MONUMENTAL Island looks anything but. This pile of black rocks rises starkly out of the cold, choppy seas south of Baffin Island, on Canada’s remote north-east coast.
The tides here are among the strongest in the world yet, despite the inhospitable feel of this place, its waters are rich in marine life.
Suddenly a solitary polar bear lopes into view on land, just a few metres from the shore. He doesn’t look real at first, but he is very much alive. He is also apparently extremely hungry, noticeably scrawnier than some of the glossy giants shown on the BBC’s Frozen Planet. His thin frame is normal for this time of year, naturalist and photographer Dennis Minty says. “They’re waiting for the sea ice to return (so they can go out to catch seals for food). He will probably make it.”
His last comment relates to growing concern about the impact of global warming. Each year the sea ice returns later than the last, leaving the bears waiting longer for food. This one, like others, has been eking out an existence on wild berries, which are plentiful on much of the land in this part of the world. A dark mark on his rump suggests this bear may have overdone the fruit, and he is instantly christened Squirty by Washboard Hank, who lampoons the unfortunate bear in song.
The wisdom of this is debatable, given that Hank and the 120 very-well-fed passengers from the Adventure Canada cruise ship are currently bobbing up and down in dinghies less than 100 metres from Squirty, an excellent swimmer with a keen sense of smell.
Thankfully, the bear decides we’re not worth the effort, and we all get back aboard the liner safely to resume our two-week cruise from Greenland to northern Canada. Hank is one of five Canadian musicians on board, here to entertain anyone for whom the Arctic and sub-Arctic scenery, history and wildlife are not enough. In Nuuk, the Greenland capital, he is quickly surrounded by Inuit boys, all curious about this one-man-band. There are several Inuit on board, including cultural experts, whose personal stories are fascinating.
It’s easy to feel as though we are the first people to ever set foot on these shores. But as archaeologist Lena Onalik says, “If you are looking around thinking this would be a good place to camp, someone else did too.”
With endless courses for every meal and a warm bed on board, I suspect no one is itching to pitch a tent on land any time soon. For Inuit like 29-year-old Onalik, however, these harsh circumpolar lands hold their hearts, hopes and dreams.
Onalik’s grandparents lived here, and more than once during the trip she cries, overcome by her feelings about what was lost when her people finally left these remote lands after missionaries, government officials and traders all moved out. One settlement we visit dates back five centuries and was still inhabited up until the 1980s. As an archaeologist, Onalik now helps to preserve what’s left, pointing out the remains of traditional sod houses she helps to excavate.
Another Inuit, Jobie Unatweenuk, 28, is a bear monitor, armed to protect passengers on shore. The polar bear attack that killed a British schoolboy in northern Norway last August was a horrific reminder of just how dangerous these animals can be. Passengers must follow instructions to the letter, and not wander off by themselves.
We are in the Torngat mountains, in one of Canada’s most remote and beautiful national parks, richly coloured in autumnal reds and yellows. The more energetic passengers hike together up a peak, grazing on the plentiful berries. At the top is a traditional inukshuk, a stone figure often used like a Scottish cairn to show travellers the way.
In the meantime, down near the shore, a gentle group walk has had to change course after a female black bear with cubs is spotted ahead.
Back on board, the never-ending entertainment ranges from a book group with author Kathleen Winter to a Hank Williams memorial concert, where making your own silver sheriff badge is encouraged.
Hank leads the noisiest workshop, showing a small but delighted group of passengers how to make an instrument called a kazoo, with which to annoy the larger, less delighted group of passengers trying to read or have a drink nearby.
Wisely, the divers – on board to explore the possibility of underwater adventures for future passengers – don’t mention the mako shark they encountered until after the much-heralded polar dip has taken place.
The almost relentless focus on ‘fun’ can get a little wearing, and it is hard to find time and space to relax and enjoy the sight of an iceberg or the fin of a passing whale. Clearly, though, plenty of people really enjoy Adventure Canada’s approach, with returning passengers including one couple doing three two-week cruises back to back. Some guests are as knowledgeable as the ship experts in various fields, from map-making to ornithology.
Further south, as the land becomes less remote, we stop at the town of Botwood, where the world’s first commercial transatlantic flight landed in 1937. Sadly, the seaplanes of the past didn’t last so that’s one adventure we cannot have.
• A 13-night Greenland and Wild Labrador cruise costs from £2,528 per person through Adventure Canada (00 1 905 271 4000, www.adventurecanada.com). The charter flight from Toronto to Greenland costs around £633 per person.
• Canadian Affair (0141-223 7515, www.canadianaffair.com) offers direct flights from Glasgow to Toronto from £318 return with Air Transat.
• One-way flights from St John’s, Newfoundland, to Toronto, Canada, cost around £200. .
• A double room costs from £125 at the Delta St John’s Hotel, 120 New Gower Street, St John’s, Newfoundland, A1C 6K4, Canada, (00 1 709 739 6404, www.deltahotels.com).
• Double rooms cost from £49 at the Holiday Inn Express Glasgow Airport, St Andrews Drive, Glasgow Airport, Glasgow (0871 423 4876, www.hiexpress.com)
• Julia Horton flew courtesy of the Newfoundland and Labrador Tourist Board (00 1 709 729 2830, www.newfoundlandlabrador.com)
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Weather for Edinburgh
Friday 24 May 2013
Temperature: 2 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 21 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 5 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West