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 , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    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.)
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    Inuit Art: Among the sights in nothern Canada was this Inuit stone marker known as a Inukshuk.
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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.

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.

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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.

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."

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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