FEATURES: Around the Arctic September 17, 2009 - 11:24 am

Feature: The best laid plans of cruise ships often go astray

Passengers take Arctic ice detour in stride

CHRIS WINDEYER

The Erebus and the Terror this is not.

Like the famous ships of Franklin’s doomed quest to find the Northwest Passage, the Lyubov Orlova could not make its way through that mythical strait.

The difference is that the Lyubov Orlova is a cruise ship, the year is 2009 and its voyage was happily free of cannibalism and icy death.

But don’t mistake this for a Carnival cruise ship: many of the rooms on this 33-year old Russian-built ship are spartan, though clean and comfortable.

For downtime recreation there’s a bar, a library of Arctic-themed books and the occasional breakout game of Pictionary.

The ability to make your own fun is key, because even with a lineup of lectures on everything from Arctic current affairs to lichens, weather or ice conditions can easily make for a couple of days at sea.

That’s what happened this time. The Orlova had meant to head from Resolute to Cambridge Bay and then back to Gjoa Haven, tracing part of the Northwest Passage route.

But heavy ice in the Victoria Strait meant the ship had to scrub its stop in Cambridge and head straight to Gjoa Haven.

Anyone who’s travelled in the Arctic knows that the best laid plans for boats and planes are subject to the whim of nature.

Shoshana Jacobs, the expedition leader who’s responsible for the cruise itinerary, knows that too. She’s not just a schedule-maker: she’s got to make decisions on the ship’s route, and whether there are too many polar bears nearby to safely land dozens of mostly elderly passengers on a remote beach.

Each night features a daily recap and briefing, Jacobs says, because there’s simply no point in making a schedule to cover the entire week-long cruise.

“As far as the group dynamic of the passengers goes, it’s very interesting, because they can go to New York City or Paris and sign up for a city tour, pay their $25, get on a bus and they know exactly where they’re going, irrespective of the conditions,” Jacobs says.

“But then we ask them to come up here and pay a heck of a lot more than 25 bucks and we don’t tell them anything.”

We spend the first two days at sea. After the Gjoa Haven call and another day at sea, cabin fever starts to set in.

Finally, on Sept. 2, we arrive at False Strait,  a quiet little cove on the west coast of Somerset Island. Rubber-booted pensioners eagerly scramble off the zodiacs to walk and snap pictures of, um, lichens.

The tourists finally get what they really want after the Orlova heads east through the Bellot Strait: no fewer than seven polar bears during the three-hour transit.

One male prowled the rocks near the shore less than 20 metres off the starboard bow. Even the Russian waitresses, understandably, drop their prep work for the next meal and come out on deck to ooh and ah and snap pictures.

But as Dugald Wells, Cruise North’s president and CEO, who’s spent much of his summer on board the Orlova, points out, wildlife doesn’t keep a fixed schedule either.

“We got lucky with the wildlife in Bellot Strait,” he says. “But it [the wildlife] is generally pretty spread out in this area.”

As the week rolls on, there remain a handful of bored-looking passengers, likely brought along by more enthusiastic significant others.

But most of the 100 paying customers on board seem just fine with the shifting schedule. For others, like Robert and Julia Yoshida, pensioners from Milton, Ont., that’s part of the appeal.

“One of the things we like to do is just jump in the car and go wherever we want to end up,” Julia says. “We don’t plan our day, we just go. So we’re quite happy with this.”

Robert Yoshida served with the Canadian Army during the Suez Crisis in the late 1950s. He’s come to the North armed with dozens of questions about Inuit, Nunavut, and how people here view the ongoing Arctic sovereignty debate.

The couple say they were heartbroken by a photo of two Iqaluit children sleeping on the street that was first published by Nunatsiaq News and later run by news outlets across the country.

Yoshida heaps scorn on the Conservative government’s approach to Northern issues, saying it relies too heavily on military hardware and doesn’t do enough to help people.

Now that he’s been here, he says he can set his friends and neighbours right on the realities of life in the North.

“This trip is going to help me understand the issues up here and as retired people, learning and understanding are a big part of our goals,” he says.

The final landing may be the marquee draw. Beechey Island, a bleak, windswept island off the southwest coast of Devon Island, is where three members of the 1845 Franklin expedition lie buried, as does a member of a later expedition dispatched to find Franklin’s two doomed ships, the Erebus and the Terror.

Under a flat grey sky, the landscape, while still beautiful, looks almost apocalyptic. The coral blue water is the only natural source of colour. There’s something a little weird about 100 tourists being herded from one side of the graves to another, so that everyone can take photos of the headstones with no one in the background.

For 30 minutes the Franklin graves feel like a tourist trap.  Until we all get back on our warm, comfortable boat and go home.