By Jill Gleeson
It’s not really accurate to call what passengers experience on a High Arctic crossing with Adventure Canada a cruise. Sure, there’s a small spa on board; the fare, served on white linen tablecloths in a posh dining room, is both well-prepared and plentiful; and there’s turn-down service courtesy of cabin attendants who even leave towels folded into playful animal shapes on the bed. But make no mistake, Adventure Canada isn’t primarily about cruise-like pampering—or the inactivity that is typically cruising’s hallmark.
Adventure Canada is about crossing iceberg-laden seas in a Zodiac raft to lonely shores that animals like muskoxen and polar bears call home. It’s about watching the Northern Lights dance above your head as your breath blows white in the frozen night, by day spotting orcas, humpback whales and other iconic creatures from the ship’s rail. It’s about making discoveries about yourself as much as as the the world around you, and stepping outside of comfort zones, about finding new passions, and feeling wonder you haven’t since childhood.
It’s about adventure.
The company itself—a family-owned and -operated business founded in 1987—has dubbed its efforts “expedition travel,” a term that recalls the great explorers who mapped the far reaches of the planet. Which is exactly where “Out of the Northwest Passage” takes its wayfarers: to Earth’s end, or about as close to it as you can get. The journey, which lasts a lengthy 17 days, begins with embarkment on to the Ocean Endeavour in Nunavut, Canada’s most northerly territory. It crosses through the Atlantic Ocean’s Baffin Bay, which lays between Baffin Island and the west coast of Greenland, ending in that country.
What exactly happens in between is up to the whims of the Arctic, one of the most inhospitable places on the globe. When I traveled with Adventure Canada on the “Out of the Northwest Passage” trip last September, the embarkment locale was moved three times due to encroaching sea ice too thick for the ship to navigate. The itinerary initially evolved just as much, thanks to what Expedition Leader Michael James Swan (the deeply charming son of one of the company’s founders), called “a very heavy ice year.” The multiyear ice, old and thick, he had added, “had broken up and come down from the North. We’ll not see ice like this again.”
Some days it seemed like the ice was chasing us, as it cut off our access to landing sites again and again, but this, as Swan explained, is the nature of true adventure. If we could have known exactly what was to come, if all could have been perfectly predicted and went precisely according to plan, we wouldn’t have been in the wild. We would have been in an amusement park. And nothing I ever experienced in Disneyland can compare to the the joy and gratitude I felt, so overwhelming it brought tears to my eyes, after we clambered aboard the Zodiacs for the first time.
The idea had been to visit the old Royal Mounted Canadian Police post in Dundas Harbor— we’d get to it, as achingly lovely as it was lonely, the following day—but fog had made the route there perilous. Instead, we pulled into Croker Bay and cruised the mist-laden water in Zodiacs, spotting ringed and bearded seals in the still sea. Everywhere were small icebergs, a blue so pure and clear I’m not sure there exists an adequate name for the color. The memory of that short, unexpected outing remains one of my favorites.
But how do you categorize and rank occasions so moving you suspect as you’re living them that they’re changing your life? That you’ll forever be maybe just a bit more attentive and sensitive to the environment around you, that you’ll see beauty more fully and in places and things you might not have before? There were so many of these moments during the time I spent with Adventure Canada in the High Arctic. When I think of them I’m instantly transported back to the cold and wind, the heaving, black water, even to those rare times when the sky opened and the sun broke through, its intense warmth as unexpected as its appearance.
I’m thankful for the onboard lectures Adventure Canada’s expert staff gave us, covering everything from the flora and fauna of the Arctic, to the histories of both its native people and the daredevils who attempted to cross it, as well as the effects of climate change on this fragile, endangered ecosystem. I loved visiting the Inuit villages and towns Canadian and Greenlandic, a vivid peek into a gorgeous culture I previously couldn’t have imagined. The creatures we spotted from the ship’s deck, a testament to the Arctic’s great biodiversity, its wealth of precious life we cannot allow to be lost, stunned me into awestruck silence as often as they did delighted gasps.
If, in the first half of the voyage, the Arctic seemed intent on halting our progress at every turn, it could be a benevolent host, too, granting us generous peeks at its legendary animal life. One day we spied 300-400 ghostly beluga whales rising white and slick through the waters of Stratton Inlet off the Endeavour’s port side, the very next a mama polar bear and her two dozing yearlings on a passing ice flow. There was the gang of fat walruses, three dozen or so lazing on a beach, the massive adults encircling the young ones to keep them safe, a sighting rare enough even Swan said, “I haven’t seen one like it, so many walruses together, in many years.”
I found the landings, placing my feet where so few humans ever had, as rousing as the glimpses of wildlife. On the eighth day we hiked Philpot Island in what our guide, Mike Beddell, called “near white-out conditions” and I was thrilled to encounter as close a dose as we would get of the Arctic’s legendarily extreme conditions. Our first day on Greenlandic soil brought us all the way to 78°17’N, more than 12 degrees above the Arctic Circle. Etah, the historical home of the Polar Inuit, the northernmost indigenous people on Earth, afforded me the chance to not only stroke the Brother John glacier, but crawl under its lip overhanging the ground.
I think that afternoon affected me even more profoundly than the day we spent, at the very end of the trip, in Ilulissat, home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Jacobshavn Glacier, the most productive in the Northern Hemisphere. The massive glacier, and the icebergs it spawned, some the size of city blocks, were almost too stunning to be absorbed.
And then it was time to go home, but even as we jetted back to Canada this journey of a lifetime had a parting gift: The Northern Lights. Outside my plane window they shimmered against the ebony night, glowing green, dancing before the stars and my dazzled eyes.
Adventure Canada is currently offering an incredible deal if you’re flush with cash: For $50,000 USD per person you have access to any available cabin aboard any or all 2019 Ocean Endeavour voyages. For more information, visit www.adventurecanada.com.
Odds of Encountering Children: Very low. Adventure Canada welcomes all ages, but the price of “Out of the Northwest Passage,” which begins at $9,346 per person, makes bringing the entire family along cost prohibitive for many. There were no children aboard my roughly 170-passenger trip.
– Photos courtesy Adventure Canada; ship, zodiacs, polar bears © Scott Forsyth
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Jill Gleeson is an independent travel journalist who has written for brands including Woman’s Day, Country Living, Good Housekeeping, Reader’s Digest, Washingtonian, Gothamist, Canadian Traveller and a host of other festive publications and websites. She is the Travel Editor of Enchanted Living. Follow her adventures at gleesonreboots.com.