Canada’s Northwest Passage

Arctic Travel

Westward Voyage (Resolute to Kugluktuk): August 15-29
Eastward Voyage (Kugluktuk to Iqaluit): August 27-September 10

Out on the water
Out on the water

This summer, 41 UBC alumni and friends participated in expeditions to the Canadian Arctic and the legendary Northwest Passage. Presentations, conversations and learning accompanied their exploration of the great outdoors aboard the Russian-flagged Akademik Ioffe, designed and built in Finland as a scientific research vessel in 1989. Her bridge was open to passengers virtually 24 hours a day. Experts on board presented on topics including climate change, wildlife, Inuit culture and history, and early European explorers. UBC professor Michael Byers (see Letter from the Arctic) presented on the issue of Arctic sovereignty, a growing cause of debate as ice melts, new shipping routes open, and natural resources become accessible. Recommended pre-trip reading was late UBC alumnus Pierre Berton’s book, The Arctic Grail. Here are some highlights from both legs of the voyage.

Communities Meet


We were the first tourists to spend time in the hamlet of Igloolik all summer, and it seemed as if everyone living there came out to meet us at the landing, including dozens of kids who had a blast hanging out in the Zodiacs and sharing stories with us. We compared different forms of wet skins, theirs being the natural variety and ours being bright red high-tech expedition gear. We were greeted with bannock and tea, shook hands with the elders and enjoyed dancing, singing and watching artisans work on their carving and screen-printing. We explored on foot and by
van, and some hitched rides on the all-terrain vehicles used to get around by most people living there.

Exploring Historical Sites

Hudson's Bay Company
Hudson’s Bay Company

Abandoned Hudson’s Bay posts, and the Cold War radar stations that formed a DEW line (Distance Early Warning), are remnants of our not-too-distant past. Our guides also pointed out what they believed to be ancient Inuit sites – uninhabited, but still used as hunting camps – with their telltale inukshuks, caribou bones, and sources of fresh water and berries. A highlight of the western leg was tracing Franklin’s last voyage, gazing out across the sea and land towards the final resting place of his crew. From the gravesites on Beechey Island to the cairn marking their last know location, each historical site brought an increasing appreciation of the despair faced by these unfortunate explorers.

Wildlife Watch

Muskoxen: Once threatened by overhunting, muskoxen have rebounded in recent decades and are again expanding into former ranges. Populations have increased dramatically on Banks and Victoria islands, hence the numbers of muskoxen hides seen in Cambridge Bay. The small herd we saw in Johansen Bay is typical of summer. One
dominant bull is controlling the herd’s movements and following the females, checking their reproductive status. The calves and yearlings spend much time at play, “rehearsing” the aggressive behaviour of adult bulls by head-butting and chasing each other around the herd.

Bowhead Whales: Shortly after breakfast one day, the Loffe found itself in the midst of a pod of elusive Bowhead whales, and the count was on. Even veteran polar naturalist Tony Soper could not believe his eyes as it went into double digits. The final number was 71.


… and bears, oh my: As if three polar bears and three gyrfalcons at Beechey Island one morning were not enough, we also experienced  a spectacular seabird feeding-frenzy the same afternoon. Thousands of northern fulmars and hundreds of black-legged kittiwakes and glaucous gulls were feeding voraciously on sea butterflies (a pelagic mollusk whose foot is transformed into wings) and Arctic cod. The frenzies were particularly animated each time the cod pushed the sea butterflies to the surface, where the hungry birds waited for both fish and mollusks. Harp seals also joined the fray and a hungry bear waited for a seal to swim close to the beach. From mollusks to bear, the entire arctic food chain was on display.

Observing Climate Change

The ice is very nearly gone. Spending time in a place of such breathtaking natural beauty and wildlife, and realizing this trip may not have been navigable until recent years, made for many moments of silence and contemplation. We rarely saw an iceberg — the captain and expedition leader would review ice charts regularly in an effort to either track some down, or avoid dangerous encounters. In the end, we were fortunate to have one full day of “ice time,” reaching it by Zodiac or kayak.

What’s Next:

Onward to Newfoundland, Labrador and Baffin Island (July 2012); and Antarctica (February 2013).

Contact Karen Kanigan ( / 604.822.9629 / toll free: 800.883.3088)
or our travel partners, Worldwide Quest ( with questions or for more information.


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