The fabled Northwest Passage that explorers sought for so long is regularly sailed by various ships today, depending on ice conditions. Shipping has expanded rapidly during the past decade as climate change has in turn changed ice conditions, opening the passage to ships, at least during the summer.
Ship entries to the Arctic reached over 1600 annually in 2018, including Greenland. This counts only separate ships; individual ships visiting more than once get counted only once. Among these, fishing boats are the largest group, mostly coming to Lancaster sound in the eastern Arctic. Research vessels and icebreakers were the next biggest group, with cargo ships and bulk carriers next, a significant number of those associated with the Mary River Iron Ore Mine near Pond Inlet. Oil and gas tankers are actually the smallest category, below cruise ships.
'Sealift' ships are a big and interesting category among the cargo ships. The government of Nunavut now operates 'sealift' through three private companies who ship all kinds of goods from southern ports. These include construction supplies, vehicles and fuel supply as the biggest non-perishable items. Most Arctic communities depend on community sized generators for electricity so a fuel supply is essential. Our son William spent a few years flying for Wasaya Air, the native owned airline in northern Ontario. Among other things he flew a plane fitted out to carry a cargo of fuel oil into isolated communities on the shoreline of Hudson's Bay/
But families also order all manner of dry goods from the south, racking up perhaps a $5000.00 grocery bill in one shopping trip! Many plan an annual holiday in a southern city and spend the first two days shopping, buying their entire annual food supply except for rare fresh fruit and veggies that may be flown in to the community store. Families also usually plan an annual hunting/fishing/gathering trip back to the land. The southern purchases come in large wooden crates, in which packing has to be planned carefully. Every year a number of new sheds pop up in the weeks following the sealift arrival. All the homes in Nunavut have huge pantry rooms to facilitate storing the year's food supplies!
Our other son Matthew told me about packing a crate full of chairs headed for the Arctic when he was working in a furniture factory. Everything had to be braced carefully and solidly in case of ships bouncing in the ocean, or the crate being dropped on the dock. Whereas they might typically hear back that furniture had been delivered successfully in 3 days or so, in this case they didn't hear for four months!
There were 73 cruise ships in 2019, a group of ships that can have major impacts on Arctic communities. Except for the Crystal Serenity trial cruise in 2016, these don't include any of those giant cruise ships you see further south, but smaller 'adventure cruise' style ships with perhaps 100 or even fewer passengers. Even then they can have a major impact on a small Arctic community, both positive and negative. Increasingly they do provide an outlet for Arctic crafts, bringing some welcome cash income, but they may only visit a community two or three times over the summer.
In fact, most of these cruise ships don't go very far into the Arctic. The small settlements on the outer side of Baffin Island, from Iqaluit north, are the most popular, because of course they are easy to get to. A handful of ships go into Lancaster Sound, at least to visit Pond Inlet, perhaps Arctic Bay, Beechey Island and Resolute. Beechey Island is where Franklin spent his first winter and three men died. The three graves are now a National Historic Site.
Examining two cruise ship maps lets us visit a few more of the communities in Arctic Canada.
It's only a few cruises that visit further south through the Northwest Passage, potentially stopping at Talleyoak, Gjoa Haven, Cambridge Bay and Kuglutuk.