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Give And Take

Give And Take

With more people making stops in the coastal communities of Canada’s Arctic, what do cruise ship passengers and locals hope to get out of the experience?
By Elaine Anselmi
Dec 18
From the December 2017 Issue

When the cruise ship Hanseatic drops anchor, a crew of six docking a sailboat in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, pick up their pace. Cruise ships mean long line-ups and the sailors need to get to the store quickly for supplies.

Already this summer, they had passed dozens of other personal vessels like theirs in the Northwest Passage, as well as larger cruise and expedition ships. Most of the crew had been on the water for five months since leaving Maryland. They’d stopped in Greenland, been blocked in by ice near King William Island and nearly ran aground following a narrow line through solid ice.


Passengers of the Hanseatic come to shore. Photo by Elaine Anselmi

They’ll set sail again in just a few hours, though some aboard say they wish they could stick around to see more of the town. This is, after all, a pleasure cruise through the Northwest Passage. But it has been a bad year for ice and their window at the end of August is quickly closing. And so is their shot at beating the crowd.

As the crew tie off the sailboat, zodiacs loaded with Hanseatic passengers, dressed in matching bright red jackets and rubber boots, pull to shore. At least the sailors missed the 1,500-person Crystal Serenity, which came and went earlier that week.

Hanseatic staff help their guests scramble onto land, where they shake hands with guides waiting to introduce them to Cambridge Bay. More than 50 people were hired by the hamlet that day to make chowder, bannock, boiled fish and tea, to perform a drumdance, to model in a fashion show and act as interpreters around town.

Passengers aboard the 200-passenger Hanseatic, and another 150-passenger ship that came in a few days earlier, the Bremen, are carrying mostly German tourists. Both ships are owned by Hapag-Lloyd and have been stopping in Cambridge Bay for years. More years than Cathryn Epp, the hamlet economic development officer, can recall. It was up to her to pull together the cruise ship hospitality corps.

“We’ll hire someone and we provide the supplies and basically say make bannock for this amount of people and they just go crazy making bannock for us,” says Epp. She also rented furs from a local couple for the event. “I went to their house, grabbed most of the furs they have and put them on display because passengers really like to see the furs we have from all the different animals.”

For a ship the size of the Crystal Serenity, there were a few more details to work out. For one, the ship was too large to anchor in the bay, so it anchored in the ocean while passengers were ferried by zodiac to a gravel pit outside town. This provided another job for locals: School bus, taxi and van drivers were hired to bring passengers to the community hall and back. There was a loop running all day, with about 200 passengers in town at any given time. Lots of arts and crafts were sold. It was a good day, says Epp.


Passengers shop for carvings. Photo by Elaine Anselmi

The cruise ship companies will provide the hamlet with money upfront to run activities during their stops. Epp gives them a projected budget. The day after the Hanseatic leaves, Epp will cut cheques to everyone who helped out—including a few people who hadn’t signed up to work, but showed up anyway and lent a hand, or a car.

This boost to the economy is significant, says Epp—“especially this year and last year because of Crystal Serenity coming. Small ships contribute as well, but the Crystal Serenity has such a big number of passengers.” (In September, Crystal Cruises, which owns the Crystal Serenity, announced it would suspend Northwest Passage trips until 2020, due to shrinking demand.)

In Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, where Roald Amundsen overwintered twice from 1903 to 1905, the Norwegian explorer’s time spent in town is enough to draw tourists. Amundsen is a national hero in Norway and passengers on a Norwegian cruise ship that came in this summer spent more than $10,000 on local arts and crafts at Nattilik Heritage Centre, says manager Martha Porter. Along with Amundsen, Gjoa Haven’s senior administrative officer David Stockley says the discovery of the Franklin expedition’s ships Erebus and Terror is attracting visitors. Gjoa Haven is the closest community to the wrecks and arguably the nexus of Inuit knowledge around the doomed expedition. The heritage centre is full of displays dedicated to the explorers. The hamlet puts about a $50-per-head rate on each passenger coming off a cruise ship to pay performers, guides, security guards and caterers.

From among a crowd moving down a Gjoa Haven street, Don Sessions, a passenger from St. Louis, Missouri introduces himself as a Franklin fanatic. “I’m looking for Louie,” he says, referring to Louie Kamookak the local historian whose efforts helped to find Erebus. They’re both members of an online community of Franklin followers—Sessions is hoping to meet Kamookak in person.

The last chapter of the Franklin story remains to be written and that’s bringing history buffs to Gjoa Haven. But that’s not all. Many tourists are curious to see the pristine Arctic and learn what everyday life is like for the people who live there. It’s a place they’ve often only seen in books or on the big screen. “I’ve seen enough museums and churches. I wanted nature,” a man from Boston tells me. “I was in the Antarctic in February and figured I better come this way while I still can.”

The basement of the Gjoa Haven hamlet office has been converted into a gallery of carvings. Tour groups filter in and out. A woman comes through the door and asks her young Inuk guide where she grew up, what her family is like and how she spends her days. The rest of the group has spread out to look at the art pieces, many carved in town. “What kind of rock is this?” someone asks aloud to no one in particular.

"It’s limestone,” a once-wallflower security guard responds, stepping forward with pride. “The quarry is about 60 miles out.”

Cruise ship tourism provides jobs in Arctic towns with low employment, but the season is only a few weeks long and travelling in Arctic waters isn’t a breeze. This year, the first cruise ship scheduled to arrive in Cambridge Bay was turned back by ice in Victoria Strait. Still, the relationship has thus far proven symbiotic—locals can make some quick cash, while tourists get a glimpse of a unique lifestyle.


A drumdance in Cambridge Bay. Photo by Elaine Anselmi

In the Cambridge Bay school gym, as tourists sample local foods and take photos of the fashion show, drumdance and throat-singing performances, one visitor films a local woman lifting her young son in and out of her white embroidered amauti. A banal moment to one person is mesmerizing to another.