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Monday, August 25, 2008

Exploring the Canadian High Arctic Region on an `Anti-Cruise'

By Hugo Miller

Aug. 25 (Bloomberg) -- On the bridge aboard the Lyubov Orlova, Captain Andrey Rudenko whispers commands to his crew in Russian. It is past 11 p.m. and even the long Arctic days have come to a close, leaving the bridge dark but for the green glow from the ship's radar and instrument panels.

Rudenko, 46, negotiates the shoal-laced waters near the mouth of Frobisher Bay before turning north toward the Arctic Circle.

``You never know what will happen working in the Arctic,'' says Rudenko, who went to sea at 15 from his hometown of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea. ``The ice is not a joke.''

While comfortable Caribbean cruises still attract a steady crowd, Arctic eco-tourism, its rougher, less glamorous cousin, is growing as awareness spreads of both the region's beauty and fragility. The Lyubov Orlova is one of its flagships and reflects that down-to-earth ethos.

Built in 1976 in the former Yugoslavia, the black-hulled vessel has no swimming pool or hot tub but instead features a lounge where regular wildlife lectures are held. Though refitted last year, it's no Pacific Princess and the walls of the ship's library still feature photos of the 1930s Soviet film star whose name the vessel now bears.

Northward Cruise

``This is the anti-cruise,'' says Dugald Wells, laughing as he welcomes a visitor aboard. Wells is president of Cruise North Expeditions, which operates the Lyubov Orlova in the summer.

Our expedition charted a 10-day course from the port of Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, a Canadian territory the size of Western Europe with just 35,000 people, northward to tiny Resolute on Cornwallis Island.

After coming aboard and settling into the comfortable if utilitarian cabins, guests gathered on the main deck to start the trip with a glass of champagne and a ``briefing'' from Cruise North's Chilean-born expedition leader. Then as evening fell under gray skies, we weighed anchor and began navigating our way down 240-kilometer-long Frobisher Bay.

We awoke the next morning to rough seas and fierce winds as the Lyubov Orlova reached the Labrador Sea. Guests less prone to seasickness tucked into breakfast while I stuck to tea and sought fresh air up on deck. Most meals are served buffet-style and the three-course lunches and dinner prepared by the Russian galley crew are hearty. There is plenty of fresh fruit for breakfast and salads for lunch and dinner to satisfy calorie-conscious eaters.

By mid-morning the first icebergs began to appear: eerie pale-blue peaks set against the gray ocean and leaden skies. They provided a welcome distraction to the rough seas, which by early afternoon calmed as the ship steered toward Cumberland Sound.

Arctic Views

Pangnirtung, a former Hudson's Bay Co. trading post, was the first stop on the route northward and afforded a chance to stretch our legs. Its fjord offers both shelter from the cold, northern wind and stunning views into Auyuittuq National Park, the easternmost of Canada's Arctic preserves.

A fleet of black rubber inflatables whisked us the few hundred meters from ship to shore. An hour's ramble took us quickly out of Pangnirtung, population 1,325, past glass-smooth water that perfectly reflected the mountains flanking the fjord's shoreline, to the entrance to Auyuittuq.

The name means ``the land that never melts'' in Inuktitut, the local aboriginal language. Sadly, that is no longer true.

``Thirty years ago, the ice in the fjord was frozen until the end of June,'' said Davidee Kooneeliusie, a Parks Canada warden sitting outside a bright-red hut that marks the entrance to the park. ``Now it's not reliable from the end of April.''

Bear Watch

As the ice melts earlier, the bears lose their seal-hunting grounds sooner and move inland in search of food, he said. That creates a headache for Kooneeliusie, who has spent 35 of his 58 years as a warden. One of his main jobs is keeping trekkers passing through Auyuittuq safe from the increasing number of bears in the park.

I had to disembark in Pangnirtung to catch a flight back to Iqaluit, so I did not manage to see firsthand any of the beasts that measure up to 10 feet in length and weigh 1,500 pounds. Other travelers later reassured me that there were plenty of sightings further north as the ship headed into icier waters.

Before leaving Iqaluit to fly south, I met Pitseolak Alainga, an Inuit reservist who acts as what he calls the Canadian army's eyes and ears in the Arctic, as he prepared his boat for exercises with the military.

``This whole bay used to be iced over in summertime,'' said Alainga, 41, lightly dressed for the Arctic summer in a red hooded sweatshirt and windbreaker.

A generation ago, hunters would skim across the frozen bay on dogsleds to get to seal-hunting grounds on the ice-pack edge, he said. Now they have to rely on motorboats and expensive fuel.

Perilous Waters

``Our elders in the '60s said there'll be a drastic change coming in the community,'' Alainga said. ``Forty years later, it's happening.''

He knows the dangers Arctic waters can bear. In a 1994 seal- hunting trip that went disastrously wrong, he was one of just two men who survived.

``I lost my father, four of my uncles and three cousins,'' Alainga said, his face blank. The solidly built father of three said he survived 72 hours submerged in icy water only because his rubber waders provided some insulation from the cold.

As ice becomes less reliable, younger Inuit need to be warned of its dangers, Alainga said.

``It's harder for the young guys, we tell them to be careful out there, changes are happening.''

WHEN TO GO: The best time to visit the Arctic is in August or early September when the daytime high temperatures are in the mid- to-high 50s and the region's waterways are at their most ice-free.

HOW TO GET THERE: First Air, run by the same Inuit-owned company as Cruise North Expeditions, offers daily flights to the Arctic from Montreal. Cruise North can help book at discounted prices.

WHAT IT COSTS: The High Arctic trip, Cruise North's most expensive, runs from Aug. 18 to Aug. 28, 2009, and will begin in Kuujjuaq at the tip of Northern Quebec. Fares from next year range between US$6,595 and $7,295 per person on a double-occupancy basis depending on what level deck you choose, with more spacious suites available from $7,295 to $9,095 per person, respectively. That includes all meals and drinks, but excludes alcohol, flights (about $1,535 Montreal-Arctic round trip) and taxes. The 2008 High Arctic trip sold out in January, the company says. Bookings made by January 2009 get a $400 discount per person.

(Hugo Miller writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this story: Hugo Miller in Toronto on hugomiller@bloomberg.net

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