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Exploring the fabled Northwest passage by cruise

The Zodiac cruise

Maka Takei for The Globe and Mail/maka takei The Globe and Mail

Our journey has been marked by a distinct lack of suffering, but the trip isn't over yet.

It's 1335 on Sept. 2 (we're on military time), and the 328-foot Russian ice-class cruiser we're aboard is making about 12 knots through Queen Maud Gulf, about 200 kilometres above the Arctic Circle. We – about 129 passengers and I on a Cruise North tour – are cozily ensconced in glacier-blue swivel chairs and plush bench seats as we sail toward King William Island and a key section of the fabled Northwest Passage. After a decadent four-course lunch, we're taking in a presentation about early northern exploration and drifting somewhere between intellectual engagement and afternoon nap. Our lullaby? Tales of the quest for fame and fortune, marked by grand ascensions to glory, falls from grace, and epic deaths.

It is this lore surrounding the search for a shortcut between Europe and the Orient that draws many aboard. But it's a deep rumbling from the hull below, a glancing blow from a floe, that reminds us of the harsh polar world we're travelling through.

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We burrow a little deeper into our seats and go back to relishing the privation endured by those who plied these waters before us. Our pleasure is most certainly amplified by the misery of explorers who had groped their way to bitter ends here (Sir John Franklin's expedition being, perhaps, the most famous). And when we hear that our sister ship, operated by a different company, had run aground a few days earlier, our own journey seems deliciously more perilous.

Times have changed, and so have summer ice conditions. "We couldn't have done this trip as an open-water passage" less than a decade ago, says Dugald Wells, former president of Cruise North Expeditions, who has joined us on this trip. An upside of climate change? Given our relatively pleasant travels, it's easy to forget that the receding ice may spell the imminent end for an unknown number of Arctic species and, for the Inuit, an end to many aspects of their traditional life.

Now past the midpoint of our journey, we've fallen into a routine of sorts. A typical day starts at 0700 hours with the distinctive clattery echo of the ship's communication system kicking in, followed by the dulcet tones of Jason Annahatak, our young Inuit expedition leader, as he tells us it's time to wake up. By this point, we've developed a Pavlovian response to the sound that precedes an announcement, as it usually means we're about to eat again or go for a walk. Today, though, we have a full day of sailing. The day before, we had paid visits to the towns of Usqsuqtuuq (Gjoa Haven) and Iqaluktuuttiak (Cambridge Bay), where we were treated to performances by throat singers, dancers and displays of Inuit games. Some traditions are being kept alive, even as dog sleds are largely replaced by snowmobiles and some "country food" (wild game) is supplanted with "southern food" (store-bought).

One amiable elder we met, Tommy Anguttitauruq, 65, spoke about the vast amount of change he had seen in his life. "I was born in a snow house, an igloo," he said. "All my clothes were caribou hide." He recalled how his father had once spent two days crouched over a hole, hunting for seal. But working as a translator for the RCMP, Tommy had gone from a nomadic life to one using computers. Or, as one of our guides, Liz Bradfield, puts it, from igloo to Internet in one lifetime.

In between meals, our time is filled with lectures, walking excursions and Zodiac cruises. We nudge our way through labyrinths of turquoise blue sea ice or stoop to inspect delicate purple saxifrage and the remains of a whale-bone sled runner. We tromp, amble and waddle across surprisingly lush tundra often shrouded by many moods of fog.

Later, in the ship's gym, I use a little girl's pink skipping rope in a frantic attempt to burn calories. But between the lectures and the ship's succulent meals, it was a losing battle. That evening in the dining room, the starter was crab- and lobster-stuffed tomato, flavoured with citrus and chives, and the main course a juicy beef tenderloin crusted with black pepper in a red wine demi-glace, blue cheese mashed potatoes, and wild mushroom with caramelized pearl onions.

The voyage's historian, Aaron Spitzer, spices up dinner with harrowing tales of Franklin's first overland expedition. On the Coppermine River, more than half his men had died and Franklin barely survived. They had eaten lichen and their boots, and at least one ate an officer.

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Over dessert (pot de crème), in a kind of sick irony, Aaron waves his fork starboard. "We should be passing Starvation Cove around now," he says, referring to the spot the remaining survivors on Franklin's final voyage made their last stand. Franklin had lost a few men his first winter, but after his ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror became stuck in the ice for two more, all 129 – roughly the same number as are on our boat – eventually perished.

In our final few days, we're treated to a close sighting of a muskox (a shaggy, prehistoric-looking creature that lumbers past, as good natured as Mr. Snuffleupagus) and polar bears, the world's largest land-based carnivores. One day, we soak up a classic mother and cub scene on a floe. A day later, we take multiple passes by a bear lazing on the shore, having finished a rather bloody meal of narwhal.

Upon returning to our launching point, at the town of Resolute Bay, we get a reminder that it wasn't only Western explorers who had suffered in their designs to claim the High Arctic. The federal government, in a push to establish sovereignty, had relocated Inuit families thousands of kilometres north to this unfamiliar and inhospitable polar desert, luring them with empty promises of plentiful game and leaving them stranded. But these Inuit adapted and survived, and during our visit, the landscape was ringing with the sounds of new construction.

We leave reluctantly, having suffered nothing more than a little extra pudginess for a privileged view of this rapidly changing land.

Special to The Globe and Mail

This year, Cruise North Expeditions ( is offering an Arctic Safari tour July 30 to Aug. 9, and an Epic High Arctic journey Aug. 9 to 19.

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