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Jousting with ice floes: an adventurous cruise in the far north

Passengers on an 'Arctic expedition' cruise in late June hoped to see ice. And did they!

By Lawrence MillmanContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / February 6, 2008

Cold Cruise: Mugford Tickle along the central Labrador coast was filled with ice in late June last year. (A tickle is a colorful name for a strait or inlet.)

Lawrence Millman

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Goose Bay, Labrador

As far as the eye could see there was nothing but ice, and our ship – the 328-foot Lyubov Orlova – was having some difficulty maneuvering either through it or around it.

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Getting stuck in ice had not been included in our itinerary. Cruise North, a relatively new company owned by Makivik, a Quebec Inuit corporation, had advertised the trip as an opportunity to explore the north coast of Labrador as well as Torngat Mountains National Park, Canada's newest national park. I'd been almost everywhere in Labrador except for the Torngats, so I jumped at the prospect of seeing the park's spectacular mountains (the highest in Canada east of the Rockies) and its jagged fjords.

The Orlova had departed from Goose Bay, Labrador, on a day not unlike a summer day in New England. In the distance, a heat haze had reduced the Mealy Mountains to a smoky blue silhouette against an equally smoky sky.

In the evening, we attended a reception with the captain, who, along with the crew and most of the kitchen staff, was Ukrainian.

After Captain Rudenko welcomed us to the ship, a passenger asked him whether we would encounter any ice on the trip. His answer: "Maybe." He added that there were reports of thick ice along the coast, but if the wind shifted from west to east, as it frequently did, the ice would be blown out to sea.

Several of the ship's 40 passengers groaned audibly. They'd actually hoped to encounter ice on the trip. Never groan for something, or you might get it....

The next morning, the Orlova was in the open Atlantic, steaming northwest to the towns of Makkovik and Hopedale. At first we only saw a solitary iceberg, its twin turquoise-white domes glistening in the bright sunlight.

Everyone ran onto the deck to take pictures. Soon we began to see more ice, first grease ice, so named because it seems to form a scum on the water, and then chunks of so-called pancake ice. Later we saw numerous large floes, many adorned with sapphire pools of meltwater.

Julio Prellen, Cruise North's Chilean expedition leader, had just looked at satellite images of the area. "Unfortunately," he told us, "the ice will not permit us to land at Makkovik." A while later he said the same thing about Hopedale.

"So much ice in late June is very unusual," observed an Inuit member of the staff.

The following day we learned that we wouldn't be landing in Nain, an Inuit community that had prepared a traditional feast for us. I expected to hear some grumbling from the passengers, but there wasn't any. "This is the Arctic," said a doctor from Toronto, "so you've got to roll with the punches."

Meanwhile, we were having feasts of our own, dining on such delicacies as caribou barley soup, seafood casserole in phyllo pastry, and shrimp flambé, all prepared by our talented French-Canadian chef.

Captain Rudenko expertly guided the Orlova through the ice floes and banks of fog to Mugford Tickle, where we met with open water. Ahead of us were the Kaumajet Mountains, a range of volcanic and sedimentary peaks rising straight out of the Labrador Sea. Kaumajet means "The Shining Ones" in Inuit, but they weren't shining that day. Instead, they were eerie phantoms shrouded in fog, an effect so haunting that it caused us to reach for our cameras.

Zodiac inflatable boats deposited us onto a gravel beach, and then we hiked up to a waterfall. Along the way, we saw a bounty of Arctic wildflowers, including Lapland rosebay, a rhododendron flower so purple that any other purple flower looks pallid by comparison. And on a nearby ridge stood a caribou, seemingly posing for our benefit.

After we returned to the boat, we saw a polar bear prowling around on an ice floe. It glared over its shoulder at the Orlova, as if to say: You may be bigger than me, but I'm stronger.

"It doesn't get any better than this," said a woman from California.

As we headed toward the abandoned Inuit settlement of Hebron, the ice returned, and the Orlova moved sideways and backward in its attempt to go around it.

Cruise North will be offering seven trips to the Arctic and subarctic between mid-June and the beginning of September in 2008. Destinations include northern Labrador, Hudson Bay, Baffin Island, and Resolute in the high Arctic.

For more information, call toll-free 866-263-3220 (outside North America, call (1) 416-789-3752), visit Cruise North's website, www.cruisenorthexpeditions.com, or e-mail info@cruisenorthexpeditions.com.

Inuit-led cruises to the Arctic and subarctic

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