Warm and fuzzy in polar bear central

Louise Southerden boards a small ship for a big adventure in the Canadian Arctic.

The weather was eerily benign - for the Arctic. The sun was out, it was a balmy four degrees and the sea was as still as glass as we paddled past chunks of ice called "growlers" and larger, true icebergs. Zak, our kayaking guide, had made it abundantly clear we were to keep our distance from the massive two-kilometre wall of ice ahead, the terminal face of Croker Glacier, just north of Baffin Island - and we soon realised why.

Despite the calm conditions, the glacier was alive with activity. Gunshot-like sounds issued from the ice as it split and cracked under pressure. Blocks fell here and there into the water. Then, after barely half an hour of drifting and watching, the incredible happened: the entire section in front of us peeled away from the rest of the glacier and fell into the water with a thunderous crash.

Then, as if in slow motion, it began to roll. It was like watching a five-storey building do a slow somersault. Zak shouted for us to paddle away - fast - and he didn't need to say it twice. As we skirted gleaming icebergs that bobbed like corks in the pulse of swell created by this calving event, exhilaration rushed up and grabbed me by the throat. When we reached the safety of open water, I still couldn't speak. Even Zak called it the highlight of his entire season in the Arctic. Moments like these really make a trip to the top of the world.

Our 12-day voyage started when we boarded the Russian scientific vessel Akademik Ioffe in Resolute, five-hours' flying time north of Ottawa and about halfway between the Arctic Circle and the North Pole. While we were settling in to our cabins an announcement came over the public address system: after the lifeboat drill there would be another, equally mandatory safety briefing - on polar bears. That's when it hit me that we were really in the Arctic.

Because we were going to be travelling along the coast - around the top of Baffin Island then down its east coast and, after crossing Davis Strait, along the west coast of Greenland - the plan was to make as many shore excursions as possible.

But whenever you set foot on terra firma in the Arctic there's a chance you'll encounter a polar bear. At the briefing we learned that any time we were to go ashore - even in our kayaks - expedition guides, armed reluctantly with shotguns and less-lethal deterrents, would first scout for bears and give the all-clear.

This was not the kind of trip where you could wander off alone to contemplate the vast, icy landscape around you; polar bears can sneak up on hapless Homo sapiens faster than you can say: "What's for lunch?"

They can also run at speeds approaching 40kmh. But the factoid that sunk deepest into the folds of my brain - being one of nine passengers who had signed up for the sea kayaking option - was that polar bears are true marine mammals. Excellent swimmers, they can leap more than two metres from the water onto an ice floe or, let's say, a sea kayak.

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So I was a tad apprehensive the day the Arctic Nine, as we liked to call ourselves, put on drysuits, loaded up the kayaks and stepped off the gangway onto a Zodiac that would take us to a place our guide Jacques referred to as "polar bear central".

Of the estimated 20,000 polar bears in the wild today, Jacques told us as he steered us towards a rocky beach under a towering cliff, two-thirds live in the Canadian Arctic. And of those, many of them seem to like it here, on Devon Island. Jacques was even kind enough to point out a polar bear research station on top of the cliff directly above us as we launched our kayaks. We were about to paddle back into the food chain.

As we set off, however, our surroundings distracted me entirely from thoughts of my own mortality. Looking down through water as clear as glass as icy wavelets splashed my face (the only part of my body exposed to the elements), I could see every stone on the bottom, metres below.

When we paddled around a headland and lost sight of both the ship and our fellow passengers on the shore, I was struck by the basic vulnerability of being human in a place where every other living thing has had tens of thousands of years to adapt - even the Arctic willow "trees" we saw later growing along the ground, carpeting it with red and yellow leaves every autumn. (We didn't end up seeing any polar bears that day but we saw two later in the trip - thankfully from Zodiacs, not our kayaks.)

Of course human beings aren't entirely strangers to the Arctic. The Inuit have been living in the place they call Nunassiaq, "the beautiful land", for more than 4000 years and that adds another dimension to Arctic cruising.

At Inuit communities such as Arctic Bay, on Baffin Island, we met shy women wearing amauti - long-tailed white parkas with large hoods where their babies rode, snug against the cold. We heard traditional throat-singing and drumming and saw wooden sleds on the town's stony beaches, waiting for winter.

There was another aspect of Arctic life that loomed large and real in almost every town we visited: hunting.

We saw harpoon guns mounted on the bows of fishing boats, sealskin souvenirs in all the stores, even a fresh narwhal tusk. Apart from birds such as northern fulmar and guillemots, the wildlife - particularly the seals, whales and walruses we'd hoped to see from our kayaks - was noticeably scarce and cautious.

"The wildlife is here," Jacques assured us. "You just have to work harder to see it."

There are actually more species of animals in the Arctic than in Antarctica, he said, but fewer actual animals, not just because of the hunting but because the Arctic Ocean is frozen for half the year. To some extent, travelling by ship - even a relatively small ship like the Ioffe, which typically accommodates no more than 100 passengers plus 40 Russian crew - insulates you from the elemental realities of Arctic life.

But the Arctic is never far away. Every cabin on our ship had portholes (or actual windows) and most of us spent just about every waking moment on deck - rugged up in beanies and parkas, watching for migratory birds and whales - or on the bridge standing next to our Russian captain as he threaded the ship through an arcade of ice.

There were times, too, when shipboard life itself was typically polar. One afternoon, while we were anchored off the west coast of Greenland, the crew treated us to an "Arctic barbecue". The sun was out, Gimme Shelter was playing on the PA and we dined on burgers at tables and chairs set up on the aft deck under a blazing blue sky surrounded by icebergs.

On our second-last night, as we gathered on the foredeck and wrapped our gloved hands around steaming mugs of gluhwein to celebrate crossing the Arctic Circle, the sky suddenly came alive with shimmering curtains: our first and only glimpse of the Northern Lights. Small-ship cruising through the Arctic is more than just a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As the world becomes warmer, experiencing the top of the world first-hand - kayaking past glaciers, seeing polar bears, meeting Inuit bracing for change - makes you feel as if you have stumbled into a David Attenborough doco about the fragility, as he might say, of life in Earth's freezer.

Louise Southerden travelled with the assistance of Peregrine Adventures and the Canadian Tourism Commission.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Qantas (qantas.com.au) flies daily to Los Angeles with connections to Ottawa. Air Canada (aircanada.ca) flies daily nonstop to Vancouver, with connections to Ottawa.

Cruising there

Peregrine Adventures offers Arctic voyages in northern Canada (as well as other Arctic regions such as Svalbard, Spitsbergen, Greenland and Iceland), from June to September from $5570 a person for 12 days, ex Ottawa. Domestic flights to Resolute or Iqaluit, where you meet the ship, cost $1920 a person, return. Sea kayaking is an extra $575 a person and must be booked in advance. There is also an optional carbon offset fee of $169 a person to neutralise emissions from this trip. Contact Peregrine Adventures on 1300 791 485 or peregrineadventures.com.

More information

See canada.travel

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