Northwest Passage Cruise
Read Founder Aaron Russ' account of leading expeditions through the Northwest Passage in 2015
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By Aaron Russ
I have previously had the opportunity to explore the Canadian Arctic and Greenland extensively in the course of my time as an Expedition Leader, but I knew that this voyage would be different. Sailing from Kangerlussuaq, Greenland to Nome, in Alaska, we will complete a full transit of the NorthWest Passage sailing from the Atlantic to Pacific Ocean via the Canadian Archipelago and northern coast of Alaska. This epic voyage following in the footsteps of the great Norwegian Explorer, Roald Amundsen, is a 22 day voyage that sees us traversing nearly 5000nm and a third of the globe through one of the most isolated regions on earth.
We fly into Greenland on a specially organised charter flight from Montreal, leaving behind the late summer heat and landing just north of the Arctic Circle in Kangerlussuaq. Our ship, Le Boreal, waits at anchor in the fjord and with all aboard we depart for the 100+ nautical mile journey to the open ocean. Along the way we pass vast acreages of tundra where the occasional Musk Ox can be seen grazing in the distance. In total our group is just shy of two hundred passengers, spread across 4 spacious decks of Le Boreal. While this is a larger group by expedition standards at no time does the ship seem crowded and with a staff or 18 and crew of 145 every detail is taken care of!
Our first excursion is also the only landing where the ship is able to dock. In Sisimuit, it is an easy stroll into town with the option to join a walking tour with local guides, with the sun shining and no wind it is pleasantly warm wandering to the museum or exploring the small boat harbour where there is constant activity as boats return from fishing and hunting trips. A little further up the hill the main shopping area has all the needs of the local residents covered. We then have two days in Disco Bay and the first morning finds us navigating through the ice fields and icebergs issuing forth from Jackobshaven Isfjord enroute to Eqi Glacier. The great thing about the Eqi glacier apart from the ice filled fjord and beautiful scenery is that you get a clear view right up on to the Greenland icecap. During lunch which is a BBQ lunch on the outside decks the captain navigates Le Boreal amongst the ice giving excellent views of the imposing ice face of Eqi Glacier as it periodically calves. During the afternoon we land and explore the autumnal tundra.
A definite highlight of this and any visit to Greenland is Illullissat, on the shores of the Jackobshaven Isfjord, ice is ever present and our visit is no exception. Anchored just offshore from town there is small icebergs all around the ship and just a couple of miles to the south is a great aggregation of very large icebergs all trapped inside the fjord by the terminal moraine. Today everybody has the opportunity to join one of the converted local fishing vessels for an upclose experience of the icebergs. Ashore, just a short ride from town, there is a beautiful walk along the edge of the fjord where towering icebergs drift nearby and there is the remains of a traditional Inuit village. We spend the next couple of days exploring our way northwards through the fjords of western Greenland, there is much written about the fjords of Norway, Alaska or even New Zealand but it is hard to find many which rival the sheer scale and dramatic beauty of Greenland.
After bidding farewell to Greenland we had a smooth and quick crossing to Canada where we cleared customs in Pond Inlet on the northern shore of Baffin Island and with a grandstand view of Bylot Island to the north across Pond Inlet. This was our first chance to set foot on Canadian soil and there was a noticeable change to the communities we had visited in Greenland. That evening as we all searched for the ever elusive Narwhal in Navy Board Inlet the sun dropped low to the horizon illuminating Bylot Island in the most beautiful golden light. We then spent the next two days along the northern side of Lancaster Sound, by now we are by all opinions in the NW Passage proper and venturing mile by mile deeper into the maze of islands that is the Canadian Archipelago. In Croker Bay we land on Devon Island and are able to approach close enough to a small herd of Musk Ox to afford everybody good views. Devon Island is incidentally the largest uninhabited Island on earth and even the glimpses of its coastline that we were afforded underlined the fact that this is a large island. The morning of our second day in Lancaster Sound as we were approaching Beechy Island the first Polar Bears of the expedition were spotted with two large animals patrolling along the shoreline, bringing Le Boreal in for a close look one of the bears decided to swim out the few hundred meters to where the ship was, and before we knew it the bear was just a few metres away in the water below the bow, calmly swimming through a small flock of fulmars that were sitting on the water.
No voyage through the NW Passage would be complete without paying homage to Franklin and the early explorers of the north and there is nowhere better to do this than at barren Beechy Island. A stark wilderness of uplifted seashore punctuated by four lonely graves was on the day of our visit exceptionally benign, the wind was stilled, the sea calm and the temperature balmy by Arctic standards. A gentle wander takes you from the Franklin graves to the remains of Northumberland House along the coast, and on this particular day a beautiful juvenile Gyr Falcon was in residence, guarding the scene with its ever watchful gaze. The excellent weather continued through into the afternoon and our visit to Prince Leopold Island with its soaring cliffs and multitudes of Brunnich’s Guillemots in residence on the ledges above where we were cruising in the zodiacs.
Continuing our path further into the Canadian islands we next arrived at Fort Ross, a small historic Hudson Bay Company trading post that guards the entrance to the narrow but navigable Bellot Strait. Separating the northern most point of the continental Americas from Somerset Island it is also something of a wildlife hotspot and our transit was no exception with a sighting of a Polar Bear female and cub resting on the shores. But this sighting pales in comparison to our evening zodiac outing along the shore of Prince of Wales Island, here in the shallows Beluga Whales congregate to moult, rubbing off skin on the gravels. We first spotted the Belugas as expected in the shallows but very quickly thereafter also started seeing the many Polar Bears that had gathered, drawn by the lure of the whales. Indeed several whales had been caught in the shallows and were in various stages of being eaten by the bears, in total during the evening we saw 13 bears, some up close while others lurked in the hills behind. The most remarkable was when we came across a bear actively hunting the whales in the shallows, leaping about amongst the whales attempting to capture a whale.
Generally speaking the sea ice is heavy in the central portion of the NW Passage and it makes for difficult progress. This was not the case in late August 2015, after a spring and early summer where the ice remained present for longer than expected, in mid-August there was a rapid clearing of the ice to the extent that we were looking for ice rather than looking to avoid it. Venturing along the ice edge we were keeping a keen lookout for bears on the ice and after several distant sightings we were treated to one of the very best bear encounters possible. With Le Boreal amongst the ice floes a female and her large cub ambled across the ice towards us coming within just a few metres of the ship's side for the best views possible as the cub vocalised and the female stood on her hind legs for a better view of the curious intruders in their realm.
In the footsteps of Amundsen
Following in the footsteps of Amundsen we sailed through James Ross Strait to Gjoa Haven where the community welcomed us and where Amundsen spent two Arctic winters during the first transit of the Passage. Then it was onwards and westwards through Simpson Strait across Queen Maud and then Coronation Gulfs passing Victoria Island to our starboard. Along the way we made daily landings with highlights including sightings of a Barren Land Grizzly, Caribou and Tundra Swans. Then our passage once again turned northwards as we passed into the Amundsen Gulf and headed for the community of Holman. Landing on the beach at Holman we were met by what seemed like the whole town that put on a great welcome including freshly caught Arctic Char and Bannock bread. Another highlight was the visit to the artist’s co-op where locally produced prints and distinctive Musk Ox horn carvings were greatly sought after!
Our exploration continued ever westwards with a landing on the seldom visited shores of Banks Island with sightings of Snowy Owls and distant views of a small pack of wolves moving across the tundra. Visiting the mainland of North America for the first time in the expedition we boarded the zodiacs to cruise the impressive smoking cliffs of Smoking Hills, fortunately with the breeze at our backs we watched as great clouds of smoke rose from the exposed rocks of the cliffs above. Quite what causes the combustion is still debated but the majority consensus seems to be that it is spontaneous combustion caused by the chemicals present in these unique deposits. Our last landing in Canada was at Herschel Island, arriving early in the morning with fog shrouding the landscape we were greeted by the local rangers and a Polar bear wandering amongst the buildings. After a short delay to the landing while the bear was encouraged the explore elsewhere we enjoyed a tour of the remaining buildings of a once bustling whaling community including the very informative museum.
Departing Canada Le Boreal sailed along the northern coast of Alaska to Barrow where we completed US immigration before sailing southwards for the Bering Strait. Our arrival in “Pacific” waters being announced by the presence of Short-tailed Shearwaters, Tufted Puffins and assorted auklets, all Pacific species of seabirds! For the first time in the whole expedition the wind increased above 10 knots but Le Boreal handled the swells as always impressively as the winds continued to increase, eventually peaking as we sailed past Little Diomede at an impressive 70 knots. The end of our voyage was Nome, Alaska where we farewelled Le Boreal and joined our charter flights to Vancouver signifying the official conclusion of the expedition of a lifetime through the NW Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific.