As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but ice, and our ship — the 110-metre Lyubov Orlova — was having some difficulty manoeuvreing either through it, or around it.
One of the passengers quoted Captain Scott’s famous line upon reaching the South Pole: “Good God! This is an awful place…”
Getting stuck in ice had not been included in our itinerary. Cruise North, a relatively new company owned by the Quebec Inuit, had advertised the trip as an opportunity to explore the north coast of Labrador as well as Torngat National Park, Canada’s newest national park.
As an old northern hand, I’d been almost everywhere in Labrador except for the Torngats, so I jumped at the prospect of seeing the park’s spectacular mountains (the highest in Canada east of the Rockies) and its jagged fjords.
The Orlova had departed from Goose Bay, Labrador, on a day not unlike a summer day in the Yukon.
In the distance, a heat haze had reduced the Mealy Mountains to a smoky blue silhouette against an equally smoky sky. A few stray mosquitoes — an insect often referred to as Labrador’s national bird — had somehow found their way onto the ship, and as I was taking a photo, one of them decided to memorialize itself on my camera lens.
In the evening, we attended a champagne reception with the captain, who, along with the crew and kitchen staff, was Russian.
After Captain Rudenko welcomed us to the ship, a passenger asked him whether we would encounter any ice on the trip.
Hedging his bets, Rudenko said: “Maybe.”
He added that there were reports of thick ice along the coast, but if the wind shifted from west to east, as it frequently did, the ice would be blown out to sea.
At this, several of the ship’s 40 passengers groaned audibly. For they’d actually hoped to encounter ice on the trip. Never groan for something, or you might get it.
The next morning the Orlova was in the open Atlantic, steaming northwest to the towns of Makkovik and Hopedale.
At first we only saw a solitary iceberg, its twin turquoise-white domes glistening in the bright sunlight. Everyone ran onto the deck to take pictures of this piece of curious statuary resting serenely in the water.
Soon we began to see more ice, first grease ice, so named because it seems to form a scum on the water, and then chunks of so-called pancake ice. Later we saw numerous large floes, many of them adorned with sapphire pools of meltwater.
Julio Prellen, Cruise North’s Chilean expedition leader, had just looked at satellite images of the area. “Unfortunately,” he told us, “the ice will not permit us to land at Makkovik.”
A while later he said the same thing about Hopedale.
“So much ice in late June is very unusual,” observed an Inuit member of our staff. He suspected that what we were experiencing was the consequence of climate change.
One of the passengers asked him if he’d ever paddled through ice like this.
“We don’t paddle through it,” he replied. “We take our outboards through it.”
The following day we learned that we wouldn’t be landing in Nain, an Inuit community that had gone to the trouble of preparing a traditional feast for us.
I expected to hear some grumbling from the passengers, but there wasn’t any. “This is the Arctic,” said a doctor from Toronto, “so you’ve got to roll with the punches.”
Captain Rudenko expertly conned the Orlova through the jumbled ice floes and banks of fog to Mugford Tickle, where we met with open water.
Ahead of us were the Kaumajet Mountains, a range of volcanic and sedimentary peaks rising straight out of the Labrador Sea.
Kaumajet means The Shining Ones in Inuit, but they weren’t shining today. Instead, they were eerie phantoms shrouded in fog, an effect so haunting that it caused us to reach for our cameras again.
Zodiacs deposited us onto a gravel beach, and then we hiked up to a waterfall. Along the way, we saw a bounty of Arctic wildflowers, including Lapland rosebay, a flower so purple that any other purple flower looks pallid by comparison.
And on a nearby ridge stood a caribou, seemingly posing for our benefit.
After we returned to the boat, we saw a polar bear prowling around on an ice floe. It glared over its shoulder at the Orlova, as if to say: You may be bigger than me, but I’m stronger.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” said a woman from Winnipeg.
As we headed toward the abandoned Inuit settlement of Hebron, the ice returned with a vengeance, and the Orlova moved sideways and backwards in attempting to go around it.
We went to bed four kilometres from Hebron and woke up the next morning almost eight kilometres from it.
In fact, some of us didn’t need to wake up, because the constant crunching and grinding of the ice against the ship’s hull made it difficult to sleep. In this, we were in excellent company, for Shackleton’s men on the Endurance had had the same experience. Often they would begin their diary entries with the words: “din, Din, DIN.”
Giving up on Hebron, we now set our sights on the Torngats, which were less than 60 kilometres north of us. The report from the Canadian Ice Survey was not good, and neither was our progress.
At last a visibly unhappy Julio decided that we would have to give a pass to the Torngats, too.
To my surprise, most of the passengers were philosophical about not seeing what had been advertised as the highlight of the trip. Remarked one man: “This was described as an expedition cruise, and it really is one!”
Satellite images showed 75 kilometres of ice hugging the Labrador coast, so Captain Rudenko’s only option was to turn the Orlova’s bluff bow east in an effort to reach open water.
Progress was again slow, but by this time the focus of the trip had shifted to the ice itself — its myriad shapes and forms (was that the White House somehow wedged in a floe?), indeed its beauty.
That scene was often breathtaking, as when the sunset would turn the ice into a shimmering kaleidoscope of orange, red, and yellow colours.
A woman versed in polar lore said: “Good God! This is an awful place … and I love it! Just looking at all this ice is so relaxing. It’s almost Zen-like.”
One day passed, then two, during which our tireless staff regaled us with presentations.
Jason Annahatak, an Inuk, talked about his peoples’ traditional medicine, telling us that you can cure tuberculosis, or at least moderate its effects, by eating a whole loon raw (“I’d rather have the TB,” a passenger from New York quipped).
From another staffer, Susan Felsberg, we learned about the old Moravian church that we would have seen at Hebron if we’d been able to land there.
One of our resident naturalists was on deck, identifying various types of birds.
Such is the havoc that ice can play with distances that he pointed out some seals lolling on a floe, only to correct himself a short while later and tell us that the “seals” were actually a group of ravens eating a dead seal.
At last, free of the ice, the ship began moving toward the northern tip of Labrador at what seemed like breakneck speed, although it was really only eight or nine knots.
We were on the home stretch of the journey, but our adventures weren’t over yet.
Julio had received a report that there was heavy ice in the vicinity of Kuujjuaq, our port of disembarkation, so we would now be heading north to Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island, where there was less ice.
After a day at sea, we saw the mountainous spires of Baffin Island, and then we were steaming into Frobisher Bay.
Or not steaming into it. For ice conditions had changed dramatically since we’d received the report, and there now seemed to be even more ice here than on the Labrador coast.
“It’s deja vu all over again,” said one passenger, quoting not a polar explorer but Yogi Berra.
We were probably going slower than Martin Frobisher himself when he sailed into his namesake bay in 1577.
At the present speed, the Orlova would not reach Iqaluit, where we were due to disembark, for a few more days, and this would mess up Cruise North’s schedule.
So Julio radioed an icebreaker and asked it to perform the time-honoured service of such vessels — i.e., to help another ship get out of the ice. When the icebreaker showed up well after midnight, everyone gathered on deck and cheered its arrival.
The festive mood continued the next day, when the temperature was mild enough for a barbecue on deck.
“This is the ultimate in al fresco dining,” a woman remarked, and I had to agree with her. For outdoor drama, no sidewalk cafe in the world can compare with Baffin Island’s rugged coastline and the pageantry of ice all around us.
Not to mention an icebreaker directly in front of us, too.
Even while we were still at sea, we were working on the stories that we’d tell our friends back home about the trip. Stories that might include statements like: “We had to fight hard for every mile,” “Nature kept reminding us that she was the boss,” “I wasn’t bitten by a single mosquito on the whole trip,” and “With global warming, I felt like we were seeing an endangered species … and sometimes getting stuck in it.”
There were a few disgruntled passengers, of course. “I don’t want to see ice ever again, not even in a mixed drink,” one of them said. But since when does any trip not have a few unhappy customers?
When we finally reached Iqaluit, the ice gave us a little goodbye present: our Zodiacs could not find a passage through the floes cluttering the shore, so we had to be landed several kilometres outside of town and then bused to the airport.
In Iqaluit, I met an old friend, who was quite surprised to see me. “So the trip did not go according to plan?” he said.
“No,” I replied enthusiastically.
Travel writer Lawrence Millman is author of Last Places: A Journey In the North among many other books.