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DESTINATION: THE ARCTIC

I'm on top of the world, Ma

In a region of ice, mother and son find bracing adventure and witness the awesome persistence of life.

June 27, 2004|Diane Cole | Special to The Times

Aboard the Akademik Ioffe — To escape the summer heat, my 14-year-old son, Edward, and I went north last year -- far north, by small cruise ship, to a high Arctic latitude. It proved to be the coolest vacation imaginable.

Indeed, gales and 4-foot snowdrifts from an Arctic blizzard delayed our charter plane's departure for nearly a day. At last we left Ottawa for Nanisivik, near the northern tip of Canada's Baffin Island, where the 110-passenger ship Akademik Ioffe awaited us.

We became further acquainted with the notorious changeability and potential harshness of weather in the high north, no matter what the season, when we neared the end of that six-hour flight and a dramatic charcoal-gray fog nearly forced us back. But our stalwart pilot plowed on, somehow finding a patch of blue through which to drop out of the sky and land on the snow-covered runway.

What followed were 10 days (and white nights) of alternately bleak and dazzling beauty. We saw ice-filled seas, glacier-lined shores and frozen landscapes populated by polar bears, orcas, harp seals and musk oxen.

Even on the most austere terrain, pockets of yellow and purple blossoms burst through the snow. Orange and green lichens speckled the rocks of forlorn beaches. Hiking across soggy ground, we saw the paw prints of animals hunting for food -- or being hunted themselves.

I went to the Arctic with Edward in hopes of finding an adventure that a middle-aged single mom and her teenage son could not just share but savor. I wanted to bond, to banter, to discover a venue that would lead us to exclaim in unison, "This is awesome!"

A brochure had arrived in the mail advertising small-ship cruises to the Canadian Arctic. The crisp color photos had called out to us: Icebergs! Wildlife! History! The lure of the vast north seemed irresistible.

After researching tour operators, we settled on Australia-based Peregrine Expeditions' itinerary aboard the Akademik Ioffe, a Russian polar research vessel turned cruise ship. It promised hikes and on-board educational lectures (perfect for me) and motorized Zodiac raft rides and an open-bridge policy (sure to entertain Edward, the would-be mariner).

The route intrigued both of us: a retracing of voyages of explorers past who had sought the elusive Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Conditions permitting, we were to cruise the waters along the coast of Baffin Island and the western coast of Greenland.

That was the back story to our arrival in Nanisivik, where we were greeted by light snow and temperatures around 30 degrees. We weren't certain which bays, coves and inlets we would visit, partly because the route is always subject to icy conditions and other weather-inspired improvisations. What better way to begin an adventure?

Our accommodations, however, hardly constituted roughing it. Our simply furnished but comfortable cabin had room for two lower berths (each covered with a fluffy featherbed), armoires, sofa, small desk and private bathroom. The ship's smaller cabins shared baths; more luxurious suites came with separate sleeping quarters. The windows to our cabin were too high for a good view, but it was easy enough to step on deck and be dazzled by the dappled spectrum of blue and green and chalky white hues in the procession of icebergs.

Warm bellies

On-board dining was equally appealing. Our daytime hikes along barren beaches and across the permafrost always led back to the ship in time for lunch and dinner. Those meals, as well as breakfast and afternoon tea, were served in a large dining room where frequent buffets and unassigned seating made it easy to meet and mingle.

A typical dinner began with minestrone soup followed by a choice of main courses: beef filet with mushroom sauce; mahi-mahi with fruit salsa and wasabi-flavored mayonnaise; poached salmon with spinach and garlic; or my choice one night, and a tasty one, a roasted vegetable crepe with tomato-basil sauce.

When nothing suited Edward's taste, the chef prepared a highly satisfying grilled chicken breast.

There was always dessert as well as fresh bread, salad, fruit, and cheese and crackers. Mugs of hot tea, coffee and cocoa awaited us in the lounge whenever we returned, shivering, from a breezy, splash-filled raft ride or brisk walk on deck.

Such steamy warmth was particularly welcome because the temperatures didn't hit 40 until we reached sunny Greenland, more than halfway through the trip. But why complain about the need for long underwear when a sizzling heat wave had hit back home?

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