When the wreck of the HMS Terror was discovered off the coast of King William Island, Nunavut, in 2016, it had been missing for 168 years. With sister ship HMS Erebus having been found in shallow Arctic waters nearby two years earlier, Terror’s discovery was the missing piece in one of the messiest jigsaw puzzles of polar exploration to date.
British explorer Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 19th-century expedition to find the as-yet unmapped, seasonally impassable Northwest Passage — a sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans — was a endeavour that had gripped Victorian England, with tales of cannibalism, shamanism and mutiny accompanying its vanishing.
Canada’s High Arctic coastline and the scattered islands that surround the Northwest Passage — a treacherous route once seen as the golden ticket to facilitate trade links between Europe and Asia — still remain largely uncharted, thanks to its icebound conditions outside of summer. That said, it makes for an exciting place for adventure afloat.
Landings here are frequent, if cautious, the experienced crews of the few small ships that drop anchor here needing to be on constant alert for dangerous wildlife, pack ice and shallow water. Rigid inflatable boats zip passengers ashore, past seals flopping on and off the ice floe and gyrfalcons flying overhead. Treks take in scree-strewn shores where polar bears and musk ox roam. Binocular-glued guides are watchful, giving fauna a wide berth. At night, ships plough into inky seas where the narwhal thrives, the water lit, if lucky, with the green glow of the aurora borealis.
Remote as it seems, this is the territory of Inuit communities, scattered around the passage in far-flung towns such as Resolute, on Cornwallis Island. Here, subsistence living is supplemented by selling traditional soapstone carvings; sculptures of ice bears guiding huntsmen reflect the human-animal symbiosis that’s central to Inuit culture. Island communities have played a vital role in piecing together details of the Franklin expedition’s fate — oral histories and artefact finds ultimately leading to the ships’ discovery.
With summer sea ice receding, the commerce first dreamed of by early explorers becomes viable, the growing number of Qallunaaq (non-Inuit) ships docking on Nunavut’s shores brings both opportunities and conservation concerns to the custodians of these fragile fringes. But for now, passage through these waters is still a privilege, granted by the weather and guided by local expertise.
Six more to try
Visit all five of the Great Lakes in 15 days on a new Viking Expeditions cruise that also takes in Niagara Falls as it weaves across the US-Canadian border from Toronto to Minnesota. Activities include kayaking over shipwrecks, hiking lake shores and learning about the region’s Indigenous Anishinaabe heritage. From £10,095 per person, all-inclusive, international flights extra.
The only Canadian national park run entirely by Inuit staff, this 3,745sq mile expanse of wilderness in remote northern Labrador has no roads and no permanent settlements but plenty of polar bears. Tailor-made multi-day backpacking treks (mid-July to late August) can be combined with kayaking and rigid inflatable boat exploration. Prices on request.
Even if you don’t sign up for the world’s toughest marathon paddling race, the sight of canoes battling 444 miles through the Klondike, from Whitehorse to Dawson City, is reason enough to visit. This annual event brings canoeists from across the world to test their mettle, while a new ‘half quest’ provides a less gruelling alternative for seasoned oarsmen. 4-7 July 2023.
Located in Canada’s Northwest Territories, high above the Arctic Circle, the Thomsen River is the world’s most northerly canoeable river. Flowing through Aulavik National Park, the waters are a wildlife haven: most of the world’s muskoxen can be found here. One for canoeists with whitewater experience. 13 nights of guided canoeing and camping from £7,000 per person, all-inclusive, flights extra.
This 125-mile waterway (complete with Victorian-era locks) connects Kingston, on Lake Ontario, and the Canadian capital of Ottawa. Explore it on your own 36ft-long boat. No experience or licence needed. Moor at quaint, one-shop waterside hamlets for overnight stays and swim pretty much wherever you like. Seven nights from £1,894 per five-berth boat.
Adventure options abound in Quebec’s watery backcountry, from kayaking the vast Saguenay Fjord to canoeing the lakes that skirt Mont-Tremblant. Some parks and reserves offer pre-erected tents and glamping options, with guides available for instruction. From £68 per person per night, including pitch, canoe and equipment. Book via Sépaq, which manages activities in the reserves.
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