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Great explorations

ISSUE 8
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There are no guarantees on an ocean expedition through the icy Northwest Passage, as Karen Bowerman finds out


"This," our expedition leader Boris Wise warns, pointing to the swathes of red on the ice chart, "is not good." For the first time in days, he looks serious. Having navigated the Northwest Passage - the ice- packed archipelago off northern Canada - before, he knows what lies ahead.

 

The red satellite images represent sea ice so thick that even an icebreaker would struggle to get through. And all we have is a strengthened hull. Boris lowers his voice. "I'm afraid this could be the end of our journey." Yet even when he says this, we, his 90-odd passengers, remain upbeat. Most of us are new to the Arctic, ignorant of its dangers and keen to embrace our role as intrepid explorers. There has to be a way through, surely?

 

But optimism can get you only so far.

 

I'm on a 12-day trip with One Ocean Expeditions, sailing on the Akademik Ioffe, a Russian research and expedition ship. Our challenge is to make it through the Northwest Passage. Unpredictable weather and treacherous seas mean many people fail, especially since the window of opportunity is small – typically 30 days a year, when the ice melts.

 

A fabled trade route linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans seduced seafarers for centuries. In 1845, the British explorer, Sir John Franklin, joined the quest to find it. His ships, the Erebus and Terror, didn't return and were never found.

 

Last month, One Ocean was part of the team that discovered one of the wrecked vessels, the Erebus. It's hoped scientists might finally be able to solve one of the greatest mysteries of maritime history.

 

I'm sailing in the same direction as Franklin, east to west, through the Passage. We set off from Kangerlussuaq in Greenland, cross Baffin Bay and immediately encounter a storm.

 

I go to bed as 40-foot waves crash over the bow, smashing against the portholes six decks above. I roll around my bunk for hours. At 3am, I give up on sleep and watch the show. The ship rears, the horizon vanishes, then we plunge into a pounding sea. It's all we do for the next 10 hours; every impact shudders my soul.

 

The storm gives way to bright skies, humpback whales and a tabular iceberg that's a staggering 3km long. We cruise beside it, marvelling at the blue streaks etched in its surface.

 

On day six, we visit Pond Inlet, a remote Inuit community on Baffin Island. Along the shore, fishermen gut arctic char and kids play on upturned rowing boats. I chat to Rosie, one of the islanders, who orders everything she needs, in bulk, from a supply ship that calls twice a year. She usually runs out of cleaning products first. I suggest she must be a good housewife. "I have nothing else to do," she says frankly, "especially when the nights draw in."

 

I visit on a summer's day, but perpetual darkness lies ahead. I ask Rosie how she copes in winter. "I watch Coronation Street on satellite and eat endless TV dinners," is her reply. Her favourite is polar bear, which tastes "like spare ribs, but without the sauce."

 

At Beechey Island, where Franklin spent his first winter, the cost of his quest hits home. Headstones, covered in snow, mark where three of his men died. They suffered hypothermia and lead poisoning, from the solder on tins of food they took with them. The tins are still there, embedded in ice.

 

It wasn't until 1906, that a Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, finally conquered the Passage.

 

Back on Ioffe, we hit ice. It blankets the sea for miles. We shunt through floes at the edge of it, then inch forwards. The ship groans like a woman about to give birth; the ice holds firm, then splinters, to reveal a jet black sea.

 

A polar bear and her cubs pad towards us. I realise they're moving quicker than we are. It's at this point that Boris summons us to the chart room and says all we can do is wait.

 

Remarkably, the Canadian coastguard has an icebreaker nearby. We travel in convoy as it slices the ice with ease. Its helicopter scouts the sea ahead.

 

Twenty hours later, we're through, and as our escort leaves, we sail into a wondrous scene. The sky's a pearlescent pink and the ocean an oily blue; the colours are vivid and the water still. It's as if we're gliding across a film set, where lights on the seabed burn through the ocean, making everything shine. It's nature at its most spectacular, and only we are there to see it.

 

Today, some scientists claim that the warming climate is unlocking this route that explorers fought so long to find. But it's done little to diminish interest, or the challenge; this voyage is far from easy, regardless of the century.

WAY TO GO

one ocean expeditions runs 12-day trips through the Northwest Passage.The next is August 12-24, 2015, east to west; from Kangerlussuaq, Greenland to Cambridge Bay. From US$ 8,395 (£5,167) per person in a triple cabin (Tel:+351 962 721836 / oneoceanexpeditions.com).

 

Quark expeditions also features the Northwest Passage, as well as other routes; a 12-night High Arctic expedition on Sea Explorer, including Greenland and Canada's Baffin Island and Beechey Island costs from £4,845, departing August 26, 2015 (Tel: +1 802 490 7628 / quarkexpeditions.com).

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