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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!

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We went to bed 2-1/2 miles from Hebron and woke up the next morning almost five miles from it. In fact, some of us didn't need to wake up, since the constant crunching and grinding of the ice against the ship's hull made it difficult to sleep. In this, we were in excellent company, for Sir Ernest Shackleton's men on the Endurance's legendary voyage had had the same experience. Often they would begin their diary entries with the words: "din, Din, DIN."

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Giving up on Hebron, we now set our sights on the Torngats, which were less than 40 miles north of us. The report from the Canadian Ice Survey was not good, and neither was our progress. At last a visibly unhappy Julio decided that we would have to give a pass to the Torngats, too.

To my surprise, most passengers were philosophical about not seeing what had been advertised as the highlight of the trip. "This was described as an expedition cruise," remarked one, "and it really is one!"

Satellite images showed a 45-mile wide band of ice hugging the Labrador coast, so Captain Rudenko's only option was to turn the Orlova's bluff bow east in an effort to reach open water.

Progress was again slow, but by this time the focus of the trip had shifted to the ice itself – its myriad shapes and forms (was that the White House somehow wedged in a floe?) and indeed its beauty. That beauty was often breathtaking, as when the sunset would turn the ice into a shimmering kaleidoscope of orange, red, and yellow.

One day passed, then two, during which the tireless staff regaled us with presentations. Jason Annahatak, an Inuk, talked about his people's traditional medicine. From another staffer, Susan Felsberg, we learned about the old Moravian church that we would have seen at Hebron if we'd been able to land there. One of our resident naturalists was on deck, identifying various types of birds.

At last, free of the ice, the ship began moving toward the northern tip of Labrador at what seemed like breakneck speed, although it was really only 8 or 9 knots.

We were on the home stretch of the journey, but our adventures weren't over. Julio had received a report that there was heavy ice in the vicinity of Kuujjuaq, our port of disembarkation, so we would now be heading north to Baffin Island's Frobisher Bay, where there was less ice.

After a day at sea, we saw the mountainous spires of Baffin Island, and then we were steaming into Frobisher Bay ... or not steaming into it. Ice conditions had changed dramatically since we'd received the report, and there now seemed to be even more ice here than on the Labrador coast.

We were probably going slower than Martin Frobisher himself when he sailed into his namesake bay in 1577. At the present speed, the Orlova would not reach Iqaluit, where we were due to disembark, for a few more days, and this would mess up Cruise North's schedule.

So Julio radioed an icebreaker and asked it for help. When the icebreaker showed up well after midnight, everyone gathered on deck and cheered its arrival.

The festive mood continued the next day, when the temperature was mild enough for a barbecue on deck. "This is the ultimate in alfresco dining," a woman remarked, and I had to agree with her. For outdoor drama, no sidewalk cafe in the world can compare with Baffin Island's rugged coastline and the pageantry of ice all around us.

Even while we were still at sea, we were working on the stories we'd tell our friends back home about the trip. Stories that might include statements like: "We had to fight hard for every mile," "Nature kept reminding us that she was the boss," "I wasn't bitten by a single mosquito on the whole trip," and "With global warming, I felt like we were seeing an endangered species ... and sometimes getting stuck in it."

When we finally reached Iqaluit, the ice gave us a little goodbye present: Our Zodiacs could not find a passage through the floes cluttering the shore, so we had to be landed several miles outside of town and then bused to the airport.

In Iqaluit, I met an old friend, who was quite surprised to see me. "So the trip did not go according to plan?" he asked.

"No," I replied enthusiastically.

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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