The Elusive Canadian Northwest Passage

| Thursday, 19 Jun. 2014

No other sea route in history was so highly coveted yet elusive for so many centuries

The Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic; no other sea route in history has been so highly coveted, yet remained so elusive for so many centuries.  European explorers sought the “magic window” between Europe and Asia since the early 1500s, but the first successful sea crossing of the actual passage in less than a year was not accomplished until 1945.

Why is the passage so elusive? First is its complexity, second is the shifting ice where a vital waterway can be closed for years, only to open suddenly and shave off hundreds of miles. Most intriguing, since 2009 the annual fill of ice has not only gotten softer, it now mostly clears by August every summer. So, in 2014, at least seven cruise ships plan to make the crossing.

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However, there is one particular crossing in 2015 that I believe is worth the wait.

That cruise is on the modern (finished 2010) luxury ship, Le Boreal, from the French cruise line Compagnie Du Ponant. The ship has been chartered by the top-notch expedition experts at Abercrombie & Kent. It sails August 20, 2015, on a very extensive 23-day voyage from Greenland, through the Passage and over Alaska, through the Bering Strait and on to the Northeastern shore of Russia. You experience the entire passage, ocean to ocean, at a leisurely pace with over a dozen scientists and naturalists as your guides.


The Highlights of this Cruise

When I read about this journey I spoke with one of Abercrombie & Kent’s top expedition organizers; 16 year veteran Bob Simpson. He said, “first of all, Le Boreal is a beautiful ship, especially for an expedition vessel. Also, its sister ship, Le Soleal, made a similar crossing in 2012 and we heard nothing but good things about that. To seal the deal we were able to rehire the same captain from that crossing, Etienne Garcia.”

The ship’s unique 26-day itinerary begins with a charter flight from Montreal to Greenland where it visits five ports on Baffin Bay, one of the most active volcanic and glacial regions in the world – the origin of “Iceberg Alley.”

“We then cross Baffin Bay from Greenland to enter the Northwest Passage through Lancaster Sound, teeming with deep-water cod attracting several species of whales,” Simpson continued. “One is the narwhal, known for the unicorn-like twisted horn on its snout. There are also bowheads and the all-white beluga whales.”

Next the ship heads to Hershel Island, known for land mammals like moose and even grizzly and black bears along with Polar bears. Then it’s Point Barrow; also known for large schools of beluga whales.

I asked Simpson about wildlife sightings during the cruise. “Well, Polar bears are always the top sighting for most people. The Soleal saw a few, so we asked Captain Garcia to adjust the itinerary and hopefully we can see more.  As for whales and other wildlife sightings,” Simpson said, “we are on a somewhat flexible schedule, depending on our location in the cruise, but any time a sighting is made the captain will try to get the best look possible.” Simpson noted that no sightings are ever guaranteed. It can vary wildly from cruise to cruise,” he said, “but we always have high hopes.”


A Brief History of the Northwest Passage

While wildlife is always a top attraction, the history of the Northwest Passage remains its greatest mystery. Simpson was very proud to announce that A&K had just signed Emmy-award winning film-maker Sprague Theobald as a guest historian and lecturer for the upcoming cruise. Sprague made an 8,500-mile crossing in his own 57-foot boat with a very small crew, including his children, in 2008. He subsequently made a film and wrote a book about that voyage.

Going back in time, as early as 1562 there were maps that suggested a sea passage called the “Strait of Anián” that connected California with Hudson Bay, but the Northwest Passage remained uncharted for centuries.

The Franklin Expedition of 1845 with 132-men and two huge ships was one of the largest and most expensive polar expeditions in history, but every last man disappeared.  In 1906 famed Polar explorer Roald Amundsen finally completed the voyage by boat, but it took him three years. The first voyage made in under a year was not completed until 1944, by Henry Larsen, sailing from Halifax to Vancouver in 86 days.

Along the planned Le Boreal cruise are stops in remote Inuit villages where natives still survive by hunting.  “Much of the history of the region is centered on these villages, where former inhabitants found traces of the Franklin party, and also helped Amundsen survive,” said Simpson.


Preparation is Vital

One thing I especially like about this cruise is the full crossing itinerary. Many Northwest Passage cruises end near Banks Island, close to where the archipelago gives way to the Arctic Sea due north of Montana. That is barely half the distance that Le Boreal will cover as it continues on to see the Smoking Hills of Cape Bathurst, where veins of carbon-rich shale in the sea cliffs have been self-igniting non-stop for centuries. The cruise also continues over Alaska all the way through the 51-mile Bering Strait before its reaches Anadyr, Russia, where a charter flight then returns guests to Vancouver.

Like most Polar expeditions the passage has no docks. All landings are made from open-air rubber boats called Zodiacs. It is possible to get splashed when riding in a Zodiac so a complete set of head to toe waterproof clothing is mandatory. The Abercrombie and Kent web site not only has complete guide to what you must bring, it even has an online store where you can buy things. Even in August, the wind chill can get far below freezing.  “But we also supply each guest with a very durable parka and a backpack which you get to take home,” Simpson said. Simpson also noted that the itinerary averages about one landing per day of the cruise.


Medical evacuation insurance is also mandatory, since a medical emergency could require an airlift. Simpson pointed out that although the sea route is isolated; there are many major hospitals in Canada not far by air.


The Right Cruise for the Right People

Le Boreal has 132 staterooms, two dining rooms, state-of-the-art media facilities and all the necessary expedition accoutrement. The A&K team will be with you 24-hours a day to answer questions, give lectures and to guide you on excursions.

Details: for extensive details go the web site of Abercrombie and Kent.  The cruise sails Aug. 20, 2015, and starts at $27,995 per person, depending on the stateroom category. This is a beautiful, luxury cruise ship guaranteeing a great cruise even if you never leave the ship, but hopefully the sense of adventure will compel you.

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