A largely unsurveyed waterway through the canadian Artic, the Northwest Passage has fascinated traders and adventurers alike for hundred of years. The waterway held the promise of a shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and it winds through some1,600km of breathakingly beautiful landscapes that are home to a variety of wildlife.
From the 15th century to the first decade to the 20th, European sailors tried to find a navigable commercial route through this enticing passage. Many of them lost their lives in the attempt, the most well known being those from the John Franklin expedition that set sail from England in 1845. The voyage ended with the dissapearance of both ships, the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus, and all 129 crew members. (Last year, the wreckage of the Erebus was finally discovered.)
Two December ago, as I was observing a giant world map hanging in the main salon of the 45-metre steel-hulled Vripack motor yacht Latitude, which I had just acquired, I asked Captain Sean Meagher, the master of my yacht, to suggest an unusual trip we could do instead of a cruise around the Caribbean. He pointed to the passage over the top of Canada, where Franklin and his crew took their last voyage. That's how my four-month-long expedition began.
As with all great adventures, it started with a planning period, during which the crew and I educated ourselves on travelling through the Arctic --something that was new to all of us. Sean gathered detailed notes from a captain in France who had done the route before, while we bought Mustang Survival suits for everyone on board, which are typically worn by coast guards and industrial marine employees --and a must for any trip through ice.
In mid-July last year, I boarded Latitude with my wife, Coonoor, and a group of friends at Newport, Rhode Island. We also towed a 35-foot sportfisher we call Khisko as a tender and support boat, to access fjords and rivers that Latitude couldn't.
During our first week at sea, we cruised around towns and villages of Massachusetts, from Martha's Vineyard to Hyannis, and on to Nantucket and Provincetown. From there, we headed up north to the Canadian province of newfoundland and Labrador, where we explored Conception Bay, Elliston, Twillingate and Battle Harbour.
Near Elliston, we spotted our first iceberg, humpback whales, puffins and seals. Sean even jumped into the icy water and swam within three feet of one of the vast yet graceful whales. At Battle Harbour, a heritage fishing village peppered with summer family homes, we were iniated by the locals into their tradition of "screeching", which involves eating a fetid piece of dried fish and downing a large shot of whisky. Only after seamlessly narrating a local folklore passage they selected for us were we finally accepted as one of their own.
After two days in Elliston, we set sail across the Labrador Sea to Greenland and up the country's west coast, stopping at anchorages along the way. Every morning we awoke to a view of fjords, icebergs and mountains, each more beautiful than the last. We finally docked at the capital of Greenland, Nuuk, to replenish our fresh food supply for our trip up to Ilulissat.
Greenland's third largest city, Ilulissat has a population of 4,500 residents and 3,500 sled dogs. Its landscape is breathtakingly beautiful, but more significantly, it's home to the largest glacier outside of Antartica.
We stayed there for a few days. During this time, we hiked to Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage site, got on a helicopter and took it to the top of the glacier, landed there and wandered around --it was the closest I have ever come to feeling like I was walking on the top of the Earth.
On our way to our next stop in the Nunavut region of Canada, we crossed the Davis Strait, passed a beautiful Inuit village called Uvkusigssat, and cruised around Clarke Fjord and Scott Island, where we spotted our very first polar bear. Eventually, we arrived at the stunning old Inuit hamlet of Pond Inlet, which is also the entrance of the Northwest Passage.
With tanks full and supplies replenished, we set off to the uninhabited Ragged Island. This was late August, more than two months after our expedition started. After docking, we hiked up a steep hill to two small, beautiful lakes. Besides our personal belongings, three of the crew also carried loaded firearms -- we had been warned to bring them each time we left our boat to explore on foot as a precaution against polar bears, which have reportedly became more aggressive following the decline of their traditional food supply of seals. Fortunately on this first trek, the only thing we came across was a polar rabbit.
The trip through the passage from Pond Inlet to Cambridge Bay took a total of 20 days. Along the way, we anchored at Koluktoo Bay, where we spotted several narwhals --a very rare and shy whale known as the "unicorn of the sea" thanks to the impressive tusk-like tooth that protrudes from its head.
At the spectacular Dundas Harbour on Devon Island, we hiked on tundra, chanced upon another sky mammal, this time the prehistoric-looking musk ox, and got very close to a pair of polar rabbits. We also explored Croker Bay, where we discovered a huge walrus sunning itself on an ice floe and had the thrilling experience of watching a pod of sperm whales swim calmly alongside our boat for a good few minutes.
At that moment, we realised we were actually being hunted and the bear was trying to figure out a way to get on board to grab one of us for lunch.
At Radstock Bay, a waterway off the south coast of Devon Island, we had a very memorable and close encounter with a male polar bear, which was standing majestically up on a hill metres away from the water's edge. As we tried to get closer to it, the bear spotted us as well. Instead of fleeing like most animals would, he made his way down the hill, occasionally pausing to observe us. Clearly intrigued by his new two-legged visitors, he walked down to the edge of the water, and to our surprise, got in and swam out to within a few metres of us. At that moment, we realised we were actually being hunted and the bear was trying to figure out a way to get on board to grab one of us for lunch. After lingering for almost four hours, the bear finally gave up and swam away in search of easier prey.
Two days later, we achored off Beechey Island in the aptly named Erebus and Terror Bay, where Franklin's first camp was in 1845. There were haunting sights of several gravesites and the remains of a building called Northumberland House -- it was left behind by the crew of one of the five ships sent by the British Admiralty to search for survivors of the doomed expedition.
Later, we visited Resolute, one of the world's coldest habitations, with an average annual temperature of about -16°C, before moving towards Fort Ross at the entrance of the Bellor Strait. As we ventured further, we had another priceless experience with a family of polar bears. On a huge ice floe, a mother was with her two grown-up cubs, all unperturbed by our presence, even as we approached to take a closer look. Each cub displayed distinct emotional behabiors and personalities; upon noticing us, the female cub huddled close to her mother, while her curious brother fearlessly inched closer and interacted with us in various ways -- even appearing to dance for us -- from a distance, despite his mother's continuous warning calls.
The 20km Bellot Strait resembles a fjord filled regularly with ice and experiences strong currents of up to eight knots. According to our ice pilotage book, we were strongly advised to "exercise extreme caution" and not pass through the area "without icebreaker assistance".
As we didn't have one to help us, a few of us decided to first investigate the waterway in our support boat, Khisko, before attempting to take Latitude through. This got us stuck in the worst ice jam of the expedition, only returning to the main boat eight hours later to meet with a huge snowstorm, zero visibility and two polar bears roaming our icy vicinity.
After 10 exhausting hours of pushing through massive ice floes and stemming five-knot currents, Latitude traversed the waterway the next day.
Soon after, we learned from a downloaded map that the shorter route to Cambridge Bay, our final stop along the Northwest Passage, via the Victoria Strait was completely blocked with ice. This meant making a 145km diversion through the James Ross Strait and around King William Island.
Sailing to Alaska proved a long and rough run. Most of our guests disembarked at the Alaskan city of Nome, while the rest of us continued past the towering, volcanic Aleutian Islands and docked at Kodiak Island on the south coast of Alaska. For a week, we travelled inland on seaplanes, on the lookout for Kodiak brown bear (also known as the Alaskan grizzly bear) so we could witness them hunting thousands of salmon before their winter hibernation.
As the expedition entered its final leg in the latter part of the year, our sailing schedule to the Alaskan capital of Juneau and to our last stop in Canada became dependent on the weather, with some serious storms brewing in the Gulf of Alaska. I can safely say we were all looking forward to returning home to our creature comforts.
By the end of our four-month-long expedition in late October, Latitude finally docked at Vancouver. Along the way, we had seen no less than 19 polar bears and traversed some 10,000 nautical miles over the course of 100 days. It was certainly the trip of a lifetime --one we'll never forget.