Through the Northwest Passage: Ice, Tundra and Amazing Scenery

Ocean Endeavor amid the mountains and Ice
Ocean Endeavor amid the mountains and Ice
Ocean Endeavour amid the mountains and Ice

Guest bloggers John and Sandra Nowlan take readers through the Northwest Passage

on an Arctic cruise with Adventure Canada

We were in a long arm of the sea on the west coast of Greenland. Surrounding us in Karrat fjord were lofty, snow-covered mountains and craggy icebergs ranging from boxcar to apartment building size. Wisps of mist rose from the tranquil but frigid water. Suddenly a woman from California broke the silence. “This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in my life,” she exclaimed. Heads nodded all around us.

Ice Splendour - Karrat Fjord
Ice Splendour – Karrat Fjord (Credit: John and Sandra Nowlan)
Exploring the bergs
Exploring the bergs (Credit: John and Sandra Nowlan)

We were near the end of a remarkable two-week Arctic cruise with Adventure Canada, a Toronto based company that specializes in touring remote areas of the world. The 160 passengers on the ice-reinforced Ocean Endeavour were almost all retired but shared a passion for exploration and adventure.

Our itinerary was ideal. After a charter flight from Edmonton, Alberta, we boarded the ship for a leisurely two-week cruise among the many islands of Canada’s far north and then on to the iceberg-laden west coast of Greenland. It’s not a cruise for everyone since the Arctic is remote, cold and often windy with unpredictable ice patterns. But the pleasures far outweigh the risks and every one of our fellow passengers loved the chance to explore an area few get to see.

Sailing through the Northwest Passage

Built in 1981, the Ocean Endeavour has had extensive refits and now boasts a spa, swimming pool and hot tub, mudroom for changing boots and clothes, extensive library and three lounges for lectures and entertainment. It carries twenty Zodiacs which are used for exploring and landings. The ship’s dining room is large and bright with a surprisingly good menu selection (including, on some nights, fresh Caribou, Arctic Char and Halibut).

Landing on desolate tundra in Canada's Arctic - Karrat Fjord
Landing on desolate tundra in Canada’s Arctic (Credit: John and Sandra Nowlan)

Adventure Canada is well known for the quality of its naturalists and we were very impressed by the large staff of Arctic specialists who gave lectures and guided us at the various stops. Onboard we had a top Canadian geologist, a veteran archeologist with two dozen Arctic trips to her credit and specialists in birds, plants and marine mammals. Also, there were experts in the history and geography of the Arctic and three Inuit residents of the area who made us feel very comfortable with their language, traditions and culture.

One writer, Ken McGoogan, the author of “Fatal Passage”, gave several lectures about the British explorer Sir John Franklin and the massive search for him and his 129 crew members after their two ships got hopelessly stuck in the ice in the mid-1800s. Perhaps the most emotional stop on the whole cruise was at remote Beechey Island, where Franklin was known to have wintered and where the graves of three of his men were found.

Northwest Passage: Franklin Graves on Beechey Island
Franklin Graves on Beechey Island (Credit: John and Sandra Nowlan)

Every day, as we explored the Northwest Passage, we were on the lookout for wildlife and were rewarded with about a dozen polar bear sightings. By Zodiac, we explored centuries-old ruins of the pre-Inuit culture and visited abandoned Hudson’s Bay Company stores or former depots used by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP.)

Two small Inuit communities, Gjoa Haven (named for the small boat Roald Amundsen used in 1906 to complete the Northwest Passage for the first time) and iceberg-lined Grise Fiord (the northernmost community in Canada) welcomed us with town tours and lively displays of drumming, dancing, throat singing and unique Arctic athletic competitions. It was wonderful to mingle with friendly and generous people who have adapted so well to the harsh climate of the north.

Northwest Passage: Gjoa Haven, Nunavut
Gjoa Haven, Nunavut (Credit: John and Sandra Nowlan)

In addition to polar bears, we saw seals, muskoxen, Arctic hares, Arctic foxes plus bowhead whales and beluga whales. In late summer there was still plenty of birdlife, particular on the tall cliffs of Prince Leopold Island. Colorful Arctic plants still clung to the rocks and tundra in late September, laid out in a pattern that one of our photography lecturers said reminded him of a well-tended Japanese garden.

Exploring the Northwest Passage: First polar bear spotted
First polar bear spotted (Credit: John and Sandra Nowlan)

It was hard to top the beauty of Karrat fjord once we crossed from Canada to the west coast of Greenland. But for giant iceberg sightings, there’s no place on earth like the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Ilulissat Icefjord. The fastest (up to 40 yards a day) and most productive glacier in the Arctic, it calves huge icebergs into the fjord, most larger than apartment buildings or even city blocks. Many of them end up in the North Atlantic off Newfoundland. Experts believe the Titanic berg started its infamous journey here. On Zodiacs, we toured as close as we dared to these majestic towers of ice.

The Northwest Passage: Ilulissat Icefjord in Western Greenland, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Ilulissat Icefjord in Western Greenland, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

On the final night of the cruise, the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) put on a spectacular display of colorful formations that seemed to dance in the sky. It was a perfect ending to one of our best-ever cruise adventures.

About the authors:

John and Sandra Nowlan are veteran cruisers and travel writers/photographers, based in Halifax.


  • Adventure Canada offers saiilngs through the Northwest Passage

Disclosure: The Nowlans’ Northwest Passage adventure cruise was hosted by Adventure Canada but any opinions expressed in this post are their own.

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  1. On our most recent cruise with the Ponant cruise line (they’re French), we heard repeat passengers say the Northwest Passage was their most amazing cruise itinerary. (Our ship had just come from the Northwest Passage via Alaska and was heading south all the way down to Antarctica.) And we can see from this post why they’d say that! Polar bears, the Northern Lights, icebergs and Zodiac cruises – wow!

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