Ice, fog and polar bears….part of the adventure of transiting the North West Passage.
History tells us that James Cook lost his way, and Franklin and his crew lost their lives trying. If that’s not enough, meteorological records show that until 2007, sea ice meant it was impassable all year. So, why would anyone want to try to cross from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic through the Arctic waters of the fabled North West Passage? Well, whilst being tossed around by gales in the Bering Sea and squinting through thick fog near Baffin Island, I frequently asked myself the same question. But that is the pleasure of travelling.
The world is full of magnificent places and life is full of magnificent things to do, so here I was.
Actually, it started months before, beginning with a Transatlantic crossing. I reckon everyone should arrive in NY by ship; The skyline of Manhattan was made for it. So, I left a rainy Southampton and a week later found myself eating in my favourite restaurant in Bryant Square imaging Nikola Tesla sitting next to me talking to the pigeons.
But I had a long journey ahead so, within days I’d hired a car and was heading west. Well, trying to. I’ve done many American road trips and was feeling cocky. With no map and only an uncharged phone that didn’t have an appetite for google maps, I picked up a car without satnav and casually asked for directions. The guy looked at me as if I was mad but suggested a route I should follow. So, I did; well, until I got lost. Confused, I pulled into a petrol station and pounced on another unsuspecting New Yorker to ask for more directions. His fancy phone shrank the whole of NY State into a square inch before my eyes whilst the magnificent dexterity of his lightning-fast-fingers worked out the perfect, if complicated, route. I glazed over, and attempting a dismal impersonation of Sting, hummed ‘I’m an Englishman in New York’.
‘I’m not going your way,’ he said with a smile, ‘but hey I’ll detour, it will be easier if you follow me.’ So, I did, for about an hour, until the chaos of a city was left behind, and the roads widened and straightened. And in this magical, ‘my-journey-has-begun’ moment, travelling reminded me that the world is full of ordinary people willing to go to extraordinary lengths to help other ordinary people, and so truly, we are never lost.
I drove north to Buffalo, where only weeks before, another crazy, American shooter, killed a group of black folks. I played ‘Oxford Town’ by Bob Dylan as I drove and wondered if he, too, despairs that sixty years after composing it, not much has changed.
I dropped the car and crossed into Canada on foot. It’s easy; there’s a bridge from which you can stare at Niagara Falls and listen to a million tourists screaming from the soaked decks of tour boats that power-shower everything within them under the thundering Falls.
Toronto is only a couple of hours from Niagara, so skirting the shoreline of Lake Ontario, I made my way there before hiring another car and heading west. Past the seemingly never-ending lakes and the endless, empty space of the prairies. Stopping to fuel the car and fill up on donuts and coffee from the ubiquitous Tim Hortons, before resting in hotels in cities one-day drives apart. Sault-Saint-Marie, Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, Saskatoon and on to Calgary and its cowboy hats and Stampede. Then on to the Rockies. If you have the time, take a road trip across Canada, everywhere is worth it, but if you don’t, then a week between Banff and Jasper will be the holiday of your life. Watch the sunrise on the snow-capped peaks above Lake Louise; gaze in awe at the luminescent, turquoise colours of Peyto Lake; drive the Icefield Parkway and walk to the Athabasca Glacier knowing that the hike to reach it would be considerably shorter if it wasn’t for global warming and a rapidly receding glacier.
If you’re lucky, near Jasper, you’ll also stare as elk and black bears nonchalantly amble across roads or graze on grass verges seemingly oblivious of human existence.
But all this was an appetiser. My goal was the North West Passage, so I continued west through the vineyards of Kelowna, the mountains of Whistler and onto Vancouver and the Pacific Ocean.
If you visit Canada, I think you’ll like their cities; I did. They have an easy-to-get-around, laid-back feel and life it seems is not in such a hurry here. Sadly, many of them seem to have a growing homeless problem. Communities living out of shopping trolleys and make-shift tents; streets turned into refugee camps. Try Hastings Street in Vancouver for a taste of what I mean.
The treatment of the First Nations People also continues to haunt Canada. More is now being revealed about the Residential Schools, the missing children and the suppression of indigenous culture, but the last school only closed its doors in 1996. So, amongst the absolute wonder of Canada, its magnificent scenery and abundance of wildlife, it seems, as in many Western ‘developed’ nations there is much still to develop and ‘come clean’ about.
Time goes quickly when you travel and the ‘ice-free’ widow for attempting the NW Passage is narrow so, having spent weeks driving over four thousand miles, I decided to hurry north through Alaska. It deserved more attention, but in the few weeks I had, I kayaked in Icy Bay, saw bears in Katmai National Park and met a Ukrainian guy who had escaped the war to work in Unalaska. I was also rewarded with the magical surprise of seeing over a hundred whales diving by and circling my boat near the now abandoned Unga Island.
Eventually I made it to Nome. An old gold rush town that was once home to Wyatt Earp and still has a feel of the Wild West about it but now is best known for being the finish line for the Iditarod dogsled race.
I liked Nome. On a grey day, it’s a bleak place but the people generate its pulse. The Siberian Yupik, Vietnam Vets and others from all over America who have a past but would rather not talk about it. I drank in the bars and met a young guy who invited me to visit the cannabis shop with him. Personal use is legal in Alaska. ‘Tell Matt, Josh sent you’, he yelled as he went in. ‘I’m telling you I spend all my money in here.’ Nome. It’s that sort of place.
I could have stayed longer, but the ship that was to be my home for the NW Passage voyage was about to leave so, within hours I found myself rolling around in what is sometimes described as the worst ocean on earth. We passed Little Diomede close to Russian International waters, maybe not the best place to be when they’re in a proxy war with the west.
Days of fog and rough seas followed, interrupted only by our Arctic Crossing and the Bluenose ceremony. The ‘Order of the Bluenose’ is a Navy tradition which means that those crossing the Arctic Circle by ship for the first time enter the realm of the King of the North and must complete his list of challenges. Aboard a passenger ship this usually means, something uncomfortable happening such as having freezing water poured over your head whilst ice cubes are tipped inside your shirt. Passengers wise enough to say they’ve crossed before snigger from the side lines.
Despite being in the Arctic Circle we hadn’t yet encountered ice, well, unless you count ice cubes down your shirt. Too much sea ice would of course block our way and put an end to the voyage, but I was expecting to adventure through ice and not seeing any felt disappointing. You know, a bit like going to see your favourite band and the singer not showing.
But sea ice conditions change hourly as a result of wind and currents, and suddenly, we found ourselves far enough north in the Beaufort Sea to encounter fast Ice, the name used to describe ice that forms and remains attached to the shore. The ship cautiously nudged its way along, bulldozing smaller pieces of drift ice out of its way. It was about one in the morning. Ice and misty moonlight. If we had been a David Attenborough film crew, we would have no doubt, holed up there for a week and waiting patiently with cameras that had lenses the size of the Channel Tunnel to film polar bears who cross fast ice to hunt for seals, but sadly for us, with a long journey ahead we sailed on.
The next morning, we were sailing through open seas again. Still in US waters but soon to cross into Canadian waters and later, land on Canadian soil. We needed clearance. Life is complicated enough, but in the North West Passage things get tricky. As you might guess, there aren’t any customs people just hanging around for a ship to transit, so it had to be arranged for the Canadian Immigration people to meet us. The joy of border bureaucracy. In Covid times, this also included proving vaccination status and filling in entry documents online on a ship in the middle of nowhere. To coordinate all this, a group of immigration people flew from Yellowknife to Inuvik and then on by small plane to the isolated, Herschel Island. Easy-peasy. Well, except for more fog. We moored up near the island and waited. And then the fog came. And then it went. And then it came back. Eventually, it cleared enough for their flight to reach Herschel, and after being picked up by Zodiacs, they boarded, ate lots of the ship’s food and fiddled about with some paperwork. It did give us clearance, though, and a chance to land on Herschel Island, where we watched them take off in a prop plane from the smallest, roughest runway you’ll ever see.
Although my voyage involved travelling several thousand miles from Nome in Alaska to Halifax in Eastern Canada, technically, the NW Passage only spans around 1000 miles from the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska through to Baffin Island in the east. The transit falls entirely within the Arctic Circle, relatively close to the North Pole. For most of the year sea ice prevents any ships weaving through the narrow channels that transit what is now the Canadian archipelago which is why so many explorers died or got lost trying to find a route through. Unfortunately, global warming now means that it is becoming increasingly ice-free during the summer months, although things are still unpredictable. In 2018, the Russian-flagged ship, Akademik Loffe ran aground with 162 people aboard.
There are a few communities scattered across the Canadian Arctic archipelago and small ships can seek permission to visit. Generally, they have small populations, sometimes with as few as 300 people, and are often economically challenged indigenous communities without infrastructures in place to enable ships to dock. Fortunately, the ship I was travelling with had the capability to launch Zodiacs and take passengers ashore for wet landings. If you don’t mind jumping off the side of a small rubber dinghy with water up to your shins and scrambling up the beach, then it’s good fun. The use of Zodiacs enabled me to make a number of ‘nature landings’ to unpopulated islands such as Herschel Island, but it also gave me the opportunity to make community visits to Ulukhaktok; Cambridge Bay and Gjoa Haven.
These places are all located in the Arctic Tundra. They have long, dark winters and are covered in ice and surrounded by sea ice for many months of the year. For a couple of months in the summer, however, depending on the volume of sea ice it is sometimes possible to land.
Without the covering of gleaming white ice, the Tundra is a barren, treeless region with a landscape of small plants, mosses and lichens. Often, no more than a hundred or so small wooden dwellings house the communities. For those interested in wildlife the environment provides bird-spotting opportunities, but I tended to just wander around and talk to people going about their daily routines.
Many of the people living in these communities are Inuit or Inuit descendants. Their traditional lifestyle made necessary by extreme climatic conditions means that hunting and trapping and the use of fur are part of their culture. Sadly, government-sponsored residential religious schools were set up to ‘assimilate’ indigenous children into becoming ‘more Canadian’. Those that attended these schools were punished if they spoke their own language and their culture was denigrated and suppressed. Attendees of these schools also endured severe forms of abuse. Because of this, there are mental health problems amongst the indigenous groups. Whilst visiting one community, one girl told me that 25% of the people who went to the school she attended had committed suicide. It is interesting to listen to western media vocalise their concerns over the treatment of the Uyghur by the Chinese authorities whilst generally remaining quite about the atrocities committed against Inuit and First Nation populations in Canada and elsewhere.
I enjoyed visiting the communities, talking to the people, finding out about their way of life, and understanding their culture. The kindness of strangers. Dave in Cambridge Bay who offered me a lift in his pick-up truck and gave me a tour of the town and up to the Dew line. The Distant Early Warning line is a system of radar stations originally installed during the cold war to detect attacks from the Soviets. Unsurprisingly, Western governments are now showing a renewed interest in the upkeep of these radar stations that are peppered across the high Arctic. And then there was Eddy in Ulukhaktok, who spent hours talking to me about his way of life and how he was going hunting that night and his love of having the most northerly golf course in the Americas.
But the transit is about more than the communities. The excitement of seeing polar bears and beluga whales; landing on desolate Beechey Island and seeing the graves of the crew from the ill-fated Franklin expedition; doing an Arctic plunge in a 2-degree sea; seeing thousands of birds circling Prince Leopold Island; standing on deck in the moonlight at 3 in the morning staring at the snow-capped mountains. All this and never being quite sure what the next day might bring other than knowing it would reveal wildlife, history, culture, discovery and adventure.
I had followed the route of Roald Amundsen, the first western explorer to find and successfully complete the transit of the NW Passage in 1906. But my elation at getting through was tinged with concern. Concern that the trip is now only possible because the Arctic is warming and that the massive reduction in the volume and range of sea ice has enormous implications not just for the local communities and wildlife but for us all.
As beautiful as Baffin Island is, I still had to get to a port to disembark. So, having completed the transit, I crossed Baffin Bay in gale-force winds and rough seas to see the magnificent icebergs and glaciers of Greenland and eventually made it to Halifax in eastern Canada. Disembarking there was the plan, but travelling is full of surprises. A new and seemingly bizarre maritime law introduced in Canada meant I wasn’t allowed to disembark, so instead, I found myself heading on to the US and more adventure…but that’s another story.
You can check out Steve's books (his latest being 'Love Transfers') here.