Icebreaker Cruise to Greenland

The Kapitan Khlebnikov in Greenland. Flickr/ianduffy
The Kapitan Khlebnikov in Greenland. Flickr/ianduffy

You can keep them: Cruises that add up to tropical cocktails, gift-shop islands, sun-and-deckchair afternoons. When I’m at sea, I want adventure. Cresting waves, puffs of wind, the works.

This is why I’ve booked a cabin on board a Russian icebreaker that’s hardened to cut through bergs and glaciers and is churning north. Next stop: the Arctic Circle and the coast of Greenland. Polar bears will be there, I hope, and maybe some whales and snowy owls. If we make it, I vow to down a shot of Smirnoff with the crew, not a Pina Colada.

My icebreaker for 14 days, The Kapitan Khlebnikov, is chartered by Quark Expeditions and outfitted for 108 passengers. To get to the ship we’ve got to fly to Resolute Bay, five hours north of Ottawa, Canada. Then we’ll load up a little fleet of rubber Zodiac boats to cross an icy sound and stagger onto the Khlebnikov’s gangplank and deck.

This sounds good to me. In business since 1991, Quark is one of several lines that specialize in ferrying ordinary cruise passengers to the snowy ends of the world. Sometimes those on board get to be part of exploration “firsts.”

In 1991, Quark icebreaker passengers experienced a pioneering transit of the Northeast Passage, the route across the top of the world. And in 1999, passengers and crew sailed completely around the top of the globe (the first-ever Arctic circumnavigation).

My cruise isn’t supposed to break new ground for explorers or plant any flags. But being this far north — even in Resolute at the start of the trip — is, itself, an adventure. Like all Arctic voyages bringing passengers, this one kicks off in a relatively ice-free month. It is September, but the wind is whistling like winter, zeroing in on exposed skin.

Viewing the frozen seas aboard the Kapitan Khlebnikov.
Viewing the frozen seas aboard the Kapitan Khlebnikov. Flickr/Pedro Jhonatan Nogueira

“I’ve lost my gloves!” squeals Emma Hambly of Bodmin, England. She’s rifling through pockets and knapsacks. No luck. We are thinking ‘frostbite’ until she’s saved by someone’s overpacking: another passenger has found an extra pair.

We zip up our Quark-issued orange parkas on the Zodiac ride through rising swells to the ship. Here are layers of freezing sea foam. And over here are floating ice chunks. It looks like a cake that has exploded.

Our first days at sea are prism clear. When we pass near Cape York, we hear a sound like vegetables being chopped. There are helicopters on deck and it is time to load them up for a flying tour. On top of a snowy hill sits a memorial to Arctic explorer Robert Peary and we are buzz-bombing it, bouncing and diving in the hard blue air.

Back at the ship we land on our bulls-eye on the deck and duck under the whirring blades as if this were wartime Vietnam. Helicoptering makes us hungry. Hungry as a Russian bear. What’s for dinner? We’ve got soups, stews, cabbage, cutlets, bread and cakes. There’s plenty of warm-up vodka, wine and beer.

Talk at the table turns to food of the far north. Someone has eaten puffin. It was “sliced thin,” they say, “and smoked.” Duncan Currie of Edinburgh, Scotland, claims to have tasted polar bear. “Not very good,” he says, “but better than if it tasted me. It was slow cooked in a casserole with mushrooms and onions.”

I want to meet my Arctic animals live, I say, not cooked.

The next morning, early, I get my wish. Just before the ship reaches Qaanaaq, Greenland, there’s an announcement from the Bridge that blasts us out of bed and launches us on deck. It’s hard to get near the rail. Parkas are jostling, hands encased in mittens are fumbling with cameras to turn them on and get a shot.

To get a shot of what?

I open my camera and realize something’s wrong. The lens is frozen. Just as I’m ducking inside to let it thaw, the shouts begin. “There he is!” “He’s swimming. Near that blue-gray ice chunk. See the wet, white head?”

All I see is fur. Part of a claw, some paw.

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