The unforgiving frontiers of Earth’s icy extremes are attracting an increasing number of travellers keen for adventure, writes Kendall Hill.
Deep within the Arctic Circle’s white and blue wilderness of ice and snow, sea and sky, the light can be as deceptive as it is dazzling. The lines between reality and fantasy dissolve.
Polar mirages transform barren coastlines into skyscraper cities or conjure phantom ships on far horizons. Ice blink, Arctic haze and the chimera of the aurora borealis further confound the senses. The Arctic is a mirror world where reference points melt into thin air and leave humans disorientated. “Our brain isn’t built to handle all those different horizons,” explains John Houston, filmmaker and expedition guide aboard Adventure Canada’s Into the Northwest Passage voyage. “This land is fraught with dangers. People can lose their minds.”
I lose my mind a little, too. During 17 days floating in ice, virtually everything I see, hear and sense is a revelation. I've never been anywhere remotely like this before and, looking back, it’s hard to believe that even half of it happened. The one thing that still holds true is the freedom I felt above the 66th parallel, unshackled from everything familiar. Perhaps that’s the greatest lure of this region – and, more generally, of the globe’s frozen extremes. Holidays to hip cities or tropical resorts offer easy hits of happy, whereas our frigid limits promise rare, untouristed travel. The cold casts a spell.
Antarctica is the ultimate big-chill destination; a continent that demands courage, commitment and a fair whack of cash to visit. Lapland in Finland’s faraway north entices those chasing the Northern Lights. Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula combines ice and fire in a phenomenal setting of Arctic tundra and seething volcanoes (see below). All are experiences for the few, not the masses; the intrepid, not the idle.
Elite tour operators and expedition cruises now make it possible to explore these challenging environments with relative ease. To reach the Arctic, our group of more than 100, including 18 expert guides, boards a charter jet from Toronto to Greenland. The flight north over Quebec to the world’s largest island takes about four hours. We disembark in Kangerlussuaq to a remarkably balmy 15°C August day.
The Northwest Passage, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, defied human navigation and claimed countless lives over four centuries until Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen finally conquered its ice-choked waterways in 1906.
Climate change means that the once impenetrable passage has admitted tourist vessels for a decade. Even large ships such as the 1000-passenger Crystal Serenity have plied the route. But this isn’t to suggest the experience is familiar or predictable; no-one, not even our seasoned guides, could have imagined what the next fortnight would hold. How could anyone have dreamed up a polar bear floating on an iceberg shaped like a colossal top hat?
When we first see the creature, pacing along the iceberg’s brim, I’m convinced it must be another mirage – like those skyscrapers we saw on Baffin Island. But no, it’s real. As we edge closer to our quarry, I dare to hope that I’ll soon have an intimate audience with a king of the Arctic.
It’s not to be. The bear does a Houdini and disappears before we arrive. A fellow passenger later spots it emerging from the sea, safely on a very distant shore.
There’s almost nothing near the North Pole to suggest life as we know it. How do I convey what it’s like to wake on a crisp blue morning in an ice-crowded bay, the sun’s rays sparkling with diamond clarity? Or the adventure of tracking musk ox through knee-deep snow? Or the thrilling wonder of drifting on a glassy sea while pods of unicorned narwhals play peekaboo all around?
How do I describe the Arctic to someone who’s never encountered life in a land of ice? It would require a whole other language. Thankfully, the Inuit invented one. Inuktitut is more specifically expressive than any language I know of. It’s also utterly unpronounceable.
The verb ullisaqtuq means to wait all day at a seal breathing hole (unnuijuq is to wait all night). Ujjaq is an aged seal flipper. Iqquttikataak is the last dog on a sled team. Kitigaq is a rarely used antler part. All are words that transcend mere description to depict an entire alien lifestyle.
My favourite, for its sheer visual power, is the Inuktitut word immitittijuq – offering fresh water to a sea mammal just after it’s been killed. The hunter dribbles water from his lips into the mouth of the dead creature, a thanksgiving for a life sacrificed.
The Inuit believe every animal has a soul and that taking a life is a solemn affair necessary for human survival. They carefully manage populations of seals, whales and bears because, without them, they would fall ill and die. Mammal meat provides vital vitamins and minerals; the blubber sustains them through dark, glacial winters when the sun never shines.
“There’s only the moon, the stars and the streetlights – and sometimes it’s minus 40,” explains an official at the Pond Inlet National Parks office in Canada’s isolated Nunavut province. “Even minus 45,” his colleague chimes in.
At the Pond Inlet community centre, locals perform traditional Inuit games such as the musk ox push – a sort of crouching, shoving tug of war in which contestants use their heads and shoulders to overcome their opponents – and a violent mouth-pulling spectacle where rivals apparently try to tear each other’s face off. It’s horrific and hilarious.
Throat-singing competitions start sombre and slightly menacing as the singers’ dual tones resonate in primal grunts and gasps. But duels invariably end in gales of laughter when one woman breaks the other’s rhythm. The Inuit amuse themselves with these games during winter’s long nights.
Of course, the Arctic is cold but during our voyage it’s also unseasonably warm at times. Anchored alongside Greenland’s Karrat Island, we wear shorts and shirts for a deck barbecue in baking 15°C sunshine. The summer days become progressively colder, peaking at -2°C in desolate Resolute at the end of the voyage, but – as with any weather – you dress for it and adapt.
On our second last morning, when the ship’s PA system announces that the temperature for our landing at Port Leopold will be 5°C, I’m sure I’m not the only one to think, “Mild. Nice.”
THE BIG CHILL
7 Other Cold Climate Destinations That are Hot Right Now
In December, with its Baroque streetscapes and fortified hilltops blanketed in snow, Salzburg resembles a Christmas postcard. Locals and tourists embrace the season with gusto and yuletide markets sprout across the city with hot spiced wine to warm the arteries. Stay at the Sacher Salzburg for the complete chocolate-box experience.
It’s been called the most inhospitable place on earth but adventurers can’t resist the siren call of Antarctica. Nothing about it is easy: the Drake Passage sail is notoriously nauseating and even those who fly into King George Island must endure the Southern Ocean’s moods. It’s accessible for just four months a year and can cost about $20,000 but the effort is well rewarded.
Spouting geysers and active volcanoes take the chill off the snowy extremities of Far East Russia. Besides the scenery, it’s known for its wildlife, from reindeer and moose to brown bears gorging on running salmon. Ocean voyages are the usual way to explore this UNESCO-listed wilderness but key attractions such as the Valley of Geysers can only be reached by helicopter.
Once upon a time, mainlanders wouldn’t dare visit Tasmania in the dead of winter. But in the almost six years since the subversive Dark Mofo festival debuted, Hobart’s the hottest place in the country to spend the winter solstice. Pagan feasts, big-name acts, avant-garde art and ceremonial fires lend the city a weird and wonderful glow.
In the remote Lapland wilderness, stilted tree houses, glass-ceilinged suites and transparent igloos maximise northern exposure and the chances of seeing the Northern Lights, which can be visible for up to 200 nights a year in Finland’s deep north, weather permitting. September to April are prime viewing months; the further north you venture, the better the borealis.
About 90 per cent of travellers visit Patagonia during the milder months of October to April. But arrive between May and early June, before the snow closes many lodges and walks, and you’ll find much sparser crowds and calmer conditions than the wild gales of summer. Hiking is also more pleasant when the temperature tops out at 10°C.
The premier ski destination in the Japanese Alps, the Hakuba Valley contains nine resorts linked by a single lift pass (and shuttle buses) so there are slopes to suit every budget and level of ability. A former Winter Olympics venue, Hakuba has no shortage of epic runs for skiers, skaters
and snowboarders, plus the infrastructure is second to none.