We met two of those travelers — Jens Erik Kjeldsen and Dorthe Hegelund Kjeldsen from Greenland — as we prepared to board our own ship, a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker called the CCGS Amundsen.
The Kjeldsens were holed up at small hotel in this tiny Inuit community on Cornwallis Island near 75 degrees north, waiting for the ice to clear to the south so they could continue on through the passage.
“We wanted to be early, to pick the first chance,” said Jens, who spoke in the home of a Resolute family he and his wife, Dorthe, had befriended. “We stayed here for a fortnight by now and will probably stay a week more.”
The couple, from the Greenlandic capital, Nuuk, had set out to sail their 42-foot boat through the passage as part of a circumnavigation of the world.
Last year there were 16 full transits of the seven possible Northwest Passage routes, according to data compiled by Robert Headland and his colleagues at the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University.
One of those crossings was by a massive cruise ship. One was by an icebreaker. The rest included a variety of sloops, yachts and one motor boat.
A day after meeting the Kjeldsens, we boarded the CCGS Amundsen to travel south along the same route the couple were planning. We saw firsthand the very thick ice in Peel Sound and the famed Victoria Strait, where British explorer Sir John Franklin’s ships were frozen in ice in the late 1840s.
A small craft like the Kjeldsens’ couldn’t get through until more ice cleared.
Such vessels are much more at the mercy of often unpredictable ice conditions. There’s far less ice cover on the Arctic in general in the summer months, but that doesn’t mean there’s zero — and it can turn up in different places.
For their journey, Dorthe, a retired nurse and kindergarten teacher, and Jens, a former sculptor and judge, salvaged and rehabilitated a boat in Greenland. When they made it to Resolute Bay, they left it anchored in the harbor amid intricately shaped ice floes that had been pushed into the shallow waters to linger and melt.
Preparation for the journey came from Jens’ work in charters off Greenland and earlier sailing voyages to Africa and the Caribbean. They figure that as long as they make their way out of the Bering Strait by September, they’ll be fine. The two said that they think Dorthe will be the first Greenlandic woman to ever make the passage by boat.
“We stay in contact with people, but it also has to be an experience of your own,” Jens said. “You don’t only follow an all-included tour. The unexpected is nice. Not bad surprises but the unexpected.”
In the meantime, they were making friends in Resolute, an Inuit community of about 200 that is the second-most northern town in Canada. It serves as a gateway to points even deeper in the Arctic, such as the North Pole.
From the outside Resolute appeared very quiet, with a few dogs wandering and residents occasionally walking by. But inside was another matter. The Kjeldsens were visiting a happy home filled with what appeared to be three generations of villagers. Jens cut pieces of dried whale meat with a knife at the table while babies cried and the family joked in the background.
They were visiting the home of Allie Salluviniq, one of the first residents of Resolute Bay. Salluviniq, who works on road maintenance during the week and hunts on weekends, was relocated here with his family in 1953, when he was 3 years old. It was part of a larger relocation of Inuit from northern Quebec to the Arctic islands — an event for which the Canadian government formally apologized in 2010.
Salluviniq says that while he and others challenged the relocation after they grew up, and greatly welcomed the apology, Resolute is now where he feels he belongs. “This is home, yes,” he said. But he has noticed changes.
“Today, the ice is not as thick as it used to be, because I go out hunting, and you can notice that in the seal holes, the sea ice is not as thick as it used to be,” Salluviniq said.
He said that an increase in usage of the Northwest Passage has not yet translated into much of an economic effect for Resolute Bay. There are few in Resolute who make souvenirs for tourists, he said, though hotels and the airport might profit somewhat.
The Kjeldsens welcomed the company.
“We’re excited to get on, but we are treated very kindly here in town, people are very nice,” Jens said. “When you come up and people come out and you’re invited in, or you just go knock the door, the Inuit way, which we do, then people go, ‘come on and eat together. It tastes better when it’s shared,’ they say.”