—who pay up to $35,000, a fee supporting the entire community. The meat of hunted animals is stored in underground permafrost freezer huts and shared communally. Permafrost freezes the ground up to 400 meters deep in these parts.

Kuptana, a rotund, hard-working, middle-aged Holman native, remembers decades past when local waters were completely frozen through July making the area perfect polar bear territory for most of the year. “Now,” Kuptana explained peering towards the bay, “there’s no ice, it’s open water, and we’re in boats by May. Now we have to go more than 100 miles for bears.”

Returning to his initial offering aimed at Holman’s youth: “Don’t lose our dialect.”

It is thought that Inuit may have learned many of their hunting techniques from the bears. Latitudes and attitudes prevail as the Arctic region progresses toward longer summers with open water; local appetites remain hardy. Dave’s final merry-eyed thought on the choicest part of bear dining: “The meat with the fat on it.”

Controversy in Gjoa-Haven
A zodiac run from the ship visited Nunavut’s Gjoa-Haven, another dirt-road survival hamlet with modest boxy homes upon stilts draped with various animal skins (caribou, musk ox, brown and polar bear) slung over porch banisters and other objects like drying laundry. These what-we’ve-been-up-to flags reveal more guts than mud splattered on a suburban SUV.

Most elders here speak only Inuit, but a young English-speaking resident explained that the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, curiously, are using the Inuit Inukshuk as their logo. An Inukshuk is an Inuit survival signpost of life or death, as well as markers/pointers signaling either food caches (no pointer means food right there) or a stone pointer showing the way to open water, hunting or fishing zones. These guideposts have nothing to do with the 2010 Olympics multi-colored representation. The Olympic committee bought the rights to a controversial human representation with two feet and two pointing arms. Traditional Inukshuk signposts do not represent people and have only one pointer. The Nunavut flag bears a legitimate Inukshuk. Furthermore, there are Native Indians in British Colombia and Vancouver, but they’re not Inuit.

Gjoa-Haven’s Throat Singers
These High Arctic hamlets receive three day-tripper ship visits per year, if that. While in Gjoa-Haven, I met two teenage throat singers, Janet Aglukkaq and Kathy Keknek. Haunting, but beautiful and mesmerizing, throat singing’s eerie harmonies resemble guttural, breathy electronic music. A tradition traced to Mongolia, the young women created multi-layered supernatural cadence, a duet of throaty growls and soaring repetitive rhythms. They’ve been training for four years for their performance that lasts about five minutes. In a culture where centuries-old survival skills are now sadly taught as arts and crafts, Ms. Aglukkaq noted, “We received a grant to go sing in Scotland…we hope it’s not too hot there.”
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The Wild North Braces for Battle

The Northwest Passage, the world’s most dangerous shortcut, is a sea route through the Arctic Ocean connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Unlike Antarctica (the bottom), a continent shielded by an ocean, the Arctic is an ocean encircled by continents. Also unlike Antarctica, which was forever environmentally protected by the globally signed 1959 Antarctic Treaty, the five countries encircling and laying claim to the Arctic region (Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark and the US via Alaska) have yet to agree on anything.

Without an Arctic Treaty, the vast Arctic Ocean, which is six times larger than the Mediterranean Sea, implores urgent geopolitical questions. Who is going to manage the Northwest Passage, which will, as the meltdown continues, outmode the Panama Canal’s 40 locks and 40 thousand per ship transit fee? Canada righteously considers these “internal waters” and seems to have the leg up for now regarding shipping lane control. The other geopolitical time bombs are the rights to tapping the region’s impending oil, natural gas, mining and tourism booms. The saber rattling over Arctic territorial claims has begun—with the USA declaring the passage international waters, Russia claiming the North Pole’s seabed and Canadian sovereignty simply pointing at their map. Add our globe’s rising fever—the disappearance of Arctic summer ice not only destroys polar bear, seal and Arctic peoples’ habitat, but also reinforces global warming because open water absorbs more solar energy than ice. Ouch. Eventually we’re all going to realize that we’re in this together—everyone on my boat did.

As the Northwest Passage opens for business, Arctic political diplomacy will shut down. The anticipated commercial shipping lane will further bleach the Inuit way of life, turning their knowing glimpses into the gaze of climate refugees. What happens next is largely up to us. Just as winds are designated by the direction they blow from rather than to, a polar adventure reminds us that the Earth’s warm-up is coming, not going. Man’s partaking in polar visitation is our last chance to do things right; footprints here can last a thousand years. Where the law is silent, ethics should speak.

bruce northam

Bruce Northam is the award-winning journalist and author of The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons, Globetrotter Dogma, In Search of Adventure, and The Frugal Globetrotter. He also created “American Detour,” a show revealing the travel writer’s journey. His keynote speech, Directions to Your Destination, reveals the many shades of the travel industry and how to entice travelers. Northam’s other live presentation, Street Anthropology, is an ode to freestyle wandering. Visit