Around South Baffin in seven days

Undismayed by fog, rain, cruise passengers gorge on char, scenery



It’s hard to tell what makes Kieffer Brack, 13, more excited: spotting a polar bear after three days of rain, fog and heavy swells aboard the Lyubov Orlova, or admiring the charms of the pretty Russian kitchen staff.

But it’s clear the seven-day cruise, a Christmas gift from his grandmother, will help him nail any science class discussion on global warming when he enters Grade 9 in Collingwood, Ontario, this September.

Brack is by far the youngest of the 38 passengers who boarded the ship on Saturday, Aug. 12 in Iqaluit, for one of Cruise North’s tours up the Davis Strait to Pangnirtung and back down to Kuujjuaq, stopping along the way at islands frequented by walrus and polar bears.

Most passengers are retired and have already taken similar cruises in the Antarctic and Alaska. The crowd is largely from Canada, with a half dozen people from the United States, three Germans, two Austrians, one Dutch and a British journalist tagging along.

The trip begins with a quick tour of Iqaluit, where visitors wrinkle their noses as they pass the Iqaluit sewage lagoon and garbage dump en route to the causeway, where zodiac boats wait to take them aboard the mother ship.

The next day’s destination is Monument Island: a favourite hauling-up spot for walrus. But heavy swells make climbing aboard the zodiacs too dangerous, and thick fog blocks any view of the blubbery sea mammals.

This will be just one of several occasions when foul weather meddles with the expedition plans.

Thankfully, the cruise’s knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides keep most passengers from going too stir-crazy as the ship lolls back and forth.

They include Brenda Saunders, a polar bear biologist; Brad Schram, a bird expert; Lawrence Millman, a historian and enthusiast of mushrooms and lichen; and Shoshanah Jacobs, an ecologist who’s studied the thick-billed murre.

Also aboard is Jason Annahatak, 25, from Kangirsuk, who gives an overview of Inuit history and the push for land claims agreements and self-government.

Annahatak is one of six Inuit employed aboard the ship this tour. He says he hopes one day to see the cruise operation, owned by Makivik Corp., entirely staffed by Inuit.

“We can do anything that anyone on this ship can do, and I want us to show the world that,” he says.

And if while working on the boat he can debunk a few misconceptions about Inuit still living in igloos, so much the better.

“We’re a part of the modern world, just like everyone else.”

In Pangnirtung, passengers watch Ezra Arnakaq and Robert Joamie demonstrate the high kick to the crowd, and listen to women throat sing.

The visitors also buy tapestries, wall-hangings and carvings from the Uqqurmuit Centre for Arts and Crafts. Nearly one-third of the centre’s business is done with cruise passengers, says manager Peter Wilson.

That evening passengers feast on grilled Arctic char and roasted caribou during an on-deck barbecue, joined by Pangnirtung’s deputy mayor, Sakiasie Sowdlooapik.

A spectacular sunset bathes the ship in pink as it pushes forward to Auyuittuq National Park.

On Tuesday passengers poke around the entrance to the park, where a rockslide thunders in the near distance and 13-year-old Brack comes within a few metres of an Arctic hare.

Later, as the ship reverses course south, bad weather prevents a visit to Kekerten Island, a base for Scottish and American whalers from the mid-1800s into the 20th century.

And more fog and wind foils another run at Monument Island on Wednesday.

By early Thursday morning the ship is off Killiniq, formerly known as Port Burwell, once a community of about 50 until it was abandoned in 1978, off the northeastern tip of Labrador. On land, a few passengers spot caribou before the animals dart over a ridge. The rest make do with peering at old tent rings, various lichen and mushrooms, and lemming droppings.

Finally, that afternoon the ship arrives at Akpatok Island, home to some one million thick-billed murres, as well as polar bears that stalk the beaches and snack on any injured birds that fall from the cliffs above.

But with gale-force winds blowing, a Zodiac launch is out, so passengers contend themselves with watching murres flap past the deck.

Through a spotting scope, eight bears are seen – but they don’t appear as much more than white splotches in the distance.

That evening the Northern lights flicker in the sky, and by morning, the seas have calmed.

The Zodiacs launch, passengers photograph polar bears with their zoom lenses, and everyone returns on board content.

As 58-year-old Harvey Schartz puts it, “the polar bear is the money shot.”

Schwartz, a civil-rights lawyer from Ipswich, Mass., is probably your ideal customer for a cruise through Canada’s eastern Arctic. He says he’s dreamed of visiting the North his whole life.

“Just saying the names of these places is magical,” he says. “They could have taken a fridge and stuck a Davis Strait sticker on it, and I would have been happy.”

But he admits that close-up photos of Arctic wildlife in Cruise North’s promotional material may have led to some unrealistic expectations.

“I don’t know how silly I am, but I was expecting we’d be running from deck to deck, looking at polar bears and walrus.”

Several other passengers wonder how much boardings and meals will bog down when the ship is packed with 88 passengers, such as the cruise bound for Resolute this week. With 38 passengers, the staff already have their hands full.

And there aren’t many distractions for kids. Despite this, 13-year-old Brack says he enjoyed the trip so much he wants to move to the North.

He also says he hopes others visit, to see the effects of climate change first-hand.

The trip ends in Kuujjuaq, where the visitors munch on bannock at Stewart Lake. The bugs, in turn, nibble on the guests.

Like the rest of the trip, it seems like a reasonable deal. The passengers fly off smiling.

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