Global climate change has had an undeniable effect on the planet, with weather patterns changing dramatically, polar ice caps melting, and sea levels rising, altering coastlines and reshaping boundaries. For evidence of these changes you only need to look north, where global warming has caused arctic pack ice to break-up and melt, opening the legendary Northwest Passage for navigation for the first time.
For centuries explorers and merchants sought out a sailing route north of Canada that would link the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Such a route would have made travel to the far east much easier and faster, but all attempts to uncover such a path, which was dubbed the Northwest Passage, were met with thousands of miles of impenetrable ice. Famous adventures, such as John Cabot and Captain James Cook, risked their lives, and their ships, to find the Northwest Passage, but no one was able to complete the navigation until Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen made the voyage back in 1908 aboard a specially designed ice vessel. Amundsen’s journey took three years however, and was not commercially viable for merchant ships.
Fast forward to last year, when the route was declared navigable by the Candian Coast Guard, and the first commercial ship made its way through the Passage. By late summer, the waterway was said to be nearly completely free from ice, and safe for ships to pass through, and it remained that way until the arrival of winter, when the route froze shut once again.The cruise industry has never been one to miss a business opportunity, and there have been a number of tour operators that have begun offering Northwest Passage cruises for 2009. Most begin in Nome or Anchorage, Alaska, but others can be found departing such places as Ottawa, Canada or even Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. The cruises vary in length from two to three weeks, which is a far cry from Amundsen’s three year voyage, and they remain on the expensive side now, with most staring around $10,000 and up.
A Northwest Passage cruise is a true adventure into mostly unknown waters, and a travel experience that few have had the opportunity to witness. But with increased traffic along the route, and plenty of ice to contend with, we can only hope that the ships don’t suffer an accident such as the ones that have occurred in Antarctica, where several ships have run aground, and another has sunk after striking an iceberg. However, those that do take a cruise through the Passage are booking a trip into history, as they pass through a realm that has been, until now, off limits to all but the hardiest polar explorers.