Cruising on an Arctic scale

By Rob McFarland

Polar bears, musk oxen and ice floes enthral Rob McFarland in the Arctic.

The Clipper Adventurer is luxurious inside, but also a Class A-1 icebreaker. Photo / Michelle Valberg
The Clipper Adventurer is luxurious inside, but also a Class A-1 icebreaker. Photo / Michelle Valberg

An announcement comes over the public address system that two polar bears are off the starboard bow. It's 7am. I stumble out of bed, bleary-eyed, and throw on some warm clothes. On deck, it's a clear, crisp day and everyone is peering over the side, cameras and binoculars at the ready.

Suddenly, there's a shout: "There they are." All eyes focus on two white heads in the water a few hundred metres away. It's a mother and her cub, clearly exhausted, desperately scanning the horizon for somewhere to rest. The captain tells us we're 190km from the nearest land. That's a 60-hour swim.

We see other polar bears during our trip - lone males trundling over ice floes while sniffing the air - but I'll never forget the heartbreaking sight of that mother and cub, struggling to survive in a rapidly changing environment.

Whatever the sceptics say, the Arctic is changing. It's getting warmer, the summer sea ice is getting thinner and areas that were once covered in snow and ice (materials that reflect the sun's heat) are being replaced by open water, which absorbs it.

The irony is that these changes are making it easier for expedition boats like the one I'm on to get up here. But there's a real sense that this is somewhere you don't want to wait too long to see.

Our adventure started four days earlier with a charter flight from Toronto to Kangerlussuaq, a small outpost on the coast of Greenland.

Our vessel, the Clipper Adventurer, is waiting in a fjord but before we board we spend several hours scouring the hills for musk ox, a prehistoric-looking beast with a shaggy coat that stretches to the ground. We find one grazing near a lake but when we approach, it gallops off at a pace that belies its 300kg size.

After being shuttled to the ship by Zodiac, I settle into my spacious cabin. It has two single beds, a large, picture-frame window and a compact but functional en suite.

The Clipper Adventurer is one of the most luxurious vessels to ply the Arctic waters and its public areas are elegant havens of polished wood and brass. But beneath the velvet tassels is a Class A-1 icebreaker with a reinforced hull, something we'll be glad of when we're nudging through sea ice later in the trip.

This is my first small-ship cruise and I find the intimacy one of its most appealing aspects. It's small enough that you can get to know who you want to but large enough that you can avoid the rest.

We set off down the fjord towards the sea, gliding smoothly past the glacier-carved mountains and into the first of many spectacular sunsets. It won't get dark for the next 11 days - every evening the sun will barely touch the horizon before it starts to rise again.

It's impossible to describe a typical day onboard because each turns out to be different. An itinerary is placed on the bed each night and the only thing of which you can be certain is that it will change during the day.

We're heading into one of the most inhospitable places on Earth and expedition leader Dave Freeze (a man destined to work in the Arctic if ever there was one) is careful to emphasise that plans will change to accommodate conditions.

It's exciting. It feels like a proper expedition, albeit with a decadent afternoon tea served at 3pm. (The food is delicious, plentiful and beautifully presented.)

The next day we wake in an eerie, mist-shrouded fjord on the Greenland coast and are ferried ashore to an abandoned Inuit summer fishing camp.

It's a photographer's dream - bright red shacks perched on rocky outcrops, fishing boats reflected in glass-still water, a kaleidoscope of copper, teal and bronze set against a moody backdrop of dark hills blanketed in mist.

Accompanying us is a team of 10 resource experts - specialists in topics ranging from geology to photography to search and rescue. On shore they lead small groups on interpretative tours and back onboard they deliver an extensive programme of lectures.

Having access to this expertise makes the trip. Without it, I'd have merrily walked over many seemingly random piles of stones not knowing that they were the foundations of a 500-year-old Inuit home.

Our route takes us along the coast of Greenland before we make a lumpy trip across the Davis Strait to Baffin Island in far north Canada.

Days are filled with Zodiac excursions, lectures and, of course, eating. There's a daily recap in the forward lounge each night before dinner, a nice touch where everyone gets together to hear about some of the day's highlights.

After dinner most people rug up and head back up on deck to marvel at the other-worldly scenery of icebergs and sea ice under the midnight Arctic sun. One night, a bottle of Baileys magically appears and we add it to steaming mugs of hot chocolate and huddle together like penguins.

Everyone's highlights of the trip are different. For some, it's the Zodiac ride among the icebergs calving off the glacier near Illulissat in Greenland.

For others it's the chance to glimpse polar bears, walruses, seals and bowhead whales in their natural habitat.

The birders rave about their visit to the nesting site of thick-billed murres on the soaring cliffs of Cape Hay; the adrenaline junkies boast about their polar dip in 1C water.

One man tells me it's been his life's ambition to visit the three graves from the ill-fated 1845 Franklin expedition on Beechey Island.

My most enduring memories are of visits to the Inuit communities that are scattered through this forbidding land. We hear performances of throat-singing, a mesmerising rhythmic back-and-forward chant performed by young women with babies strapped to their backs. We even see a spirited hip-hop dance routine performed by some teenagers with piercings and dyed hair.

In the 1200-strong community of Pond Inlet in North Baffin Island, we take on the locals in the annual Adventure Canada soccer challenge. Adventure Canada is the only tour operator (of the eight that visit the town each year) that organises something like this. The rest arrive, shop for souvenirs then leave.

The hall is packed, there are about 45 players on each side and it's impossible to hear the score over the cheering and shouting from both sides. Apparently, we lose and the team captain is presented with his trophy - a limp rubber chicken.

On shore, while waiting to board a Zodiac to the ship, I'm challenged to a game of hacky sack by three young boys. The rules seem to change constantly so I'm always last and have to endure some sort of penalty, much to their delight.

When it's time to go, I shake hands with each of them and they tell me their names.

"Will you be back next year," the cheekiest one asks.

"Maybe," I reply.

"Good," he says. "You'll need that long to practise."

The Northwest Passage

Few quests have captured the public's imagination like the search for the Northwest Passage, that elusive short-cut through the Arctic from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Dozens of expeditions scoured the area from the 17th-20th century, looking for this lucrative new trade route until finally Roald Amundsen found a way through in 1906.

Despite the enormous expense and loss of life that went into discovering it, the passage never became a usable shipping channel due to the pack ice that blocked it for most of the year. Ironically, climate change may well change all that. On August 21, 2007, the passage cleared enough for ships to pass through without the need for an icebreaker, the first time this had occurred since 1972. The same thing happened in 2008.

If experts are correct, the passage will continue to become more accessible and perhaps the sacrifices made by intrepid Victorian explorers such as Sir John Franklin won't have been in vain after all.

TRAVELLERS' TIPS

Getting there: United Airlines flies from Auckland to Toronto via Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Cruising: Adventure Canada specialises in small-group expedition cruises to Greenland and the Canadian Arctic.

The writer was a guest of Adventure Canada and United Airlines.

- Herald on Sunday

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