Life in the Arctic

You have to get down on your hands and knees to see the autumn colours in the Arctic. It’s ironic that in a place with such vast, wraparound landscapes the change of season — usually such a flamboyant event in the Northern Hemisphere — happens at ground level. There are no trees north of the Arctic Circle, but life speaks up for itself in the brilliant reds and yellows of Arctic blueberry and dwarf willow that carpet the tundra.

I’d expected to be affected by the glaciers, icebergs and wildlife — seals and seabirds, whales and walruses, perhaps even a polar bear — and I was. But the concept of living in such a place stayed with me long after I stepped off the Russian icebreaker that transported me and 84 other outsiders along the coast of Baffin Island to Greenland and back again.

Our trip started when our chartered plane touched down in Resolute, five hours north of Ottawa in north-eastern Canada. As dust from the gravel airstrip obscured our windows and the view of the desolate landscape outside, the pilot’s voice came over the PA: “It’s zero degrees and overcast with about 25 knots of wind — quite nice for Resolute.” Lesson one: it might have been summer, but this was the Arctic.

Life and polar bears

The Arctic is a tricky place to pin down. Its name comes from the Greek arktikos, meaning “country of the great bear” — the constellation Ursa Major (Great Bear) is always overhead — but its borders depend on your point of view. It’s everything above the Arctic Circle, the treeline, the sea ice line or the 10-degree July isotherm.

More practically, it’s the Arctic Ocean, at whose centre lies the North Pole, and the northern parts of a handful of countries surrounding it: Russia, Norway, Finland, the USA (Alaska), Iceland and the two biggest, Canada and Greenland (which is actually a self-governing part of Denmark).

Inhospitable-looking places can fool you into thinking they are uninhabited, too, but unlike Antarctica, where humans are mere visitors (even the year-round research stations were only established in the 1950s), the Arctic has been inhabited for thousands of years.

Its main residents are the Inuit, who have the widest geographic distribution of any aboriginal people in the world: 150,000 Inuit occupy an area that stretches for 6000 kilometres across the top of North America and into Greenland. To them, the Arctic is Nunassiaq, “the beautiful land”. The word “Eskimo”, by the way, which originally came from a Cree word meaning “eaters of raw meat”, is still used in Alaska but the indigenous people of northern Canada and Greenland prefer to be called Inuit (singular “Inuk”), which means simply “the people”.

The Inuit’s earliest ancestors followed mammoth herds across a land bridge from Central Asia and found themselves in North America 4000-5000 years ago. More recently, about 1000 years ago, Thule (pronounced “too-lee”) people, the Inuit’s immediate precursors, moved east into what is now northern Canada. Like the Inuit who came after them, the Thule were nomads who lived in small communities of one or two extended families.

On our second day we had our first contact, so to speak, with the Thule people. In the shadow of a high cliff on Devon Island, just north of Baffin Island, we walked along a row of five bowhead whale skulls, each of which had formed the centrepiece of a Thule hut made of whale ribs, sod and sealskin. This Thule community had killed five whales — probably by harpooning them from sealskin kayaks — which would have sustained them for five years at least. Standing in wet-weather gear and gumboots beside this ancient settlement, I tried to imagine what life would have been like here 1000 years ago.

There was a good chance the landscape looked pretty much as it does today, at least: endless tundra in all directions, an aquamarine sea, that high cliff. There would have been polar bears around, as there are now; though we didn’t see any until later in the trip (we saw two in two weeks), whenever we went ashore, our expedition’s bird, wildlife, geology and history experts carried loaded shotguns as well as harmless bear-bangers — just in case. It was oddly comforting to be back in the food chain, despite declining bear populations.

Inuit culture in Arctic Bay

The next day, we woke to fresh snow on the deck and the prospect of visiting a present-day Inuit community: Arctic Bay. Our ship docked at a small port called Nanisivik. A few weeks earlier, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper had announced plans to develop Nanisivik into a commercial shipping port to accommodate the increased traffic through the Northwest Passage when it becomes ice-free year-round, some time in the next 10 or 20 years.

Despite the increased risk of oil spills and rapidly deteriorating sea ice conditions, which will impact on their ability to hunt, it seems many Arctic communities are tentatively looking forward to global warming — or at least to increased contact, and commerce, with the rest of the world, not to mention improved fishing (cod, which prefer warmer water, have started appearing off the coast of Greenland, for example) and longer summers that may allow more farming. The real effects of climate change won’t be known for years but the Inuit are a resilient people, used to enduring hard times. In the meantime, they keep their culture alive in a multitude of ways.

Arctic Bay, in northern Baffin Island, looks contemporary on the outside: its 700 residents live in heated, wooden houses, many with satellite TV and internet access. There are quad bikes and 4WDs on the town’s gravel roads and speedboats anchored just offshore. But the old ways are just below the surface. We saw women emerging from supermarkets wearing amouti, long-tailed white parkas with large hoods for their babies to ride in, snug against the cold. There were wooden sleds on the beach waiting for winter. A group of teenagers called The Kicking Caribou gave us a throat-singing demonstration.

Arctic Bay’s Economic Development officer, Anna, also wearing an amouti, told us that she still builds igloo (the Inuit word for “house”) on weekend trips away from the town, in winter. Then she took us to a replica skin tent called a qamaq where three elderly women wearing caribou skin outfits invited us inside, and back in time. We sat on thick caribou hides beside seal-oil lamps while they showed us curved ulu knives and sealskin charms they had made.

The hunting life

Later, in Arctic Bay’s gift shop, amidst knitted beanies and sealskin mittens, we saw a 2.5-metre narwhal tusk leaning up against a table. Once called the “unicorns of the Arctic”, narwhals are marine mammals with an overdeveloped front tooth that becomes a long spiralled tusk. A woman sitting nearby with a baby on her lap told us she’d shot this narwhal from a boat three weeks earlier; now she hoped the tusk would sell for about $CAD350.

Hunting is a fact of life that’s hard to ignore in the Arctic. The wildlife seems constantly wary: when some of us went sea kayaking from the ship, we’d see seals pop their heads above the surface, only to be gone seconds later; whales were scarce, we didn’t see any walruses or narwhal. What we did see were harpoon guns mounted on the bows of fishing boats in almost every port and sealskin souvenirs in every town — like the dozens of sealskin boots, called kamiks, inside a fridge in one store (untreated animal hides start to stink in centrally heated interiors). In Greenland we even visited a meat market where seagulls and the heads of harbour porpoises were displayed in plastic tubs alongside fresh fish, caribou steaks and hunks of ringed seal.

Seeing the evidence of hunting like this, even tasting it — I tried a piece of harp seal blubber in one Greenlandic market; its greasy texture almost overcame me — confronts our “first world” sensibilities, particularly when you try to adhere to an ethic of non-harming back home. But life is different at the top of the world. Meat is still the staple food of most Inuit families, though they rarely eat it raw these days. It helps to remember, too, that 150,000 Inuit pursuing a close-to-subsistence lifestyle in a place of this scale can be sustainable. One of the wildlife guides on our ship told us there are nine million ringed seals in the Arctic. Polar bears kill about a million a year; the Inuit, barely 100,000.

Hunting is also an integral part of Inuit culture. The Inuit have long believed that animals give themselves up to be killed by humans and if an animal and its spirit are treated with respect it will be reborn to be hunted again. They don’t see themselves as superior to animals but as equals. Traditionally, for instance, Inuit whalers would be quiet and respectful during a hunt, wear clean clothing as a sign of respect and offer the dead whale a drink of water as a gift for allowing itself to be killed.

Goddess of the sea

Inuit spiritual beliefs have long been tied up with their dependence on the land and sea. Before the missionaries and whalers arrived in the Arctic in the 1800s, the most important being to the Inuit was Sedna or Nuliajuk, goddess of the sea.

There are several versions of how Sedna, a mortal girl, came into her powers and the story is usually told over two days. The part that never changes, though, is when her father goes to retrieve her in a large sealskin boat called an umiaq from an island where she had been banished. On the way back, a storm blows up and he is forced to throw her overboard to save himself. When she tries to climb back into the boat, he takes his knife and chops off her fingers (they become ringed seals); she tries again and he cuts off her hands (which become walruses); then her forearms (these become whales). Unable to climb any more, she sinks to the bottom of the sea where she becomes half-woman, half-fish; the animals she has created live in her long hair.

Early Inuit life was totally bound up with Sedna. If she was kept happy, there would be plenty of animals to hunt; if not, the Inuit faced starvation. Because she had no fingers and was unable to comb her hair, sometimes the animals would get tangled in it and the hunting would fail. A shaman would be called to journey to the bottom of the sea to soothe Sedna, comb her hair and free the animals so the hunting could resume. Some Inuit still believe in Sedna, or mix Christianity with a belief in her. She is also a muse for many Inuit artists.


We arrived on the west coast of Greenland, after two days at sea, just before sunrise and the eerie pre-dawn light added to the majesty of the occasion. Our ship made its way along a corridor of rugged mountains and through a maze of icebergs, some as big as small islands. Snow dusted the peaks down to a uniform snowline and tiny towns of brightly coloured houses clung to the shore, seemingly oblivious to the grandeur behind them.

Every town in Greenland has an unmistakable soundtrack and we heard it as we approached Uummannaq, a pretty town on an island dominated by an 1100-metre granite peak: the high-pitched howling of thousands of sled dogs. There are about 24,000 sled dogs in Greenland for just 56,000 people. One man told us he personally owned 25 dogs that he used for winter travel, tourism and hunting trips. The icebergs we could see at the end of every street were like puzzle pieces waiting to join up and surround the little town in ice, in winter.

Like most visitors to Greenland, we’d come to see ice, and nowhere is it more impressive than Ilulissat on Disko Bay, halfway down the west coast of Greenland. We took a zodiac cruise around the iceberg-choked bay first, where the bergs are so massive and so high you have to crane your neck to see the tops of them, but they were just the tip of the ice fiord, which is what we’d really come to see.

Forty kilometres inland is the terminal face of the Jakobshavn glacier, the fastest retreating glacier in the Northern Hemisphere, thanks to global warming. It retreated 5km in just the last two years and sheds icebergs at a rate of 20 million tons of ice per day. These bergs then travel along the World Heritage-listed Ilulissat ice fiord (basically a fiord clogged with ice) until finally, perhaps decades later, they float into Disko Bay where they head for the North Atlantic. The iceberg that sank the Titanic in 1912 is believed to have come from here.

The stone man

On our last kayaking outing, on the southern end of Baffin Island, the human element came back into focus. Paddling past trickling waterfalls and hillsides freshly coated with snow, we’d been hoping to see a walrus. Instead we rounded a headland and saw a metre-high pile of stones in the shape of a man: an inukshuk.

Four largish rocks, which form a head, body and two supporting legs, had been put in this prominent but remote place by someone days, years, perhaps even hundreds of years ago. The Inuit have used inukshuk for centuries to mark sacred sites, as navigational aids and to communicate food caches, trails, fishing spots and, as here, hunting grounds. We found the area around it littered with caribou and seal bones, oil cans and spent cartridges. The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver-Whistler even has one as its official mascot.

Paddling away under the inukshuk’s watchful gaze and back to the beach where we would load our kayaks into a zodiac before heading back to the ship, I realised that there was one thing I still had to do. So when I stepped out of my kayak onto the rocky shore, I waded back into the icy water (still wearing my drysuit), bent forward and dipped my head in. After being on and surrounded by sea for almost two weeks, I had to make contact with it, pay my respects, at least once. And as I stood taking a last real look at this incredible place, my hair dripping, the taste of salt on my lips, I felt as if I had been blessed by the Arctic.

Louise Southerden is a Sydney-based writer and photographer who travelled with the assistance of Peregrine Adventures and the Canadian Tourism Commission.

Facts to go

Getting there

Qantas flies daily to Los Angeles with connections to Ottawa. Air Canada is now flying daily non-stop from Sydney to Vancouver, with connections to Ottawa.

Trip notes

Peregrine Adventures runs various Arctic trips that include Baffin Island, the Northwest Passage, Greenland, Spitsbergen and Iceland, from July-October, starting from $4675 pp ex Ottawa. Louise travelled on the 12-day Baffin Island and Greenland Explorer from Resolute to Iqaluit.

For more information, Peregrine T: 1300 791 485 W: For Canada W:

Louise Southerden

Louise Southerden

Louise Southerden is an award-winning travel writer and photographer based in northern NSW who has a passion for sustainable, simple living, at home and away. She’s happiest outdoors, preferably in water (she loves swimming and surfing).

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