What will I do?
While no two days are alike, typically each day onboard splits into two key parts - an off-ship excursion lasting approx. 2-3 hours and ship-based activities while the vessel is under sail.
- By zodiac, on foot or from the bows of the ship, spotting Arctic wildlife is a core focus at all times of day
- Go ashore to explore places of historic interest - including former trading outposts, deserted Royal Canadian Mounted Police stations, or Franklin expedition sites
- Explore the tundra on foot with field classes in local geology and flora led by Arctic experts
- Community visits are fascinating - life is tough in the far north, but a warm welcome is always guaranteed. This is your opportunity to talk directly to the people who live here, and they always have stories to tell
- Between fascinating lectures, scanning for wildlife & socialising, there’s rarely a dull moment on ship
What are the main places of interest in the Northwest Passage?
The history of Franklin’s fateful expedition is a massive draw for many travellers to the Northwest Passage.
Standing sentinel on a windswept beach of Beechey Island are the three graves of John Torrington, John Harnell and William Braine, the earliest casualties in what turned into that infamous, tragic opera. Their exhumation played a pivotal role in the unmasking of lead poisoning as a key contributor to the demise of Franklin's party. Standing next to the lonely graves of these lost Englishman, more famous in death than when alive, is certainly sobering. All Northwest Passage cruises make a stop at this site.
In 1859 the first evidence of what had happened to the Franklin expedition was found in a cairn at Victory Point on King William Island. This broke the news that Sir John himself had died and that the ships were abandoned.
In 2016 HMS Erebus was found in Queen Maud Gulf and HMS Terror in 2018 close to King William Island, with the Academic Vavilov involved in the search. For anyone with an interest in the Franklin story these are key sites and some voyages will land at Victory point but very few a granted permission to visit the wreck sites.
Away from the Franklin story the Northwest Passage is a treasure trove of history dating back millennia and includes the Dorset and Thule cultures that transited through this region following the fauna at the ice edge.
The remains of Sod houses at sites such as Crocker Bay, or the whale bone dwellings of Cornwallis Island tell a story of life lived at extremes and of an oral culture that is being lost to history as once transient communities move into stationary settlements and face new challenges along with that change.
There is modern Canadian history in the region too and you’ll see evidence of trade with the Hudson Bay Company who established a trading post at Fort Ross, close to the eastern entrance to the Bellot Strait. Today the buildings stand abandoned, untouched from the moment the last inhabitant left, with the coffee pot on the stove as if ready to be poured.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) patrolled the region for years and at Dundas Harbour you will see the deserted dwellings they left behind along with a small cemetery, the resetting place of two of the last men to be posted to this remotest of locations.
Exploring the vast range of sites in the Northwest Passage not only puts into perspective the acievements of adventurers and explorers who have gone before, but really helps to paint a picture of what it might be like to live at the edge of the world.
Scattered through this wild and remote region there are a handful of communities that you may visit along the way. Some, like Pond Inlet, are fairly used to visitors through the summer months and others such as Kugaaruk very rarely see a ship at all.
These visits are greatly welcomed by the communities who will often put together a show of traditional dance and music, perhaps with traditional Arctic games as well. Local artists will also take an opportunity to show and sell their work, it’s one of the few times when you can pick up a memento of your journey.
Many of these settlements carry more significance for some travelers. At Gjoa Haven in Prince William Island, a 1,200 strong community, you can visit the monument of Roald Amunsden. This is where the great man over-wintered for two years from 1903 whilst completing the first successful transit of the passage.
It’s really worth stressing how much the visits mean to these remote populations, not just economically but also for contact with the outside world. Take time to talk to the inhabitants and you will soon discover how friendly they, don’t be surprised if you find yourself having tea in someones home! These towns may be small but they are home to fascinating people who have very different stories to tell.
Wildlife flows through the region with the ice, following its edge as it advances and retreats with the seasons. Lancaster Sound is often described as a wildlife ‘superhighway’, home to 75% of the world’s narwhal population, 20% of Canada’s beluga population as well as walrus and bowheads, and 35% of Canadian seabirds breed here.
Of course, all these creatures are bait for the polar bear so keep your eyes peeled. Progress has been made to protect this wildlife in recent years, and the 109,000 kmsq Tallurutiup Imanga Marin Conservation area has recently been established.
Birders should look out for excursions to sites like Prince Leopold Island, home to hundreds of thousands of thick-billed murres. With steep cliffs often shrouded in mist and surrounded by ice this can be a hugely atmospheric site experienced by zodiac.
Polar bears are always nearby but some sites are better than others. The Bellot Strait is one: this narrow channel divides Somerset Island from the northernmost point of continental North America, and is known for strong tides which can prove challenging even today. These currents throw up plankton attracting fish, and as a result it’s a good place for wildlife: seals, polar bears, arctic fox and musk ox.
Best trips to the Northwest Passage
Spending equal time exploring Canada’s historic Northwest Passage and West Greenland, we like this voyage’s balance and variety as much as exploring little visited places like Thule, one of the northernmost towns in the world. Big ice, rich history, exotic…
Northwest Passage Landing Sites: FAQs
You can typically expect one 5-6 hour off-ship excursion a day, which may take the form of either some land-based exploration, a zodiac cruise or a community visit.
Yes, definitely. Some landing sites offer better opportunities than others. During all land-based excursions you’ll be accompanied by members of the expedition team, who will also act as ‘bear guards’ keeping a sharp eye out for polar bears, as this is bear country.
Absolutely. At the heart of every expedition cruise is the team of Arctic specialists, each with their own chosen field of expertise.
As well as collectively delivering a programme of set lectures and workshops during the voyage, they will also accompany you on all landings to help narrate and answer your questions.
Although every effort will be made to follow the original itinerary, the short answer is "no they're not". While every trip will depart with a planned itinerary there are many factors that can impact the decision or ability to land at specific sites.
In the Northwest Passage ice is often the biggest factor and can, at times, cause an entire trip to be re-routed. Polar bears are another threat to landings, sighting one of these predators in the vicinity of a landing site will mean that no one is going ashore.
The decision to land or not is in the hands of the captain and the expedition leader, the former being in responsible for the ship and the latter for your safety. Wherever possible, if a landing site is missed, it will be replaced by an equivalent.
Exploring the vast range of sites in the Northwest Passage not only puts into perspective the achievements of adventurers and explorers who have gone before, but really helps to paint a picture of what life might be like at the edge of the world.
Jon Goldsmith Head of Arctic
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