Arctic Adventure 7: The Lyubov Orlova, A Home Away from Home

The real charm of the cruise ship Lyuba Orlova was that she made you so anxious to go on the daily expeditions just to get away from the ship.

Okay, I’m kidding …

… just a little.

We celebrated the 33rd birthday of the Lyubov Orlova while we were on board (July 19). I don’t know a lot about ships, but people who seemed to know a lot more about it than I did were of the opinion that she was an ancient cruise vessel. She and several sister cruise ships (all named after famous Russian actresses) were commissioned to serve the vacationing needs in the Russian far east. Their home base was Vladivostok. For years this ship went from Russia down to Viet Nam and Cambodia. After the war the Lyubov Orlova was used to evacuate orphaned children refugees from Cambodia to Russia. After the fall of the Soviet Union the ship was sold to a private Russian holding company that now rents it out to Quark Expeditions in the Antarctic Summer and Cruise North Expeditions in the Arctic Summer. Every spring it dry docks in Tenerife on its way back up north for any necessary repairs or upgrades.

1 Our cabin.

Having never been on a ship before, I have nothing to compare it with. Maybe all ships are hot and stuffy, but I doubt it. This one certainly was. We were very fortunate in that we had a window that opened up to the outside. Some cabin windows opened up into a “semi-outside” hallway and cabins on the lowest deck had sealed windows that didn’t open at all. Given how hot and stuffy the dining room and forward lounge were, I can only imagine how “tropical” the lower deck must have been. It appeared that some people slept in the lounge because their rooms were so hot.

3 The Dining Room.

4 A cropped close-up of the previous picture. The woman facing us is Bitta, a Dane. Since I’m 7/8 Dane we had a common bond and became good friends. The people in the picture, from left to right, are one of the Russian crew, Cliff, a gentleman from London, Jenna (with her back to us) one of the Inuit guides, Bitta, George Sirk (with his back to us), a Canadian, and professor at the Univ. of Vancouver. We also had French, German, Quebecois (they are rather distinct from Canadians), and Americans.

In spite of its age, and given that one drawback, the ship was a nice place to call home for a week.

There was good news and bad news about the safety drill. The good news is that it appeared the crew had never actually been on a sinking ship, because there seemed to be confusion about what ought to happen next. The bad news was there seemed to be confusion about what ought to happen next. But in the end we all figured out how to put on our life vests, and we all found our life boats. As the Cruise North staff emphasized, there’s no need to panic. It takes a very long time for a ship to sink – so long they can make a movie while it’s happening.

5 Jim found his life boat. Brenda took a picture for him so he wouldn’t forget.

There was a crane on the front of the ship which they used to put the Zodiacs in the water. There were 8 zodiacs and it took the crew about 45 minutes to get them all in the water. Every morning the starboard pontoon of the eighth zodiac was nearly flat. On a 2 1/2 hour zodiac cruise around Walrus Island we heard the following message over the radio: “Does anyone have an air pump?” We were pretty sure we knew from which zodiac that message originated.

We all hoped we wouldn’t be stuck on zodiac #8.

6 Fabricio was always the first into the water.

7 Mae, who is in school to become a ship navigator, gets zodiac #8 into the water. Notice the pontoon is pumped up.

8 Everyone lined up to get on the zodiacs.

9 Fabricio, the Argentinian staff member, drives the zodiac gaucho style.

I suppose the hard-core environmentalists (of which there were certainly a few on board) considered the black smoke belching from the smokestack another drawback to our ship. But most diesel engines don’t burn cleanly, and this one was no exception. And, if we ever put out a mayday, I figure we’d be easy to find.

10 An idylic scene: calm ocean, murres flying past the ship (see the black dots?), smoke fouling the pristine arctice air.

The ship even had a swimming pool. They filled it for cookout night. It was a balmy evening (in the mid 50s I’m guessing), so everyone bundled up and ate outside. A half dozen people even went into the pool.

11 No doubt somebody will ask, so I will say that the flag is from the Cook Islands, where the ship is registered.

Would I ever cruise on the Lyubov Orlova again? The expedition staff was truly wonderful, but in order to get the expedition staff, you have to take the ship along with them. (Hopefully they’ll have the leak on zodiac #8 fixed by next year.) On the evaluation I said that if we ever went on another expedition cruise, it was 50/50 that we would go with Cruise North because the ship was so hot and the front lounge so stuffy. Besides, the polar bears are no danger, being so far away, so the ship herself adds that little sense of danger that is no doubt a must on any adventure cruise.

Arctic Adventure 6: History and Culture

The Arctic Adventure cruise provided opportunities to learn about history and culture as well as wildlife. We stopped in two villages. Even though there were only 85 people on the cruise, and even though not everyone got off the boat in the two villages, a crowd of 75 people tends to overwhelm a village of a few hundred folk.

Our first village, Kangiqsujuaq, is attempting to develop a tourist industry. It is the closest village (88 km) to the Pingualuit Provincial Park, where the Pingualuit Crater (now a lake) is found. The lake has been declared the second clearest lake in the world, not far behind a lake in China. Using funds that came with the formation of the park, the village of Kangiquijuaq has built a visitor center and a second hotel. So far tourist traffic has been minimal. There is also a nickel mine close by, and the mine employees keep both motels busy.

1 The local co-op (general store and art dealer for Inuit art) is the building with all the ATVs in front.

They have also used funding to put up signs in the Inuktitut (the particular Inuit language in this region) syllabic writing. This syllabic writing is not widely used. All the Inuits on board the Lyuba Orlova except one were native Inuktitut speakers and according to Jenna, none of them could read the syllabic script because in school they learned to write it using the Western alphabet. But, no doubt the syllabic script makes the signs look more exotic. (It got me to take a picture.)

We also visited Ivujivik, the most northerly village in Quebec. It did not have a tourist industry at all, but the kids were certainly excited when Benoit brought the kayaks on shore for an afternoon of kayaking. I didn’t try it, nor could I have if I wanted to. Because of the water temperature, sea kayaking was limited to experienced kayakers.

We made two historical stops on the trip. The first was Opingivik Island, also called “the summering island” because it has been used for centuries as a summer hunting and fishing home. Our primary interest tent rings, burial sites, food caches, and the like, although we also had a close encounter with a lone musk ox.

2 Archeologists estimate this burial mound is 200 to 800 years old. There are still human remains inside. Notice that the bay in the background is packed with ice. That particular ice pack caused havoc for the expedition. We were supposed to land right where all the ice is. Needless to say, an alternative needed to be developed.

3 This is a fox trap. It is designed like an igloo. Meat is placed inside and a small hole is left in the top. A fox can get in but can’t get out. Theresa (the nearer woman in the red coat) is a retired field biologist who spent every summer for nearly her whole career in the arctic studying the arctic hare. Although she’s retired, she misses the north and comes on cruises for the nostalgia of it. The other woman in a red coat is a retired professor from the University of British Columbia.

Toward the end of the trip we stopped at Marble Island, which is quite significant in the history of Hudson Bay. One expedition, lead by a Capt. Knight, got marooned on the island when their two ships were crushed in the ice. We visited the site of their wintering house. We also saw Sandhill Cranes and other birds on the island.

4 An English brick, a few hundred years old, part of the doomed ship’s cargo.

5 What’s left of Capt. Knight’s coal.

6 Arctic Willow. Susan (the botanist) said it took about a century for arctic willow to grow this large. I put my water bottle beside the “tree” for perspective. The woody branches actually have rings that can be counted under a microscope.

7 This stack of rocks points toward one of Capt. Knight’s sunken ships. It is completly covered with silt and therefore invisible, but it lies 20 meters off the shore in the middle of the bay.

The cruise ended in Churchill, which has a very busy dock. We were the first ship of the season because there is still so much ice on Hudson Bay, but shortly the grain ships will be arriving to haul Canadian grain, which is brought by train to Churchill, to Europe (primarily Russia).

8 The grain shipping facility at Churchill.

Arctic Adventure 4: musk ox and walrus and bears, oh my!

Seeing wildlife in the wild is an inherently problematic venture. They’re wild, after all, and typically wild animals don’t care to be too close to humans. I therefore assumed that if I tried to take pictures I would end up with a bunch of black dots: “See that dot? It’s a seal. And that smudge there? It’s a bear!”

1 See that greenish dot across the bay? It’s Brenda! And btw, the picture isn’t washed out, the rock on Marble Island really is that white.

The solution is to buy a camera with a huge telephoto lens to get the wildlife money shot. But on this trip I didn’t want to be stuck behind my camera. Not knowing how strenuous the hiking would be, I didn’t want to be hauling around 40 lbs (er, we’re in Quebec, make that 18 kg) of equipment. I was afraid of missing the joy of the expedition for the sake of a few good shots. So I made a strategic decision and brought only my little point-and-shoot, a Canon Powershot Digital Elph, a 7.1 megapixel camera with a 3.8 optical zoom. It’s a fairly high end point-and-shoot, but a point-and-shoot nonetheless. I couldn’t be happier with my results, I enjoyed the expedition immensely, camera in one pocket, binoculars in the other, and I am also pleased with the pictures.

Our first real wildlife experience was Diana Island, home of a fairly large herd of musk ox. The weather was far less terrible than it had been, but it was still cold and the fog was beginning to settle in on the hill tops. They had us quietly walk over the ridge and told us there were three adults and two young musk ox on the big hill (pictured above) just at the fog line.

Sure enough, they were there, but it was “bloody hard to make the buggers out,” as Cliff, a guy from London, observed. I assumed that this was going to pretty much be the experience of the week: lots of animals very far away.

Not that I was terribly disappointed by this. Watching the musk ox through my binoculars, I saw them scampering around the hillside as if they were a mountain goat. In fact they looked and acted exactly like mountain goats, except they were brown. (Turns out they are very close relatives – I didn’t know that.)

2 The groups always traveled with lookouts carrying high powered weapons in case of bears.

Similarly, we only saw polar bears at a great distance. I suspect this is a good thing. During the summer polar bears do something similar to hibernation. Since their primary diet is seal and seal is only available when the ocean is covered with ice, they tend to sleep almost constantly in the summer (until the ice returns) to conserve energy. They often curl up in a hole or ravine within a few miles of shore. This means there’s always a chance of stumbling upon one (literally) if you’re wandering around close to the coast.

Fortunately we never met a bear by surprise. Our two bear sightings were the first day on the ice floe and then later in the week at Walrus Island, where bears hung out for the summer in hope of an easy meal. Our good fortune was that there were two bears on Walrus Island while we were there.

3 You can see the bear silouette on the hill top.

4 Here’s a “see that spot?” picture. The bear on the top of the hill is obvious, but at the bottom, center of the picture is the other bear, lounging on a rock.

Okay, so I’ve gotten a much better look at musk ox and polar bear in the zoo. But that fact completely misses the point of the expedition. Watching the walruses lumber into the water, listening to hundreds of them grunt, watching them roll over and reposition themselves, seemingly oblivious to the polar bear at the top of the hill and eight zodiacs 50 yards off shore was utterly amazing.

Similarly, watching a thousand murres take off from the cliff face was awe inspiring. Seeing them fly in formation around the boat when we were ten miles from land was curiously wonderful.

5 hundreds of murres reflected in the sun light against the back drop of the towering cliffs.

Or, seeing two murres fall from the cliff in mortal combat, landing in the water, still carrying on their fight for a nesting spot was a once-in-a-lifetime sight.

6 Two murres fighting. The fight started on the cliff, moved to mid air, and ended in a three minute battle in the sea (pictured here). To the best of my knowledge no murres died in the filming of this epic battle.

When lounging walruses suddenly rolled into the water and began to dip and bob their way to the deep, the artistry of the movement was – okay, at this point in the essay I’m running out of adjectives, I’ll say “amazing” again – I was so glad I wasn’t stuck behind the lens of a camera, and I could sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

Likewise, being in the zodiac out in the middle of several hundred belugas was – I’ll call this one “heartwarming, because in an odd way, the belugas were kind of cute. They rose in and out of the water so quickly that photography on a point-and-shoot was nearly impossible. But even the best beluga pictures of the day missed the spectacle of whales rising and falling all about in an incomparable ballet.

7 Oops, too late. He’s gone.

8 Closer, but the picture’s still a bit late.

Quite frankly, a photo of the zodiacs heading back to the ship on a foggy morning, so that we could eat a hearty breakfast after being out among the belugas for an hour, captured the experience far better than any of the whale pictures I saw.

The expedition wasn’t about the animals or plants or culture per se, it was about getting there, and experiencing all that in the grandeur of the arctic north as seen from a zodiac, rain slickers, rubber boots, and (once we were on shore) hiking boots and binoculars. Musk ox and walrus, and bears? Oh yes! But if that’s all you saw from behind a high powered camera, you missed the expedition. If I ever do it again I’ll probably take a camera with a big telephoto lens, but for this first time trip to the high arctic, I suspect the telephoto would have caused me to “miss the forest for the trees.”

Arctic Adventure 5: I roam around, around, around, around, around.

Obscurity warning: The singer, Dion, was before my time too, but the title is quoting the last line of Dion’s song, “The Wander.”

So if an arctic expedition isn’t all about the photos, what is it about? For me it was getting off the ship and tramping around the edges of the arctic. Every day the ocean was different. On our expedition to Diana Island, the zodiacs had to dodge ice bergs and go slow because of the choppy water.

1 Meandering through the ice bergs on the way to Diana Island.

It was the unexpected sites when we reached land. We were expecting musk ox and nesting birds on Diana Island, but first we were greeted with ice left behind when the tide went out.

2 Brenda, all layered up with both cold gear, wet gear, and a life vest for the zodiac.

It was the unexpected schedule, such as the day the team had to reroute the zodiacs to a rocky outcropping to pick us up because the ice had clogged up the beach at Opingivik Island.

3 Actually this isn’t Brenda sitting in front of me. Who would have guessed there would be three different green waterproof parkas on a single cruise.

We still had to dodge a lot of ice to get back to the ship.

4 The ship lying off Opingivik Island.

It was landing on and walking up a sandy beach I’ve never heard of, much less imagined …

… climbing up a desolate hill …

… and then seeing a crystal clear bay that is reminiscent of the Caribbean.

George Sirk, CBC radio personality, University of Vancouver professor, and expidition ornithologist even took a swim with this friendly beluga. I don’t know how long he was in the water, but I’m guessing it wasn’t long.

5 A curious beluga whale at Coates Island. He watched the zodiacs for about 30 minutes before swimming away.

It was the daily ritual of putting on warm layers, wet layers, life vest, climbing into the zodiac, and the coming home again to do it all in reverse.

6 Brenda getting off the zodiac.

It was watching the ocean, sometimes for hours a day, often late into the day, hoping to see a Bow Whale surface and blow. (We never did on this trip.) Even the ocean seemed endless. It was ever changing and fascinating to watch.

7 The calmest day of the cruise.

It was hiking through barren but beautiful land, and the unexpected “aha” moment when you looked over your shoulder to see where you had been.

8 Hiking across a tidal basin on Marble Island.

And it’s about getting back home to the ship at the end of the day, looking forward to talking about the adventure over a hearty supper with strangers who were quickly becoming friends.

Arctic Adventure 2: Fog and Ice

As it turns out, the first night’s sunset was not a sign of better things tomorrow. The northeastern part of North America has had a cold, wet spring. The Ungava Peninsula was no exception. On the first full day of the cruise we woke up to fog, rain, and rough seas. The scheduled landing at Akpatok Island had to be cancelled because of big swells (over 8 feet, if I remember correctly). The dining room was emptier than the first night do to sea sickness.

1 Watching an aborted attempt at a zodiac excursion. (This is the 6th deck, so the 2 meter swells aren’t apparent.)

The cold spring also meant that the ice in Ungava Bay and the Hudson Strait had not melted. The wind had moved the ice into the center of Ungava Bay and as a result we had to make a big detour to get around the ice. (Sorry about the flash reflection in the following picture.)

2 The original plan was to sail directly to Akpatok Island (the big island in the bay). You can see on the progress chart how far out of the way we had to travel because of the ice.

This situation slowed our trip down dramatically. The extra distance and the rough seas meant that we essentially lost one day and two zodiac excursions from the cruise. But the trip through the ice field more than made up for the disappointment of being stuck on the ship.

Floe ice meant walruses …

3 Not bad for a point-and-shoot camera!

… and seals …

4 It was foggy and raining when I took this picture. With “liquid sun,” it seemed like a good time to be in the water, but this seal seemed content on the ice.

… and seals attract polar bears. We were able to observe all three. (The polar bears were so far away I didn’t even try to take a photo with my little point-and-shoot camera, although the folks with the big lenses got some excellent shots of a polar bear actually eating a seal. His rump was all bloody because he sat on it.)

5 This picture was taken in the Hudson Straight, to the northeast of Akpatok Island. If you look close you can see the open ocean in the distance.

Just what is a Class D icebreaker? It means it can safely navigate waters that are 90% covered with first year ice. (Because of the salt content, first year ice is significantly softer than multi-year ice.) We had to go many miles out of our way to find a narrow spot in the ice floe coming through the Hudson Straight, but we finally found one and banged and scraped our way through. According to Jason, the expedition leader, the ice floe represented about the maximum that was safe for our ship. That trip was an unexpected treat – admittedly, a worrisome treat, but a treat nonetheless.

A few days later, as we pulled up beside the ship in the zodiacs, I had a chance to examine the damage caused by the ice. No wonder the ice made so much noise as the ship scraped and creaked its way to open water.

Arctic Adventure 3: Murres, Murres, and more Murres

Cruise North Expeditions is an Inuit-owned company that rents the Lyuba Orlova for the summer. Each cruise is about one week long. They begin in St. John, Labrador; go up the Labrador coast, and around to Kuujjuaq, the next week takes them from Kuujjuaq to Churchill. On the third week they retrace their way to Kuujjuaq. From there they head into the far north for Resolute (north of 180°). Next year they hope to include a two week trip to Greenland. I read in the daily journal the expedition crew gave us at the end of the cruise that the route between Kuujjuaq and Churchill is the favorite route of many of the Cruise North staff because of the abundance of wildlife.

1 They resemble their cousin, the penguin, but they’re murres.

The animal we saw most frequently (by far!) was the murre, a close relative of the penguin that can fly and lives around the North Pole. Akpatok Island (which means “murre house” in Inuit) was fogged-in and the sea was so rough we were unable to stop. It is the home of about a million murres. But they are everywhere so we also went to Cape Wolstenholme (one of the northernmost spots in Quebec and the site of Quebec’s northernmost waterfall, home of another 600,000 murres. Another stop was the scientific research station at Coates Island where another half a million of the birds nest.

2 They say Akpatok Island is far more dramatic than Cape Wolstenholme (pictured here). I didn’t see Akpatok because of the fog but I can’t imagine the scenery gets much more dramatic than this!

3 Nesting murres are both noisy and smelly. According to Shoshona, spotting an egg is quite rare. But with a half million opportunities, “rare” may even be relatively common.

4 Shoshona Jacobs, a biologist who spent two summers at the Coates Island Research camp and a couple more summers at a murre research station farther north, gives a murre lecture while we hold the zodiacs together to create an outdoor lecture hall.

5 The northernmost waterfall in Quebec at Cape Wohlstenholme.

6 We made it to the cliff top at Coates Island.

7 One of the research blinds at Coates Island with a murre colony below.

8 See those little white dots? Those are flying murres as viewed from the cliff top.

But it wasn’t just at these three points. We saw murres and gulls every day of the cruise, and frequently spotted jaegers and terns as well. The shot below was taken while we were zodiac-ing around Walrus Island, for instance.

9 Bye Bye.

Arctic Adventure 1: Not a “Cruise,” an “Expedition-Cruise”

We were sitting in the Forward Lounge of the Lyubov Orlova (a 33 year old, Russian made and crewed “Class D” ice breaking cruise ship) getting a briefing on the upcoming week by Jason Annahatak, our expedition leader (who was Inuit), when Dr. Susan Aiken, the expedition botanist (a New Zealander), interrupted, announcing, “We are passing the tree line right now.”

At the time I didn’t understand the significance of the comment.

After all, being a native Montanan, I associate “tree line” with elevation. The tree line is the elevation up the mountain where the trees can no longer grow. But Susan was talking about latitude, not altitude. A similar tree line exists in both the arctic and Antarctic regions.

1 The barge dock at Kuujjuaq. Not exactcly a boreal forest, but there are stunted trees farther up the shore.

2 Getting on the zodiacs at Kuujjuaq, 30 minutes upriver from the ship. See Brenda?

This cruise started in the town of Kuujjuaq, Quebec, on the Ungava Peninsula. Kuujjuaq is about 50 km inland from Ungava Bay, and since the Inuit historically rely heavily on fishing, it’s odd that the village is 50 km south of the ocean – that’s a long way to go to get to the seal and whale out in Ungava Bay. And this brings us back to Dr. Susan Aiken’s comment about the tree line. To quote the Wikipedia entry about Kuujjuaq,

“Although the tree line is very close, the boreal forest is present around Kuujjuaq. Patches of black spruce and larch stand in marshy valleys. Kuujjuaq also witnesses annual migrations of the George River caribou herd. These animals pass through the region throughout August and September.”

In short, Kuujjuaq is relatively close to both seals and caribou. Given the caribou and the wood, the advantages of being near trees outweighed the disadvantage of being so far from the ocean. Susan mentioned the tree line because it was the last time we would see a tree in eight days. (Unless one counts the arctic willow, but that’s another story altogether. Stay tuned for that tale.)

3 This shot is taken 15 minutes into the trip.

But the fact the expedition began in Kuujjuaq created a logistical problem for the Cruise North team: the ship couldn’t go that far up the river. As a result, we had to take a 30 minute Zodiac ride (in a very cold rain!) to get from Kuujjuaq to the ship. Once we were on board, the zodiacs went back and got our luggage. It was hoisted onto the ship in big nets by the crane. Then the zodiacs were brought on board, and finally the expedition began.

But it was a problem the staff were well equipped to deal with. This wasn’t a cruise, after all, it was an expedition. The plan was to take the zodiacs out once or twice a day to see animals, plants, geography, historical, and cultural sites. These excursions would be mixed in with daily lectures from the resident scientific staff. The cruise ship wasn’t the focus of the trip, it was merely a means of transportation.

4 The sunset on a rainy night through our cabin porthole

And we were being transported (through the night) to Akpatok Island, home of one of the largest murre colonies in the world to begin our expedition. As the day came to an end, a sunset broke through a hole in the heavy clouds. Was this a sign of better weather to come as we made our way to Akpatok Island? Only time would tell.