North By Northwest – Canada’s Queen Elizabeth Islands
On the far edge of the Nunavut Territory lies the High Arctic, a wild archipelago where people are few and polar bears are plenty.
It’s late summer, but snowflakes burn my face like embers in the 50-knot wind. I’m standing on the deck of MV Ocean Endeavour, a 117-passenger expedition ship Cruising the south coast of Devon Island.
We’re currently on a two-week expedition through Nunavut, Canada’s newest and largest territory. “Our Land” in the indigenous language of Inuktitut, Nunavut was the eastern half of the Northwest Territory up until 1999, when the government settled a sweeping aboriginal land claim. Today, Nunavut is one of the least populated regions in the world, a vast swath of tundra and polar ice caps three times the size of Texas with barely 37,000 souls — almost three-quarters of whom are Inuit.
Tourism isn’t exactly new to Nunavut. Adventure-seekers have been exploring the Northwest Passage for decades. This August, the 900-passenger cruise ship Crystal Serenity is set to embark on its inaugural crossing of the Canadian Arctic. But few tourists venture farther north into the territory’s least-known corner, the wild Queen Elizabeth Islands. These 13 large isles — and hundreds of smaller ones — shoulder right up against northwest Greenland, nearly 2,000 miles north of Toronto but only 500 miles from the North Pole. If Nunavut is lightly populated, the Queen Elizabeths are all but empty: Only 390 people, mostly Inuit, live in two small settlements. Another handful of scientists and soldiers rotate in and out of a remote research station and an even remoter military base.
Through the gale, I catch glimpses of Devon Island, its mesas draped with snow, not a tree or bush in sight. The nearest forests, stunted and twisted by continuous wind, are about a thousand miles south. In fact, the island is so barren that NASA considers it an analog to Mars; an abandoned mock-up space station sits on the edge of a crater somewhere nearby. Watching the frozen desert drift past, I wonder, what — or who — can possibly survive up here. And, maybe more importantly, how?
The next morning, the storm has faded. The mercury peaks just above freezing when the hundred or so passengers begin boarding a fleet of inflatable Zodiacs for a shore excursion. We cut through a heavy fog and wade ashore on a gravel beach. On close examination, this island looks stark. But not to Becky Kilabuk, an Inuk cultural guide accompanying this Adventure Canada expedition.
“It might not look like it from where we stand today in the 21st century, but this coast, this island, was full of life and food for our ancestors,” she says. “Long before the Inuit came, our ancestors, the Thule people, had a summer whaling camp here.”
The Thule inhabited Nunavut and the Queen Elizabeth Islands between the 10th and 17th centuries, surviving mostly by hunting bowhead whales and other large marine mammals. But as the climate cooled during the Little Ice Age and open waters became choked with ice, the large camps — some had more than 100 people — disintegrated. Eventually, the Thule culture morphed into smaller hunting groups that became known as the Inuit. But today on Devon Island, only ghosts remain. Twice the size of Massachusetts, Devon Island holds the distinction of being the largest uninhabited island in the world.
As guides with shotguns fan out to keep guard against polar bears, passengers break into groups of about a dozen or so. Some set out to look for fossils on a distant ridge, others head of to go birdwatching. I join Kilabuk and her friend, Lois Suluk-Locke, on a hike. Neither of the two cultural guides has been here before, but their instincts are keen. It takes them only a few minutes to discover the remains of an ancient camp.
Lichen-painted whale skulls and ribs are scattered in loose circles. “These were once houses built from rocks, sod and bones,” Kilabuk explains. “In Inuktitut, ‘igloo’ means house, not just a snow house. These were the original igloos.” Snow buntings, unused to humans, flit around us. Nearby, an arctic fox, small and delicate as a cat, blinks curiously.
“So many people think of the Arctic as barren lands, a wasteland,” Kilabuk says. “But they forget it’s full of life. Where Western explorers struggled and died trying to conquer the land, trying to find the Northwest Passage between Europe and Asia, our people thrived.”
I ask Kilabuk if it’s true that the Inuit have a hundred words for snow. She laughs. “We probably have about the same number of words in our language as you do for snow.” But, she says, there is one concept the Inuit have an abundance of words and expressions for: “Gratitude. We have a deep appreciation for the gifts we are given from the land, the sea, the animals, the birds. From each other. From our ancestors.”
“Maybe we are allowed to live here because we are grateful,” Kilabuk says. “We didn’t come here seeking to destroy or conquer.”
Over the next two days the ship makes its way eastward through the gray waters of Lancaster Sound. Hundreds of harp seals erupt from the dark green waves, chasing panicked baitfish. Pods of narwhal, their pale freckled heads piercing the waves with spiral tusks, catch the afternoon sun. The skies above ring with the cries of fulmars and kittiwakes.
There is life among the brown, windswept hills of eastern Devon Island. Hiking along a ridge one afternoon, we surprise a herd of musk oxen grazing in a willow thicket. Shaggy survivors of the Ice Age, they gaze back at us from eyes sunken deep in their nut-colored wool. And there are polar bears. Dozens of polar bears. They pause while swimming between ice floes to watch us pass. They peek out of broken rock slides. One mother, with her back propped up against a slab of ice, unconcernedly nurses her two cubs as the ship slides by. The cubs barely interrupt their feeding to watch us.
We leave the long coast of Devon Island behind. A few hours later, the Arctic dawn greets us at Grise Fiord, a hamlet of houses tucked between a stone beach and 1,800-foot peaks on Ellesmere Island. At 76 degrees north, the settlement of 130 people is Canada’s northernmost town. After breakfast, a delegation of locals meets us at the dock. Guides take some passengers of to see cultural games; others take us on a walk around town. I join Frankie, a lanky youth in a gray hoodie, for a tour.
“Summer never really came this year,” he says as he leads me up a gravel road into the settlement. “That’s probably why our ancestors called this bay ‘the place that never thaws.’” My cheeks feel waxy in the steady sea breeze. It must be around 20 degrees with the wind chill. The houses are boxy and painted in dull browns, greens and beiges. Seal skins are strung taut over wooden racks outside doors. Satellite dishes hang from the eaves, but we’re so far north — only 970 miles south of the North Pole — that the dishes are angled down at the southern horizon instead of up at the sky. In the town’s only store, you can buy fresh wolf pelts alongside boxes of macaroni and cheese.
Walking around Grise Fiord, it’s easy to imagine that this settlement has been here forever. But it’s an illusion. “Our people were moved here from northern Quebec in the 1950s as part of a relocation by the government,” Frankie tells me.
Long after European diseases had decimated Inuit settlements throughout the Arctic with the arrival of whalers and explorers in the 1600s, the Canadian government realized that the Far North was a strategic military asset, not a worthless wasteland. At the height of the Cold War, the government pushed to repopulate the Queen Elizabeth Islands.
“The feeling was: If you’re going to hold territory, then you need to settle people there,” Frankie says. So 87 Inuit were dropped off 2,000 miles north of their homes onto barren beaches here as kind of human flagpoles.
Several days later, on another empty island, Skraeling, Kilabuk and Suluk-Locke are once again scouting out the ruins of their ancestors. We’re as far north as we will go this journey, only a few hundred miles south of the North Pole. But the whale bones and stone foundations are testimony that people lived here sometime over the last several thousand years.
Just before we prepare to depart, Kilabuk and Suluk-Locke stand nose to nose on the broken slate beach beside an ancient tent ring. A weak sun glows in the sky, warming us.
The two women look deeply into each other’s’ eyes. And then they start to grunt and bark and growl. It’s called katajjaq, throat singing. Back and forth, faster and faster, the two women harmonize and compete, their grunts and squeaks seem to expand and fill up the wild Arctic sky. I don’t know what the song is about yet. But I can make a guess. It’s a song that helped their people survive in a land where no one else could. It’s a song of thanks and gratitude.