Cruising the Arctic: The Northwest Passage and Greenland
By John and Sandra Nowlan
We spotted polar bears on day three: not just one or two but about a dozen of the magnificent snow-white beasts on solo treks along the edge of the treeless tundra.
These sightings came as we sailed far north of the Arctic Circle on a two-week Adventure Canada cruise following the fabled route of the Northwest Passage. It was early September, the ideal time for Arctic cruising, with plenty of sunlight and (usually) lots of open water. Temperatures averaged 5 to 10 degrees above freezing.
This isn’t a cruise for everyone — the Arctic is not only cold but also remote, and unpredictable ice patterns can disrupt a sailing schedule. But our 160 fellow passengers on the Ocean Endeavour were mostly veteran cruisers eager to experience a unique environment. Everyone aboard — a mix of Canadians, Americans and Australians — relished the sense of history and adventure.
Built in 1981, the Ocean Endeavour has undergone extensive refits and now boasts a spa, swimming pool and hot tub, a mud room — expect to change boots and clothes after returning from landings — an extensive library and three lounges for lectures and entertainment. The dining room is spacious and bright with a good menu selection, including fresh caribou, arctic char and halibut. All cabins are equipped with a private shower or bath.
Adventure Canada is renowned for its staff of naturalists, and we were impressed with the Arctic experts who served as lecturers and guides. A top Canadian geologist, a veteran archaeologist with two-dozen Arctic trips to her credit, and specialists in birds, plants and marine mammals joined us on board. Additionally, our shipmates included an authority on the history and geography of the Arctic, and three Inuit from Baffin Island who made us feel comfortable with the native language, traditions and culture. Writer Ken McGoogan, author of “Fatal Passage,” — the definitive story of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated search for the Northwest Passage in the mid-1800s — also gave several lectures.
Animal life is less prevalent in the Arctic than in the Antarctic, where penguins abound. Yet, in addition to polar bears, we saw seals, muskoxen, Arctic hares, Arctic foxes, plus bowhead whales and beluga whales. Even with summer waning, there was still plenty of bird life, particularly on the tall cliffs of Prince Leopold Island.
Zodiacs were used for water tours and landing on sand or pebble beaches to explore the rugged but surprisingly colorful tundra. (One photography lecturer said the flora reminded him of a well-tended Japanese garden.) We visited abandoned Hudson’s Bay Company stores and former Royal Canadian Mounted Police depots. We explored several millennia-old ruins of the pre-Inuit culture, where the staff archaeologist pointed out the clever use of stones and whalebone to form building frames. We also were graciously invited to two present-day Inuit communities: Gjoa Haven (named for the boat Roald Amundsen used to cross the elusive Northwest Passage for the first time in 1906) and iceberg-lined Grise Fiord (the northernmost community in Canada). Both welcomed us with lively performances, including drumming, dancing, throat singing and athletic competitions unique to the Arctic. We were delighted to mingle with the friendly and generous people who have adapted so well to the harsh Arctic climate, particularly in winter when much of the Nunavut territory doesn’t see the sun for months on end.
While we encountered lots of icebergs on the Canadian portion of the cruise, the truly spectacular ones appeared during the final four days, when we left Ellesmere Island in Canada and crossed the Nares Strait to western Greenland. Karrat Fjord, dotted with icebergs from nearby glaciers and surrounded by mountains, was dazzling on the sunny and warm (well, almost 45 degrees Fahrenheit) day we visited. The air was totally still, and in the distance we could hear rumbling like thunder as icebergs broke off from glaciers and crashed into the frigid water. Even more remarkable were the hundreds of giant icebergs farther south at the Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fastest moving glacier in the Arctic, it sheds huge bergs. Many are larger than apartment buildings or even city blocks, and they pose a danger to ships in the North Atlantic. Experts believe the Titanic iceberg started its infamous journey here. On Zodiacs, we toured as close as we dared to these majestic towers of ice.
Farther south in Greenland the climate becomes more moderate. We ended our cruise (before a charter flight to Toronto) with a 120-mile night sail up the longest (and ice-free) fjord in Greenland. We like to think that the amazing aurora borealis display that night was in celebration of our adventure. The bright, cloud-like formations seemed to dance in the sky — a perfect ending to one of our best-ever cruises.
Book your trip at the Adventure Canada official website