Today we had a wonderful day of true immersion in Arctic culture at Gjoa Haven. Located at 68° N above the Arctic Circle in the southeast region of King William Island, Gjoa Haven is a small Inuit hamlet of about 1500 residents — and the only inhabited place on the island. It is famous for being the place where legendary Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen arrived in 1903; he then spent two winters here on board the ship Gjøa during his search for the fabled Northwest Passage. This proved to be extremely important to his future endeavors, as he absorbed countless invaluable lessons from the local Inuits. He learned their language. He observed the way they traveled, hunted, and coped with the extremely cold and harsh environment where they have thrived for millennia. He learned how to dress with animal skins and how to handle a dog team — two key elements of his later success leading the first expedition to the South Pole. After those two winters at the natural harbor that now bears its name, the Gjøa continued her journey and eventually became the very first ship to complete the transit of the Northwest Passage.
Our experience today at Gjoa Haven was a memorable one. Friendly faces greeted us at the beach and made us feel genuinely welcome. Local guides showed us some points of interest, including a small but very interesting museum. Some of us bought some handicrafts, like the polar bear carved in soapstone that will be coming home with me. But the highlight of the day was our visit to the Community Center where our friends were waiting with samples of their traditional food, including caribou stew and baked fish. Afterwards, we watched several performances of traditional drumming while some of the elders sang in their Inuktitut language. A couple of young girls thoroughly captivated us with their throat singing, a traditional artform practiced by women since time immemorial. The sounds that they produced were completely different than anything that I’ve heard before, truly a unique experience. Then a very fun event followed: square dancing. Performers of all ages — young children and elderly women alike — danced to the sound of happy music. The sound was reminiscent of Old World rhythms that European whalers introduced to the Canadian Arctic in the 1800s. They invited us to participate, and it was a beautiful, joyful moment of simple, childlike fun together.
On board the ship later that evening, we enjoyed a special presentation. Local hunter Sammy Kogvik told us the story of how he discovered the wreck of the HMS Terror in 2016. This was one of the two ships involved in Sir John Franklin’s 1845 ill-fated attempt to discover the Northwest Passage. It was a fascinating tale and a wonderful end to a memorable day of exploration, cultural exchange, and fun in the Canadian Arctic.
Photo caption and photographer: Square dancing at the Gjoa Haven Community Center. Photo by Carlos Navarro