I spent the tail end of my summer in the Arctic, from Resolute Bay, up to Ellesmere Island and down to Newfoundland.
On this trip, not everything went according to plan, and that was my favourite thing about it. It made me think that perhaps that’s the definition of adventure – you know you’ve had one if it didn’t turn out like you thought it would.
I started by going to Edmonton, as planned, to meet guests and staff bound for the National Geographic Explorer. I would work as a naturalist and guide. We had hoped to travel the Northwest Passage from west to east, but that was already out the window. Our ship had been turned around by sea ice and was waiting for us in Resolute Bay, instead of Kugluktuk. We were already 1,000 kilometres off course.
We tried for Resolute Bay on Wednesday, but got turned back to Edmonton by fog.
Thursday, the weather was too bad to even try (look out Edmonton, here we come!).
Friday we tried again and made it . . . just.
I’ll spare you the details of those three days, except for two things:
1) It’s one thing to change your plans, and it’s another to change plans with 150 people in tow. (Anybody want to check out the Fringe festival this afternoon?)
2) On the plane to Resolute on the Friday, I sat between Sven Lindblad, the CEO of Lindblad Expeditions, and Trey Byus, the company’s Chief Expedition Officer. If we didn’t land, they were going to have to send everyone home, and that would be very, very disappointing and expensive. Both of these guys are so experienced and so professional, but I could feel the waves of stress emanating from them as we saw a clear patch, then fog, then heard the landing gear, then fog, then . . . touch down!!!
The thing about changing plans is it gives you the chance to look up and say, Okay, where do I want to go now? In this case, we went to Ellesmere Island.
And this is what we saw, as captured by National Geographic Photographer and Director of the Expedition Photography Program, Ralph Lee Hopkins.
Ralph took pictures of this caliber every day, and traveling with him reinforced the beauty we found at every curve in the path. It’s good to have friends like him.
After Ellesmere, we headed south and made the decision to take on the famed Fury and Hecla Strait. It’s a narrow passage that leads along the southwest shore of Baffin Island from the Gulf of Boothia into Foxe Basin, and we may have been the only ship to travel through it this year. It was that full of ice.
Because of last year’s cold winter and low snow fall, we had a lot of sea ice to contend with. But “a lot” is really more like the historical normal. I found this a great privilege; it was like time travel. I was living the Arctic as it used to be. Closer to how the polar bears need it, how Inuit hunters understand it and how Arctic explorers floundered in it. I saw 90% coverage of multi-year see ice so thick it felt like concrete and so old it had grown dirty.
We couldn’t cross it ourselves; we needed icebreaker assistance, and the Canadian Coast Guard, bless them, offers a free ice escort service, which is as romantic as it sounds. When our ship could no longer go it alone, a sturdy, bright red vessel, like a fairy tale prince with an ice belt and an ice knife, came to the rescue. Her name was the Pierre Radisson, and we followed her for two days.
I was sent aboard to meet the crew and learn what I could. She has 19,000 horse power, compared to our 6,000. She has a spoon-shaped hull that rides up on the ice and then crushes it. She has two solid brass propellers, each twice as tall as a man, which demolish the ice like a giant food processor.
The captain and first officer took time away from the bridge to eat lunch with us – deep fried cod, boiled potatoes and carrots. Afterwards, I watched the helicopter take off for an ice reconnaissance flight and braced myself at the bow as we rode floe after floe. Each time we flipped some ice, the polar cod living underneath washed up, and gulls swooped in for a meal.
Sometimes, as the day wore on, I would head to the aft deck and watch the Explorer coming along our path. I was surprised to find that I missed her, and when we parted from the Pierre Radisson the next day, I missed her too. It didn’t feel right to be alone again.
From Fury and Hecla, we traveled south, until we found black bears, fireweed, bigger blueberries and, eventually, trees. Every day had a twist – a changed landing, a new timing, different seas, but I kept coming back to my new idea of adventure. An experience that does not go according to plan. I’m still testing this definition, I’m not convinced of it yet. But I like it for this reason: Plans change every day, right? So, doesn’t that make every day an adventure?