The polar bear sauntered down the beach toward us. My heart pounded as he squinted in our direction, no doubt weighing the nutritional value of the 20 or so tasty morsels wrapped in fleece, down and Gore Tex just 40 yards away. I hurriedly took several photos, then looked around and figured I could probably outrun the short, round woman standing next to me. Fortunately for her, and possibly for me, he decided we were more scary than tasty, and made a beeline for the water.
We weren’t in any real danger as long as we followed our guide’s advice, “stay together and don’t run.” I don’t remember her suggesting that we knock someone over in panic, but I kept that option open just in case.
This was only one of many polar bear sightings in our 4+ days on and around Wrangel and Herald Islands in the Russian Arctic on Heritage Expeditions’ Across the Top of the World adventure cruise. From the Zodiacs (the inflatable boats that ferry passengers from ship to shore and on sight-seeing excursions away from the ship) we saw bears up close on the beach and farther away on the tundra and distant ridges. From our ship, the Professor Khromov, we saw even more on ice floes near the islands. (I love the Russian tradition of naming ships after professors. In an academic career of over 35 years the only thing named after me was a sandwich in the local deli where I usually ate lunch.)
My favorite polar bear sighting was the mom and her two cubs exploring an ice floe just off our port bow as we approached Wrangel Island. Unlike our jumpy friend on the beach she seemed unfazed by our presence and sidled up to the edge of the floe as the Professor slipped slowly by. Maybe her agent had negotiated a hefty appearance fee with Heritage Expeditions.
The bears were only the third act in an impressive wildlife production that started with the grey and humpback whales on Day 2, walruses on Day 3, and more walruses and our first polar bears on ice floes as we approached Wrangel Island on Day 4. The bear on the beach on Day 5 seemed to open up the ursine floodgates, which reached its peak on and near Herald Island on Day 7 (about 30 by most estimates).
And the birds! I’m not a birder -- picking out and naming specific breeds and species is not my thing, though I admit a special affection for the Puffin, tufted or not. But you don’t have to be a birder to appreciate the bird cliffs we cruised by almost every day in the Zodiacs. The cliffs are like avian high-rise apartment houses occupied by all kinds of birds, apparently living together in relative harmony, aside from occasional bickering and outbursts of air rage. At one point I just leaned back in the Zodiac and watched the birds dart, dive and soar above me, surrounded by the sound of cackles and screeches.
VISTAS, HISTORY, AND CULTURE
The magnificent scenery and unique culture were almost as compelling as the wildlife. We hiked on the tundra in the long shadows of the endless dusk; visited remote, windswept Kolyuchin Island, the site of a once important but now abandoned Russian polar research station; and strolled through Whalebone Alley, an evocative site of whale skulls, pelvises, and jawbones with some undetermined archeological significance (or maybe the ancient Inuits were just having a bit of fun fooling around with the pretensions of future scholars).
We also visited a summer encampment of an indigenous, Chukchi family, as well as the very nontraditional town of Laurentiya. At first the town looked like a gloomy relic from the Soviet era, with tall smoke stacks, large apartment blocks, and a statue of Lenin prominently displayed in the town square. Then I noticed the gaily-painted sides of the newer buildings, the colorfully painted, repurposed old tires in a playground, and the smiling faces of the kids waving to us from the schoolyard as we walked by.
These visits provided a glimpse into history -- on the one hand, a look back centuries at the other side of the land bridge that enabled the indigenous peoples of the region to migrate to North America; on the other, a peek at more recent history with its mirror image of the cold war from the Russian side of the conflict
Then there were the sunsets. I have seen my share of spectacular sunsets, but the sunset we witnessed from the ship on our last evening may have been the most spectacular of all, accompanied as it was by a double rainbow spanning the bow from port to starboard.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF CRUISE
This expedition cruise was more "expedition" than "cruise." In other words, lots of whales, walruses and polar bears, but not much in the way of luxury. Accommodations were basic and there were no spas, lavish midnight buffets, gambling, and swimming pools. Instead of elaborate Las Vegas style shows, there were lectures by naturalists and staff on topics relevant to the region -- whales, history, ice, and perhaps most important of all, safety in polar bear country.
When I wasn't listening to a lecture, I was napping or reading in my cabin or socializing with other passengers in the library/bar. Entertaining, yes, but also informative since the other passengers were well-educated, mature and international -- Aussies, Kiwis, Brits, Germans, Swiss, Russians, as well as a number of Americans. The ship is small, carrying a maximum of 60 passengers, so I was able to interact with everyone who spoke English in the almost two weeks we were on the ship.
The one thing that this trip did have in common with the best luxury cruises were the meals. I was expecting basic and filling; what we got were creative menus and gourmet taste and presentation.
THE “MAGNETIC” PULL OF THE FAR NORTH
People ask me, especially my cold-phobic wife, “what is the attraction of the far north,” a region that has tugged at me since I was small boy dreaming of distant explorations. First, there is the light – a sunset that glows but never ends and a sun that never dips below the horizon. Then there are the vistas over rolling tundra and water to distant islands with few signs of civilization. Perhaps most important of all is the idea of it – the margins of the world where the known, familiar and uncomfortable drops off into the region ominously designated on old maps as “here lie dragons.” There is something about the arctic, raw and primitive, that evokes the beginning of time.
To sum up, the cruise is informal and basic, the focus is on the natural and cultural environment, and the mission of the operator is conservation and environmental advocacy. If that's what you're looking for, I can't think of a better place to be than on the beaches of Wrangel Island or on the decks of the Professor, especially as it glides past polar bears and walruses on the ice floes below.