Over 36,000 islands make up the Canadian Archipelago, that area at the north of North America where land dissolves into sea.
Arctic Travel Guide
The Polar North of Canada
A vast unpopulated wilderness with spectacular scenery, history, Inuit culture and wildlife
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 waterways between these islands and deep fjords make a great place to cruise amongst steep cliffs and mountains that stretch to the horizon. Green lowlands and scenic bays add variety. The exact route depends on the state of the sea-ice which varies constantly. Wilderness, wildlife, centuries of historical exploration and a rich Inuit culture make for fascinating travelling.
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 numbers what it lacks in 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 British Naval Captain Sir John Franklin in 1845 which resulted in the mysterious disappearance of both his ships and every member of their crews, leading to rescue attempts that went on for another 33 years.
Norwegian 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 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.
Musk oxen on Bylot Island
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
Anywhere and Everywhere
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.
Seasonal ice in Lancaster Sound
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.
Sample routes in or including
the actual routes available and durations vary somewhat from season to season, many trips operate in either direction.
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. 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.
Polar bear safaris. In October and November polar bears gather on the shores of Hudson Bay waiting for the sea to freeze so they can reach their favoured prey of seals again following a hungry summer. They are more concentrated together at this time than any other and so can reliably be seen on trips of around a week with a few days spent on the shores of the Bay seeing the bears close up (though safely so!). 6-8 days in all.
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Arctic - Svalbard / Spitsbergen - Sample Cruises - 2021
|Around Spitsbergen, Circumnavigation||Circumnavigation of Spitsbergen, polar bears, glaciers, sea-ice, sea-bird colonies and other wildlife, hiking, child-friendly.||$5,150 -
|Spitsbergen in Depth||Historic sites, sea-ice, glaciers, wild flowers, lush tundra, walrus, polar bears, reindeer, huge sea bird colonies, optional kayaking.||$9,995 -
|Four Arctic Islands: Spitsbergen, Jan Mayen, Greenland and Iceland||High Arctic Svalbard, volcanic Jan Mayen, nature reserve, Greenland's fjords, Reykjavik, polar bears, walrus, sea-bird colonies, wild-flower tundra, hiking, optional kayaking.||$12,995 - $27,995||16|
Arctic - Greenland and Canada - Sample Cruises - 2021
|Northwest Passage and Greenland||Historic Canadian and Greenlandic sites, abundant wildlife, rich Inuit culture and dramatic icy landscapes. Polar bears, whales and walrus, hike across the tundra, optional kayaking.||$14,495 -
|East Greenland from Iceland||Spectacular scenery of East Greenland, Inuit culture, museums, historic sites. Fjords, mountains and ice, Seabirds, look out for humpback and minke whales. Optional kayaking on some voyages. Tie-in with a few days in Iceland before or after the cruise.||$4,500 -
|Northeast Greenland||The world's largest fjord system, spectacular scenery, giant icebergs and glaciers, musk ox, arctic hares, sea-birds, Inuit culture, historic sites.||$8,290 - $10,090||8|
Arctic - Land Based - Sample Trips - 2021
|Polar Bear Fly-in Safari||Churchill, Canada in the fall is where polar bears congregate to wait for Hudson Bay to freeze over, see them from the Polar Bear Cabins complex.||TBA||8|
* 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.
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Picture credits: Map of the Canadian Arctic - courtesy Connormah - used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license / Top banner - courtesy AWeith - used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license