IQALUIT, Nunavut - When you look over the railing of your cruise ship directly into the piercing black eyes of a polar bear, it suddenly doesn't matter that the cruise has no chocolate buffet or that the swimming pool is used as storage space.
The bear doesn't care about chocolate buffets, either. Since there's scant chance you'll become his entree, probably he would rather the ship move on so he can get back to hunting ringed seal, his preferred meal.
It's hard to fathom, but common tourists like you and me now have access to the waters of Canada's Arctic region. Not long ago this was the exclusive territory of research vessels, summer supply ships, and Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers. Nunavut, the largest and newest territory of Canada, officially separated from the Northwest Territories in 1999. It was from its capital, Iqaluit, to Kuujjuag, Nunavik (the designation for the northern third of Quebec) that we cruised out of Frobisher Bay and around the Hudson Strait.
The Inuit, the native people of these two regions, saw opportunity and have opened their land to visitors. They have shared it for thousands of years with the polar bear, ringed seal, musk ox, caribou, narwhal, and the penguin-like thick-billed murre. Now they share it with us.
When American tourists began flying huge distances to experience penguin colonies and icebergs near Antarctica, the Inuit undoubtedly watched with amusement. "Why," they must have wondered, "would people fly 15-plus hours from Boston to the bottom of the planet to see birds waddle and experience 20-plus hours of daylight? Don't they know there's much more visible wildlife and exotic human interaction just a 5-hour flight away . . . along with all the ice and sunlight they could ever hope to see?"
So an Inuit group invested a 75 percent stake in its own company, Cruise North Expeditions. They staffed the ship with several Inuit youth, allowing a remarkable touchpoint to the local culture. They then put out the welcome mat at some of the planet's remotest communities, allowing us to observe their gifted artisans, hike among caribou, and trek across tundra where yours might be the first footsteps. Ever.
Back to the polar bear. My informal poll of fellow passengers reveals that on a scale of 1-to-10, a polar bear sighting is required for the cruise to be a 10.
So, on the second night of the voyage, five lucky travelers can award a 10. It's a chance sighting, but that's the magic of this voyage: Everything is chance. I'm one of the few who happens to be on the ship's bow around 9:30 p.m. (in foggy daylight), lured from watching Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" by the distinct crunching sound every time the ship hits a small iceberg.
"There's something on that ice!" says a fellow passenger on the starboard side of the bow. I race across the ship, narrowly clearing anchor chains and supply hatches (try that on Holland America), and there, not 100 feet away, is gorgeous Daddy Bear on a small iceberg. He spots us, perceives a threat as Nikons snap away, and dives into the frigid water.
We send word to the bridge, and the 122-passenger ship quickly slows to full stop (try that on Princess). The ship's PA system announces: "We have a polar bear sighting, 2 o'clock," referring to the bear's position in terms of a clock face, the bow being noon.
Those of us watching the bear swim between small icebergs try hard to point him out to passengers racing on deck from inside the ship. But for most it is too late; the bear has slipped into the fog and into shipboard legend.
Cruise North knows it's got special territory on its hands. Baffin Island, where we started and made two other inhabited port stops, is the third largest island on earth. The Russian-owned ship Cruise North charters can handle these unpredictable waters, filled with bears, seals, a fair amount of unpredictable weather, and yes, ice floes. The Lyuba Orlova, named for a long-dead Russian film vixen, is ice-reinforced. It cannot break out of serious pack ice but it can navigate through substantial amounts of drifting ice.
Below decks, the Orlova is comfortable enough with satisfactory food (including caribou steak on the day we actually see caribou). Cruise North's marketing materials make it clear that it's an expedition ship, not a luxury liner. Staterooms are all "outside," meaning everyone gets a porthole (on decks 4 and above, portholes open, which I found helpful for temperature control). Beds are twin and bolted in place. Many rooms have pop-down bunks allowing for a third or fourth guest, and all of them have clean, functional bathrooms.
Fellow travelers are the well-heeled or would-be academics; all seem to have explored the world. Open-seating dining exposes you to as many shipmates as you wish, but be prepared for conversation such as, "When we were in Myanmar . . .," or "During our second trip to Antarctica . . ." My sailing included American, Canadian, German, British, and French passengers.
The ship and your shipmates are not the reasons to sail Cruise North. The starkly beautiful scenery, the wildlife, and the chance to interact with a people who seem unsure they like being part of the global village are the reasons. Unlike Antarctica, humans live in Nunavut.
When you watch someone like Aisa Pirti, a young Inuit and Cruise North staffer, cross a shallow marsh and climb with unbelievable stealth among a glacial boulder field until he's almost face-to-face with an adult caribou, you know why you're there. Aisa tells me that despite an opportunity to study business in Montreal, he craves being home to join the men in hunting.
The Inuit don't always "get" southerner's ways. The meat of seals, bears, and whales can feed entire Inuit clans for months; why do they need supermarkets? Their homes have TVs and other technology; spotting their Ski-Doos sitting on the summertime dirt underscores their distance from the quaint imagery of the 1922 documentary "Nanook of the North," which is shown onboard.
Cruise North has a unique relationship with the locals. While the company offers a remarkable variety of itineraries, most include stops at Inuit villages. My itinerary stops at Kimmirut (population 433), where the village elder demonstrates how a seal is slaughtered (and offers tastings of its liver), and local youth demonstrate traditional games. Farther up the Hudson Strait, we visit famous Cape Dorset (or Kinngait, population 1,236), which calls itself "the capital of Inuit art" and where an astonishing 20 percent of the population are considered artists.
Inside the artist cooperative, a printmaker hardly looks up when 50 cruise passengers walk through the door. He's busy applying yellow and white inks to a relief of an owl, carved into a piece of old pool table slate. The cooperative's prints are expensive, well into the hundreds of dollars. Nearby rooms showcase green and white stone carvings of bears and inukshuk - lifelike figures of stone (the word means "in the image of man") erected by the Inuit and unique to the Canadian Arctic. None of it comes cheap, but many of the cruisers walk out with prints and sculptures.
There's no pier in Cape Dorset nor in any northern community. Every trip ashore, including initial embarkation, is made by Zodiac inflatable boat. Unlike most cruise ships, the Orlova doesn't have a water-level entry; rather it has a steep stairway down the outside of the ship to a metal platform. Passengers must be able to navigate these stairs on their own, even in stormy and rolling seas. Landing on the shores of remote islands is generally on a rocky beach, making waterproof clothing essential.
Most days include shore time, often in exceedingly remote spots: a morning on the Zodiacs cruising between the Lower Savage Islands, a day hiking through a zillion wildflowers over sponge-soft tundra in search of a magical herd of musk ox, or visiting Thule-era (circa 1000 BC) archeological ruins.
All of it is awesome, but there's no question what everyone truly hopes to see. Cruise North makes no promises despite the polar bear in the company logo. Luckily, Akpatok Island is on most itineraries - a favorite polar bear hangout. On the penultimate day of the trip, and despite rough seas, all passengers are treated to polar bear viewing from Zodiacs along the island's shore - including a mother and twin cubs. Flocks of murres dazzle us with their ability to fly straight into the water. And our Inuit pilot beams with pride as he shows us his land.
In such a moment you realize you are on a remarkable voyage into a region where tourism is mostly unheard of. And it's only a five-hour flight away. The polar bears are waiting.
Randall Shirley can be reached at Randall@randallshirley.com.