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Zodiac boat among the icebergs

Arctic adventure at sea

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posted November 4, 2019
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NTA’s Pat Henderson during Adventure Canada's High Arctic Explorer tour.
NTA’s Pat Henderson during Adventure Canada's
High Arctic Explorer tour.

One of my college dorm buddies used to say, when asked how small his hometown was, “There is no one, everywhere.” That is a pretty accurate description of the places I visited when I joined the High Arctic Explorer tour in August that was offered by NTA-member Adventure Canada.

The 12-day trip on board the Ocean Endeavour went west from Resolute, Nunavut, which is located nearly 2,200 miles (3,400 km) north of Ottawa, to Kangerlussuaq on Greenland’s southwestern coast.

The trip marked a lot of firsts for me: First time taking a multi-day cruise … First time in Nunavut and Greenland … First time above the Arctic Circle … First real experience with the it’s-light-every-hour-of-the-day phenomena.

And I enjoyed ’em all.


More icebergs than humans

Labeling these places we went as remote doesn’t begin to describe what we saw—and didn’t see—during the journey. For the first six days, we weren’t in, as my Mom used to say, “conversing distance” with anyone who wasn’t on the ship.

No. Other. Humans.

But while the Baffin Bay area is lacking in inhabitants, there is no shortage of stunning, other-worldly scenery. I never tired of seeing icebergs, glaciers, swooping shorebirds, colorful fauna, and postcard-worthy sunsets as we made our way through the famed Northwest Passage. [Note: While the sun did technically disappear below the horizon for a couple of hours each day, it never got truly dark, and I found the 24-hour brightness to be invigorating.]

Our group included just over 150 passengers, a group of 30 Adventure Canada staffers and consultants, and the 100-member crew. On board, we enjoyed educational sessions and shared meals, drinks, songs, and laughs.

We typically left the ship once a day for activities that included zodiac boat rides around beautiful (and often iceberg-laden) harbors and hikes around remote places, such as Beechey Island and Disko Bay.

Colorful Sismiut
Colorful Sisimiut

We also went ashore and toured three coastal villages: Pond Inlet, Nunavut, and Ilulissat and Sisimiut, Greenland. The population of those places is roughly 1,600, 3,500 and 5,500, respectively, and the visits offered interesting snapshots of daily life in the Arctic.

The locals in Pond Inlet treated us to an hour-long presentation that included traditional songs, dances, and games. There also was a soccer match at the community center between some fleet-footed locals and a self-selected group of passengers. Despite a solid effort from the Ocean Endeavour all-stars, the home team rallied for a one-goal win.

The guided tour in Sisimiut, by far the largest of the three towns, centered more around the area’s man-made spots and human history. The main area around the harbor is dotted with brightly colored buildings, which kept my index finger busy as I took picture after picture.

Ilulissat Icefjord
Ilulissat Icefjord

While these spots were great during the warmer August days—the highs throughout our trip ranged from 45 to 55 F (7 to 12 C)—it was tough to contemplate the winter realities of sub-zero temperatures and nonstop darkness in the isolated Arctic north.

If you ever really feel like you want to get away from it on your next vacation, though, this is the tour for you. Just go in the summer.


The non-cruise cruise experience

When addressing the passengers during a briefing the night before we boarded the plane for Resolute, Adventure Canada CEO Cedar Swan said, “We aren’t a cruise company.”

The Ocean Endeavour
The Ocean Endeavor

Now, while my knowledge of cruises was limited to second-hand vacation tales of others and the articles I’ve written on the topic over the years for Courier, what kept going through my head was: on a ship for 12 days = cruising.

Her words stayed with me, though, and their meaning became clear as the trip unfolded.

The immediate difference I noticed between my perception and reality was scale. While the family-and-friends reports pointed to the “anything you wanted to see and do, you could” regarding big-ship cruising, the experiences on the Ocean Endeavour fell firmly into the less-is-more category. The size of the boat and the lower passenger count made for a more intimate voyage, and that was very appealing.

I love few things more than good conversation, and the Adventure Canada itinerary—and the trip design—afforded a near-endless supply of opportunities for some lively banter. The fact that I was always doing the same things at the same time as my fellow travelers made it easy pickings.

If I wanted to continue a conversation I had at breakfast, I could do it on a zodiac boat ride, during the day’s shore hike, at one of the educational sessions, or just up on deck watching the icebergs float by. Full disclosure: We had a hearty and humorous group on board, and that made a huge difference.

Icebergs


But, when I needed some alone time, there were spaces on the ship where I could go to get away from everyone. I found the lounge on the top deck to be a dependably isolated place, and I went there on the nights when I was sorting through the day’s photos and writing a few sentences to post on the Courier social media channels. Hard to think I’d have found such a spot on a megaship.

Another thing that stuck out was the connection the Adventure Canada staff had to the remote destinations we were visiting. Nunavut and Greenland weren’t merely stops on this week’s itinerary; staff members were from these areas and presenters had studied these landscapes.

As they educated us on the sites of our shore excursions, they spoke passionately about each of the places. They didn’t use disconnected words such as “there, them, and they” in their descriptions, but rather used the inclusive tone of “we, our, and my.” Accordingly, their places became my places, and I came away with a deeper connection to the Arctic.

Those and a few other things brought Cedar’s words into focus. I only hope my next cruise will closely resemble the non-cruise experience Adventure Canada offers.


Back to school

While the ubiquitous, crazy-good scenery was the highlight of the trip, the on-board seminars were a close second. On all its voyages, Adventure Canada brings along a gaggle of experts to lead the educational sessions that are related to the people, landscapes, and cultures of the area (in our case, Arctic Canada and Greenland).

Inuit cultural presentation
On-board Inuit cultural presentation

Our ultra-knowledgeable group of presenters included a biologist, a geologist, an archaeologist, an ornithologist, a botanist, a historian, a filmmaker, and three native culturalists. We also had a glaciologist along with us.

I will admit that I didn’t know that was a job/discipline, but after hearing Charlotte Mougeot speak on how permafrost—another term I was unfamiliar with—is impacting the glaciers in the Arctic, I was very happy we had our own glaciologist in tow. (And yeah, that was another travel first for me.)

In addition to her session, I sat in on many other talks, most of which were an hour long. Some of my favorites were a discussion among the experts on climate change, a seminar on national parks, a presentation on Inuit culture that included throat singing and traditional games, and an interactive lesson on the Inuktitut language. The first session was so popular that a second one was added, and I can now write my name in Inuktitut.

Botanist Dawn Bazely discussing Powell Inlet’s plant life
Botanist Dawn Bazely discussing Powell Inlet’s plant life

The on-board education was enhanced by the living classroom experiences that occurred during the shore excursions. Our archaeologist, Chris Wolf, would be stationed at different sites and explain their history, our ornithologist, Garry Donaldson, would point out birds unique to an area, and our botanist, Dawn Bazely, would explain the various flowers, shrubs and trees we’d see as we hiked along.

On May 16, 1987—the day my “there is no one, everywhere” friend and I graduated from university—I vowed to never take another college class. Over the years I’ve held true to my word, but I’ll admit I didn’t mind the floating master class that was offered during this trip.


Adventure Canada runs cruises to multiple destinations in Arctic and Atlantic Canada, Greenland, and Europe, and has sailings in the Southern Hemisphere between January and March. The company also offers a series of land tours to remote areas of Canada. For more information on Adventure Canada, email Jean Bouffard or go to adventurecanada.com.

Top photo: Zodiac boat among the icebergs
Photos by Pat Henderson