THE BLOG

Icebreaker Cruise: Instead of a Sunburn, Think Swimming Polar Bears and a Stopover in Greenland

12/10/2013 05:23 pm ET | Updated Feb 09, 2014

You can keep them: Cruises that add up to tropical cocktails, gift-shop islands, sun-and-deckchair afternoons. When I'm at sea, I want adventure. Cresting waves, puffs of wind, the works.

This is why, a few years back, I found myself onboard a Russian icebreaker that was hardened to cut through bergs and glaciers and was churning north. Next stop: the Arctic Circle and the coast of Greenland. Polar bears would be there, I hoped, and maybe some whales and snowy owls. If we made it, I vowed to down a shot of Smirnoff with the crew, not a Pina Colada.

* * *

My icebreaker for 14 days, The Kapitan Khlebnikov, is chartered by Quark Expeditions and outfitted for 108 passengers. To get to the ship we've got to fly to Resolute Bay, five hours north of Ottawa, Canada. Then we'll load up a little fleet of rubber Zodiac boats to cross an icy sound and stagger onto the Khlebnikov's gangplank and deck.

2013-12-09-Icebreakercruiseship.JPG

This sounds good to me. In business since 1991, Quark is one of several lines that specialize in ferrying ordinary cruise passengers to the snowy ends of the world. Sometimes those on board get to be part of exploration "firsts." In 1991, Quark icebreaker passengers experienced a pioneering transit of the Northeast Passage, the route across the top of the world. And in 1999, passengers and crew sailed completely around the top of the globe (the first-ever Arctic circumnavigation).

My cruise isn't supposed to break new ground for explorers or plant any flags. But being this far north -- even in Resolute at the start of the trip -- is, itself, an adventure. Like all Arctic voyages bringing passengers, this one kicks off in a relatively ice-free month. It is September, but the wind is whistling like winter, zeroing in on exposed skin.

"I've lost my gloves!" squeals Emma Hambly of Bodmin, England. She's rifling through pockets and knapsacks. No luck. We are thinking 'frostbite' until she's saved by someone's overpacking: another passenger has found an extra pair.

We zip up our Quark-issued orange parkas on the Zodiac ride through rising swells to the ship. Here are layers of freezing sea foam. And over here are floating ice chunks. It looks like a cake that has exploded.

Our first days at sea are prism clear. When we pass near Cape York, we hear a sound like vegetables being chopped. There are helicopters on deck and it is time to load them up for a flying tour. On top of a snowy hill sits a memorial to Arctic explorer Robert Peary and we are buzz-bombing it, bouncing and diving in the hard blue air.

2013-12-09-Icebreakercruisepeopleinjackets.JPG


Back at the ship we land on our bulls-eye on the deck and duck under the whirring blades as if this were wartime Vietnam. Helicoptering makes us hungry. Hungry as a Russian bear. What's for dinner? We've got soups, stews, cabbage, cutlets, bread and cakes. There's plenty of warm-up vodka, wine and beer.

Talk at the table turns to food of the far north. Someone has eaten puffin. It was "sliced thin," they say, "and smoked." Duncan Currie of Edinburgh, Scotland, claims to have tasted polar bear. "Not very good," he says, "but better than if it tasted me. It was slow cooked in a casserole with mushrooms and onions."

I want to meet my Arctic animals live, I say, not cooked.

The next morning, early, I get my wish. Just before the ship reaches Qaanaaq, Greenland, there's an announcement from the Bridge that blasts us out of bed and launches us on deck. It's hard to get near the rail. Parkas are jostling, hands encased in mittens are fumbling with cameras to turn them on and get a shot.

To get a shot of what?

I open my camera and realize something's wrong. The lens is frozen. Just as I'm ducking inside to let it thaw, the shouts begin. "There he is!" "He's swimming. Near that blue-gray ice chunk. See the wet, white head?"

All I see is fur. Part of a claw, some paw.

Suddenly, in a flash of sunlight, I know. A polar bear. Alive and enormous, bobbing down and up in waves and tilting like a buoy.

2013-12-09-IcebreakercruisePolarGrill.JPG

I'm back inside, wiping my lens with my shirt, dropping my down-filled gloves and woolly hat. By the time I'm at the rail, there are only bubbles in the water. Someone has spied the coast of Greenland. But the bear is gone.

Qaanaaq, we are told, is sometimes called "Thule." It is the world's most northern town. Most of its 350 inhabitants seem to be on hand when we step out of Zodiacs and onto the beach. It must be our orange parkas. They stare and stare. We stare back.

When a foghorn blows, there is a whine from Qaanaaq. It doesn't stop. On the contrary, it gets louder. The sound grows into a full-moon howl. Is it a wolf pack? Not exactly. It is hundreds of Huskie-like sled dogs crying from every corner of the town.

When we go on a walk, I want to try and pet the dogs or throw them a roll I've pocketed from breakfast. Anything to calm them down. But it's not allowed. "People depend on them," says Duncan Currie who has come here before. "These aren't pets. They are working dogs."

So instead I check out the display of sled-dog dry food in a Qaanaaq store. No Alpo or Purina here. But you and your pack can pick up Nukik "Polar Nuggets" sold by the bag. For puppies there is "Nukik Junior."

Groceries for humans look like they were shipped from Mars. I consider buying a can of "Mork Syrup" but decide against it. I don't have any pancakes. Dr. Oetker's Shake n' Bake Chokolad Muffins might work. And they'd be interesting to try. But I'm not sure Dr. Oetker's is a brand I can trust. When I think of shaking and baking muffins on a moving ship, this settles the issue. I leave the checkout line and stick the package back on its shelf.

Back on the streets of town, I pass houses that are as tight as drums to keep the weather at bay. Some are painted pink, and some are blue. I try a walk on the pebbly beach. Local vendors are selling seal meat. Pungent slices. Some of it is stretched on strings to dry.

Just when I've worked up the courage to ask for a taste, I'm saved by a familiar sound.

HOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMM.

It is the Khlebnikov's whistle.

Now, from Qaanaaq, comes the eerie trailing whine. AIEEEAAOOOOO. AIEEEEEEEEEAAAOOOOOOOO!

The dogs are hungry for their Polar Nuggets. And it is time for us to get back on board.

Signs that we are reaching our trip's Arctic extreme are all around. The sky is never dark: sunset bleeds into dawn. Tiny flakes of snow twist by when you are out on deck. And when I get caught by a blast of wind, not one but both of my sunglass lenses pop out and sail overboard.

2013-12-09-IcebreakercruiseIcefloes.JPG

Our helicopter flights surprise herds of musk oxen. Above a glacier, we see specs of glowing white -- a white that is whiter than the snow. "Arctic hares!" shouts our guide, making a hopping motion with his hands just in case we don't know what a hare can do.

Finally, at breakfast, there is a special announcement. "We've reached our apex," says the Captain. "Our northernmost point on this trip."

Ship's latitude is 82.31 degrees North. We roll this around in our heads. Someone unrolls a map. Not the Geographic Pole. But not bad at all.

We are farther up, by far, than Norway, Finland or Alaska. Farther up, we're told, than the North Magnetic Pole. And our icebreaker has hit the edge of pack ice. It is happy.

At first the sea ice is Saran Wrap, shaped like waves. It thickens into glass, sliding surfing panes that crack and splinter into bits. The plates grow Plexiglas fat. They flatten every swell, pressing down, ironing things out. Now, instead of ocean, there are continents of ice. Whatever is below -- Arctic fish and seals, and probably our bear -- are hidden underneath this frozen ceiling.

The Khlebnikov crunches forward and down. Forward and deeper down. We are dredging out our personal ice canal. In the stern we make a wake of slush. Starboard and port have flying foam that freezes to the steel and makes us slip and grab the railings and yell.

Peter Hui of Bethesda, Md., is right at the icebreaker's prow. Snap. Snap. Flash! He's got it. An Arctic souvenir shot of a traveling pal. Hui's friend is a yellow rubber chicken that goes where he goes.

"This is one of his best adventures," says Hui.

He doesn't mind the wind? I ask.

Hui considers. "See the chicken's goosebumps? That means he is excited. But also a little cold."

I nod my head. I know how it is. I can feel the spray and the thrust of the ship. I am shivering despite my parka and my winter gloves and hat. Under my boots the Khlebnikov's giant engines churn.

Hui and I, and Hui's chicken, do not move. We like our ice. We want to watch it, hear its splits and crunches, taste its salt in our teeth. We are leaning over, looking ahead, moving with our ship. Forward and down. Forward and deeper down.

It may be a soft afternoon off the coast of Aruba, Barbados, Bermuda. Passengers on ships there may be ordering drinks. They may be smiling and tasting fruit and just beginning to tan.

Passengers on ships there may be happy as the sun itself. This I understand.

But let them keep their tans and tropics and easy seas.

None is as happy as I.

* * *
Peter Mandel is an author of picture books for kids, including his read-aloud bestseller: Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook), and his newest about zoo animals passing on a very noisy sneeze: Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House).