Arctic, North Polar Region

A walrus family in Franz-Joseph-Land, Russia

A walrus family in Franz Josef Land, Arctic Russia.

Arctic Travel versus the Antarctic (see below)
Yes, indigenous peoples
Yes Polar Bears
No Penguins
Yes Whales & Seals
24hr daylight July-August
The word Arctic is derived from Arktos, ‘the bear’ in Greek, due to the Great Bear constellation above the North Pole.

Antarctica Travel
No indigenous people, just  200 mad scientists
No Polar Bears
Masses of  Penguins
Masses of  Whales and Seals
24hr daylight November-January
The word Antarctic is derived from Antarktikos, ‘opposite the bear.’ This is the only land on Earth owned by no one.

When to go

Aurora borealis (Northern Lights) over Bear Lake, Alaska, USA.

Aurora borealis (Northern Lights) over Bear Lake, Alaska.

Best: March – November, for weather and wildlife migrations.
In Canada, October for polar bears, July-August for beluga whales, fur seals and birds.
Worst: November – March (dark, very cold and snow moves horizontally)

Length of stay:
Minimum worthwhile stay in Arctic regions, not including flights or sail time : 4/5 days in any area where wildlife is active, bearing in mind that there are also indigenous cultures to appreciate in some areas.
Recommended: 1 week or more if you wish to see ice-oriented human cultures as well as wildlife.

Why go to the Arctic Circle?

Like the Antarctic, the Arctic it has a (small) range of strange and wonderful wildlife which manages to survive the extreme conditions, but unlike the Antarctic it also has peoples who do the same – in Greenland (Denmark), Canada, Norway, Sweden, Alaska (USA) and Russia. See Arctic Circle Map.

Downsides

An Alaska cruise ship pool deck, USA.

A cruise ship visiting Alaska. Photo by UNH edu.

• Seasickness: many tours will be via either a largish cruise ship or a specialist expeditionary vessel, but if you’re prone to motion sickness then you could have a problem, though most cruises spend a lot of time in fjords and inland seas where waves are not an issue.
• Cold: those with circulatory problems or a heart condition should take extra precautions against the cold though the summer weather can be mild, depending on the region. Frostbite is a real danger in the colder months and regions.

Where to go

Fog rolling over a typical Nunavut community, Northern Canada, Arctic

Fog rolling over in mid-summer (just when you were getting used to a little warmth) in Arctic Bay, a typical Nunavut community in north Canada. Photo by Mike Beauregard.

Choose from several versions of the Arctic experience depending on the culture and wildlife in which you are interested.

Each country, however,  shows some similarity to others throughout the region due to the climate requiring similar specialist survival techniques for both the wildlife and peoples.

Greenland is the best country for ‘Eskimo’ culture:

Disko Bay, Western Greenland is regarded as one of the best places to see both wildlife and get a feel of traditional Greenland culture. Get to Kangerlussuaq airport via Copenhagen in Denmark, Reykjavik in Iceland or Eqaluit in Canada. Great whale watching is virtually guaranteed.

A muskox in Greenland, Arctic Circle

A muskox in Greenland (the name Greenland  is ironic because it’s usually white whereas Iceland is usually green). Photo by ilovegreenland

Alaska:
Best country for fans of dog sledding and also has the most diverse wildlife found above the arctic circle in the Arctic Refuge.

Anchorage Alaska, is homebase for the most famous dog sled race in the world, the Iditarod. Very much an urban setting (Anchorage is a sizeable city) but a good base for the start of a south Alaskan exploration.

The National Arctic Wildlife Refuge in the far north east has one of the most diverse habitats one could expect due to the close proximity of differing geographical features. It is also – of course – wild and protected. Caribou migrate North here from below the Brooks Range and the Yukon Territories in spring.

Dog sledding in Denali, Alaska pictures, USA

Dog sledding in Denali, Alaska, USA. Photo by Jacob W.

Canada:
Best country for viewing wildlife, especially along its extensive coastlines.

Churchill, Manitoba on the edge of the Hudson Bay is the best place to see Polar Bears from mid-October to mid-November and Beluga whales in July and August. It also has the best views in the world of the Northern Lights (aurora borealis). Polar Bears that wander into the town during the summer are locked up until the ice hardens so that locals and travellers can sleep soundly at night. At the last count there were more than 1, 500 polar bears living around Churchill. Get there by plane (one and a half hours) or train (thirty six hours) from Winnipeg.

Whale River in Quebec sees the largest Caribou herd migrations on the planet. Get there via Schefferville and travel into this wilderness region about one hundred and twenty miles north east. They migrate in September but unfortunately so do the hunters so avoid hunting season from mid-August to mid-October and get there first in spring.

Arctic Bay,  Pond Inlet, and Baffin Island are the best places to see whales, most of whom navigate to identical areas when migrating. The waters around Lancaster Sound, running between Baffin Island and the Perry Islands get the most activity.

Ellesmere Island is good for viewing Musk Oxen.

A young polar bear investigating a Tundra Buggy near Churchill in Manitoba, Canada wildlife safari

A young polar bear investigating a Tundra Buggy near Churchill in Manitoba, Canada.

Norway, Sweden, Finland:
Northern regions of these countries are home to the Sami people (Laplanders). The best time to visit is in March – April when snow is still abundant but temperatures are mild.

Kautokeino in Finland has a large Sami population and they hold the Sami Easter Festival here, one of the best times to visit.

Jukkasjaervi in Sweden has one of the most interesting hotels in the world made entirely of ice which stays solid from December to May each year. It has overnight accommodation including bedrooms made of ice  and a bar where drinks are served on the rocks using glasses cut from the local river ice.

Hmm, snoozing on a tropical hammock on a powder sand beach or sleeping on a double mattress made of solid ice? Decisions, decisions.

The 'Banished Dragon' bedroom in Jukkasjarvi Ice Hotel, Sweden

The ‘Banished Dragon’ bedroom in Jukkasjarvi Ice Hotel, Sweden.

Activities

• Cruises and shore visits, possibly even camping on ice, with close up viewing of wildlife.

• Sea Kayaking off some cruise ships or land base is a dramatic way to get quietly closer to nature.

Airborne sightseeing tours: particularly in Alaska and Canada where infrastructure and fuel prices make this practicable.

Cross Country Skiing and Trekking: this allows the more active traveller to see land based interest on foot.

Skiing and Snowboarding: in some regions.

Sledding: as above but for a more relaxed holiday let the huskies, reindeer or horses do the work.

Snorkelling: watch whales while immersed, but get into a drysuit first! (provided by your agent or ship). Ideal for Beluga viewing but perhaps less advisable amongst hunting packs of Killer Whales in case they mistake you for a tasty seal.

Aurora Borealis: view the Northern Lights.

Arctic Wildlife

Polar bears near the north pole seen from US submarine, Artic

Polar bears investigating a nuclear submarine near the north pole. Sadly cruising the Arctic in a submarine does reduce visibility a little so it’s probably best to stick to regular  surmarine cruises. Photo by USS Honolulu.

Sightings will depend on the area of the Arctic visted, the specific tour and the weather conditions at that time but there will be possible sightings of:

Polar Bears, the second largest bear on the planet (the Kodiak is bigger but very rare) and always left-handed (paws for thought?). Known as ‘Nanuk’ to the Inuit, the polar bear is a big fan of seal sashimi and lives in coastal regions including Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia. The best place to find them easily  is Churchill, Manitoba in Canada, where people and bears have been co-existing more or less successfully since the eighteenth century. Problems are rare and always occur through starving bears or human stupidity.

Arctic Fox: closely related to the Red Fox it has adapted with a thicker coat and Arctic colourings. Comfortable with humans,  they sometimes travel in groups. Seen in the northern regions of Canada, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Finland, and Russia during the summer months or more southerly regions during the harsh winters.

The Albatross: the largest flying bird in the world and once a favourite food for the Inuit, it sleeps on the wing, like flying first class.

Bald Eagle: once common throughout North America and Canada they still inhabit the more northerly areas into the Arctic wilderness.

Grey Wolf: the largest of the wolves and a pack hunter in northern timbered areas of the U. S. A, Canada, northern Europe and north east Russia. The Arctic wolf is a smaller and lighter coloured version. Misunderstood by humans (like most animals) and therefore endangered. If you see one running frantically about, nose to the ground, it’s hunting mice!

Beluga Whale: an absolutely gorgeous, cheerfully photogenic white whale (these are the only whales that can turn their heads).

Peregrine Falcon: holds the world record (radar recorded) for a speeding nose dive.

Narwahal: the ‘sea unicorn’ is a small whale with a long corkscrew horn. These fantasy creatures live between Canada and Greenland.

Wolverine: this fascinating weasel on steroids can be found the northern reaches of the USA, much of Canada, the mountains of Norway, Finland and much of north eastern Russia.

Caribou: otherwise known as reindeer, this deer with velvet horns is the Arctic’s most romantically associated animal. Domesticated sled pulling reindeer are one of the more environmentally sound ways to travel on your holiday. Found in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Finland, Sweden and Russia.

Walrus: the majority of these toothy giants live in the Pacific Ocean, summering in the Bering Sea and wintering in the more northerly Chukcki Sea via a swim or a lift on an iceberg between Alaska and Siberia. Their less migratory cousins in the Atlantic tend to hang out around the northern shores of Canada and Greenland. They pose about on rocky outcrops waiting to be photographed by tourists.

Bowhead Whale: also known as the Northern Right Whale or Greenland Right Whale, one of the three whales unique to the Arctic.

Seals: The ring seal (a polar bear’s favourite meal) spends most of its life under the ice. I wonder why?

Musk Ox: a hairy buffalo type animal previously hunted to near extinction but reintroduced to Alaska and the Taimyr peninsula in Russia. Very hard heads that give resounding thumps during the mating season.

p.s Absolutely no exist penguins in the Arctic!

A Denali fox going home with a takeaway Arctic Ground Squirrel, Alaska, USA

A Denali fox going home with a takeaway Arctic Ground Squirrel, Alaska, USA

Indigenous Peoples

The region covers several different countries but inhabitants are generally of Asian origin through migration. Once referred to simply as Eskimos the various groups are :

• The Aleut, Yuit and Inuit(‘Eskimos’) who inhabit Alaska, Northern Canada and coastal Greenland.

• The Saami (‘Laplanders’)who inhabit the most Northern parts of Scandinavia (particularly Finland).

• Russian groups including the Komi, Tungus, Yukaghir and Chukchi inhabit the northern most expanses of Russia including Siberia.