A Cool Cruise Never to Forget
Article and photography by Lisa Sonne
In every direction, there is a gallery of icebergs, frozen freshwater sculptures that floated away from a parent glacier hundreds of thousands of years old. I feel like a great polar explorer. The front of my kayak carves through the glistening “frazzle” –a thin layer of sea ice that coated these Arctic waters overnight. The frozen geometric patterns crackle with the plowing bow, and cascading crunching sounds join in as my paddle plunges through and pushes back in this stunning bay.
A group of us – from Canada, Russia, India and the U.S. – are making an excursion from an expedition ship in the largest and deepest fjord system in the world. The Scoresby Sund (Sound) of eastern Greenland is above the Arctic Circle, in a remote, hard-to reach place that is uninhabited and rarely visited by humans. The horizon of waters and whites are of densities and hues that defy any paint-box. This is timeless, raw, gorgeous nature – the same kind of seascapes that the intrepid explorers braved in previous centuries.
Then I look down – and see the modern day “dry suit” I am wearing to keep me water-proof and warm, and the plastic kayak that gracefully tolerates me. I twist as far as I can and between me and an ancient glacier, the MV Sea Spirit floats grandly. The 116-passenger ship has an ice-certified hull and state of the art communications and navigation equipment. Even more important at the moment, when the eight of us paddle back, we can enjoy hot showers, fresh towels, wonderful food, clean clothes, comfy beds, and even an open-air jacuzzi. The famous polar explorers – Shackleton, Stefansson, Peary, Amundsen and Nansen – never had it so good.
The “Arctic Sights and Northern Lights” cruise of Poseidon Expeditions is well-named. By day, we see polar bears foraging the steep shores of a fjord and whales spouting. After dark, fantastical swaths of light may swirl in night skies. The cruise ship may not have casinos or discos but I am happy instead to bet on the weather, and look up to see light dancing with the stars.
Our voyage begins and ends in Iceland’s dynamic capital, Reykjavik, and the villages and waterfalls of Iceland’s West Fjords and the Snaefellsness Peninsula with great memories, even if I can’t remember how to pronounce the names: Isafjorour, Grundafjordur, and Dynjandi Waterfalls.
Between these beautiful Icelandic bookends, we will cross the Denmark Strait to visit a remote Inuit outpost –Ittoqqortoormiit- at the mouth of Scoresby Sund. Days five to ten are for places without people. As the literature says, “Scoresby Sund is a true Arctic Wilderness and this part of the voyage is a real expedition.” There are named islands and fjords on the maps, but the itinerary is always TBD (to be determined), depending on weather and sea conditions, as well as wildlife reports and passenger interests. When we head to a place Poseidon has never been (and perhaps no ship has visited), extra excitement burbles onboard.
Every shore visit is done with thorough preparation. A team of ship guides land first to set up “perimeters,” where they are posted as armed guards against polar bears, which are dangerous, not cuddly, in their natural habitat. Hikes of varying difficulty are offered, providing Arctic flora and fauna, Thule archeological sightings, and spectacular views.
Every kayaking day also gifted diverse highlights like paddling between the pinnacles off Red Island—the red-brown sandstone contrasting dramatically with white, calving icebergs. Another day, a chunk of iceberg thunderously broke off. Although it happened fairly far away, we were in a small bay and within moments, we were cresting over the waves it created when it fell.
My favorite kayak experience may have been getting close enough to a large Musk Ox to hear it biting off and chewing the vegetation. We were mesmerized watching it move, with its shambled fur swaying from side to side. The musk ox, on the other hand, stared straight at us and then returned placidly to eating.
While at sea, the Russian captain and crew skillfully navigate, while passengers look for whales, visit the bar, settle in the ship’s library of exploration books, or head to the ample amphitheater, with its program of films and lectures like, “Viking Discoveries in Greenland,” “ The Cultural History of Whales and Dolphins,” and “Mammal Identification Tips.” Each crew-member wears multiple hats. Many have deep knowledge-specialties to share, on topics from wildflowers to glaciology.
When the crew offers a “Polar Plunge Party” off the back of the boat, a doctor and defibrillator stand by as intrepid / insane participants are roped before jumping, just in case they need to be hauled back in from the frigid sea. Before reason set in, I had just enough time to change from kayaking gear into my swimsuit and be one of the last ones to jump in and earn my Polar Certificate. Fortunately, there were no heart attacks, just good-hearted memories.
The transformations from day to night provided another set of dramatic highlights. I’ve been fortunate to see gorgeous sunsets from cruise boats in French Polynesia, the Galapagos, Papua New Guinea, Hawaii, and many countries in Europe, but Arctic sunsets can be in their own class —beyond-Photoshop colors– as their bold vibrancy is reflected in waters and icebergs.
After dark, the northern lights may provide a magnetic light display – both in how they draw us out of our lovely, warm suites onto the cold decks to watch and in how they are created. Solar winds send a field of magnetic particles far into space. As some hit the earth’s magnetosphere, they speed up around the north and south pole, then plunge toward earth and collide with the atmosphere, creating energy in the form of light.
As we gather on decks for the intermittent show, I love being surrounded by human spirits speaking in different languages, but kindred in our seeking awe. Sometimes there is just reverential silence in the dark, and then a chorus of international oohs and ahs and lots of clicking camera noises.
Only some of the dancing colors are visible to the human eye, but more appear through the lens of a camera. When I am not clicking or just staring with wonder, I enjoy standing behind a talented Chinese woman with greater lenses as she takes psychedelic videos of the show. Not every night rewards us, but several do – and with the lights, swirls a sense of wonder and bewitchment.
More Polar Exploring
For those who want to try out their own exploration fantasies in the Arctic or Antarctic, Poseidon Expeditions offers great polar variety, north and south. Poseidon even offers an icebreaker journey that takes bucket-list travelers straight to the North Pole.
For now, when summer heats up too much, I remember back to the crisp, clean, cold air and striking beauty of the Arctic—as well as dream of someday heading far south and kayaking with penguins.
Click on cover to view published article