A Mississauga musician discovers a natural spirituality in his “church of the north.”
Words by Marshall Dane
Photography by Andrew Stewart
I clearly remember walking into a local pub in Mississauga for an open mic night where many of the local musicians hang out. As I walked in I could see my friend Tom Barlow pointing my way. He was suggesting me, out of a packed house of musicians, as a candidate to travel to the Arctic with Adventure Canada, together with the likes of Margaret Atwood, David Suzuki and Stuart McLean. This was a golden opportunity knocking.
A small family business based in Mississauga, Adventure Canada was founded in 1988 to bring travellers to the less-travelled areas of the world. Over the last 20 years, the company and their guests have discovered extraordinary landscapes, wildlife, culture, history, art and archeology in the remote places they’ve gone to.
I have been blessed to have been a member of the Adventure Canada family on four trips to the Arctic since 2007.
I grew up in st. Catharines, ontario and moved to Mississauga in 2001. I’ve lived my adult life manoeuvring my way through the music industry and wearing the many hats it requires. It’s a heads-down, barrel-your-waythrough, pay-attention-to-everything lifestyle. the only downtime is forced downtime—that is, getting from one place to the next—via plane rides, bus trips and traffic jams.
It was early august when I packed my suitcase, grabbed as many guitar picks as I could (along with a bunch of donated guitar strings) and launched into my first trip to the arctic. I was selected as the expedition’s musician and was part of a team of 15 resource staff, composed of historians, biologists, geologists, archaeologists, cultural specialists and artists—all arctic experts in their respective fields and full of passion and enthusiasm for the regions that we were about to explore.
Our journey would last 14 days and would take us from Kujjuuaq, Quebec to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, exploring the southern coast of Baffin Island before crossing the Davis strait over to northwest Greenland.
We boarded the three-hour flight bound for Kuujjuaq in northern Quebec, situated on the border of the tree line. all you could see out of the airplane window for the latter part of the journey was the rolling tundra.
When we arrive it’s minus five degrees. the wind is howling and my fellow travellers and I are taken aback by the dramatic change in environment. this landscape is so much more uninhabited than what I’m used to. the airport is tiny. our Inuit friends are here to greet and accommodate us with warm tea, coffee and bannock. these people are beautiful and different… spiritual.
It is here that we boarded what would be our home for the next two weeks: the M/S Explorer. We piled into Zodiacs and enjoyed the 10-minute cruise to the ship’s gangway—you could feel the excitement building. We were immediately welcomed aboard by the ship’s crew and then shown to our cabins. We had some time to explore our new onboard surroundings before having a formal introduction to the staff and passengers, all of whom would soon become the familiar faces of friends.
In the evening, we set sail for our next community: Kangirsuk, Nunavik.
When your environment is such that you have to respect it because your life depends on it, you really become one with nature. the Inuit have spent their lives depending on Mother Nature; respecting God. It’s like God and Mother Nature doing a dance, and there’s nobody to cut in. Both are so closely intertwined you feel it almost instantly when you see the mountains, the animals, the land and our fellow humans—brothers and sisters who have lived their lives in conjunction with this union.
The Inuit culture is one of kindness, sharing and community. often when walking through their small communities you are invited to share tea and “country food” (seal, whale, caribou). I was also happy and eager to share with them; adventure Canada recognizes the power of music and its ability to bridge the barriers of language and culture and bring people together. this is what I was able to bring to these communities, and it had a tremendous effect on my soul. Every gymnasium, town hall and soccer field I visited, I brought the gift of music with me—you could see everyone’s faces light up. Members of the communities would also join in, beating a traditional Inuit drum along to my acoustic guitar or returning the gift of music with a traditional song or with the magic of throat-singing. I was proud to be such an integral part of this experience, both for the communities and my fellow travellers. throughout our journey we visited several Inuit communities, including the famed art communities of Cape Dorset and Pangnirtung. We were fortunate to have John Houston, son of James Houston and Jolly atagoyuk as members of our team, who provided valuable first-hand insight into the remarkable artistic talents of the Inuit.
We also visited several spots known as a habitat for polar bears and walruses, and we were lucky enough to see both. It is a very powerful thing to be able to view these magnificent mammals in their own environment, and the ship was suddenly energized as we started crossing off items from our bucket list!
From here we spent a day at sea crossing the Davis strait to the colourful houses and gigantic icebergs of western Greenland. During our day in Ilulissat we were able to hike out along a boardwalk to majestic fields of ice, and later we enjoyed a soccer game and a traditional kayak demonstration in the town of Itilleq. Sadly, as we continued to make our way down south it also meant that our journey was coming to an end. During our last evening onboard we cruised down the 168-kilometre-long Kangerlussuaq Fjord, western Greenland’s longest and arguably most beautiful—it was a fitting end to such an incredible experience.
Sometimes I feel like the superficial world we create around us just distracts us from real emotions, real living, and finding what truly makes us happy. that can change.
When you break things down to their basics, when there isn’t a faster way to get somewhere, a quicker way to get something done, you resolve to thinking and working with what you’ve got. that’s how the Inuit have become so close to Mother Nature. their environment doesn’t allow for a faster boat or a bigger sUV. Instead, they wait patiently for the Earth and spirit world to come together, and when it’s time to move they use every ounce of instinct and knowledge of the environment, wasting nothing. this is the belief: respect the land and the sea— they are as powerful as they are beautiful.
I felt frustrated on my plane ride home… I didn’t really know why. as I sat down for my first meal at a chain restaurant in downtown toronto, I found myself tearing up. I missed that close-to-God feeling; that vision of beauty and simplicity that was Mother Nature every time I opened my eyes. I ordered my dinner and felt overwhelmed again as the overfilled plate came and all I kept thinking was, “What a waste.” How far removed has our culture come from what is really necessary? I love advancement and technology, that’s not the issue. the issue is our own ignorance of what values are important. Basic values; respect for life.
My trip to the arctic was a once-in-a-lifetime experience—that I’ve had four times. I plan on visiting this new-found home of mine for the rest of my life. It is my church of the north, a place I will go to rejuvenate my soul. the feeling of change and promise are what I carry home each time now, blessed that I can share what
I know with people that may never enjoy what it feels like to experience 78 degrees latitude.
Marshall Dane is a country singer-songwriter who resides in Mississauga. Check out his newest video here! Catch him at Roc’n Doc’s every tuesday night, and visit www.marshalldane.com to get his CD.
Editorial and photo contributions courtesy of adventure Canada’s Rebecca Burgum. www.adventurecanda.com.