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On the trail of Victorian-era explorers, Daniel Scott receives an Inuit welcome in a frozen wilderness.
We begin our journey through the fabled Northwest Passage in Resolute Bay, at the southern tip of Cornwallis Island, just 1700 kilometres shy of the North Pole. To reach Resolute Bay, a community of about 200 people, from Montreal, we've flown north for five hours, leaving the Arctic Circle far behind us.
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On arrival, I take a stroll around the sparse hamlet the Arctic's indigenous people, the Inuit, call Quaasuittuq. The sky is blue, the late-August temperature a mild 6 degrees and the snowless ground is rocky grey. Morose-looking brown hills overlook the town and out in the bay, two drifting ice patches catch the sunlight. Behind them, Cruise North's ice-strengthened ship, the Lyubov Orlova, stands at anchor, waiting for its 65 passengers to embark.
Nearby, huskies are yelping on their tethers, a dozen bloody caribou hides are drying on the ground and arrayed on a table are the skulls of a polar bear and a musk ox, a shaggy, Arctic creature that grows two metres long and 1½ metres tall.
''Want to buy some polar bear claws?'' inquires a raggedy, near-toothless Inuit man as I survey the skulls. ''They're $75 each,'' he adds, proffering several curved claws the size of my middle finger.
This part of the Canadian Arctic is one of the last travel frontiers, a place so defiantly remote that it may never be touched by the tentacles of mass tourism. Resolute Bay is not the starting point for a cocktail-swilling luxury cruise. It's where an eight-day expedition through largely uncharted waters begins.
Days before our departure, the Clipper Adventurer, the only other cruise ship in the region, ran aground while exploring the Northwest Passage and its passengers had to be rescued by the Canadian Coast Guard. You know you're in adventurous territory, too, when you're shadowing SBS TV's wilderness guru, Bear Grylls, simultaneously plying a route through the passage in an inflatable boat.
In the 19th century, finding a north-west passage through the frozen Arctic Ocean - and a time-saving northern trade route between the Atlantic and Pacific - was the maritime explorer's holy grail. Several, including John Franklin, governor of Tasmania (then Van Diemen's Land) between 1836 and 1843, tried and failed and many men died during the quest. When the ageing Franklin's third expedition, with two fully laden ships, vanished in 1845, it triggered not only one of history's most concerted rescue efforts but also decades of exploration. However, it wasn't until 1906 that Norwegian adventurer Roald Amundsen made the first full transit.
''We're about to enter an ice field,'' comes an announcement over the Orlova's PA soon after we leave Resolute, ''in case the ship starts taking any hits.'' Minutes later, I'm unpacking in my comfortable fourth-deck cabin when there is a dull thud. I stick my head out of my porthole and watch as the ship's steel-plated hull pushes aside a bus-sized white wedge.
''We're actually heading to the least amount of ice ever in the Arctic,'' says the president of Cruise North, and marine engineer, Dugald Wells, later. ''But in spite of a 13 per cent decrease in sea ice in the past 15 years, there's only been clear passage here for about five years.''
On this expedition, the plan is to voyage south-west through the straits and channels of the Canadian Arctic archipelago to Cambridge Bay, on vast Victoria Island, before taking a different route back to Resolute. ''But,'' says the expedition leader, 29-year-old Inuit Jason Annahatak, at the outset, ''I want to enlist you as being flexible passengers as we're on top of the world right now and don't know what conditions we'll encounter.''
On our first morning, after more bumps in the night, we reach a bay at the southern tip of Somerset Island in a slow-lifting fog.
Following breakfast, we're taken ashore on inflatables for a hike. It's our first taste of Arctic tundra, an apparently barren, rubbly-looking landscape underlaid by up to 450 metres of permafrost. Yet as we trudge across the boggy hills with the expedition's botanist, Liz Bradfield, we find hardy purple saxifrage flowers, the spreading yellow roots of the ant-high Arctic Willow tree and splashes of wispy Arctic cotton. As the sun breaks through, creating a perfect fog-bow above a lake, we also discover evidence of previous human occupation in centuries-old tent rings and discarded tools.
While exploration history and wildlife are the main attractions for passengers on this expedition, another is Inuit culture. Believed to be of Mongolian origin and to have reached North America via the Bering Sea, the Inuit and their ancestors, the Thule, have had a presence in the Canadian Arctic for 1000 years. Superbly adapted to the freezing climate, they were traditionally nomadic but today the 150,000 Inuit are mostly settled in small communities across the Arctic.
Travelling with the Inuit-owned Cruise North opens doors to these communities and during the first few days of our trip we visit two. The first we reach is Gjoa Haven, on King William Island, where Amundsen overwintered during his successful attempt on the Northwest Passage. We learn more about Amundsen's voyage at the Gjoa Haven Heritage Centre, where we chat with a local historian, Louie Kamookak.
Later, in the community arena, we are treated to a cultural show, which the entire 1200-strong population seems to attend. It opens with an old man drum-dancing, shuffling and weaving to the measured beat of his own large, narrow drum and continues with a display of Inuit throat-singing. During this display, two women face each other and conjure sounds like the whistling wind and the call of snow geese from their gullets, before collapsing in fits of giggles.
At Cambridge Bay, the central Arctic's largest community, where we arrive two nights later, we're given an equally rousing reception. Another performance is put on, including an Arctic fashion parade featuring clothing crafted from native animals and an unforgettable solo throat-singer, who keeps one warble going for 14 uninterrupted minutes.
On our departure from Cambridge Bay, heavy pack-ice to our north requires us to back-track, entailing 40 hours at sea. We pass the time with lectures on Northwest Passage history, modern Inuit society and a trill-filled talk on Arctic birds from the ship's naturalist, George Sirk.
The long sail is also an opportunity to get to know Cruise North's multitalented crew, including four young Inuit, and our fellow passengers, aged from five to 83. Most are from elsewhere in Canada or the US and Europe. But there's also an Inuit grandma, mum and two small girls enjoying a holiday from Resolute Bay and three adventurous Australians.
We commune over deliciously fresh, well-rounded meals in the Orlova's dining room or gather on deck to spot wildlife in the glassy Arctic Ocean. We're looking for bearded seals, which oblige, and elusive narwhals, a small endemic whale with a unicorn-like tusk, which we don't find.
By now, five days into the expedition, close to an area known as ''the Serengeti of the Arctic'' for its abundance of species, we're impatient to see more of this region's extraordinary creatures. When we get ashore again at Cape Felix, at the northern tip of King William Island, we find caribou and wolf tracks and huge polar bear paw prints on the beach but none of these animals themselves.
On the other hand, it's another warm, clear-sky day, with small icebergs floating in the gently rippling bay. Perfect, some of us decide, for an Arctic swim. With defibrillator on hand, we plunge into the 1-degree sea. I attempt to snorkel around the nearest ice floe, intent on inspecting its underside, but I soon lose feeling in my hands and feet and beat a hasty retreat.
The next day we awake at 5am to a glorious scene. Dazzling sunshine is illuminating the narrow, ice-packed Bellot Strait, jammed between the steep-sided cliffs of the Boothia Peninsula and Somerset Island.
We hurry to the inflatables and plot a path into the midst of the fragmented ice. Almost immediately, we see bearded seals playing in the water and congregations of the gull-like northern fulmar, relative of the albatross, on ice floes. Weaving further into the strait, Pradeep, a passenger on my inflatable, suddenly spots something through his binoculars.
''Polar bears!'' he cries.
''Up there, high on the ridge,'' Pradeep points, ''a mother and a cub.''
We manoeuvre through the ice to get a closer look. By now, the bears have seen us and are on the move. To our surprise, the mother is ushering her cub down the 100-metre cliff face. Soon, they are level with us, settling on an ice ledge at the edge of the channel. They watch as we glide to within 50 metres of them, the two-year-old cub's paws flopped nonchalantly over the side of the floe. We hardly dare breathe in case we scare them. But even after several other boats arrive, the bears happily rest there. It's 10 minutes before the mother nimbly leads her cub back up the ridge. They're the first of 12 polar bears we see on this outstanding day.
Later that morning, we go ashore at Fitzroy Inlet, midway up the Somerset Island coast. A group of us are trekking through a valley with an armed guide, Jason Annahatak, when we see what looks like a moving boulder in the distance. We ascend to an outcrop above the valley and look down on a solitary musk ox, brunching on mossy grasses. Then the extravagantly shaggy creature begins climbing the hill from which we are watching. As it gets closer, we huddle together behind Annahatak, who is preparing to fire a warning shot. For 30 seconds we stare straight into the ox's powerful, dark face, wondering whether it will charge us. Finally, it just continues up the ridge.
''The wildlife approached us,'' our naturalist, Sirk, says later, ''and there is a really good chance the musk ox has never seen a human before because there is no habitation in any direction for 200 kilometres.''
''Good morning everybody,'' announces our expedition leader, Annahatak, over the tannoy on our penultimate day. ''There's a polar bear on the beach having its breakfast.''
The carnage is still in progress when, an hour later, we reach the scene, beneath the 150-metre bluffs of Devon Island. As we bob about in inflatables, 20 metres away, the adult male, its face, paws and backside scarlet with blood, barely raises its head from its washed-up narwhal treat. Eventually sated, it sinks down for a post-prandial nap.
At our last stop before Resolute Bay, on Beechy Island, we get even closer to two snow-white Arctic hares on the beach but they're just a distraction here. We are at the grave site of three men from Sir John Franklin's doomed 1845 expedition and another who died during the decades-long search for the explorer. It was on these bleak, pebbly shores that Franklin's team spent the first winter of their quest to discover the Northwest Passage. All 129 men perished in that fruitless search and Franklin's ships, Erebus and Terror, have still not been located.
While Beechy Island is a poignant place to conclude an unforgettable trip full of the wonders of Arctic life, it's perfectly apt. For it's the history of epic journeys through an unknown, unforgiving land, with its tales of Victorian folly and unsolved mysteries, which continues to give the Northwest Passage an almost mythical allure.
Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Cruise North and the Canadian Tourism Commission.
Air Canada flies non-stop from Sydney to Vancouver (14hr), where you change aircraft for Montreal (4hr 45min). Fare is about $2500 low-season return, including tax. Melbourne passengers fly Qantas to Sydney to connect and pay about the same.
Cruise North has two Northwest Passage trips in 2011, running in combination with a High Arctic cruise, from August 17-30 and August 30-September 13. It costs from $US7595 ($7645) a person (double cabin), including all meals and excursions, plus $1200 return airfares from Montreal. See cruisenorthexpeditions.com. Bookings through Natural Focus Safaris, phone (03) 9249 3777, or Adventure Destinations, 1300 136 330.