Arctic Travel Guide
The Polar North of Canada
There are over 36,000 islands in the Canadian Archipelago, in that area where North America seems to dissolve into the sea. The waterways between these islands and deep fjords make it a fabulous place to cruise amongst steep cliffs and mountains that stretch to the horizon. Green lowlands and scenic bays add variety. The exact route you take depends on the state of the sea-ice which varies from year to year and month to month. Wilderness, wildlife, centuries of historical exploration and a rich Inuit culture make for fascinating travelling.
75% of the population of Canada live within 90 miles (145 km) of the US border. To the north there is a vast wilderness of swamps, lakes and forests. The north is largely empty other than for isolated settlements. Beyond the continental north is the Canadian Archipelago of islands. The Arctic Circle runs across the top of the continent, most of the archipelago lies above it.
The Arctic North of Canada is a huge place and those islands add up to a vast area, three of these islands, Baffin, Victoria and Ellesmere are respectively the 5th, 8th and 10th largest islands in the world. Devon Island between Ellesmere and Baffin islands is the largest uninhabited island in the world.
This wilderness is populated by wildlife that makes up in size and numbers what it lacks in overall species diversity. There are seals, whales, polar bears, caribou, musk ox, arctic wolves, foxes and hares along with seabirds that populate nesting cliffs in their thousands.
This is the region where explorers went from the 15th century onwards to try to find the "Northwest Passage" a fabled trading route from Europe to the Far East. The most famous expedition being that of Sir John Franklin in 1845 which resulted in the mysterious disappearance of both ships under his command and every member of the crews, leading to rescue attempts that went on for another 33 years.
Roald Amundsen was the first to successfully navigate the route in 1903-1906 in a small ship, the Gjoa. The route is frequently blocked by sea-ice which varies in extent and location very significantly from year to year, only ice breakers can reliably sail through the whole passage. In recent years however, since 2009, climate change has reduced seasonal ice and so the passage is more navigable. It is limited in its usefulness as a shipping route by some shallow regions that would prevent passage by modern cargo carriers.
Many cruises here will sail at least part of the Northwest Passage, usually the eastern and central parts and it is possible to sail the whole passage as far as Nome in Alaska or Anadyr in Russia. You can sail through the same route that Franklin and others took, though thankfully not as he did in 350 ton wooden ships with 20hp engines with primitive inaccurate charts and navigation by the sun and stars. There are a number of historic sites on islands to visit along the way.
There is a rich culture of indigenous peoples in the Canadian High Arctic that stretches back over 4,500 years, there are modern settlements where you can see traditional performances, arts and crafts and also the archeological remains of hunting lodges that may be thousands of years old.
The Canadian Arctic can be reached fairly easily from internal flights in Canada that connect internationally at Ottawa or Edmonton and fly north to smaller airports. As is typical throughout the Arctic, there are more flights to more destinations in the summer months. Visas and other travel document requirements can be checked here.
Many cruises to Arctic Canada also take in Greenland, often starting at one and ending at the other, this gives a good opportunity for a city-break at either end in a place where you may not otherwise go other than to reach the Arctic. This could be Ottawa, Copenhagen, Reykjavik or any other North American or European city or region that is nearby, a little research in advance can really add to your trip.
Places to visit in Arctic Canada
Everywhere and Anywhere
The fjords and waterways provide an ever changing scenic experience, as they vary in width, with the extent of sea-ice and of the mountains and landscapes that you pass by. Mist, sun and rolling low level clouds provide another layer of variability and mystery as you cruise onto the next excursion point. One of my favourite memories of such cruising was listening to a talk about glaciers when the speaker turned to his left and pointed out a glacier which illustrated his point and then to another glacier across the other side of the ship that demonstrated the next phenomenon he mentioned.
There are many places to take a walk ashore with an endless supply of hills and mountains that anywhere else in the world would have their own name and possibly even myths and local folklore surrounding them. As this is the Arctic, whales, seals and walrus may well put in an appearance at almost any time as might polar bears which while you are not guaranteed to see them, you will be very unlucky if you don't.
The place where Franklin's lost expedition spent their first winter in 1845-1846, there are the graves of some men who died marked by fairly recent headstones and then a little further away the remains of a hut that was built later by a rescue mission in case there were any survivors who came back to where they started from. Strewn around are food cans from that winter just lying on the ground still. Some are made into a cross as a memorial, part filled with stones to stop them blowing away. A very bleak and poignant place with remnants from the start of the expedition when all was still hopeful and then from later on when all was lost.
Prince Leopold Island
300m cliffs rising vertically from the sea with thousands of nesting black guillemots and if you're lucky a scavenging polar bear or two at the base looking for causalities.
The starting point for explorers looking for the Northwest Passage, some years it would be open and easy to navigate, others it would be clogged with ice. The very earliest ships to come here were sail only and very small by modern standards. Dubious charts and frequently swirling mists made navigation all the more difficult, as you sail by see if you can work out if that's one island you're looking at or two with a navigable channel between them, and if so, does that channel lead somewhere or is it a long fjord with a closed end?
A medium sized island for hereabouts, but still 11,607 sq. km. to the northeast of Baffin Island separated by a relatively narrow stretch of water, uninhabited though with a seasonal hunting camp, most of the island is within the Sirmiilik National Park. The island has an interior icecap with numerous glaciers flowing down to the coast from it. There are relics from the Thule People and Dorset Culture both of whom were themselves replaced by the ancestors of the modern Inuit. It is also home to a former settlement of Royal Canadian Mounted Police at Dundas Harbor where the small cemetery hints at how difficult life must have been here on a number of levels.
A Tununirmiut Inuit community of around 1,300 people on Baffin Island and a regular stopping off point for tourist ships or a good place from which to explore Baffin Island with mountain views in all directions and nearby glaciers, ice caves and other natural features. There is a community center where you may see performances of traditional throat singing and the unusual sports of the Inuit Games demonstrated. A well stocked gift shop with local arts and crafts, you can even purchase a narwhal tusk (if they have one in stock) though may not be legally allowed to import it into your home country. The architecture is utilitarian, it's a place to stand and look out from, Northern Canada has a way to go to catch up with the pretty chocolate box villages of Greenland.
The fifth largest island in the world (507,451 sq. km., more than twice as large as Great Britain) and home to around 11,000 people more than half of whom live in Iqaluit which is the largest city and the capital of the territory of Nunavut on the south coast of the island. Most of high arctic Canada and the Canadian Archipelago is part of Nunavut. Baffin Island has almost everything that the Arctic has to offer, plentiful wildlife, enormous mountains, fjords, glaciers, sea-ice, modern Inuit culture and an extensive history of occupation by native peoples and visits by explorers. As a child I had a huge atlas that I would pore over for hours, Baffin Island was one of those places that seemed to exemplify adventure and other-worldness, I was sooo excited when I finally got to go there, so maybe I'm biased. If you've read this far however I'm sure you'll like it too.
Cruise routes around or
including Arctic Canada:
These are examples, the actual routes available and durations vary somewhat from season to season, many trips operate in either direction.
A cruise within the Canadian Archipelago, wildlife and Franklin's lost expedition, 8-13 days depending on the extent of the trip.
Recommended trip for time spent and variety of scenery, wildlife and experiences. West Greenland and the eastern and central portion of the Canadian Archipelago, frequently following part of Franklin's lost northwest passage expedition, trips of 11 - 20 days. Approximately half of the trip is spent cruising Greenland and the other half Canada. There are many different lengths of trip available between the extremes, they can operate in either direction, access to the High Arctic may be through Canada, Europe or both.
Greenland and the Northwest Passage ending at western Canada or Nome in Alaska or in reverse, ships often do alternate routes on alternate trips, 20 - 23 days.
Northwest Greenland, Ellesmere Island to Baffin Island circular (ish) cruise, rarely visited regions 24 days.
contact our travel partners who will help you find the best cruise for your requirements
Arctic - Svalbard / Spitsbergen - Sample Cruises - 2018
|Around Spitsbergen - Kvitoya||Circumnavigation of Spitsbergen, attempt to reach rarely visited Kvitoya, sea-ice, sea-bird colonies and other wildlife, hiking, child-friendly.||$4,900 -
|Svalbard / Spitsbergen Circumnavigation||Historic sites, sea-ice, glaciers, wild flowers, lush tundra, walrus, polar bears, reindeer, huge sea bird colonies, optional kayaking.||$7,895 -
|Norway's Fjords & Arctic Svalbard||Fjords, Lofoten Islands, sea-bird colonies, wild-flower tundra, hiking, child-friendly, optional kayaking.||$16,990 - $23,660||17|
Arctic - Greenland and Canada - Sample Cruises - 2018
|Iceland and East Greenland||Spectacular scenery of East Greenland and Western Iceland, Inuit culture, museums, historic sites. Fjords, mountains and ice, geothermal hotsprings. Seabirds, look out for humpback and minke whales. Optional kayaking.||$5,995 -
|Greenland to Canada - Icebergs & Wildlife||Historic Canadian and Greenlandic site, abundant wildlife, rich Inuit culture and dramatic icy landscapes. Polar bears, whales and walrus, hike across the tundra, Ilulisat, UNESCO World Heritage Site. Optional kayaking.||$9,595 -
|Greenland and Northwest Passage - Franklin's Legend||West Greenland through the fabled Northwest Passage, Beechey Island, polar bears, walrus, sea-birds, Inuit culture, historic sites, glaciers, ice-bergs, made famous by explorers Roald Amundsen and Sir John Franklin.||$30,995 - $55,495||24|
Arctic - Land Based - Sample Trips - 2018
|Churchill - Tundra Lodge Polar Bear Adventure||Polar bear experience staying at the Tundra Lodge outside Churchill. Constant proximity to polar bears, a unique northern adventure. Optional dog-sledding and helicopter trip.||$7,995 - $8,595||7|
|Ultimate Alaska Wildlife Photo Safari||Denali National Park, Mt. McKinley, grizzlies, moose, wolves, caribou, sea-lions, sea-otters, seals, black bears, orcas, porpoise, brown bears fishing for migrating salmon and much bird life. Glaciers and ice-bergs, transport by rail, road, boat and small plane. Expert naturalist guide, optional kayaking.||$10,895||13|
Alaska - Sample Cruises - 2018
|Alaska's Fjords and Glaciers||Isolated waterways where bigger cruise ships can't reach. Tongass National Forest, glaciers, Misty Fjords National Mounument, Wrangell Narrows. Optional kayaking, paddle board, hiking, snorkeling. Child-friendly.||$3,345 -
|Fjords of Alaska – Ultimate Expedition||Wildlife, ice, Tlingit culture, deep fjords, Snow-capped mountains, wildlife and birds, waterfalls, tree-lined narrow passageways, glaciers, kayak through the narrows, hike into the rainforest. Child-friendly. Itinerary operates in reverse on alternate voyages.||$6,545 -
* Prices are based per person, the lowest price is usually for triple occupancy in a basic cabin, the highest for double occupancy in the best available suite.
Options may be at additional cost and are usually booked when the cruise is booked - it may be too late once the cruise has started.
Picture credits: Map of the Canadian Arctic - Connormah - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license