An unusual one for me—a mid afternoon flight. So I had a leisurely morning, not leaving home until 10am for the drive to Heathrow. I did get lost trying to find the long term car park, and when I arrived I stopped at the barrier, wondering what I was meant to do next (I’d paid in advance on-line). A camera somewhere must have scanned my car licence plate, as a moment later the digital display welcomed me by name and the barrier lifted.
A short bus trip later, and I was at Terminal 2 and dropping off my check in bag. It weighed 22.9kg against the limit of 23kg. Talk about cutting things fine.
I had a small lunch before catching the 3.45pm flight on Air Canada to Ottawa. The plane was only 2/3rds full. I spent the eight hours reading on my Kindle. We landed around 6pm, but then spent 40 minutes waiting. A lightning storm was active in the area, and we couldn’t disembark until the storm had cleared.
Instead of filling out a paper customs and immigration form, we took turns at small kiosks to provide the information on touch screens. I had the feeling that this slowed things down, rather than sped them up. By the time I’d claimed my suitcase, it was dark, and raining, and I decided to pay for a taxi into the city.
The taxi driver dropped me off at the Ottawa Jail Hostel. Light rain was falling as I took my case up the set of steps to the entrance. When the receptionist told me cheerily that I was on the seventh floor and, no, there was no lift, the man behind the counter generously offered to carry my case up the stairs for me. Chivalry is not dead.
I had been assigned a top bunk, and was told that no bottom ones were available. When I arrived at the four bed room, however, the only unmade bed was a bottom bunk, so I took that. And had an early night.
The hostel is very central, so there’s lots of traffic noise. Which doesn’t bother me, fortunately. I slept well.
The free breakfast consisted of hot drinks, orange juice, toast, cereal, fruit, and boiled eggs. I organised my bags and left the hostel around 10am.
My first destination was Byward Market. The area features a mixture of restaurants, shops, and produce for sale. The latter is sold only by the actual growers (according to the signs). I found the purple carrots intriguing, but didn’t want to be carrying vegetables around for the rest of the day.
I found a pub for lunch, and was hesitating outside when rain suddenly belted down. Those dining outside rushed for shelter. I took refuge with a pint of local dark beer and a beef sandwich. By the time I’d finished eating, the sun had come out again.
My second destination was the Canadian Museum of History. I walked past the National Art Gallery (with its scary metal spider) and crossed the Ottawa River on the Alexandra Bridge. Wonderful views up and down river were only slightly spoiled by the number joggers toiling past which made me feel guilty about the french fries I’d consumed at lunch.
At the museum, I dug out and handed over the exact amount for the entrance fee. Except I hadn’t given enough. Tax had to be added on top. Canada is obviously one of those countries. After all these years living in Great Britain, I’m used to paying whatever is stated, taxes already being included in the price.
The museum was fascinating, and far larger than I’d realised. Many rooms were dedicated to the history of the first humans to live in what is now Canada. These included peoples about which we know very little, such as the Dorset and the Thule. I was intrigued by the artefacts from later groups. Signs stated that replicas were on display, as the originals had been returned to the tribes, at their request.
The interaction between Europeans and native peoples did not make for good reading. The removal of natives from their lands, the children who were taken away from their tribes and not permitted to speak their original language, and the way in which European diseases killed off a huge proportion of the First Nations.
I managed to see much of the next section, which outlined how Europeans were encouraged to settle and farm the plains. (Sadly, blacks and Asians were not wanted). I ran out of time, though, and didn’t make it to the last section, ‘Modern Canada’, before the museum closed.
A water taxi crosses the river between the museum and the main city. I decided to go back that way rather than walk along the bridge. I walked up past the Ottawa Locks and found my way back to the hostel.
I left the room to have my shower. When I returned, I found that my possessions had been moved from bottom bunk to top, because a new person had arrived who had been given the bottom bunk. I moved my suitcase, but did swallow back words when bottom bunk person mentioned that she was only going to be in the room for one night.
I decided to stick close to base today, as Sonja and Isabelle were due to arrive in the afternoon.
After a leisurely breakfast, I returned to Byward Market to buy a few things I’d seen yesterday but hadn’t wanted to carry around all day. I also checked with reception that all three of us were in the same room.
The hostel offers a tour at 11am of the jail. About 25 of us followed our guide on a sobering visit to the cells as well as solitary confinement, death row, and the gallows. Only three people were hanged in this jail, and doors could be opened to allow for public viewing.
Many more died because the building was also used as a quarantine facility. Disease could spread rapidly through such a packed facility. Women and children were also held here. Boys stayed with the women until they were 12 years old, and then they were moved in with the adult men.
The jail was turned into a hostel in the 1970’s. There are many reports of ghost sightings, particularly of one of the men who was hanged although he protested his innocence.
There are holes in the stairs for a practical reason. The guards wore black shoes, and the prisoners were barefoot. If a prisoner escaped, they could be quickly spotted because their feet would be a white flash through the holes.
After the tour, I stayed put in my room. Sonja and Isabelle arrived just before 5pm. We sorted out our sleeping arrangements, and I dedicated myself to keeping them awake. They were jet-lagged, as Ottawa is six hours behind Switzerland, but I know from past experience that the best way to overcome jet lag is to try to adjust to the new time as quickly as possible.
We went down to the kitchen to make a pasta dinner. I did worry about letting Isabelle loose with a knife, as she in particular looked hardly awake. After dinner, we had some wine in our room. The two of them went to bed early, and I stayed up a bit later to do some reading.
My room mates managed to sleep well. We enjoyed our breakfast, including several cups of coffee, and then headed out into Ottawa.
With the thorough knowledge I’ve gained of the city from the past two days, I acted as tour guide. We first went to the Byward Market. Sonja decided to have a wire bracelet made bearing her name. You know, just in case a Polar bear decides to drag her off and her skeletal remains have to be identified at a later date.
We walked on to Chateau Laurier. This imposing structure was built to be a hotel for those travelling by train to Ottawa. We went inside to admire the decorations and to check out the women’s toilets.
The Ottawa locks are just located below the hotel. We bought tickets for the 11am river tour, and walked down to our boat. There were around 20 of us on a boat which could hold around 200, so it was very easy to move around to admire the views. The commentary was in English and French. My French speaking companions find the Canadian French old fashioned and with a different accent. Words are utilised which are no longer used in Europe.
The river tour lasted around 90 minutes. We saw important buildings such as the Prime Minister’s official residence and Parliament. Further up river was the town of Hull, and the riverside houses which locals call ‘matchstick houses’ because they are so narrow.
Upon our return to the locks, we stopped for a picnic lunch. Several boats were making their way down from the canal to the river, so we watched as one lock was filled, dropping the boats down from the higher level.
Then we walked up to the Parliament building. Much to my disappointment, there was no mounted guard. We walked around the outside and admired the views across the river. We also found a police officer to ask why all of the flags were flying at half mast. He told us that this was the day on which, every year, the firefighters who have lost their lives in the line of duty were honoured.
We popped down a shopping street, where both of my companions decided to treat themselves to a new watch. Much to our delight, when we then walked on to the war memorial, we arrived in time to see the changing of the guard. Complete with someone playing the bagpipes.
Our final destination was the Notre Dame Cathedral. The metal covered spires are rather distinctive. We went inside and admired the starry ceiling and the stained glass windows. Isabelle and I debated over matters such as whether or not Gabriel is mentioned by name in the biblical account.
We stopped at a pub for a sit down and a drink. Then we made our way back to the Byward Market to purchase items for tomorrow’s lunch. This included a punnet of wild blueberries.
Dinner was at a brewpub. Sonja and I shared the ‘taster platter’ which gave us a third of a pint of seven different beers. We’re a good team, Sonja and I. She prefers the light beers, and I prefer the dark beers. Isabelle preferred a glass of wine.
Then back to the youth hostel to pack. We were heading down to Montreal by train the next day, but I’d checked with the hostel in advance, and they’d agreed that we could store our main luggage with them overnight. So we all worked out what we’d need for our overnight stay.
We were breakfasted, packed, and at the train station an hour before our train’s departure. The station, considering it serves the capital of a country, surprised me by its small size.
The train carriage itself was very comfortable. Padded armchair seats, plenty of leg room, and a snack cart travelled up and down the carriage. The sun shone brightly on the towns and countryside which we passed. Some of the trees are just starting to change colour.
After about two hours, we arrived in Montreal. And then had a bit of a struggle. We wanted to take the underground to Old Montreal, but it took us awhile to work out where the underground was. The station had a lack of signs. Actually, there was a lack of anything. The walls were bare, totally lacking any advertisement. And I struggled when we did find signs, as these were only in French.
Then we had to work out which stop we needed. The woman at the ticket counter explained, and we went down to the platform.
At the other end, a passerby helped us work out where we were on the map. We headed towards the Notre Dame Cathedral, which is located in Old Montreal. Entry into the cathedral was CA$6.00, although this might be due to the special lighting which has been temporarily arranged around the altar.
We had our picnic lunch near the river, including the blueberries purchased the day before. The sun was out and it was quite warm—not what I’d expected for autumn in Canada. A train came through. There were no barriers, but a police car pulled up to halt people and traffic from going through the level crossing.
We made our way to our youth hostel, checked in, made up the bunk beds, then headed back out. None of us had made any plans, so we simply wandered through the old part of the city. The buildings were fascinating. Older structures of stone brick had often been incorporated into newer ones of brick, and the outlines of the original house could be seen on the side of the building. The pedestrianised area was full of shops and restaurants.
We ended up at the Bonsecours Market. The boutique shops were beginning to close for the day, but we still had the opportunity to sample some ice cider (made from pressing frozen apples). Very nice. We had salads for our dinner at the market cafe.
The walk back along the river area took us to a modern Ferris wheel. We decided to go on the 20 minute ride (we circled several times0. The views over the city and the port area were stunning.
The evening was mild, the scenery lovely, so we stopped for drinks outside a small restaurant. In our hostel room, we finished off the red wine, using a mug, a water bottle, and a small collapsable cup. Very civilised.
Construction noise outside woke us by 7am. After breakfast (very strong coffee!) we headed back out into Old Montreal. We came across Chateau Ramezay which was advised as ‘one of the 1001 places to see before you die’ so of course we went in. The rooms were filled with objects and videos which you could watch on demand. We had a quick introduction into both Montreal and Canadian history, as it was at this building that Benjamin Franklin tried to convince the then Canadian government to join the USA colonies. They declined.
Back to the hostel to pick up our bags and check out. This time, we walked to the train station, although we had to ask for help a couple of times. We didn’t find the sign posting to be as fulsome as one would find in Europe. But we arrived in plenty of time.
This train wasn’t as posh as the previous. It was still a pretty comfortable ride to Ottawa. The sun was out again. I worked on this blog and also surfed the Internet, using the train’s wifi system.
We caught a taxi to the Ottawa Jail Hostel, where we were reunited with our luggage. We asked the hostel to order us a taxi to our airport hotel, and went to wait outside.
A taxi pulled up ten minutes later. The driver asked, ‘Did you order a taxi?’ ‘Yes,’ we responded, ‘in the name of Chrys.’ He hurried us on board, all but throwing our bags into the boot. I think it was only as he pulled away that it dawned on us that he was probably not the taxi we’d booked, just someone taking advantage of finding passengers waiting at a kerbside.
The hotel which the tour company had chosen for the entire group was the Hilton Garden Hotel. Functional, but nothing more. Our triple room consisted of two double beds and a bed settee. I offered to have the latter.
We worked on our packing. I had already arranged to leave a bag at the hotel, as I saw no reason to take my Canadian souvenirs to the Arctic and back. We’d been told that the check-in weight limit was 20kg, and carry on 5kg, so I had another reason to leave heavy stuff behind. The only complication was that, upon our return to Ottawa, we’d be staying at a different hotel.
At 6.30pm we had a briefing. Several bits of good news. When we returned to Ottawa, those of us leaving bags at the hotel would be taken to the Hilton to collect said bags before being taken on to the other hotel. And neither our check in or our carry on would be weighed.
The three of us had a jolly dinner. So it was in a good mood that we went back to our hotel room. I turned on my iPhone, and suddenly everything was upended. Tilly, my little parrot, was ill, and the bird-sitter had taken her to a vet. My authorisation was needed for blood tests and treatment. It was middle of the night UK time, and the bird sitter had written only ‘a vet in Leicester.’ So I looked up the contact details of avian vets in Leicester, and emailed all of them.
I did not sleep well. After 2am Ottawa time, so after 8am UK time, I had an email from the vet at which Tilly was staying. She was still alive, but fluffed up and lethargic. The bill thus far ran to £400. I’ve never insured my birds, and in 17 years of parrot ownership, this is the first time I’ve had a sick bird. I explained that I’d only be able to pick up emails, and to let me know the outcome of the blood tests so I could make a decision whether or not to treat further. Not only because of the cost, but the ongoing stress the whole experience was causing to my bird.
We got up at 6am, had breakfast, and took our bags down to the coaches. The drive to the airport was short, and we were admitted to a private section. Ours is a specially chartered flight. No security, just a drive onto the tarmac where we boarded the plane. The seats weren’t assigned, but the plane wasn’t full. There were 115 of us flying out, including some members of staff, whereas the original ship could take up to 132 passengers.
The three hour flight featured much offering of drinks, an in flight meal, and a cookie. I picked at the food but enjoyed the Irish coffee.
We flew over clouds nearly the entire time, and dropped through clouds to land at Iqaluit. Yellow school buses came to collect us. We were driven through the town on the single paved road. (We were told that the main road was paved for the visit of Queen Elizabeth II some years ago.) Our base was the visitor’s centre, where we formed an orderly queue for the toilets. The buses ran a shuttle service between two craft stores, a jewellery workshop, and the Anglican cathedral.
Although everything was nearby, I decided to use the bus due to the rain and the weight on my back (over 11kgs). I first visited the two craft stores, which had Inuit carvings and products made from hunted animals (although the phrase used in the stores was ‘harvested’ rather than ‘hunted’). To their credit, the store owners warned Americans that they wouldn’t be allowed to take seal products into the USA. Although I admired the stone carvings of inukshuk (statues made of stones in the shape of a human), dancing bears, and narwhal, I kept my wallet in my pocket.
I caught the bus which took us to the small workshop of a local jeweller. Then on to the cathedral. Sadly, the cathedral was closing, so we weren’t allowed to go in. I had hoped to introduce myself as an Anglican priest.
So I went back to the visitor’s centre. Wifi was available, but there was no email from the vets. The museum next door had an interesting collection of small traditional carvings. Another section was full of drawings. Several years ago, Inuit were asked to draw images of their way of life, and these were fascinating to view.
Around 3.20pm, we boarded the buses to be taken to our zodiac embarkation point. We drove past the large open air tip, which the local guide on our bus found rather embarrassing. She explained that the town had grown faster than their plans on how to deal with the rubbish produced by so many humans.
We queued up in the rain. Although the ship has plenty of zodiacs, only a few were in use. For reasons I still can’t quite understand, the Canadian government insisted that those boarding the ship would have their luggage searched. There was very little room for people to queue on the ship for this process, so we were left on land for quite some time. People could go into the bus to wait in the warm and dry.
When I arrived on the ship, a metal detector was run over my body. Then I had to collect my check in bag. This was hauled onto a table. I was asked to open it, which I did, and then asked if I had any ‘sharps’. I pulled out my small Swiss Army knife. This was taken off me, and I was advised that it would be returned to me at the end of the voyage. But neither my main bag nor my back pack were searched. I found the whole process puzzling. Another woman had her sewing scissors confiscated. I deposited my check in luggage for delivery to my cabin later.
Finally onto the ship proper. I went to the hotel reception and was given my cabin key and the plastic card which was to be used to sign me off and onto the ship. Snacks and drinks were available. I checked out my cabin and had some food. My main luggage was delivered to my cabin much later. Isabelle and Sonja were on the last zodiac. A nice touch from Quark was a birthday card signed by the crew.
We had our welcome briefing, the lifeboat drill, and finally dinner. The three of us agreed to order a bottle of wine between us. We finished half of it, and asked for the remainder to be kept for the next day. After dinner, we went to the mud room to collect our free parkas.
I asked about receiving emails on board. Usually I’m happy to be off line, but of course I needed to be able to communicate with the vets. The ship’s own webmail was recommended, which had the advantage of being very reliable, but the disadvantage that I’d have to set up a ship email address. I was told come back in the morning to do this, at the one off charge of US$30.
I slept well, but then I usually do on ships. I like the feel of the movement of being on water.
After breakfast, I filled out the form for a ship webmail account. We had the mandatory zodiac briefing. My webmail account was available by the time this finished. As it was now 3pm UK time, I sent off an email to the vets to advise them of the new email address, and that anything sent to my regular address could not be read.
We all went down to the mud room to fit ourselves out with the boots we will use for the rest of the journey. We also signed up for our embarkation groups. Isabelle and Sonja wanted ‘beluga’s they felt it was a word which they could pronounce more easily than ‘bowhead’ or ’narwhal’. I then hovered in my cabin, checking the webmail in vain.
At 11am, we went out for a zodiac cruise. A very wet and windy zodiac cruise. The rocky outcroppings which surrounded us were part of the Lower Savage Islands. We saw some fulmars, peregrine falcons, and head bobs of some harp seals. Our guides did their best to enthuse over clumps of seaweed and waterfalls. Zodiacs were taken up to admire these features. After 90 minutes of this, I was more than ready for the return to the ship.
Oh, yes, the ship. Well, it seems that our ship used to be a casino ship. This probably explains the mirrored ceilings and the glitzy lights. The ship can carry 299 passengers, and feels it. Seems to take forever to walk from one section to another. Part of the lecture area was curtained off—it seems the ceiling had fallen down a few days before! Not very reassuring.
We travelled in the afternoon. I hung up some washing, and visited the shop. An Inuit guide told us about her mother (who had 14 children, and is still going strong at 97 years old) and Inuit traditions.
Later on we had drinks and canapés for the Captain’s reception. The crew is quite international—Croatian, Chilean, Russian… We felt rather sleepy at dinner, despite having done so little during the day. An early night for many people.
I got up at 6am to log in and check emails. Nothing from the vets. Went back to bed until 7.30am. The ship had rolled a lot in the night, which I quite like for sleeping, but which kept others awake. Rather concerningly, various doors came off their hinges, and yet I’ve been on far worse seas. This ship is meant to go down to the Antarctic later in the year, and goodness knows how it’s going to cope with the Drake Passage.
After breakfast, checked emails again. And received the happy news that Tilly was being discharged. She was being sent back to the bird sitter’s with antibiotics. I asked for the blood test results to be sent to me.
The conditions of the night before (including fog) had reduced our speed. We had hoped to land at Pangnirtung in the early afternoon. The timing was pushed back until 5pm, and dinner to 8pm. So many of us had a heavy lunch, hoping to stave off evening hunger pangs.
As we sailed into the bay, and neared the settlement, sunlight emerged to touch the snow-capped mountains and string along the brightly coloured buildings. The ship was halted further out than we had anticipated. The zodiac trip to shore took 15 minutes. The water was very calm, and so the trip was neither too wet nor too cold.
We stepped onto the pier and walked past the functional boats of the locals. As we had been warned, a seal had been killed recently, and traces of blood and blubber were streaked across the wooden planks. At the end of the boardwalk, we handed over our lifejackets. We had been told that local guides would meet us, but perhaps because our group was near the end of the queue, that didn’t happen. So we followed the long line of yellow-jacketed people up the sloping road through the hamlet.
A group had clustered near the supermarket. A guide was there, who explained what the next sights would be. After popping in to have a glance at the well stocked shelves, I followed her to the new church (Anglican), past the older, ruined one, and down through the town. In the rapidly dimming light, we saw seal skins stretched out to dry and dogs running around freely. Some children would come up to greet us, whereas others looked far too shy.
We visited a smaller supermarket and general store, then the craft store. The carvings were beautiful. Further inside the same building was the weaving workshop, and various items such as hats and scarves were available for purchase. A print shop was set up nearby. I glanced at a few things, but the wallet remained in my pocket. I was amused to note that they took credit card payments.
The ship had been brought in closer. So the return journey was only a few minutes. Dinner was buffet style, rather than a restaurant service. Afterwards, I went to talk by a photographer who spent a winter with an Inuit community.
Another long day on the ship. We were kept amused by various lectures, including one on polar bears (photography from Churchill) and an episode of the BBC programme called ‘The Hunt’ which focussed on hunts by Arctic animals.
We arrived at Sunneshine Fjord in the late afternoon. True to its name, the low hills were illuminated by sunshine. We headed around a rocky island. Then the ship slowed. ‘Polar bear’ we were told. Long lenses and binoculars scoured the rocky hillsides, looking for a rump of white which wasn’t a rock.
I found the bear just in time for her to move—and reveal a large, nearly full sized cub behind her. They walked down the hill side, mother in front, cub behind. I lost them at one point, and I knew that the bears had gone when all shutter sounds halted. The bears had gone into the water.
We continued on into the fjord. Much to my surprise, despite the lateness of the day, we still went ashore. The groups were organised depending on the type of walk you wanted. Isabelle and Sonja went into the ‘chargers’ group. I had planned to go in the ‘photography’ group. However, when we landed, I noted how we were already in shadow, and this was only going to deepen. So I decided to stay with the ‘contemplative’ group so I could concentrate on taking photos of the changing sky.
Our guide pointed out various plants to us, and we tried some sorrel leaves. A bit spicy. Would have been nice in a salad. As the sun set, the clouds turned pink, a colour reflected in the water on the beach. Very little wind, so we felt pretty warm.
We returned in time for dinner. The ship was already setting off. I was beginning to realise that this was going to be one of those Arctic trips with long ship days, as had been my experience going through the NorthWest Passage.
The ship keeps making less progress than hoped for. We’ve been told it’s because of poor visibility at night, combined with concerns about ice. That’s why we’ve had a couple of rather late landings.
Our goal today was Isabella Bay. The name caused great fun with our similarly named companion. We travelled through the morning, once again amused by lectures on seals and baleen whales. The Inuit guide gave us a fascinating talk about the naming of Inuit children. A belief in reincarnation means that babies are named after family members who have recently died. Names are gender neutral, so a girl can, for example, be named after an uncle. The child who carries a relative’s name is treated as if s/he were the person. So, for example, our guide had named a child after an uncle. So she referred to that child as ‘my uncle.’ The local church insisted that people took on biblical names before baptism because, they were told, they wouldn’t be allowed into heaven if they didn’t have a Christian name.
We arrived mid afternoon, and started whale spotting from the ship. The area is a wildlife conservation area, and a place to see whales, particularly bowhead whales. It didn’t take us long before the spray from blowholes showed that whales were nearby. We also saw a seal in the water. I do hope that the person who asked, ‘Is that a penguin?’ was being ironic. I have equal hopes for those who claimed to have seen a turtle.
Zodiac trips, again in the late afternoon, gave us the opportunity to come closer to the wildlife. We spotted more whales, although it was far more difficult to photograph them from a zodiac than on a ship. The setting sun cast a golden shade to the sky. One whale decided to dive and give us a wave of the tail.
The zodiac groups had been sent into different directions to ensure that wildlife wouldn’t be overwhelmed. One group saw a polar bear on the shore, including someone who had missed the viewing of the evening before.
After an evening presentation, we were told that the Northern Lights were visible outside. The ribbons were very active, and mostly grey. Various attempts were made to photograph them, which was very challenging from a dark, moving ship. For some reason, cameras recorded colour which was not visible to the naked eye. When I worked on my photos, I corrected them back to the grey which we had seen.
The ship travelled throughout the night, and the weather had changed. As we sailed up the Sam Ford Fjord, the wind was fierce. The waves chopped around the ship, and we quickly realised that the morning’s hoped for zodiac excursion was not going to happen.
I spent a couple of hours outside in the company of another passenger. We remained at the rear of the ship, taking shelter behind windbreak and dashing out occasionally for a photo. Cliff walls rose from the sea on either side, and ice clung to crevasses. The white of the sea froth matched the white of sky and snow.
When the ship turned around, the bow was opened. And the shelter provided by the bulk of the ship from the wind was incredible. We were able to stand with only the slightest breeze to ruffle hair or parka hoods.
Then it was out into open seas. We left Arctic Canada behind and began our crossing from Baffin Island to west Greenland. More lectures in the afternoon to keep us amused.
After dinner entertainment featured ‘Arctic games.’ These included blowing a ball across the room with a straw, passing an orange and a toilet roll from person to person without using hands, and a costume competition. We did have a lot of laughs.
The ship proved to be pretty stable throughout the night. But the slight bit of rolling resulted in dark brown water coming out of the taps in our bathrooms. I added this to the list of shortcomings, such as the tiles coming off my shower walls and the smell which comes and goes in my room (which I believe is the chemicals used to kill off the stored sewage).
We were allowed to sleep in until 9am, which isn’t as generous as it sounds, as we’d had an hour taken away from us each night over the past two nights. (Greenland time is a couple of hours ahead of Ottawa time.)
Later on that morning, land came into sight. We sailed between Disko Island and mainland Greenland. Swirling clouds and black and white mountains rose out of the dark sea. The world outside was monochrome, even the fulmars sweeping past blending in with the greyscale world.
People were beginning to mutter. The schedule sent to us before the holiday had indicated two sites to visit today, one being a landing at a settlement. But we experienced another day on a rather cold ship with very little to do except eat. The staff did their best to keep us occupied with lectures, but these were beginning to wear thin. The sheer amount of time being spent on a less than brilliant ship was causing many of us to be disappointed with the journey thus far.
As ever, at the evening briefing, the staff were very positive. And they were very hopeful about our day tomorrow. We’re to spend the entire day near a glacier, with various walks (or a zodiac cruise) on offer. As we shivered in the dining room over our meal (again, this is a cold ship) we discussed the various options and hoped that the weather would be obliging.
Overnight the ship had sailed into Eqip Sermia. At 6.30am, the expedition leader called us onto deck to admire the sunrise. The snow on the nearby hills picked up the pink of the rising sun. Reds and oranges were reflected on the still waters at the front of the ship.
The intention had been to allow people six hours on land, time enough for a long walk. A sandwich bar in the dining room allowed people to order a packed lunch to take with them.
The ship stopped and anchored a disappointingly long way from the glacier’s front. The announcement came to prepare for a zodiac cruise and ’sandwich bar stand down.’ There was no clear communication that the walks were called off, which confused even those of us whose first language is English.
So we all had zodiac cruises. The small boats pushed their way through the ice which the ship had refused to test. Seems the walks were called off because we’d anchored too far away from the trail head. While we were out, the ship moved away to reposition herself at a further distance from the ice.
After lunch, we did land for a walk. I chose the photographer’s group, and this turned out to be the perfect option. We walked and stopped at viewpoints or places of interest. The red autumnal colours were bright against the large boulders. Icebergs floated on the dark waters below. Several flocks of geese flew overhead. The afternoon sun added a golden glow to the scene.
Back on board, and time to prepare for the polar plunge. I’d chickened out last year, so I was determined to do it this time around. Around 16 of us gathered nervously in the mud room, shivering in our swim suits and/or t-shirts as the wind blew in from the gangway.
When it was my turn, I walked down to the edge of the gangway, crossed myself, and leapt in. The water wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. Dark and salty as it closed over my head, but within a minute I’d climbed back up the ladder to be given a towel and a shot of vodka. Back to my cabin for a hot shower. Only my feet were very cold, and much of that was due to the wait before going in.
Dinner was a BBQ on deck. It was pleasant enough to start with, particularly with mulled wine on offer. But we were happy to go inside after pudding.
We continued to sail south, along the coast of west Greenland. During the night, we arrived and dropped the anchor at Ilulissat. The glacier here is one of the most active in the world, and the huge icebergs which it produces often float past Newfoundland many years later. It’s thought that the iceberg which sank the Titanic emerged from this glacier.
We had the option of a dawn zodiac cruise past the huge icebergs. About a third of the passengers decided to stay in bed rather than get up at 6am. Well, I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity. Yes, the sun remained stubbornly hidden, but it was great to be close to the huge towers of blue and white ice. Fulmars perched on icebergs large and small. Other boats were out to admire the views, and we saw another expedition ship anchored nearby.
After breakfast, we headed into the city of Ilulissat. This is the second largest on Greenland. The colourful houses perched above the large harbour. A shuttle service had been arranged, and several of us took it all the way to the trailhead.
Several trails led to the ice fjord. I let the better walkers go off on their own, and I made my way along the boardwalk which led to the views. My progress was disrupted when I found some wonderful icicles dripping off boulders, and frozen ponds with intriguing ice patterns.
The view of the frozen river of ice and icebergs was fantastic. I suddenly realised that I’d seen a photo of this many years ago, but hadn’t realised where it was. I spent some time simply taking in the views, until my bladder sent me early warning signals. The only toilets were in town (none at the trail head), so I started back up the board walk.
I only had short wait for the shuttle. I let the driver know of my desire for a loo, and he dropped me off at the sports centre. When I went inside, a man greeted me in English, and took me to the changing rooms and toilets. To my surprise, he waited for me to finish, and he escorted me off the premises.
I walked into the town. The number of cars rumbling by was a bit of a shock after nearly ten days on a ship. I visited the various shops, admiring the carvings made from various types of ivory and horn. Tourists from various countries had discussions with shop staff about what they could legally take back home—the rules differ from country to country.
At the tourist information office, I bought a small carving from reindeer horn (no import implications). Greenland stamps are beautiful, and I almost regretted placing them onto the postcards which I then posted.
At another shop, I fell in love with an intricate carving from reindeer horn. I walked away, and had a beer from the local brewery. I walked down a path to the local museum. Then I returned to the shop and bought the carving.
The shuttle returned me to the harbour, and zodiacs took us back to the ship. I’m a member of Quark’s Shackleton Club, a silver member as this is my third voyage with them, and I’d received an invitation for a private dinner with other members. We assembled in a small room at the back of the main dining room. Our menu was the same as the rest of the ship, but we were given wine.
The evening’s entertainment was the charity auction, all proceeds going to Polar Bears International. Various items were offered, including a bottle of glacier water and a lovely hand knitted scarf. I watched with longing as the expedition banner was auctioned off, but felt I couldn’t justify spending over US$400 for it myself. I have a vet’s bill waiting for me at home.
After many days of my cabin being too cold, overnight it was too hot.
We sailed through the morning, and had our disembarkation presentation. After lunch, we arrived at the small hamlet of Itilleq. The village’s population is around 80 people, and their main industry is small scale fishing.
We went ashore and walked past colourful buildings which glistened in the bright sun. Several of the families had agreed to allow us in for the Greenlandic tradition of ‘coffeemik’—a visit to have a hot drink and cakes. A puppy posed inside a rack of reindeer antlers outside the house which I visited. Inside the very warm dwelling, I was amazed to find a pet bird. I think it was a female redpoll. The owner explained (through an interpreter) that she had found the bird as a chick, and her name was ‘Coco.’ The bird flew freely from front room to kitchen, and worried me when she flew to the floor.
After the visit, I walked through the village. The houses are built up to avoid melting the permafrost. Many had reindeer meat hanging outside. We were told that the meat is thus allowed to cure in the sunlight, and pieces are carved off for eating.
The small church was open, and I wandered inside. There were nice views of the bay from the windows. I tried to interpret the painting over the altar. The shepherds from the nativity story?
Later in the afternoon, the Quark staff starting to kick a football around on the sandy pitch. Locals drifted over to join in. There were no fixed teams as such, and seemingly no out of bounds. Other locals came over to watch, including a woman whose children posed charmingly on the rocks nearby. Their mother was perfectly happy for us to take photos.
Back to the ship. I packed up most of my stuff, and downloaded photos. We had our leaving drinks and meal. Although it was a day early, the staff still gave me a birthday cake and sang to me.
After dinner, we had the end of voyage slide show. Then I went to bed early.
Getting up at 5.45am isn’t my idea of fun, particularly when it’s my birthday. But we were told to have our check in bags outside the cabin by 6.15am, so I wanted time to have a shower and do my last bits of packing.
Disembarkation days are usually ‘hurry up and wait’. I amused myself by taking a few photos of dawn before going in to breakfast at 6.45am. A representative from First Air (the airline flying us back to Ottawa) was to come on board so we could get our boarding passes and luggage tags on the ship rather than at the airport. I queued with a number of people by the mud room, and waited. The representative had gone to the other cruise ship first, so our own process was delayed.
Then it was time to wait again. We were taken off the ship in zodiacs, and my group was last. We had to wear our waterproofs, and the cold temperature (1C) meant we were happy to wear our parkas. A number of people left their parkas behind on shore, and the staff collected these for reuse.
A bus took us to the small airport at Kangerlussuaq. The airport had been built by the Americans and used to be commonly used as a refuelling stop. We went through security, and on the plane we chose our own seats. Sonja, Isabelle and I sat together.
I worked on photos and the other two slept. We landed at Ottawa around four hours later. And the heat hit us. 32C after days of near freezing weather. Those of us who had left luggage at the Hilton Garden hotel were taken there to collect in, and then to our hotel in the centre of Ottawa, the Westin.
Sonja and Isabelle were already in the room when I arrived. A third bed appeared a little while later and was shoved into a corner. We were on the 12th floor, and had nice views out over Ottawa.
They took me out for a birthday meal. We enjoyed a coffee outside, then went back to our room for an early night.
It felt strange to sleep in a room which had no movement. And as we made our way down to breakfast, I realised I had a touch of land sickness.
My flight to the UK wasn’t until 10.40pm. Ottawa was in the midst of a heat wave (32C). I decided to take it easy, and spend the day at the hotel working on my photos. I also treated myself to a taxi ride to the airport rather than wrestle with my bags on public transport.
The flight home was on the emptiest plane I’ve ever experienced. I managed to claim three empty seats in the middle, and make a bed for myself. So I actually slept on the plane.
Next day, the drive home from Heathrow. And the joy of collecting a very well and lively little bird!
An interesting trip, probably not destined to be one of my favourites, but I’m still glad I went.
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