Creature cruises

Special to the Chicago Tribune

When you look into the piercing, suspicious black eyes of a polar bear, directly over the railing of your cruise ship, 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. Because there’s scant chance you’ll become his human buffet, frankly he’d rather the ship move on so he can get back to hunting ringed seal, his preferred meal.

It’s hard to fathom that common tourists like you and me now have access to the waters of Canada’s Arctic region. Not long ago this was the exclusive territory of research vessels, summer supply ships and Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers.

Before you rush to thank global warming, thank the Inuit--the natives of Canada’s North--who saw opportunity and have opened their land to visitors. This land and these waters, no matter what non-natives think, really do belong to the Inuit--and the polar bear, the ringed seal, the musk ox, the caribou, the narwhal and the penguinlike thick-billed murre.

When American tourists began flying huge distances to experience penguin colonies and icebergs near Antarctica, the Inuit of northern Canada undoubtedly watched with amusement. “Why,” they surely wondered, “would people fly more than 16 hours from Chicago to the bottom of the planet to see birds waddle and experience 20-hour daylight? Don’t they realize there’s far more visible wildlife--and exotic human interaction--that only requires six hours in the air … along with all the ice and sunlight they could ever hope to see?”

So an Inuit group invested a 75 percent stake in its own cruise company, Cruise North Expeditions. The company staffs the ship with several Inuit youth, allowing a remarkable touch point to the local culture. The Inuit then put out the welcome mat at some of Earth’s most remote communities, allowing you to observe their most gifted artisans, hike among caribou and trek across tundra where yours might be the first footsteps. Ever.

Back to the polar bear. An informal poll among fellow passengers aboard my eight-night Cruise North “Baffin Adventure” voyage reveals that on a scale from 1 to 10, a polar bear sighting ranks a 10 for the cruise to be a success.

So, on the second night of the voyage, five lucky travelers can give the cruise a perfect 10: We see our bear. It’s a chance sighting, but that’s the magic of this voyage: Everything is chance. I’m one of the few who literally happen to be standing on the ship’s bow around 9:30 p.m. (in foggy daylight), lured away from watching Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” by the distinct crunching sound and lurch of the ship every time it plows directly into a small iceberg.

“There’s something on that ice!” says a passenger on the starboard side of the bow. I race across the ship, narrowly clearing anchor chains and supply hatches (try that on Holland America!), and there, not 100 feet away, is gorgeous Daddy Bear on a small iceberg. He spots us and dives into the frigid water. He perceives a threat as Nikons snap like crazy.

We quickly relay word to the bridge, and the 122-passenger liner slows to full stop. The ship’s PA system announces: We have a polar bear sighting, 2 o’clock, referring to the bear’s initial position on a clock face--12 o’clock being the ship’s bow, and 6 o’clock the stern.

The five lucky passengers who are already watching the bear swim between small icebergs and into the fog desperately try to point him out to the surge of passengers who race from inside the ship, cameras and binoculars in hand. But for most it is too late; the bear has slipped into the fog and into shipboard legend.

Cruise North knows it has special territory on its hands. The Russian-owned ship it charters can handle these unpredictable waters, filled with bear, seals, a fair amount of unpredictable weather--and yes, ice floes. The Lyubov Orlova, named for a long-dead Russian film vixen, is ice-reinforced. It can’t break itself out of serious pack ice, but it can navigate through substantial amounts of drifting ice.

Below decks, the Orlova is comfortable enough with satisfactory food. The company’s marketing materials make it clear that it’s an expedition ship, not a luxury liner. Staterooms are all “outside,” meaning everyone gets a porthole (on Deck 4 and higher, portholes open, which I found really helpful for temperature control). Beds are twin and are bolted in place. Most rooms have pop-down bunks, allowing for a third or fourth guest. All have functional, clean, private bathrooms.

Fellow travelers are the well-heeled or would-be academics; all seem to have explored the entire planet. Open-seating dining exposes you to as many shipmates as you wish, but be prepared for conversation that includes, “when we were in Myanmar …,” “during our safari in Botswana …,” or “during our second trip to Antarctica ... . My sailing included Americans, Canadians, French, Germans and Brits.

The ship and your shipmates are not the reason to sail Cruise North. The real reasons are the starkly beautiful scenery, the wildlife and the chance to interact with a people who still seem unsure if they like being part of the Global Village. Unlike Antarctica, humans live in this territory.

When you watch an Inuit youth such as Aisa Pirti, a Cruise North staffer, steal his way across a shallow marsh and climb with unbelievable stealth among a glacial boulder field until he’s almost face-to-face with an adult caribou, you know why you’re there. Aisa will tell you that despite his opportunity to study business in Montreal, he really craves being home to join the men of his culture in hunting.

The Inuit don’t always “get” the 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 TVs and other technology; spotting their requisite Ski-Doos sitting on the summertime dirt shows that these people are decidedly not ready to return to the quaint imagery of the brilliant 1922 documentary “Nanook of the North” (shown on board).

Cruise North has a unique relationship with the locals. While the line travels a remarkable variety of itineraries on its summertime voyages, it manages to stop at Inuit villages on most trips. My itinerary stops at Kimmirut (population 433), where the village elder actually demonstrates how they slaughter a seal and offers tastings of its liver before local youth demonstrate traditional games. We also visit the famous artisan village Cape Dorset (population 1,100), where an astonishing 20 percent of the population are considered artists.

Inside the town’s artists cooperative, a printmaker hardly looks up when 50 cruise passengers walk 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 cooperative’s prints are expensive, well into the hundreds of dollars. Nearby rooms showcase green and white stone carvings of bears and inukshuk--trademarks of the region. None of it comes cheaply, but many of the cruisers walk out with prints and sculptures.

There’s no cruise ship terminal in Cape Dorset or any northern community. Every trip ashore, including initial embarkation and final debarkation, is made by zodiac raft. 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. You must be able to navigate these steep stairs on your own, even in stormy and rolling seas. Landing on the shores of remote islands is generally on a rocky beach, making rubbers and waterproof clothing essential.

Most days include shore time, often in exceedingly remote spots: a morning on the zodiacs cruising between the Lower Savage Islands, a day hiking through a zillion wildflowers over sponge-soft tundra in search of a magical herd of musk oxen, or visiting Thule-era (1000 BC) archeological ruins.

All of it is awesome, but there’s no question what everyone really wants to see. Despite featuring a polar bear in the company logo, Cruise North makes no promises of sightings. Luckily, it has Akpatok Island scheduled on most itineraries--a favorite polar bear hangout. On the penultimate day of my trip, despite very rough seas, all passengers are treated to polar bear viewings during zodiac launches along the island’s shore--including a mother bear and twin cubs. Flocks of murres dazzle with their ability to fly straight into the water. Our Inuit zodiac driver beams with pride as he shows us his land.

In such a moment you realize: This is a remarkable voyage into a region where tourism is almost unheard of. But you can be among the first. It’s only a six-hour flight away.

The polar bears are waiting.