In the Footsteps of the Polar Explorers

Nicola in SisimutNicola here, reporting on a recent trip to Greenland and Northern Canada in which we cruised part of the North West Passage in the footsteps (or sails!) of early explorers. We flew to Iceland and from there to Greenland, where we joined our ship, the SH Vega at the port of Kangerlussuaq on the west coast. This was an "expedition cruise" but frankly from the first it was clear that we were in for a very different experience from some earlier sailors, who had run out of food and been obliged to eat their own shoes and wear the same clothes for months on end! Our ship was warm, very comfortable and with wonderful food! In addition we were blessed with fine weather for almost all the trip so there was no threat of sea-sickness, thank goodness. 

Greenland is a beautiful place; it reminded me of a bigger, colder version of Highland Scotland. With 80% of the country covered in ice, the population lives Coloured houses on the coastal fringe. When Eric the Red colonised the island in 985AD, the Vikings found it hard to establish their traditional farming lifestyle because only the edges were fertile land. One legend is that he named it Greenland as propaganda to attract settlers! The ancestors of the Inuit peoples who had lived in the area for thousands of years survived largely by hunting and fishing. Their lifestyle was better suited to the conditions than the western new arrivals and although the Vikings hung on there for several hundred years, eventually they left. The modern Greenland is a place of brightly-painted buildings and fascinating history which we explored at the museum in Sisimiut.

GlacierThe cruise took us up the west coast to Illulisat where there is one of the largest glaciers in the world (apparently it spawned the iceberg that sank the Titanic) and a wonderful visitors centre and viewpoint. We didn't see the glacier calving but there is a video here of what happened when it did! The creaks, cracks and groans of the ice were amazing to hear and rather sinister. When you see so much ice in one place it's hard to believe that the glaciers are shrinking but then you see photographs of how much smaller they are than only 20 years ago.

From Illulisat we crossed the Davis Strait to Pond Inlet in Nunavut in Canada. In the town of Pond Inlet we received a wonderful welcome and guided tour Inuit tea from the local Inuit people who offered us heather tea and showed us traditional dances and games. The lady in the picture was one of the elders who made the tea for us – it was very smoky in flavour but also very refreshing. Her amazing coat was handmade and so very warm! It started snowing whilst we were there and I longed for a cosy hood!

Pond Inlet is one of the few settlements in the region. Centuries ago, explorers searching for the North West Passage would call there or over-winter to escape the ice that blocked the sea routes. We learned that the North West Passage is a seaway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that traverses the Arctic. For centuries, European explorers had tried to find a northern trade route to Asia but it was always blocked by sea ice. In 1576, Martin Frobisher had been the first English sailor to follow this route. When he reached the south of Baffin Island he ran into trouble with the local Inuit tribe – He sent sailors to scout the area with the specific order not to make contact with the Inuit; Five men failed to follow his orders and disappeared. Some reports say a number of them lived with the tribe for several years. Frobisher returned to London with a piece of black rock he hoped contain gold, but sadly on this and later expeditions, all he found was iron pyrites or “fool’s gold.”

FranklinOver the following centuries, many other explorers were drawn to trying to find the fabled trade route through the ice, including Henry Hudson, James Cook and Alexander Mackenzie. Their exploits are still commemorated in the names of bays, inlets, rivers and fjords to this day. The Victorian era was a time when the British Navy invested heavily in mapping the Arctic and looking for a way through from Atlantic to Pacific. John Ross, his nephew James Clark Ross and William Parry all undertook expeditions but the most famous of them all was the Franklin Expedition of 1845, probably because both ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror were lost and all the men disappeared. It’s a story that captures still the imagination today.

Erebus and Terror were ships that were sturdily built to withstand the ice and equipped with steam engines as well as sail. The expedition set off from Kent in May 1845, stopped briefly in the Orkney Islands to take on more supplies and sailed for Greenland, a voyage that took 30 days. They were last seen by other sailors on July of that year on the west coast of Greenland. Franklin's men spent the winter of 1845–46 on Beechey Island where three crew members died and were buried. After travelling down Peel Sound through the summer of 1846, Terror and Erebus became trapped in ice off King William Island in September 1846. Franklin apparently died on 8 June 1847. The remaining crew abandoned their ships to try to walk over the ice to the Canadian mainland, which was 250 miles away. It’s thought that they all died attempting the journey. Oral histories from the Inuit confirm this and in 2014 the wreck of the Erebus was found followed in 2016 by that of the Terror.

BeecheyThere were many rescue attempts sent out from England to try to find the missing expedition which has assumed a mythology all of its own. It was very moving to stand on the shore and Beechey Island and visit the graves of those sailors lost early on in the expedition. It’s such a remote and isolated place and I tried to imagine how it must have been for them so far from home. We also visited Hudson Bay trading company and Royal Canadian Mounted Police sites on the islands. In Dundas Harbour the Hudson Bay company were setting up a new outpost as late as 1933, leasing a government site that had previously been set up to control foreign whaling and other activities. The settlement did not prosper – there was too little passing trade! -and it’s now a “ghost town” with an eerie atmosphere.

A report on a trip to the Arctic wouldn't be complete with a word about the wildlife. We were lucky enough to see polar bears, an arctic fox, an arctic hare Polar bears and whales on our trip! The whole package of nature, landscapes and history made it a journey of a lifetime!

Have you enjoyed a bucket list trip of a lifetime, either abroad or to visit somewhere special in your own country?

12 thoughts on “In the Footsteps of the Polar Explorers”

  1. What a wonderful post, Nicola—and quite an adventure! I don’t envy the earlier explorers. I like my creature comforts to much to think of eating shoeleather!(But I would dearly love to see the polar bears!)
    So glad you had a dream trip!

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  2. Thank you very much, Andrea! Yes, I think the chewing on shoe leather would very much have been a low point. I admire the early explorers but don’t have that gene at all!

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  3. What a wonderful post, Nicola! I’m on “Team Travel in Comfort” but yes, one has to rather admire those mad explorers. *G*
    Several years ago we did a cruise across the North Atlantic that visited all the places the Vikings had settled and it was great, but we didn’t get into such wild northern spaces as you did. I’m glad your ship was comfortable!

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  4. Wow, what a fantastic trip, Nicola! I would love to go there too, but it does look very remote and inhospitable! As for bucket list trips, I’ve done a few – most recently Pompeii, but also Egypt, Macchu Picchu and Japan, all amazing places. We are lucky to be able to travel so much these days without becoming lost in the ice somewhere!

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  5. I would love to see all the Viking sites, Mary Jo! It’s such amazing history. L’Anse Aux Meadows in on my “would like to visit” list.

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  6. LOL, Christina! Yes, it’s reassuring to have GPS, radar and all the other modern stuff. You have done some wonderful trips as well!

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  7. That was quite a trip. Sounds very interesting. I’d probably rather go someplace warm though. That said, our bucket list trip is Alaska since that is the only state we’ve never been to.

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  8. I don’t know what’s happened but I’m not getting notified about the blog posts lately. I only happened on this one today because I got the Newsletter. If anyone knows why this is happening I’d be glad to hear it!
    Great post Nicola. Sounds like a fantastic time!

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  9. I hope you get to your bucket list places, Jeanne. I loved Alaska and it was quite warm when we were there! Envying you your trips to all the other states, though. That’s quite a list!

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  10. Thanks, Teresa, I am so glad you enjoyed it. I think there are technical issues with Typepad- I’m sorry you’re not getting the blog notifications.

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