Day 13: Losing and gaining perspective in the Arctic – Iqaluit (Sept 09)

Today we flew from the Iqaluit airport to Ottawa as we end our Arctic journey. It has been a most exciting and illuminating experience. One that I shall not soon forget. I have been thinking about how best to summarize my time in the Arctic over the past two weeks, what I have learned, and it seems appropriate to explain how one’s perspective changes in the Arctic.

It is easy to lose perspective in the Arctic, at least in a physical sense, because the environment is so different than what most of the population is used to. There are no trees, practically no buildings, and rarely any animals, which makes it very difficult to judge the sizes of land features and distances. Often you will be riding in a zodiac and the beach, which only looks to be 2 minutes away, takes another 5 minutes to reach. What is more important, however, is the perspective gained while in the Arctic.

As a historian, I have studied and learned about the explorers that ventured into the Arctic over centuries in their attempts to find a Northwest Passage. Most failed in their ultimate quest and many died, but it is not until you travel to Canada’s most northern regions that you begin to get an appreciation for the trials that they would have faced. I only say “begin to get an appreciation” since we were there at the height of summer, with comfortable accommodation and high quality arctic clothing. Nevertheless, you can picture the struggle that the Royal Navy sailors would have endured, dragging their heavy sleds along the rocky shores of King William Island.

This notion is quickly eclipsed by the realization that the Inuit, Thule, Dorset and Pre-Dorset peoples lived and thrived in this polar desert for thousands of years before any European attempts at a Northwest Passage. Much of their culture and practices has been passed down and can still be seen in the daily lives of the Inuit in northern communities today.

Another perspective that is gained in the Arctic, apart from the history, apart from the culture, is the way that the environment has changed and is still changing. We saw hardly any sea ice on our journey, the same was true when our Executive Director Ken Burton went through 16 years ago on the St. Roch II, but when the original St. Roch attempted the passage, there was enough ice that it was stuck in the Arctic for 2 years. And while an ice free passage makes our journey safer and faster, there are significant consequences for Arctic wildlife. Polar bears, for example, depend on sea ice for hunting prey and for travelling around their habitat. The loss in sea ice will result in lower survival rates for these bears.

Being able to visit the Arctic in a way that respects the natural and cultural landscapes of the region is invaluable in an era when the Northwest Passage is being eyed as a truly viable shipping route or an area for extracting resources. I am thankful to One Ocean Expeditions for inviting me on board to represent the VMM and share my knowledge, and I hope to share the experience and perspectives I have gained through the museum’s education programming and exhibitions.

Words and photographs by Duncan MacLeod – Curator, Vancouver Maritime Museum