The Northwest Passage: From Greenland to the Bering Sea: August 2015
August 20 – September 12, 2015
A&K’s 2015 The Northwest Passage: From Greenland to the Bering Sea departed on August 20 and we will be providing daily cruise updates on the blog. Check back often under A&K’s Trip Logs.
An exquisite ice sculpture graced the welcome reception and art auction.
The opulant alter at Notre Dame basilica.
The Queen Elizabeth Hotel and Mary Queen of the World cathedral.
Today, we arrived in the city of Montreal, Quebec, Canada, to mark the beginning of an epic voyage, one that many of us had dreamed of doing for decades. Today, we would embark on A&K’s inaugural voyage through the Northwest Passage, which would sail the full extent of this legendary route.
We arrived safely on our respective flights at Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport and were met on arrival by our A&K representatives who escorted us to our downtown hotel, the historic Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth. A few of us arrived by train, which stopped conveniently at the central station just below the hotel. Before long, we had settled in, met with our hosts at the hospitality desk and had been fully briefed on our plans for the next day.
Since the day was still young, we had the opportunity to explore a bit of this French-speaking Canadian city. Some of us chose to do a short, one-hour guided walking tour near our hotel, which took us to Dorchester Square, Mary Queen of the World Cathedral and the famous RÉSO (an underground city), a network of some 20 miles of tunnels connecting the city. Thoroughly enjoying ourselves and the chance to experience the Quebecois way of life, many of us chose to extend our guided tour to three hours so that we could also visit the historic Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal), which also brought us to Victoria Square, Place d’Armes, St. Jacques Street and the breathtaking Notre-Dame Basilica.
In the evening, we gathered for a wonderful cocktail reception and welcome dinner at our hotel. Abercrombie & Kent USA President, Phil Otterson, welcomed one and all with an inspiring welcome toast and A&K’s Vice President of Expedition Cruising, Bob Simpson, gave us a quick briefing of our expedition schedule and plans for tomorrow. In addition, we had the opportunity meet with our adventurous travelling companions and also to see some authentic — and unbelievably beautiful — Inuit art and soapstone sculptures, which A&K had carefully procured from the Arctic’s most remote villages and communities. Bob shared this art would be on display on our ship as part A&K Philanthropy-sponsored silent auction, for which the proceeds would go back to these Arctic communities.
Following our delicious dinner, we prepared our bags for an early morning wake-up call and for tomorrow’s charter flight to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Sleep would not come easy with the excitement of what tomorrow and our long awaited voyage through the Northwest Passage will bring.
A lunch of Greenlandic cuisine at Roklubben.
Our excitement had us out of bed early, on our flight by the afternoon and arriving at 3:10 p.m. local time at Greenland’s feeder airport, Kangerlussuaq (the Big Fjord), formerly known as Søndre Strømfjord in Danish. Located at the head of its namesake fjord, Kangerlussuaq is home to Greenland’s most diverse terrestrial fauna, including muskoxen, caribou, peregrines and gyrfalcons.
During World War II, Kangerlussuaq was established by the U.S. military as Bluie West 8 and originally served as a staging post for aircraft flying across the Atlantic to Britain. It remained in use as one of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line radar bases and as a supply station for similar facilities elsewhere in Greenland. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the base lost most of its usefulness and the last USAF personnel left in 1992. Almost all of its present buildings were built during the American occupation of the base. Kangerlussuaq is now Greenland’s largest commercial airport and main air transport hub. The settlement’s economy and population of just over 500 are almost entirely dependent on the airport and tourist industry.
Upon arrival at the airport, we checked in first with our Expedition Team before heading to lunch at the Roklubben (Rowing Club), which overlooked one of Kangerlussuaq’s many lakes. It was a fantastic meal that featured Greenland shrimp, muskox and reindeer, and even locally brewed beer.
Back at the pier, tenders were waiting to carry us across the calm waters of the fjord to ‘Le Boreal,’ our luxurious expedition cruise ship and home for the next three weeks. We stepped aboard and were immediately welcomed by Captain Etienne Garcia and a glass of champagne. This would be an excellent voyage.
The rest of the day was spent learning our way around the ship, settling into our cabins and making new friends among our fellow passengers. We also participated in some essential formalities, the most important of which was a lifeboat drill mandated by international regulations. Our Expedition Leader, Aaron Russ, took the opportunity to give a quick briefing about the next day’s program. Before long, it was time for a nightcap and our first night of sleep aboard the remarkable ‘Le Boreal.’
An artisan at work
Cuddling up to a Greenland pup
A performance by the Sisimiut choir
A local demonstrates an expert kayak roll
Overnight, ‘Le Boreal’ crossed the Arctic Circle. Many of us gave in to the desire to sleep in this morning, our bodies craving rest following yesterday’s travels. But anyone lucky enough to be awake in the early morning would have seen a dramatic sunrise, especially on the starboard side of our ship, where the sun could be seen rising behind a skyline of jagged mountain peaks.
‘Le Boreal’ was closing on Sisimiut (Holsteinsborg) over breakfast and was soon moored alongside the dock. The sun was now shining brightly and warmly as we set out on foot or by bus to explore the town with our local guides. Sisimiut, which literally means “the people at the ox burrows,” has been inhabited for 4,500 years and is the second-largest town in Greenland, with a population of 6,000. It is the northernmost year-round ice-free port in Greenland. With a harbor packed with large and small fishing boats, it’s also a thriving and prosperous community.
The town itself is a jumble of small wooden houses painted in bright colors that looked particularly cheery in the sun. We were surprised to learn that several 18th-century buildings are still standing, among them the Gammelhuset (Old House) and the Bethel-kirken (Bethel Church) or Blå Kirke (Blue Church), the oldest surviving church in Greenland. The buildings were moved from the former site of the settlement at Ukiivik.
There was a new church perched on top of a rock outcrop that had been built in 1926 and updated in 1984. While it offered a good view, we found an even better one farther behind the town, where we were told that we could see the Arctic Circle! The entrance to the yard with the old church was decorated with an arch made of whale jawbones.
The 20th century saw industrialization come to Sisimiut through the construction of a shipping port and a fish-processing factory in 1924 — the first such factory in Greenland and still the biggest. The tradition of hunting seals from kayaks changed to fishing from boats. Today, fishing remains the primary occupation for Sisimiut, with the town a leading center of shrimp fishing and processing.
Without a doubt, the highlight of our visit was “Dog City,”‘ where the town’s population of about 1,000 huskies are kept. The adults are kept chained while pups are allowed to run free. The general rule is not to approach Greenland huskies without permission of the owners because they can be dangerous. These dogs, however, were far from fierce and had a tendency to roll onto their backs in the hope of a scratch and pat.
In the afternoon, and for something completely different, we were entertained by the local choir, which was a group of a dozen-strong acapella singers. Some of the women wore the traditional brightly colored and patterned costumes while the men donned white parkas, which made for some nice photos after the performance.
Next, we watched a demonstration of kayak rolling. The practice of staying upright in such a slender craft requires considerable skill, let alone being able to roll over in the water while remaining in the craft and then coming back upright with a thrust of the paddle. We were in awe, especially since this skill was being demonstrated in freezing waters!
Before dinner, we attended “On Expedition” for our formal introduction to A&K’s Expedition Team, who proudly claim to be the A Team in both Arctic and Antarctic cruising. Each man and woman, all 19 of them, introduced themselves and briefly described their role on board. Together, they represent dozens of years of experience of working at their various specialties in the polar regions.
Afterward, our Expedition Leader, Aaron Russ, gave a mandatory briefing on Zodiac landings and the guidelines for behavior ashore as mandated by the Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO). Aaron also gave us a summary of the next day’s activities, which was certainly something to look forward to!
The enormous Eqi Glacier
Enjoying a sunny BBQ on deck
Hiking the colorful tundra at Disko Bay
View of Disko Bay
‘Le Boreal’ cruised northwards this morning, following along the Greenland coast. As she did, we could not miss the continuous belt of ice that separated us from the shore, made up of small bergs, bergy bits and small fragments of ice — brash ice — which had calved from a larger glacier and were also flowing northward. It all looked very Arctic!
By breakfast time, ‘Le Boreal’ was actually among the ice, cruising slowly through an amazing and indescribable assortment of shapes. We were also being followed by a small flock of glaucous gulls and a few fulmars, the latter of which look more like gulls and were gliding rather than flapping their wings. The fulmars’ ability to sail around with hardly a wing beat was a telltale sign that they were indeed members of the petrel and albatross family of birds.
We were cruising through Disko Bay, an area that is not only scenic but of significance in the history of Greenland. The Norsemen who had settled the southwest corner of Greenland came up in summer to hunt walruses, seals and narwhals. The ivory culled from walrus tusks and narwhal horns as well as seal pelts were important for trading with Europe. Some time later, the Inuit moved down from the north and the climate deteriorated, choking Disko Bay with ice. The Norse retreated and eventually abandoned their Greenland settlements.
By late morning, we experienced the first of our enrichment lectures, beginning with A&K’s resident photo coach, Richard Harker. “Photography in the Arctic: What to Expect, How to Prepare and How to Set Up Your Camera” was the first of a series of lectures designed to help us make the most of our cameras and the many photographic opportunities we would find here in the Arctic.
Because the weather was fine and the scenery spectacular, we seized the chance to enjoy a barbecue lunch on deck. To accommodate everyone, lunch was taken in two shifts. The first group of guests would also make the first landing in the afternoon via Zodiac boats. And it was a magnificent day for both a landing and a Zodiac ride! Conditions were perfect with sun shining from a blue sky and no wind.
Soon enough, the Zodiacs were shuttling us ashore where we were free to wander on the green slopes. Our immediate impression brought to mind autumn colors. The slopes were well-vegetated with ground-hugging, diminutive “trees,” which were only an inch or two tall. Arctic willows were turning yellow and arctic birches were turning red, with both having the effect of a patchwork carpet.
The ground was firm, which made for very good walking conditions. In one direction, we could walk up a knoll for a good view over a bay to the Eqi Glacier with its 2.2-mile-wide snout on the other side. Frequent rumbles indicated that even now it was calving; several times, the fall of ice from the snout was sufficient to send a tidal wave to break on the beach below us! For the naturalists, the sight of a peregrine falcon was the highlight of the day.
There was a complete change of focus in the evening as we changed into our best clothes for the Captain’s Cocktail Party. Captain Garcia duly welcomed us and introduced some of his officers, showing us that we were in the best of hands. After the party and during a beautiful dinner, we were in constant awe of the view from the restaurant’s windows; a myriad of icebergs flowed in a glassy sea under silvery evening light. Truly the Arctic does not come much better. Or does it? We looked forward to more beauty and adventure in the days ahead.
Knud Rasmussen Museum
Tupilaqs, among the most highly prized of Inuit art
Locally made beadwork
A fisherman cleaning his catch
Ilulissat (Icebergs) lies about 220 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Formerly called Jacobshavn, it was established as a trading post by Jacob Severin in 1741. It’s also the third largest settlement in Greenland with a population of 4,530 people — and about the same number of sled dogs or huskies.
This was a day of activity, both on land and at sea. We wandered around the bustling town, visited its gift shops, made some essential purchases and were bussed to the start of a walk across the tundra. It was a short, easy hike, offering an easier trip on the boardwalk to those who wanted something less strenuous. In both cases, our destination was the wonderful iceberg-choked, enormous Ilullisat (formerly Jacobshavn) Icefjord.
Flowing off the Greenland icecap, the glacier lies at the head of the 43-mile-long fjord and travels at an enormous speed for a glacier — an average speed of 7.83 miles per year, as measured in 2003 (a rise from 4.16 miles per year in 1985). About 20 billion tons of ice are calved off every year. The ice, in turn, flows in the form of icebergs down the fjord and into the sea.
This marvelous place was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2004 for the glaciological and scenic interest of the ice. But it is also the site of a Thule Inuit settlement and we had the opportunity to see the sod houses amid the settlement’s ruins.
We also went out in boats from ‘Le Boreal’ to cruise among the icebergs that had floated out from the icefjord. What a spectacle! The shapes of bergs showed ravines where melt water had flowed down the glacier as well as caves, which were the remains of meltwater rivers that had flowed under the ice. A two-hour cruise gave us plenty of time to fully absorb the scenery. Luckily, the blazing sun and a lack of wind meant that we could follow our cruise with some relaxing time out on deck.
A stunning view of fin whales
‘Le Boreal’s’ deck crew
Karat Island landing
A phenomenal view
Bear guards practice
The morning started with Larry Hobbs, our marine biologist, presenting a lively lecture on “Whales of the Arctic Seas,” which reflected his lifetime study of whales in the wild. We were enthralled with his stories of whale behavior, which he brought to life with sound and video clips. We recalled seeing a humpback whale off the coast of Ilulissat and hoped to see many more, especially Arctic specialists like the bowhead, narwhal and beluga.
The weather was still brilliant and Captain Garcia made sure to call us on deck to show us the ice-laden scenert. Soon after, we gathered in the theater for our second lecture, Richard Harker’s “Beyond the Basics: Taking Charge of Your Camera.”
‘Le Boreal’ was continuing up the steep-sided fjords, which gave geologist Ralph Eshelman the chance to point out interesting features over the PA system. Shaped by glacial action, these fjords now featured beautiful geology where ice has retreated. Ralph pointed out how the lower levels of the cliffs are rounded and smooth, while the upper parts are sharp and jagged because of their position above the level of the glaciers.
As an incredible diversion, three fin whales put in an appearance and Captain Garcia stopped the ship so we could observe them. Larry took over the PA system to point out the unique asymmetric coloration and behavior of these beautiful creatures, who kept to the same spot while diving for plankton and small fish.
It was time for lunch and a slightly delayed landing on Karrat ø, which was magnificent! We landed at a small cove with easy access to a slope up a hillside. The sun was shining from a cloudless sky and there was not a breath of wind. The weather was so good, in fact, that many of us were happy to simply sit in the sun and gaze across the fjord at the cliffs and glaciers beyond the berg-studded water.
Our attention was drawn to about a dozen square grassy mounds, which were the remains of sod houses constructed by the Thule Inuit some 500 to 1000 years ago (it is impossible to be sure since none of the houses have been excavated). We could see that they consisted of a square hole in the ground with raised walls composed of soil mixed with rocks. Rafters of driftwood or whale bones would have supported a roof of walrus and seal hides, all of which would make for a cozy house for a family in winter. The door faced south in order to catch the first rays of the returning sun. Once spring had arrived, the family would have commenced their summer wandering around their hunting ground and living in tents. There were also three small cemeteries in which the graves were marked with crosses. Our experts were unable to say why so many people should have been buried here in Christian times (17th century or later), when there was no record of a settlement here.
It was a fantastic day and this region, famous for having the best weather in Greenland, certainly lived up to its reputation!
Coming ashore on a Zodiac
A look at Greenlandic life in the museum
Artwork displayed at the museum
A local artisan displays his craft
Rather surprisingly, after the last couple of days, it started cloud, but eventually the sun poked through and we had another sunny day. We were now at Upernavik, the world’s most northern town. Before we went ashore, we gathered in the lecture theatre for a short introduction to the town by local resident Beathe (pronounced Bee-arter). She told us that Upernavik was founded in 1772 and means ‘Summer Place’. The Greenlandic population used to be nomadic and people had ‘summer’,’winter’ and ‘autumn’ homes. The summer homes were where they hunted whales, seals and fish, and in autumn they would build their winter houses. The region (commune), which is the same length as Denmark (450 km) from north to south, has nine settlements with a total population of 1673, of which 1169 live in Upernavik itself. Fishing and hunting are still important but quotas make it more difficult. However, the old system of sharing the catch among the community, so that for instance old people received a portion, has broken down because fewer men hunt and there are other forms of income. Until the 1980s hunting was the most important source of income but nowadays the main industry is fishing for halibut.
In 1999 an airport was built behind the town and it is the highest airport in Greenland. There is a school but for higher education children go to southern Greenland. There is a hospital with two doctors and three nurses plus some Greenlandic helpers. Finally, Beathe warned us that the dogs were working animals and should not be petted!
Armed with this insight into Upernavik, we took the short Zodiac ride to the harbour and walked into town. There were shops to visit which included craft workshops but the main destination was about a kilometre along the main road to the museum.
It proved to be an excellent museum of Greenlandic life with knowledgeable staff on hand to explain. There were examples of kayaks, umiaks (the so-called ‘women’s boats’ that could carry families and cargo) sleds, clothing and hunting equipment. Sealskins and narwhal horns were products of the hunt. Outside there were two huge iron pots, upside down, which had once been used for trying-out (extracting) oil from whale and seal blubber, and also a replica of the kind of sod house, which we had seen yesterday at Karratt Island. Next to the museum was the original church and the cemetery reached by a flight of steps attracted attention because of the elaborately decorated graves.
Eventually, a stream of red parkas headed back along the road, many bearing plastic bags with their purchases.
The afternoon was lecture time as Le Boreal headed across the calm seas of iceberg-studded Baffin Bay towards Canada. Margaret Bertulli, our Canadian archaeologist, gave a presentation on ‘Canadian Arctic Cultures in the Recent Past’. Although the culture of Greenland is rather different, our visits ashore were a help in appreciating what Margaret told us of the different groups of inhabitants living in Arctic Canada, each having its own dialect. We learned something of their way of life and history, including the misguided policy of relocating people to further government sovreignty. Margaret concluded with some video footage of the weird but wonderful ‘throat-singing’ that we may experience later in the cruise. Margaret was followed by historian Bob Burton on ‘Discovering Arctic America’. He traced the beginning of the spread of alien European culture into this part of the Arctic. The story started with the Viking settlements in southern Greenland and continued with the attempts, mainly by the English and Dutch, to find a short cut over the top of the world to the markets of Cathay and India.
Lecturer Mike Beedel
Welcome to Pond Inlet
The lighting of the qudlik
Demostration of various kicks
We set our clocks back two hours last night and enjoyed an extra long morning in bed! By breakfast time, we were sailing up Eclipse Sound, a long, narrow passage between Bylot Island and Baffin Island, and heading towards the community of Pond Inlet (Mittimatalik). Three miles to the east sat Pond’s Bay, which was named by Royal Naval officer John Ross in honor of John Ponds, the Astronomer Royal. The name was later transferred to the settlement.
Following our leisurely morning, we looked forward to three presentations from our Expedition Team. Mike Beedell, our Northwest Passage exploration expert, gave a presentation, “Exploring Bylot Island: The Jewell of Sirmilik National Park,” and revealed a beautifully illustrated and enthusiastic account of his travels by ski, dog sledge and kayak in Sermilik National Park. He was followed by marine biologist Larry Hobbs who was similarly enthusiastic in his talk, “Polar Bears: The Bear Essentials.” Larry described the private life of this iconic Arctic species and shared anecdotes from his own observations and research. The third presentation was something completely different. Mike Stevens, known on-board as “Harmonica Mike,” not only gave a demonstration of the secrets of the harmonica, but also distributed instruments among the audience for an introductory group lesson. Time only will tell whether there were any budding virtuosi in the audience!
By the afternoon, we had reached Canadian territory. We finished lunch, were checked by Canadian immigration and customs officials, and then it was only a short, rolling Zodiac ride to the shore, where our local guides were waiting for us. We took the opportunity to walk around the dirt roads of this scattered community, visiting its stores, talking to the friendly locals and photographing their absolutely charming children. We were also warmly welcomed with dancing and singing performances, which included a duet performed by two women demonstrating the region’s bizarre and intriguing throat-singing tradition. At a little visitor center, where we removed our boots or covered them with plastic bags to protect the carpet, we discovered a delightful diorama of a camp, which showed a woman lighting a Coleman stove with a baby on her back, a man skinning a seal, hunting gear, and a sled and dogs. The center also had a few books, carvings and DVDs for sale. Nearby, we looked forward to an invitation to partake of tea and bannocks prepared over an open fire of Arctic heather.
Musk ox watchers
Croker Bay glacier
Overnight, ‘Le Boreal’ sailed northwards up Navy Board Inlet and across the broad waters of Lancaster Sound, the entrance to the legendary Northwest Passage. Named after Sir James Lancaster, the entrance has been spotted as early as 1616 by William Baffin, though he thought it was a bay. So did James Ross in 1818. But it was Edward Parry who first penetrated the Sound in 1819, getting as far as Melville Island and establishing it as the main route westward.
We were excited for a day of expedition, with plans to land in the morning on the tundra on Devon Island, said to be the largest uninhabited island in the world. We would ride Zodiacs ashore in two groups in order to get the best experience of the place, with the Amundsen group landing first and then the Nansen group.
We were now in Polar Bear Country. Our bear guards, armed with flare pistols and rifles, were sent ashore first to ensure a safe perimeter. They had already scanned the countryside from a high point on the ship, which allowed them to zero in on strategic positions that would offer the best views of approaching bears, with plenty of time to allow for a safe retreat to the Zodiacs.
While it was another calm day with blue skies on the horizon, an obstinate layer of cloud insisted on hanging over us. Nothing about it would delay our plans, and so we went ashore to see what might be of interest. Looking over the broad waters of Croker Bay to the rectangular, flat-topped cliffs that are a feature of this part of the Arctic and to the two-wide, tidewater glaciers at it head, we were instantly enamored with the scenery alone.
On land we found some damp, rather boggy ground surrounded by dry tundra. Despite the lateness of the season, there were a few flowering plants, including purple and other saxifrages, campion, bistort and poppy. Clumps of muskox dung and scattered bones got us all excited, until our eyes landed on the real animals: a small herd of two cows and four juveniles under the cliffs at the back of the low ground. We approached cautiously and were able to get near enough for a good look through binoculars at these Ice-Age-like animals, crowned by their huge horns and dressed in wild straggling hair. The muskox were endlessly impressive, not just for their amazing ox-like appearance, but for the fact that they also survive on scant tundra vegetation through severe Arctic winters.
We returned to ‘Le Boreal’ and later set out n a second Zodiac cruise, this time along the front of one of the glaciers. We bundled up since it can get quite cold over the course of an hour on a Zodiac, but the chill was well worth the close views of the glacier. Its shapes and colors were magnificent as was the extra bonus of seeing ringed seals in the water. The Expedition Team also surprised us with glasses of champagne to toast our location, which was the farthest north we had travelled yet. Many of us shared our libation with the water, pouring it into the sea to encourage Mother Nature to send us further excitements.
And it worked! Not long after we had returned to ‘Le Boreal’ and began cruising along the coast, the captain announced the sighting of two polar bears. He could not bring us too close because of uncharted waters, but it was possible to discern their white bodies against the bare ground. Later, two more were spotted, this time a mother and cub.
Polar bear at first light
Archeologist Margaret Bertulli gives commentary at the gravesite of some of the Franklin Expedition deceased at Beechy Island
Historian Bob Burton leads a toast in memory of the departed
Prince Leopold Island
A very early morning call from the captain had us on deck to see two more polar bears on the shore. They were at the water’s edge and ‘Le Boreal’ was able to cruise closer for a much better look. Both bears were males, though the smaller bear was definitely made nervous by the larger bear. It took to the water and swam past the bow.
This excitement delayed our landing on Beechey Island. We did eventually land and find ourselves before the island’s four graves, tragic reminders of the first winter that Sir John Franklin and his men spent here from 1845 to 1846. Petty Officer John Torrington, from the ship ‘Terror,’ was the first to die, on January 1, 1846. Able Seaman John Hartnell (‘Erebus’) and Private William Braine (‘Erebus’) died over the next few days. The fourth grave is that of Thomas Morgan, who ad sailed on the ‘Investigator’ during McClure’s search expedition. Morgan died in May 1854.
There is an indication of a fifth grave, nearest the beach, but it is probable that it is a dummy grave serving as a memorial to Rene Bellot. Headstones for the graves are wooden replicas, with brass plaques providing information on the occupant. The originals are in a museum in Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories. The bodies of Torrington and Braine were exhumed in 1987, and examined for signs of lead poisoning, in an effort to determine whether the lead might have caused or contributed to their deaths. Elevated levels of lead were found in both bodies, and Torrington appeared to have signs of tuberculosis, which might have caused his death. Their bodies were returned to the permafrost graves. It was believed that lead poisoning was caused by lead soldering in the food cans, which contaminated the food and created the high levels in their bodies.
Franklin’s wintering at Beechey Island was discovered in 1850, and the island was used later as a base for Belcher’s expedition.
As we came ashore, historian Bob Burton tried to describe the mental state of the men — and that of their families — who suffered and died on expeditions that might be trapped in the Arctic for years, and proposed a toast in their memory. Archaeologist Margaret Bertulli then gave detailed accounts of the relics.
From the graves, we walked along the shore about a mile and a half to the ruins of Northumberland House. Built in 1852 by John Pullen of the ‘North Star,’ Northumberland House was the store ship of the Belcher Expedition (1853-54) that had been sent out in search of Franklin’s expedition. It was intended as a refuge in the event that Franklin might return to Beechey Island and later served as a depot for other expeditions. There is little remaining of the house now, merely some low walls and posts, piles of coal, broken parts of barrels and barrel hoops, and rusty tins that used to contain food provisions. There is a memorial to Franklin’s expedition, a plaque commemorating Lt. René Bellot of the French Navy who drowned in 1853, as well as several other plaques and mementoes from other visits. Captain Garcia added a tube containing the guest and crew lists of ‘Le Boreal.’
Beechey Island is probably the most sacred place in all of the Arctic. Franklin set out on this expedition — his third Arctic expedition — when he was 59 years old. His ships, ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror,’ were the first sailing ships in the Arctic equipped with auxiliary screws and engines. From notes found in a cairn in 1859, the expedition wintered at Beechey Island from 1846 to 1847 and abandoned the ships on May 24, 1847, in hopes of making their way over the ice to the mainland and to rescue. The notes said that Franklin had already died, but does not say what happened to the body nor where it was buried. Eventually, all 129 men died. Thirty-two expeditions were involved in searches, from 1847 to 1859. Finally, from 1857 to 1859, Francis M’Clintock found conclusive evidence of the fate of the ships and the men.
Our visit to Northumberland House was enlivened by the appearance of a gyrfalcon. Two had been seen earlier circling over the ship and one had landed on a post in the ruins of the house, taking no notice as we captured hundreds of photos.
While ‘Le Boreal’ was moving to Prince Leopold Island, ornithologist Patri Silva gave a presentation on “Seabirds of the High Arctic,” describing the species and their habits. By now the sun had come out and the sea was a flat calm. Which meant conditions were perfect for a Zodiac cruise under the high, vertical cliffs of Prince Leopold Island. This provided us an opportunity to make use of Patri’s teachings, as we discovered the cliffs are the nesting place of thousands of seabirds, especially thick-billed murres, kittiwakes, glaucous gulls and fulmars. The guillemots jostle in ranks on ledges, building no nests, but the kittiwakes build substantial nests to hold their eggs. Watching the small flocks of guillemots with their white breasts twinkling in the sun against the dark rock face was a truly wonderful sight.
A distant bowhead whale is spotted
Hudson Bay Company
Inside the HBC building
Polar bears were spotted
Half-way there, but past the critical point. A&K making history with ‘Le Boreal’s’ first transit of the Northwest Passage.
Another beautiful sunrise heralded another fascinating day in the Northwest Passage. ‘Le Boreal’ was en route to Fort Ross, an uninhabited, abandoned trading post on the southeastern tip of Somerset Island, when we found ourselves temporarily diverted: a bowhead whale had been spotted lazily diving and surfacing. Captain Garcia stopped the ship so that we might take in the marvelous view in calm water.
Founded in 1937, Fort Ross was the last trading post to be established by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), the fur-trading company that at one time virtually ran northern Canada. It was a center where trappers brought their fox pelts, which had been collected during the winter months when Arctic foxes carry their luxurious white coat. In exchange, the trappers bought food, equipment and household necessities. The post closed in 1948 due to severe ice conditions that made it too difficult and, thus, expensive to access. Two wooden buildings remain; one is a windowless shell, the other has been refurbished with bunks, a stove and furniture for passing researchers and boat crews.
We were able to wander around the buildings, trying to imagine what life was like in such a barren place, and then hike up a low hill to get a good view of the surrounding country.
After lunch, we sailed through the Bellot Strait, a 12-mile dead straight channel, similar to a large canal, that was 0.6 miles-wide at its narrowest point. It was found by Canadian William Kennedy of the ketch ‘Prince Albert,’ during the second of the private expeditions sent out by Lady Franklin to find her husband. (The first traverse by HBC schooner ‘Aklavik’ was not until 1937.)
The Bellot Strait has long been considered the critical point for successfully transiting the full Northwest Passage. And as we exited the strait, our team had the reasonable confidence that A&K’s voyage on ‘Le Boreal’ would be joining an elite league of expeditions that have also done so. ‘Le Boreal’s’ officers and staff signed an A&K flag to commemorate the moment.
Later, we all looked forward to a lecture by archaeologist Margaret Bertulli on “Sir John Franklin and the Northwest Passage.” Margaret introduced us to the explorer, who had conducted two overland expeditions in northern Canada before setting out on his fated attempt to traverse the Northwest Passage. She traced the discovery of artifacts and bodies from the fatal struggle to reach safety and showed a video clip of the newly discovered hull of HMS ‘Erebus,’ only just found in September 2014.
As a good example of the flexibility and excitement of expedition cruising, there was an unexpected adventure. Members of the Expedition Team out scouting on a Zodiac reported several polar bears in nearby CoBay. Zodiac cruises for the group were quickly organized, and off we went on a long and choppy — but so very worthwhile — ride toward CoBay. There were at least 14 bears! This included a mother with cubs, who doted around further inland and then came down to the shore, allowing us a better look. But what made the sight so memorable was upwards of 50 white whales (belugas) gathered in the shallow water of a lagoon, likely there to scrape their skins against the seabed as part of the process of molting. There were also a few dead whales in the shallows, which explained why the bears looked so fat. We even saw a bear trying to catch a whale that had come too close to shore, which allowed the bear to wade around and block the whale’s retreat.
Into the sea ice
Patricia Silva’s art workshop
Mother and cub spotted
Polar bears on ice at Larsen Sound
The polar bear sightings were unbelievable
‘Le Boreal’ gift shop
We awoke to find ‘Le Boreal’ moving slowly through a thick fog in the M’Clintock Channel. Located between Prince of Wales Island and Victoria Island, the channel is so named for Francis Leopold M’Clintock, who discovered key evidence surrounding the fate of the Franklin Expedition. The captain informed us that there was sea ice in the vicinity, and that he would approach when visibility improved.
Today would be an expedition day in which our crew would search for interesting things to see while we continued our onboard lecture program.
Eventually the fog did lift and ‘Le Boreal’ closed in on a large sheet of ice. And on that ice was a polar bear with a well-grown cub, estimated by our naturalists to be about three-and-half-years old. The cub kept very close to its mother, even as their curiosity brought them nearer to the ship. Did they smell breakfast cooking? Amazingly they came within about 50 yards of the ship and the clicking of shutters confirmed a most incredible wildlife photo opportunity. Like the bears we saw yesterday, these bears were clearly well fed, which meant they both had a good chance of surviving the approaching winter.
This experience rather disrupted the morning, especially ornithologist Patri’s introduction to “Art at Sea and Ashore,” a program of art and drawing. She gave tips for doing some sketching ashore and then furthering those sketches with watercolors—something we would get to practice in workshops throughout the rest of our expedition. Mike Stevens followed with the second of his harmonica lessons, this time focusing on the blues.
By the afternoon, we had moved through Larsen Sound, named for Henry Larsen, the commander of the ‘St. Roch,’ a Royal Canadian Mounted Police schooner that completed the second transit of the Northwest Passage in 1940-1942. From the sound we sailed into James Ross Strait, named for British explorer James Clark Ross who made the first visit to the North Magnetic Pole.
Geologist Ralph Eshelman led our afternoon lecture, “Subduction Leads to Orogeny: Heat Makes the Crust Go Round,” which introduced the audience to the science of plate tectonics. Ralph explained the movement of continents over long periods of time and how the world has come to be in its present configuration. Next, our A&K historian, Bob Burton, presented “The Search for the Northwest Passage.” He shared that several British naval expeditions had tried to force a way through the ice-choked straits of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The disappearance of the Franklin Expedition led to a plethora of search expeditions, which ultimately charted much of this area. But it was Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen who was finally credited with completing the passage between 1903 and 1906.
Gjoa Haven Museum
Soap stone sculpture
Friendly Gjoa Haven resident
Winter sports demo
What should have been an early start developed into a leisurely landing because the people of Gjoa Haven (Uqsuaqtuuq) were on a different time zone! We were also on the first cruise ship to visit this small settlement in three years, making us the lucky recipients of a very warm greeting and first-class entertainment.
Pronounced “Joe Haven” by the Canadians, the settlement is named for ‘Gjøa,’ Norwegian Raold Amundsen’s small fishing boat, which completed the first successful crossing of the Northwest Passage between 1903 and 1906. Its small size allowed it to navigate the “shore lead,” the strip of open water that is often found close to land. Amundsen spent nearly two years at Gjoa Haven, which he described as the best small boat harbor in the world. During his time there, he carried out extensive research on the earth’s magnetism because the North Magnetic Pole was less than 100 miles away. He also recorded the habits and customs of the Netsilik Eskimos.
The sun came out and it was almost too hot in our bulky clothing as we walked around the settlement. Our plan was to explore three destinations: the Northern store, which housed the post office; the Nattilik Heritage Centre; and the Cultural Centre. At the Heritage Centre, we — along with what seemed to be most of the local population — were treated to a magnificent display of singing and dancing (the latter of which showed a strong Scottish influence!). The Cultural Centre housed a small but excellent museum showing off regional carvings and traditional hunting and camping equipment.
The settlement’s name — Uqsuaqtuuq — means “the place with plenty of fat,” a reference to the fattened fish in nearby waters. Outside the Cultural Centre, two women in customary clothing had set up sealskin tents and were preparing food over blubber stoves. One of the women offered us slices of dried char (an Arctic salmon) to sample.
During the afternoon, we sailed through the slender passage of Simpson Strait, which was 40-miles long and 2-miles wide at its narrowest. While it is certainly wide enough for ‘Le Boreal,’ the crew still needed to carefully navigate the strait in order to follow the channel through the shallows. The strait is named for Thomas Simpson who was sent in 1836 by the Hudson’s Bay Company to survey the northern shores of Canada.
Inside ‘Le Boreal’s’ theater, the Expedition Team provided more compelling presentations, beginning with researcher and naturalist Brent Houston’s “Arctic Sea Ice and Pack Ice as Wildlife Habitat.” Northwest Passage exploration expert and adventurer Mike Beedell followed with “In the Footsteps of Legends.” Mike told us about his 1,850-mile dogsled journey retracing the route of Qitdlarssuaq, a famous Inuit shaman, across the top of Canada and Greenland.
The day ended with some fun and lighthearted entertainment, courtesy of the Expedition Team. Inspired by the popular American TV program, “The Liars’ Club,” and the U.K.’s “Call my Bluff,” each member of the team gave their own idiosyncratic definitions of unusual words. The audience had to decide which definition was correct, as judged by the volume of applause, amid much hilarity.
Jenny Lind landscape
At breakfast, ‘Le Boreal’ appeared to be enveloped in thick fog. However, it dispersed by the time we reached our next landing site and we enjoyed yet another day of brilliant weather. Our destination was Jenny Lind Island, named for the Swedish singer Johanna Maria Lind, known as the Swedish Nightingale and famed for her “sweetness of tongue and noble generosity.”
Situated in Queen Maud Gulf, the island consists of a low, rolling tundra that is great for easy walking. While plant life here had died back for the winter, we were otherwise captivated: small flocks of shorebirds whizzed past at low level, while skeins of snow geese on their way south made a great spectacle as they flew overhead against a backdrop of blue sky. On the ground, a few of us had an encounter with an Arctic fox and many saw a distant lone muskox bull. We also had a close view of a magnificent caribou that ran past at a distance of less than 100 yards. Even if we had not seen this wildlife, it was wonderful to simply wander around the tundra on a sunny day while gazing at the view.
While no pattern is ever set in stone on an expedition cruise, our routine at the moment seems to be a morning landing followed by afternoon lectures aboard ‘Le Boreal,’ as she cruises toward the next destination. This afternoon, Mike Stevens gave the third of his popular harmonica lessons, followed by marine biologist Larry Hobbs telling us about the adaptations of the walrus and Arctic seal to a marine life. Later, photo coach Richard Harker gave another of his instructional presentations entitled, “Composition: Arctic Photography Artistry.”
The day finished with a flourish. At around midnight, the Captain announced over the PA (very quietly!) that there was a magnificent display of Aurora Borealis — the Northern Lights – shining above the boat. And wrapped in our bathrobes, we made our way out onto the decks and our own private balconies to look up in awe at sheets of pale green light flickering across the sky.
Empty oil drums
Mt Avens has gone to seed
Chef Ludo & noodles
Patri’s art class
Today was yet another lovely day! Soon after breakfast, we were driving ashore in the Zodiacs, cruising up Johansen Bay, which formed the estuary of the Nakyoktok River on the southern coast of Victoria Island. Because the water was so shallow, ‘Le Boreal’ had to anchor well out. Still, the boat ride was smooth, the weather fine and the scenery beautiful. We landed by a group of buildings that once formed a base for nomadic trappers and set off up a steady climb, which revealed more of the country as we gained height.
Scattered up the ridge were some interesting archaeological object, including caches where animal carcasses would have been stored for later consumption and tent rings, circles of small boulders which would have held down the rim of sealskin tents. The latter would have been used year after year as family parties moved around their traditional hunting grounds. The position on top of the ridge would have offered good views of any quarry, bears and seals for instance.
It was also a good place for plants and animals. In sheltered places, the willows were growing a couple of feet high and some plants were still in flower. A lucky few saw a grizzly bear running away, an Arctic hare, a bearded seal, tundra swans and sandhill cranes, a rough-legged hawk and Lapland buntings — all of which added to an impressive, continuously growing wildlife list for our expedition!
On board ‘Le Boreal’ in the afternoon, it was time for us to return to the “classroom” for more presentations by our Expedition team. Northwest Passage exploration expert, Mike Beedell, told of his experience of “Paddling the Coppermine River.” Ornithologist Patricia revealed her versatility by running her art class, “Art at Sea and Ashore.” Finally, our Arctic archeology expert, Margaret Bertulli, talked with us about her work and experience in “Arctic Wanderings Along the Northwest Passage.”
Ulukhaktok Arts Center
BBQ on deck 6
Illustrating the trip chart
Victoria Island is the ancestral home of the Copper Inuit and the first westerners to sight it were aboard the Franklin Expedition of 1826. The Copper Inuit settled at Ulukhaktok (Holman) in the 1940s and the present population — about 300 strong — still make an existence from hunting, trapping, fishing and printmaking.
After breakfast, a Zodiac scout boat went to shore before us to make arrangements with the local officials; the rest of us followed on other Zodiacs, landing on a beach just in front of the hamlet. Two fires had been lit on the beach and women in traditional dress invited us to take tea, bannock rings (which are similar to doughnuts), and char, freshly cooked in large frying pans. Though breakfast aboard ‘Le Boreal’ had only just finished for us, we still found room to sample this local fare!
We were then treated to a display of dancing and singing with drummers setting the rhythm. Normally made from seal stomachs stretched over a wooden hoop, these drums were instead made of cloth and beaten lightly with a stick to provide a somewhat monotonous background beat. Some of the dancing had its roots in the people living below the tree line and movements represented imitations of mammals and birds. The dancers were youngsters who looked as if they would be willing to perform all morning, but we gradually drifted into the hamlet to stroll about the community.
The co-op store was a sort of General Store, with a little bit of everything as well as a post office. A queue was building up outside the popular Arts and Crafts building, where we found a trove of carvings, prints, knitwear and other items for sale. Hats made of qiviut – the amazingly fine muskox wool – were popular, as well as ulus – the traditional, half-moon shaped women’s knives that are produced here and used for butchering seals and fish. Many Canadian and U.S. dollars were handed over for some very special souvenirs!
The Community Hall was the venue for a demonstration of local sports in which two young men vied with each other to make incredibly acrobatic high kicks. The object of the game was to hit a target suspended high above both competitors. Around the room, we found more items for sale as well as a demonstration of printmaking.
Ulukhaktok is famous for its prints, Made here since 1965, Ulukhaktok prints were originally created by etching on polished stone, from which a limited number of prints would be made before the stone was broken. Copper-etching and stencils have since been employed as well.
In Canada, communities are classified by size and administration into: outpost camps, settlements, hamlets (with an elected council), villages, towns, cities and the metropolis. Throughout our visit at the hamlet of Ulukhaktok, we were constantly amazed by the friendliness of its people. When we landed, we were greeted with handshakes and exchanges of names, followed by questions about where we came from and if we were enjoying our time in the Arctic. And everywhere we went, locals on foot or on tundra-buggies waved and smiled. It was quite a memorable place!
Back on-board, the excellent weather continued and was celebrated with a barbecue on deck. In the afternoon, we enjoyed two more presentations from the Expedition team. Patri gave a captivating talk entitled “Ethno-Ornithology: Birds in Human Life,” which showed the universal role of birds in diet, art, religion and every aspect of every culture. Next, Bob presented “The Short Arctic Summer: Wildlife of the Tundra,” during which he described the adaptations of many plants and animals to Arctic life that he had observed on three summer-long expeditions to the far north.
In the evening, while ‘Le Boreal’ was cruising among some loose ice floes, we were able to cap the night with the thrilling sight of a bowhead whale.
A&K Expedition Team wishing one of their own, Charley Wheatley a speedy recovery
Banks Island is the fourth largest island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and is separated from its neighbor, Victoria Island, by the narrow Prince of Wales Strait. It is named for Sir Joseph Banks, the President of Britain’s Royal Society, who was very influential in promoting expeditions in the late 18th and early 19th century. The island has been inhabited sporadically for more than 3,000 years, first by pre-Dorset people, then by the Thule and their descendants, the Copper Inuit. Now, the only permanent settlement is at Sachs Harbour.
The day continued to dawn beautifully, once again, and there was a promise of some pack ice. Over breakfast, Captain Garcia brought ‘Le Boreal,’ close to a large raft of ice in De Salis Bay, on which a polar bear could be seen patrolling. However, the ice was clear of the mouth of the small river at the head of the bay, which meant we would be able to land and explore.
Once ashore, we took a gentle climb up a hill and found great views over the rolling countryside and across the pack ice raft.
Wildlife observations were scattered but a lucky few saw an Arctic fox, a distant snowy owl patrolling in search of prey, two peregrines circling over the ship and a collared lemming that came out of its burrow, took fright and ran back under cover. The best show for observation and photography came from a family of nine juvenile ptarmigan. Ignoring the ring of red-parka-dressed visitors, they were working their way across the tundra avidly pecking up seeds. Their plumage was beginning to turn white for the winter so they were quite conspicuous in the bright sunshine.
After some time back on board, we set out later in the afternoon for a Zodiac cruise along the edge of the pack ice, if only to enjoy the shapes and colors of the floes. Then it was back in time for tea and the opportunity to watch deck cadet Etienne, who was decorating the charts of the cruise to be raffled for the crew welfare fund.
Our afternoon lecture was presented by geologist Ralph Eshelman on “Pingos, Permafrost, and the Patterned Ground: Geological Wonders of the Northwest Passage.” Our talk expanded into a comprehensive survey of the geology of this part of the Arctic, including the exploitation of natural resources and the formation of some of the geological scenery that we have been fortunate to see.
The day ended on an extraordinarily high note with an after-dinner concert by Mike Stevens, which also including the ship pianists, Pasha and Daniel, and percussionist Sidney. Displaying fantastic virtuosity, “Harmonica Mike” started with his special composition for the cruise: “Enjoy the Navigation,” translating Captain Garcia’s familiar PA salutation into music.
Smoking Hills cruise
Colorful residual ash
Patricia posts artworks
Tom Perera, guest lecturer
We had hoped to go ashore at Smoking Hills, a geological feature that is unique in the world, but there was too much swell to land on the beach under the cliffs. However, it was an old, rounded swell that would allow a comfortable Zodiac cruise. From the ship we could see numerous plumes of smoke rising from the cliff face.
About 50 km of cliffs have been smoldering for many millennia and the first westerner to see them was by Dr John Richardson on John Franklin’s second overland expedition in 1826. He found that the acrid fumes destroyed clothing and there were very acidic pools. In 1851 Robert McClure on HMS ‘Investigator’ concluded the phenomenon was volcanic but the smoke results from spontaneous combustion of bituminous shales. The rock contains iron pyrite (fool’s gold!) which oxidizes to cause spontaneous ignition that lights the shale. The smoke emerges from ‘bocannes’ that become surrounded by bright yellow deposits of sulphur. They significantly affect the local flora by destroying lichens and some flowers, but muskoxen and caribou benefit by entering the smoke to avoid the swarms of mosquitos that blight their lives in summer.
We were lucky that the sun came out while we were out in the Zodiacs. The light made all the difference by bringing out the colors and shapes of the rocks in the cliff face. Expedition Leader Aaron picked a good spot and we were at a stretch of about 3 km that had numerous plumes of smoke being gently wafted inland rather than out to sea so that we had a perfect view.
The afternoon was another busy time for presentations, starting with Patri’s art class ‘Art at Sea and Ashore’. Some of the results were pinned on the bulletin board for all to admire. Next fellow guest Tom Perera told us about ‘German Submarines and Enigmas in WWII Greenland Waters’. The Germans had developed the Enigma machine to code messages in the years before World War II and believed the system to be unbreakable. However, the Poles and then the British managed to decipher messages. This was the best-kept secret of the War and the details emerged only in 1975. Finally, Margaret outlined the prehistory of Arctic Canada in ‘A Time Before: The Archaeological Cultures of the Northwest Passage’. She showed a richer culture than many of us imagined that stretched back several thousand years.
Once again, a clear night allowed Captain Garcia to announce vivid displays of the Northern Lights through the small hours.
Herschel Is Qikiqtqruk
In front of Herschel Is Museum
Timber from the rivers
This morning, we prepared for a landing at Simpson Point, a cove at Herschel Island Territorial Park, where we would explore the abandoned settlement there.
Known as Quikiqtaruk (island), Herschel Island is the northernmost island of the Yukon Territory. It was occupied by the Thule people as long ago as 1,000 years ago, though the first European to visit was John Franklin in 1826, during which he found three Inuvialiut settlements engaged in bowhead whaling. From 1893, Simpson Point became the center of American whaling for bowheads; at times, there was a human population in excess of 1,000. The last permanent residents left in 1987 and now the settlement is deserted, apart from passing visitors and the rangers of the Territorial Park, who are of Inuvialiut descent.
Our plans for an early landing were waylaid by a polar bear that was wandering around the settlement and showing an interest in our scout boat. This meant that the rangers who were scheduled to brief us on our visit were not able to come on board. Eventually, the bear wandered off and we were free to land, though we were careful to keep within the settlement should the bear return.
It was a fascinating place, built on a low-lying shingle spit where a tide line of flotsam showed that it is almost submerged under waves during storms. There were several abandoned buildings, including one built in 1893 that now doubles as the Community House and a very interesting museum of cultural and natural history. It was also heated by two stoves, which was very welcome on this chilly, windy day! One feature outside was the enormous amount of driftwood strewn over the ground, including large tree trunks. These had come from the rivers that drain into the Arctic Ocean.
Back on ‘Le Boreal,’ our afternoon started with another harmonica lesson from Mike Stevens. History lecturer Bob Burton continued the entertainment with “The Strange and Awful History of Scurvy,” an account of how a cure for the disease failed to become estblished for centuries, until the nature of vitamin C was established. Brent Houston shared the last presentation on a favorite subject with his “Polar Bear Stories.”
Rib-eye steak for lunch
Patricia about birds
The weather was unusually Arctic this morning with flurries of snow! It only added to the scenery we were enjoying from within the comfortable ‘Le Boreal,’ and which we looked forward to indulging in more during this day at sea.
Some of us started off feeling especially invigorated, thanks to a stretching and breathing class taught by Suzana, one of our naturalists and also a qualified pilates instructor. Others took advantage of some down time at sea to sort through the growing collections of photos that we’ve been accumulating over since the start of our expedition.
We also looked forward to more lectures from our incredible Expedition Team. Ralph led a geology lecture apt for our destination — “Alaska: Land of Dinosaurs and Ice Age Fossils” — during which we learned of the fascinating animal remains hiding under the state’s ground. Later, Mike Beedell told the interesting story of his 4,000-mile adventure through the Northwest Passage in a Hobie Cat! In the afternoon, Patri’s talk covered “The Pleasures of Birding,” a personal and, as usual with her talks, enthusiastic presentation on how to look at birds.
All the while, we were approaching Point Barrow, formerly known as Nuvak, on the North Slope of Alaska at the boundary of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Archaeological evidence shows that Point Barrow had been occupied about 1,000 years ago by ancestors of the Inupiat and was so named for John Barrow, the secretary of British Admiralty, whose interest in the Arctic spurred on many British expeditions in the 19th century. The town is normally ice-free for two to three months.
In late afternoon, we anchored off Point Barrow to allow a pilot, who is required in Alaskan waters, to come aboard. He was followed by immigration officers who were also required to see all guests and crew before stamping their passports.
We went to bed with the lights of Point Barrow twinkling on the horizon. Still, that did not stop Captain Garcia from waking us in the small hours to report a good display of the northern lights.
Patri & Marco
Historian Bob Burton
Today, as we ploughed our way across the Chukchi Sea towards the Bering Straits, we enjoyed time for more enrichment lectures and wave watching! For a dedicated few, activities started with Suzana’s stretching and breathing class. This was followed by photo coach Richard Harker’s final presentation, “The Art of Photo Processing: Making a Good Photo Great.” So many photos — one better than the next — have been taken on this cruise, and here was yet another opportunity to make them better!
For something different, seabird specialists Marco Favero and Patricia Silva gave their talk on “Seabird Conservation and Fisheries.” The husband and wife team have been deeply involved in the struggle to reduce the enormous death rate of seabirds worldwide accidentally caught as bycatch at the end of a fishing longline.
After lunch, historian Bob Burton told us about “The Slow Race to the North Pole.” He shared that the English and Dutch had been attempting expeditions over the Arctic Ocean to reach the North Pole since the 16th century, with Americans joining in during the 19th century. There were countless stories of derring-do and disaster! In the late afternoon, Patri came to the fore again with her final art class. She was followed by Larry, our marine biologist, who wound up the series with his thought-provoking lecture, “Discovering Sustainability: Facts, Stories & Dubious Moments.” The big question: What is the future of the human race and will it survive its assaults on the environment?
Soon enough it was time to change gears. Tonight, we would don our best clothes for an evening of socializing with our new friends, starting with the Farewell Cocktail Party. Captain Garcia took the opportunity to say a few words about what had been a very successful cruise and also introduced us to many of the ship’s officers and crew. The Captain’s Farewell Dinner immediately followed.
A great buzz of conversation was noticeable during both the cocktail party and dinner — much more so than during the beginning of the cruise. No more were we asking “Where are from?” and “Is this your first A&K cruise?,” instead we were laughing, marvelling and reminiscing about all that we had seen and experienced during our incredible expedition.
For the last few days, Deck Cadet Etienne had been embellishing two large charts of the Northwest Passage with fine drawings. Both would be prizes in a silent auction and a raffle, which would benefit the crew welfare fund. Many guests had already made generous donations.
Gusting over 60 knots!
Russia & the US
This morning as we came through the Bering Straits, a swell was running and there was a bit more wind. We are not used to such weather! However, it was a following wind and there was very little movement by the very stable ‘Le Boreal.’ Many of us enjoyed the dramatic scenery, especially as the Diomede Islands appeared in the distance.
Little Diomede or Inaliq was formerly known as Krusenstern Island. With Big Diomede 2.4 miles to the west, it is located in the middle of the Bering Strait. Big Diomede is part of Russia while Little Diomede is part of the USA. During the Cold War, visits between the two were forbidden. Today, the local Inuit in the region still harvest fish and crab, hunt for belugas, walruses, seals and polar bears.
As we turned around the corner of Little Diomede, the little settlement came into sight, clinging to the bottom of the cliff. It became clear from the waves and williwaws sweeping across the sea that a landing or a visit on board from the local dance group would not be possible. At last, after 20 days of continuing fine weather, the elements were against us!
But the visit was not entirely wasted. The seascape was enlivened by the hundreds of seabirds flying past the ship on their way to and from the cliff. Fulmars, glaucous gulls and kittiwakes were familiar, but there were exciting North Pacific specialties to be spotted and identified. The most abundant was the tufted puffin with its white and plumed head whirring past on stubby wings. There were also short-tailed and sooty shearwaters, horned puffins, parakeet auklets and pelagic cormorants. There was even a walrus poking its head out and displaying its tusks!
We were also able to view — and photograph — the gap between Little and Great Diomede where the International Date Line runs. Over there was the future!
From Little Diomede, we cruised past steep-sided Fairway Island where more birds were nesting. Then it was across the open sea to a sheltered bay with a calm place for ‘Le Boreal’ to set anchor. Arrangements had been made for the ship to receive fuel from a barge, so we had a steady footing for the final activities of the cruise.
At 4 p.m., following a disembarkation briefing by Cruise Director Jannie, everyone gathered on the pool deck for a group photo. The Captain opened a bottle of champagne by sabrage (knocking the top off the bottle with a sword) to celebrate our successful transit of the Northwest Passage; we sipped this alongside a desert of crepes Suzette. After the festivities, Aaron kicked off our final Expedition Recap with an overview of our cruise, which was followed by a rendition of “‘Le Boreal’ Blues,” performed by the harmonica band and singers. For the finale, a slideshow compiled from photos taken by the Expedition Team traced the progress of our incredible 4,650-nautical-mile cruise.
It was an early rise for everyone as ‘Le Boreal’ moved into her final anchorage at Nome, Alaska. Luggage disappeared ashore and passports were picked up after breakfast. We were called out to board the ship’s tenders for the short trip to the harbor where school buses were waiting to shuttle us to Old St. Joseph’s Hospitality Center, a former Roman Catholic church set in the middle of town.
We had the option to choose from two excursions, either to experience demonstrations of gold-panning (still an important industry here) and dog-sledding (Nome is the finishing point for the Iditarod, the world’s most famous long-distance dog sled race). Otherwise, we were free to wander around town until it was time to head to the airport for our charter flight to Vancouver, Canada.
So many passengers nearly swamped Nome’s small airport! We were eventually aboard our flight and on our way to Vancouver, where our adventure would end in the comfort of the Fairmont Airport Hotel.
While in Nome, flocks of sandhill cranes were flying over on their southward migration. It was a sign that the Arctic summer was over and winter was approaching. Time for us to follow them and return home! All the wiser this time and excited to share untold stories from the most faraway and adventurous lands.