Cruising into the Arctic’s Open Arms
As sea ice changes and the Northwest Passage becomes accessible, a luxury cruise ship descends on the small community of Ulukhaktok.
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The ship cruises into view, framed through the window of an airplane. I put my forehead to the glass, feeling lucky to have a window seat as we descend to the western shore of Victoria Island, the second largest island in Canada, the eighth largest in the world—a rare destination for outsiders. But today, the plane is full, with a mix of lecturers, expedition guides, researchers, and locals. The unlucky, those without a view of the island and the Amundsen Gulf thousands of meters below us, pass their cameras and phones over; they want a record of the historic event playing out below us. We all watch, with our eyes and through lenses, as the dwarfed red figure of the icebreaker RRS Ernest Shackleton cuts a straight line to our destination, the coastal community of Ulukhaktok. The icebreaker’s wake is like a roiling carpet, unfurling to welcome a novel visitor: the really big white ship that we’re fixated on. This is the Crystal Serenity—a pale leviathan of luxury, a floating Las Vegas, the first of her kind to sail through the Northwest Passage, and the first of her kind to bridge the worlds of Arctic fantasy and fact.
Below us, the copper-colored ground is fractured by rivers and creeks, and coated in berry bushes and moss. It’s the end of August, picking season here and the locals are gathering berries to store for winter. But another sort of preparation is also underway, and people are bustling around town right now. The people of Ulukhaktok have spent days, and in some cases months, readying themselves and their village for the Crystal Serenity.
Tomorrow, they will host over a thousand disparate souls from this floating mini city. This first encounter—between competing imaginations, between competing expectations, between the people who cruise and the people of Ulukhaktok, numbering fewer than 500—is going to be storied.
The airport is a small brown building with a distinct centerpiece: a taxidermic grolar, a grizzly-polar bear cross. The hybrid bear is another reminder that the town is a bridge, in this case linking two environments—a colder past dominated by polar bears, and a warming future dominated by something new, perhaps the grolar, an apt symbol of this shifting borderland. David Kuptana, the local hunter who bagged the grolar, is also an entrepreneur, and seized the opportunity to launch a cab company just a few weeks before the Crystal Serenity visit. Tourists to the mythic North may believe some outright fictions about Arctic communities, but the wildlife is real, with grizzly, polar, and grolar bears flanking the town, and wolves roaming on the fringes. Though the hamlet is close to the airport, it’s best not to walk there.
A group of us pile into a taxi van, the woman sitting behind me sniffling back tears. She wipes her eyes and pushes her cropped dark hair away from her face. She’s been away for two months. As we pull up outside her house, children and teenagers pour out to welcome her and her companions. As we pull away from the reunion, someone calls out “Joe’s house,” our next destination. Road signs are scarce in Ulukhaktok, as in few streets actually have them. Houses are usually numbered based on the order in which they’re built anyway—although sometimes a house has no number. I’m staying at a home close to 91 and just a couple away from 121.
“Holy crap, that’s a big one,” says Joe’s guest, catching sight of the ship through the windshield. The gravel road from the airport runs straight into town, into the cluster of brown and gray square houses; the Crystal Serenity, bobbing at the mouth of Queens Bay, looms over their corrugated angular roofs. Tonight, drummers and dancers will bring Ulukhaktok culture to the ship with its 1,000 passengers and 600 crew members. The Crystal Serenity is temporarily one of the largest communities in the Northwest Territories, where only five municipalities have more residents than the number of cruisers currently in the bay.
After settling in, I head to the bay to watch the action: entertainers clamber into black Zodiacs, all of them wearing life jackets over their traditional parkas, the fur-lined hoods spilling over the necks of the bright orange vests. A crowd of boys runs down to the beach to help shove the inflatable boats deeper into the water, and they’re off, zipping through the waves to the cruise ship.
As the Zodiacs fade into the distance, I walk down one of the gravel roads. It’s early evening—still light out—but the air carries a damp chill from the ocean and I’m regretting my decision to wear only a thin black raincoat. Outside of a house, a woman in a cozy pink down jacket, bespectacled, her hair pulled back under a camouflage hat, is crouched down, her black rubber boots at the edge of flattened-out cardboard boxes. Her name is Arne Kuneluk and she is filleting what must be 20 kilograms of Arctic char. Two headless fish lie on the cardboard in front of her, their clean white bellies not yet split open. Her husband netted them earlier that day. As with many northern families, fishing, hunting, and trapping supplement incomes, and their appetites for traditional country food.
Tomorrow, her neighbors will cook bannock, prepare tea, act as wayfinders for the wandering visitors, and perhaps sell some of their wares—arts and crafts are another important source of income here. Kuneluk won’t be taking on any of these roles, she says, but she’s welcoming nonetheless.
“I’m excited for everybody and for the opportunity,” she says, offering me a hug since her hands are too bloody to shake. She tells me she hopes I have a good time.
I’m reminded of travel writer Paul Theroux and his book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, the story of his epic journey through a world in social transition. Rewarding travel, Theroux writes, always means relying on strangers, and “putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them.” Sometimes, it’s all you can do. Yet for the people of Ulukhaktok, it seems reversed. They are opening up to these visitors and trusting them—a group that is unusual in its size and mode of transport—with their culture and their land.
Just before 8:00 a.m. on Saturday, clouds hang over the town, holding on to their raindrops for now. The black Zodiacs are beelining from the cruise ship to shore. Soon passengers from around the world—as close as Calgary and as far away as Australia—will step on these shores.
The Zodiacs, loaded with up to 20 passengers at a time, run constantly to and from the ship to allow between 100 and 200 passengers two-hour visits ashore. The number of people brought into town at any given time is limited, so the community isn’t overwhelmed. On the shore, alongside a table piled with bannock for each guest, a massive black pot boils over a fire—there will be hot tea on this cold day. Elders in mukluks and colorful fur-trimmed parkas are seated in a line. They shake hands with every guest and smile for photos. A lot of photos.
There’s a good side and a bad side to the ship’s arrival, says Helen Kitekudlak, standing along the roadside just up from the shore. She’s one of a few people in town who run B & Bs out of their homes. Later today, she’ll board the ship with two other women to teach a group to sew mittens. “The good side is it brings a bit of income to the community because up here, there are more people than jobs for a little place like this,” she says, adding that the local seamstresses, carvers, and tour guides are making money. “Maybe I’ll get paid for doing the sewing, I’m not sure.” The other good side, Kitekudlak adds, is the chance to share a part of their culture.
“The only negative side is if something happens, something goes wrong, we live off the ocean for our seal and marine mammals as part of our diet because up here the growing season is so short that you don’t really grow anything,” says Kitekudlak. The threat to the environment, from an oil spill or even shiploads of tourists visiting throughout the ice-free season, is a serious one. The fact that the Crystal Serenity can make the voyage is only due to the change in sea ice, which some community members are quick to point out as the most obvious change to the land and water they live off.
As if on cue, Kitekudlak points to an aluminum boat jetting off from shore in search of beluga whales, spotted near the bay just an hour or so earlier. Beluga meat can be smoked to make dry meat, similar to jerky, and the skin and blubber can be frozen and eaten raw, a staple known as muktuk.
A few years ago, Ulukhaktok hunters caught 34 belugas—a bounty almost unheard of in the past decade—and divvied up the meat among the people. Sharing country food has been a cultural norm, an act of survival for generations, and may be more necessary now as conditions change in the Arctic.
Food sharing highlights how hunters rely on reciprocity, anthropologist Peter Collings writes in a paper about economic strategies in Ulukhaktok. If the Crystal Serenity is the vanguard of a new northern economy, it’s troubling for societies that traditionally rely on their natural environments—capricious by nature and more so with climate change—for sustenance. Being a cruise destination exacts a price on small communities with limited wage economies. There’s a fine balance between a sharing economy and a wage economy.
Kitekudlak—getting on her red Honda four-by-four to head back to the B & B to finish up some cleaning—highlights that. This weekend, all of the available rooms in town are full with visitors who’ve come to meet the ship. The community’s one hotel also booked up months before the ship’s arrival. When the voyage was announced in 2014, tickets sold out within a month. Representatives from the Crystal Serenity’s parent company visited Ulukhaktok a handful of times to hash out a plan that worked for the community and the company.
“Something we made really clear with them is we didn’t want people walking around gawking and treating it like we’re a spectacle,” says Judi Wall, the hamlet’s senior administrative officer. “We wanted people to come in and see us as people, as a community that works. We’ve been here for years and have a lot of talent in the community.”
What exactly the community was willing to share with the throng of visitors was left to its discretion. And it was up to the passengers and crew to accept what the people were willing to offer: mementos for sure, but also knowledge and an experience.
Throughout the day, a rush of energy cuts through the cool air. The elders on the shore greeting guests, the children skipping rocks along the water, Kuneluk gutting her fish, are all part of the encounter. The day is a happy one. As the hours pass, passenger after passenger steps on rocks ground down by Arctic water into flat polished stones then they quickly disperse along the gravel roads that climb away from the shore. Some opt to hike, some play a round at the Ulukhaktok Golf Course, and some watch local artists demonstrate muskox hair weaving, carving, and printmaking at the arts center. Many head to the school and community hall, where artists display their works, such as muskox horn carved narrow at the tip to form the beaks of geese, or beaver and white rabbit pelts sewn into mittens—up here, that sort of warmth is necessary. The artists were told whale and seal products wouldn’t make it past US customs.
The buyers, who shelled out anywhere from US $20,000 to $125,000 for a berth on this historic voyage, are also happy to bring back a memory of Ulukhaktok. It’s the whole thing—the Northwest Passage, the remote communities, the ship—that inspired so many to dig deep into their pockets for the trip. The entertainment on board was aimed to prepare the tourists: one guest from Miami, tanned with blonde hair cascading over her white visor, enthusiastically describes the show a few nights earlier with performers dressed all in white and fake snow fluttering from the ceiling. The show was meant as a hint at the Arctic adventures that awaited them.
As crass as it seems, did it work? Whether it was on-board entertainment or education—lectures on the history and science of the region, and presentations from explorers who have trekked the snowy barrens—or the widespread feeling that the world has become smaller and everything less exotic in general, yes, it worked. Were there awkward moments when tourists dressed in matching red parkas and black rubber boots—cold weather gear that was provided for them on the ship—shook hands and spoke unnecessarily loud with locals? Yes, there were. “Someone told me they were surprised we have electricity,” says a cashier at one of the two grocers in town. She laughs.
Despite the number of camera flashes and a few demonstrations of culture shock, the human zoo that Ulukhaktok could have become did not materialize. The visit became what any cruise destination hopes—an economic boon for the community.
Between the sales at the arts center and people who sold their goods independently, the take from the cruise ship guests was estimated at about $50,000. A couple of days after the ship left, staff at the hamlet office also distributed payments to everyone involved in the visit, wages paid by the Crystal Serenity as part of the prearranged agreement. The intake was significant. “If you divide that among the 425 to 450 people that live here, most homes were impacted by [the visit],” Wall tells me a few days later.
The visitors gobbled up what Ulukhaktok offered. The passengers in their red jackets experienced a place that was likely entirely different from anything they had seen before. Yet, for the moment, it’s only the economic exchange that’s the quantifiable part of the brief union. The visitors had hardly enough time to do more than check a destination off a bucket list. It was on the luxury cruise ship—the first to visit the Arctic—where they spent most of their time. “Luxury,” says Theroux, “is the enemy of observation, a costly indulgence that induces such a good feeling that you notice nothing.”
Travel for this story was made possible by a grant through the Earth Journalism Network.