For centuries it was a grail for explorers, a sea route threaded through the ice and islands of the Arctic Archipelago to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans: the coveted Northwest Passage would open the west to the riches of the orient. The quest for the passage, along the north coast of Canada, cost governments treasure and men their lives, most notably all 129 members of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition.
Today it is a travellers’ grail, one of those journeys at the top of bucket lists. There are three reasons: first, the reduction in sea ice in summer is making it possible; second, even now, very few have done it; and third, along with the ice, it’s an experience that might soon be gone.
The first crossing by sea was completed in 1906. It was achieved by Roald Amundsen, who five years later became the first person to reach the South Pole. Transiting the Northwest Passage took him three years. By the end of the 2016 navigation season only 254 transits had been made since Amundsen’s – just 53 by ships carrying passengers.
In September I joined 90 others on a Russian icebreaker for an 18-day expedition through the passage, from the Canadian Arctic to Anadyr, one of Russia’s easternmost points. I was in the company of inveterate travellers: at least two had ticked off visits to all the member nations of the UN; 15 of our number were completing a two-and-a-half-month circumnavigation of the Arctic.
Although the Arctic ice is indisputably diminishing, there is still enough to require a strengthened ship to penetrate it. A conventional cruise ship completed a highly publicised transit shortly before mine (less publicised was that it required an icebreaker escort). Arctic travel remains a rarefied strain of tourism. Less accessible than the Antarctic Peninsula, to which ships process in their dozens, it is one of the few places where the ordinary traveller can still feel they’re pioneering.
Our ship, the Kapitan Khlebnikov, is a Polar-class icebreaker, the highest category; it takes us to polar places that no cruise ship – no other passenger ship – can. And with two helicopters, it can land you on shores inaccessible to its flotilla of Zodiac inflatables, the genome of expedition cruising.
Our original plan – to become only the fourth ship ever to negotiate the Northwest Passage through the McClure Strait, one of its northern channels – was thwarted by a build-up of ice. Satellite images showed it was impassable. The route we eventually took made us the 17th vessel to get through the Prince of Wales Strait between Banks and Victoria islands; even so we had to smash through pack ice up to 3m thick.
It was a dramatic evening. The ship slowed, and then shuddered and banged as it crashed into huge slabs of frozen sea and sent them slithering out of the way. Floes the size of tennis courts slid into the side of the ship, knocking us off course as they were shouldered aside.
But then, we had to battle with bureaucracy along with the ice. Tourism in these parts is as novel to officialdom as it is to tourists. The Canadians kept a meticulous watch on us; at one point we were buzzed by an inquisitive military aircraft. And the Arctic is sensitive territory these days; with summer sea ice currently shrinking by 13 per cent a decade, and one projection saying it will be gone altogether by the middle of the century, the Arctic Ocean is becoming more accessible, not just by adventurers. The US Geological Survey believes the ocean could contain almost as much oil as Saudi Arabia. So ownership matters more than ever, and the nations around the Arctic’s shores are marking the bounds of their sovereignty as fervently as alpha tigers.
We couldn’t land on Canada’s Herschel Island, despite having permission, because the rangers had left for the winter three days earlier. We didn’t land at all in Alaska because the customs and immigration clearances would have been too time-consuming for a single stop. And in Russia the voyage momentarily came to a juddering halt (more of that later).
The Kapitan Khlebnikov is a second-row forward of a ship, all muscle and little elegance. A vast ochre site office looks to have been planted on top of a tug; icebreakers need height and weight. Built in 1981 to keep the seaways clear around the coast of Siberia, she still has the hammer and sickle emblazoned on her bow, where the steel is 20cm thick.
The cabins are much what Russian seamen in the 1980s would have expected: compact, especially for two, and mostly functional. If you share – and the single supplements are eye-watering – one person will be on a sofa bed. But the rooms have good showers and are furnished with desks and wardrobes finished in an oak vinyl to make them look slightly less utilitarian. The atmosphere is of a remote mountain lodge, but one made of steel, not logs; happily quite sociable, if not overwhelmingly cosy. The wake-up call comes over the PA at 7.30am and at night there is none of the malarkey of dressing for dinner; onboard attire is a mixture of T-shirts and fleeces. Food is homely and copious; there is a bar, where most drinks are included, and a lecture theatre.
Members of the 14-strong expedition team gave talks on Arctic birds, glaciers, geology, the Inuit and exploration – the latter given by Dr Huw Lewis-Jones, a former curator at the UK’s National Maritime Museum. There was a lecture on polar bears, although they had come up at our first briefing when David “Dutch” Willmott, the Australian assistant expedition leader, warned us that they were cunning and dangerous – and nearly two seconds faster than Usain Bolt over 100m. In the event, the only bear we spotted lay somnolent, paws tucked under its chin, occasionally, and obligingly, lifting its head for the cameras. We watched it from the Zodiacs. On shore the guides would carry 12-bore shotguns and deterrent flares.
We “rugged up” in thermals and parkas for our first sortie ashore. On the charts, Beechey Island is but a dot, yet it is one of the most important and sombre historical sites in the Arctic. It was clad in snow; my cheeks felt skinned by the cold as the Zodiacs skimmed across a sea curdled with ice. A short step from the beach were four graves whose weathered wooden headboards poked desolately skyward. They are relics of one of the enduring mysteries of exploration: the fate of the Franklin expedition. Three belong to expedition members, young men who died in the winter of 1846. The graves were discovered in 1850, along with remnants of a camp, evidence that Franklin’s ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, had wintered there. For years Beechey Island offered almost the last trace of their existence. Recently the wrecks of both ships have been discovered some 700km further south, off King William Island – HMS Terror just weeks before my own voyage.
Amundsen made a base at Beechey before his successful transit of the Northwest Passage. But the archipelago was inhabited long before the Europeans came. At Radstock Bay off nearby Devon Island are the remains of 500-year-old houses whose frames are made from the skeletons of bowhead whales. Later in the voyage we called at two settlements of indigenous people – Inuit in Canada and Chukchi in Russia. Both live by hunting and fishing, and neither see many tourists. On Prince Leopold Island, the site of our bear encounter, massive 250m rock escarpments rear almost vertically. The Zodiacs picked their way through plates of ice to cruise under the cliffs, which in summer teem with birds nesting on ledges.
As we approached Russia through the Chukchi Sea, force 7 winds sent the ship rolling like a bathtub toy; icebreakers have rounded hulls and no stabilisers. A pendulum in the lounge could conceivably swing 55 degrees to port and starboard, though by then you’d be at least 20 degrees past caring. Not for nothing are the chairs lashed to the deck. The expedition leader, Cheli Larsen, an irrepressible New Zealander, warned what was coming: “For those of you who have been taking seasickness pills, the good news is you are going to need them.”
The swell subsided as we passed Russia’s Cape Dezhnev and entered the Bering Strait. These are still wary waters, symbolised by two rock mounds in the middle of the strait, Big and Little Diomede. The big island is Russian; the little one, American. They are about 4km apart, divided by the border and the International Date Line; Big Diomede is a day ahead.
But nature is unmoved by geopolitics. We had already spotted bowhead whales; now we saw grey whales, orcas and humpbacks. Pelagic cormorants seemed to escort the ship, puffins – tufted and horned – fluttered manically as they struggled to take off from the water; shearwaters banked and swooped, flirting with the waves. There were kittiwakes, auklets, guillemots and gulls. On Big Diomede there was the sighting of the whole voyage: walruses in their hundreds, packed together on the rocky shore. First you saw the tusks, white and luminous and as long as cathedral candles, then the animals, brown and fat and squirming in a restless, companionable mass. Unforgettable.
The Russian border formalities were performed at Provideniya, a rundown port on the Chukotka Peninsula. A paperwork problem took a day and a half to resolve. Passengers, some of whom were already disgruntled about missing previous landings, did not take sympathetically to the delay. Perhaps they were placated by our landing next day at Penkigney Bay. It was a place of harsh beauty; a wide valley, flanked by jaws of steep, sharp hills, was drenched in astounding Arctic colours – infinite shades of earth and rock splashed with emerald and gold. Reindeer grazed on burnished tundra. Close to the shore a group of herders had made a rudimentary camp; they were Chukchi people, traditionally nomads who moved with their reindeer. Now they have a special licence from the state to allow them to slaughter the deer. They welcomed us with tea beside 20 carcasses laid out in a row.
This valley was gouged out by glaciers in the Ice Age; now another age of ice is ending. In the words I heard of an Inuit elder, “The sea is changing so much our Inuit knowledge is no use any more.” The Northwest Passage, for centuries impenetrable, will eventually become just another shipping lane, and, among all the changes that will bring, the exhilaration of a ship forging through pack ice in one of the world’s last great wildernesses will be lost.