On Top of the World

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FLOATING RESORTS. YOU CAN KEEP THEM. You know the kind of cruises I mean: tropical cocktails, gift-shop islands, sun-and-deck chair afternoons. When I'm at sea, I want adventure. Cresting waves, puffs of wind, the works.

This is why I find myself onboard a Russian icebreaker that is hardened to cut through icebergs and glaciers and is churning north. Next stop: the Arctic Circle and the coast of Greenland. Polar bears will be there, I hope, and maybe some whales and snowy owls. If we make it, I will down a shot of Smirnoff with the crew, not a pina colada.

My icebreaker for 14 days, the Kapitan Khlebnikov, is chartered by Quark Expeditions and outfitted for 108 passengers. To get to the ship, we had to fly to Resolute Bay, five hours north of Ottawa, Canada. Then we loaded up a little fleet of rubber Zodiac boats to cross an icy sound and staggered onto the Khlebnikov's gangplank and deck.

This sounded good to me.

In business since 1991, Quark is one of several lines that specializes in ferrying cruise passengers to the snowy ends of the world. Sometimes, those on board get to be part of exploration firsts. In 1991, Quark icebreaker passengers experienced a pioneering transit of the Northeast Passage, the route across the top of the world. And in 1999, passengers and crew sailed completely around the top of the globe (the first-ever Arctic circumnavigation).

My cruise isn't supposed to break new ground for explorers or plant any flags. But being this far north -- even in Resolute at the start of the trip -- is, itself, an adventure. Like all Arctic voyages with passengers, this one kicks off in a relatively ice-free month. It is September, but the wind is whistling like winter, zeroing in on exposed skin.

"I've lost my gloves!" squeals Emma Hambly of Bodmin, England. She's rifling through pockets and knapsacks. No luck. We are thinking "frostbite" until she's saved by someone's overpacking: Another passenger has found an extra pair.

We zip up our Quark-issued orange parkas on the Zodiac ride through rising swells to the ship. Here are layers of freezing sea foam. And over here are floating ice chunks. It looks like a cake that has exploded.

Our first days at sea are prism clear. When we pass near Cape York, along the west coast of Greenland, we hear a sound like vegetables being chopped. There are helicopters on deck and it is time to load them up for a flying tour. On the ride, we fly over a snowy hill where sits a memorial to Arctic explorer Robert Peary. The helicopter dips in for a closer look, bouncing and diving in the hard blue air.

Back at the ship we land on our bull's-eye on the deck and duck under the whirring blades as if this were wartime Vietnam. The trip makes us hungry. Hungry as a Russian bear. What's for dinner? We've got soups, stews, cabbage, cutlets, bread and cakes. There's plenty of warm-up vodka, wine and beer.

Talk at the table turns to food of the far north. Someone has eaten puffin. It was "sliced thin," they say, "and smoked." Duncan Currie of Edinburgh, Scotland, claims to have tasted polar bear. "Not very good," he says, "but better than if it tasted me. It was slow-cooked in a casserole with mushrooms and onions."

I want to meet my Arctic animals live, I say, not cooked.

Early the next morning, I get my wish. Just before the ship reaches Qaanaaq, Greenland, there's an announcement from the bridge that blasts us out of bed and launches us on deck. It's hard to get near the rail. Parkas are jostling, hands encased in mittens are fumbling with cameras to turn them on and get a shot.

Get a shot of what?

I open my camera and realize something's wrong. The lens is frozen. Just as I'm ducking inside to let it thaw, the shouts begin. "There he is!" "He's swimming. Near that blue-gray ice chunk. See the wet, white head?"

All I see is fur. Part of a claw, some paw.

Suddenly, in a flash of sunlight, I know. A polar bear. Alive and enormous, bobbing up and down in waves and tilting like a buoy.

I'm back inside, wiping my lens with my shirt, dropping my down-filled gloves and woolly hat. By the time I'm at the rail, there are only bubbles in the water. Someone has spied the coast of Greenland. But the bear is gone.

Dog days

Qaanaaq, we are told, is sometimes called Thule. It is the world's most northern town. Most of its 350 inhabitants seem to be on hand when we step out of Zodiacs and onto the beach. It must be our orange parkas. They stare and stare. We stare back.

When a foghorn blows, there is a whine from Qaanaaq. It doesn't stop. On the contrary, it gets louder. The sound grows into a full-moon howl. Is it a wolf pack? Not exactly. It is hundreds of sled dogs crying from every corner of the town.

When we go on a walk, I want to try and pet the dogs or throw them a roll I've pocketed from breakfast. Anything to calm them down. But it's not allowed. "People depend on them," says Currie, who has come here before. "These aren't pets. They are working dogs."

So instead I check out the display of sled-dog dry food in a Qaanaaq store. No Alpo or Purina here. But you and your pack can pick up Nukik Polar Nuggets sold by the bag. For puppies there is Nukik Junior.

Groceries for humans look like they were shipped from Mars. I consider buying a can of Mork Syrup, but decide against it. I don't have any pancakes. Dr. Oetker's Shake n' Bake Chokolad Muffins might work. And they'd be interesting to try. But I'm not sure Dr. Oetker's is a brand I can trust. When I think of shaking and baking muffins on a moving ship, this settles the issue. I leave the checkout line and stick the package back on its shelf.

Back on the streets of town, I pass houses that are as tight as drums to keep the weather at bay. Some are painted pink, and some are blue. I try a walk on the pebbly beach. Local vendors are selling seal meat. Pungent slices. Some of it is stretched on strings to dry.

Just when I've worked up the courage to ask for a taste, I'm saved by a familiar sound.

WHOOOMMMM.

It is the Khlebnikov's whistle.

Now, from Qaanaaq, comes the eerie trailing whine.

ARRROOOO. ARRRAAAOOOO!

The dogs are hungry for their Polar Nuggets. And it is time for us to get back on board.

At the top

Signs that we are reaching our trip's Arctic extreme are all around. The sky is never dark: sunset bleeds into dawn. Tiny flakes of snow twist by when you are out on deck. And when I get caught by a blast of wind, not one but both of my sunglass lenses pop out and sail overboard.

Our helicopter flights surprise herds of musk oxen. Above a glacier, we see specks of glowing white - a white that is whiter than the snow. "Arctic hares!" shouts our guide, making a hopping motion with his hands just in case we don't know what a hare can do.

Finally, at breakfast, there is an announcement. "We've reached our apex," says the captain. "Our northernmost point on this trip."

Ship's latitude is 82.31 degrees North. We roll this around in our heads. Someone unrolls a map. Not the geographic pole. But not bad at all.

We are farther up, by far, than Norway, Finland or Alaska. About as far up as the North Magnetic Pole. And our icebreaker has hit the edge of pack ice. Conditions like this are when the ship performs best.

At first the sea ice is similar to plastic wrap, shaped like waves. It thickens into glass-like ice, sliding surfing panes that crack and splinter into bits. The plates grow fat. They flatten every swell, pressing down, ironing things out. Now, instead of ocean, there are continents of ice. Whatever is below - Arctic fish and seals, and probably our bear - are hidden underneath this frozen ceiling.

The Khlebnikov crunches forward and down. Forward and deeper down. We are dredging out our personal ice canal. In the stern we make a wake of slush. Starboard and port have flying foam that freezes to the steel and makes us slip and grab the railings and yell.

Peter Hui of Bethesda is right at the icebreaker's prow. Snap. Snap. Flash! He's got it. An Arctic souvenir shot of a traveling pal. Hui's friend is a yellow rubber chicken that goes where he goes.

"This is one of his best adventures," Hui says.

He doesn't mind the wind? I ask.

Hui considers. "See the chicken's goosebumps? That means he is excited. But also a little cold."

I nod my head. I know how it is. I can feel the spray and the thrust of the ship. I am shivering despite my parka, winter gloves and hat. Under my boots the Khlebnikov's giant engines churn.

Hui and I, and Hui's chicken, do not move. We like our ice. We want to watch it, hear its splits and crunches, taste its salt in our teeth. We are leaning over, looking ahead, moving with our ship. Forward and down. Forward and deeper down.

It may be a soft afternoon off the coast of Aruba, Barbados and Bermuda. Passengers on ships there may be ordering drinks. They may be smiling and tasting fruit and just beginning to tan.

Passengers on ships there may be happy as the sun itself. This I understand.

But let them keep their tans and tropics and easy seas.

None are as happy as I.

IF YOU GO

THE CRUISE

Arctic Adventure, Quark Expeditions' annual icebreaker trip to the Arctic and Greenland, starts in Resolute, a remote town on Canada's Cornwallis Island. This year's cruise takes place Aug. 14-28.

Passengers meet in Ottawa, Canada, for an overnight stay at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier. Quark charters a plane for the next morning's flight to Resolute and passengers embark on the Kapitan Khlebnikov that afternoon. At the end of the cruise, passengers are flown back to Ottawa for another night at the Chateau Laurier.

Cruise rates are $11,500 for a triple cabin and $14,500 for a twin cabin. These rates are per person based on twin or triple occupancy. Single occupancy and suites are extra. The prices given include round-trip flights from Ottawa to Resolute; the Ottawa hotel accommodations; the cruise (including food, but not alcohol); helicopter flights and other expeditions during the cruise; lectures by onboard naturalists, historians and artists; and an expedition parka that passengers keep. There are also free loaner rubber boats aboard ship.

THE SHIP

The Kapitan Khlebnikov was launched in 1981 and designed for ice-breaking duties off the coast of northern Siberia. It was refitted to accommodate passengers about a decade later. Though far from a luxury liner, the Khlebnikov is more than comfortable. All of the ship's 54 cabins and suites have a private toilet and shower, large windows instead of portholes, a desk and closets. Food is consistently tasty and plentiful, with delightful service by a mostly Russian hotel crew. Besides regular lectures and briefings, there's a library, a theater, an exercise room and a "heated" indoor swimming pool that, in truth, feels more like a shark tank (without the sharks). You can send and receive e-mails from the ship's radio room and there's a doctor onboard.

INFORMATION

What to pack -- Arctic cruises take place during months when the ice is most navigable, and though temperatures during the day may call for only a sweater or light jacket, conditions can change quickly. Quark provides all passengers with a "polar parka" with a detachable fleece lining that can be zipped out and worn alone. Items to pack include gloves, hat, scarf, waterproof pants, wool socks, a thin pair of polypropylene socks (to wear beneath the wool pair), hiking boots, sunglasses and a small backpack.

Reservations -- Quark Expeditions, 1019 Boston Post Road, Darien, Conn. 06820. 800-356-5699 or quarkexpeditions.com.

[PETER MANDEL]

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