Scenes From the End of the World

Publish date:
Social count:

Life on board a small cruise ship in the Northwest Passage.

By Eva Holland


(Photo: Eva Holland)

In August 2015, I took a small-ship cruise through the eastern portion of the Northwest Passage, a legendary and long-sought sea route in the Canadian Arctic. The trip was part of the basis for my story in the latest print issue of Pacific Standard, “Cruising Through the End of the World.” The piece touches on the effects of a growing cruise industry for the communities lining the shores of the Passage.

The trip itself was, at the risk of sounding like a travel brochure, an incredible, eye-opening experience. I’ve been living and traveling in the Canadian North since 2009. In all that time, I had never been exposed to the power and the diversity of the High Arctic’s landscapes. The islands we visited were so spare — often little more than gravel and lichen, to my eye — that it’s hard to comprehend how the region supports so much wildlife (and human life). The Inuit have built a culture and a long history where most of us wouldn’t last more than two days.

And that’s the ultimate aim of my story: to communicate the complexity and interconnectivity of the economic, environmental, and cultural questions facing the people of the Northwest Passage, and the changes these cruise ships are bringing their way.


We spent three days on the northwestern coast of Greenland before making the two-day crossing to the eastern edge of Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, where the Northwest Passage begins. (Photo: Eva Holland)


Our first stop was Pond Inlet, a small town on northernmost Baffin Island. Glacier-covered Bylot Island is just across the way. (Photo: Eva Holland)


A welcoming committee met us on the beach in traditional sealskin amautis. We’d been coached to ask locals for permission before taking their photograph, and when someone asked these women if a photo would be OK, one of them laughed and replied “Why do you think we’re dressed like this?” (Photo: Eva Holland)


Left: Back on board the ship, the passengers spent a lot of our time watching the sky for birds, the water for whales, and the shore and the ice pans for polar bears. (Photo: Eva Holland) | “Stop” in Inuktitut. (Photo: Eva Holland)


Most days we got off the ship by inflatable zodiac, and either cruised in the boats or made “wet landings” on shore — scrambling from the boat to the beach in our standard-issue rubber boots and foul weather gear. (Photo: Eva Holland)


The passengers were always kept well-hydrated. (Phot0: Eva Holland) | And well-fed. (Photo: Eva Holland)


When it was safe (read: polar bear-free) we were able to go for short hikes. This is the south coast of Devon Island — at roughly 74 degrees of latitude it was our most northern point. (Photo: Eva Holland)


A small group of us also signed up for the sea kayaking program. Again, we only went out when there were no bears in the vicinity. (Photo: Eva Holland)


Easily the highlight of the trip, for me, was the two hours we spent watching, from the ship, while this guy gnawed on a freshly killed seal. I’ll never forget the sound his claws made when he scraped his paws on the ice to clean off the accumulated gore. (Photo: Eva Holland)


The High Arctic’s landscapes are severe, but beautiful. (Photo: Eva Holland)


Even in August, the tail end of the Arctic summer, the sun set after 11 p.m. and rose again just a couple of hours later. But it was worth staying up for. (Photo: Eva Holland)