Editor’s note: Thanks to our favourite travelling poet for this lyrical account of her time with the Canada C3, an ambitious 150-day sailing expedition on the Polar Prince that wrapped up at the end of October in Victoria, B.C. Canadians of all backgrounds were invited to join different legs of the Students on Ice initiative (Lorna was on Leg 7), which was designed to have guests on board explore topics such as diversity and inclusion, reconciliation, youth engagement and the environment.
When the weather drops so far below zero that your eyelashes freeze together and the wind is like a scalpel across your cheeks, prairie people greet each other with, “Is it cold enough for you?”
Hiking on Baffin Island the first week of August, clad in three layers of wool pants, neoprene gloves and a hooded goose-down jacket, I ask David Lawson, who was born and raised here, if the Inuit have a similar expression when winter hits Nunavut. He says they ask each other, “Qalappiit?”
Though we met only a couple of days ago, I know this young man likes to tease me. And he’s got a mischievous glint in his eyes. “How do you spell what you just said,” I ask, “and what does it mean?” He writes the letters in my notebook, then translates: “Are you cold because you haven’t had sex in a while?”
Josh Stribbell laughs along with David and me. Josh, whose Inuit mother was taken from her family in the 1960s, spent all of his 27 years in Ontario. Everything that happens on this trip is a step forward on his journey back to his ancestral home.
“Qalappiit?” Josh and I ask when we see each other over the next few days. It will be one Inuktitut word we won’t forget.
Josh, David and I are three of 25 passengers on the Polar Prince icebreaker as it traverses Canada’s long coastline from Toronto to Victoria via the Northwest Passage. A diverse mix of scientists, artists like me, youth ambassadors, local experts and invited guests, we’re on a journey that started in Iqaluit and will end up in the village of Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut.
While many of the travellers from southern Canada, including me, stumble on our hike across Baffin Island’s tundra — you have to lift your knees high, it’s soft and boggy and feels like walking on snow — David moves with sureness and grace, like a short-legged muskeg dancer. This is his element and it’s beautiful to watch him.
David spent 15 years in the RCMP, some of that time on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s detail, travelling to London, Paris, Kiev. He was able to move back north for his last posting. Out of the force now, he’s studying law at the college in Iqaluit.
“How does this place say home to you?” I ask. “It’s the smells,” he tells me. All around us at our feet, ground-hugging flowers insist on a small, unassuming beauty. He helps me identify two: a white blossom and a fuchsia one. Labrador tea, we say in English, and dwarf fireweed.
I know I’m in a different place than I’m used to when I read the entry for fireweed in a book I find in the ship’s lounge. It’s a guide to Inuit medicinal plants: “Makes a delicious side dish when mixed with fats and blood.” Good to know.
On the deck of the icebreaker and when we bounce in a Zodiac to shore, I hang around David whenever I can. Because his grandfather stayed put and refused forced settlement and government-imposed education for his children, David and his mother grew up traditionally. They know how to listen to what the land has to say.
He’s a compendium of pragmatic, wild wisdom. When I ask if seal skin is waterproof, he tells me it depends on how much you scrape it. If you want it soft, no. If you leave it tough and leathery, yes, it keeps you dry.
When David was a kid, he hunted caribou on foot. His grandfather warned him about “rolling caribou,” a bad spirit that leads the solitary hunter over the hills and makes him disoriented until he can’t find his way back to camp.
Every time we go ashore, though my fellow trekkers and I are never far from one another, I fear I’m following that caribou spirit. Where am I? Is it summer or winter? Is it morning or night in these hours of constant sun? Am I a kid again, bursting with energy and delight, or a 69-year-old woman thankful I can keep up? Every time my legs sink into the tundra, I feel as if the earth is about to swallow the lower half of my body.
Have I travelled so far north I’ve tipped off the end of the globe into a place so vast and beautiful it doesn’t matter how it shows up on maps? I’m lost — it’s good to admit that — and everything’s unfamiliar, even my sense of who I am. What’s required here is a different sort of knowing.
Besides David, my other teachers are the scientists on board, especially Grant Gilchrist, an ornithologist from Ottawa. When Grant first visited the Arctic decades ago, one of his Inuit advisors said he was perfectly designed to freeze: he’s tall, with long arms and legs, and he has no body fat. If he were a bird, he’d be a gangly but elegant crane.
One morning as I shiver beside him on the ship’s bow at 4 a.m. (where coffee has never tasted better), he points portside to a huge fulmar nesting site just coming into view. An amateur birder like me can easily confuse fulmars for the gulls I see hanging around the pier at home on Vancouver Island, but these guys aren’t waiting for a tossed French fry.
Far from human habitation, fulmars skim over the water and soar with ease in one of the tallest, clearest skies in the world. On bare granite cliffs, they lay their eggs on ledges no bigger than the palm of a hand. The topmost chicks, balancing 430 meters above the fjord, have hatched above the clouds.
I can’t help but wonder what they think they’ve been born to. When their eyes first open and they look down, do they see the white swatch below them as snow, as ice floes or as the soft down of other flying things?
A few days later when Grant’s count is confirmed, he writes “100,000 mating fulmar pairs” on the mess hall’s blackboard. That number is topped by other nesting seabird colonies in the Akpait National Wildlife Area.
On even higher cliffs that soar 915 meters into the sky, 133,000 pairs of murres nurture their chicks. Smaller than fulmars, adult black-and-white murres madly flap on short wings like wind-up toys someone lobbed into the air.
Thank god they can swim. When the young are ready to leave the nest, they hurl themselves off the cliff, plunge past the sheer rock wall, then splash! For the first 1,000 kilometers on their way to Newfoundland, they don’t fly. They paddle on the surface or zoom smoothly underwater in a kind of liquid flight.
The newborns don’t return to their hatching sites until six years after their fall and, astoundingly, they know exactly which ledge to land on.
Grant illustrates the sheer size of the other flocks he studies when we chat over another early morning coffee, the ship on the move. On one of his winter research trips years ago, he woke to a low fog that had settled in the night. No, not a fog, but the breath of thousands of ground-roosting eiders.
Did their breath turn to hoarfrost, riming their smooth heads, turning them into pale, feathered ghosts? How magical to create their own localized weather from the winter dawn warmed inside their lungs.
Stories about this kind of abundance are becoming rarer as the numbers of seabirds, polar bears, and caribou are dwindling. Even the ice itself is disappearing.
When we break into open water farther north than most of us have ever been, icebergs that shouldn’t be here watch us as we stare wide-eyed, our binoculars heavy on our chests.
They are mica mountains, gleaming phantom ships, huge flat slabs of frozen light with centuries of snow trapped inside — 25,000 years of cold and hush drift south on the currents and their own melt.
Could we be the first humans many of them have come across? How small our years are in comparison! Many times on this trip I ask myself if it’s possible for a human being to be worn out by wonder.
On one of our last days at sea, as the ship slows down for the biggest, flattest iceberg we’ve seen — a village could be built on top of it — Bianca Perren, a Canadian paleo-climatologist who works for the British Antarctic Survey, leans on the bow beside me. She asks me how I’m feeling.
I can’t find a word that expresses exhilaration mixed with sorrow, yet I’ve been delegated to write a poem about what we’re seeing now. My emotions run together like watercolours on absorbent paper.
Bianca studied this very ice in northern Greenland before it broke away five years ago from the huge Petermann Glacier. Tears on her cheeks glint in the polar sun reflected off the long sheer wall the ship is slowly passing. As I fall into my own silence, she says it’s like we’re going by a dying whale.
Nothing anyone has said about climate change has hit me this hard. It’s as if the iceberg itself slams into me. What will we passengers on this ship do when we get home? How can we inspire action, in ourselves and in others?
When icebergs form, air bubbles, as well as snowflakes, compress and freeze. During the melt, the air that’s been trapped for millennia is released. If you’re close enough and your senses are sharp, you can hear a fizz, a drawn-out whisper. Part of the cold that triggers goosebumps on my skin comes from this iceberg’s final exhalations.
It’s a chill that goes straight to the heart.
*Our writer Lorna Crozier was a guest on the Canada C3 — a 150-day expedition from Toronto to Victoria via the Northwest Passage that took place from June 1 to October 28, 2017. Her story was not reviewed or edited by her hosts.
Founded by two Canucks on the loose in a big country, Toque & Canoe is a blog about Canadian travel culture.