We depart Ottawa this morning on our charter flight to Kangerlussuaq, situated on the west coast of Greenland. Upon arrival into Kangerlussuaq we enjoy a short tour before boarding the ship in the afternoon. After settling in to our cabins and exploring the vessel, we meet our expedition team and fellow passengers. Excitement is in the air as we cast off and enjoy a welcome cocktail while cruising along Sondre Stromfjord, bound for the fabled Northwest Passage.
We will explore the fjord behind the town of Sisimiut before going ashore to explore this beautiful location in the afternoon. Characterized by colorful local houses, the town features a towering granite peak as a backdrop. We hope to meet a few of the traditional Greenlandic kayakers and to see a demonstration of ‘Eskimo rolling’ by one of the former Greenland kayak champions. A small museum is another interesting diversion.
If one word could sum up today’s experience it would be 'ice'. Even our expedition team members, with years spent exploring both the Arctic and Antarctica, will take a moment to reflect on the awesome ice sculptures surrounding the ship in all directions. Truly one of the wonders of the world, the Jacobshavn Icefjord – a UNESCO World Heritage site - spews gigantic tabular icebergs out into Disko Bay. The glacier that creates these stunning monoliths advances at over 130 feet (40 m) per day, creating something in the order of 11 cubic miles (50 cu km) of ice annually. Our approach to Ilulissat is always dependent on the amount of ice in and around the mouth of the fjord. Our captain and officers are skilled ice navigators and our ship has one of the highest ice ratings of any vessel exploring Arctic waters. Ilulissat was the hometown of Knud Rasmussen, one of Greenland’s most famous early explorers. The town is home to a pretty harbor with colorful fishing boats and houses on shore.
Leaving the rugged coastline of Greenland, our crossing of Baffin Bay is highly dependent on the extent of the so-called ‘middle ice’. We probe northwards seeking out the edges of the middle ice and plan to follow the line of ice until we reach the coast of Baffin Island. Our time at sea will be determined by the extent of the ice and amount of wildlife we encounter. As we transit Baffin Bay we are always on the lookout for fin, sperm, sei and humpback whales as well as the numerous species of Arctic seals and seabirds that inhabit these waters. Our onboard experts deliver fascinating presentations on board focusing on the wildlife, history, geology and culture of the Arctic.
Nearing the far north of Baffin Island we enter a broad channel - home to the remote Inuit community of Pond Inlet. A highlight is a visit to the Natinnak Center, where a fascinating cultural exhibit showcases aspects of daily life, culture and history of the people of the north. Inuit carvings, jewelry and other traditional crafts are on display and purchasing such items from the local artisans is a great way to support the community. We enjoy meeting the children of Pond Inlet and marveling at their athletic abilities as they demonstrate the skills and challenges of traditional Inuit games. Skills and physical agility developed by such games were often those necessary for everyday survival in the harsh Arctic environment.
Leaving the wild landscapes of Baffin Island, we cross Lancaster Sound to Devon Island. We are now at almost 75 ̊ degrees north of latitude. This broad channel of water has been likened to the wildlife ‘super highway’ of the Arctic. Massive volumes of water from the Atlantic to the east and Pacific to the west, and from the archipelago of islands to the north all mix here, combining to make a rich source of nutrients and food for an abundance of Arctic wildlife, living both above and below the water. We plan to visit the old Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) outpost at Dundas Harbor, situated on the southern shores of Devon Island. Musk ox and Arctic hare are sometimes sighted in the vicinity and there are some great hiking options in the area.
Beechey Island holds great historic importance on our journey through the Northwest Passage. It is here that Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition spent its last ‘comfortable’ winter in 1845 before disappearing into the icy vastness, sparking an incredible series of search expeditions that would span almost three decades. The mystery of what happened to Franklin was partially solved in September 2014, when a joint Parks Canada and Royal Canadian Geographic Society expedition found the long lost Franklin shipwreck, HMS Erebus, in the Victoria Strait. Our Expeditions played a vital role in the search by carrying underwater search equipment on our ship as well as scientists, historians, researchers, dignitaries and sponsors of this history-defining mission.
A trip ashore at Beechey Island to visit the grave markers on a remote windswept beach, is a thrilling location for history buffs and for many will be the defining moment of our expedition. We cross the Barrow Strait into Prince Regent Inlet, stopping to view the bird cliffs at Prince Leopold Island. This is an important migratory bird sanctuary, home to thick-billed murres, black guillemots, northern fulmars and black-legged kittiwakes. Numbering in the order of several hundred thousand birds, Prince Leopold Island is one of the most significant bird sanctuaries in the whole of the Canadian Arctic. Given the abundance of food in this vicinity we often sight beluga, narwhal and bowhead whales here, as well as several species of seal and polar bear.
Continuing to navigate the ship south into Prince Regent Inlet, we approach the eastern end of Bellot Strait. The historic site of Fort Ross, located at the southern end of Somerset Island, is a former Hudson’s Bay Company fur-trading outpost. Fascinating archaeological sites nearby tell a story of more than a thousand years of habitation by the Inuit and their predecessors. Having explored Fort Ross, we attempt a transit through the narrows of Bellot Strait. The aim is to enter at slack tide if possible, in order to avoid a current that roars through the passage at more than seven knots during the peak flow. The mixing of waters in this Strait provides an abundant food source for marine mammals and we keep our eyes peeled for harp seals, bearded seals and even polar bears. The skill of the captain and officers and capabilities of the ship becomes apparent during this exciting day of Arctic navigation.
Having emerged from Bellot Strait, we cross the Victoria Strait and arrive at Coningham Bay on the shore of Prince of Wales Island. Here, in the heart of the Northwest Passage, we hope to encounter one of the most remarkable wildlife sites in the Arctic. This is a known hotspot for polar bears. They come here to feast on beluga whales often caught in the rocky shallows at the entrance to the bay. It is not unusual to find the shoreline littered with whale skeletons – and very healthy looking polar bears.
Heading further into the Northwest Passage, the mystery of Sir John Franklin and his ‘lost expedition’ is beginning to unravel. Prior to the recent discovery of the HMS Erebus in September 2014, very little was known of how the Franklin Expedition spent its last months in the frozen Arctic. The vessels, abandoned in the ice of Victoria Strait are just coming to life thanks to the ongoing efforts of Parks Canada’s marine archeological team and the recent Victoria Strait Expedition. On Victory Point a lifeboat left abandoned, bits and pieces of copper and iron, cutlery and buttons and a skeleton here and there all tell a story of a desperate race south in search of rescue that never came. We hope to visit Victory Point and the Victoria Strait, traveling very near the actual location of the wreck of HMS Erebus, all the while learning about the quest for exploration that eventually opened up the Arctic. On this, our last night of the expedition, we enjoy a celebratory dinner, attended by the captain of the ship and reflect on our epic voyage.
Our journey is all but complete as we approach the community of Cambridge Bay. This remote outpost is a center for hunting, trapping and fishing. The Inuit have had summer camps in the vicinity for hundreds of years. Amundsen spent two winters in this area, learning how to master dog-sledding from the locals prior to his attempt on the South Pole. We say farewell to our crew and make our way ashore by Zodiac. A special charter flight returns us to Edmonton.
Note: Polar exploration can be unpredictable. Specific sites visited will depend on prevailing weather and ice conditions at the time of sailing. The above itinerary should be read as a ‘guide only’ and may change. The ship’s captain in conjunction with the expedition leader continually review the sailing plan throughout the voyage, making adjustments to the itinerary along the way to take advantage of optimal weather and ice conditions or to maximize our encounters with wildlife. Decades of experience spent exploring these waterways mean we have a large number of outstanding landing sites and Zodiac cruising locations to consider, even when the weather conditions may not be ideal. A flexible approach is something we encourage you to bring to the ship.
* Itinerary may be subject to change