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The Northwest Passage: From Greenland to the Bering Sea, Aug 26 - Sep 18, 2019
Monday, August 26: Montreal
Today we arrived from the four corners of the world and met at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth hotel and recuperated for our flights. We spent the day at leisure, shopping for things that we forgot to bring even though our bags were bulging. Montreal is a beautiful city, as the ride in from the airport indicated and our walks in the neighborhood of the hotel confirmed.
In the evening we met for dinner. We were welcomed by this year’s Northwest Passage host Phil Otterson, Chairman Emeritus of A&K USA. Next, Julia Evanoff from the A&K office welcomed us to our first meeting as a group. She introduced the staff members who were with us and would be flying with us tomorrow. The meal gave us our first chance to get to know our fellow passengers. Afterwards we returned to our hotel rooms for a good night’s sleep.
Tuesday, August 27: Dynamic French-English City
Many of us took the opportunity to sleep in a bit because we knew that once we got on the ship sleeping in will be rare. Today, we had our choice of four tours of Montreal. Some of us enjoyed a comprehensive coach tour of the city, including Old Montreal and a guided tour of the Notre-Dame Basilica, iconic Mont Royal and the Montreal Olympic Stadium. Others of us ventured out on foot for various walking tours. All proved to provide excellent introduction and insights into this fascinating city.
The evening was shortened by the realization that we had to pack and get our luggage out to be collected before we turned in, and by the fact that we had a very early start for Greenland.
Wednesday, August 28: Kangerlussuaq
Breakfast was served early so that guests could begin boarding buses at 6 am for the airport in Montreal. As always with A&K, the whole process went swimmingly. Guests confirmed their baggage at the airport, checked in and proceeded to the gate for the 9.55 Charter flight with Titan Air to Kangerlussuaq in Greenland. The three and a half hour flight provided magnificent views of Canadian tundra, and then Greenland. The mystic appeal of Greenland never wane, mountains plunge into fjords and the sea.
From the airport in Kangerlussuaq, guests were transferred to the pier 20 minutes away by bus. Low tide required careful approaches by the tenders (lifeboats) via a deeper channel, to transfer guests to the beautiful 'Le Boreal' ship.
Welcome drinks and snacks awaited all after they had checked in on board. Baggage was delivered by the delightful crew to the cabins, and at 6 pm the mandatory lifeboat drill was performed. We all put on our bright orange life jackets, hoping we will never require them.
Expedition Director JD Massyn, and Expedition Leader Brent Houston welcomed all warmly before guests had dinner. Most guests retired early, as 'Le Boreal' steamed down the fjord towards the open sea, and Sisimiut on Greenland’s west coast.
Thursday, August 29: Western Greenland
'The North is the only place where Nature can still claim to rule, the only place as yet but little vexed by Man. All over the globe there spread noisy features; the North is silent and at peace.’
'Le Boreal' came alongside early in Sisimiut. The second-largest town in Greenland, population of 6000, and just north of the Arctic Circle at 66 degrees north. The brightly colored homes and buildings creating a magical scene in sunshine with the sea perfectly calm. Most guests took the opportunity of either a walking tour or bus tour, led by local Greenland guides. Sod/turf homes (early form of building here) were seen, whale jaw bone arches and working dogs-many looking more like wolves.
After lunch, a champion kayaker came alongside the ship to demonstrate the extraordinary skills of the Inuit kayaker. Dressed in neoprene, riding a modern kayak, he calmly rolled and righted his craft in either direction with impunity. Skills like these are being rapidly lost in the modern world but for the Inuit crucial to their hunting success and very survival over the eons of time.
Much of the afternoon was spent at leisure, many choosing to take a nap whilst whales slipped past the vessel. Geraldine and Brent then presented the mandatory AECO briefing, safe use of the Zodiacs, before the Expedition Team introduced themselves to the guests. Jason Hicks brought the house down by sharing, he had told his wife to be, BEFORE getting engaged, that he rode motorbikes, fired guns/rifles, flew airplanes, and wanted to travel a bit. The travel a bit this year took him away from home for 5 months.
Captain Garcia’s cocktail party went off with all the usual French flair, and he welcomed guests onboard, whilst introducing his senior officers and ice captain. A magnificent dinner followed for all guests in La Licorne restaurant on deck 2. Guests could not have asked for a finer, more auspicious beginning to this incredible adventure.
Friday, August 30: Western Greenland
After the wonderful Captain’s cocktail party and dinner last night, guests enjoyed a calm 150 nautical mile run up the west coast of Greenland to Ilullisat. Ilullisat sits in a wide inlet off the Baffin Sea, right next to the famous icefjord. First explored by Eric the Red in 985, while establishing Norse settlements in Western Greenland. This is one of the fastest moving (5 meters/day) and most active glaciers in the world, Sermeq Kujalleq, now a UNESCO world heritage site. Most visitors know this area as Disko Bay.
Ilullisat is Greenland’s 4th largest town and the birthplace of explorer Knudsen Rasmussen. Originally known as Jakobshavn, the history dates back to 1742, first established as a summer mission. It is now an important fishing town and a center for shrimp processing. During the summer the fish/shrimp plants operate 24/7, and we indeed saw fishermen landing many sizable fish very close to town.
Many guests were up before Brent Houston’s 6 am announcement, and out on open decks to witness the massive icebergs and abundant smaller floating growlers. The sun appeared over the horizon at 6 am but scarcely made a difference to the 5-degree Centigrade chill, made to appear far colder by the stiff breeze. The sights of white and blue ice in the early morning light created a quite indescribable visual feast.
Certainly, an occasion where one realizes the power of the human eye over any photographic sensor-capturing this scene photographically is well-nigh impossible. Humpback Whales swam in front of the icebergs adding to the drama of it all.
Half of the guests were ferried by Zodiac to shore, to enjoy tours of the Town, or a boardwalk hike to see the Ilullisat Icefjord, whilst the remainder were taken on a Zodiac tour close to the massive icebergs. Excitement levels were at fever pitch as guests donned their warm clothing and life jackets, in preparation for their first Zodiac tour of this expedition. Expectations in all regards were exceeded, accentuated by little wind and glorious sunshine. The Icefjord beggars belief in terms of grandeur. Running back 65km along the fjord, fed by a mighty glacier from Greenland’s icecap. Regular cracks sounding as much like artillery fire breaking the silence.
Recaps were well presented by Richard Escanilla and Professor Henry Pollack before Brent Houston gave us the exciting plans for visiting fjords tomorrow. The great weather seemingly continues, as most retired early after a long, exciting, memorable day around Ilullisat.
Saturday, August 31: Where Amundsen Began
The dawn brought a fairly choppy sea, through which 'Le Boreal' sailed with scarcely any movement whatsoever. The stability of this vessel is staggering. The morning lecture was presented by geologist, Dr. Jason Hicks, regarding Greenland as a time machine. Records prove a dramatic increase in carbon dioxide levels and with that a commensurate increase in average temperature. Warming oceans, in turn, absorb less carbon dioxide. The implications of a melting Greenland icecap affect ocean levels across the globe. All guests found the climate change indicated empirically here in Greenland very sobering indeed.
The end of Jason’s talk coincided with 'Le Boreal' entering the magnificent Uummannaq Fjord System. A geological wonder teeming with marine life, and sheltered by high, glaciated mountains, the fjord typically provides very favorable weather. Often referred to as the sunniest spot in Greenland. Today proved no exception, and most guests were out on open decks watching the wonderland slide by on both sides of the ship. The water punctuated by numerous, large icebergs. Steep, fissured slopes dropping dramatically into the depths. A jet plane high overhead proved an interesting contrast to Jason referring to 1.8 billion-year-old rock formations below. This certainly is Western Greenland at her very best.
Immediately after lunch, a landing was made on Karrat Island, in Karrat Fjord. Behemoth icebergs in the Bay added to an amazing afternoon. Guests visited remains of ancient huts, made of whale bones and sod. Thule people (ancestors of the Inuit) frequented this attractive Fjord system as a safe haven 500-1000 years ago. On route to the summit of the island, guests passed a cemetery and masses of small bones indicating the extent of seal hunting in days gone by. The summit view over the icebergs and fjords below justified the stiff walk.
A&K could not have asked for a finer start to this incredible voyage of discovery. The weather, sights, people, whales, and experiences offered in every regard set the bar extremely high for the days ahead. Nikon Photographer Michelle Valberg presented a wonderful lecture on photography, showcasing some of her stunning images, and how she had taken them. As with many professionals, they make it look and sound so easy. In calm conditions, 'Le Boreal' sailed further north, on an ocean studded with myriad icebergs.
Archaeologist Margaret Bertulli and Naturalist Helen Ahern presented some interesting insights at recaps before very satisfied guests enjoyed dinner onboard. It has been an outstanding day in Greenland, tomorrow beckons.
Sunday, September 1: Where Amundsen Began
‘It is more dreamlike and supernatural than a combination of earthly features. It is a landscape such as Milton and Dante’ might imagine-inorganic, desolate, mysterious’. Elisha Kent Kane describing Arctic region in 1855.
The morning saw 'Le Boreal' running north up the west coast of Greenland on a calm sea, icebergs everywhere. Naturalist Matt Messina gave a wonderful talk on whales, concentrating on the Narwhal, Beluga, Bowhead, and Orca, which everyone is very much hoping to see in these waters. Professor Henry Pollack then presented a somewhat depressing lecture on ‘Ice, Water, and Climate’. There is no doubting global warming on an unprecedented scale, clearly indicated by changes in ice and water on Earth.
Midday found the vessel approaching the remote, traditional Greenland village of Kullorsuaq. Named after a mountain nearby looking like a huge thumb, the village grew significantly after World War 2, when many local hunters and fishermen moved here. This little village of 420 inhabitants is situated on the Kullorsuaq Island, at the southern end of Melville Bay. The first migrants arrived here some 4000 years ago, making it among the earliest settled areas of Greenland. The first settlers belonged to the Saqqaq culture, followed by the Dorset culture 3000 years ago, who spread along the coast of Baffin Bay. Archaeology suggests the Thule people arrived in 1200AD. Danish settlers remained unaware of Kullorsuaq until the end of the 19th century.
Fishing (including Narwhals and whales) and hunting (including fur seals and walruses) are the primary occupations of the area. A&K has especially arranged this visit to experience one of the most traditional of Greenland settlements.
Captain Garcia has built up a relationship with the villagers over 15 years, and guests were privileged to take themselves off for a walk of this traditional village. It was arranged for 205 residents to come on board to present a show of dancing and singing.
Young and old, tall and small filled the theatre, and a thoroughly good time was had by all. For our guests, this was a special privilege indeed. From the pool deck on Deck 6, sundowners were enjoyed as everyone waved goodbye to the delightful folk from Kullorsuaq.
Photographer Michelle Valberg and Musician Mike Stevens encapsulated the day beautifully at Recaps, particularly regarding human connections. Despite the majestic scenery and wildlife, it is oftentimes the human beings one meets that are best remembered. Tired happy guests enjoyed the wonderful 'Le Boreal' fare, and retired early. West Greenland exceeding high expectations.
Monday, September 2: Where Amundsen Began
‘I must go North again! My heart is where the white mist lies. About the roots of starlit crags beneath the Arctic skies. Where through the disk the Dancers play across the northern pole; I must go North again, for they have stolen away my soul...’ Isobel Wylie Hutchinson
Calm seas and wonderful weather once again greeted the dawn. This morning we entered Meteor Bay, the most northerly point of our expedition. At 76 degrees north, we are only 840 nautical miles from the North Pole. Numerous meteorite fragments dating back 10,000 years give the village Savissivik and place its name. The Cape York meteorite, as it is known, is one of the most famous meteorites in the world, and at 31 metric tons perhaps the largest meteorite to have hit the Earth. In 1818, John Ross found local Inuits using knives and harpoons, some completely made of metal, others with smaller pieces of metal worked into their edges. This gave rise to a mini Iron Age in Greenland 300 years before Icelandic farmers brought iron and agriculture to the south of Greenland.
Guests were taken out in the Zodiacs amongst the numerous icebergs. Julia Evanoff, Operations Director from A&K summed the morning up beautifully, saying “it was like being in a museum.” The forms, colors, and grandeur of the ice too magnificent for words.
At lunch, the chefs provided some wonderful additions by way of meat cooked on a barbecue on the pool deck. Captain Garcia took the ship very close to a massive pack of icebergs, hoping to find a way through. Sadly it was not safe, so a detour was made. Storyteller Rob Caskie explained the Peary Memorial visible on the high ground above the icebergs. Peary is the American explorer who infamously stole the three meteorites back to New York, robbing the Inuit of their invaluable metal. Photographer Michelle Valberg gave a special lecture titled “Getting off Automatic”, most guests learning photographic tips they had never imagined. Naturalist Jennifer Clement hosted a very popular felting workshop. Storyteller Rob Caskie then spoke about Roald Amundsen-probably the greatest Polar explorer in history.
At recaps, JJ, Fred, and Margaret gave interesting insights into Greenlandic culture, fishing, and culinary delicacies. Margaret provided images reinforcing what Rob had shared earlier regarding the meteorites, Peary, and the Inuits he took to America. Sewing 50 Little Auks into a sea skin for two months before consumption produced one of two results-delicious or Botulism.
Tomorrow we arrive at Pond Inlet in Canada, requiring Customs and Immigration clearance, vessel inspections and some interviews. Tonight we turn our clocks back two hours traveling westwards. Many are thrilled at the prospect of some extra sleep. Greenland has been a sensory overload on many levels.
Tuesday, September 3: Nunavut & the Canadian Arctic Archipelago
‘A journey is a person in itself, no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policies, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip, a trip takes us.’- John Steinbeck
Yesterday 'Le Boreal' reached her furthest North position on this voyage at 76 degrees N.
Last night we turned our clocks back two hours, and everyone enjoyed the extra sleep. After a calm voyage across the Baffin Bay, we entered Eclipse Sound en route to Pond Inlet in Canada. The scenery is a gorgeous mix of mountains, glaciers, and icebergs. Most of the mountains snow-capped, the wind was very cold.
Inuit Cultural expert Deborah Webster gave an interesting talk on Inuit Special Constables in the RCMP, among them her grandfather and great-grandfather.
Musician Mike Stevens then gave an introductory talk on playing the harmonica. Guests were given high-quality harmonicas and loved the opportunity of trying them out. Mike is one of the best in the world at his game, and his authenticity and humanity was evident through his wonderful session.
Early lunch was served in preparation for the customs and immigration procedures arriving into Canada. Some guests were required to present themselves for a face to face interview. By 2:30 everything was ready to begin transferring guests into Pond Inlet for their afternoon visit. It was a bumpy journey, many guests were getting sprayed thoroughly.
At the Community Centre, a lovely demonstration was held, regarding Inuit culture, shamanism, their singing, dancing, and women throat singing (sounding like various animals). Many children were involved, and the enthusiasm and exuberance were infectious. Many guests were taken on guided walks through the town. Mike Stevens made everyone’s day by sneaking up on an old friend, living in a turf home, and playing his harmonica. Her joy was overwhelming.
Many homes were boarded up, indicating folk who are in the south, for various reasons. The local co-op store was full of fresh items brought in by airplane weekly. Most supplies are brought into Pond Inlet by ship. Deborah Webster reminded us about various aspects of Inuit culture and Adam Walleyn, assistant expedition leader, spoke about the birds we see around the ship at recaps.
Tomorrow we enter Lancaster Sound, the true gateway of the North-West Passage, and wildlife paradise. Guests dream of seeing Belugas, Narwhals, Polar Bears, Orcas, and various seals.
Wednesday, September 4: Heart of the Northwest Passage
‘The landscape conveys an impression of absolute permanence. It is not hostile. It is simply there-untouched, silent and complete. It is very lonely, yet the absence of all human traces gives you the feeling you understand this land and can take your place in it.’ Edmund Carpenter.
The day began early, exploring Devon Island on the northern shores of Lancaster Sound. Named in 1616 by explorer William Baffin for Sir James Lancaster, one of the three main financial supporters of his explorations. In 1819 William Party got through the sound as far as Melville Island. Coincidentally the aircraft used for extensive aerial mapping in the 1930s/40s and 1950s was an Afro Lancaster heavy bomber converted for mapping. Inuit and their ancestors have relied on the sound for thousands of years for food, clothing, and shelter. Today, residents of three Nunavut communities of Pond Inlet, Arctic Bay, and Resolute Bay continue this tradition, depending on its abundant waters for their economic and cultural wellbeing.
In the 1920s, concerned about the threat to Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachments were established in places such as Dundas Harbour. This tiny outpost was established in August 1924 as part of a government presence aimed at curbing foreign whaling and other activity. Hudson Bay Company leased the post in 1933. The following year 52 Inuit were relocated from Cape Dorset to Duncan’s Harbour, but they were returned to the mainland 13 years later. The RCMP detachment was finally closed in 1951 due to ice difficulties. Guests were taken by zodiac to shore, and a short but rocky walk saw them at the old, abandoned RCMP post. In the beautiful morning, light visitors stood in awe of the isolation of this spot. A tiny cemetery holds two policemen plus a baby, who died in childbirth. Were the policemen murdered, or did they take their own lives? With bear guards situated on the high ground, it was a beautiful landing-the old buildings and light combining for wonderful photography opportunities.
Shortly after lunch, Naturalist Matt Messina spotted a polar bear using a powerful spotting scope from the bridge. Guests poured out onto the decks, and were incredibly quiet, as the female led her two cubs across a rocky slope, and eventually down to the water's edge. It is a warm day by Arctic standards, and the three seemed pleased to enter the water and cool off. Swimming calmly along the shoreline, amongst the icebergs, they afforded all a unique wildlife experience. We had scarcely left the bears in peace when two walruses were spotted on an ice floe. Captain Garcia took 'Le Boreal' closer and closer, eventually one slipped into the water, whilst the other remained on the ice. The animal remaining on the ice looked particularly surprised at having its afternoon siesta disturbed, whilst the other swam around the ice floe unsure as to what to do next. Curious-looking creatures with large brown eyes, and the tusks particular to their species. As zodiacs were being lowered into the water for a zodiac cruise in Crocker Bay, the fog descended. With safety concerns foremost, the zodiac Cruise was canceled, and Rob Caskie entertained guests with an impromptu story in the lounge. Geologist Jason Hicks stepped in to give a fascinating lecture on the birth of the Atlantic. Complex timelines and terminology that geologists believe are easy to interpret.
The captains gave a wonderful presentation on ice charts, various types of ice, and how to approach ice with ships. All indications are very strong for successfully making the passage this year. Dinner ended sharply when Brent Houston announced hundreds of white beluga whales in the shallows, sloughing skin and parasites from their bodies. A video was shown regarding Mike Stevens’s life as a musician and the work he does in communities of the Arctic. Altogether an extraordinary day in the high Arctic.
Thursday, September 5: Beechey Island and Barrow Strait
‘They cannot help it, the Arctic fellows, it is in their blood’. Lord Brougham responding to the fact that John Franklin was off again to search for the Northwest Passage.
The day began early, in beautiful weather, at Beechey Island. This tiny island has steep shores rising to a flat plateau 244m/732 ft high, making it a prominent landmark. Sir John Franklin’s ships spent the winter of 1845/46 anchored in the bay, and during the subsequent searches for Franklin, it was used as a supply depot and rendezvous. The protected bay offered Erebus and Terror a safe refuge over winter, but three of Franklin’s men perished here and are buried on the shore. Two kilometers away is Northumberland House, built on a raised beach by Commander Pullen of the North Star, part of the Belcher Expedition, who lost 4 of their 5 ships in the ice 1852-1854.
Guests were shuttled to the shore by zodiac, to view the lonely graves of Braine, Hartnell, and Torrington. Most chose to walk across to Northumberland House, some came by zodiac. The partial rock walls, old wooden structures, barrel staves, and yacht mast remind us starkly of the rigors of the Arctic. A plaque in memory of Lt Bellot of the French Navy who drowned in 1853 in the strait that bears his name keeps watch.
A wonderful tradition of leaving a tube containing guests and crew names began some years ago, and there are now a good number of tubes in the wooden structure behind the ruins. During the morning an airplane from resolute buzzed low over the ship and landing, before having a good look at the makeshift gravel shingle airstrip.
This is certainly a famous Northwest Passage landmark, and what a privilege to enjoy it in conditions like these.
Back on the ship, Matt Messina gave a wonderfully illustrated talk “The Explorers: A history of Art and Adventure.” Matt is going to be tutoring guests regarding art on board and is a very talented artist/biologist.
After lunch, Margaret Bertulli presented an in-depth lecture on the John Franklin Expedition, illuminating the morning visit beautifully. Everyone is looking forward to visiting King William Island, where this tragedy played itself out in 1848. The afternoon became very foggy, and the ship was obliged to slow down with abundant sea ice and floes about. A lively recaps was enjoyed with Fred Olivier explaining the differences between Arctic Seal and the Walrus. Tonight we turn clocks back another hour traveling westwards. Tomorrow the beguiling Bellot Strait and Fort Ross beckon.
Friday, September 6: Fort Ross and Prince Regent Inlet
'The season of light and the season of darkness; The season of baby seals and the season of the caribou hunt; The season of the running char and the season of the denning bear; The season of the igloo and the season of the skin hunt; The season of the geese nesting and the season of the berries' - The Inuit Year.
The dawn revealed a dense fog, the vessel advancing slowly down Peel Sound amongst abundant ice. The ice captain mentioned that the temperature in Prince Regent Inlet was warmer and that the fog may clear. He proved to be correct-the fog cleared as we advanced through the Bellot strait against a 3-knot current. This strait takes its name from Joseph Rene’ Bellot, a French naval man who drowned in the strait searching for Franklin in 1853. In 1937 the strait was first navigated by HBC schooner Aklavik, commanded by Captain Scotty Gall. The 12mile/20km waterway connects Prince Regent Inlet with Peel Sound and Franklin Strait. Resembling a fjord; only 1km wide at its narrowest point, and steep slopes on either side. In geological terms, the Precambrian rocks (more than 2,5 billion years old) are the core of the landscape, part of the Canadian Shield, some of the oldest rocks in the Americas.
We were fortunate enough to see a polar bear and narwhals whilst transiting the Bellot Strait. Distant blows indicated bowhead whales. Mid-morning found 'Le Boreal' anchored off Fort Ross in Prince Regent Inlet, South-Eastern tip of Somerset Island. Founded in 1937, it was the last trading post to be established by the Hudson’s Bay Company for the fox-pelt trade. Severe ice conditions and very difficult access forced the closure of Fort Ross in 1948. The buildings are still used by Inuit caribou hunters from Talyoak. The old store is well set up, much like a hunting lodge, complete with stove for heating and cooking. The guests thoroughly enjoyed looking about the post, imagining the difficulties of life here, especially in winter.
Matt Messina spotted many bowhead whales around the ship after lunch. We watched tail-slapping, and even breaching-unusual behavior rarely seen at close quarters.
Jason Hicks presented his second lecture on the birth of the Atlantic, with glorious sunshine outside the windows. As if this magical day had not provided enough exhilaration, Narwhals were seen in profusion close to the ship. For many a bucket-list sighting. Then Brent announced an Arctic Wolf on the slopes above the Bellot Strait. Matt and Michelle collectively produced a sublime recaps session. Guests, one and all, will retire satiated by the allure of the Arctic this evening.
Saturday, September 7: Larsen Sound and James Ross Strait
‘He skims with his ships the open plain of Ocean. Coming to Thule which gleams both day and night, With Titan’s rays, he ascends with his car to the Poles Of Heaven, kindling the Boreal realms with his torch.’ - V Stefansson, Ultima Thule, 1940
Morning today found 'Le Boreal' in thick fog, moving southwards down Larsen Sound. Named for Henry Larsen, Norwegian/Canadian commander of St Roch, a schooner which resupplied RCMP detachments in the Arctic. This region is full of hazardous, shallow waterways which had to be navigated by the explorers, and are the very waters where the historic vessels of the doomed Franklin expedition finally came to grief. Many of the channels are ice-choked throughout the summer, as Franklin discovered in 1847 when his ships Erebus and Terror were beset in consolidated ice of King William Island.
The Beaufort Sea gyre tends to force ice this way annually. A distant polar bear was spotted, but lying down very difficult to view well across the ice. Ice Captain Julien and Captain Garcia are doing a sterling job of navigating through the ice. Matt Messina gave an insightful, beautifully illustrated talk on Seals of the Arctic. Appropriately Matt created much humor last evening presenting Recaps in a shirt covered in whales. A gentle, calm day on board is being appreciated by guests after the incredible activities and viewing opportunities yesterday.
During the afternoon photo coach Michelle Valberg (Nikon Ambassador) gave a talk sharing her expertise and exquisite images. This charming Canadian clearly ‘sees’ differently to most. Many guests indeed wondering if they visited the same places, so extraordinary are Michelle’s images. Harmonica maestro Mike Stevens presented another fun, engaging harmonica lesson, then an Inuit game with cultural expert Deborah Webster. Mike Stevens selflessly created a non-profit organization called Artscan, taking music and instruments into Northern communities, and has a powerful life journey to share. It is bitterly cold outside, with regular snowflakes and very slippery, icy decks.
Storyteller Rob Caskie shared some stories involving Nansen, Cook, and Peary in their quests for the elusive North Pole. The food onboard 'Le Boreal' has been consistently outstanding, the French flair shining brightly. In such remote locations, the logistics of resupply, cold storage, and a variety of options create challenges all their own. A&K rightly are leaders in the field of luxury expedition cruising for a multitude of reasons-the fare certainly being one of them.
After dinner, Dr. Frédérique Olivier shared her experiences about filming a 550km/27 day crossing of the Greenland icecap. It was a most entertaining talk, beautifully illustrated and certainly not an easy undertaking.
Sunday, September 8: Gjoa Haven, Canada
‘It is a strange and powerful thing... too long for the great white desolation, the battles with the ice and the gales, the long, long Arctic day, the silence, the vastness of the great, white lonely North.’- Robert Peary-The Lure of the North.
On very calm seas, we arrived at Gjoa Haven on King William Island’s South-East coast. Gjoa Haven was named by early explorer Roald Amundsen, after his 47-ton ship, Gjoa, built-in 1872, the year Amundsen was born. Amundsen dubbed the place “the finest little harbor in the world”, and indeed the shallow inlet and narrow entrance provide fantastic shelter from the ice. The name remains to this day and a fine tribute to the sturdy little wooden vessel in which Amundsen first sailed the North-West Passage between 1903 and 1906. To local residents, the community is called Uqsuaqtuuq ‘the place of fat’, a reference to the fattened fish and seals in nearby waters. Village elders always knew the positions of Franklin’s ships, Erebus and Terror, but their testimony was always doubted.
Today, Gjoa Haven has a population of 1200 and still bears the historic significance of playing a key role in polar exploration. Guests were brought ashore by Zodiac, Greater White-fronted and Canada Geese flying overhead. Charming local guides walked groups of 20 guests to the Museum and shop. Many intrigued at the varying designs of home, largely built of plywood.
A cultural performance took place with local kids square dancing, and a drummer being accompanied by two women singing traditional Inuit songs. Thereafter guests took a walk through the village, back to the landing site. Some walked the shoreline of the protected harbor, and up to the Amundsen marker. Unfortunately, the Cultural Centre was not open, so we were unable to view the impressive sculpture of Amundsen. His two years spent here, learning much from the local Netsilik Inuit, stood him in great stead for future expeditions, especially the South Pole victory.
After lunch, 'Le Boreal' sailed the Simpson Strait. This strait is named for Thomas Simpson who was sent on an expedition together with Peter Warren of the HBC in 1836 to complete the discovery and survey of the northern shores of the American continent. They reached this stretch of water in 1839. The Strait measures 40 miles/64 km long and 2-10 miles/3-16km wide.
Margaret Bertulli presented a talk on Archaeology in the Canadian Arctic, before Climatologist Professor Henry Pollack presented ‘The New Face of the Arctic’. Artist and naturalist Matt Messina led an art class, for all levels of artist, materials provided by A&K. Guests are thoroughly enjoying the Enrichment Program, offered by the experienced Expedition Team.
After an interesting Recaps session, most guests chose to eat in the main dining room on Deck 2. 'Le Boreal' dancers invited guests to join them dancing in the Grand Salon lounge after dinner. At 11 pm, Brent announced Northern Lights visible. Excitedly guests poured onto the decks to view the mysterious curtains of green light dancing in the Arctic sky. How fortunate are we. Jenny Lind Island beckons for the morning.
Monday, September 9: Jenny Lind Island, Queen Maud Gulf, Canada
‘Why then do we feel this strange attraction for these Polar regions, a feeling so powerful and lasting, that when we return home we forget the mental and physical hardships, and want nothing more than to return to them?’ Jean-Baptiste Charcot, French scientist, explorer and doctor 1867-1936.
Last evening magnificent Northern Lights were seen at 11 pm. Canadian photographer Michelle Valberg stayed up till 3 am, getting incredible images and time-lapses, confirming her incredible commitment and dedication. We are very much hoping to see these images later at recaps this evening.
A calm clear morning found us cruising the Queen Maud Gulf en route to Jenny Lind Island. Close to the area where Franklin’s ship Erebus was discovered in 2014. The Gulf is a wide, shallow basin where ice cover is complete for about 9 months of the year. We landed on Jenny Lind Island, named after Swedish singer Johanna Maria Lind (1820-1887)-the Swedish Nightingale, ‘whose sweetness of voice and noble generosity have been the theme of every tongue’. Gently sloping beaches and wide sandy tidal flats welcomed the Zodiacs in very calm waters. The guests walked onto a low ridge, to view Snowy Owls through a spotting scope. Naturalist Augustine Uhlmann examined and described Snowy Owl pellets, much to the guests’ delight and enrichment. Sadly no Musk Oxen were seen.
After a very relaxed, enjoyable landing, most guests loving the cold, fresh air, we returned to 'Le Boreal' for lunch. Cultural expert Deborah Webster presented a talk on Inuit Oral Tradition and Culture. We are learning much about the Inuit (singular Inuk), Igloouit (singular Igloo), and the relatively recent creation of Nunavut Territory in 1999.
Expedition Leader Brent Houston then presented a beautifully illustrated talk on polar bears. These great mammals have an almost mystic appeal; seeing close-up photos is especially gratifying. The search for sea ice north of Jenny Lind Island was unsuccessful, so we proceed west on very calm seas. Michelle, Jason, and Adam made for a very special recaps on Northern Lights and Snowy Owls.
Tuesday, September 10: Nakyoktok River, Johansen Bay, Victoria Island, Canada
‘Apart from the animals and birds, the flowers and insects, the spectacular landscapes, the drifting ice, the dazzling light, the cold and dark, the Arctic can provide an abundance of that priceless, but sometimes worthless commodity called wilderness. It is a place where a man can be himself again, alone, primitive perhaps, but above all an individual. Humans need such experiences; they also need unspoiled places like the Arctic.’ Hugh Miles and Mike Salisbury, Kingdom of the Ice Bear.
On smooth seas, Le Boreal glides west. Geologist Jason Hicks presented a very detailed lecture ‘The Cryosphere and its Peri-Glacial Landforms.’ Naturalists were on Deck to assist guests with bird identification. Guest lecturer Lana Pollack, former head of US section of International Joint Commission gave a very interesting talk on the issues regarding the 5500-mile border between USA and Canada. Matters of water, navigation, hydropower, recreation, and life necessitate careful advising for mutual benefit.
Julia Evanoff, Director of Operations for A&K assisted guests with queries regarding future expeditions.
After lunch guests were fortunate enough to enjoy a landing at Nakyoktok River mouth, on the southern coast of Victoria Island. Nearby the abandoned airstrip deserted DEW line, and unoccupied buildings bear witness to the fact that this is an unoccupied area, except for itinerant hunters. Prime habitat for birds of the high Arctic. Old buildings used by fishermen and hunters offer insight into the harshness of this environment. The highlight for many were Brown Bear scratch marks all over one wall of the old wooden hut. Guests walked up onto the ridge of erratic rocks behind. Erratic rocks are moved by glaciers and dumped in areas they don’t usually occur. In balmy conditions and glorious sunshine, some guests were treated by a visit by a young, curious Bearded Seal who swam close by for a long time. The long vibrissae/whiskers creating an almost comical appearance. Guests seemed reluctant to leave such an idyllic spot.
The recap was a fine get-together, hosted by Helen, Augustine, and Margaret before Brent presented plans for tomorrow’s afternoon in Holman.
Wednesday, September 11: Expedition Afternoon in Holman, Canada
‘Life is short and we never have enough time for gladdening the hearts of those who travel with us. Oh, be swift to love! Make haste to be kind.’ Henri-Frederic Amiel.
With a 5-foot swell running, there was plenty of movement on the ship this morning. The Dance Captain offered guests an early morning stretch and tone session, which is held daily. Climatologist Henry Pollack presented a detailed, deeply concerning lecture “Confronting Climate Change-What are the challenges?” Storyteller Rob Caskie was up next, speaking about the Allure of the North, in which he shared tales of the HBC, Salomon Andrée’ and John Rae.
The hotel department produced a wonderful barbecue on Deck 6, which the guests thoroughly enjoyed. The afternoon was spent at Ulukhaktok or Holman, a small hamlet on the west coast of Victoria Island, and the place where ulu materials are found. The large brown bluff overlooking Ulukhaktok is the source of the slate and copper used to make knives known as ulus-unique to the high Arctic and giving this community its name. Holman was a member of Inglefield’s 1953 expedition onboard Isabel searching for Franklin and the apple of Lady Franklin’s eye. Holman Co-op was formed to provide income to residents of the community by producing arts and crafts. This area is famous for its prints, a major source of income hereabouts. Using lithography, stenciling, stone cut a linocut, local artists have created prints that are prized internationally by collectors and museums alike.
The ocean was very choppy, and most guests got wet on the Zodiac ride to shore this afternoon. The locals welcomed us with open arms, took the guests on guided walks, and provided a fine cultural show of dancing, drumming and singing. A fantastic community indeed. Ulu knives with their curved blades are central to Inuit culture. These knives are passed down from generation to generation, along with the belief that it holds the ancestor’s wisdom.
The TV channels provide coverage of the lectures onboard, a virtual tour of the galley area, video of our expedition thus far, and much more. We trust the guests are aware of all this and taking advantage of this viewing smorgasbord.
Recaps this evening was presented by Russ, Adam, and Matt before Brent presented plans for Smoking Hills tomorrow. After dinner, the dancers lead guest dancing in the Grand Salon.
Thursday, September 12: Expedition Day at Smoking Hills, Franklin Bay, Canada
‘Victory awaits him who has everything in order- luck we call it. Defeat is definitely due to him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions-bad luck we call it.’ Roald Amundsen, conqueror of North-West Passage, South and North Poles.
The dawn greeted Le Boreal with dense fog, so plans were made to swop the day around-lectures this morning and hopefully a Zodiac tour after lunch. Geologist Jason Hicks gave a complex, detailed lecture on The PETM and Hothouse Eocene Arctic.
Musician and Harmonica player extraordinaire Mike Stevens presented a music class. An Australian guest asked about blowing through the instrument, versus being amorous with it, bringing the house down, including Mike in fits of laughter. He hopes to have guests playing a tune by the end of the cruise, but that may prove a Bridge too far with this interesting instrument. Ice Captain Stephane Julien then gave a wonderful talk about his experiences commanding an ice-breaker with the Canadian Coast Guard, and overwintering in Franklin Bay (our position today), 11 miles offshore. His ship, Amundsen, was out of Quebec City for 309 days on end and required refueling despite 2 million liters of diesel onboard. Breaking out of the ice required every ounce of horsepower from his powerful vessel, but 30 hours toil cost consumed 90 000 liters of diesel. The propellors alone are 14 feet in diameter and weigh 7 tons apiece. There have been several times in his career when he wondered why he had not chosen to be a postman.
Despite the thick fog and only 15 feet of water beneath the keel, Brent organized a Zodiac tour for guests to get a closer view of Smoking Hills. Here spectacular cliffs of bituminous shale (with a high sulfur content) auto-ignite, burning continuously. This spontaneous ignition and site were first recorded by Geologist and Doctor John Richardson on John Franklin’s second overland expedition to the Arctic in 1826. Richardson named the Bay after Franklin. Richardson noted the acrid fumes, destroyed ponds inland and that the fumes destroyed clothing.
Robert McClure onboard Investigator In 1851 reported seeing the smoke, believing it was volcanic. The smoke results from spontaneous combustion of the bituminous shale. The character of the tundra vegetation changes rapidly as one leaves the noxious fumes behind.
For the guests who had waited patiently for the fog to clear, visibility near shore was good, and they were treated with wonderful views of the smoking vents, cliff faces, and sulfurous stains. The only place in the world where this can be viewed, and only accessible by ship, helicopter or floatplane.
Photographer Michelle Valberg then gave a stunning presentation on photographing wildlife. Her images are breathtaking. Michelle’s bear images are being used on Canadian stamps this year, and rightly so. The recap was a fun affair, hosted by Margaret, Mike, and Deborah, Jason, before Brent gave our plans for tomorrow looking for Polar Bears along the pack ice edge.
Mama Mia movie was screened at 9.15pm.
Friday, September 13: Expedition Day along Ice Edge, Amundsen Gulf, Canada
‘The Ice was here, the ice was there, the ice was all around: It cracked and growled, and roared and howled, like noises in a sound!’-Samual Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Friday the 13th is considered unlucky by some, not for us today. A great night’s rest on calm seas, brought guests into the Amundsen Gulf, at the southern extremity of the Beaufort Sea. Marine Biologist, Matt Messina gave a fantastic talk on Arctic Oceanography. Fantastic images and maps assisted guests in understanding the complex roles of wind, current, temperature, salinity, and depth in Polar Oceans. The uninterrupted Circumpolar Current around Antarctica is the largest ocean current in the world. Brent called a polar bear on the PA system during Matt’s lecture, and guests rushed out to view the sleeping bear on an ice floe. Unfortunately, the bear was startled by the ship and took off immediately when we got close. Matt graciously completed his fascinating presentation and Storyteller Rob Caskie then spoke about the history and building of the Alaska-Canada Highway, including some personal experiences from his drive along the 1523 mile route in 1995.
Over lunch and early afternoon, more bears were found on the pack ice, one close to the vessel at 3 pm. Brent’s efforts in wanting to show us more polar bears have been richly rewarded. The fog has certainly played its part, rising and closing in almost continually today. Matt Messina led an Art class for interested passengers.
Beyond the windows, the ice punctuated by open leads and pressure ridges has an almost otherworldly look. A rich fauna of algae grows in and around the ice forming the base of the food chain upon which this entire system depends.
Michelle and Fred are receiving entries for the photo competition in three categories-landscape, wildlife, and portrait. A documentary was screened concerning climate change and its effects on Inuit life. This was interrupted by Brent announcing another polar bear on the PA system. This Bear rushed towards the vessel, and sat calmly on the ice edge, bobbing up and down with the movement of the ice. Guests rushed out onto all decks and enjoyed leisurely viewing.
Early evening saw Pata Negra (Iberian ham similar to Parma ham) being enjoyed with sweet Port wine-absolutely delicious. Recaps began late on account of polar bears, and Rob Caskie shared some insights into Amundsen’s stay at King Point, along with his incredible 500-mile sled ride to Eagle City to telegram news of their North-West Passage triumph. All in all, a marvelous day in the pack ice-7 Bears in total today. Herschel Island awaits tomorrow.
Saturday, September 14: Expedition Day Herschel Island, Yukon Territory, Canada
‘If you know wilderness in the way that you love, you would be unwilling to let it go. This is the story of our past and it will be the story of our future.’ Terry Williams
On calm seas, 'Le Boreal' proceeds toward Herschel Island, the northernmost point of the Yukon Territory. Professor Henry Pollack gave an insightful presentation titled ‘Antarctica and the Arctic-Poles apart.’ There is so much more to understanding the old penguins versus polar bears, and ocean versus continent view held by so many.
Jennifer Clement and Michelle led the Needle Felting group. A very enthusiastic group of passengers, who are producing very high-quality work. The favorite theme being polar bears and trying to avoid them looking like sheep. Archaeologist Margaret Bertulli was up next with her presentation titled ‘Arctic Wanderings.’ Harmonica player Mike Stevens is training guests to get a tune out of their harmonicas (thanks to A&K).
Three guests have written words to go with the tune, which they hope to fine-tune and present to the rest of the ship. Bowhead whales were very close to the vessel for a considerable time before lunch. Wonderful to watch mother and calf surfacing simultaneously.
After lunch park rangers from Herschel Island came on board to introduce us to their island and Inuvialiut culture. We then boarded the Zodiacs and went ashore on Herschel Island, where human influence dates back 1000 years to the Thule culture. The first European to visit the Island was John Franklin, who visited in 1826 during his second overland expedition surveying the coast. Franklin names the Island after his friend, the astronomer and botanist John Herschel. In 1890 a settlement was established and at the height of the Beaufort Sea whaling period (1893/4), the number of residents was estimated at 1500, making it the largest Yukon community at that time. Herschel Island hosted grand balls, theatrical performances, and even sports leagues. Rising sea levels, violent erosion, and permafrost blow-out pose imminent threats to the future of the buildings and low areas of Herschel Island.
Guests had a splendid afternoon in glorious weather, walking around the settlement steeped in history and full of artifacts. We met local hunters who live a 9-hour boat ride away, looking for Caribou. A special short take-off and landing airplane brought the rangers onto the 1000 foot landing strip (about 320 meters) and took off again shortly after our departure, buzzing close to the ship. The expedition team took a group photo on the shingle beach, a very close-knit group of people. Recaps saw Margaret, Michelle, and Brent offering insights into the voyage thus far. Classical pianist Andrii Vaskevych gave a recital to end off another staggering day in the Arctic.
Sunday, September 15: Crossing the Beaufort Sea
‘You cannot depend on your judgement when your imagination is out of focus.’ Mark Twain
On gentle seas we proceed west, after setting watches back another hour last evening. Lana Pollack presented her talk ‘Managing waters that cannot be managed’, after which naturalists were out on the open decks answering questions, and assisting guests with wildlife spotting. The A&K naturalists have done this consistently through the voyage, adding much pleasure and knowledge to the guests.
Deborah Webster then gave a charming talk on Inuit Naming Practices. Deborah has named Captain Garcia ‘Atiqtalik’, meaning one with Polar Bear cubs. It is a name given to men or boys, affectionately. At 11 am a Pilot from the USA boarded 'Le Boreal'. Many watched as their tiny boat came alongside and the Pilot deftly stepped across onto the ladder and into the shell door. A legal requirement now that we are out of Canadian waters and into Alaskan waters.
Michelle Valberg gave an insightful presentation regarding tips for post-production editing of photographs. The changes possible if one is familiar with Photoshop or LightRoom are simply stunning, and really take digital photography to a whole new level. Michelle has taken 13,000 photos on this voyage. At afternoon tea time Deborah Webster told a short Inuit story, then read her book ‘Akilak’s Adventure’-a children’s book and beautifully illustrated. Over meals and tea it is wonderful to see guests sitting/chatting together. The North-West Passage has weaved it’s magic and great friendships have been forged.
A&K has sponsored sculptures and prints which are being silently auctioned to raise funds for their philanthropy program. Polar Bear specialist Brent Houston shared his experiences with these magnificent beasts over 25 years, accompanied by stunning images. These ice bears never lose their appeal nor intrigue. Recaps found Augustine shooting the lights out with the most amusing spoof comparing his photos with Michelle’s and generally pulling the Mickey out of the team. It was magnificent.
After dinner a concert was held, with Mike Stevens leading the show. Richard aka Blackjack sang, the Ice Captain played, Fred danced, Jennifer played the flute and Augustine sang an emotional song in Spanish which brought the house down. Cobus made music using a plastic bag. The talent within the team, and onboard, is staggering. All in all, a fantastic day at sea. We retired after 11 pm grateful for the incredible experience we are having with A&K on 'Le Boreal'.
Monday, September 16: Crossing the Chukchi Sea
‘Every traveller knows the intense satisfaction and thrill such a moment brings; the joy of getting a first hazy view of wide new territory to be explored is not less than, and may often surpass, the joy of exploration itself.’ Niko Tinbergen
Overnight and all morning, 'Le Boreal' has been steaming across the Chukchi Sea approaching the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia. The Chukchi Sea is named after the Chukchi people, who reside on its shores, traditionally engaged in fishing, whaling, and hunting of the walrus in this cold sea. The International Date Line crosses the Chukchi Sea from northwest to southeast.
As always, at sea, lectures form the primary entertainment. Jason Hicks was up first, with another brilliant lecture entitled “Future Plate Movements: The next 250 million years.” Whilst naturalists were out on Deck, Jennifer Clement led her last needle-felting class. Margaret Bertulli then spoke about Fort Conger and the challenges of preserving a Historic Polar Research Base in the high Arctic. Fort Conger features in the Nares, Greely and Peary Expeditions, and very difficult to reach by ship. Mike Stevens led his charges in their last harmonica session before tomorrow evening’s performance. Some guests and staff have written words to accompany the music.
After lunch, the Ponant photographers aired the DVD they have produced of this voyage, available for purchase. It is a wonderful reminder of this marvelous journey. Rob Caskie spoke about the Iditarod Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome, an epic 1000-mile adventure commemorating the 1925 Race of Mercy to deliver the Diptheria vaccine to Nome in mid-winter. Professor Henry Pollack delighted guests with his historical stories about Bering, Cook, and Vancouver.
Captain Garcia hosted his Farewell Cocktail Party and Dinner this evening, all sad that this Passage is almost over. It has been an extraordinary time together. Captain Garcia mentioned that Captain Julien would probably love to be part of the A&K team, and rightly so. All the staff was introduced to the guests, by Geraldine (JD). A thoroughly good evening was had by all. Diomede Island awaits us tomorrow.
Tuesday, September 17: Little Diomede Island and the Bering Strait, Alaska
‘He is truly wise who has traveled far and knows the way of the world. He who has traveled can tell what spirit governs the men he meets' - A Viking saying from the Havamal on how to manage everyday life.
In the darkness, we arrived before 8 am at Little Diomede or Inaliq, formerly known as Krusenstern Island. A must-see visit due to its unique geographical location. It is the smaller of the two Diomede Islands located in the middle of the Bering Strait between the Alaska mainland and Siberia. It’s neighboring island Big Diomede is 2,4 miles to the west but is part of Russia and west (the other side) of the International Date Line. The tiny village is perched at the base of a mountain that juts out of the sea, about 135 miles from Nome, Alaska. This island of around 170 inhabitants is one of few places in Alaska where you can see Russia from your home. The local Ingalikmiut people still maintain a traditional lifestyle of hunting, fishing and egg gathering.
We were made very welcome, and groups of 20 guests were shown around the village before we enjoyed a show of dancing and music in the local gymnasium, built by the US government. Boardwalks and steps linked all the buildings and homes, and friendly dogs barked at our passing. Lonely graves were situated high above the village on the mountainside. Children were very keen to visit the ship, but sadly time made that impossible. Back onboard Captain Garcia proposed a toast on the pool deck, after opening a bottle of champagne sabrage-style. It was cold and damp outside, fairly usual weather at this time of year in the Bering Strait.
Guests handed in their life-jackets, boots and waterproof trousers, now that the expedition was sadly over. Geraldine (JD) Massyn gave an important disembarkation briefing for tomorrow’s arrival in Nome. It is hard to believe that we have traveled 4,650 nautical miles since embarkation in Kangerlussuaq. What a voyage it has been, with exceptional guests, weather, crew, Expedition Team, and wildlife sightings. The camaraderie onboard and friendships forged are perhaps as important as everything beyond what we see through the glass.
A fantastic final recap of the day was held, where photography competition winners were announced, winners bid on the painted chart of our voyage, Mike Stevens led his band playing the harmonicas, and Richard Blackjack Escanilla showed the slideshow he so painstakingly created of this expedition. JD Massyn thanked the team for their contribution, and Phil Otterson (A&K USA Chairman Emeritus) presented Ice Captain Stefane Julien with an A&K parka - utterly appropriate as he so much would love to be part of this team.
In the evening, 'Le Boreal' was bunkered with 300,000 liters of diesel fuel for her onward journey. We have not bunkered in 4,650 nautical miles. A large barge-type vessel came alongside for this operation. Words fail miserably to adequately describe this journey we had together through the high Arctic and famed Northwest Passage. We are some of the privileged few to have sailed the NWP. To experience this with A&K elevated a great experience to the sublime and the whole journey was extraordinary. This experience will remain forever etched in the minds of all who participated.
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