Written and photographed by Mary L. Peachin
Ice sustains life in the Arctic. Spongy tundra, sparsely vegetated by dwarf-size flowers, large-flowered wintergreen, fireweed, Arctic poppy and willow, berries, and fungi, covers the mostly barren land. Where sea and land clash, ice pack and flows, and pressure ridges drift with the occasional iceberg. These large freshwater ice formations are thought to have calved from glaciers on Greenland’s ice shelf.
Polar bears, the region’s apex predator stalk bearded seals who build lairs beneath the ice to protect their pups. Others prowl beaches below high cliffs waiting for thick-billed murre chicks to fall from nests. When hunger and ferocity prevail, a polar bear might even be willing to risk injury battling a tusked walrus. Huddled pairs float on ice flows, while herds sprawl on tidal washed rocks. Belugas, narwhals and other sea mammals migrate with the flow and breakup of the ice.
Unlike Antarctic’s snow-covered landscape of glaciated icebergs, Arctic’s Baffin Island, home to 30,000 people in 18 communities, looks like a frigid desert. Wildlife includes brown and collared lemmings, short-tailed weasels, Arctic fox and hare, caribou, and wolves. The more frequently sighted bird life, in addition to the cliff dwelling murres, include the red-footed black guillemots, snow bunting, common and king eider, Canada and snow goose, glacous gull, red-throated loon, rock ptarmigan, plus numerous fulmar.
Cruise North’s Baffin Island gateway to the Arctic Ocean is the village of Iqaluit, an Inukitut translation for “Place of Fishing.” Established as a Canadian military base in 1941, the city now serves as capital of Nunavut territory. During wintry blizzards, its brightly painted yellow airport serves like a beacon to aircraft.
Tides in Iqaluit’s bay dictate ship embarkation, which is provided by zodiacs from a rocky beach. Varying in depth between 30 to 40 feet, during low tide, the bay is a muddy wetland. While waiting for high tide, we toured Iqaluit, is home to almost 1,300 residents. A red roofed museum was formerly the Hudson Bay Company. Snowmobiles, rather than cars, sit idle under stilt-built homes. One of the longest streets is the 3.7 mile Road to Nowhere.
When Captain Andrey Rudenko weighed anchor on the 328 foot M/V Lyubov Orlova, a glowing red sun hovered above Canada’s North horizon. Built in 1976 in the former Yugoslavia, our expedition itinerary was a 1400 mile voyage. From Igaluit, we would journey to destinations around Baffin Island ending in Kuujuag, Nunavik, a new self governed region of Quebec.
Throughout the night, we motored 75 miles southeast to exit Frobisher Bay. The Russian ice breaking ship, crewed by a staff of 52, then turned north into Davis Strait. The lengthy Bay was named for Martin Frobisher, an explorer for Queen Elizabeth I. In 1578, he sailed, with 15 ships and 300 Cornish miners, in search of gold. Instead, Frobisher and his men returned to England with 1,100 tons of ore that was determined to be iron pyrite or fool’s gold.
Arctic itineraries, dictated by 30 to 40 foot tides and violent storms, can change momentarily. The calm water in Frobisher Bay turned nasty when the ship reached the open sea in Davis Strait. Fifteen foot swells and six force winds quickly scuttled an excursion to view walrus on Monumental Island. The Lyubov Orlova pounded north past the Lemieux Islands before arriving late the second evening in the calm, protected waters of Cumberland Sound.
Auyuittuq National Park, or “the Land that Never Melts” on Baffin Island Peninsula’s southeast corner is noted for its rugged Penny ice cap. Overlord, the trailhead for this majestic landscape, welcomes approximately 500 annual technical climbers.
Pangnirtung or “Pang” is located 31 miles south of the Arctic circle. Harp seals and a minke whale greet our arrival at Baffin Island’s second largest community. A tour of the small hillside village included Parc Canada’s Auyuittuq National Park visitor centre, the Uqqurmut Center for Arts and Craft, and Angmarlik Visitor Centre.
Ooleepeeka Arnaqaq, Centre Manager, described tools and artifacts replicated in an early Inuit seal skin hummock, one supported by whale bone and covered with seal skin. Arctic wildlife provided clothing, food, and warmth and was a key to early Inuit survival. Adjacent to the hummock, a seal bone game, played like monopoly, was displayed. The Centre also included a whaling museum.
In the adjacent Recreation Centre, Inuit youth demonstrated their popular game of high kicking, and a throat singing competition.
Looping southward, the ship made another attempt to explore Monumental Island. Successful this time, we found a large colony of walrus lazing on an outcropping. Approaching downwind, we could smell the pinnepeds before we saw them. “Foul areas” listed on early navigational charts were thought to be named for their putrid odor. Atop the summit of an adjacent rock, a polar bear, perhaps curious about our four 16-foot zodiac “armada”, surveyed the walrus colony as its next meal. Nearby, a towering 100 foot iceberg was estimated to be 10,000 years old.
Kekerten island, designated a historic site, is located about 30 miles from Pangnirtung. It was used by Scots and Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s as a whaling station.
Snow buntings and sandpipers fished near the shore. Propped on a rock, the skull and upper jaw of a bowhead served as a reminder of how whalers almost single-handedly wiped out the species. Strewn among the Arctic blue grass tundra, with its occasional patch of dwarf flowers and fungi, were rusting vats used to render blubber into oil, tangles of wire, pulleys, and barrel hoops. The grim sight of skeletons deteriorating in wooden coffins told the story of how remnants of the past fade slowly in the Arctic.
Whenever we went ashore, the ship’s bridge first scanned the area for polar bears. Several of the crew, armed with rifles, stood watched on nearby hillsides. The air temperature was a moderate 50 degrees. Julio didn’t need to remind us twice to use insect repellant and mosquito jackets for protection against the “Inuit Air Force” of mosquitoes and black flies.
Hoare Bay was a stunning sculpture garden of ice flows mixed with an occasional iceberg. As our zodiacs slalomed around various sizes and formations, two walrus, a mother with cub, were spotted on a flow. In order not to stress them, the zodiacs remained at a distance.
Akpatok Island’s steep limestone plateau rises between 500 and 800 feet. Twenty eight miles long by 14 miles wide, cliff crevices are summer nesting sites for approximately 600,000 black and white thick billed murres. Polar bears, several with cubs, patrol the beach waiting for chicks to fall or the opportune time to plunge into the water to snatch a murre distracted while fishing.
Akpatok has been designated by the Canadian Wildlife Service as a special protection site. Its western coastline has an abandoned drilling site that offers the opportunity to hike or beach comb for fossils.
Cruise North expedition leaders presented daily lectures. Brenda Saunders, an expert on polar bears, shared her expertise. We also enjoyed lectures from a marine mammal specialist, an ornithologist, botanist, historian, and native-born Jason Annahatak, fluent in Inuktitut language, who shared aspects of modern Inuit culture.
As our journey came to a close, there was an announcement through our cabin intercoms to hurricane to the upper deck to observe the magic of the Northern Lights.
Then, once again, the tides of the Koksoak River dictated our ship disembarkation for our departure from Nunavik’s city of Kuujjuag or “Great River.”
If you go:
- This should be considered an expedition, not a cruise. The itinerary is determined by the weather, tides, and polar bear sightings can cancel an offshore expedition. Each trip itinerary differs.
- While there is the opportunity to see narwhal, beluga and other whales, caribou and other Arctic wildlife, each trip offers different sightings.
- The six deck ship has no elevator. Guests must be able to navigate the stairs as well as a port or starboard four-story gangplank climb to board zodiacs.
- All landings are considered wet and require rubber boots.
- The crew is Russian and few speak any English. Cruise North’s expedition team includes a variety of Arctic-related experts and Inuit.
- Cabins and cuisine are very basic.
- Cruise North’s gateway is Montreal. First Air provides air service to Baffin Island.
Cruise North, a Quebec Inuit-owned Makivik Corporation, www.cruisenorth.com