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An Adventure in the Arctic, Going West to East

April 06, 1986|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH | Slater and Basch are Los Angeles free-lance writers.

Our weather varied tremendously, from a balmy, sunny, 68-degree morning at Herschel Island, an abandoned whaling station at the northernmost tip of Canada's Yukon Territory, to fresh snow and driving sleet blown by an icy wind at Cambridge Bay on the east end of Victoria Island.

The day after Cambridge Bay, as we sailed the gulfs and straits between the mainland of the North American continent and the islands of the Canadian Arctic, we encountered winds of 45 knots and the captain ordered the cabin portholes covered on all the lower decks.

Through the night we picked our way through the ice of Queen Maud Gulf, and by midday, in Requisite Channel, we pitched and rolled in a very rough sea.

Icebreaker Assists

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Camsell informed us that the storm we were experiencing had destroyed many of the buoys in narrow, shallow Simpson Strait, which lies between the mainland and King William Island, and offered to lead us through. Afterward we anchored near each other, and the officers and crew of the Camsell came on board the World Discoverer for a lively evening in the main salon bar.

The next morning we called at the hamlet of Gjoa Haven on King William Island, named for Roald Amundsen's ship Gjoa, which spent two winters there. Relics, graves and skeletons of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition have also been found on the island.

Gjoa Haven, although tidier than some, is typical of the Inuit villages we have visited: fairly new wooden houses, half a dozen broken snowmobiles, barking dogs, polar bear, seal or musk ox skins drying on clotheslines, fishing boats on the beach with outboard motors, etc.

It offers, among other packages, a traditional spring Inuit experience aboard a two-day dog-sled trip across the ice from Gjoa Haven to Spence Bay on Boothia Peninsula.

Thar She Blows

From Gjoa Haven we turned north, bound eventually for the northernmost point on our voyage, Little Cornwallis Island at 75 degrees 23 minutes north. En route we saw a polar bear with two cubs just inside the mouth of narrow Bellot Strait, the often mist-shrouded entrance to Prince Regent Inlet. We played tag with a rare bowhead whale that teased us with arches and arcs, tumbles and rolls and spouts, its elephant-gray skin gleaming in the water.

Sailors' Graves

At Beechey Island, where the Franklin Expedition spent its first winter, we saw the graves of three sailors who died and were buried there. As we walked across the island from the gravesites to the cache and "post office" used by early explorers, we felt like moon walkers crossing a lifeless planet, with nothing except rocks and lichen and rusted 19th-Century tin cans discarded by expeditioners.

After Beechey Island we encountered the first huge icebergs from Greenland's glaciers, and after several calls at villages on Baffin Island crossed into Baffin Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

Making It Official

On Tuesday evening, Sept. 9, precisely at 8 p.m., we officially completed the first passenger ship west-to-east crossing of the Northwest Passage, the 36th ship of any kind to make the passage.

There would be two more weeks of cruising and visits to unexplored fiords of Baffin Island's east coast, Greenland's west coast, Labrador, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, but we had already accomplished what we'd set out to do, travel a mysterious and notorious sea route in places no passenger ship had ever been, and, in the doing, perhaps learn more about ourselves.

For other cruise dates and prices, contact your travel agent or Society Expeditions toll-free at (800) 426-7794 or (206) 324-9400.

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