– KAREN HAMMOND

Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram

Long underwear? Check. Wool sweater? Check. Snow pants, hat, and mittens? Check. With a parka tied around my waist and insulated knee-high boots crammed into my suitcase, I’m ready. For a cruise. In July.

Happy to escape the stares of travelers in shorts and flip-flops at Montreal’s Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport, I board an Air North plane on the first leg of an Arctic adventure run by Toronto-based Cruise North Expeditions. We’ll travel into the far reaches of Hudson Bay to visit remote Inuit villages and treeless islands inhabited only by musk ox, walruses, and polar bears.

Our flight lands in Kuujjuaq (Great River in the Inuktitut language), once a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post and now, with a population of 2200, the largest community in Nunavik. Quebec Province’s vast Arctic region, Nunavik is bordered on the north by Hudson Strait, on the west by Hudson Bay, and on the east by Ungava Bay and Labrador.

At the Koksoak River we clamber aboard waiting Zodiacs and roar across the water to the M/V Lyubov Orlova, the ice-strengthened, Russian-owned ship that will be our home for the next eight days.

Within a few hours, we spot our first polar bear, a huge male on an ice floe in Ungava Bay. In line with Cruise North’s stringent environmental commitment, we sail close without disturbing him. The polar bear briefly glances our way, perhaps wondering if passengers cramming the deck are some kind of floating banquet. But his massive chest is streaked with blood and he is more interested in tearing apart a seal whose remains are spread across the ice.

Soon our days take on a rhythm. First we climb down the steep gangway, and, timing everything to the rolling waves, step or leap into the Zodiacs. And then we set off to explore.

We land first on uninhabited Diana Island, where tiny flowers glow in pastel lavender, pink, and yellow at the peak of the blooming season. It is difficult to believe that such delicate blossoms survive in this climate, but botanist Susan Aiken explains that the flowers have deep root systems and, growing in a thick carpet as they do, help to keep each other warm.

On another day we disembark on Opingivik Island, sighting distant caribou as we hike past ancient food caches and fox traps. The island once sheltered hunters from the Thule culture, ancestors of today’s Inuit, who probably spent the summer months here.

Yet another trip brings us to Kangiqsujuaq (The Large Bay), an Inuit village of about 500 residents. Husky puppies bark from back yards, and while it would be romantic to think that Kangiqsujuaq’s residents still travel on dogsleds, reality lies in the snowmobiles and four-wheelers parked by almost every front door. The dogs seem to be pets, kept as a tenuous link to an old tradition.

Increased contact with the outside world has been a mixed blessing as the Inuit strive to find a balance between tradition and change says village elder Aattasi Pilurtuut, who speaks nostalgically of the old days and old ways during a brief talk at the village community center.

For the 150 children who attend the local school (including boarders from even smaller villages), change has meant a modern school building and newfound respect for their native language. Their parents, and in some cases, their grandparents, were sent away to residential schools and many lost the ability to speak Inuktitut. Today’s children are taught in Inuktitut until third grade, when their education proceeds in either French or English. The study of Inuktitut, however, always remains part of their curriculum.

On another day we visit Quebec’s northernmost village of Ivujivik (“Place where the ice accumulates”) where many of the 315 residents are busy packing soapstone whales and birds for high-end boutiques in Montreal where the village has gained a reputation for the quality of its carvings. Some of the handful of young adults we meet here and in Kangiqsujuaq seem eager to leave the traditional Inuit life behind to seek other adventures. But others, including many of the expedition staff, have left for travel or college and returned to work in Nunavik’s developing tourism industry.

Expedition leader Jason Annahatak, who has won all the passengers’ admiration, grew up in tiny Kangirsuk and graduated from McGill University and Columbia. Guiding us past crumbling graves, pointing out remnants of ancient encampments, worrying about the future of polar bears pacing on the rapidly dwindling Arctic ice, his pride in his heritage and concern for the future of the land are almost palpable.

Our remaining days are filled with open-water Zodiac trips, including one to Cape Wolstenholme and the incredible sight of some 500,000 thick-billed murres, a type of seabird, jostling for nesting spots on a sheer cliff. Shoshanah Jacobs, manager of the Inuit trainee program and an expert on murres, explains that little is wasted in the Arctic food chain. Polar bears follow the murres, eating both eggs and mature birds, while ravens follow the polar bears and feed off their kills.

In addition to thousands of murres and countless flocks of ravens and gulls, we’ve also seen ptarmigan, snow buntings, and, most memorably, a red-throated loon with startling ruby-colored eyes.

We sail on, out of Nunavik and into the Territory of Nunavut where we take the Zodiacs close to Walrus Island. Three polar bears, silhouetted against the sky, eye us closely. This time, though, it’s the walruses — more than 600 of them — who dominate the landscape, swimming, sleeping, lolling, and dragging their enormous bodies around and across each other almost as far as the eye can see.

Fascinating as the walruses are, however, it is the magnificent polar bears that hold my attention. They will be the last ones we see. Although polar bears are occasionally spotted on Marble Island, our next stop, we see only a single Arctic hare. Formed not of marble but of white quartzite, Marble Island is an otherworldly place, with flat white rocks crisscrossed with lichen in abstract designs. A traditional Inuit hunting ground, the island was also visited by whaling ships from New England.

Marble Island is best known as the site of an Arctic mystery involving English explorer James Knight, leader of a 1719 expedition to discover the Northwest Passage through Hudson Bay. Knight was never heard from again, but later voyagers found ship wreckage, remains of Knight’s house, and the graves of many of his 40-man crew.

Heading out on the Zodiac, I look back at Marble Island one last time. Sunlight glinted off the white rocks when we arrived; now the island is shrouded in fog as if determined to keep its secrets.

Our journey ends in a July snow squall in Churchill, Manitoba. Before catching an Air Inuit charter flight back to Montreal, we board Zodiacs at daybreak to see Churchill’s famous beluga whales. Polar bears often lumber into Churchill while local dogs bark the alarm and residents scatter, but on this morning all is quiet.

That’s fine with me. I’d rather remember the huge male we saw on the first day, wild and free on an ice floe in Ungava Bay, cold Artic winds rippling through his fur.

Karen Hammond is a freelance writer in South Bristol.