Thursday evening, the Louis anchored in Erebus and Terror Bay. Nestled beside Beechey Island, the bay’s name is a tribute to H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror, the ill-fated ships of Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition to find the Northwest Passage in the mid-1840s.
As we dropped anchor, many of us joined Captain Rothwell and the mates on the bridge. Just off the port bow, on the snow-covered beach, the officers pointed to the marked graves of three of Franklin’s men, and the remains of their meagre shelter, enduring testimony to the adventurers’ last best ration—hope—and to the cruel reality of their fate. In the still and fading twilight, the water smooth as glass, we stood in solemn silence and paid our respects.
The air is icy here, even at summer’s end. On the final two days of our voyage, the straits narrowed and we could see the barren, rocky shore. After darkness fell on Wednesday, when we felt the Louis’ hull drive through thick ice for the first time, Action Canada Fellows raced outside, some with their jackets thrown on over their pajamas, to experience the thrill of the ship’s power, as chewed-up chunks of ice trailed in its wake.
Looking at those graves—and realizing that on the hill just above them is Franklin’s famous cairn—it was impossible not to recognize that, notwithstanding the Louis’ awesome capabilities and the warmth and hospitality of her crew, we were very, very far from home, sailing in the shadow of those who once sought the world’s edge and found their end, instead. And now, more than 150 years later, there we were, paying homage to those brave explorers who left behind, in Stan Rogers’ words, “a long-forgotten, lonely cairn of stones.”
The next morning, Friday, we said our goodbyes. The officers and crew of the Louis joined us on the flight deck for a group photo, and Action Canada CEO Cathy Beehan and Captain Marc Rothwell led us in song:
Ah, for just one time, I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.
After a heartfelt farewell, the crew carried on, preparing to weigh anchor and carry on with the final six days of their six-week shift. The ship’s helicopter roared to life, rotors whirling, and began to ferry us, four at a time, to shore.
We disembarked at Resolute Bay, one of Nunavut’s smallest communities, and the second-furthest north. Crunching across the snowy tarmac, we met our hosts: the staff of the federal government’s Polar Continental Shelf Project.
After dinner on Friday, we gathered in the PCSP’s lounge for a briefing on its work. Few federal outposts are more northerly or more remote, and sustaining world-class research in an extreme environment is a daily feat. For more than five decades, PCSP has supported not only Canada’s extensive scientific activities in the High Arctic, but also Canadian Forces training in this harsh environment. That PCSP has continued to make these ventures possible is an enormous and enduring public policy success.
On Saturday morning, some of Resolute Bay’s leaders reminded us of a darker chapter in the history of Canada’s Northern policy. In the 1950s, the federal government relocated Inuit families to this spot, with promises of bountiful wildlife and a better life. They arrived, unprepared, in one of Canada’s harshest climates. Some did not survive. At the hamlet office—where we met with the mayor and elders from the community—their story is literally etched in stone, on a small monument beside the building’s front steps, and in a copy of Ottawa’s official apology, framed inside.
In the small gymnasium, we listened intently as an elder narrated his own story of survival, here on the southern tip of Cornwallis Island. It used to be that instructions would come from Ottawa, he said, imposed on us by faceless white men thousands of miles away. But since the creation of Nunavut, he told us, things have improved; what was once a colonial arrangement has continued to evolve towards true partnership. Distance brings isolation, but the dream of self-reliance remains.
In that spirit, and grateful for this community’s wisdom and its welcome, we set off for the airstrip and the three-hour flight from frozen Resolute Bay to balmy Yellowknife—and the final night of Action Canada’s journey to the Far North. We may be heading southward, but we do so determined to keep this place fixed firmly in our minds. After the week that was, there is no doubt: as long as we keep the remoteness of the Arctic’s geography from becoming the remoteness of our concern, this spectacular place—Canada’s North—will always be, for us, a central feature of the country we call home.