May 16, 2014
SCORESBY SUND, Greenland — It was a skyline of ice, best appreciated in silence. In early September in the arctic, daylight gives way to night very slowly and very grudgingly. This evening, the sun was still an hour or more from setting, and a curtain of clouds mellowed its light. At the horizon opposite the sun, the palette of colors was subdued, almost monochromatic. Against that backdrop, the outlines of 25 or 30 icebergs formed a ghostly cityscape.
One of the massive wind- and water-sculpted remnants of ancient ice was low and long, like a series of row houses. Another was angular, resembling a skyscraper. A pyramid shape mimicked the courtyard of the Louvre.
On a large cruise ship, the chatter of other passengers, the clinking of glasses and the occasional outburst of laughter would take away some of the specialness of this moment. But aboard the diminutive Plancius, I shared this mesmerizing scene with just a handful of passengers.
Travel to polar regions is typically by ship, but this isn’t your grandmother’s cruise or cruise ship. The Plancius was built as a research vessel. Oceanwide Expeditions, which specializes in voyages to the arctic and Antarctic, bought the vessel, which is no longer than a football field, and rebuilt it to accommodate 113 passengers.
While expedition ships such as the Plancius are comfortable, these cruises aren’t about the ship. They’re about the destination.
And what a destination this was.
With eyes peeled
In the space of 12 days, we sailed within 600 miles of the North Pole, saw wildlife including arctic hares, musk oxen, walruses and polar bears, hiked across heartachingly beautiful gold- and red-hued tundra, and cruised among icebergs of all shapes, sizes and colors as we listened to bits of ice bump, bump, bump against the bottom of our inconsequential inflatable Zodiac boats.
We began in Spitsbergen, a Norwegian archipelago northeast of Greenland and high above the Arctic Circle. Here we quickly became aware of one of the realities of being interlopers in a wild environment: Each time we would venture ashore here and in Greenland, all of the expedition staff would be armed with high-powered rifles in case of an encounter with a polar bear. They also carried flare guns and noisemakers, the preferred deterrents for bears.
Vigilance was the main deterrent, however, and on this day we cut short our second excursion and returned to the ship after Delphine, our expedition leader, scouted ahead and saw a mother bear and cub in the distance.
After two days at sea we reached the east coast of Greenland and were roused from sleep by our 7 a.m. wake-up call telling us walruses had been sighted.
Some patches of blue were visible through the clouds as our Zodiacs motored away from the Plancius. Not disturbing wildlife is a key priority in the arctic, so expedition staff kept us 400 to 600 yards offshore from the spit of sand where eight to 10 walruses sprawled in a heap, like a blubbery, tusked batch of cats.
Occasionally a walrus would sleepily raise its head and look our way, prompting cries of, “Oh, look,” and the sound of cameras being fired.
In succeeding days, our schedule settled into a familiar routine as the Plancius poked into fjords and sounds, exploring places with exotic names such as Kejser Franz Josef and Kong Oscar fjords, or Segelsallskapet, a delightful place where the shoreline was made up of variable-color sheets of rock layered like a wavy lasagna.
Moving in close
Each morning and afternoon we’d venture out in the Zodiacs, sometimes cruising among icebergs, often going ashore, where we’d break into groups with the option of longer or shorter hikes, or hikes tailored to the photographers among us who wanted to dally and explore with our cameras.
My favorite day came as the cruise was winding down and we made a morning landing at Harefjord. Expedition staff formed a security perimeter to keep watch for polar bears, and we were turned loose to explore an expansive area of tundra on our own. Some of the hardier passengers took an icy dip in the frigid bay, a de rigueur experience on any polar trip.
I wandered the brilliant scarlet and gold hillside, which was backed by snow-covered mountains, hearing the burble of a foot-wide rivulet tumbling to the sea and delighting in the tiny pink, yellow and white wildflowers that claw out an existence during this harsh environment’s brief summers. In the distance there was the occasional boom of an iceberg calving from a glacier.
That afternoon, the Plancius, whose hull is reinforced for just this type of task, pushed into the narrowing Rodefjord, clogged with bergy bits — the smaller chunks of ice that icebergs have shed.
In the Zodiacs we got up close to bergs that ranged from sculpted shelves hundreds of feet long and a hundred feet high to ones 30 or 40 feet long and 15 feet above water that were multicolored — aquamarine and brown or gray or almost black. It was phenomenal.
Our trip would wind down with a visit to the tiny Inuit village of Ittoqqortoormiit before concluding on the northern coast of always-beautiful Iceland.
But when my thoughts return to Greenland, it’s always to the mental images of rust-colored tundra and ghostly icebergs.
Phil Marty is a Chicago writer and photographer.
When you go
Departure port is Longyearbyen, Norway, on Spitsbergen Island. Many U.S. and foreign carriers can get you to Oslo, but you’ll probably end up taking SAS from there. The cruise ends in Iceland, and Iceland Air has direct flights to Boston, Denver, Minneapolis, Newark, N.J., Orlando, Fla., Seattle and Washington.
I booked my Greenland cruise through AdventureSmith Explorations, which specializes in adventure travel, including small-ship expedition cruises. For 2014, the trip I did will run Aug. 31-Sept. 12 on the Ortelius, sister ship to the Plancius. Pricing is from $6,150 per person, quad occupancy. AdventureSmith offers other Greenland options, too. 1-877-620-2875, http://www.adventuresmithexplorations.com/spitsbergen-northeast-greenland-cruise
Cabins on the Plancius vary based on price, of course, though for the most part are basic but comfortable. Food was quite good, with options for most tastes.
Temperatures generally were in the 30s and 40s, with many cloudy days and some rain. Foul-weather gear is a must.
BEFORE AND AFTER
It’s better to arrive in Longyearbyen at least a day before the ship departs. I stayed at the Spitsbergen Guesthouse, a very basic lodging with shared bath facilities that was quite adequate. I booked it on Hotels.com for $100.
At trip’s end, you’ll want to stay at least one night in Reykjavik, Iceland. Lodging options are numerous. I stayed at the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica, a nice hotel with a bit of luxury. Rooms can be had from about $200.
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