Canadian Arctic Overview

Arctic Cruises - Canadian Arctic

Canadian Arctic

Why Visit

A wonderland of scenery and wildlife awaits your discovery in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Navigate the waterways that confounded explorers for centuries as you wind through more than 36,000 islands, their deep fjords and stunning bays.

Baffin Island is the largest in the archipelago and the fifth largest island in the world, measuring about 200,000 square miles. Just 20,000 people—most of Inuit descent—call this icy land mass home, many settled in Nunavut’s capital city of Iqaluit. Baffin Island travel offers you a chance to learn firsthand about the culture, traditions and art of the region’s indigenous people.

The archipelago is home to just 19 species of land animals—but what marvelous animals they are! Spot your fill of more than 750,000 caribou in Nunavut province. Photograph the majestic polar bear and his cousin the grizzly bear. Keen photographers will capture the arctic fox, arctic hare, Least weasel and collared lemming—all furry white against the white tundra snows.

In the water, you might catch a glimpse of the otherworldly narwhal. Usually seen in groups of five to ten, this medium-sized toothed whale lives year-round in the Arctic. Also look for orcas, walrus, harp seals and beluga, fin, and bowhead whales. For feathered friends, you’ll find thousands of cliff-dwelling sea birds, snowy owls, peregrine falcons, snow geese and tundra swans.

Although you won’t see a single tree on the tundra, you’ll be awed by the flora that is able to survive there—wildflowers, saxifrage, dwarf shrubs, grasses, mosses, and lichens to name a few. You might be surprised at the geological variety of this northerly region—from 6500-foot mountain peaks to deep fjords, high and low plains, and rich mineral deposits like gold and diamonds!

Easily accessible from North America, this ancient glaciated landscape offers a menagerie of sights and experiences. Get up close with icebergs and glaciers as you marvel at blankets of wildflowers, rare sea creatures, and unique land animals. You’ll be on top of the world with this far-north adventure.

History

For centuries, explorers frequented the Canadian Arctic in search of the fabled Northwest Passage, a trade route that would offer Europeans a shortcut to the Orient. Some of the world’s most famous explorers—Jacques Cartier, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Martin Frobisher, and Captain James Cook—sailed in search of this passage without success, some with disastrous consequences. The harsh conditions, perplexing bays and fjords, and the many islands in the area—over 36,000—made navigation difficult if not impossible at certain times of the year. Though several mariners gained knowledge of the region throughout the centuries, it wasn’t until recent times, in 1906, that Roald Amudsen completed the voyage after a three-year journey. The first single-season transit didn’t occur until nearly 40 years later when Sergeant Henry A. Larsen of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police completed the journey in a schooner in 1944.

Even today, the sea route through the Arctic is just barely possible—over 50,000 icebergs, some 300 feet tall, drift in the waters between Greenland and Baffin Island. However, melting ice due to global climate change has made the route more passable than ever before.

Originally claimed by the British based on the explorations of Sir Martin Frobisher in the 1570s, the Arctic Archipelago today belongs to Canada—though disputes over the waterways between the islands are ongoing. (The United States, for one, believes these should be international waters to promote trade). Hans Island is currently being contested between Canada and Denmark.

Archeological evidence suggests these lands have been inhabited by Inuit and their predecessors for most of the past 4000 years. Evidence also tells of contact between the islands and the Vikings who lived in Greenland during the middle ages. Today the population of the Canadian Arctic is largely Inuit descendents who live in small coastal communities, as well as non-Inuit government and military personnel.

Baffin Island is the largest island in the archipelago and the fifth largest island in the world. It is home to Admiralty Inlet, one of the world’s largest fjords. Baffin Island cruises allow visitors to discover narwhal, walrus, bearded and harp seals, and beluga and bowhead whales in Baffin Bay. Among the millions of nesting birds on the island are thick-billed murres, kittiwakes and fulmars. More than two million migratory birds nest on Baffin Island in the summer. Humans are far outnumbered by animals—only about 20,000 people inhabit this 200,000 square mile area.

The 19 species of land animals found in the Canadian Arctic include the Peary caribou—smaller and lighter than its barren-ground cousin—musk ox, arctic fox, wolf, lemming, arctic hare, polar bears and grizzly bears.

Historically, the archipelago’s population was sustained by the harvesting traditions of the Inuit. Today the economy continues to build on these traditions, sustaining itself with mining, fisheries, tourism and cultural industries like soapstone sculpting, fine art and fabric art. Canadian Arctic cruises and Baffin Island tours offer intrepid travelers a firsthand experience of this unique top-of-the-world destination.

Photos: © WOLFGANG KAEHLER