Sailing the Northwest Passage

Melting Arctic ice has made the legendary Northwest Passage more accessible to adventure cruises.

WORDS Joel Balsam
March 2020

Photography by Stephanie Foden

I was standing on the ship’s starboard side, gazing out at a passing ice floe, when something moved in the distance. I quickly grabbed a pair of binoculars and realized it was a polar bear. He paced, carrying a seal carcass, staining the ice pink with the story of his survival, then stared back at me as if to say, “What are you doing here?”

It’s a good question. Not many humans have been able to reach where the 450-foot Ocean Endeavour carried 197 other passengers and myself, somewhere along the path of the Northwest Passage. The route, a storied 900-mile shortcut that connects Europe and Asia, has stymied explorers for centuries with its brutal weather and ice. John Cabot was searching for it in 1497 when he landed on the east coast of North America, as was John Franklin, whose ill-fated 1845 attempt devastated England with news that not only had the two ships and all 129 souls gone missing, but some of the crew had also resorted to cannibalism.

Until recently, the Northwest Passage—or more accurately, five to seven possible aquatic routes through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago—was impassable by ship due to thick multiyear ice. But climate change has made the waters more accessible than ever, and in 2007, the passage was ice-free in the summer for the first time in recorded history. Arctic nations are now scrambling to determine who controls shipping, while more cruise lines are venturing in. Fifteen cruise ships entered the passage in 2019 (up from eight in 2014), including the expedition cruise I was on, Adventure Canada’s 17-day Out of the Northwest Passage trip.

Adventure Canada cultiralist Susie Evyagotailak wears a coat she made

Our journey started in early September with a flight from Calgary International Airport to the tiny village of Kugluktuk, at the western entry point of the Passage. Snow zigzagged across the sky, dusting the flat grey tundra, while the temperature hovered above freezing—balmy, considering it could drop below -50°F. From here we’d sail eastward through the Passage to Greenland and along the way experience an impressive itinerary but only if all went well. Trip leader Jason Edmunds warned us repeatedly to have no expectations—the chances of seeing polar bears, Inuit villages, northern lights and finally the stunning fjords of Greenland were “between zero and 100 percent.” Vague nautical maps, unpredictable weather and the chance of huge ice floes clogging routes meant we might have to turn back, or detour south. The trip prior to ours required an icebreaker from the Canadian Coast Guard to escort them to navigable water. “I’ve done this exact itinerary where we’ve had some pretty big storms where we can’t get off the ship for days,” Edmunds told me.

I found out on the third night that one of the most astounding highlights on the itinerary might actually happen—a visit to the wreck site of the ship Franklin himself sailed on, the HMS Erebus, which had been missing for 169 years, until Parks Canada found it in 2014 with the help of local Inuit. It would be Adventure Canada’s sixth attempt in three years. “I get nervous talking about it,” said Edmunds. “This is the best opportunity yet.”

Fierce winds kicked up on the morning of the visit, but not dangerous enough to cancel. As we set off in a small Zodiac, no land in sight, frigid arctic water pelted my back, running down to create a puddle under my butt. Franklin’s missing ships were one of the great mysteries of the 19th and 20th centuries, and now a bunch of 21st-century tourists were just supposed to motor on over? It seemed unfathomable. Once we reached Parks Canada’s research vessel, the RV David Thompson, my Zodiac driver lined me up with a shaky rope ladder. After a few tries, I hauled myself aboard, securing my own place in history as being among the first travelers to visit the site of one of Franklin’s ships.

The water was too dark to see the HMS Erebus itself, but aboard the research vessel I was able to see the archaeologists’ living quarters and 3D sonar images of the ghostly ship 36 feet below. On the neighboring research barge, which floated directly above Franklin’s ship, I saw artifacts retrieved the day prior, including an oak banister, silver sugar tongs, a leather sole and two bottles filled with port and brandy, with the murky brown liquid still inside. The archaeologists explained that the cold, mostly fresh water, as well as the darkness and sediment, left the ship and its contents astoundingly intact.

I couldn’t help but feel an eerie guilt as we motored back to the Ocean Endeavour.

Franklin’s ships were some of the most prepared to ever leave England on an expedition, yet the Northwest Passage took them. Meanwhile, here I was, traveling over the same waters as a tourist, heading to a cruise ship for a luxurious dinner of baked arctic char and a glass of wine. My greatest hardship was a wet butt. 

Several days and several hundred miles later, the sky cleared and bluish-white iceberg chunks floated by, hinting at our next destination, the Croker Bay glacier off Devon Island, the largest uninhabited island on Earth. To get there, we had to squeeze through the Passage’s narrowest and most nerve-racking section, the mile-wide Bellot Strait, which would allow us to avoid the menacing ice floes in Peel Sound that had necessitated the icebreaker on the previous trip. The nearly 20-mile-long strait—which has only recently seen ice-free summers—carried its own risks, however. In 2018, an Argentine sailboat hit an ice patch in the strait and sank. “If the bucket list comes before safety, it’s not going to be a good result,” Edmunds said, assuring me that we weren’t on a mere pleasure yacht.

Guests get a closer look at the Croker Bay glacier

Once through the strait we made our way to the island, which rose in rugged, gravelly bluffs. The topography is so barren and austere that it was used from 2001 to 2017 as the location for the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station, meant to simulate conditions on the Red Planet. From our Zodiacs, we got within 50 feet of the glacier, and could see the crags at the top, some jagged and new, some worn smooth by wind. “Is this where they make iceberg lettuce?” joked Randy Edmunds, our Zodiac driver and Jason’s father. All of a sudden, a seal popped out of the water and the Zodiac erupted with a collective aww. “Where’s your gun, Randy? I wanna eat,” joked the Inuit interpreter on board.

Unlike your average Caribbean cruise, Adventure Canada’s programming is almost entirely educational, and the staff includes Inuit from across the north giving lectures on various subjects including history, nature and arctic survival. Jason Edmunds, who is an Inuk from northern Labrador, said having Inuit on board helps “southern culture” connect with “northern culture.”

That diverse staffing paid off a few hours after leaving Croker Bay, when Edmunds made an unscheduled announcement—

a polar bear had been spotted digging into a beluga whale off the port side of the ship.

I rushed to the deck and was so engrossed with the sight of the majestic predator I didn’t notice four other bears on the opposite mountainside. We hopped into Zodiacs and idled as close as possible to the bears without disturbing them, careful not to get overly excited by the groups of seals flapping nearby. Pow! Pow! I nearly fell out of the vessel when I heard the noises. I looked over and saw a small motorboat with a hunter on board aiming his rifle. The bears skirted the mountain and retreated out of sight.

A polar bear near Croker Bay, Devon Island, the largest uninhabited island on Earth

An Inuk on our staff followed the hunter to his camp and learned that while the shots were directed at the bears, they weren’t meant to kill (polar bears are not endangered in Nunavut, though they are protected under a hunting quota). The hunter was simply trying to scare the bears away from his own similar mission—harvesting beluga. “We would not think of ourselves as apart from the natural environment but very much a part of it,” explained Edmunds of the hunting.

By day 11, which landed on my birthday, I was battling cabin fever. Luckily, it was calm enough to disembark and hike on Ellesmere Island, which ice experts predict will be the last to go if multiyear sea ice continues to melt.

Despite a bum knee, a broken walking pole and creeping numbness in my hand after losing one of my beige mitts, I managed to keep up with the group and climb 1,884 feet up rugged slopes, past a bizarre landscape of lichen and moss and loaf-sized sedimentary rocks fractured by ice to look like sliced bread. Farther on we found glacial lakes capped with ice sheets, and above them, glaciers that wound up to ancient domed ice caps. Our hiking guide, Jerry Kobalenko, has led 20 sledding trips across the Arctic and said the cold climb was “the gnarliest hike in Adventure Canada history.” When he saw me warming my naked hand, he offered up an expression about arctic travel once told to him by a Russian explorer: “chem khuzhe, tem luchshe,” (the worse, the better). As we hustled back for the last Zodiac, a fellow passenger found my mitt. “Happy birthday,” she said with a grin.

An excursion on Disko Island, off the coast of Greenland

On Day 12, a looming windstorm spooked the captain from taking us north to the 80th parallel as planned, but we were still able to visit the tiny hamlet of Grise Fiord, the northernmost community in Canada and one of the coldest inhabited places on Earth. Our ship had a larger population than the town of 135, and we had to refrain from buying food in the lone grocery store, for fear of depleting their supplies, which arrive via iffy biweekly seaplane drop-offs and one or two annual cargo shipments in August and September, when the sea isn’t frozen over.

I walked along the main street past wooden sleds, seal hides and colorful houses on stilts (one can’t dig into permafrost very easily) in a strange silence—the bulk of the townspeople were hiding away due to a flu bug going around our ship. In the town auditorium, resident Larry Audlaluk described to us how, in the 1950s, the Canadian government relocated 87 Inuit from Inukjuak, Québec, to Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay in the High Arctic. The government promised better living and hunting in the far north, with the option to return home in two years, but the Inuit weren’t given sufficient supplies and struggled in an unfamiliar land. Meanwhile, extremely expensive flights home were only offered at personal expense. Audlaluk, who was two at the time, was one of these Inuit who couldn’t afford to leave, and his father died less than a year after the relocation. Canada has since apologized. “You can be angry for only so long, so I decided to move forward,” Audlaluk said.

At this point we were 70 percent through our journey. After a bumpy 36-hour crossing at Baffin Bay, we made it to Greenland, a massive island owned by Denmark (which is definitely not for sale, if you ask the country’s prime minister). Lots of us had the town of Ilulissat and its UNESCO-listed glacier circled as a must-see on our itineraries, but nature had other plans. “Due to some recent calving, the entrance to the community is completely blocked,” Edmunds said over the intercom. Icebergs and brash ice had cleaved from the glacier, blocking off the town and its picturesque boardwalk. We were still able to ride in Zodiacs to the glacier face, our rubber crafts body-checked by chunks of ice affably known as “bergy bits,” and weaved past icebergs the size of houses. As if on cue, a rainbow arced in the distance in front of dark skies.

Colorful houses in the small village of Ilimanaq, Greenland

By the time we returned to the ship, Edmunds had concocted a new plan to visit a nearby fishing village called Ilimanaq, aptly meaning “the place of expectations,” and invited its entire population of 50 aboard for lunch (the flu bug had sufficiently dissipated at this point).

In Ilimanaq, candy-colored houses sat on rocky knolls, fish dried on outdoor racks and adorable sled dog pups greeted us with a flurry of licks. We saw detailed reindeer antler carvings, musk-ox skins and gorgeous beaded clothing made by Greenlandic Inuit, distant relatives of the ancient Thule that walked over from the Canadian Arctic. The Canadian Inuit on our ship embraced their brethren and spoke in different Inuktitut dialects; they told me it was comparable to someone from Toronto speaking to someone from Texas.

Marius Kristiansen, a friendly 24-year-old Kalaallit Inuk, was out on his porch when I met him. He told me about his inextricable connection to the sea, about how he loves to take visitors out to the glacier and about the impact 24-hour polar darkness—which lasts from the end of November until the beginning of January—has on him and his community. “We get frustrated, but we try to keep our spirits,” Kristiansen said. I told him his English was terrific and he said he learned it from playing video games.

Marius Kristiansen and Ea Therkelsen outside their home in Ilimanaq

“What are you guys up to?” Edmunds asked before urging me back to the ship. Kristiansen and I giggled as if caught with our hands in a cookie jar, hugged and promised to stayin contact.

The next night, a climate-change panel sought to position all we’d seen. Peter Croal, the trip’s resident geologist, said the Arctic is warming two or three times faster than the rest of the planet and the landscape we saw on our trip may be quite different in 20 or 30 years. “When I see a glacier melting, I get kind of sad. It’s like the glacier is trying to tweet us a message,” he said.

While Croal admitted cruise ships like the Ocean Endeavour emit greenhouse gases that contribute to the warming, he insisted arctic travel has the capability to serve a higher cause. “Make sure people come here. Invite them to the Arctic to witness it, to experience it, to feel it, so they go back home and make more positive changes in their homes and communities and businesses,” he told me. “If you come to the Arctic you develop an attachment to the place and the people and if you have that, maybe you’ll go home with something a little different than just a T-shirt.”

That night, I walked out on deck and the northern lights surged across the sky like green brushstrokes.

We’d seen almost everything I could have ever hoped for, and yet I couldn’t help but wonder how the Arctic will look, and how its ecosystems will function, when future generations visit.

As the plane took off for Toronto from the former WWII U.S. military base at Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, I looked down at the tiny Ocean Endeavour below and attempted to grapple with what it means to be a modern traveler.


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