Page last updated at 10:43 GMT, Monday, 25 October 2010 11:43 UK

Getting vital supplies to Canada's Arctic shores

View from the supply ship
View from the Hudson Bay Explorer looking north towards the Arctic Circle

By Rajesh Mirchandani
BBC News, Canada

The remote communities of north-west Canada depend on the cargo ships that regularly sail through Arctic waters to bring their supplies.

The Hudson Bay Explorer was no cruise ship.

It was a working tug, noisy and with a strong smell of diesel.

The broad deck was empty apart from a giant iron winch. A hefty steel cable was coiled around the drum and extended to a huge barge on the water behind us.

I could see nothing in all directions except the slate grey sea. It billowed and churned, tossing us from side to side.

That was laden with vehicles, construction equipment, even a metal shed.

And our job was to haul this cargo north to the remote communities along the tundra shoreline of Canada's Hudson Bay.

Cramped conditions

Two of us shared a tiny cabin. I took the top bunk.

Sleep was not forthcoming rolling around in that strange cubby hole to the din of the engines.

Cabin interior
The cabins are not spacious

It was windy and our shallow tug pitched and rolled with vigour. I had to wedge myself against the edge of the bunk to stop falling out.

Later my colleague Maxine braved a shower. I think it was more of a swim.

In the morning I went on deck, steeling myself against a chill wind.

I could see nothing in all directions except the slate grey sea. It billowed and churned, tossing us from side to side. I felt very insignificant.

Behind us the steel cable dipped into the water and clung on to the barge.

We ventured down to the galley. Do not call it a kitchen. This is the heart of the boat - the hearth, if you like.

Apart from their cabins, this is really the only place where the eight crew can relax. When they were not sleeping or keeping watch, they were here.


They were nearly all middle-aged men, nearly all 'Newfies' (from Newfoundland) or from Nova Scotia, two of Canada's east coast provinces.

Each year they leave their families behind and spend months at sea. It is a tough life that breeds distinct characters.

The boat's galley
A good cook is much prized onboard

Jerry the engineer proudly showed us his domain in the bowels of the boat. It was immaculate, every spanner in its place.

I am not sure if he was joking but he looked at my colleague Maxine and said how nice it was to have the scent of a woman on board.

Randy the cook interspersed his stories of hunting wild animals in the woods back home with telling us his best recipes for bread.

Each morning delicious fresh rolls would appear. We soon learned the cook is the most important person on a ship.

None of the crew said much to each other and some said not a word. I think they like the solitude of being at sea.

Tucked away on his bridge, Captain Richard Lambert whiled away the hours listening to country music.

He has been at sea for nearly 40 years and he thinks the tug and barge industry will soon disappear as melting polar ice will open up sea routes to bigger ships.

Ancient and modern

After two days, we arrived at the small Inuit community of Arviat.

Walking into town, we passed weathered wooden houses. Arviat seems a practical place rather than pretty: It can get to -40 Celsius in winter.

Buying scratch cards at the radio station
Arviat's local radio station is a popular venue at weekends

Ancient Inuit culture is well preserved here.

The local language Inuktitut is more widely spoken than English, even though the Queen is on the Canadian banknotes.

This is a place where the old and new mix.

People race around on all-terrain vehicles or quad bikes but many women wear traditional clothes: Long, brightly coloured tunics with extra big hoods in which they carried babies.

And there were a lot of babies. People do spend a lot of time indoors, after all.

There is not much work here and many depend on state handouts.

One woman showed me two baskets of groceries that cost three times what they would back home.

"How do you afford it?" I asked. She pointed down. "With the help of my children," she said: Child benefit payments.

Arviat, like most native towns in Canada's north, does not allow alcohol.

Trusting to luck

But everyone smokes and everyone, it seems, gambles.

The most popular spot on a Saturday afternoon is the foyer of the local radio station, where game cards are on sale.

A frenzied crowd gathers to buy them 20 at a time, in the hope of winning a few hundred dollars.

Map of the Northwest Passage

Later, there is even bigger prize money on offer when they play Inuit Bingo on the radio.

Jenny the radio announcer calls out the numbers in a lively mix of English and Inuktitut.

It was in Arviat that we said goodbye to our tug, the Hudson Bay Explorer.

It was heading further north. At this time of year there is something of a scramble to get as much cargo delivered as possible.

The sea will soon freeze over, bringing the shipping trade to a halt.

We hitched a lift back aboard a bigger tug with a younger crew but even better food.

It came courtesy of Christina, who introduced herself as "the crazy cook".

Her meals were mouth-watering, perhaps because of a secret spice blend she used quite liberally.

Despite our probing, she would not reveal the recipe.

She said she planned to market it one day. I said I thought it would sell well.

Two days later, as we disembarked, she gave me a sample to take home.

I have used it since but somehow it just does not taste the same as it did during that extraordinary voyage.

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