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Ultima Thule, The Horizontal Everest
“Ultima Thule” was the name that European geographers, beginning with the ancient Greeks, used to refer to the unknowable northern reaches of the world, beyond the navigable seas and shrouded in mystery. Some believed it was a blessed land of fertile soil and gentle breezes, more often it was imagined as a forbidding and frozen wasteland. The reality is somewhere between the two, as travelers on Ponant’s 17-day Ultima Thule expedition cruise which makes its way around the Baffin Sea, the body of water between the west coast of Greenland and the northeast coast of Canada, will discover. 

While there are frozen glaciers and the magnetic North Pole is among the stops, the Arctic summer is a brief period when the tundra comes to life—you will soon learn a new way of looking at the world, as you keep your eyes open for small signs of life: fireweed, lupine, and sweetbroom that bloom under the pale light of the midnight sun as well as arctic foxes and hares. It’s not that all the animals here are small, however—this is also the land of musk oxen, polar bears, elephant seals, and whales. 

Ponant’s expedition will take you to a world of icebergs and vast horizons and, at the height of the Arctic summer, of days that literally never end. The Far North long presented the ultimate challenge to European, as well as American and Canadian expeditions—it has been described as “the horizontal Everest.” At the same time, it has simply been home to Inuit for millennia, and the itinerary includes opportunities to learn about life in this unusual part of the world from them. 

Note: This itinerary is subject to ice and weather conditions. The expedition highlights and itinerary described here illustrate possible experiences only and cannot be guaranteed.
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    Day 1
    Kangerlussuaq, Greenland
    Only 500 people live in the town of Kangerlussuaq in western Greenland, but thanks to its airport, it is the country’s international transportation hub, the point of entry for most visitors to the world’s largest island. Kangerlussuaq was long the home of a U.S. military base (which later became the airport) and the Kangerlussuaq Museum, (located at the airport) recounts the history of the American base and aviation in Greenland more broadly.

    Today, the town north of the Arctic Circle is the starting point for many adventurers travels in Greenland. Just a few miles from town you can see the Greenland ice sheet, the largest body of ice in the northern hemisphere. It is also one of the most biologically diverse parts of Greenland, with arctic hares, musk oxen, arctic foxes, reindeer, falcons, and eagles found here.

    Your ship, L’Austral, will begin boarding at 4 p.m. and depart at 6 p.m. giving you time to explore the town and surrounding area on your own.
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    Day 2
    Sisimiut, Greenland
    The first port on Ponant’s expedition cruise to the Far North is Sisimiut, founded in 1756 and, with a population of almost 5,600, the second largest town in Greenland. Its name means “the people living in a place where there are fox dens,” but these days it is better known as a base for travelers looking for adventure in the Far North. The village consists of a collection of businesses and houses, some on stilts, scattered around the slopes overlooking a small harbor. In the center of town there are a number of historic buildings from the 18th century, including Greenland’s oldest church, Bethelkirken, also known as the Blue Church.

    The town’s museum includes artifacts from the Sassaq culture, which flourished between roughly 2500 and 800 B.C.E., as well as displays about contemporary Inuit life. A reconstructed peat house provides a glimpse of life in Sisimiut a century ago. The town also has a number of shops selling crafts by local artisans who will talk about their works with interested visitors.
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    Day 3
    Qikiqtarjuaq and Kivitoo, Nunavut
    The port you will visit today, Qikiqtarjuaq (formerly Broughton Island), sits off the east coast of Baffin Island on the other side of the Baffin Sea across from Greenland. It is in Nunavut, the newest and largest territory of Canada, which separated from the Northwest Territory in 1999. The community of the same name as the island is home to some 600 people and with its small landing strip it’s often used as a stop for pilots of small planes who are en route to Europe. The town’s crafts store is a good place to shop for traditional Inuit clothing, carvings, prints, and jewelry, but the main attractions of Qikiqtarjuaq are its wildlife and nearby Auyuittuq National Park, on Baffin Island.

    Narwhals, orca whales, walruses, and seals are common here, as well as polar bears (in the fall). Auyuittuq National Park contains more than 7,370 square miles of fjords and glaciers—its Inuit name translates as the “land that never melts.” It’s an epic landscape of soaring peaks, sheer cliffs, and rivers and streams rushing with melt water at summer.

    Kivitoo, on the east coast of Baffin Island, is a haunting stop on the itinerary that you will visit with a naturalist guide. The Inuit camp was used as a whaling station until it was abandoned in the 1920s, but metal tanks that were used to store whale oil and a number of buildings still stand in this small ghost town on the arctic heath. Walrus skulls and the graves of whalers are also remnants of that period. Kivitoo continued to be used as a camp by several Inuit families until 1962. After the drowning of several hunters proved devastating to the community, the survivors decided as a group to move to Qikiqtarjuaq.
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    Day 4
    Arctic Harbour and Niginganig, Nunavut
    Today, Aulitiving Island, at the entrance of Isabella Bay, is abandoned but it was long an important whaling station and Arctic Harbour still has some traces from that period, including the graves of whalers. Your stop on the island will provide an opportunity to explore the arctic tundra landscape on a hike to the highest point of the island. At 1,345 feet, it has views of the entire island and Niginganiq (also known as Isabella Bay).

    The Niginganiq National Wildlife Area includes the bay, its shorelines, and extends out to sea for a distance of 12 nautical miles. You’ll explore the nature reserve on L’Austral today. Niginganiq was designated as a protected area in 2010 principally because of its population of bowhead whales. Up to 100 of them have been spotted in the bay at one time, making it the largest concentration of bowheads in Canada. There are, however, a number of other animals that can also be spotted in the bay, including ringed seals, narwhals, and polar bears (in the fall). While the Inuit name translates as “the place where fog sits,” on clear days bird sightings may include king eiders, long-tailed ducks, dovekies, and northern fulmars.
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    Day 5
    Sam Ford Fjord, Nunavut
    Today, a day of scenic cruising will take you up the Sam Ford Fjord, a 68-mile-long fjord on the east coat of Baffin Island, not far from the settlement of Clyde River. At over 11 miles wide at its mouth, the fjord gradually narrows to about two miles wide at about its midway point. Along the way several tributary fjords feed into the larger one, and along its banks are soaring cliffs and peaks, many reaching heights of up to 4,900 feet. Long a traditional hunting ground for Inuit, today the fjord is also popular with mountain climbers who travel here to conquer the granite peaks of Beluga Mountain, Rock Tower, Walrus Head, Polar Sun Spire, and the other mountains along the fjord.
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    Day 6
    Icy Arm Fjord and Feachem Bay, Nunavut
    You’ll continue today along the east coast of Baffin Island, and visit another arctic fjord, Icy Arm. Cliffs along its banks reach heights of up to 3,300 feet. It’s a popular place for base-jumping (leaping—with a parachute—from the tops of the cliffs). Your visit will be a little more low-key. You’ll have an opportunity to get off the ship and take a hike through the mountains and glacial valleys here. As you travel through the fjord, keep your eyes open for some of the marine mammals found here including orcas, narwhals, and other whales.

    Next, you’ll sail through Buchan Gulf, an 8.5 mile long fjord lined with cliffs reaching heights up to 2,000 feet. It’s an official important bird area, most notably because of its population of northern fulmars. In the ocean, there are walruses, narwhals, and orcas while polar bears are also common here in the fall.

    You’ll continue on to Feachem Bay, where you will disembark. At the small beach where you land, there are ruins of sod houses. From there you will set off on a hike through the magnificent tundra landscape of lichen, arctic willows, arctic poppies, cotton grass, and soft mosses—at points it will feel like you are walking on a mattress. It’s an eye-opening introduction to the flora that thrives during the short but intense growing season that is typical of the Far North. When you arrive to the ridge above the bay, you can take in sweeping views of the glacier below. Birders may want to bring their binoculars on this excursion in the hope of checking off a few species common on Baffin Island.
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    Day 7
    Beatrice Point & Coburg Island
    Today you’ll call at Beatrice Point, on Devon Island (in Inuit, Tatlurutit), which has the distinction of being the largest uninhabited planet on earth. At 21,331 square miles, it is roughly the size of Croatia. Dundas Harbour on the island was briefly an outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company, but it was abandoned following a collapse of fur prices in 1934 and only a few buildings, now in ruins, remain.

    As it receives little rain and has a very short growing season, Devon Island has a polar desert ecology. Aside from occasional visits by scientists to the island’s research stations, the most notable residents are the musk oxen as well as some bird populations, including black guillemots and northern fulmars. Your visit will provide an introduction to the unique environment, and perhaps some wildlife sightings. You may also see ice floes descending from the North Pole at this unofficial entrance to Canada’s High Arctic region.

    Continuing on your way north, your next stop is Coburg Island. Like Devon, it is uninhabited. The island, as well as the surrounding marine area, is part of the Nirjutiqavvik National Wildlife Area established in 1995. Bowhead, beluga, and white whales, narwhals, polar bears, ringed and bearded seals, and walruses are all common in the area, but for many the principal reason to visit Coburg Island is because of its bird populations—the wildlife area is home to an estimated 385,000 seabirds.

    Ornithologists will have opportunities to spot tridactyl gulls, thick-billed murres, northern fulmars, black-legged kittiwakes, black guillemots, and other species. Aside from the wildlife, the island has a dramatic, haunting landscape with some 65 percent of it covered in icefields and glaciers, while the rest consists of rugged peaks reaching heights of 2,625 feet.
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    Day 8
    Skraeling Island and Alexander Bay, Nunavut
    The name of the next stop on Ponant’s itinerary around the Baffin Sea, Skraeling Island (also known as Pim Island), may reveal something about its historical significance. If that doesn’t look like an English or Inuit name, it’s not. It comes from the Norse word skræling, or “cloth-skin,” which is how Vikings referred to the Inuit people, perhaps a reference to the animal hides they wore.

    The entire island is an archaeological site, with artifacts from as early as 4500 B.C.E. having been found here, from the Dorset and Thule cultures. Of special interest to historians focused on the European presence in the New World are pieces of chainmail, chain links, and rivets, as well as a driftwood carving with European features. Most of these date from around the 13th century. While there is no indication that there was ever a Norse settlement on the island, they provide evidence that the Inuits and Norse engaged in trade and also that Inuit communities perhaps traded Norse items among each other.

    The island was also a temporary base for one of the more important American expeditions to the Arctic, the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, led by Adolphus Greely. They found refuge here and set up a makeshift camp near Cape Sabine in the winter of 1883 to 1884.

    You’ll continue to sail north along Ellesmere Island. At 75,767 square miles, Ellesmere is the world’s tenth largest island and yet fewer than 200 people live here, though there is actually a long history of human inhabitants here, dating back to 2000 B.C.E. when bands of hunters arrived in pursuit of musk oxen and caribou. Viking hunters and traders would also visit the island and trade with the Inuit communities.

    The Johan Peninsula, on the east coast of Ellesmere Island, is surrounded by more than ten glaciers. At Alexander Bay, you can spot a Royal Canadian Mountain Police that was in active use from 1953 to 1963—it was then the world’s northernmost police station. Today the building is still occasionally used by research scientists.
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    Day 9
    Geomagnetic North Pole, Nunavut
    There are, you may be surprised to learn, three North Poles. There’s the North Geographic Pole, which sits (in layman’s terms) at the very top of the globe. There’s the North Magnetic Pole, which is constantly shifting with changes in the earth’s core. (It has been moving gradually west from above Canada towards Russia in recent years.) And then there is the North Geomagnetic Pole, which marks the spot around which the earth’s magnetic field and magnetosphere are arranged. There is no visible landmark to indicate where it is—its location is determined by a mathematical formula—and like the North Magnetic Pole, it is constantly moving. Currently it is off of Ellesmere Island and you will sail by it today, one of the more interesting stops on Ponant’s expedition to Ultima Thule even if there is, on some level, nothing to see. (If all of this is hard to follow, Barry Lopez attempts to explain it in Arctic Dreams, his excellent book on the Far North which you may want to read before you set sail on your Arctic adventure.)
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    Day 10
    Hans Island and Humboldt Glacier
    This morning you will sail by a tiny uninhabited island that has been a surprising source of contention. Hans Island is only a half-square-mile, but it sits in the middle of the Nares Strait that separates Canada from Greenland (whose foreign affairs are handled by the Danish government). Both countries have legitimate claims to the island and there is an ongoing, though somewhat low-key, struggle between the two nations. This largely consists of one government sending a government official to visit the island or a group of soldiers to raise a flag, and then the other government protesting the action and responding by sending their own soldiers to raise their flag. L’Austral will steer clear of this dispute, but you’ll be able to see the island from the ship’s deck.

    Later in the day, you’ll sail by the Humboldt Glacier, the largest coastal glacier in the Northern Hemisphere. With some 65 miles of it running along the west coast of Greenland, enormous icebergs regularly calve from the glacier and fall into the Baffin Sea. It’s a spectacular sight, and sound.
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    Day 11
    Etah and Siorapaluk, Greenland
    Today your Ponant cruise returns to Greenland, with the first stop in Etah which was long an ancient Inuit hunting camp and later was the base for many European expeditions attempting to reach the North Pole. You’ll be able to see the remains of some peat houses and then take a walk through a stunning valley in Greenland’s High Arctic. You may be able to get a close look at some musk oxen here as they frequently visit the valley. Next, you will continue on to Siorapaluk. A collection of colorful houses, a school, a grocery store, and some sled dogs greet you in Greenland’s northernmost settlement. There are only some 50 residents in the town, living on the edge of the world, and the excitement when visitors arrive is inescapable.
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    Day 12
    Cape York and Savissivik, Greenland
    This morning you will sail by Cape York, famous thanks to a meteorite and the American explorer Robert Peary. Some 10,000 years ago a meteorite crashed into Greenland here and the local Inuit gave its different parts names inspired by the shapes of the fragments: the Dog, the Tent, the Woman. In 1894, Peary loaded the fragments on his ship and took them back to the United States where they were sold at auction to the American Museum of Natural History in New York and are still on display today. Despite that unfortunate moment of colonial greed, Peary is commemorated with a monument that you may be able to spot through binoculars from the ship’s deck. Just to the east of Cape York, Savissivik is a magical place, a so-called graveyard of icebergs. Your Zodiac outing today will include a visit to a small Inuit village of around 100 residents. And then you will make your way among the icebergs, looming over your small craft, admiring them in various shades of blue and white. It is an unforgettable excursion, one of the highlights of this itinerary around the Baffin Sea.
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    Day 13
    Kullorsuaq, Greenland
    This settlement of colorful houses on stilts sitting around a bay was established in 1928, and it remains one of the most traditional communities in Greenland. Far beyond the Arctic Circle, the town is surrounded by the majestic landscapes of Greenland’s Northwest with its soaring mountains and enormous glaciers. Most of the residents of Kullorsuaq subsist on fishing and seal and bear hunting. On your visit you will get to meet some of these hunters and experience their warm hospitality and learn about how a reverence for nature is central to their view of the world. You’ll also be able to admire the craftsmanship of the garments they create from the furs and skins of the marine mammals they hunt.
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    Day 14
    Nuliarfik, Greenland
    As you sail towards this small island in the north of Uummannaq Bay near the point where two different fjords meet, you’ll be surrounded by soaring cliffs rising abruptly from the sea and icebergs floating by your ship. You’ll have an opportunity to go ashore and visit an ancient village that dates from the days of the Thule civilization. After looking at the remains of peat houses, you can take a walk up to higher ground for panoramic views of the iceberg-filled fjords.
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    Day 15
    Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland
    Your next stop will be at one of Greenland’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Ilulissat Icefjord. Roughly four miles wide and 34 miles long, this fjord is filled with icebergs that calve from one of the world’s fastest moving glaciers, Sermeq Kujalleq (it advances 131 feet each day). The spectacle of sculptural icebergs glowing in the pale Arctic sunlight as they travel from the glacier to the sea is mesmerizing. For some a visit to Ilulissat has a quality of being one of those things that should be done now, before it’s too late, but it is also an opportunity to become part of the conversation around climate change and consider opportunities to address it.

    You’ll also have an opportunity to stop at the town of Ilulissat with its colorful wooden houses and huskies waiting eagerly for opportunities to get to work pulling sled. There, you can visit leather tanners who use ancient methods that have been passed down for generations.
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    Day 16
    Evighedsfjorden, Greenland
    On your last full day aboard L’Austral, you’ll visit Evighedsfjorden, which translates into the “fjord of eternity.” It will soon become apparent how it got that name. The fjord extends for some 60 miles, and every twist and turn of it open onto new breath-taking vistas of jagged cliffs, glaciers, and tundra with wild flowers in bloom. Above your ship white-tailed eagles, colonies of seagulls, and black-legged kittiwakes fly through the air keeping their eyes open for any prey in the water or along the fjord’s banks.
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    Day 17
    Today your Ultima Thule cruise will end where it started, in Kangerlussuaq. If you didn’t have time to visit the small town’s museum when you first arrived, you may want to now. Depending on how much time you may want to also opt for a flight-seeing tour or head out on a musk oxen safari.