Backpack

ARCTIC THRILLS

BRIAN BERGMAN June 17 1996
Backpack

ARCTIC THRILLS

BRIAN BERGMAN June 17 1996

ARCTIC THRILLS

Backpack

ADVENTURE

Tourists go north to seek the last great wilderness

BRIAN BERGMAN

There’s a whisper on the night wind, there’s a star agleam to guide us, And the Wild is calling, calling... let us go. —Robert Service, The Call of the Wild

Kenneth Chambers is an inveterate Arctic traveller. The 71-year-old zoologist, who retired in 1990 as chairman of the education department for New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, first

ventured north in 1967, spending three months studying and photographing wildlife in south-central Alaska. He has since returned to Alaska and the Northwest Territories dozens of times—as often for pleasure as for professional reasons. Since he retired, Chambers and his wife, Ann, 68, have made four trips to Antarctica, five others to Arctic Scandinavia, and have even ventured to the North Pole aboard a Russian icebreaker. In late April, the couple flew to Iqaluit for a sixday guided dogsled trip along the southern shore of Baffin Island; they will spend much of this summer cruising Alaska’s inside passage. Chambers concedes that among his

friends and colleagues he is something of a curiosity. “A lot of them like to go to the beach in the summertime,” he says, “whereas I prefer to go back up to the Arctic.”

He is not alone. Whether if s hiking through the alpine valleys of Kluane National Park in the Yukon, paddling in the footsteps of the early explorers along the Coppermine River in the Central Arctic, or checking out the springtime action among the birds, seals and polar bears along the “floe edge”—where the pack ice meets the open waters—off Baffin

Island, far-flung vacationers are descending on the Canadian North in search of the last, best wilderness. They are known as “adventure travellers,” a moniker that conjures up the image of impossibly fit young men and women leaping over fjords in a single bound. But in fact, with a few strenuous exceptions—shooting the whitewater rapids of the Nahanni River, say, or scuba diving under the sea ice in the High Arctic—most activities are geared to a more sedate set, including aging baby boomers and recent retirees with bucks to burn and a yen for the exotic. Says Neil Härtling, a Whitehorse-based outfitter and president of the Wilderness Tourism Association of the Yukon: “These are people who are saying, ‘Boy, I’ve always wanted to do this and I’m not getting any younger, so if I’m going to do it, I better do it now.’ ”

They are also, as likely as not, foreigners. A 1994 visitor profile survey in the Yukon found that a clear majority of adventure travellers came from the United States and Europe. Many outfitters in the Northwest Territories, especially those offering wintertime tours, similarly report that domestic tourists are often in the minority. “I sometimes think that Canadians live winter and the last thing they need to do is to extend it,” says Paul Landry, a Baffin Island outfitter who leads dogsledding and floeedge expeditions. Peter Jess, who runs an ex-

clusive High Arctic tourist lodge and who has worked in Northern Canada for over two decades, offers a more provocative theory: foreigners, he says, are simply better informed than Canadians about the treasures to be found north of 60. “Most Canadians,” says Jess, “have no idea what the top half of this country is about” Wherever they come from, the visitors are bringing money and jobs to a region that desperately needs more of both. Adventure tourism is the fastest-growing tourist sector in the North (auto touring and fishing and hunting being the other two major ones). In the Yukon last year, an estimated 63,000 adventure travellers— more than double the population of the territory—injected about $24 million into the local economy; in the Northwest Territories an estimated 26,000 visitors who participated in adventure activities

generated about $32 million in revenues.

Even at that, tourism promoters believe that they have only begun to exploit the fascination with the Canadian North that exists in many parts of the world. One emerging market is Japan. From a handful of visitors less than a decade ago, about 1,700 Japanese travelled to the Northwest Territories in the past year. Most of them arrived in Yellowknife between November and April, drawn by the chance to view the aurora bo-

realis (aka the northern lights) in all its midwinter glory. Coming from a crowded and increasingly polluted nation-state, many Japanese exhibit a strong affinity for the pristine beauty and wideopen spaces of the Canadian Arctic. So much so that they are willing to plunk down up to $4,000 each to fly to the Northwest Territories and spend three shivering nights on a platform near Yellowknife, peering skyward. “They get pretty excited when they see it,” says Bill Tait, president of Raven Tours, the largest local aurora operator. “The women usually cry, their tears freezing on their faces.”

NORTHERN A sampling of adventure tours and the operators who supply them: • Shoot the whitewater rapids on the Nahanni River. Nahanni River Adventures: 1-800-297-6927. • Raft through the spectacular mountain scenery of the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers. Tatshenshini Expediting Ltd.: 1-800-779-1784. • Helicopter in for hiking excursions along the Yukon’s highest peaks. Kluane Park Adventure Center: (403) 634-2313. • View the northern lights in their Arctic splendor. Raven Tours: (403) 873-4776 • Cruise the Mackenzie River in a restored luxury liner. NWT Marine Group: (403) 873-2489. • Dogsled along the sea ice and mountains of Frobisher Bay. NorthWinds Arctic Adventures: (819) 979-0551. • Heli-ski on Baffin Island. Arctic Odysseys: (206) 325-1977. • Cruise the High Arctic in an icebreaker. Quark Expeditions: 1-800-356-5699. • Fly to the North Pole for a round of golf. Adventure Canada: 1-800-363-7566. • Visit the Northwest Passage in style. Arctic Watch: (403) 571-8900.

There are also a growing number of opportunities for the very highend tourist—those who want to travel to some of the most remote places on the planet, but in relative luxury. One of the most intriguing recent entries in this field is Peter Jess’s Arctic Watch lodge on Somerset Island, in the heart of the historic Northwest Passage. The only major structure on the entire 25,000-square-kilometre island, the facility was erected in 1991, a feat that first required 125 Twin Otter flights to ferry in the materials. For a cool $6,000 per week (not including airfare to Resolute, 2,700 km north of Winnipeg), guests stay in heated cabins built to withstand winds exceeding 185 km/h and wintertime temperatures dipping to -75° C. Open from early July to mid-August—when temperatures average a comparatively balmy 10° C—Arctic Watch overlooks Cunningham Inlet, where over 2,000 beluga whales can be seen during their summer migration. A Twin Otter plane on call at the lodge whisks guests to other points along the Arctic archipelago, including the Beechy Island grave sites of members of the ill-fated Franklin expedition who perished in 1846.

Jess, whose guests have included corporate executives and international wilderness photographers, is currently adding features to his High Arctic retreat He plans to open a scuba diving camp off neighboring Devon Island next summer, followed in 1998 by a three-person submersible ride that will take people 350 feet below the sea ice to the site of the world’s most northerly shipwreck, the Breadalbane, one of the vessels sent in search of the Franklin expedition. ‘We’re dealing with very sophisticated travellers,” says Jess, “people who have been to Africa, Australia, the Galapagos, and are looking for what’s new.”

Those of more modest means, however, can also realize their dreams of exploring the Arctic frontier. Jocelyn Daunt, a recently retired farm wife from Gorrie, Ont., 150 km west

i_of Toronto, had long harbored a de-

sire to journey northward. “But between farming and raising a family,” says Daunt, “I never had the time to

says do anything about it.” Finally, in August, 1994, the 63-year-old grandmother travelled to the Yukon to embark on a $2,100 guided rafting trip along the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers, widely regarded as one of North America’s première paddle routes. For 12 days, Daunt and her crewmates drifted along expansive waterways and past towering glaciers as bald eagles soared overhead and grizzlies roamed the valleys. “It was just so beautiful, so unbelievable,” recalls Daunt. She then utters a common sentiment among those who succumb to the lure of the wild. “I would love,” she says, “to go up there again.” □