DREAMSCAPES Winter 2017/2018
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OUR CANADIAN ARCTIC
 
(2017 - Winter Issue)

Writer: MICHELLE VALBERG



Back in 2013, I couldn’t get Stan Rogers out of my head. “Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage, To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea. . .”

I was finalizing my book, Arctic Kaleidoscope, and the lyrics to the late singer’s iconic song about Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated voyage of discovery in the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror had become an irritating earworm, as I sorted through images of Beechey Island in Wellington Channel, then the last place Franklin and his crews were known to be, in the harsh winter of 1845–46.

Like many Canadians—helped along by Stan’s baritone—I was fascinated by the story of Franklin and how he and his crew disappeared, without trace, somewhere in the Northwest Passage.

And like a lot of Canadians, I figured the visual remnants on Beechey Island—“like broken teeth, four gravestones poke up out of the beach gravel,” went the description in my book—would be the last we would hear from Franklin’s ill-fated quest.

FRIGID DISCOVERIES

Well, I was wrong. (And, as it happens, Stan Rogers got his wish, posthumously.)

In September 2014, HMS Erebus was discovered by a dedicated crew from Parks Canada, in the frigid waters around King William Island, in Nunavut. HMS Terrorwas found in Terror Bay, Nunavut, two years later.

It had been a long time coming. After the two ships failed to report back to Great Britain, the British Admiralty sent investigators to discover their whereabouts, alive or dead. On Beechey, they came across three sailors’ gravesites, several small buildings and a cairn. (The fourth grave marker is that of Thomas Morgan, who died a few years later, during one of the many expeditions to the Franklin site.)

Nearby are the rapidly crumbling remains of Northumberland House, an emergency shelter

and depot built in 1852 by the Belcher Expedition. It’s a striking place: every time I’ve seen it, after my first visit in 2009, it has impressed me with a sense of foreboding that hangs about it like a grim shroud.

Yet, like all truly captivating mysteries, the whereabouts of Franklin and his men could have been solved decades earlier. For years, the Inuit oral history of the region spoke explicitly about where the ships ended their journey. Had searchers taken Inuit guides’ accounts seriously—they literally pointed to the exact spots—Sir John’s end would have been resolved much sooner.

A WORLD AWAY

All of this came back to me this past summer, on an Adventure Canada expedition to the area.

As in the past, I was the resource photographer for Adventure Canada, a family-owned business based in Mississauga, Ontario. They’ve been taking passengers by ship to the remotest parts of the Arctic for more than 30 years, and I was happy to go along and revisit some of the sites I’ve been to over and over. We travelled from Greenland through the Northwest Passage, ending in Cambridge Bay, with a stop at Beechey Island.

This trip, like the 51 other visits I’ve made to the North, including Nunavut, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut, Yukon and Northwest Territories, was a revelation.

My first-ever trip was to the floe-edge outside of Pond Inlet, Nunavut. Is “enraptured” too over-the-top? How about “enthralled,” “captivated” or “overwhelmed”? Somehow, they all fall short, yet that is how I felt from the first moment I stood in that vast wilderness and realized how little I knew about the Inuit, their culture and traditions.

Until the moment when a narwhal showed its tail before my lens that day, I had thought of the Arctic as flat, white and cold. And yet, there are mountains, like the 2,147-metre peaks on the northeast side of Baffin Island. I associated autumn colours with the deciduous trees of my native Ottawa Valley, yet, here they were, blanketing the ground in a quilt of lichen, tiny flowers and berries.

My first Arctic mission was to photograph polar bears. What I ended up capturing was a slice of the vast wealth the Arctic offers: seals, birds, narwhal, walruses, Arctic hares and foxes.

Since those early days, Arctic tourism, led by companies like Adventure Canada and First Air, has flourished.

Some come because part of Franklin’s soul lurks in their chests and they want to experience the thrilling allure of not knowing what is over the next hill. Others come as witnesses, borne out of fear that we will lose this unique place to environmental change. And others come because the beauty, culture and sheer determination of the Inuit reconnects them with a less pampered, more elemental part of human existence. The North is a world away, but only a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Montréal to Kuujjuaq in Nunavik.

LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCES

This past year, Canadians celebrated 150 years. We hiked, attended concerts, listened to speeches, photographed a giant rubber duck in Toronto and had barbecues at the cottage. I did some of that, too.

But I also had the privilege of being the official photographer on Canada C3’s eighth leg, from Qikiqtarjuaq to Pond Inlet.

For those who don’t know, Canada C3 was an epic journey to celebrate Canada and connect Canadians. It was a Canada 150 Signature project, a 150-day expedition on a former icebreaker from Toronto to Victoria via the Northwest Passage.

It has inspired a deeper understanding of our land, our peoples and our country. Participants included Canadians chosen through a video application process, youth ambassadors, Indigenous peoples, musicians, historians, scientists, writers, athletes and activists. 

Over the course of the journey, the Canada C3 team and participants on-board provided a lens through which Canadians can experience our country’s coastline. Through the power of multimedia and digital platforms, we are sharing the stories of people we met en route and engaging the voices of all Canadians in national discussions covering Canada C3’s key themes: diversity and inclusion, reconciliation, youth engagement and the environment.

C3 has had a large impact on the Canadian Arctic, opening the eyes of the world to greatly unknown regions of our country. But it also gave a voice to the Inuit and brought forward reconciliation in an inclusive way.

The experience double-downed my own determination to have an impact through my foundation, Project North, co-founded with my friend, Joan Weinman.

Nine years ago, Project North’s vision was to deliver, one time, hockey equipment to four Nunavut communities, with the help of Adventure Canada and First Air. In a world where milk and orange juice cost ten times more than in southern cities, we wanted to make a small difference to kids who would otherwise do without.

That was then.

Now, in 2017, I am pleased to say that we have donated one million dollars in equipment to more than 30 communities in Nunavut, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut and the Northwest Territories. I credit that achievement to the loyal volunteers, our team in Ottawa and our visionary partners like Scotiabank, the NHL, First Air and Canadian Tire.

But more than anything, I credit the North for creeping into my heart, staking its claim and sparking a lifelong love affair.

As we head into 2018, I hope that our collective passion for Canada only grows. More than that, I wish for every Canadian—born here or recently anointed—to visit the Arctic and allow it to infect them with its ineffable beauty.

Wherever they may travel, from the Torngat Mountains to Banks Island, from Gjoa Haven to Kuujjuaq, I hope every visitor becomes a messenger for its incredible beauty.

Travel Planner

For more information on the Canadian Arctic, tours and flight reservations or on how you can help the youth of Canada’s north, visit:

Adventure Canada: adventurecanada.com

First Air: firstair.ca

Northwest Territories Tourism: spectacularnwt.com

Nunavik Tourism: nunavik-tourism.com

Nunavut Tourism: nunavuttourism.com

Project North: projectnorth.ca

Tourism Nunatsiavut: tourismnunatsiavut.com

 
 
 
 
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