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Northwest Passage: Halfway home

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This summer, WWF is helping support two expeditions that will take on some of the world’s most difficult waters, to see first-hand the effects of Arctic climate change. One expedition is sailing across the top of Russia, a journey of 6000 nautical miles through the Northeast Passage, while another is attempting a west to east transit of the Northwest Passage, also by sailing boat, a journey of about 7,000 nautical miles.

Tom Arnbom of Sweden was on the ‘Explorer of Sweden’ though the Northeast Passage, as was WWF Arctic Programme Director Neil Hamilton for much of the trip, replaced near the end by WWF polar bear coordinator Geoff York. On the ‘Silent Sound’ Cameron Dueck of the Open Passage Expedition is filing regular stories from the Northwest passage. Come back for photos and stories throughout the summer, and follow the progress of the boats as they follow in the wake of some of history’s most intrepid explorers.

By Cameron Dueck

Silent Sound may be halfway home, but we’re now entering some of the most treacherous waters in the Arctic as we sail past the graves of those who died seeking this passage hundreds of years ago.

Silent Sound left Cambridge Bay on Thursday morning, and we’re now nearing Gjoa Haven on King William Island. Victory Point is where Franklin’s men left their last note in a cairn before stumbling on through the snow, eventually succumbing to cannibalism and a cold and miserable death.

None of that for us, I hope. We have about 4,600 nautical miles behind us, with some 4,000 miles left to go. The journey has become more difficult in the past week, but nothing to match the hardships of true explorers. We had some engine trouble in the week before reaching Cambridge Bay, and that meant our whole visit was taken up with greasy work deep in the bilges as we remounted the engine.

We added to our woes by running aground as we came into Cambridge Bay, giving us a forced seven-hour time out as we waited for the tide to lift us. A humbling experience, but thankfully there was no serious damage.

The men who left their names on the bays and islands around us battled winter storms and scurvy to stay alive; we battle to keep our laptops charged GPS working. Same place, different time.

The crew of Silent Sound have been reflecting on those differences in recent weeks as we’ve dropped anchor in increasingly remote communities and marvelled at how past traditions and the reality of 21st century life come together.

Online social communities are a huge hit, and a we’ve seen grandmothers put down the traditional skin clothing they are sewing to have an online video chat with their grandchildren thousands of miles away. Yet, we have also been struck by how the land and its wildlife permeate all aspects of life. Hunting still rules the calendar for many people here, and we’ve benefited from their success as we’ve left every port with a fridge full of game. Those that do hold regular 9-to-5 jobs drop their work and pick up their rifles when the summer beluga migration begins or they spot a herd of caribou.

Those hunters have been extremely generous in sharing their game with us, giving us a welcome break from our dry provisions of beans and pasta.

We are not the first to rely on the Inuit for fresh meat, but while early explorers left with their holds full of furs and lands claimed for their king, we leave each port with new Facebook friends and a better understanding of how climate change and modern conveniences are changing the face of Inuit culture.

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