The Northwest Passage

As the Crystal Serenity cut through the Amundsen Gulf in August 2016 the crisp air of the Arctic Circle was rife with history both past and in the making. In the distance the red silhouette of the RRS Ernest Shackleton, Crystal Serenity’s chaperone for the remainder of the journey, greeted it joyously, escorting the cruise ship into the bay of Ulukhaktok in the Canadian Northwest Territories.the northern passage crystal cruises

Just the names of these boats and places alone tell a compelling story: Roald Amundsen, one of Norway’s most distinguished heroes and among the world’s greatest explorers, led the first expedition to successfully navigate the 1,000-mile network of waterways that join the northern Atlantic with the Beaufort Sea. In 1905, after spending two winters on King William Island, Amundsen’s sloop Gjoa finally made it to the other side of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, sailing onto the gulf that to this pays tribute to his phenomenal achievement. Meanwhile, though Ernest Shackleton focused his attention on reaching the South Pole, it is entirely appropriate that the boat guiding Crystal’s sail through the Northwest Passage should bear his name for to this day he is regarded the most judicious captain of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Explorations, often putting the safety of his crew ahead of the scientific interest of his expeditions. Thus, guided by the hand of a team of experts and guarded by the memory of the poles’ most pioneering figures Crystal Serenity became the largest cruise ship ever to attempt and indeed accomplish the fabled crossing of the Northwest Passage.

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Inuits before Amundsen’s Gjoa. Source: canadiangeographic.ca

The quest for a route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans dates back to the fifteenth century, when Europe’s major trading nations sought to establish new—cheaper, safer—commercial routes with “the Orient”. Thus, in a way the discovery of America and the Northwest Passage are intrinsically connected. Nevertheless, the early days of the naval exploration of the Arctic region brought little reward, with few teams pushing near the seventieth parallel north and none making any significant headway into uncovering a viable route through. Indeed, as late as the final quarter of the 1700s the consensus among the most respected seafarers in the world, including James Cook and George Vancouver, was that there simply was no Northwest Passage at all.

Yet somehow the idea of a shortcut between east and west had by then already taken root in the collective imagination, where it was embellished and adapted into the legend of the Octavius. The story goes that, on his way back from the Far East, and lured by the £20,000 prize offered to the discoverer of the Northwest Passage, the captain of the Octavius chose to venture the eastern route rather than sail back the way he had come. That was in 1762, thirteen years before the ghost ship was found drifting off the coast of Greenland, the bodies of all 28 crewmembers and the captain frozen yet intact below deck. As a matter of fact, the most adventurous versions of the tale identify the captain of the Octavius with Captain Kidd’s onetime accomplice Hendrick van del Heul, despite the fact that in 1762 he would have been 86!

Far from the realm of the imagination, meaningful progress toward traversing America from the north would not be made until the mid 1800s. In this sense, the most significant, though failed, enterprise, the ground zero, as it were, of the exploration of the Northwest Passage, came in 1845 with Sir John Franklin’s third Arctic expedition. Having mapped good portions of the region, Franklin came prepared to finish the job and finally put an end to a quest that had lasted the best part of three hundred years. The lavish expedition consisted of two state-of-the-art ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, a combined crew of over 130 men and ample stock of tinned food. Alas, the cans had been improperly soldered, which, it was later discovered, resulted in some of the crew succumbing to lead poisoning. In the winter of 1846 both the Terror and the Erebus became icebound off King William Island, and before the summer of ’47 Franklin was dead. The party was unable to free the boats from the ice trap so they weathered one more winter before abandoning ship in 1848 to seek help inland. No survivor was ever found. 

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Illustration of Franklin’s expedition by W. Turner Smith. Source: BBC

Franklin, however, was such a respected figure that the English government was left with little choice but to search for the remains of the mission. A bounty of £20,000 was again offered and an extensive operation set in motion, which ultimately served to accomplish the goal of Franklin’s voyage as several private and official boats swept the Canadian Arctic searching for traces of the missing men. In the aftermath of Franklin’s failed enterprise recovery missions by Robert McClure (by sea and land) and John Rae (solely by land) finally confirmed that there was a way—however difficult, unpredictable and impractical—to navigate from one end of the world to the other through the Arctic Circle.

This, however, would not deter Roald Amundsen approximately half a century later. Intrepid and determined, Amundsen set out to conquer the Northwest Passage in a deliberately small and agile sloop, with little provisions and a minimalistic crew of six. In other words, the exact opposite to Franklin’s grandiose approach. As he ran across the Bering Strait three years later, Amundsen proved that his sensible strategy was better suited to Arctic, but he had also confirmed that, even if the Northwest Passage could be navigated, it held little to no commercial value.

Following Amundsen’s triumph over the ice barrier, the world’s attention shifted away from the Northwest Passage and onto the North and South Poles. As a matter of fact, no other ship would cross the northern waterways until the 1940s, when Henry Larsen at the helm of the St. Roch led the first expedition to make the passage in a single season, over a period of 86 days. Throughout the twentieth century fewer than a dozen parties made it across the Northwest Passage and as late as the 1980s the volume of ice found in the Arctic waterways made in not only a tremendously perilous journey, but also one that could almost certainly not be completed in one run.

The new millennium, however, has also brought drastic climate changes in many areas of the globe, and nowhere is this more dramatically evident than in the Arctic Circle. The extent of sea ice cover in the region has declined by up to 15 percent in the summer over the last three decades, and NASA recently announced that frozen seawater levels had reached historic lows for the second consecutive winter in 2016. This has opened the Northwest Passage to seasonal navigation to an extent that past explorers could only have dreamed of. Over the past decade transit through the Canadian Arctic has increased significantly, with one or more parties making the journey yearly. While there is reason for concern in the speed with which ice cover is receding, this also affords an opportunity for increased exposure, enhanced awareness and further scientific research into one of the most remote areas in the surface of the Earth. Crystal Serenity is actively engaging in this stage of Arctic rediscovery, and every one of the passengers onboard has a role to play in this new mission of exploration and preservation—so welcome to the big picture.

 

Itinerary

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Crystal Serenity itinerary, from Seward to NYC. Source: nunatsiaqonline.ca

Crystal Serenity’s Northwest Passage cruise is a journey of rediscovery to the essence of the human experience: curiosity and boldness, ambition and intelligence have always been awakened by the formidable landscapes found in these Arctic latitudes, but at the source of all this emotion lies the pure and simple awe that only nature can elicit in us. That is precisely the destination of this unforgettable adventure through the following, most extraordinary, ports of call:

 

Alaska

Rather than the final frontier, Alaska is but the threshold of this voyage: “Alaska Starts Here” is the slogan of the community of Seward, the start too of Crystal Serenity’s expedition. The highlight of Seward is the sensational Kenai Fjords National Park, home to the largest network of glaciers in the USA. Exit Glacier is the only one accessible by road, and is fitted with a number of hiking trails both along the coast and into the imposing Harding Icefield. Meanwhile, boat tours offer the opportunity to explore the whole of Kenai Peninsula, including the lush Caines Head salient and the glorious Resurrection Bay, while the more adventurous can engage in kayaking tours that will make them gasp for air as they come in close contact with the humbling ice walls and blue seascapes of the fjords.

Alternatively, the outstanding SeaLife aquarium and research center puts the most distinctive species in the region within the grasp of young and old. Operating since 1998, the SeaLife Center is the only rescue and rehabilitation institution for marine mammals in the state, and was created as a direct reaction to the devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. Sea lions, harbor and ringed seals, as well as colorful puffins, eiders and ducks are but a few of the indigenous animals with which visitors can interact at the aquarium.

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Kenai Fjords. Photo: alaska.org

Next in the Alaskan itinerary is Kodiak, on the northeastern tip of the homonymous island. At over three and a half thousand square miles, Kodiak Island is roughly the size of Puerto Rico, yet more than two thirds of the territory is part of a protected National Wildlife Refuge. This not only makes it the ideal nesting ground for bald eagles, local bears and the chalky mountain goat, it also means there are fewer roads on the island than hiking trails to explore it. Kodiak is also a world-class destination for fishing, thanks to the impressive diversity of species populating its waters: halibut, king salmon, silver salmon, chum salmon, trout as well as myriad types of crab are all on offer.

Continuing south along the Alaskan coast before crossing over to the Bering Sea, Crystal Serenity next calls at Dutch Harbor on the Aleutian Arc. Famous for two raids carried out by the Japanese navy during World War II, Dutch Harbor is in the middle of the so-called Ring of Fire, the Pacific’s belt of active volcanic formations. Of particular interest is the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Ascension, though the truly arresting aspect of Dutch Harbour is its nature. A trip to Mount Ballyhoo will yield great dividends for bird watchers, as the summer months attracts millions of birds, from guillemots to oystercatchers, red-faced cormorants, puffins and, of course, eagles. Look out too for the unique whiskered auklet, with its distinctive white whiskers, orange beak and black body, as Crystal Serenity passes between Akutan and Unalaska islands.

Sitting on the outer edge of the Steller sea lion protection area, sightings of this huge mammal are possible in and around Unalaska Bay, where humpback whales, seals, and sea otters are also very much at home. On the way north, cutting through the Bering Sea, further whale sightings are likely as large pods of humpbacks and orcas spend the summer months feeding in this region before heading back to their breeding grounds. Orcas are easily distinguishable for their dorsal fin and white underbellies, while humpbacks can often be found in playful mood, leaping high and not always gracefully out of the water and slapping their way back into the ocean.

After a day out at sea, Crystal Serenity makes its way into the town of Nome, on the southern coast of the Seward Peninsula. Home to the great gold rush of 1898, Nome still attracts independent prospectors in search of riches to this day, improbable as that may sound. Firmly anchored in the depths of the northern tundra, Nome’s network of hiking trails and gravel roads provides an enviable opportunity to explore the otherworldly landscapes around town—endless expanses of treeless land with sparse vegetation which nevertheless constitute the natural habitat of rather large animals, such as moose, caribou and muskox (which despite its name is actually more closely related to the mountain goats of Kodiak than to any type of ox). Apart from gold dredging, Nome is famous for its bird watching, and for the 1049-mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race between Nome and Anchorage, the quintessential Alaskan experience of furry white dogs powering sleds through the packed snow.

Having left Nome behind, Crystal Serenity enters some of the most evocative waters in the whole world: the northern end of the Bering Sea, which leads onto the Bering Strait, where the Diomede Islands mark the boundary between the USA and Russia, before flowing into the Chukchi Sea, where beluga whales might be sighted, as well as orcas and humpbacks, Pacific walruses, and Polar bears. Hugging the Alaskan coastline the cruise enters Beaufort Sea which takes it past the 141st meridian west and into Canadian territorial waters.

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Diomede Islands. Source: wikipedia

 

Canadian Arctic

The end of a four-day stint through the northern seas is announced with the eerie sight of the Smoking Hills of Cape Bathurst, a lip of lignite coal formations that marks the arrival into the Northwest Passage proper, and which through a chemical reaction between the Arctic air and the sulphur-rich soil generate sufficient heat to create the spectacular effect of perpetually smoldering fires in the coldest corner of the planet.

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Illustration of the Smoking Hills (1850). Source: wikipedia

On the western banks of the large Victoria Island lies the hamlet of Ulukhaktok, formerly known as Holman. With a population of fewer than 500 people this traditional Inuit settlement in Canada’s Inuvit Region is characterized by its strong sense of identity and the communal values that govern its peaceful, friendly and welcoming society. The economy in Ulukhaktok is mainly driven by hunting and fishing, while a colorful tradition of printmaking lies at the heart of the creation of the town’s cooperative. This stopover constitutes a special opportunity to engage in a genuine exchange with a little known culture, deprived through remoteness of any sophistication and yet wealthy beyond measure in human warmth.

Further east along the southern shores of Victoria Island and now into the Kitikmeot Region of Nanavut (Canada), Crystal Serenity calls at Cambridge Bay, a middle point of sorts in the thick of the Northwest Passage, the no-mans-land of ice that for so long eluded western explorers in search of a navigable corridor between east and west. Evidence of this quest is still visible in the ruins of Roald Amundsen’s boat Maud, which in 1926 got stuck in ice and never made it out of the bay. Cambridge Bay is known in particular for its fishing, with Arctic char a mainstay of the local diet. The town is the largest stopping point in the Northwest Passage, boasting a fascinating Arctic Visitors’ Centre where Inuit arts and crafts are available, including distinctive textiles from local materials such as seal skin and various furs, as well as wood carvings and other decorations.

The Northwest Passage next curls north around Victoria Island through the Victoria Strait where high concentration of ice is possible—bringing with it potential sightings of Polar bears, which spend large portions of the summer months drifting on islands of frozen water hunting for seals. The itinerary continues northward to the fateful environs of Beechey Island, where in 1846 Sir John Franklin’s expedition became ice-trapped and helpless. To the east of the tiny Beechey Island lies Devon Island with its spectacular views of ice-capped mountains and overflowing ice formations. At 74.8 degrees north, the glacier of Croker Bay on Devon Island is not only overwhelming, it also marks the northern boundary of Crystal Serenity’s excursion.

Up next is the picture perfect Pond Inlet at the top of Baffin Island, right at the eastern entrance of the Northwest Passage. Quiet and remote, the hamlet sits in an incredibly picturesque location, surrounded by a series of glorious mountains. These are home to a wide variety of wildlife, including caribou, Arctic foxes, Polar bears and the rare narwhal, a relatively small whale with a long single tusk protruding from a canine tooth which makes it look like a cross between a swordfish and a unicorn. The most important animal for the subsistence of the local Inuit, however, is the seal, which not only provides nourishment but also the raw materials by way of seal skin, fat and oil to make garments (parkas, mittens, pants), footwear (kamik), and other goods.

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Sam Ford fjord. Source: cruisediscover.com

Crystal Serenity makes one last stop on Sam Ford Fjord, further south in Baffin Island, Nunavut, to celebrate the beauty, the grandeur, and the dizzyingly sublime nature of the Northwest Passage before heading out to Baffin Bay, through the Davies Strait, and onto the mystic realm of Greenland.

 

Greenland

Ilulissat, “where icebergs dwell” in the original Kalaallisut language, is very aptly named after the ice fjord of the same name, one of the most spectacular ice structures in the entire world, which in 2004 was declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Perched on the northern lip of the gateway into the wild and vast Disko Bay—really a system of inlets that cut into Greenland’s western coastline—Ilulissat is constantly under siege by the icebergs spewed out with astounding proclivity by the fjord. Cruising in Disko Bay is made unforgettable by the unreal shapes and hues of the tremendous ice sculptures floating by impassibly, but a perfect day can be made even better when a pod of whales surfaces in the vicinity for fresh air. Until recently Ilulissat was a sleepy town, though increased interest from the tourism industry has invigorated this quaint, low-lying nest of neat houses with pitched roofs and bright colors.

The journey south along Greenland’s fragmented coast takes Crystal Serenity from Ilulissat to Sisimiut, Greenland’s second largest city. Famous as a fishing port, Sisimiut still boasts many fresh water rivers where Arctic char can be caught but in recent years the town’s mood has shifted towards the sharp edge of leisure, with adventurous activities such as dog sledding, cross country racing and most of all snowmobiling featuring high in the list of the locals’ favorites.

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Northern Lights over Nuuk. Source: visitgreenland.com

Greenland is the shape of a down-pointing triangle, and as you travel farther south the dividing line between solid and liquid becomes less sharply defined along the coast. Two hundred miles south of Sisimiut lies the oldest settlement in the country and its administrative center, the town of Nuuk (previously known as Gothab). Located right at the gates of an intricate system of waterways that connects it with the homonymous fjord, there is an aqueous element to Nuuk’s identity, the almost paradoxical sense of insular connectivity often found in the most cosmopolitan islands. In some sense this might be the result of the town’s modern infrastructure, equipped with a university, a national gallery, an Inuit culture museum and all the amenities that pertain to a modern city. Indeed, if civilization is what you are craving for this might well be the place to get started. It would be remiss, however, to visit Nuuk in the summer and not get to know the pod of twelve humpback whales that infallibly return to the bay every year. For nature lovers, playful seals and regal eagles populate the seas and skies of Nuuk respectively, and once the season starts shifting in the beginning of September the Northern Lights can provide a show worthy of bringing to a close this epic tour through the Arctic latitudes.

 

Rare Creatures

Two days away from Nuuk across the Labrador Sea is the coast of Maine, rugged and wild yet altogether different to what has come in the past four weeks. Though not Arctic, Maine lobster remains absolutely exquisite, as exquisite too is the landscape around Bar Harbor. Already upon arriving in Boston, however, there is evidence of a rare new creature in this itinerary, obviously a social being adept at building large colonies from individual hive-like formations. Upon entering New York it is clear that these beings thrive in these coastal regions, with fast-moving machines carrying them across land, air and sea, and their flashy hives towering higher up than any iceberg. It might take a while getting used to them, but having come face-to-face with the unfathomable magnitude of Nature, nothing really seems like such a tall order anymore.

 

 

 

Published in Crystal Cruises’ onboard coffee table book commemorating its exceptional Northwest Passage cruise of 2017. 

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