Voyagers beat north along the American Route to the Pole

DAY NINE: Grise Fjord

Sept. 13

A larger-than-life monument at Grise
Fjord, carved out of stone, depicts two Inuit: an adult female and a child.
These figures face towards Resolute Bay, where a companion statue of a male Inuk
gazes back at this memorial. Together, the two monuments speak to the
separation of families that occurred as a result of a government-driven displacement
— an event whose repercussions have reverberated into the present day.

The statue here on Ellesmere Island, in the most northerly civilian settlement
in Canada, was erected in 2010 to begin the healing process necessitated by the
forced settlement of this community in the 1950s. Looty Pijamini did the
carving. His family was one of those to arrive here in 1953 and 1955. In a move
reminiscent of Scotland’s infamous Highland Clearances, the Canadian government
evacuated Inuit families from northern Quebec, claiming that here they would
flourish. In fact, the government engineered the relocation to assert
sovereignty over the region. And here, even more than in Resolute Bay, the
newcomers suffered.

At the two-year-old gymnasium,
voyagers enjoyed a fashion show. They gathered here after touring the town in
groups of twenty-five or thirty. One of the guides, seventeen-year-old Olaf
Christianson, capped the usual tour by taking us past two sheds he owns, and
showing off bear and muskox skins from animals he had taken. Along the way, and
in a short onboard presentation before the landing, we learned that:

Grise Fiord was charted and named
by Otto Sverdrup; The population is about 130, and
one third of those are young people attending school, where they learn from
five teachers; The town has an excellent medical
centre, built in 1989. The ship’s arrival coincided with a regular visit by a
dentist, and one member of the crew used his services; The original settlement, known as
the Old Village, was located nine kilometres away, an exposed point that can be
reached only by water. The town moved when the RCMP arrived in the 1960s. 

At 76
degrees 24 minutes north, Grise Fiord is 1544 kilometres from the Noth Pole.


Sept. 14

During the afternoon, driving west
across Baffin Bay in rough seas, we entered the area in which American explorer
Elisha Kent Kane accomplished an extraordinary escape across the polar ice. In
1855, from a latitude above 79 degrees, Kane led sixteen men to safety along
the Greenland coast on a 980-kilometre, small-boat journey. The sailing came
after the men hauled whaleboats to the mouth of Smith Sound, where they took to
the water. This they did
decades before Ernest Shackleton worked his celebrated miracle-escape in the

Kane was seeking the 1845 Franklin expedition,
which he and many others believed had got trapped in an Open Polar Sea beyond a
great ring of ice at the top of the world.
Five years before, sailing as a ship’s
doctor on an American expedition encouraged by Lady Franklin, Kane had passed
through what he described as “a crowd of noble icebergs.” Prevailing currents
usually pushed this so-called “Middle Ice” to the west, opening a channel along
the Greenland coast. Whalers would follow this laneway as far north as Melville
Bay – essentially a massive indentation — and then sail to the northwest,
crossing Baffin Bay through the relatively ice-free North Water – waters that
in September 2015, we were now traversing.

Occasionally, to save valuable
summertime weeks, voyagers tried to thread their way through the Middle Ice. In
1819, Edward Parry had succeeded in this; a few years later, he wasted two
months trying. In July 1850, the highly literate Kane described the “vast plane
of undulating ice” as creating an unspeakable din of crackling, grinding and
splashing: “A great number of bergs, of shapes the most simple and most
complicated, of colors blue, white, and earth-stained, were tangled in this
floating field.” One evening, while standing on deck, he counted 240 icebergs
“of primary magnitude.” Today, with the Little Ice Age having become ancient
history, we churned through open seas.

In 1853, sailing now as captain of his
own ship, the ingenious
passed through the Middle Ice by attaching his small wooden vessel – 26 metres,
144 tons – to an iceberg so huge that it tapped into a deep ocean current and flowed
north against the waves prevailing on the surface. He achieved a new “farthest
north” above 79 degrees, but spent two terrible winters trapped there.

Finally, in spring of 1855, Kane was forced to
abandon the Advance. He and his men
spent one month (May 17 to June 16) transporting supplies to Etah, then a
permanent home to several extended families. From there, having reached open
water, Kane said a fond farewell to his Inuit friends. With sixteen men (he had
lost two before setting out, and one had perished along the way), he piled into
two tiny boats and began his voyage south.

Eventually, after weeks battling winds, ice floes,
and near starvation, he reached Upernavik, the northernmost Danish settlement,
where he and his men stayed for a month before leaving on a supply ship. Kane
had found no Open Polar Sea, but he did find what came to be called – after
Robert Peary and Frederick Cook passed this way — the American Route to the

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