Have you ever returned home from a trip eight days later than planned because of nature’s fury?
On August 5, I felt pretty safe and secure — even though I was standing 1,548 feet above sea level on a rocky plateau next to West Greenland’s jagged, calving Eqip Sermia glacier.
I’d landed here a few minutes earlier in an AirBus H145 helicopter. My 10-minute flight was exhilarating and butter-smooth, despite the cold breeze coming off the turquoise-glinting bay below. Wearing a Quark Expeditions-branded yellow waterproof parka, I admired the stark panorama as the black mosquito net on my head kept the swarming, blood-thirsty bugs out.
I also idly wondered what kind of à la carte dinner might await me back on board Ultramarine. The state-of-the-art ship, built in 2021, had brought me to this remote spot 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Ilulilissat, Greenland’s third most populous city, which burgeons with chilled-out sled dogs and Disko Bay panoramas.
So clearly, I wasn’t worried about, say, getting eaten by my fellow travellers when I took a luxury expedition cruise to Greenland and the Canadian High Arctic, originally scheduled for July 30 to August 15. (“Originally scheduled” is a key phrase.) Even though Quark Expeditions — a pioneer in polar exploration tours since 1991 — entitled this itinerary, “In the Footsteps of Franklin.”
That title stems from an infamous British expedition launched in 1845.
Sir John Franklin, a veteran sea captain and former Tasmania governor, was sent by the British Admiralty to complete the Northwest Passage. The 59-year-old commanded two technologically advanced navy vessels, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, which had previously achieved great discoveries in Antarctica.
However, the legendary trade route to Asia wasn’t in the cards. Franklin’s ships were beset by sea ice near King William Island in present-day Nunavut. A brutal combination of freezing temperatures, scurvy, and cannibalism — the dreaded last resort — claimed the lives of the 129 officers and men.
Michael Palin wrote in his 2018 best-seller Erebus: The Story of a Ship: “It was the greatest single loss of life in the history of British polar exploration.” Erebus and Terror mysteriously vanished for close to 170 years. The discovery of their wrecks in 2014 and 2016, respectively, by Parks Canada caused a global sensation.
Still, when I feasted that night in the on-board Balena Restaurant on grilled filet of sea bass and carrot-cucumber spaghetti, paired with a nice Italian Pinot Grigio, I didn’t feel nervous about heading west to the Canadian High Arctic. No more than when I cruised past fairytale German castles on the Rhine earlier this year.
Granted, excess ice in Baffin Bay had obliged us to extend our Greenland stay. But that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It gave me an opportunity to see the 500-year-old Qilakitsoq mummies at the national museum in misty Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. Not to mention sampling Greenlandic shrimp and whale skin in Sisimiut, a former Royal Greenland Trading Department hotbed of seal-hunting under the Danish crown.
When we finally embarked on our two-day Baffin Bay crossing, spontaneous wildlife sightings enlivened things. At 4:30 pm on August 6, I’d just sat in Ultramarine’s sauna with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the ocean when an announcement came: “We’ve just spotted four polar bears out on the ice. The captain is turning the ship 90 degrees. Please bundle up and head to the outer deck for the best views.”
Off I dashed. With the help of Ultramarine historian Ross Day’s telescope, I spotted a mother polar bear with a cream-coloured coat, trailed by a sub-adult bear and two tiny cubs. They were on the hunt for seals. It was wet and bleak outside, but I was fired up. For a bear buff, it was even more thrilling than the distant sightings of a blue whale and fin whale we’d enjoyed off the Greenland coast.
“Today proved that the ice is not only an obstacle but also an opportunity,” expedition leader Jake Morrison said in his day-end briefing in the Ambassador Theatre.
Weirdness really kicked in when Ultramarine tried and failed to officially enter Canada in three far-flung Arctic hamlets on Baffin Island, the world’s fifth-largest island. Impassable ice was the culprit every time.
Pangnirtung, Pond Inlet, and Arctic Bay have airports where Canadian immigration officials — who are not at these sites regularly — could have flown to stamp the passports of the 101 guests, 33 expedition staff members, and 104 crew members on board. No dice.
Hence, captain Korney Polikarpov had to sail Ultramarine all the way to Resolute, Nunavut for us to clear customs. This Cornwallis Island community (population 183) was our planned final destination.
Long travel days on blustery, overcast Lancaster Sound hardly posed the physical or mental obstacles of Franklin’s day. I relived hazardous polar ventures in history books from the Petr Golikov Library, such as Pierre Berton’s The Arctic Grail and Fergus Fleming’s Barrow’s Boys: The Original Extreme Adventurers.
Expedition staff members like avian ecologist Liliana Schönberger and osteoarcheologist Phoebe Olsen gave informative and entertaining Arctic lectures. The Ambassador Theatre also hosted screenings of “The Terror”, a 10-part horror-drama series reimagining what happened to Franklin’s men and incorporating Inuit legends.
When I wasn’t devouring slow-roasted New Zealand lamb rump or mango cheesecake, I was burning calories off on the well-equipped gym’s rowing machine. And my spacious Explorer Suite offered pure relaxation with a heated bathroom floor, rain shower, comfortable double bed, and other amenities.
The subsequent itinerary — heavily improvised based on sea ice and natural wonders — was magical.
While I’d relished the rock-star vibe of whizzing around hockey arena-sized icebergs in a zodiac under the midnight sun off Greenland, it was even more special to spot hundreds of narwhals and beluga whales during a helicopter ride over Devon Island’s Radstock Bay.
Another day, a heart-pounding two-hour hike on Devon Island featured rock formations that evoked Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway, a waterfall in a romantic half-ellipse canyon, and an ascent to a 1,000-foot-tall peak. We also made it back to rocky, austere Arctic Bay to witness a traditional Inuit drum dancing performance at the community centre and play street hockey with local kids.
Our attempts to follow in Franklin’s footsteps had mixed success. Going ashore at Beechey Island — a National Historic Site where three Franklin expedition members graves lie — was thwarted. High waves and lurking polar bears kept us from venturing to the shore.
However, we did manage to visit Port Leopold, a former Hudson Bay Company trading post on Somerset Island. Here, a carved boulder from 1849 commemorates a Franklin expedition rescue attempt led by the renowned Sir James Clark Ross.
Trying to fly home was where things truly took a startling turn. Strong winds stopped us from getting ashore and prevented planes from landing in Resolute. That nixed our plans to fly from there to Yellowknife and then on to Calgary.
But there was more bad news. The capital of the Northwest Territories was being evacuated because of out-of-control wildfires. So Yellowknife was out. We started east again on August 18 in search of a viable airport with an available plane.
A strange Groundhog Day-like existence began as heavy swells rocked Ultramarine — even with its 21st-century stabilizers, thrusters, and ailerons – on Lancaster Sound and Baffin Island’s east coast.
While the pineapple slices got slightly oxidized at the breakfast buffet, the food remained excellent, and nobody ate anyone else. Staff devised unplanned entertainments, including a murder mystery night, a karaoke fest that kicked off with Bon Jovi’s “Bad Medicine,” and a lecture series delivered by the guests. (I spent five minutes recapping tongue-in-cheek life lessons I’d learned from a disaster-laden Puerto Rico press trip.)
Itinerary changes occurred daily. Just when it seemed we’d need to return to Kangerlussuaq, our Greenland starting point, charter plane availability sent us off to Frobisher Bay. In Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, we finally boarded a flight to Calgary.
I woke up on the morning of August 25 in the Calgary Airport Marriott, wondering if the floor was rocking under my feet. (It wasn’t.) I returned home to Vancouver a few hours later, still reeling from one of the greatest and weirdest trips of my life.
I’d travelled a whopping 7,800 km (4,846 miles) by sea. By comparison, the driving distance from Victoria, BC to St John’s, NL is 7,070 km (4,393 miles).
When you read about polar explorers of past centuries, you’re amazed by both their courage and their capacity for suffering. Franklin and his British peers made some terrible choices with food, clothing, and adherence to unproven theories such as the “Open Polar Sea.” Yet they kept returning to inhospitable northerly climes when they could have stayed home, written books, and been fêted as national heroes. The compulsiveness is fascinating.
In Quark’s capable hands, I never felt truly endangered. Yet this three-week odyssey also reinforced the feelings of vulnerability and separation from humanity that Arctic travel can bring on, even with great technology and camaraderie. Like a polar bear hunting seals on the ice, you can’t take anything for granted up there.
MORE ABOUT QUARK EXPEDITIONS
Website: Quark Expeditions
Rates: Starting from $13,804 USD per person (approx. $19,450 CAD), includes airline transfer and all meals during the scheduled 12-day cruise.
Luggage Considerations: For charter flights, checked baggage limit is 20 kilograms (45 pounds) and 5 kg (11 pounds) for carry-on bags. Summer Arctic weather during the daytime is often warmer than most travellers expect while the temperatures on the water during Zodiac excursions can feel frigid. So, be prepared for a variety of climate situations. (Find full packing recommendations here.)