As a kid, whenever I saw a map of North America, I'd end up staring at the large body of water right in the middle of Canada. Hudson Bay looked so far north that I figured it was a forbidding, cold place -- a mass of inhospitable ice with little or no life. It never crossed my mind that one day I'd take a cruise there; the images of reggae bands and pina coladas that filled the cruise brochures didn't exactly mesh with my visions of snow and bone-chilling wind. It also never occurred to me that the area is teeming with life -- from Inuit people and polar bears to whales, musk oxen, walruses and birds -- and that, on sunny days, you can easily kayak or Zodiac about in no more than a long-sleeved shirt.
Even with the explosion in expedition cruising in the last 10 years, very few passenger ships manage to find their way so far into Canada's interior. But in 2005, with a great deal of funding assistance from the Inuits, Cruise North Expeditions was formed, and today, the company offers trips through the Arctic onboard the 4,251-ton, 122-passenger Lyubov Orlova.
Having explored Antarctica on an expedition cruise only six months before, polar fever had crept into my psyche. I was eager to go back to a remote, wild region, and like my fellow passengers, wanted a decidedly un-cruiselike cruise. Lectures and shipwide broadcasts announcing chance views of wildlife held more appeal than room service or casinos. With hopes of seeing polar bears and experiencing the Inuit culture, I was ready to try Cruise North.
But, before booking an expedition like this, you must know what you are getting into. One of the most important distinctions between a cruise and an expedition is flexibility. On a big-ship cruise, you pretty much know where you are going to be down to the minute, and often, a ship arriving in port even 30 minutes late will produce a stampede of disgruntled passengers at the Purser's Office. On an expedition, your route and ports of call are, to a certain extent, up in the air.
On my trip, for example, ice conditions and wildlife would influence our exact ports. (In fact, in a previous season, an icebreaker had to be called in to help free Orlova when the ship became stuck in ice, a prospect which, I had to admit, I found somewhat exciting.) For our eight days onboard, my shipmates and I only knew that we were going to set out from Kujjiquaq, Canada, make our way through Baffin Strait, and then cross Hudson Bay to finish up on the eastern side of Manitoba, Canada, in the port of Churchill.
So, not knowing exactly what was ahead of me for the next eight days, I flew for several hours over bare Canadian tundra before touching down in Kujjiquaq. My adventure to the Arctic and Hudson Bay had begun.
An Unusual Embarkation
It didn't take long to notice the many contrasts I would experience between my normal life in New York City and what I'd find in the Arctic. And, while New York and Kujjiquaq share the distinction of being regional transportation hubs, Kujjiquaq is a town of only 2,000 residents, sporting just a handful of buildings taller than one story and "STOP" signs written in both English and Inuit characters. I was definitely far from home.
My fellow passengers numbered only 60, meaning the ship was sailing half-full. (Apparently, these Hudson Bay itineraries, which stay farther south than the ones in August, are harder to sell, even though the naturalists insisted the wildlife-viewing opportunities were often better where we were.) Soon, we were walking down a sandy, but hardly tropical, beach to embark. The port facilities are not big enough to allow cruise ships to dock; instead, we arrived at a small, floating, wooden pier that was designed to handle canoes and fishing boats. Awaiting us were a few rubber, inflatable Zodiacs that held 10 of us at once and became our only way to get ashore over the next eight days.
After a 15-minute ride, we reached our anchored ship, waiting for us in the deeper water. Right away, it was hard not to notice the differences between our ship and a typical cruise ship. My first clue was the ship's name. Instead of some indistinguishable moniker -- like "Magnificence of the Seas" or "Princess Destiny " -- created by folks in marketing, our ship's name, Lyubov Orlova, didn't exactly roll off the tongue.
At only around 300 feet long and with a decidedly doughty and beaten-up appearance, it was obvious this was not a luxury cruise ship. Russian crewmembers clad in blue jeans -- one with an iPod headphone still in his ear -- briskly assisted us out of the Zodiac. As we climbed the steep and swaying gangway past the old, dimpled hull, any remaining visions of reggae bands, Champagne and caviar were left behind on the floating dock in Kujjiquaq.
In Search of the Polar Bear
My fellow passengers and I had come on this cruise not so much to see specific places, but to see wildlife (as well as ice and Inuit villages). At the top of everyone's wish list seemed to be the polar bear. Living most of the year on ice packs and capable of swimming 100 miles or more offshore, these bears are the symbol of the Arctic, and their expected decline in numbers is driving the huge rush of tourism to the North. It almost didn't matter what else we saw, or how fabulous the trip was -- everyone would have been disappointed if we didn't see a polar bear.
Our best chance of seeing them was on the first day, when we anchored at Apatok Island, an uninhabited stretch of land with 700-foot-tall sea cliffs. Polar bears routinely patrol the coast under the cliffs, scavenging for fallen eggs or baby birds, and we took to Zodiacs to cruise only a few hundred feet offshore. Blocking our view, however, were washed-up, house-sized chunks of icebergs on the beach, and after 30 minutes, we had failed to spot a polar bear. It seems we had lost our best chance of seeing one, and we all grew increasingly nervous and disappointed.
Suddenly, one of the naturalists pointed not toward the cliffs, where we were all looking, but out to sea, in the opposite direction. Only a few hundred feet away, we could clearly see a bear's white head and black nose in the water. Occasionally, he would stop, lift his head and neck completely out of the water and look at us while sniffing the wind, before carrying on swimming.
Staying a respectful distance away, we eagerly followed him, suddenly forgetting all about the cold wind blowing and the bouncing of the Zodiac. He slowly swam for shore, and we watched in delight as he climbed out onto one of the many pieces of ice lining the beach. He looked majestic standing on the ice, waves crashing around his legs, as he slowly surveyed the area below.
Soon, we saw another bear walking under the cliffs, picking at vegetation. It may not have been the dramatic, life-or-death struggle of a bear attacking a seal, but judging by the excited, yet hushed, whispering in our Zodiac and the almost continual clicking of cameras, everyone was delighted with our 30 minutes spent in the company of the bears.
And, while we were thrilled, you could almost visibly see the expedition staff relax, knowing the most anticipated animal sighting was delivered on the first day.
Among the Inuit
Having sailed to Antarctica only six months before, I was very interested in seeing some of the contrasts between the two polar regions. Almost right away, I noticed how much warmer the Arctic was. (In truth, this sailing didn't actually take me into the true Arctic, as we stayed just south of the Arctic Circle.) Temperatures routinely reached the 50's under blue, sunny skies, and I often wore only a T-shirt and poured on the sunblock. Also, unlike in Antarctica, where we could more or less roam free, here the threat of polar bears ensured that, on every landing, we were kept together in a tightly controlled pack while staff at either end guarded us with rifles.
Perhaps the biggest difference, however, was the indigenous people. In Antarctica, there is little human life, save for a scattering of scientists at research stations. In the Arctic, however, the Inuit still live and thrive, and Cruise North emphasizes their culture by hiring Inuit youth as trainees, who present lectures on their villages and language. More interesting than their stories were our firsthand visits to two Inuit villages. Forget your preconceived notions of teepees and sealskin anoraks. The villages we saw were of standard sheet-metal construction, with a co-op store, gymnasium and school, and even a superbly presented museum. Modern Inuit dress consisted more of NHL jerseys than animal skin.
Contrasts between the traditional way of life and the contemporary world abounded. After greeting us at the beach, an elderly Inuit woman dressed in traditional attire sped away on her ATV -- or "Honda" in the local language. In the co-op, iPods were on sale only a few feet away from traditional Inuit soapstone sculptures. Along the way, we met two contractors from Montreal living in the community for the summer. They painted a picture of a welcoming, warm community. We also learned that drinking and drugs are some of the largest problems facing the Inuit people.
Our local tour guide was shy, and her commentary was often more confusing than enlightening; as we were led up the main street, she told us, "Over there is a red house. Next to the red house used to be a blue house, but it was run over." And, even though we were one of only a very few ships to visit that year, a planned "throat-singing" performance at the village was canceled because the Inuit performers were still asleep at the scheduled show time of 11 a.m.! (We heard from more than one source that schedules in modern Inuit life are never strictly followed, and this sleeping in and missing the performance didn't seem to surprise the ship's staff.)
Nonetheless, we were warmly welcomed in the community center by both children and adults. After the requisite native dancing demonstration, we heard a very interesting presentation from some of the elders who grew up living in igloos and visiting traditional hunting grounds. In the 1950's, the government started moving them into newly created communities and towns, but they said that, even today, most of a community's residents might spontaneously leave on a multiday hunting expedition if the conditions were right and that igloos are still used for winter hunting trips. We even heard one elder speak with pride and excitement over the prospect of an upcoming hunt for a large whale. Clearly, the environmental movement had not seeped in yet, and Inuit are granted the right to traditional whaling to keep the culture strong.
A Cruise Full of Wildlife Sightings
Our wildlife sightings continued throughout the week. The day after the polar bear sighting, I was unexpectedly delighted to come within 40 feet of a musk ox on Diana Island in Hudson Strait. Musk oxen are massive, but they look simply ridiculous. First, picture the largest, warmest blanket you could ever imagine. Then, imagine a dour, lonely face (with horns) that seems straight out of a Monty Python animation. Combine the two, and you begin to understand the absurdity.
On a subsequent afternoon, a shipwide PA announcement called us up on deck to see two blubbery walruses sitting on an ice flow within 100 feet of our ship before slithering off into the sea. On a Zodiac expedition, we were surrounded by hundreds of Beluga whales, with up to 20 creatures at a time only inches away from our boat. They rolled onto their sides and peered at us, eye-to-eye, from beneath the water. And, one morning, a pre-breakfast outing had us cruising underneath towering sea cliffs to see birds, birds… and still more birds.
Admittedly, I'm not much of a birder myself -- the idea of searching amid branches to find a small bird hidden 200 feet away never held much interest. This experience, however, was different. With the sun still low in the sky, the cliffs were aglow with a soft honey color from the morning light. The noise was tremendous -- above us were 100,000 thick-billed murres, whirring, flying and buzzing as if around a beehive. The abundance of life was so extraordinary that it was impossible not to be impressed. Without trees, the birds were easily seen, and we watched their awkward transition from nesting on a cliff to flight as they fluttered and fell before leveling out just above the water.
Life Onboard an Expedition Ship -- and an Arctic BBQ
Of course, the focus of our trip was our time ashore, viewing the wildlife. The ship was hardly a concern -- and for good reason. It was better to think of Orlova not as a cruise ship, but rather, as a floating base camp, a safe haven -- warmer and more comfortable than the surroundings, but not quite as comfortable or luxurious as your house (or a more modern cruise ship).
Cabins were small and spartan, with hard beds and a utilitarian bathroom prominently displaying a sign warning us not to drink the water! The one delight, however, was that our small porthole could open, allowing fresh air to flood into the cabin.
Throughout the rest of the ship, facilities were certainly limited. A small gym with the most basic of facilities was tucked away in a corner. The main lounge was dark and used only for lectures; steel bulkheads outside the small windows prevented much of a view. The bar, with adjoining library, reminded me of a sailor's bar in Murmansk in the 1970's and was the scene of the little bit of late-night socializing that did occur. (Mostly, everyone was in bed by 10 p.m. in order to be awake for the early-morning shipwide wakeup calls that summoned us to start the day's activities.)
Still, our time at sea was hardly boring or unpleasant. Beautiful weather helped, as sitting on the deck in the sun was exceedingly pleasant. Lectures, ranging from "Adaptations of Plants in the Arctic" to "Traditional Whaling," were offered during the day and were usually well-attended. (Not all of the expedition staff were completely fluent in English, which meant that some presentations had a greater impact than others.) I also took occasional advantage of the ship's open-bridge policy to check up on our progress, although I found the officers preferred to sit in the corner of the bridge, smoking and chatting among themselves, rather than engage with the passengers.
Service from the Russian wait staff was not as polished as you'd find on a mainstream cruise ship. With language sometimes a barrier, I often found it easier to order from the menu by pointing to what I wanted. Food was hit or miss, and menus could be creative (though not necessarily in a good way) in an effort to stretch limited resources. My favorite menu, for example, contained three entree options: Cottage Pie, Macaroni and Cheese Tortellini, and "The Orlova Comfort Plate: Cottage Pie with Macaroni and Cheese Tortellini."
Despite the somewhat austere decor on the ship, one of the nicest moments of the trip came onboard. It occurred on a beautiful day when the sun was shining brightly with hardly a cloud in the sky. The sky and sea were both so still they seemed to merge in an indistinct horizon. Here, in the Arctic, it was time for a BBQ!
The aft deck was filled with tables and chairs, and we enjoyed what may have been the best meal of our trip, with freshly grilled Arctic Char topping the menu. Music played from speakers, drinks were flowing freely, and smiles abounded. For a while, all that seemed to be missing was the reggae band.
A Mix of Wildlife and Culture, Old and New
Our itinerary also had some disappointments. Our route kept us just below the Arctic Circle, and being this far south (comparatively) meant we saw very little of pack ice or large, towering icebergs. Also, in trying to cover the distance to cross Hudson Bay, we spent one full day at sea and several other half days at sea, when we would have preferred to be ashore on landings. (Since my trip, the itinerary has been modified to end on Baffin Island, rather than crossing the entire Hudson Bay, which means there should be more time spent ashore and less underway.)
Still, this itinerary offered a good introduction to the Arctic, mixing both wildlife and culture. On some days, we managed both in the same day -- on our third-to-last day, when we stopped under warm, sunny conditions at yet another Inuit village. Taking full advantage of the perfect weather, the crew lowered the ship's seven kayaks and offered to anyone with previous experience (for an extra excursion fee).
The silence was serene as we dipped our paddles into the sea and cut off down the coast. While I'm sure we lacked the skill and stealth that the Inuit hunters had, we did manage to approach, slowly and quietly, a small herd of caribou that were standing on shore. For several minutes, we watched these timid animals in silence before something finally spooked them. They took off across the tundra, and we carried on paddling back to the village.
There, we were surrounded by a swarm of young Inuit children, smiling and laughing as they climbed over the Zodiacs or pulled our kayaks onto the beach. Some of the youngest passengers on the ship made instant friends with the local children as they ran off down the beach playing, and I found the moment to be full of a sincerity that is hard to find on large ship shore excursions. Rather than overwhelming a small port like many mega-ships do, we were simply a small group coming to meet with and learn from the locals.
Wandering past the crowds, my eyes came across a fisherman and his canoe just leaving the village. He was not paddling, as I had just been. Rather, he sped off by means of a powerful outboard engine that temporarily cut the tranquility of the gorgeous summer afternoon.
Initially, I found this mix of traditional transportation and modern propulsion an incongruous sight, but then I realized this incongruity was the epitome of modern-day Arctic life. Our Hudson Bay transit had not only given us a firsthand look at a new region, but it opened our eyes and challenged our conventional, naive viewpoints. And, in the end, isn't that one of the great joys of travel?
--by Ben Lyons, Cruise Critic contributor