Expedition adventure cruise, Labrador and Greenland: Taking the polar plunge in the Arctic Circle

Every day expedition leader Matthew James, or MJ as most call him, wakes us up with a cheery good morning and a pithy quote. He might trot out a bit of Mark Twain or a few noble words from Jacques Cousteau. I smile regardless of the author, snuggled as I usually am under a cosy doona in a toasty cabin. Sometimes I allow myself a self-satisfied smug if I'm already up and dressed in my many layers by the time his voice comes coaxingly down the PA system.

On this the second last day of the journey, one that has taken us along the Newfoundland and Labrador coasts and across the Davis Strait to Greenland, MJ's quote has something to do with jumping at opportunities.  

OK, I think – that's settled it.

We're anchored in Evighedsfjord, which is Danish for "Eternity", a far more poetic moniker than the tongue-twisting Kangerlussuatisiag fiord, which is its Greenlandic name.      

Out on deck and I discover it's a spectacular day; amazing, as we have encountered all sorts of weather on this journey and were beset by fog a few days earlier, so thick it slowed us to a crawl. But now as the expedition draws to an end and the captain nudges us just inside the Arctic Circle it is sheer brilliance from sky to sea. Off the bow of the ship stands a glacier, our first real sighting of one of Greenland's hundreds of rivers of ice, gleaming far too brightly for such an early hour and rising 80 metres from the fiord.  

I didn't sleep much the previous night, tossing and turning, wondering if I'd do the polar plunge – that ritualistic jump off the ship into icy waters. The staff wanted a show of hands and I vacillated with a half-hearted, half-raised arm, which went up and down as I looked around the room of 200 passengers. Matthew's sister, Cedar Swan, the chief executive of Adventure Canada, took to the stage with a pep talk promising the polar plunge would be akin to the greatest life-affirming thing you could ever do.

Umm. At 7am as our posse of Zodiacs zips and weaves by the glacier and I snap photos from every angle, I'm dithering. But at 10am with just one slice of toast under my belt (make that under my tight swimming costume), I'm in my fluffy bathrobe, heading down to the lower deck with 50 other jumpers and before I know it, I'm a lemming and throw myself off the ship.  

Cedar is right. What a buzz; I'm as high as the proverbial kite and barely feel the cold as I swim like a demon back to the ship, scull a vodka shot and scale the stairs to the top deck to prance around bathrobe-clad like a ballerina after a thunderous curtain call.

But it's not just the Arctic swim that has me enthralled.  From the time we set sail from St John's Newfoundland, the most easterly point in North America, it is one journey of discovery after the next to pen an oft-used quote. 

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St John's signature jellybean houses, named for their jaunty coats of varying colours, cling to the cliff face on the port side as our ship Ocean Endeavour heads out through the Narrows, the slender opening between harbour and ocean. 

Within a day we're in "Iceberg Alley" and they show their blue-tinged presence as we make our way north to L'Anse Aux Meadows at the tip of Newfoundland. 

Our landing at this ancient Norse site is delayed when the crew spots a pod of humpback whales playing nearby. Zodiacs are launched and we head in their direction. When we finally land, there's an imposing statue of Viking Leif Eriksson to greet us, guarding a mock Norse village where houses made from turf play host to actors such as Olaf, who is in costume beside a gigantic longboat built exactly to scale. 

The discovery of L'Anse Aux Meadows by Norwegian archaeologists in 1960 confirmed the long-held belief that Norsemen from Greenland were the first Europeans to set foot in the Americas, 500 years ahead of Columbus and John Cabot. The following day, we're in Labrador, and standing on a 40-kilometre beach, evocatively called the Wonderstrands, a name mentioned in the Icelandic sagas of Erik the Red (Eriksson's well-travelled father who was kicked out of Iceland and settled in Greenland) as a place where his men mended their boats.    

Precious few people visit this beach but there are predators aplenty and the ship's bear monitors are employed for the first time, and take up positions on a perimeter, armed with high-powered rifles.

Labrador is a remote and wild place. Few Canadians visit it (the co-named Newfoundland and Labrador province was the last to join Canada in 1949), let alone we three Australians on my cruise. It is also Inuit territory and following a long-fought land claim, 72,520 square kilometres of Labrador was handed back to the indigenous people to form Nunatsiavut, a place I must say I had never heard of.  

Created in 2006, this self-governing region stretches from Hopedale, where we land and visit the administrative headquarters building that's beautifully shaped like an igloo, all the way to the Torngat Mountains National Park at the tip of Labrador in the sub-Arctic. 

Adventure Canada is known for its impressive line-up of lecturers, performers and artists and always has a handful of Inuit speakers on board who explain their culture and history. While many of the stories I hear are grim, bearing stark similarity to Australia's Stolen Generation experience, the Inuit aboard our ship are finding new dignity as skilled bear monitors and trekking guides in the wild, uninhabited reaches of the national park.

After leaving Hopedale we hit the polar trifecta of ice, fog and swell, a combination that forces the captain to temporarily abandon our northern coastal route and head back south and out to sea. 

Two unscheduled sea days are filled with more talks, more food, the company's legendary singalongs (complete with song books) and bridge visits where the captain explains how our ice-class vessel works by pushing ice away, at a very slow pace, like a giant bulldozer. 

At Hebron, a derelict former Moravian mission abandoned in 1959 following a government order, we are further north than any settlement in modern-day Labrador. 

Levi, an Inuit man who has travelled with us, disembarks here, as he's done for several summers, and for two months will continue his painstaking restoration work on the old mission, his former home of half a century earlier when he was a boy.

The following day we enter Saglek Fjord, which marks the entrance to the Torngat Mountains, known as the "land of spirits". The weather gods turn on sheer brilliance – sunny days and pink skies that never dim until near midnight – and the wildlife gods reward us with not one but three polar bear sightings.  

Once again the Zodiacs are launched and off we zoom for a closer look at these magnificent creatures. 

This is expedition cruising at its very best and you can quote me on that.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.adventurecanada.com

www.cruisetraveller.com.au

GETTING THERE

Air Canada flies to Toronto, via Vancouver, and then onwards to St John's Newfoundland. See aircanada.com

CRUISING THERE

Adventure Canada is a Toronto-based cruise company founded 29 years ago by Matthew Swan (the father of MJ, Cedar and another sibling Alana, who all work for the company). It offers cruises during the northern summer around Canada and the Arctic including Greenland and the Northwest passage. The 2017 14-night Greenland and Wild Labrador cruise will take place from September 23 to October 7. It will begin in Kangerlussuaq Greenland and finish in St John's Newfoundland, Canada. Fares start at around $6610 a person twin share, plus flights and some other extras.  Cruises include all excursions during the cruise such as Zodiac rides and entries to museums and attractions. 

Caroline Gladstone was a guest of Adventure Canada and Destination Canada.

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