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Tour de Force: Onboard a Russian Icebreaker in the Arctic - PassageMaker
Onboard a Russian Icebreaker in the Arctic

Among high-latitude junkies, the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov is a legend. Built in Finland in 1981, she has spent much of her working life taking intrepid travelers to the ends of the Earth. I join this venerable ship at Kangerlussuaq, in southwest Greenland, following a charter flight from Ottawa, Ontario. She has arrived here from Vladivostok, by way of northern Siberia, Svalbard, Iceland, and the east coast of Greenland.

Greenland is sparsely populated and villages are dominated by the immensity of their surroundings.

Greenland is sparsely populated and villages are dominated by the immensity of their surroundings.

My fellow passengers are mostly inveterate travelers who seem to have visited every country imaginable. We number around 90, comprising 18 nationalities. Without question, the person who has traveled the farthest is Chris Hadfield, who has made several trips into space, commanding the International Space Station in 2013. Like most of those on board, I share a desire to visit remote and hard-to-reach places. Not for me: lounging on a balmy tropical beach under swaying palms, nursing a drink sporting a miniature umbrella. Call me nuts, but I prefer to experience nature in the raw, where simple survival cannot be taken for granted. That said, I prefer to visit such places on a suitable ship and, when appropriate, under the protective umbrella of an experienced tour company. Such a ship is Kapitan Khlebnikov and such a company is Quark Expeditions.

JOURNEY BEGINS

Once aboard, we head for open water down the 90-mile Sondre Stromfjord and, overnight, reach Sisimiut, Greenland’s second largest town. This is the only port on the entire trip where the ship is able to come alongside and we can walk ashore. Here we take on board 700 tons of fuel, and at a rate of 60 tons per hour, giving us time to tour the town and visit the bustling harbor.

Khlebnikov along side the wharf in Sisimiut.

Khlebnikov along side the wharf in Sisimiut.

We travel overnight and anchor the following morning in Disco Bay, near the town of Ilulissat—population 4,800—220 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Here, we find ourselves in the company of a flotilla of icebergs the size of apartment buildings. We wait impatiently for the Zodiacs to be launched and, once aboard in our brightly colored anoraks, we head for these breathtaking mountains of floating ice. Brash tinkles past the hull of our Zodiac as we putter slowly among these behemoths. We are careful not to come too close. Their immense mass, hidden beneath the water, melts faster than the visible 12% above, making them prone to capsizing without warning. Etched into their surface is a history of previous water levels—often at angles strikingly different from the current waterline. Floating just on the surface is a pod of humpback whales, exhibiting a behavior called logging.

Our Zodiac is dwarfed by a towering iceberg—7/8ths of which is hidden beneath the water.

Our Zodiac is dwarfed by a towering iceberg—7/8ths of which is hidden beneath the water.

After lunch aboard ship, the Zodiacs take us to Ilulissat. Sizeable chunks of ice drift around the bustling harbor, but they do not interfere with the rare luxury of a dry landing. After a demanding uphill hike, we reach a curvy boardwalk leading to a place that overlooks the astonishing—and sobering—river of ice stemming from the Jacobshavn Glacier. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, this is one of the few places where the Greenland ice sheet, which covers 80% of the country, is in direct contact with the sea. Along its 6-mile face, this glacier retreats 130 feet every day, discharging as much as 20 million tons of ice—enough to supply New York City with water for a year.

Brash ice surrounds our Zodiak as we cruise between icebergs calved from Jakobshavn Glacier at Ilulissat. In this one location, up to 20 million tons of ice are released from the Greenland icecap every day—enough to keep New York city with water for a whole year.

Brash ice surrounds our Zodiak as we cruise between icebergs calved from Jakobshavn Glacier at Ilulissat. In this one location, up to 20 million tons of ice are released from the Greenland icecap every day—enough to keep New York city with water for a whole year.

Continuing north, our next port of call is Uummannaq, 70 degrees north longitude and 375 miles above the Arctic Circle. Founded by the Danes in 1763, it has a population of nearly 1,300. The mirror-calm water reflects many sculpted icebergs drifting serenely around the ship. The town itself is dominated by a distinctive finger of barren rock almost 5,000 feet high. We are lucky to enjoy another dry landing from the Zodiacs and spend several hours exploring Greenland’s third largest town. From here, the ship heads deeper into the fjord for a helicopter excursion over the Store Glacier. In the helicopter, we skim mere feet above the heavily crevassed surface, pockmarked with pools of azure meltwater.

A day at sea takes us 400 miles north through Baffin Bay past Cape York where we had hoped to land. Fog thwarts these plans, though, and we are unable to catch even a glimpse of the cape. Expedition-style cruising requires a flexible schedule, and just like pleasure cruising, the weather is always the ultimate arbiter of when or where we can go. We continue on to Parker Snow Bay, where we are offered a choice of three hikes—long, medium, or contemplative. As usual, I choose the last. Even this “relaxing” hike requires walking over loose stones or boggy muskeg. A weathered hut on the beach remains the sole memento of a long-departed expedition. The rocks are decorated with colorful lichens. Overhead a skein of geese flies in line astern, their mournful cries penetrating the silence.

Clothes and fish are hung out to dry in Qaanaaq, formerly named Thule.

Clothes and fish are hung out to dry in Qaanaaq, formerly named Thule.

Our last port of call in Greenland is Qaanaaq, previously named Thule. I arise early to photograph icebergs bathed in the pale light of dawn before they fade from view behind a shroud of mist. There is no jetty and the Zodiacs ground on a muddy shore for a wet landing. We hike up the unpaved main street to the museum, where an Inuit guide describes the techniques used to hunt narwhals from kayaks. Stealth is the key. Paddles with narrow blades are used to reduce splash. The hunters communicate in whispers and approach from a direction that does not cast shadows on the water ahead of the kayaks. A traditional hand-thrown harpoon is used to attack the narwhal. It is attached to a bladder fashioned from sealskin, which helps to tire the wounded animal when it dives. Our guide tells us that the amount of ice has greatly diminished in recent years, making hunting increasingly difficult.

We follow a rough track to the cemetery where graves are decorated with artificial flowers, as the genuine article can neither grow nor survive in this environment. Tufted heads of cotton grass dance like ballerinas in the brisk wind. Along the way, we pass many sled dogs pegged to their kennels, awaiting the arrival of snow. A prominent satellite dish brings a mixed blessing. On one hand it connects people to the outside world but, on the other—especially to the young—it brings home the scope of opportunities available to others living in less isolation.

NORTHBOUND

Thus far, our journey up the west coast of Greenland has been within the bounds of feasibility for a well-conceived and well-constructed yacht. The main problems have been that the area is extremely remote and the weather window for safe cruising is extremely short. Although a few cruising boats with hardy crews have successfully navigated the area we have covered so far, the regions we plan to visit from here on require a true icebreaker, such as Khlebnikov, whose cutaway spoon-shape bow is designed to ride up on top of the ice, forcing it to give way to the weight and momentum of the ship.

Built in 1982, the diesel-electric icebreaker has transported crew and adventurous passengers hundreds of thousands of miles through the icy waters of the Arctic and Antarctica.

Built in 1982, the diesel-electric icebreaker has transported crew and adventurous passengers hundreds of thousands of miles through the icy waters of the Arctic and Antarctica.

It is the evening of August 29 when we leave Greenland and enter the even more remote Canadian High Arctic. When I awake the following morning, the ship is dropping anchor off the small hamlet of Grise Fiord. A shore party from the ship heads for the beach to pick up a pair of Canadian immigration officers who have flown to this remote spot to clear the ship and check our passports. There is a heavy swell running, and breaking waves along the shore make the landing wet and hazardous.

Polar bears rely on the pack ice in their hunt for seals. This bear may never have seen a ship before and came within 40 meters—clearly puzzled by what he saw.

Polar bears rely on the pack ice in their hunt for seals. This bear may never have seen a ship before and came within 40 meters—clearly puzzled by what he saw.

The Canadian authorities will not permit Kapitan Khlebnikov to fly her twin-engine Russian helicopters in Canadian airspace, so two smaller Canadian helicopters have flown about 2,000 miles from Alma, Quebec, to reach this spot. This hazardous journey has taken their pilots four days and 25 flying hours. Along the way they have had to refuel 14 times, mostly from jerry cans carried on board. On their last night, visibility closed in and they had to land on Devon Island in polar bear country, sleeping one eye open on the helicopter’s pontoons.

Grise Fiord is on Ellesmere Island at 76 degrees 24 minutes north latitude, 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Here, the sea remains frozen for 10 months of the year, the ice only breaking up by mid-August. From May to August the sun never sets, and from October to mid-February it never clears the horizon. The average annual temperature is 3 degrees F. Grise Fiord’s Inuit name Aujuittug translates as “the place that never thaws.” The community has one resident nurse, and once per year a doctor and a supply ship visit.

Grise Fiord is now a thriving community of 150 residents, but it has a shameful history. This settlement, together with the town of Resolute, was created by the Canadian government in 1953 to assert sovereignty in the High Arctic during the Cold War. To create this settlement, the government compelled eight Inuit families from Inukjuak, located on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay in Quebec, to relocate 1,375 miles to a remote spot not far from Grise Fiord. The reason given was that there were too many people in Inukjuak to support sustained hunting of caribou and moose. After being promised homes and ample game to hunt, the relocated families were dumped on the barren shore to discover no buildings and very little familiar wildlife in this treeless, bleak, and frigid place. They were told that they could return home after a year if they chose, but this offer was later withdrawn. They were pawns in a game of international politics.

Kapitan Khlebnikov's twin-engine Russian helicopter flies a few kids and residents from Grise Fiord to the ship for a prepared show.

Kapitan Khlebnikov's twin-engine Russian helicopter flies a few kids and residents from Grise Fiord to the ship for a prepared show.

Conditions are too rough to allow us to land safely on the exposed beach, which is a great disappointment for the schoolteachers and children who have organized a special show for us in the village assembly hall. A few kids, their dedicated teachers, and the most elderly woman in town are flown onto the ship by helicopter. This group puts on a much-abbreviated show for us in the ship’s auditorium. We then have an opportunity to learn about local crafts. Among the Quark team traveling aboard the ship with us is Kataisee, an Inuit woman from Baffin Island. She has been educating us about Inuit culture, which includes the making of Inuit-style mittens.

After leaving Grise Fiord, we pass through Hell Gate, a channel two miles wide and subject to strong currents. The mountains on either side are hidden from view behind curtains of mist and driving snow. Floating rafts of pack ice increase in number and size until they coalesce into a solid barrier. Khlebnikov plows steadfastly ahead, fracturing the ice with spidery cracks that splinter and widen as they zigzag ahead of the bow. The forward deck is a great place to watch—and feel—the clash of mighty forces. On rare occasions when brought to a halt, the ship backs up and charges forward at full speed, ramming the unyielding barrier until it splits apart to let us through. On the bridge of the Khlebnikov, which is open at all times except during critical maneuvers, is the perfect place to observe the techniques used to navigate through ice.

A map of the journey aboard the Russian icebreaker, Kapitan Khlebnikov.

A map of the journey aboard the Russian icebreaker, Kapitan Khlebnikov.

FARTHEST REACHES

On the afternoon of September 1, we reach Tanquaray Fjord, which, at 81.4 degrees north longitude, is our most northerly point. We are now a mere 470 miles from the North Pole. After another wet landing on a stony beach, the keen walkers (designated “Vikings”) among us are first ashore and, accompanied by an armed escort, set off on a long hike up a local mountain. As usual, I opt for the less taxing “contemplative” ramble. This place is administered by Parks Canada, which has a base here, but the buildings are closed and locked, because the staff has already left for the season. A Canadian flag crackles in the wind and a windsock marks the unsurfaced airstrip. A collection of ancient equipment lies abandoned in the snow.

Over looking Tanquaray Fjord after an excursion up a local mountain.

Over looking Tanquaray Fjord after an excursion up a local mountain.

We ramble for a couple of hours examining moss, lichens, a purple saxifrage, and willows just a few inches high—the best they can manage in this harsh environment. A trunk the width of a thumb may have as many as 150 rings, indicating just as many years of growth.

On our return to the ship, a barbecue appears on the foredeck. The crew has selected a wide range of meats and, for dessert, baked apple stuffed with marzipan. It’s been a long time since I tasted baked apple and what a wonderful setting in which to do it, with the surrounding mountains bathed in pale Arctic sunlight.

Skimming over glaciers on a helicopter excursion.

Skimming over glaciers on a helicopter excursion.

After lunch, I take my first excursion aboard the Canadian helicopters. Each flight skims over the surface of the adjacent glacier and then lands to pick up the next group, allowing everyone 30 minutes on the ground before returning to the ship. The view from the top of the glacier is stunning and the silence total—when not shattered by the roar of the helicopters. On the return journey, we sweep down a narrow gully just feet away from the heavily fissured side of the glacier.

The days pass in a blur as the expedition team works to cram in as many excursions as possible. For each adventure, no matter by Zodiac or helicopter, we need to dress in waterproof pants, muck boots, anorak, and PFD—plus, of course, a hat, gloves, and camera(s). Piling on all this gear in the warmth of the ship’s interior is an exhausting process, and it’s actually a relief to go outside where the temperature is below freezing and a stiff wind adds to the chill.

On glacier ice on one of many excursions.

On glacier ice on one of many excursions.

An Austrian catering company provides excellent meals, pastries, and teatime treats with remarkable consistency, considering regular schedules are often disrupted by unplanned events. One night, the evening meal is delayed by the distant sighting of a polar bear on a large ice floe. We have just settled down for dinner when word arrives about another nearby bear. There is a mad exodus from the dining room, and we rush on deck to see a most beautiful bear just a few yards away from the ship. He is curious but does not seem unduly disturbed by the presence of the great alien object so close to him.

Tony Fleming on an iceflow with the Kapitan Khlebnikov in the background.

Tony Fleming on an iceflow with the Kapitan Khlebnikov in the background.

On our second-to-last day, the captain rams the ship onto an ice floe to enable us to disembark and photograph the ship. The ice is not sufficiently stable to use the regular boarding ladder, however, so we once again board the Zodiacs, which are then run at speed onto the edge of the floe. From here we can inspect the bow of the ship, which looks remarkably unscathed after the abuse it has taken. Once back on board, we take turns on helicopter flights to view the ship while she is underway, thrusting her way through the ice.

RICH HISTORY

On our last evening, we anchor off Beechey Island and at 8 pm, with only one hour of daylight remaining, we take a long, rough Zodiac ride to the shore where we have to surmount a snowdrift to leave the beach. We trudge through knee-deep snow to four lonely grave markers. Three are members of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, which left England in 1845 and tried in vain to discover the Northwest Passage aboard the ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The fourth grave marks the final resting spot of a sailor from HMS Investigator who reached this spot from the Pacific Ocean. At the time these victims were laid to rest, no party had transited the entire Northwest Passage. Ironic how the bodies of men who had completed different halves of the passage are buried here together in this bleak and lonely spot.

Four lonely gravemarkers. Three of sailors from the ill-fated Franklin Expedition and one marking the final resting spot of a sailor from HMS Investigator who reached this spot from the Pacific Ocean

Four lonely gravemarkers. Three of sailors from the ill-fated Franklin Expedition and one marking the final resting spot of a sailor from HMS Investigator who reached this spot from the Pacific Ocean

All 129 men on the Franklin Expedition died. For 11 years following their disappearance, a succession of expeditions from England searched for clues, but the fate of the missing men and ships remained an enigma. Then, after years of renewed searching by Parks Canada, the remains of HMS Terror were finally located just eight days after our visit to Beechey Island. Those of HMS Erebus had previously been found, two years earlier, in the fall of 2014.

Overnight we reach the settlement of Resolute, which, like Grise Fiord, was another place selected for the relocation of Inuit during the 1950s. The Khlebnikov has to anchor well offshore because of shallow water. This is where I, along with numerous other passengers, leave the ship and, in true expedition tradition, the weather has the last word. A stiff breeze whips up the sea so the Zodiacs taking us ashore are bouncing up and down about four feet at the base of the ladder. Dressed in full gear and encumbered with check-in baggage, boarding is quite a challenge, but once aboard we hang on tightly, ducking the spray as the drivers skillfully ride the waves, negotiating their way between bizarrely shaped ice floes grounded in the shallows. This landing is especially wet and, after plodding through snow, we board a bus for the hotel where we are relieved of our boots, which had been provided for the duration of the trip. In a final twist, the first bus to the airport skids off the icy road on the return journey and the remaining passengers—of which there are quite a number—are brought to the airport, four at a time, in a commandeered four-wheel drive vehicle.

The legendary Russian icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov.

The legendary Russian icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov.

It remains doubtful whether the aircraft will come at all due to the deteriorating weather but, to our great relief, arrive it does, and we are finally on our way. The Boeing 737 takes five hours flying time to reach Ottawa from Resolute—emphasizing the vastness of the distances to the places we have seen. It has been a memorable trip, superbly organized, aboard a legendary vessel. 

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