What It's Like to Cruise the Northwest Passage

What It's Like to Cruise the Northwest Passage

The trip may include everything from viewing the midnight sun to taking a polar plunge By: Debbie Olsen
<p>Musk oxen are among the many species spotted during the cruise. // © 2017 Getty Images</p><p>Feature image (above): Passengers can get a closer...

Musk oxen are among the many species spotted during the cruise. // © 2017 Getty Images

Feature image (above): Passengers can get a closer look at Greenland’s Ilulissat Icefjord. // © 2017 Greg Olsen

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The Details

Adventure Canada

Who says peer pressure ends when you leave your teenage years? Social pressure was part of the reason my husband and I were standing together in a lineup with about 50 other adult passengers. The plan was to jump off Adventure Canada’s Ocean Endeavor cruise ship into frigid seawater with icebergs floating in it. And the prize for taking a polar plunge inside the Arctic Circle? A shot of vodka and an Adventure Canada Swim Club Badge. (I can’t speak for anyone else’s motivations, but I was in it for the badge.)

Adventure Canada doesn’t include the polar swim on any of their official itineraries, but if they involve sailing in the Arctic Circle, then it’s bound to happen at some point. For us, that point was on day four of a 12-day voyage through the Northwest Passage from Greenland to the Canadian Arctic. By then, everyone onboard was used to the idea of diving into adventure.

Just arriving in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, had been an adventure. The U.S. Army built an air base in the small town during WWII, and after it was abandoned in 1992, the facility became Greenland’s main commercial airport. As might be expected, Kangerlussuaq Airport is a little less refined than the average international airport. Instead of an airport terminal and a customs facility, we were greeted by two customs agents who stood at the bottom of the ramp’s stairs and stamped our passports on their knees. From there, we were transported by bus on a gravel road that was also built by the U.S. military.

“This is Greenland’s longest road,” said our bus driver. “The permafrost makes it a bumpy 8-mile ride.”

Once onboard Ocean Endeavor, we got to know the crew as well as the Adventure Canada staff, which includes a team of scientists who were on hand to answer questions about everything from plant and animal life to geology and global warming. 

There was plenty to do onboard, but my favorite activity was standing on the top deck while watching icebergs go by. Perhaps due to the effects of the midnight sun, my husband and I both got a bad case of pareidolia. For example, we started seeing familiar shapes — such as an Egyptian sphinx and the Eiffel Tower — in the icebergs. The tendency to observe the specific in the ambiguous was particularly pronounced when twilight rays from the low-lying sun cast surreal golden hues on the water and ice.

Almost every day there was a Zodiac excursion, hike or community visit. Throughout the duration of our cruise, we saw many different species of birds, five polar bears, two musk ox, several types of seals and humpback whales, as well as hundreds of icebergs, some northern villages and historical sites related to the doomed 1840s Franklin Expedition. 

On one Zodiac excursion, we found ourselves next to a huge iceberg at the exact moment it calved and lost massive chunks of ice from both ends. The resulting tidal wave almost swamped our boat. If not for the quick actions of our driver, we would have experienced the polar swim earlier than planned. 

Aaju Peter, the onboard cultural specialist, provided plenty of insight into the local way of life. She performed an Inuit welcome ceremony and arranged for passengers to taste traditional Inuit foods. Though adventurous enough to try several different kinds of raw fish, I wasn’t brave enough to taste raw seal brain (which she described as her most-loved food). 

By the time day four rolled along, I was getting used to adventure. But as I stood on the gangway ready to leap into the Arctic Ocean, I hesitated — and it paid off. The woman in front of me was a slow swimmer, and it took her a long time to climb up the ladder after her plunge. Finally, once she exited the freezing water, I leaped in, stifled a scream and swam so fast that I might have been mistaken for an athlete. 

Now, if anyone ever doubts my athletic prowess, I just show them my Adventure Canada Swim Club badge.

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