As Crystal Serenity reaches the Northwest Territories, guests were treated to an incredibly warm welcome and intimate glimpse into the culture of Ulukhaktok. Our guest blogger, travel journalist Katie Jackson, shares some of the most remarkable moments of the two-day experience.
One would think the highlight of the day would have been the helicopters circling high above Crystal Serenity as she pulled into the bay. Or perhaps, the high-speed zodiacs below, weaving in and out of the waves. If not them, then why not the ice-breaking escort ship, RRS Ernest Shackleton, anchored a few hundred yards away—standing out like a floating red fire engine complete with the helicopters’ landing pads? But no, the most memorable event for Crystal Serenity’s guests and crew was not a scene from an action movie. Instead, it was a crash course in culture—hand-delivered by beaver-mitt wearing dancers and drum-beating elders. Welcome to Ulukhaktok!
If you haven’t heard of Ulukhaktok, you’re not alone. If you have, it’s probably because you collect knives and are after a traditional ulu—for which the town is named—or you golf and want to check playing the world’s northernmost nine-hole course off you’re bucket list. This community of 482 inhabitants, 90% of them Inuit or Inuvialuit, is tucked into Queens Bay on Canada’s Victoria Island. The nearest Starbucks? Forget about it. Consider Ulukhaktok a northwest territories within the Northwest Territories.
When Crystal Serenity anchored in Queens Bay, it was no surprise. Ulukhaktok had been looking forward to this day for more than two years. It was the community’s first time hosting a cruise ship, and similarly, its first time being hosted by one. Within hours of arriving, Crystal Serenity welcomed more than 40 local Inuits on board. The elders, faces peeking out of their traditional Mother Hubbard parkas, arrived first, soon followed by teenagers toting large drums and children running through security to hug Tom Smith, Crystal Serenity’s Northwest Passage polar bear expert and a longtime resident of Ulukhaktok. One young woman had half of her head shaved like Rihanna’s. Despite sporting a trendy 21st hairstyle, she kept to her culture’s custom of carrying her baby on her back in a traditional wrap.
Once on board, the Ulukhaktok locals were happy to provide an interactive glimpse into their unique culture. The entertainment began with a drum-driven interpretive dance, The Day a Plane Flew Over, perfectly titled to describe Ulukhaktok’s isolated location. For both of the night’s performances it was standing room only in Galaxy Lounge. The only empty seats were found when freestyle dances were announced and the audience joined the dancers and drummers on stage.
The next morning, as Crystal guests, ferried ashore via zodiacs, explored Ulukhaktok, everyone was still talking about the dancing. “People in red parkas keep telling me I did a great job last night,” said a local teenage boy selling his mom’s artwork in the school gymnasium. “I wish I could take credit, but honestly, that was my cousin. We just look alike.” Nearby, his neighbors also sold their artwork—everything from moccasins featuring wolf hair trim to meticulously carved musk ox horns and beaded dream-catcher earrings.
One multitasking vendor chatted with Crystal shoppers as she embroidered a tiny purple flower onto a piece of white scrap cloth. She noticed them staring and stopped, mid-stitch. “You know those boots we were dancing in last night?” she asked them. “Each boot has at least two flowers.” That prompted a curious Crystal guest to ask her own question, “How long does it take you to make one flower?” The woman smiled before immediately resuming her needlework, “About a month.”
The quality and time invested in these one-of-a-kind souvenirs was reflected in the price tags. Hand-printed cards depicting Inuit life went for $15, soft-as-butter beaver skin mittens were $130, and for anyone with an extra $5,000 in their pocket, there was even a polar bear skin for sale. In addition to shopping in the school, Crystal guests explored the village, graciously greeted by locals anxious to show off their humble wooden Anglican church, welcoming community art center and simplistic prefab homes.
Despite a day filled with all of the above and area excursions including golfing, kayaking and helicopter tours, the only bear sighting was under the watchful eye of the closest thing you get to a TSA agent in Ulukhaktok. The sole employee at the blink-and-you-miss-it airport graciously let in one Crystal guest who heard a rumor about a mounted grolar bear stored a stone’s throw from the runway. Half polar bear half grizzly bear, the giant grolar was the closest thing to a mythical creature she’d ever seen.
“His stomach was filled with trash when they killed him,” said the local who gave the guest a lift to the airport on his ATV—the main mode of transportation in Ulukhaktok. “He tried to break into my parents’ cabin. Managed to unlock the porch door but wasn’t agile enough to get in the front door,” he recalled. Clearly, the bear was hungry, not a hard thing to be in a place like Ulukhaktok where food, even if you’re a skilled hunter, is hard to find. Fortunately for Crystal guests, the locals made sure they were well fed—from the moment they stepped off the zodiacs and were greeted at the beach with piping hot bannock (native frybread)—to the endless free samples of savory char chowder.
“No thanks, I can’t have seafood,” explained one Crystal guest, politely declining a bowl of char chowder. The local offering it to her raised her eyebrows and responded, “Well then you wouldn’t be able to live here.” The Crystal guest nodded. “That is true,” she said, “But as long as we can sail the Northwest Passage, I can always come back to visit.”
Keep following the Crystal Insider for Katie’s dispatches from the Northwest Passage, or subscribe to get the latest delivered directly to your inbox.
If the updates of these epic adventures spark your wanderlust, book your 2017 Northwest Passage journey now for the best value!