We spotted polar bears on Day 3. Not just one or two but about a dozen of the magnificent, snow white beasts meandering solo along the edge of the treeless tundra or, in one case, as a family of three marching in unison.
First Polar Bear Sighting
We were on a two week Adventure Canada expedition cruise along the fabled route of the Northwest Passage far north of the tree line and the Arctic Circle. Our 160 fellow passengers on the ice strengthened Ocean Endeavour were mostly veteran cruisers with a passion for adventure and a desire to experience a unique environment few people ever get to enjoy. It’s not a cruise for everyone since the Arctic is remote, cold and often windy with unpredictable ice patterns that could disrupt a sailing schedule for days. But the pleasures far outweigh the risks and every one of our fellow passengers, a mix of Canadians, Americans and Australians, loved the sense of adventure and history.
After a charter flight from Edmonton, we began our cruise in the western Nunavut community of Kugluktuk (formerly Coppermine). There are no docking facilities for cruise ships in the North so, like everywhere else on our route, we boarded Zodiacs for the transfer to the Ocean Endeavour. The ship carries 20 of these versatile rubber boats and they were ideal for sightseeing and landings. Built in 1981, the ship has had extensive refits and now boasts a spa, swimming pool and hot tub, a mud room for changing boots and clothes, an extensive library and three lounges for lectures and entertainment. The dining room is large and bright with a surprisingly good menu selection (including fresh Caribou, Arctic Char and Halibut from some ports). There are many room categories but all are comfortable with private shower or bath. Our room was generous in size, with two portholes. The ship is new to Adventure Canada and has a few small faults like too short shower curtains and no bar soap. Also the ship policy, unlike every other expedition cruise we’ve enjoyed, is to wake everyone up at the same time with an in-room announcement. This was resented by many since the first event or lecture could be a couple of hours away and, with a vigorous tour schedule on many days, guests were often tired. We hope Adventure Canada rethinks its policy.
Loading luggage onto Zodiacs for the cruise
Adventure Canada is well known for the quality of its naturalists and we were very impressed by the large staff of Arctic specialists who gave lectures and guided us at the various stops. Onboard we had a top Canadian geologist, a veteran archeologist with two dozen Arctic trips to her credit and specialists in birds, plants and marine mammals. In addition, there was a specialist in the history and geography of the Arctic and three Inuit residents of the area who made us feel very comfortable with their language, traditions and culture. One writer, Ken McGoogan, is the author of “Fatal Passage”, the definitive story of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated search for the Northwest Passage in the mid 1800s and the subsequent search and rescue attempts. He gave several lectures.
Deck BBQ among the ice bergs
On most days we boarded Zodiacs for a water tour or landings on a beach where we explored the rugged but surprisingly colorful tundra (one photography lecturer said the flora reminded him of a well-tended Japanese garden). We explored centuries-old ruins of the pre-Inuit culture and visited abandoned Hudson’s Bay Company stores or former depots used by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Two small Inuit communities, Gjoa Haven (named for the small boat Roald Amundsen used in 1906 to cross the elusive Northwest Passage for the first time) and iceberg-lined Grise Fiord (the northernmost community in Canada) welcomed us with town tours and lively displays of drumming, dancing, throat singing and unique Arctic athletic competitions. It was wonderful to mingle with friendly and generous people who have adapted so well to the harsh climate of the north, particularly in winter when much of Nunavut doesn’t see the sun for months on end. In the villages we sampled fried bannock and muktuk – boiled narwhal skin with a layer of fat.
Animal life is not as prevalent in the Arctic as in the Antarctic (where penguins abound in many places) but in addition to polar bears we saw seals, muskoxen, Arctic hares, Arctic foxes plus bowhead whales and beluga whales. In late summer there was still plenty of bird life, particular on the tall cliffs of Prince Leopold Island
Although there were lots of icebergs on the Canadian portion of the cruise, the truly spectacular bergs were seen after we crossed to western Greenland. Karrat Fjord, dotted with icebergs from nearly glaciers and surrounded by spectacular mountains was at its best on the sunny, warm (well, 40 degrees F.) day we visited. One woman from California said it was the most beautiful sight she’d ever seen in her life.
Spectacular ice bergs
Even more spectacular were the icebergs farther south at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Ilulissat Icefjord. The fastest (up to 40 yards a day) and most productive glacier in the Arctic, it calves huge icebergs into the fjord, most larger than apartment buildings or even city blocks. Many of them end up in the North Atlantic where they pose a danger to shipping. Experts believe the Titanic berg started its infamous journey here. On Zodiacs, we toured as close as we dared to these majestic towers of ice.
Getting up-close to the bergs
Even farther south in Greenland the climate moderates and we ended our cruise (before a charter flight to Toronto) by sailing 120 miles at night up the longest (and ice free) fjord in Greenland. Perhaps fitting for the last night, the heavens celebrated our excellent adventure with an amazing Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) display. The bright, cloud-like formations seemed to dance in the sky…a perfect ending to one of our best-ever cruise adventures
John and Sandra Nowlan are veteran cruisers, based in Halifax.
Their website is nowtravel.ca. The Adventure Canada cruise schedule can be found at www.adventurecanada.com.