AT SEA IN THE ARCTIC — Along the horizon, as far as the eye could see, shimmering cliffs of ice towered as if Dover had frozen over, or the Ancient Mariner's tale where "the ice was all between" had come true.
It was a surrealist's fantasy. The Beaufort Sea was calm, the sky was blue and the sunlight carried a crisp, clear edge of chill. Our small blue-and-white ship, World Discoverer, seemed trapped between icy cliffs on one side and the glittering, sand-colored skyscrapers of an Arctic Manhattan twinkling with lights and belching flames on the other.
Fire and ice in a vast, flat sea.
We were five days out of Nome, Alaska, attempting the first passenger-ship crossing of the Northwest Passage from west to east, and we were looking at something no map and no amount of reading had prepared us for, one of the Arctic's more devious tricks, a mirage effect called "looming."
The stark icy cliffs to our port side were illusions, the flat icecap of the Beaufort Sea reflecting against itself in the morning sunlight. (How many explorers desperately searching for the Northwest Passage during the last 400 years had seen a similar wall of ice ahead and turned back?)
To the starboard side, an indefinable distance away in the clear air and flat Arctic landscape, the "city" was Prudhoe Bay, its oil platforms and administration buildings reflecting upside down and right side up in several layers, suspended in a gray aspic between sea and sky.
The ice pack was much heavier than expected. Since dawn, when we had witnessed another rare phenomenon, a "green flash" at sunrise on the sea, we had watched the ship weave its way through the thickening ice. At 9 a.m. Capt. Heinz Aye and ice master Capt. William Stuart made the decision to reverse our course. At least for a moment, we turned back.
Sailing through the Northwest Passage may well be the last adventure in reach for the well-heeled passenger who's been everywhere. The landscape of the frozen Arctic is still as barren and hostile as it was when it reduced doughty explorers and expeditioners to starvation, murder and cannibalism, and wiped whole ships off the earth.
For everyone whose idea of a cruise is a warm, lazy sail through the islands of the Caribbean or South Pacific, a 32-day voyage from Nome to Halifax across the Arctic archipelago, the world's largest island group, would have about as much appeal as a hiking tour of purgatory or a weekend in a walk-in freezer.
But one look at this motley crew of adventurers dispelled any doubts. We numbered 80, with a median age of 69 standing on deck bundled up in Society Expeditions parkas, scanning the horizon with binoculars, photographing ice floes, almost giddy with the excitement of being here.
For the moment, at least, it seemed to be worth the $14,900 to $26,300 apiece they had paid to attempt the Northwest Passage, with no guarantee of getting through and no definite itinerary along the way.
A surprising number of men and women were aboard alone, leaving reluctant spouses behind in warmer places. For many, there was the tug of the unknown, the "because-it's-there" spirit.
"From the time I was 12 years old I read everything about the polar expeditions I could get my hands on," an Arizona woman said. "The idea of going west to east really excited me."
A Los Angeles man was celebrating his 50th birthday by sailing as close as possible to both poles; he completed an Antarctic cruise earlier this year.
A vivacious redhead from Rio de Janeiro had asked her travel agent to find "somewhere with ice and snow." A couple from Switzerland had sailed the Antarctic and now were attempting the Arctic.
After more than five hours of negotiating the ice-laden Beaufort Sea in a zigzag route that took us through waters so shallow there were sometimes only three or four feet of clearance beneath us, we began to appreciate the World Discoverer's ice-hardened hull and shallow draft.
The mystique of the Northwest Passage may come in part from the legendary explorers who were here before us: Martin Frobisher in the 16th Century; Vitus Bering, a Danish captain in the 18th-Century Russian navy; Sir John Franklin, lost at the age of 59 on his third search for the passage in the 1840s; the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who spent three years in his combined effort to study the North Magnetic Pole and to find the Northwest Passage.
More than once aboard the World Discoverer we were to feel pangs of guilt, hearing about explorers who had to boil and eat their boots while the growing problem among ourselves was weight gain from the lavish, beautifully prepared meals of our Viennese chef, Hans Baumhauer.
On many nights we were awakened to see the aurora borealis and stand shivering on the forecastle away from the deck lights while the sulfurish yellow and green patterns streaked and swirled in the sky.