|Photo by Sjoerd van der Wal/E+/Getty Images|
by Chris Moss, The Daily Telegraph, November 1, 2016
The Arctic is one of the most enigmatic regions on Earth. As extreme as Antarctica, it is also a marine environment, ever shifting, ever changing – seasonally and, thanks to global warming, on a new, more urgent timescale. First explored more than a thousand years ago, it was only conquered – in the sense of arriving at the North Pole – and charted at the start of the 20th century. Inhospitable, unpredictable, mysterious, it exercises a magnetic pull on the human imagination as a sort of frigid dead zone.
Yet the Arctic Ocean is bursting with marine and bird life. Six species of seal, four kinds of whale, the walrus, and millions of birds and fishes inhabit the farthest reaches of the north. The polar bear and the melting ice have become central to the narrative of global warming that dominates our times – to see the bears, and the species on which it preys, for yourself will add to your knowledge and heighten your awareness of what’s at stake.
Polar bears are one of the draws of visiting the ArcticCredit: © National Geographic Creative / Alamy Stock Photo/National Geographic Creative / Alamy Stock Photo
The Arctic also has a vast expanse of terra firma, and there is something dream-like and beautifully bleak about Arctic landscapes, whether you head to the pine forests and tundra landscapes of Alaska, Canada and Russia or cruise around the ice caps of Spitsbergen and Greenland. For centuries, only indigenous settlers could survive here – but the modern traveller can combine luxury and comfort with a memorable trip to the emptiest, loneliest, coldest places on the planet.
Where to go on land
Canada is the most traveller-friendly country for anyone wishing to see Arctic landscapes. The Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut all stretch beyond the Arctic Circle, with the islands of the latter coming to within 800 miles of the North Pole. The barren, treeless, tundra-dominated landscape is harsh, but extraordinarily beautiful, and provides a habitat for musk ox, caribou, polar bears and seals. Populated by First Nations communities around 25,000 years ago, Arctic Canada still boasts sizeable Inuit settlements. Because of the logistical challenges, flying around and staying in the region is more expensive than travel in other parts of Canada. Ten days in a five-star property such as Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge – the most northerly in Canada, located at 74 degrees north, just above the Arctic Circle on Somerset Island – or at the new Arctic Haven lodge ( arctichaven.ca ) on Ennadai Lake will set you back as much as a cruise.
If you’re a fan of Channel 5’s Ice Road Truckers, you’ll enjoy driving the Dalton Highway from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay. Built as a service road for the oil pipeline, it’s the only road that penetrates all the way into Alaska ’s Arctic wilderness, where the temperature actually goes up as you travel north and approach the Beaufort Sea. Other great Alaskan options are the Gates of the Arctic National Park at Fairbanks, the US’s second biggest park, and the lonely port of Barrow, for easy viewing of polar bears (at the town’s rubbish dump), the largest Inupiat community in Alaska, and 84 days of midnight sun.
Svalbard archipelago, Norway
Only 1,300 miles from Britain – and under six hours away by plane, via Oslo – the Svalbard archipelago (best known for its largest island, Spitsbergen) offers the closest and most accessible extreme tundra-type topography available. Expect polar bear sightings and extraordinary glaciers – including Austfonna, a 3,129-square-mile ice cap. Roads are in short supply, so most travellers explore the coast by ship. It is, though, quite possible to visit Longyearbyen, the small capital, in winter and head out on snowmobiles, husky-drawn sleds and skis.
Nuuk, the capital, has good gastronomy and is something of an adventure playground, with opportunities for both fly-fishing and sea angling, hiking, climbing and paragliding. The wilder eastern seaboard is dotted with tiny villages and is the place to observe indigenous communities that still practise traditional hunting and fishing. Ilulissat in North Greenland is excellent for winter dog-sledding, with the Northern Lights as a backdrop. Ilulissat’s Icefjord, a Unesco World Heritage site since, 2004, is one of the few glaciers through which Greenland’s immense ice cap reaches the sea.
There are connections with Copenhagen at least four times a week. Most people get around by plane, though there are ferries for short trips and the Arctic Umiaq Line, a ferry service, down the west coast. Prices for a flight between Nuuk and Ilulissat range from DKK 3,800-5,000 (£456-£600), depending how early you book. See airgreenland.com
On either side of the Urals, Russia stretches fingers of land north into the Arctic Circle and more than two million Russians live in the region. Murmansk is the largest city north of the Arctic Circle; during the Cold War it was a centre of Soviet submarine and icebreaker activity. Rail fans can combine private or ordinary train trips with their visit, and easily build St Petersburg in to their itineraries.
Tromsø is where the Arctic gets arty, with a lively cultural scene and street life, lots of pubs (and excellent Mack beers) and a university. Summer trips can take in hikes in the nearby mountains, and there’s skiing and sledding in winter. Music, film and other festivals are regularly held in Tromsø, including the Northern Lights classical, opera and jazz festival ( nordlysfestivalen.no ) every January.
Norway’s rail network goes all the way to Bødo, just north of the Arctic Circle – this is a popular base for trips out to the beautiful Lofoten Islands. From nearby Fauske there’s a bus to Narvik – a port kept ice-free by the Gulf stream – and from here trains run to Kiruna in Sweden. Specialist tour firms such as Great Rail Journeys ( greatrail.com ) can organise tailor-made itineraries.
Where to go at sea
The most iconic voyage is by ice-breaker to the geographic or terrestrial North Pole, at 90 degrees north; the 128-berth 50 Years of Victory is the most powerful nuclear-powered ice-breaker and is contracted by several firms operating to the North Pole. There is often shifting sea ice but a photo opportunity is usually possible, and some cruises offer balloon flights over the pole. Itineraries start from many points, including Murmansk in Russia, and may stop at Franz Josef Land, at 81 degrees north – so remote that it was discovered after Antarctica.
For wildlife and variety, Svalbard is highly recommended. If you’re lucky you’ll see polar bears on floating bergs, walruses and several whale species, as well as Arctic foxes, reindeer many seabirds. If you combine zodiac excursions with kayaking trips, you’ll feel you’ve been about as close as a non-pro explorer can get to the ice. History is also on show at sites such as Ny Ålesund, from where both Roald Amundsen and Umberto Nobile set out on their famed explorations.
Cruise companies are now offering voyages into the fabled Northwest Passage. Most explore around Baffin Island and several go as far as Kugluktuk in northern Canada. But in 2017, at least one ship – the 199-passenger La Boreal – is following in the wake of merchant vessels that recently transited the Northwest Passage. See polarcruises.com/northwest-passage for more information.
In 2014 and 2016, Hapag Lloyd’s MV Hanseatic traversed the Northeast Passage, voyaging from the Barents Sea to the Bering Sea. Russia’s icebreaker, Kapitan Khlebnikov, has also cruised through the Northeast Passage.
On Norway’s long west-facing seaboard, daily Hurtigruten cruises ( hurtigruten.co.uk ) connect Mehamn and Nordkapp in the Arctic with Bergen in the south.
What to take
Mittens, a dry bag, spare hats, thermal undies, good waterproof gear, strong boots, binoculars, sunglasses and high-factor sun protection.
When to go
May to August are the kindest months in terms of daylight and temperature – and flight delays are less likely, too. Even south of the circle in, say, Iceland, the short winter days limit activities as well as light. Svalbard and Greenland have winter seasons, however, and sledding beneath the Northern Lights can be magical.
Quark Expeditions (0808 120 2333; quarkexpeditions.com ), well known for its polar cruises, also offers a land-based adventure. The nine-night wildlife trip has been arranged in partnership with the five-star Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge. Highlights include sightings of polar bears, musk oxen, Arctic fox and hares, ring and bearded seals, snowy owls, peregrine falcons and beluga whales. The lodge offers gourmet dining, hiking, kayaking, river rafting and excursions in all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). Seven departures are planned from June 30 to August 14, 2017, with a maximum of 26 guests per departure. From £4,300 per person based on double occupancy. Flights not included.
Golden Eagle Luxury Trains (0161 9289410, goldeneagleluxurytrains.com ) has a new 11-night Land of the Midnight Sun escorted tour for 2017, on board the luxurious Golden Eagle all en-suite train. The trip falls in the White Nights season, and goes from Moscow to St. Petersburg, heading deep into the Arctic Circle via Murmansk, and visiting remote towns, dramatic fjords, and taiga forests. Departs 15 June 2017, from £7,995 per person.
Inntravel (01653 617000, inntravel.co.uk ) has launched a new self-guided, three-centre seven-night independent tour for this winter (2017), taking in some of Norway’s most beautiful Arctic islands. From the Lofoten Islands, guests sail on the Hurtigruten overnight to Finnsnes, move on to the island of Senja, and finish in Tromsø. Guests get to don snowshoes for a hike, go in search of whales, spend a day dog-sledding, join a Northern Lights excursion and visit the Polar Museum. Available for departures between January 15 and April 3, from £1,650 per person.
Telegraph Tours | Kingdom of the Polar Bear with Monty HallsFurther reading
Dorling Kindersley produces regularly updated pictorial guides to Canada, Norway, Russia and Alaska. Lonely Planet’s Russia and Canada books are also very informative.
Three very readable classic works by Arctic pioneers are: Farthest North by Fridtjof Nansen; Journal of a Voyage for the Discovery of a North-West Passage by William Edward Parry; and The North-West Passage by Roald Amundsen.
For a fresh, contemporary land-lubbing angle, read In the Land of White Death: An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic by Valerian Albanov.
Tony Soper’s The Arctic: A guide to coastal wildlife is published by Bradt.
For visual inspiration, see the Scott Polar Research Institute’s Freeze Frame collection of 20,000 images at freezeframe.ac.uk
Nasa releases stunning aerial Arctic surveyPlay!04:28The inside track
Polar bears are evolved grizzlies – they separated about 200,000 years ago – and could feasibly reproduce with their brown southern relatives.
Greenpeace claims 75 per cent of summertime Arctic sea ice has already been lost since 1979 as a result of, and an exacerbating accelerator of, global warming.
In the fourth century BC, the Marseille-born Greek explorer Pytheas voyaged north and described Thule, and later accounts tell of his reports of a sea-land mush that had “the consistency of a jellyfish”.
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This article was written by Chris Moss from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.