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Breaking the ice; Making it through the Northwest Passage -- at last

We were at the midpoint of our Adventure Canada cruise; the day before, we had visited Grise Fiord, the northernmost village in Canada. Then, as we headed farther north in 50-mph winds, through the notorious Middle Ice of Baffin Bay, we were forced to alter course and take shelter behind islands off the coast of Greenland. But with that we had, at last, completed our traverse of the fabled Northwest Passage, through 1,500 miles of Canadian Arctic.

That morning we arrived at Etah, our first landing in Greenland. We -- 120 passengers -- left our pocket-sized luxury liner, the Clipper Adventurer, aboard 11 outboard-powered inflatable Zodiacs. After inspecting a huge iceberg, we cruised 45 minutes down glacier-carved Foulke Fjord to a tumbled down hunting shack on a shore piled with bones of caribou, walrus and seal. There was a musk ox hide covered in black fur drying on a rack.

We hiked two miles over avalanche debris and glacial gravel to the face of Brother John Glacier. Some of our athletes slid down its icy front. This enormous river of ice inching forward, is a tongue of the 1 1/4 -mile-thick ice sheet that caps 660,000 square miles of Greenland, leaving only a fringe of shoreline revealed.

I found a moment to sit alone on a chunk of granite a hundred feet above a frozen glacial lake and bask in the wonder of the experience. Boulders were scattered around me in the brown meadow like yesterday's icebergs. Now they protected me from the wind coming off Brother John Glacier beyond the lake.

A broad slope rose 2,000 feet before me. Halfway up, it broke into the light of the low-angled northern sun, turning its rock and sparse vegetation golden yellow. Dozens of snow white arctic hare speckled the heights. Tufts of tan musk ox under-fur were snagged on the brush around me. Oxen must have rested here, too. Their hoofprints were on the beach, along with those of wolves.

>The way west

The search for a northwest sailing route from the Atlantic to the Pacific began when Henry VII signed letters of patent for John Cabot in 1496; it continued for 400 years.

One author has compiled a list of 68 expeditions undertaken to either look for a northwest passage or to find ships that had disappeared in previous such ventures.

Finally, in 1906, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen succeeded in crossing from east to west.

Today, global climate change is shrinking the permanent ice cap at an accelerating rate, studies indicate. Since 2007, the waters of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago have been sufficiently clear during the summer so that large ships can make the passage without an ice breaker.

Our own expedition was delayed a year by the hazards of arctic geography. We rendezvoused at a hotel in Edmonton, Alberta, in August 2010, ready to fly north to meet the boat. At breakfast the morning after our arrival, the tour director announced, "The Clipper Adventurer is stuck fast on an uncharted rock ledge."

It wasn't until August 2011 that we flew into Kugluktuk and boarded our ship. Kugluktuk is an Inuit village with a population of 1,300 located at the mouth of the Coppermine River in Canada's newest territory, Nunavut. It is at the western end of one of the Northwest Passages, a snowball's throw from the Beaufort Sea and the north slope of Alaska.

The Northwest Passage is a collection of routes through the islands that form the Canadian Archipelago. The ship had come west by way of a southern variant. Our route east to Greenland was planned to be northerly through Prince of Wales Strait and Parry Sound. That route was blocked by ice, so we were forced to repeat the southern route. We began to feel a closer kinship to Arctic explorers like Amundson, Sir John Franklin and Elisha Kane.

In 1999, Nunavut was created out of the eastern part of Canada's Northwest Territories as part of the Land Claims Agreement. Nunavut occupies most of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, an area the size of Western Europe, but it has a population of only 33,000.

Greenland is about twice the size of Nunavut, with about double the population. Greenland became a self-governing part of Denmark in 1979 and is taking steps toward full independence. Both regions are rich in mineral resources and Greenland has important fisheries. Neither is capable of supporting its population in its present style without heavy financial support from its mother country.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, my resting spot at Etah was a small Inuit village, the most northern in Greenland. Both Robert Peary and Fredrick Cook made a last stop there before they dashed toward the North Pole. In 1909, within weeks of one another, they claimed to be the first to reach the Pole.

Ken McGoogan, the Arctic historian who accompanied our trip, told us the story of Elisha Kent Kane at Etah. Kane was an American Naval officer. In 1853, he commanded a privately financed expedition aboard the brig Advance to search for the supposed open waters of an Arctic Sea surrounding the North Pole. The British Admiralty believed that its Admiral John Franklin, his 120 men and two British ships, the Erebus and Terror, were trapped in that sea. Franklin's was the best equipped of the long line of such expeditions in search of the Northwest Passage.

But Kane's ship was itself trapped for two years by ice in the narrow channel between Ellesmere Island and Greenland, 70 miles north of Etah. While stuck in the ice, Kane got along well with the Inuit of Etah. He and his men learned the Inuit methods of dressing and travel. They cooperated in hunting; the Americans supplied guns and ammunition, and the Inuit, dogs and sleds. It was Kane who named the glacier at Etah for his brother John.

When Kane decided the ship was permanently stuck, he, his crew and the Inuit man-hauled whale boats 80 miles over the ice to Etah, then heroically sailed those small open boats down the coast of Greenland, through the rough and iceberg clogged waters of Baffin Bay, 500 miles to Ubernavik, where they were rescued by a whaling ship.

>Inuit hospitality

On our trip, the Inuit of Kugluktuk treated us graciously, fed us a meal in the gymnasium of their community center and entertained us with a drum dance in traditional fur attire. They even had some of us dancing. Then the young men demonstrated games that involved amazing leaps in confined spaces like those in sod huts during long, dark Arctic winters. Before boarding the ship, we wandered among the compact wooden houses of the village, patted dogs, talked to children, observed sleds, snowmobiles and boats parked along the beach, and bought souvenirs. I lingered long over a decorated set of caribou-leather mittens.

En route through Nunavut and Greenland, six of our 17 landings were at Inuit villages. At each one, a contingent of elders came aboard to share a meal and talk about their town before showing us around. At Upernavik, we lost a soccer match to its home team.

The people and customs of the two countries seem quite similar. A difference I noticed was that Greenland houses were painted bright red, green and blue, while in Nunavut the colors were more subdued.

Knud Rasmussen, a Danish Greenlander trained as a cultural anthropologist, demonstrated that Inuit culture surrounds the ice cap from Alaska to Greenland, Scandinavia and Siberia.

Our second day aboard ship we made a Zodiac landing at Port Epworth, a former Hudson's Bay Company outpost. Mark St. Onge, our ship's geologist, led us to an amazing find he had made there a year earlier -- stromatolites, the fossilized remains of the oldest life form on earth, 1.9 billion years old. These stromatolites bulge from the limestone ridge like oversized heads of cabbage. Port Epworth is up for recognition by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Adventure Canada sends an ample crew of expert resource people along on their cruises. While ashore, some carry along shotguns in case we encounter the odd rogue polar bear, providing protection while they interpreted what we saw.

Aaju Peters, a capable, wiry Inuit woman guide, wore Inuit tattoos on her face and often dressed in seal skins. She insisted on carrying a 30.08 rifle rather than a shotgun. Silhouetted on a hill, with her rifle over a shoulder, she was a reassuring sight. The second evening as she talked to us about Inuit culture, she tended a stone whale oil lamp, the type that provided heat, light and cooking for 4,000 years before electricity came to the North. Then she taught us to sing "Amazing Grace" in Inuktitut and Greenlandic to use in greeting Inuit guests.

Pierre Richard, our sea mammal expert, spotted narwhals, seals and minke whales but you had to be quick with binoculars to see them. At Coningham Bay, however, he showed us a sight. He led us into the shallow water in Zodiacs. There along the shore we watched 20 polar bears basking in the sun and gnawing on the remains of a pod of small white beluga whales trapped in the shallows. We kept our distance.

On our fifth day, after passing the northernmost point of the North American continent in narrow Beloit Strait, we saw our first iceberg. It was all hands on deck and every camera clicking as the berg dwarfed the ship and amazed us. We passed more and larger ones, one four miles long. At 79 degrees and 3 minutes north latitude, 700 miles from the pole, the sea was so full of ice and bergs that our ship could go no farther and we turned south. At the World Heritage Site Ilulissat Glacier in Greenland, we saw such a collection of these behemoth-bergs that we regretted all the mega pixels we had squandered earlier.


If you go:

The time to go is August through September. We went with Adventure Canada; its website is

There are several cruise ships that explore the Arctic listed at One Russian ice breaker will take you all the way to the North Pole.