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Polar attraction

Being on top of the world is raw and daunting, unpredictable and overwhelmingly beautiful

By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / February 8, 2009
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ABOARD THE AKADEMIK IOFFE IN THE CANADIAN HIGH ARCTIC - He was a cooperative walrus, but a strange one, lolling in the September sunshine on an ice floe in Croker Bay, somewhere around the 75th parallel. He seemed oblivious to the 60 humans in inflatable boats closing in on him. We were only about 20 yards away, close enough to distinguish his tusks (splayed outwards, a clue to his gender).

The engines were idling, the cameras clicking. Yet his only response was to test the water with a flipper and lean his head over the surface as though rehearsing an escape plan. Then he rearranged himself on the ice and kept on lolling.

I was thinking, is this creature stupid? Why wasn't he afraid? Somehow the 500-pound beast knew we were friends, not foes. And when we finally putt-putted away, the walrus picked up a flipper and waved to us. Really.

"He's saying goodbye," laughed Meeka Mike, one of two Inuit resource people on our trip.

I believed it. It was only day three of our 12-day High Arctic expedition cruise, but I had already learned that anything is possible at latitudes this high. Polar bears can step out of the distant snowy landscape and come charging toward you. That bumpy tundra just ahead can turn out to be a camouflaged herd of musk oxen. Vicious gales can brew up out of nowhere. And walruses wave goodbye.

"The Arctic is running this," cautioned Dutch Willmott, the Australian expedition leader, at the start of the trip. "This place is about snow. It's about ice. It's about wind."

It's also about discovering first-hand precisely where we humans fit on the food chain, which is to say pretty low down. It's a disorienting lesson for an urban "southerner" like me. Detached from the safety and reliability of city life, I encountered a nature unfamiliar. This wasn't New England-style going-for-a hike-in-the-woods nature, where some activewear and a solid pair of boots can meet most of your needs.

No, this was nature raw, combative, uncompromising, and unpredictable, where you dare not travel without guns and flares, where you feel dwarfed in the presence of massive aquamarine icebergs, where a walk on the tundra may turn up a few 1,000-year-old whalebones that once framed a house used by the Thule people, ancestors of today's Inuit.

It is a humbling window into the way of life of a people who survived punishing Arctic winters living in harmony with the land, their environment, and animals. And it convinced me that I wouldn't last a week here on my own.

The trip, organized by Adventure Canada, is one of a growing number of High Arctic cruises made possible in large part by global warming. "There are opportunities to visit a greater number of places than you would have before," said Cedar Swan, vice president of Adventure Canada, a 21-year-old Toronto-based company specializing in remote exploration. "You can go further north or west . . . and you're able to penetrate the Arctic deeper. And your wildlife sightings are probably a little greater because the animals are in a more concentrated area: There is less sea ice for them to survive on."

One of the most popular destinations is the Northwest Passage, that fabled, difficult-to-navigate sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific that claimed the lives of so many explorers. The emphasis of this expedition was on the route's landscape, wildlife, and history.

Nature this raw does not call to everyone. The Akademik Ioffe is not your typical destination ship. It's a converted 108-passenger Russian research vessel with a Russian captain and crew, and comfort not luxury. The meals were excellent, but there were no 24-hour food stations or midnight buffets.

The emphasis on this trip was pretty much all-Arctic, with Arctic books in the library, Arctic videos in the common room, and daily lectures about all things Arctic by specialists who included a marine biologist, anthropologist, geologist, historian, birder, and arts and culture specialist. At any time of day you might hear an announcement along the lines of: "Ladies and gentlemen, there is a walrus at 11 o'clock" or "We've got a herd of seals on the port side."

The 80 or so passengers shared a common affliction, referred to on the boat as "Arcticus Feverus." ("Where do you dogsled?" I overheard one passenger ask another the first day.)

Many had traveled to the Arctic and Antarctic multiple times (I had been to Nunavut once before) and it was a matter of pride that several had at one time or another been on the infamous Explorer, which sank in the Antarctic in 2007. One woman bragged that the book she had left in the Explorer library went down with the ship. She was trumped by Ken McGoogan, a Canadian historian and lecturer on the trip, and author of "Race to the Polar Sea" (Counterpoint, 2008), about 19th-century explorer Elisha Kent Kane. McGoogan had left one of his own books on the Explorer.

One of the first things I discovered is that when you travel to the Arctic it's hard to keep to a set schedule or route. The plan was to take a charter flight from Ottawa to Resolute Bay, stopping briefly at this small hamlet on Cornwallis Island in Nunavut, and one of Canada's most northern (and coldest) inhabited locations. Destination points were to include Beechey Island in Lancaster Sound, considered one of the most important sites in the Arctic because of its connection to the ill-fated expedition of Sir John Franklin, the English naval officer who led three Arctic expeditions. His expedition of 1845 over-wintered here before disappearing forever.

Our route also included wildlife-rich Devon Island, the largest uninhabited island in the world (21,000 square miles); Croker Bay enveloped by glaciers; the communities of Pond Inlet and Clyde River; and Grise Fiord in Jones Sound, North America's northernmost civilian settlement, with a population of 141.

For many passengers, the goal was to go as far north as possible, particulary those who wanted to see the ship exceed her previous highest latitude. Adventure Canada had proposed the Ioffe would "sail farther north than ever before" (77 degrees 42 minutes). McGoogan was eager to break 78 degrees 40 minutes, the latitude at which Kane, his research interest, had lassoed a monster iceberg to haul his brig against a powerful sea.

But it was not to be. Ice had formed in the sound, making Grise Fiord inaccessible. The crew decided to head north, but in the middle of the night the captain battled gale force winds of 50 knots. The ship was icing up, so we reversed course and had to settle for 77 degrees 30 minutes.

Disappointment eased quickly: There was so much else to appreciate. Even crew members accustomed to the journey appeared overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape: the icebergs, the jagged cliffs of Coburg Island, home to dense colonies of breeding seabirds, the undulating red-brown mountains on Devon Island. Early one morning I headed up to the bridge and was practically knocked aside by a sailor, who was racing to tell the captain about what he had seen. (I don't know what he saw because he was speaking Russian, but he was gesturing out the window animatedly with his binoculars, the universal sign for "I saw something big.")

It might have been the bowhead whales, or an endangered ivory gull, or a polar bear, or a herd of musk oxen; there were a lot of "holy cow" moments on the trip. For me, many of them took place off the boat, walking on the land and discovering just how close Nunavut is to its own history. (Nunavut is the newest, largest, and least populated of Canada's territories, separated officially from the Northwest Territories in 1999 and whose name means "Our Land" in Inuktitut, the Inuit language.) Because of the freezing temperatures, artifacts and archeological sites are amazingly well preserved, including remnants of Franklin's camp at Beechey Island.

"So many things are virtually unchanged," said Sheena Fraser McGoogan, an artist (and Ken McGoogan's wife) who ventures to the Arctic frequently because she paints polar landscapes. "When you're walking along and see a skull, the feeling is almost spiritual. Things are where they are meant to be in nature."

Another reason for this is that Nunavut has only recently leapfrogged from being a nomadic society to one with a more modern economy. It's still common to see women carrying their babies in the hoods of their parkas, known as amauti, or animal skins stretched across frames outside Inuit homes. It was an honor to travel on the ship with Meeka Mike and her father, Jamesie, one of the last generation of Inuit elders who lived in the era before assimilation. For much of his life, Jamesie, who speaks only Inuktitut, depended on dog teams for transportation and on hunting caribou to feed his family.

Mike, who was born in 1966, gave several riveting lectures about Inuit life, including a talk about the ambitious project she has spearheaded called Tusaqtuut: She is recording and documenting the traditional knowledge of Inuit elders in the South Baffin region, knowledge that is disappearing fast.

"My father constantly teaches me survival skills," said Mike, in a simple statement that spoke volumes about the compressed time frame in which change is coming to the Arctic. "This knowledge needs to get to the younger generation who are now living in a modern way."

Linda Matchan can be reached at l_matchan@globe.com.

If You Go

Adventure Canada is offering five Arctic expeditions in 2009; two of them navigate the Northwest Passage. Trips run August-October. Call 800-363-7566 or visit www.adventurecanada.com.

Cruise North Expeditions is an Inuit-owned company offering six Arctic expeditions between July and mid-September, including trips to the Northwest Passage. Call 866-263-3220 or visit www.cruisenorthexpeditions.com.

Quark Expeditions offers three Canadian Arctic voyages, including a Northwest Passage expedition, in August. Call 800-356-5699 or visit www.quarkexpeditions.com.

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