So you wanna go on a polar expedition? First thing you need to know is that it will change your life.
I’m not even overselling it. I went expecting to enjoy myself, sure, but returned with a new perspective on the planet.
There’s simply nowhere on earth comparable to the far north and the landscapes, people and wildlife will deeply affect you, no matter how well-travelled you are. Most of the people I met on my Arctic trip were on their second or third expedition. Go and you’ll understand why.
Next thing to know: do it by ship. With few roads and fewer airstrips, sailing delivers the best opportunity to experience the immensity of the High Arctic. You can trace the coasts of Greenland and Baffin Island, the first and fifth largest islands in the world, traverse the open ocean between them and take incredible detours into bays and fjords while navigating past skyscraper-tall icebergs, slow-crawling glaciers and mountains so numerous they’re not even named.
But the most important thing to know is that you need to be prepared. It is a Polar Expedition, after all, not a pleasure cruise (though the food and cabins are pretty pleasurable). Even in summer season, when the sea ice has melted enough to allow your ship’s passage, temperatures and weather can change in a heartbeat.
It can be freezing cold, soaking wet, comfortably mild or even t-shirt warm – the temp range is between -4 and +2 celsius, but the sun and wind have a huge effect on how those degrees actually feel. On my trip it snowed twice, I ate my fill of wild blueberries (!) on sunny, sweaty hikes and took two (!!) dips in the Arctic Ocean.
Point is, this is proper adventure travel in one of the harshest environments on earth. It is about as wild as wilderness gets. So kit up.
This is the most important part of any trip, but especially when you’re going to a region without stores and can only bring limited amounts due to weight restrictions on the flight.
First off, don’t worry about a parka or waterproof boots – those are not only provided but you get to keep the coat afterward, which I very much enjoyed wearing all winter.
Focus instead on packing clothing that can block wind and water, is easily layered, and will wick away sweat during hikes. I’d purchased a lot of clothing for a mountain climb in Kenya where the temperatures changed dramatically during the ascent. Those Merino wool, thermal and fleece layers proved perfect in the polar region, too. Bring thin and thick socks, long underwear and a few different types of gloves for the various weather systems. Bring a good hat and scarf, but if your trip is going to Pangnirtung, get a Pang hat – it’s the most wearable souvenir ever.
You’ll definitely need waterproof pants – there’s actually not much precipitation, but you’ll get wet on the inflatable Zodiac boats without them – and a swimsuit. There’s an opportunity for a polar plunge as well as a jacuzzi on the top deck that is nice to soak in while watching the scenery.
Make sure to bring sea-sickness medicine – when crossing the Davis Straight you may experience some decent-size swells, though the rest of the trip is generally much calmer. You may not need it, but you’re better off having the pills just in case so you can enjoy the trip regardless of the waves.
Bring as much camera gear as you think you might need – there will be no shortage of places and animals to photograph, but there is a lack of stores. Take binoculars, too, and don’t forget a backpack so you can carry your gear hands-free.
Lastly, bring lots of cash. While you can charge items on board to your credit card, most Arctic towns you’ll visit will be cash-only and buying Inuit arts and crafts is a great way to both bring home memories and also help support the local economy.
The ship will become your home – I actually started getting sea legs on land – but there will be regular excursions once or even twice a day. You’ll want to take advantage of every single opportunity to disembark – be it a Zodiac cruise around a bay, a casual walk around a remote hamlet or a proper hike through valleys and up hillsides. (Note that the treks are broken into groups geared towards every speed level and personal interest – i.e. photography or botany – so pick one that best suits your needs.)
There just no predicting what you’ll see when you leave the ship. On my trip we encountered an unmarked archaeological site and a polar bear skeleton, saw a girl beautifully belting “Oh Canada” in Inuktitut and unexpectedly encountered a pod of 200 or so Beluga whales.
If you want to kayak, there’s a small group of passengers who can do it on most stops while those who want to try it just once or twice can take out an easier inflatable kayak. It’s worth trying for the experience, but hardcore kayakers will probably want to do it more often.
Unlike Antarctica where there are no permanent settlements, the opportunity to see what life is like for the Inuit residents who have lived there since time immemorial is an incredible opportunity. The locals are kind, their towns are beautiful and their culture is simply incredible. You’ll leave with a better understanding why the Inuit have made the High Arctic their home.
While sailing between excursion stops, the boat becomes a makeshift university as expedition leaders teach us about their expertise. A Russian national taught us about Arctic adaptations of flora and fauna, an Aussie schooled us about birds, a Scot taught us about geology and glaciology with enthusiastic snack analogies, and our two Inuit guides described their own upbringings hunting and fishing, skidooing the Lancaster strait ice floes and meeting Leonardo DiCaprio who was filming a climate change doc. (“I didn’t get a selfie with him, but he got one with me.”)
Don’t plan on losing weight. It may not be a cruise, but it does offer a lot of food – and unfortunately for my diet it was really high quality. There’s no set seating, so try to eat with different people every meal, including the expedition guides, just to be able to converse with people you might otherwise never meet. There may also be some opportunities to eat “country food,” which is the local terminology for their traditional diet, and I’m glad I took the chance to taste new things like caribou jerky, musk ox meatballs and raw beluga.
The cabins are small or spacious depending on what you book, but either way they’re fine for sleeping, napping, or just chilling out with some private time between adventures. But there are also plenty of places around the ship to hang out if you’re tired of your room.
I was a little worried I’d get bored on this ship, especially by the end of my 17-day expedition. But it somehow never happened. There were always people to talk to, sites to see, things to learn, or documentaries screening in the lounge. When I needed a people break, I’d retire to the upper deck to read in the library with a scotch. Bring a few books of your own, but the ship had an incredible selection about the region that I really dug into.
That’s about all you need to know. Except maybe this: travelling up north is a little like travelling into space, I imagine, at least as far as putting into perspective how infinitesimal we are. The landscapes here aren’t just large, they are seemingly infinite, stretching in all directions with no vegetation to block your sight lines. The scale is almost unimaginable even when you’re right in it.
It’s all almost unimaginable, to be honest, until you see it for yourself.
Ready to experience the incredible Arctic for yourself? Check out Intrepid’s Expeditions there.