The odds of making it through the Northwest Passage

If I were a betting man, I would bet that we’d make it through the fabled Northwest Passage. Adventure Canada has had good success with our ship, the Ocean Endeavour. Eight of the last ten attempts have made to Kugluktuk.

image: The Guardian

However if you wanted me to bet on John Franklin’s chances in 1845, I would be more hesitant.

There were times when it didn’t look promising for us. Ice sloshes back and forth in the channels and it takes a skilful captain to pick a way through the ice.  Some days one path would open up only to close up the next.

Many explorers tried to find the Northwest Passage but probably the most well-known was Sir John Franklin. He left England aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. We visited the grave sites on Beechey Island where two of his men perished where they overwintered.

Franklin is not famous because he made it but because of the mystery surrounding why he didn’t. Many others, including those sent to rescue him, found out more about the Arctic and lived to pass on the information.

One reason Franklin didn’t make it was bad luck. Jerry Kobalenko, onboard author of books on Franklin, told me that if only he had gone down Prince Regent Inlet instead of Peel Sound, he might not have got stuck in the ice and perished.

We were faced with Franklin’s choice -Prince Regent Inlet or Peel Sound? The original plan was Prince Regent Inlet but when ice began to pile up there, we chose Franklin’s route down Peel Sound where the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror ended up at the bottom of the sea. There was ice in Peel Sound but not as thick.

You would think that a rapidly-warming arctic would make navigation easier. But Canadian Coast Guard representatives aboard said that warming has only loosened existing ice so it can shift around, making it less predictable. Without the benefit of reliable ice charts, we too might have found ourselves blocked.

While minor compared to Franklin’s, we did face some challenges in Peel Sound. The Ocean Endeavour has a strengthened hull but not strong enough to break through the ice that faced us. The captain called the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Terry Fox to clear a path for us.

Unexpectedly, while we waited for the Terry Fox to arrive, one of the passengers became ill and although not in critical condition needed medical treatment. So we had to turn back up Peel Sound towards Resolute, which would take 12 hours one way. From there, the passenger could be flown out.

The risk in this delay is that clearing ice for passenger ships is low on the list of priorities for the Terry Fox. If they were called some emergency, we could be out of luck. While the Terry Fox was available now, who knew about 24 hours from now when we got back?

Fortunately, it didn’t take that long. Canadian Search and Rescue sent a ship from Resolute to meet us; the passenger was transferred, we returned south more quickly, and the Terry Fox was still available. The only delay was waiting for another ship to catch up so the icebreaker could escort us both in a convoy through the ice.

Soon we were safely through Peel Sound, leaving the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in their watery crypts, and on our way to Kugluktuk.

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The migration of Canada’s Inuit to Greenland

I’m aboard the Ocean Endeavour, east of Baffin Island in the Arctic Circle, approaching Lancaster Sound. We left Kangerlussuag, Greenland, ten days ago and we’re headed for the Northwest Passage.

image: GoodNewsFinland

Sailing through Arctic is tricky, so making it to our destination in Kugluktuk is not a certainty. The ship’s captain has been studying ice flow charts and with a bit of luck we’ll actually make it. Last year they didn’t. While the Ocean Endeavour is not an icebreaker, the bow is strengthened enough to plough through ice if it’s not too thick.

Along with the 168 passengers and 100 crew members, there are 33 scientists, artists, photographers and Inuit “culturists” aboard. The Inuit are from both Canada and Greenland.

We watched a 90 minute documentary by Canada’s National Film Board titled Vanishing Point. It featured one of the culturists aboard who also narrated it in Inuktitut. The film traces the trek of an Inuit band from Baffin Island to Greenland 160 years ago. It’s a compelling, yet tragic tale.

I spoke to the narrator of the film, Navarana Kavigak, an Inuit from Greenland, about the trek.

In1856, an Inuit leader named name Qillarsuaq left Baffin Island with a band of 50 followers. Qillarsuaq was a charismatic leader, a shaman (angakkuq), and he was on the run. He had killed a man and according to Inuit justice he could be killed anytime, without warning, by the victim’s family.

Qillarsuaq’s run from vengeance took him across the then ice covered Lancaster Sound to Devon Island. From there they travelled north-eastwards along the coast of Ellesmere Island by dog sleds. They struggled through rough and broken ice, waiting for the right conditions to cross deep bays. Qillarsuaq and his followers endured treacherous terrain, climbing and descending glaciers, all the while hunting to provide food and skins for clothing. The journey took several years.

I asked Navarana how Qillarsuaq knew where he was going. Obviously, he had no map of Greenland. There are two versions. Navarana told me one:

“He came into himself and his mind was travelling across the land. His vision directed him to Greenland.”

The Canadian Encyclopedia has a dryer version. Qillarsuaq met Captain Edward Inglefield and his Greenlandic interpreter. Inglefield was on Devon Island in search of the missing Arctic explorer John Franklin and he knew Greenland well. Through his interpreter, Inglefield told Qillarsuaq where to find some Greenland Inuit (Inughuit).

Some of the group began to doubt Qillarsuaq’s vision of a new world and turned back to Devon Island.

The remainder, about one-half the original number, ended up near Etah in northern Greenland near where Navarana was born.

Qillarsuaq found Navarana’s ancestors in desperate condition. Navarana told me that their numbers had been decimated by disease, possibly spread by European whalers. Her people were on the verge of extinction. They had lost the knowledge of how to make kayaks, fish spears, and bows and arrows.

Qillarsuaq re-introduced these tools and shared knowledge about hunting and surviving in the Arctic. He brought Navarana’s people back from the brink of starvation. Through the gift of technology and intermarriage, the two groups integrated. Qillarsuaq was highly respected by the Greenland Inuit. Navarana referred to him as “Great Quillaq (The Great One).”

Only seven years later, an aging Qillarsuaq decided to head back to Baffin Island. He died in the first year of the return,. The remaining followers faced starvation and only five survived the trip.

One of those survivors was Navarana’s great, great grandmother. Many families of northwestern Greenland trace their ancestry to the allarsuit -the Canadian migrants.

 

 

U.S challenges Canada’s Northwest Passage

President Trump plans to send ships into our Northwest Passage without Canada’s permission. Why he would want to provoke Canada -America’s closest ally and trading partner- is a mystery. If he succeeds, not only will he strain relations with Canada further but invite unintended consequences: If the Northwest Passage is international water as he claims, the same waterway is open to his perceived enemies as well.

image: Foreign Policy News

Despite our differing opinions regarding the Northwest Passage, the U.S. and Canada came to an amicable solution in the past. The Americans maintain that the Northwest Passage is an international strait and while Canada argues it is internal waters. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney agreed to disagree: the U.S. would ask Canada’s permission to send ships through the Northwest Passage and Canada would automatically agree. In this simple agreement between friends, neither concedes their position.

That friendship has been strained lately on a number of fronts by an egotistic U.S. president. He is preparing for a “freedom of navigation operation” through the Northwest Passage without asking us.

Belligerence is a defining characteristic of Trump. Professor Robert Huebert of the University of Calgary has a blunt assessment:

“However, due to Mr. Trump’s pathological need to win, the Americans are set to disregard this [1988] solution and win the dispute (Globe and Mail, May 20, 2019).”

What Trump fails to realize is that if the U.S. gets its way and declares the Northwest Passage to be international waters, it also invites Russia and China into the Arctic. What’s good for one is good for all.

“Given that Russia is actively militarizing and China may soon be taking similar action, the United States’ move to attack Canada, its most important ally, while meeting this threat makes no sense. If the Americans are really concerned about the rise of Russian military strength in the Arctic, they need Canada to help meet the threat,” says Professor Huebert.

President Trump seems unaware of how much the U.S. relies on cooperation with Canada in the defense of North America. Bilateral defense agreements go back to 1940. Established in 1958, NORAD provides warning of threats by air or sea. Traditionally, the Deputy Commander of NORAD has been a senior Canadian Armed Forces officer. In 2008, a joint agreement provided for the military from one nation to aid the other during an emergency such as a natural disaster.

If the U.S. wants to counter the Russian threat to the Arctic, they will need Canada’s cooperation.

Meanwhile, it’s in Canada’s best interests to cooperate with China in the Arctic; even when cooperation is not mutual. Despite China’s single-minded determination to punish Canada for arresting a Huawei executive in Vancouver, Canada is siding with China over the U.S. in China’s goal to expand its influence in the Arctic.

Former parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs, Andrew Leslie, said in China:

“Let’s focus on the positive that comes through international co-operation, and not so much on the sabre-rattling.”

At least China isn’t planning an invasion of Canada.

If Trump sends ships to our Northwest Passage and they fail to navigate the ice-clogged and uncharted waters, it will support Canada’s position that these waters are unique and are not a functioning international strait.