Gjoa Haven features Amundsen, Kamookak, Martin Bergmann

Voyaging Out of the Northwest Passage with Adventure Canada, September 2018:

Day 4: Gjoa Haven

The little kids stole the show. Five to seven years old, they emerged in pairs, jigging out into the centre of the high school gymnasium. Within seconds, we visitors were dabbing at our eyes. These innocents were dancing so intently, trying so hard, that somehow it was beautiful — one of the most beautiful moments, for one jaded writer, of this or any previous Arctic voyage.

We had arrived in Gjoa Haven, in the heart of the Northwest Passage, the previous evening. Population in the 2016 census: 1324. When morning dawned, there it was, snow-dusted and clearly visible in the sunshine. Matthew James got things moving early and passengers were piling into zodiacs by 0830. On shore, having accomplished our first wet landing, we split into half a dozen groups, said hello to one of the local guides, and headed out to explore the town.

While making for the Amundsen cairn on the hill, apparently the only group to do so, we saw the Martin Bergmann tied up to a dock.

Last year, while sailing on that ship, searchers found the long-lost HMS Terror. Following our Inuit guide, George Bachmann (“like in BTO”), we waded through the occasional snow drift and got to see where, on the hills around us, Amundsen placed magnetic instruments in a bid to locate the ever-shifting Magnetic North Pole.

He never quite managed, though starting in 1903, he spent two winters here in Gjoa. While wandering through town, George pointed out “the house of Amundsen’s grandson,” and revealed that he himself is “married to the great granddaughter” of that explorer. Together, they have four boys. Along the way, we deked into the hamlet office, where we admired a massive bust of Amundsen and saw some impressive soapstone carvings.

We gravitated to the high school – apparently, we were the sixth set of passengers to arrive in ten days – and enjoyed Inuit hospitality. We saw drum-dancing, we heard throat-singing, and we announced the winners of both writing and art-making competitions. I touched base with historian Louie Kamookak, my friend and fellow traveler. And then came those beautiful children. The zodiac ride back to the ship, pounding through six-foot waves in winds gusting to thirty knots, reminded us why, when confronted with rougher-still gale-force conditions, Adventure Canada prefers to avoid putting zodiacs in the water.

Back on the Ocean Endeavour, David Reid, who lived in the High Arctic (mostly Pond Inlet) for more than two decades, walked us through life in an Arctic village. He noted that Nunavut occupies one fifth of Canada’s land mass, but has a population of only 33,000. Villages rely on supply ships for supplies, though First Air provides most of them with three to five flights a week. Expectations to the contrary, he said, the Arctic does not get much snow, not compared with, say, Montreal.

Reid explained the genius of the komitik. That wooden sled, thanks to its flexibility, enables travelers to cross crevasses in the ice. He noted that more northerly communities do experience three months of darkness, and also three months of never-ending light – and that these last can be harder to endure.

In a talk entitled Land and Sea-Ice Journey, Susie Evyagotailak brought to life several travel adventures. And Ashley Savard provided a final highlight with a unique one-woman show that mixed poetry, song, and drum dancing. All those who were there adjourned saying: yes!

[Photos by Sheena Fraser McGoogan]

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