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Sun Ice Graves

High in the Canadian Arctic archipelago, some 560 miles north of the Arctic Circle, our rubber Zodiac raft scudded across a bay vivid and still as blue seaglass, nosing toward forlorn Beechey Island, a mass of gray cliffs and brown earth too small to appear on most maps. To the right of the forbidding cliffs, a rocky slope tumbled past ice-clogged clefts to a harsh gravel shoreline. And there on the beach, four bone-white specks caught my eye, their forms growing larger and sharper, until at last they resolved themselves into something I could recognize: simple wooden burial markers.

''Graves, Captain Penny! Graves! Franklin's winter quarters!'' So shouted a Royal Navy sailor to his commanding officer after surveying the very same spot 150 years before. His excitement was understandable, despite the somber nature of his discovery, as it had been more than five years since Sir John Franklin's celebrated final Arctic expedition had vanished without a trace.

In 1845, Franklin departed from England with two ice-strengthened ships, the Erebus and the Terror, and sailed off the map of the known world in search of the Northwest Passage, the legendary sea link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Over the next decade and more, the search for Franklin and his 128 men became a national obsession for England, with more than 30 rescue missions sent to scour the frozen labyrinth of islands and waterways between Baffin Bay and the Bering Strait.

It was in search of Franklin, too, that my father and I joined 69 other passengers last July aboard the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Dranitsyn for a voyage through the Northwest Passage. The notoriously ice-choked sea route has been navigated fewer than 100 times since Roald Amundsen first managed the feat over a period of three years from 1903 to 1906. Our journey, orchestrated by Quark Expeditions, would require only 16 days, beginning north of the 74th parallel on Cornwallis Island, in Canada, (after a five-hour flight from Ottawa) and ending 3,025 nautical miles later at Provideniya, Siberia.

Sun Ice Graves

On Beechey Island our first morning, we leaped straight into the history of the region, splashing ashore in our knee-high gumboots to inspect the graves of the four Victorian sailors, their wind-battered headboards standing at attention in an eternal regimental row. The inscriptions showed that three of the men -- a Royal Marine, an able seaman and a stoker -- died with the Franklin expedition in 1846, while the fourth had been a sailor aboard a search vessel, a would-be Franklin rescuer who in these hostile climes could not save even himself.

A short trek down Beechey's gravel strand brought us to the remains of Northumberland House, a depot built from the spars of a wrecked whaling ship in the early 1850's by the captain of a British rescue ship. Intended as a supply cache for Franklin, should he ever return, Northumberland was now a ruin filled with exotic nautical trash like barrel hoops and provision cans, all rusting picturesquely.

On a slope nearby stood a rough wood-and-stone monument festooned with marble tablets. Their engravings offered a worthy enough paean to the fallen polar explorers, but far more eloquent was a modest handmade memorial. Below the monument, someone had shoved dozens of Franklin-era food tins into the gravel to form a large rusty cross, an especially trenchant tribute given that the soldered provision cans of that period are now thought to have caused lead poisoning in the entire expedition, addling their wits and contributing to their deaths.

To a certain extent, Franklin never had a chance. According to a geology lecturer on our voyage, an ice-core sample drilled nearby in the 1970's shows that the Erebus and Terror entered the frozen north at the close of a 30- to 50-year frigid period unequaled in a 700-year span.

But strangely, all this talk of brutal cold seemed purely theoretical during the first few days, as the sky was cloudless and our 24,000-horsepower, 430-foot icebreaker -- complete with four helicopters -- could find no ice to break. Consequently, our spiffy, Quark-issued red parkas remained in our cabin -- a serviceable beige box with two berths, a shower, a desk and a porthole -- while Russian crewmen appeared on the lower decks in swimsuits, lounging pastily on beach chairs and chatting up bathing beauties from the housekeeping staff (temperatures spiked to 60 degrees at one point). The sun, meanwhile, was tireless, a fiery basketball bouncing off the horizon and back into the sky each night without setting.

But if the sun's insomniac meanderings left me feeling disoriented and somewhat adrift, there was plenty of ballast to be found in the dining room, where meals of baronial excess were routinely served up. ''How abstemious of you!'' commented an apple-cheeked English woman admiringly when I declined dessert after gorging myself on soup, salad, a slab of wienerschnitzel, a mountain of potato salad, fruit, fresh bread and four types of cheese.

The passengers were a garrulous, superannuated lot -- about half of them American, with many Europeans and even a game 92-year-old lady from Sri Lanka. They were pleasant companions as long as they were awake, but by 8:30 each evening, the majority had disappeared into their cabins, and there was little company to be found in either the comfortable, sun-splashed bar or the small polar library.

Fortunately, our daytime hours were filled by frequent landings, supplemented by an informative lecture program. Southwest of Beechey, we helicoptered over a gentle ridge on Somerset Island and swept across the finger rivers and mud flats of Cunningham Inlet. Below, about 200 beluga whales could be seen milling and breaching, as some nursed their young and others rubbed themselves along the limestone bottom.

From that great height, the whales were similar in scale to a school of minnows swimming at your feet in a shallow. But close up, as we stood watching them from a spit of land a few minutes later, it was their individuality that struck me. Belugas are small white whales whose cute dolphinlike faces are renowned for their expressiveness, and it was tough to resist the impression that they were smiling at us when they popped their little melon heads above the surface for a look around. Some of the chatty creatures even let out chirps and moans, calls that have earned them the romantic nickname ''sea canary'' but that to me sounded uncannily like Han Solo's sidekick Chewbacca lamenting a hangover.

That evening, after too many days of distressingly sunny skies and clear blue water, the Dranitsyn finally entered the Arctic ice in earnest as we cruised south through Peel Sound between Prince of Wales and Somerset Islands. The passengers, many of them polar-region veterans, delighted in the syncopated shimmying of the ship, which jiggled and vibrated like an electric knife.

Up on the bridge, a Russian helmsman in a blue jump suit and matching Adidas sneakers skillfully guided the ship through clear ''leads'' of water whenever possible. But when the ice proved unavoidable, he plowed straight into it, the Drani tsyn's rounded hull easily crashing through the floes and leaving a trail of frozen rubble in its wake.

These floes were not the large, solid sheets of pack ice I had seen during a 1995 icebreaker voyage to Antarctica. Rather, they were smaller splotches I came to think of as Dalmatian ice, because the irregular spots of bright white, floating in stark contrast to the dark water, resembled the dappled flank of a fireman's dog (albeit in negative).

It was the intimidating, heavy ice of Peel Sound that convinced Victorian-era search expeditions that Franklin could not possibly have sailed in that direction after wintering on Beechey Island in 1845-46. Consequently, wave after wave of rescue ships was directed to the north, where crucial years were lost.

But as it turned out, Franklin had indeed sailed into Peel Sound, his ships becoming hopelessly imprisoned in the ice farther south, near King William Island. His fate remained a full-blown mystery until 1859, when Sir Francis Leopold McClintock finally found records, skeletons and scattered relics on the island, to whose coast the expedition had fled in desperation after floating 18 months in their ice-locked ships. The discoveries confirmed many details of Inuit accounts, painting a harrowing picture of the expedition's endgame, which included starvation, an illness presumed to be scurvy, and even cannibalism.

Franklin was a hot topic among the Dranitsyn's passengers, but south of Peel Sound, a bizarre thing happened: King William Island vanished from the itinerary as completely and inexplicably as Franklin himself had disappeared a century and a half before. Not only did we fail to land on the famous island but we sailed right by it without even a mention from the expedition leader. There was much grumbling among the passengers.

Morale improved soon enough, however, with visits to two Inuit hamlets. The first, Cambridge Bay, on Victoria Island, has a population of 1,418, making it one of the largest communities in the new, primarily Inuit-administered Canadian territory of Nunavut, a word meaning Our Land in Inuktitut.

In the dusty center of town -- a settlement of simple but well-maintained homes, businesses and even an Arctic college -- a few local women cooked up fresh Arctic char on a grill fashioned out of two halves of an oil drum. While Dranitsyn passengers and a few Inuit residents wolfed down the delicious, salmonlike fish, I got to talking with the Inuk who had caught it, George Panegyuk, who wore wraparound shades, a cap with flames on it and an electric-yellow snowmobile jersey.

His modern garb notwithstanding, George told me he favors a way of life that has much in common with that of his ancestors. He spends most of the year fishing and hunting to feed his family in Bay Chimo, a community of fewer than 50 people 120 miles south, which functions more or less as a traditional Inuit camp. ''We don't have any power at home,'' he said. ''Just gas generators for the Coleman stove. I like it that way.''

Over the next several days, we made several landings on Victoria and Banks Islands, where we trod endless tundra and stole close to a herd of musk oxen, the shaggy-coated beasts drinking their fill in a ravine before thundering away like a horde of unruly Visigoths.

And on Day 10, we left behind the straits and narrows of the archipelago, sailing west along the northern coast of North America toward Herschel Island, a Yukon territorial park. First charted by none other than Sir John Franklin during a land expedition in 1826, Herschel became a famous -- some would say, infamous -- winter harbor for American whaling ships in the 1890's.

AS our Zodiac motored into serene, ice-free Pauline Cove, it was hard to imagine the blizzard of debauchery that had descended on the place a century before, when large ships housing hundreds of rowdy, stir-crazy sailors spent 9 to 10 months a year frozen into those very waters. Such was the whalers' destructive influence on the local Inuit that Herschel came to be known as the Sodom of the Arctic, a reputation that soon brought Anglican missionaries. Today, the abandoned gray Mission House is home to a raucous congregation of black guillemots, small birds with red feet who holler and copulate with the same fervor the whalers once did.

A few hours out of Herschel, heading west through the Beaufort Sea, the open waters gave way to a mottled icescape of fearsomely thick multiyear pack ice, the huge white floes separated by dark veins of water. As I stood on the bridge listening to the world-weary third mate describe a recent near-disaster at sea, all hell suddenly broke loose.

Capt. Viktor Terekhov, who had been scanning the dense pack with his binoculars, began barking orders in Russian at the mate, who in turn barked at the helmsman, who wheeled the ship sharply to starboard, sending it crashing through the ice with a rumble. Right before my eyes, a crisis was unfolding.

Or maybe not. For as I soon learned, it was not a potentially hull-breaching iceberg that had seized the captain's attention, but a big creamy polar bear, leading her two cubs across the pack.

For the next half hour, as the ship idled, we breathlessly watched her pad along the ice, galumphing gracefully from one floe to the next, stopping periodically to make sure her diffident, less-coordinated cubs were still with her. Finally, she coaxed them into the open water ahead of us, and the three vanilla-white heads glided straight across our bow without a care in the world.

The moment they clambered safely onto a floe to our port side, the captain fired up the engines again. As we gained speed and the three bears receded into an endless sea of floating ice, I kept my eye on them as long as possible.

But within seconds they had become tiny specks, as indistinct as the sailors' grave markers had first appeared on Beechey Island. And the next instant, the bears were gone, blended into the white world -- quite a deadly environment, if you're a Victorian explorer; heaven, if you're a polar bear.

Quark Expeditions will sail the icy waterways of the Northwest Passage twice this summer, once in each direction. The west-to-east voyage departs from Provideniya in Siberia, with the group meeting in Anchorage on July 18, and reaches Resolute, on Cornwallis Island, Canada, on Aug. 3. It is billed somewhat glibly as the Amundsen Route, though the Norwegian explorer actually conquered the Passage in the opposite direction.

Quark's east-to-west expedition, from Aug. 28 to Sept. 14, will travel a more northern route through the Canadian Arctic archipelago. Both will visit several Inuit hamlets, but the second will possibly encounter dramatic harder pack ice near the Magnetic North Pole. This route, like the Amundsen Route, includes two of the most interesting landings the Drani tsyn made in 2000, Beechey and Herschel Islands.

Both voyages will be made on the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov. A sister ship to the Dranitsyn, the 112-passenger Khlebnikov is nearly identical, but has a larger, friendlier lounge-library area with handsome views on two sides. Per-person cabin rates are the same for both routes: $8,150 triple occupancy, $10,450 double, up to $13,950 for a corner suite. All cabins face outward and have private baths.

Prices include all meals (but not alcoholic beverages), an informative lecture program featuring noted naturalists, and all Zodiac and helicopter shore excursions. If you have a special area of interest, like history, it is advisable to request a list of each voyage's lecture staff before committing. While expert in their fields, which included zoology and geology, our lecturers did not count a historian among them.

A couple of weeks after I sailed on the Dranitsyn, a Polish-built helicopter with a Russian pilot crashed into its deck in Russian waters. Several passengers and a lecturer were injured. On our voyage, two Bell helicopters, one operated by Canadian Territorial Helicopters and one by a Quark employee, were used. The flights were well managed.

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