When you look directly over the railing of your cruise ship into the piercing black eyes of a polar bear, it suddenly doesn't matter that the cruise has no chocolate buffet or that the swimming pool is used as storage space. The bear doesn't care about chocolate buffets either; it would rather the ship moved on so it can get back to hunting ringed seal.
Mainstream tourists now have access to the waters of Canada's Arctic region, which was, until recently, the exclusive territory of research vessels, summer supply ships and icebreakers belonging to the Canadian coastguard. Rather than thank global warming, save your gratitude for the Inuit - the natives of the north - who saw an opportunity and have opened their land and waters to visitors. They've shared this area for thousands of years with polar bears, ringed seals, musk oxen, caribou, narwhals and the penguin-like thick-billed murre. Now they share it with us.
When tourists began flying huge distances to experience penguin colonies and icebergs near Antarctica, the Inuit must have watched with amusement. Convinced people would rather experience 20-plus hours of daylight amid the more visible wildlife and the exotic human interaction of the north, an Inuit group invested a 75 per cent stake in a cruise company, Cruise North Expeditions.
The company chartered a Russian-owned ship that can handle the choppy waters, unpredictable weather and, yes, ice floes. The Lyubov Orlova, named after a long-dead Russian film vixen, can't break itself out of serious pack ice but it can navigate through drifting ice.
Below decks, the Orlova is comfortable enough, with satisfactory food (including caribou steak on the day we see a herd). The company's marketing materials make it clear this is an expedition ship, not a luxury liner. Staterooms are all 'outside', meaning everyone gets a porthole. (From the fourth deck upwards, the windows open, which helps with temperature control.) Beds are twins and are bolted in place. All have functional, clean private bathrooms.
Not only is the ship staffed with several native youths, the Inuit have also put out the welcome mat at some of the Earth's most remote communities. This allows passengers to have remarkable contact with the indigenous culture, observing gifted artisans at work, hiking among caribou and trekking across tundra. For those looking to get a head start on the next, and perhaps last, great travel frontier, the Arctic should be seen now.
AN INFORMAL POLL OF fellow passengers reveals that a polar bear sighting is required for the cruise to be awarded 10 out of 10. As the rest of the passengers watch Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth inside, five of us are on the bow at 9.30pm (in foggy daylight) on the second of an eight-night voyage, hoping to chalk up the top score. It's a chance sighting - but that's the magic of this voyage.
'There's something on the ice,' says a passenger on the starboard side of the bow. I race across the ship, narrowly clearing anchor chains and supply hatches, and there, not 30 metres away, is a daddy bear on a small iceberg. He spots us and dives into the frigid water, perceiving a threat as cameras are set to rapid fire.
Word is sent to the bridge and the 122-passenger liner quickly slows to a halt. 'We have a polar bear sighting at two o'clock,' announces the PA system.
The passengers who spotted the bear desperately try to point it out to those racing from inside but for most it is too late; the bear has slipped away into the fog.
My shipmates are either well-heeled or would-be academics; all seem to have explored the entire planet. Open-seating dining exposes you to as many companions as you wish, but be prepared for conversation such as, 'When we were in Myanmar ...', 'During our safari in Botswana ...' and 'During our second trip to Antarctica ...'
You do not sail Cruise North for the ship or your shipmates, though. The real reasons are the starkly beautiful scenery, the wildlife and the chance to interact with a people who still seem unsure of the global village.
When you watch an Inuit youngster such as Aisa Pirti, a Cruise North staffer, steal his way across a shallow marsh and climb with unbelievable stealth around a glacial boulder field until he's almost face to face with an adult caribou, you know why you're here. Pirti says he spurned an opportunity to study business in Montreal to stay at home and join the men of his culture in hunting.
The Inuit don't always 'get' southerners' ways. The meat of seals, bears and whales can feed entire Inuit clans for months: why do they need supermarkets? Mind you, their homes have televisions and other modern trappings. Spotting the requisite Skidoos sitting on the summertime dirt confirms these people are not prepared to return to the quaint imagery of the 1922 documentary Nanook of the North (shown onboard).
Cruise North offers a variety of itineraries, most of which stop at an Inuit village. In Kimmirut (population 433), the village elder demonstrates how to slaughter a seal (and offers a taste of its liver) before local youths play out traditional games. We also visit the artisan village Cape Dorset (population more than 1,100), where an astonishing 20 per cent of the inhabitants are considered artists. Inside the town's artist co-operative, a printmaker barely registers the 50 cruise passengers who have just walked through the door. He's busy applying yellow and white
inks to a relief of an owl, carved into a piece of old pool-table slate. The co-operative's prints are expensive, well into the hundreds of US dollars, as are the green and white stone carvings of bears and inukshuk (stone landmarks) - trademarks of the region.
There's no pier in Cape Dorset; every trip ashore and back is made by Zodiac rigid-hulled inflatable boat. Unlike most cruise ships, the Orlova doesn't have a water-level entry; rather it has a steep stairway down the outside of the ship to a metal platform. This arrangement limits passengers to the able-bodied - you must be capable of negotiating these stairs on your own, even in stormy and rolling seas. Remote island landings are usually made on rocky beaches, making waterproof clothing essential.
Most days include some shore exploration in exceedingly remote spots: a morning on the Zodiacs cruising between the Savage Islands, a day hiking through a zillion wildflowers over sponge-soft tundra in search of a magical herd of musk oxen or a visit to 3,000-year-old Thule ruins.
All of it is awe-inspiring, but there's no question what everyone really wants to see. Despite featuring a polar bear in the company logo, Cruise North makes no promise of sightings. Luckily, they've got Akpatok Island scheduled on most itineraries - a favourite polar bear hangout.
On the penultimate day of the trip, despite very rough seas, all the passengers are treated to the spectacle of a mother bear and twin cubs from a Zodiac. As if to make the moment magical, flocks of penguin-like murres dazzle with their ability to fly straight into the water. And our Inuit pilot beams with pride as he shows us his territory.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific Airways (www.cathaypacific.com ) flies daily to Toronto, Canada, from where Air Canada (www.aircanada.com ) runs a busy schedule to Montreal. Cruise North Expeditions' (www.cruisenorthexpeditions.com ) itineraries begin with an air flight from Montreal. The company has preferred rates at the Four Points Sheraton Montreal Airport hotel and the Hotel Neligan in Old Montreal.