I don't think I realized just how desperate we were to see polar bears until the trip was almost over. We’d been in the Arctic for nearly two weeks, and we’d hardly seen any animals at all, apart from a mound of fur that our leaders identified as a musk ox. A musk ox, I’ll admit, is not something you see every day, but it’s also not what you have in mind when you book an Arctic cruise. What you have in mind is polar bears.
I think our leaders understood this. I think that’s why they steered our inflatable skiffs toward the mother bear and her cub as soon as we saw them off in the distance, two specks of white against the drab background of rock and sea. I think that’s why we kept getting closer and closer even as they tried to swim away, crossing a cove and scrambling up a cliff. There were people on the cruise—a minority, to be sure—who later criticized the decision to follow them. Polar bears, they pointed out, often go up to a month without finding anything to eat and can ill afford to waste precious calories paddling away from people, even if those people only want to share pictures of them on Facebook.
But I’m not sure we had a choice. Having spent two weeks on a ship populated mostly by Canadians, I can confirm that Canadians really are very polite. But if we hadn’t seen any polar bears, I think there might have been a riot.
We were in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, a sprawl of more than 36,000 islands covering an area more than three times the size of California. Though we hadn’t encountered any polar bears until now, we had observed many scenes of epic beauty: Gothic castles of ice that rose out of nowhere, royal blue mountains at midnight set against the lighter blue of sea and sky. For many years, this was one of the last places on the planet where a traveler could drop off the map. Starting in the 16th century, thousands of men tried to navigate what they called the Northwest Passage, a hypothetical route through a maze of icy channels from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Until Roald Amundsen in 1906, every one of them failed. Many vanished into the ice. Today, of course, it is the ice that is vanishing, which is why the Northwest Passage can now be navigated by cruise ships.
For generations of visitors, the Arctic ice was something to be endured. But for the people and animals who have lived here for millennia, the ice is what makes endurance possible. In the winter, when the Arctic is white, it is also secretly green. Coating the underside of the sea ice is a film of algae, which feeds the krill that feed the fish that feed the seals that feed the polar bears. As a sightseer in the Northwest Passage, it is somewhat unsettling to realize that the thawing of this frozen habitat is the reason you’re able to see the place at all—and also the reason there’s so little wildlife here to see.
Our ship, the Vavilov, was a repurposed Russian research vessel with seven decks, a manila-colored interior, and all the charm of your local DMV. A Canadian travel company, One Ocean Expeditions, leases it year-round for tours of the Maritimes, the Falklands, and South Georgia Island, as well as the Arctic and Antarctica during their brief seasons of relative mildness. As the company’s promotional literature had made clear, this was not the sort of cruise that would feature the comforts and amusements normally associated with cruises. Instead, there were trips to shore, several a day, in rubber skiffs thumped by the waves. Long, cold walks along rocky shorelines littered with whale bones. Infinite gray landscapes interrupted by the luminous beauty of an iceberg or a tower of rock rising from a green bed of moss, its walls ablaze with bright orange lichen.
The Vavilov wasn’t the first cruise ship ever to venture into the twisting corridors of the Northwest Passage, and despite the refusal of the polar bears to cooperate with our agenda, it won’t be the last. Three decades have passed since a commercial vessel first completed the journey, but in the past five years, as warming seas have opened new routes through the ice, passenger ships have multiplied. Last summer alone, at least 25 cruises were offered in the Canadian Arctic, and as water temperatures continue to rise, that number is expected to grow. “We’ll see large vessels like we haven’t seen before,” said Jackie Dawson, a geography professor at the University of Ottawa, who predicts that pleasure travel to the region will increase by 20 percent over the next 10 years. This summer, if all goes as planned, Crystal Cruises will convey more than 1,000 souls through the Passage on the biggest luxury vessel ever to traverse the route. Even if they don’t see any polar bears, they’ll get to see a live production of My Life: The Music of Billy Joel.
Getting to the ship wasn’t as difficult as you might think. I flew from New York to Ottawa, where the Vavilov’s 75 passengers first convened. We ate some poutine, slept in a hotel, and fired off a last e-mail, then flew to Greenland on Canadian North, an airline with polar bears painted on the tails of all its aircraft. A Danish expat gave us a bus tour of Kangerlussuaq, population 550. At the top of a mountain, I watched him wander off into the ankle-high shrubs and look out at the immense emptiness. Shivering in my fleece, I noted that he was dressed in a T-shirt. I walked over and introduced myself. Without shifting his gaze, he imparted some advice. “Don’t live here,” he said, “unless you can be alone with your thoughts.”
Aboard the ship, I glanced over the itinerary. Starting with a two-day crossing from Greenland to Canada, we’d be following the path of John Franklin, the British explorer who, in the spring of 1845, set sail for the Northwest Passage with 128 men and never returned. Throughout the 1800s, the British and American governments launched around 40 expeditions to find the lost explorers. In 2014, a team of Canadian divers succeeded in locating one of Franklin’s two ships at the bottom of a channel. Stephen Harper, the recently deposed Conservative prime minister, declared the discovery a “truly historic moment for Canada.”
As our ship pulled out of Baffin Bay, I stood at the bow and gazed at the endless sweep of gray to the west, experiencing the kind of wonder we feel as kids, when the world is new and vast and full of mystery. It wasn’t until three monotonous days later that I found myself thinking, Now I understand why sailors drink.
It’s a mistake to characterize the Arctic as barren. Certainly, the Inuit people, who have lived there for millennia, do not consider it “empty,” as it is so often described. If you’re from there, the land must be full of stories. But to an outsider, its wonders reveal themselves slowly. To stave off boredom, we would have to amuse one another. “We” included the courteous, unassuming Canadians, an American couple with two teenage boys and four supersize Nikons, and a frizzy-haired sculptor who said that her Catskills estate was home to more than 80 pets, including peacocks, Angora rabbits, and an owl.
Then there were the Scots, of whom I was particularly fond. They were very clear about what they wanted to accomplish on the trip. They wanted to drink all the whiskey on the boat.
I myself drank an inordinate amount of whiskey with Robin Esrock, a South African TV personality and author of the Bucket List adventure-travel books, which he kept out on a table at the bar in case anyone felt the urge to do a little onboard shopping. He told me he sought to write stories that played to people’s desire to “feel good about the world.” And yet I found he’d taken an interest in the least reassuring part of John Franklin’s unhappy tale.
One evening, he brought up the subject of the human remains, presumed to belong to Franklin’s crew, that were found in 1981 on a particularly inhospitable island we’d pass later on. “Why were there incision marks on their chests?” he asked. “Were they trying to get to the organ meat or what? And why did they cut off the fingers?”
Barbara, one of the Scots, nodded appreciatively over her glass of Talisker, a philosopher savoring a curious riddle. “You’d think they’d be a bit tough,” she observed.
Our leaders, genial kayaker types, didn’t spend much time discussing the cannibalism part of Franklin’s story, or any of the other topics that might harsh the vibe, like Canada’s subjugation of the Inuit, or, you know, climate change. At every breakfast, lunch, and dinner, one of our guides, a manly Canadian dude with a blond ponytail, stood up in the dining hall and delivered a wide-eyed recap of whatever adventure we’d just come back from, never failing to assure us that what we’d seen had been “absolutely beautiful” or “absolutely awesome.” Once, he proclaimed the morning “absolutely spectacular.” We’d spent it scrabbling over some rocks and taking pictures of lichen.
One day a voice came over the loudspeaker announcing the musk-ox sighting. No one will admit to playing favorites, but, trust me, everyone does, and in the hierarchy of Arctic animals, the musk ox ranks well behind the polar bear, the walrus, the narwhal, the beluga whale, the bowhead whale, and the arctic wolf. Still, we dutifully changed into our waterproof, ship-issued uniforms—red jackets, red overalls—and took off in the skiffs.
What followed resembled nothing so much as a military operation. Several of our guides spread out across the shore, each carrying a rifle or a shotgun to protect us. The musk ox, to be clear, did not seem very threatening, perhaps because we could barely see it, standing, as we were, a hundred yards away. We were instructed to move toward it shoulder to shoulder, a wall of red encroaching on the target like British soldiers at Lexington.
We advanced toward the musk ox. We took pictures of the musk ox. We watched the musk ox plod away. We advanced toward the musk ox, again. We took pictures of the musk ox, again. We watched the musk ox plod away, again. When we returned to the ship, we learned that the father of the Nikon family had stayed on board with his giant lens, capturing images of the musk ox that put ours to shame.
After two days at sea, we arrived at Pond Inlet, an Inuit settlement on the northern edge of Baffin Island, a landmass 16 times the size of Belgium. A woman came down to the beach to greet us in her traditional seal-skin amauti. We gathered around her, taking pictures and asking questions.
“How did you make the parka?”
“I ordered it from a place in Manitoba.”
“How about your earrings?”
We followed her up the winding dirt road past the ramshackle wooden houses, many of them boarded up. The homes were gray and unpainted, sheets of insulation and aluminum shingles peeling from the walls and roofs. A pair of dead seals lay in someone’s front yard. At the cultural center, a cavernous auditorium with bare walls, a few vendors sold knitted hats and trinkets carved from antler bone.
Fifty years ago, this settlement consisted of little more than a police station and a trading post. Back then, the Inuit lived “out on the land,” as they say. In the spring, they hunted for seals. In the summer, they followed the herds of caribou. They did this for centuries. From a modern perspective it all sounds very romantic, but starvation was a real danger. In the 1960s, the government in Ottawa decided that the Inuit needed to entrust their fate to the government in Ottawa. People were paid to move into settlements. Those who resisted were threatened with jail time. Children were removed from their families and placed in residential schools where they were forbidden from speaking Inuktitut. In a single generation, the people of Pond Inlet went from surviving by their wits and skills to depending on the assistance of Canadian bureaucrats.
Outside the cultural center, I spoke with a young woman who described herself as one of the few people from Pond Inlet who had ever left the area—who had ever been in an elevator or seen a tree. It’s not that people don’t want to leave, she said. It’s that the sheer remoteness of the place makes it nearly impossible. A one-way plane ticket to Ottawa costs more than $3,000. One exit strategy is to get sick. There is no doctor in the village, so if you have a health problem that the nurse can’t treat, the government will fly you down to a hospital in the south. People often bring along an empty suitcase. If they survive, they load up on Nikes, DVDs, and other consumer goods, saving themselves the expense of enlisting the services of the Northern Shopper, a company that forwards packages to Inuit villages.
Before coming to the Arctic, I’d perused several books about the Franklin expedition I’d picked from the reading list. I’d learned how the crew had set out from England equipped with the very finest in Victorian technology, confident that the ice would prove no match for steam propellers and tinned pork. No one knows exactly how they died, but the knife marks on their bones suggest that things got very desperate before death claimed the last survivor.
I was surprised by how few people on the ship seemed to share my fascination with this story. Why, then, were our leaders so intent on steering us down Franklin’s ill-chosen path? The explanation came at dinner one night when the down-to-earth expedition chief, a stocky outdoorsman named Aaron Lawton, appeared in the mess hall. Looking slightly embarrassed in a formal khaki shirt, he presented medals to several crew members. In 2014, he explained, One Ocean Expeditions had played a supporting role in the search for the Franklin ships.
Watching the ceremony, I remembered some of what I’d read about Canadian politics before the trip. Stephen Harper, an aggressive champion of oil exploration in the Arctic, had been quarrelling with the United States and Russia over control of the region and the right to mine and drill it. At the center of the dispute was the Northwest Passage and, more to the point, the enormous wealth it is bound to produce now that the loss of ice is creating new opportunities for oil companies, freighters, and yes, cruise lines. Even though Franklin had been British, Harper claimed that the discovery of his ship helped establish Canada’s claim to Arctic sovereignty. The Vavilov, I realized as another crew member stood to accept a medal, had sailed into the stormy seas of an international power struggle.
Later that evening, our leaders called us to the top deck. Despite the hour, the sky was still bright. Warming our hands on mugs of coffee, we watched as the Vavilov approached two spits of land that reached out from either side of the Bellot Strait. On the left was Zenith Point, the northernmost point of the North American mainland. On the right was the southern tip of Somerset Island. For now, we were on the Atlantic side of the Arctic Ocean. Once we passed through the slender waist of the channel, we’d be on the Pacific side. The heart of the Northwest Passage would be behind us.
The scenery really was very beautiful. Even if you didn’t know anything about the significance of the place, you would have felt lucky to watch it glide past. Chunks of ice floated in the calm channel, and the currents that had carried them here had also brought a surprising abundance of wildlife—ivory-billed gulls bobbing on the water, seals poking their heads up for air in the distance. The sun dipped behind the bluffs off the starboard deck, painting the rocks and the water in shades of copper and rose.
Behind me, a huddle of Canadians launched into the chorus of one of their folk songs. I caught myself feeling a little patriotic, somehow, for Canada. And then a cry rose up: “Polar bear!”
It had been just a few hours since we’d seen the mother and cub. Now another bear was watching us from the shore, close enough that we could see him without binoculars.
And then, amazingly, there was another one. And another. After seeing them for so long only in our fantasies, it felt as if we’d slipped into a dream.
In a few days, we would arrive in Cambridge Bay, an Inuit hamlet across the Arctic from our starting point in Kangerlussuaq. We’d take one last look at the barren landscape, perhaps a little less inclined now to think of it as barren. We’d get on another plane with a bear on its tail.
But now we’d reached the climax of our trip. We had come to the invisible border separating the beginning of the Passage from the end. I knew that I shouldn’t have cared about this. I knew that the heroic quest for the Passage was a self-serving narrative promulgated first by British conquerors and more recently by the Canadian government, and that we were here only because of the destruction of the ice that makes the Arctic what it is. I knew I shouldn’t have felt my heart pump harder as I looked out at the sea and thought about all those people, Franklin among them, who’d tried and failed to reach this corner of the world.
And yet, I did. I think we all did. The channel opened wide, and we were in a gleaming bay, and the pearly sea matched the sky so perfectly it looked like we were sailing off the edge of the earth.
The Details: How to Experience the Northwest Passage
Most Northwest Passage cruises depart from airports in Canada or Alaska. Contact your tour provider for more information on how to get there. Though the cost of many trips doesn’t include airfare, charter flights and airport trans- fers are often provided.
Adventure Canada: This operator’s two Northwest Passage tours include perks like barbecues and afternoon teas. Once ashore, passengers can participate in a variety of wilderness excursions and activities. adventurecanada.com; from $7,995.
Crystal Cruises: The largest luxury passenger ship ever to sail through the Northwest Passage arrives this summer. The voyage departs from Anchorage and ends in New York City. crystalcruises.com; from $21,755.
One Ocean Expeditions: Choose from an array of activities, from wildlife encounters to history lessons. oneoceanexpeditions.com; from $5,195.
Polar Cruises: Offers a range of Northwest Passage trips through operators like One Ocean Expeditions. polarcruises.com.
Quark Expeditions: The Arctic Circumnavigation tour is the most ambitious Northwest Passage cruise offered. It lasts 75 days, with 18 in the Passage. quarkexpeditions.com; from $83,995.