On Top of the World

Icebreaker cruises take passengers on pioneering adventure to the Arctic Circle

Cruising 2007

February 11, 2007|By Peter Mandel | Peter Mandel,Special to the Sun

FLOATING RESORTS. YOU CAN KEEP THEM. You know the kind of cruises I mean: tropical cocktails, gift-shop islands, sun-and-deck chair afternoons. When I'm at sea, I want adventure. Cresting waves, puffs of wind, the works.

This is why I find myself onboard a Russian icebreaker that is hardened to cut through icebergs and glaciers and is churning north. Next stop: the Arctic Circle and the coast of Greenland. Polar bears will be there, I hope, and maybe some whales and snowy owls. If we make it, I will down a shot of Smirnoff with the crew, not a pina colada.

My icebreaker for 14 days, the Kapitan Khlebnikov, is chartered by Quark Expeditions and outfitted for 108 passengers. To get to the ship, we had to fly to Resolute Bay, five hours north of Ottawa, Canada. Then we loaded up a little fleet of rubber Zodiac boats to cross an icy sound and staggered onto the Khlebnikov's gangplank and deck.

This sounded good to me.

In business since 1991, Quark is one of several lines that specializes in ferrying cruise passengers to the snowy ends of the world. Sometimes, those on board get to be part of exploration firsts. In 1991, Quark icebreaker passengers experienced a pioneering transit of the Northeast Passage, the route across the top of the world. And in 1999, passengers and crew sailed completely around the top of the globe (the first-ever Arctic circumnavigation).

My cruise isn't supposed to break new ground for explorers or plant any flags. But being this far north -- even in Resolute at the start of the trip -- is, itself, an adventure. Like all Arctic voyages with passengers, this one kicks off in a relatively ice-free month. It is September, but the wind is whistling like winter, zeroing in on exposed skin.

"I've lost my gloves!" squeals Emma Hambly of Bodmin, England. She's rifling through pockets and knapsacks. No luck. We are thinking "frostbite" until she's saved by someone's overpacking: Another passenger has found an extra pair.

We zip up our Quark-issued orange parkas on the Zodiac ride through rising swells to the ship. Here are layers of freezing sea foam. And over here are floating ice chunks. It looks like a cake that has exploded.

Our first days at sea are prism clear. When we pass near Cape York, along the west coast of Greenland, we hear a sound like vegetables being chopped. There are helicopters on deck and it is time to load them up for a flying tour. On the ride, we fly over a snowy hill where sits a memorial to Arctic explorer Robert Peary. The helicopter dips in for a closer look, bouncing and diving in the hard blue air.

Back at the ship we land on our bull's-eye on the deck and duck under the whirring blades as if this were wartime Vietnam. The trip makes us hungry. Hungry as a Russian bear. What's for dinner? We've got soups, stews, cabbage, cutlets, bread and cakes. There's plenty of warm-up vodka, wine and beer.

Talk at the table turns to food of the far north. Someone has eaten puffin. It was "sliced thin," they say, "and smoked." Duncan Currie of Edinburgh, Scotland, claims to have tasted polar bear. "Not very good," he says, "but better than if it tasted me. It was slow-cooked in a casserole with mushrooms and onions."

I want to meet my Arctic animals live, I say, not cooked.

Early the next morning, I get my wish. Just before the ship reaches Qaanaaq, Greenland, there's an announcement from the bridge that blasts us out of bed and launches us on deck. It's hard to get near the rail. Parkas are jostling, hands encased in mittens are fumbling with cameras to turn them on and get a shot.

Get a shot of what?

I open my camera and realize something's wrong. The lens is frozen. Just as I'm ducking inside to let it thaw, the shouts begin. "There he is!" "He's swimming. Near that blue-gray ice chunk. See the wet, white head?"

All I see is fur. Part of a claw, some paw.

Suddenly, in a flash of sunlight, I know. A polar bear. Alive and enormous, bobbing up and down in waves and tilting like a buoy.

I'm back inside, wiping my lens with my shirt, dropping my down-filled gloves and woolly hat. By the time I'm at the rail, there are only bubbles in the water. Someone has spied the coast of Greenland. But the bear is gone.

Dog days

Qaanaaq, we are told, is sometimes called Thule. It is the world's most northern town. Most of its 350 inhabitants seem to be on hand when we step out of Zodiacs and onto the beach. It must be our orange parkas. They stare and stare. We stare back.

When a foghorn blows, there is a whine from Qaanaaq. It doesn't stop. On the contrary, it gets louder. The sound grows into a full-moon howl. Is it a wolf pack? Not exactly. It is hundreds of sled dogs crying from every corner of the town.

When we go on a walk, I want to try and pet the dogs or throw them a roll I've pocketed from breakfast. Anything to calm them down. But it's not allowed. "People depend on them," says Currie, who has come here before. "These aren't pets. They are working dogs."

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