Arctic Holidays – Tours & Adventure Travel Guide
“The Arctic is neither a country or a continent, and is the region around the North Pole which is opposite the Antarctic region around the South Pole. The Arctic region includes the Arctic Ocean as well as parts of Canada, Greenland, Russia, Alaska), Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland. The word ‘Arctic’ comes from Greek. The boundary of the Arctic region is generally considered to be north of the Arctic Circle (66° 33’N), which is the approximate limit of the midnight sun and the polar night.”
The Arctic is the region surrounding the North Pole, at the opposite end of the globe from the South Pole and the continent of Antarctica. It is neither a country nor a continent. It consists of an ocean known as the Arctic Ocean, which is surrounded by continental land masses and islands. The central Arctic Ocean is covered by ice all year round and most of the land in the region is ice and snow-covered for most of the year. Portions of Canada, Greenland, Russia, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and the US state of Alaska lie within the Arctic region.
Although Inuit people have been travelling and exploring the Arctic region for thousands of years, mainly in search of food and supplies, the region was “discovered” in the 1800’s by European explorers who were searching for a northwest passage to the Orient.
The word Arctic comes from a Greek word that refers to the constellation Ursa Major (the “great bear”), which is prominent in the northern sky.
The exact dimensions or boundaries of the Arctic region are vague. Some sources state the region covers around 7 million square miles. Generally speaking, the southern limit of the region is considered to be the Arctic Circle. This is an imaginary line located at latitude 66 degrees, 32 minutes north. Above it, the phenomena of the midnight sun (the sun never sets) and the polar night (the sun never rises) are experienced. The midnight sun occurs on the longest day of the year, known as the summer solstice (generally June 21st), whereas the polar night occurs on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice (generally December 21st).
The Arctic region is one of the world’s last remaining continuous wilderness areas, and is also one of the largest. The southern Arctic is characterized by plains and low hills, with lakes, rivers and forests. Further north, trees become smaller and more scarce, and glaciers form in the mountains at higher altitudes. The highest point is Mount Gunnbjorn, located on the Greenland Ice Sheet, measuring 12,139 feet.
North of the tree line, the land is permanently frozen (permafrost) and the low ground cover that survives there including dwarf shrubs, herbs, grasses, mosses and lichens, forms a tundra landscape along with small lakes, bogs and streams. The word “tundra” is of Finnish origin, and means “barren land”.
This tundra is the grazing land of herbivores including the Arctic hare, lemming, musk oxen and caribou. In turn, these animals are prey for predators including the Arctic fox, wolf and polar bear. Other wildlife found in this region are wolverines, ermines and ground squirrels.
Fish and marine mammals such as seals, walrus and whales live in the frigid waters where moving chunks of ice, called pack ice, float freely on the surface. The coastline is estimated at around 25,000 miles.
Neither the North Pole nor the Arctic Ocean that surrounds it are owned by any country or governed by any nation. The various countries with land lying within the Arctic region fly their respective flags upon their land. These countries are the United States, Canada, Finland, Greenland (Denmark), Norway, Sweden, Russia and Iceland. The language and currency will vary respectively from country to country. The Arctic states’ economic zones are limited to an area extending 370 kilometres (200 nautical miles) off their coastlines, and several are actively involved in discussion to enlarge their claims.
The original inhabitants of Arctic lands were the Dorset people and later the Inuits, who descended from the nomadic Thule culture. It is believed that the Inuits were successful in replacing the Dorset people because the Dorset culture did not possess dogs, boats and other technologies that allowed the Inuits to thrive.
Today, an estimated 15 million people, of which 4 million are native (indigenous) people, live in the Arctic region. In Alaska, for example, these native people are known as the Inupiat and Yup’ik Inuit, the Alutiq and the Athapaskans. In Scandinavian Lapland, they are called the Saami, and in Russia, you’ll find the Chukshi and Nenets, among other native communities.
In addition to the 1.5 million visitors to the region each year, mostly during the milder summer months, interest in the Arctic for business purposes has also increased.
When to Go
In addition to climate, daylight (and lack thereof) is a major determining factor when choosing when to visit the Arctic region. Winters are cold, dark and long. Summers, on the other hand, are relatively short, but are cool and mild, with long hours of daylight.
Rain is minimal year round and limited precipitation falls in the form of snow. However, high winds can stir up loose ground snow, giving the impression that snow is falling more often than it actually is!
In Greenland, for example, winter temperatures can drop as low as -68C (-90F) and summers only get as warm as about 2C (about 36F) on Greenland’s ice sheet. On average, winter temperatures in the Arctic range from –15C to -9C (5 to 15F), with summer temperatures hovering around 4C (40F).
That said, summer is the most popular season to visit the Arctic regions and although it will be colder in the polar regions, the climate is bearable and visitors are able to comfortably engage in a variety of outdoor activities, appropriately dressed with layers of clothing.
Top Tips - Know Before You Go
- Since the Arctic is a region with no government, travel documentation (passports and visas) will depend on which of the Arctic states - US, Canada, Finland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and Iceland - you will visit during your trip.
- As far as time zones are concerned, these will vary depending on which area of the Arctic region you visit (for example, the Canadian Arctic vs. Finnish Lapland). In the open ocean, time zones lines follow longitude lines.
Visitors Should Bring
- GSM mobile phone (service and roaming will vary, depending on destination).
- A power converter and adaptor for electronics (for the European standard 220V, 50 cycles with plugs that accommodate two thick round pins).
- Sun protection (sunscreen, lip balm and sunglasses).
- Mosquito repellent (for land-based activities in the summer months).
- A camera, spare batteries, lots of film or memory cards.
- A lightweight, waterproof backpack.
- Appropriate clothing for cold climates, including waterproof and thermal wear, rubber boots and many layers.
- Appropriate clothing for gateway cities, which may be considerably warmer than Arctic destinations.
Arctic Holidays In Focus
Tour groups led by expert guides are the best way to visit the region. Specialist tour operators will bring local knowledge which will enable you to get the most from your visit. Your needs will be taken into consideration based on your budget, interest and activity level.
Points of embarkation vary, depending on the type of tour (cruise, dog sledding, hiking) and the region of the Arctic you will be visiting.
Touring the Arctic by ship is very popular and many of these cruises depart from Ottawa, Canada or from Anchorage, Alaska and sail to the Arctic regions.
Another option is to fly north, closer to the polar region and board a ship in a port such as Resolute (in Canada’s far north), or the Russian port of Murmansk.
For land visits, travel arrangements will be determined by destination. For example, for visits to Scandinavian Lapland, international flights into Oslo (Norway), Stockholm or Gothenburg (Sweden) or Helsinki (Finland) will be most convenient, and connecting flights into airports in the northern regions, such as Kiruna, in Swedish Lapland, are available.
Arctic Holiday Highlights
Travelers visit the Arctic region for a variety of sightseeing, educational and adventure sports pursuits. Natural wonders to behold include glaciers, fjords, icebergs, floating ice pack, the midnight sun and, in the winter months, lucky tourists can experience the spectacular aurora borealis (northern lights).
Activities available include bird watching and wildlife viewing, hiking, trekking, mountain climbing, snowmobiling, fishing, dog sledding, sea kayaking, diving, and zodiac trips.
The North Pole
Visitors wishing to go to the North Pole will first want to understand that there are actually, scientifically, four north poles, although the one to visit (to say you’ve been there), is the geographic north pole, also called “true north”. The four poles are:
1. The geographic north pole - This is the northernmost point on the earth’s surface where all lines of longitude meet at 90 degrees north. Usually, the geographic north pole is covered by sea ice, but since this ice drifts and shifts, the pole is sometimes covered by sea water instead.
2. The magnetic north pole - When using a compass, the needle will point towards the magnetic north pole, the northern focus of the earth’s magnetic field. This point is located about 1,000 miles to the south of the geographic north pole, near the Canadian island Ellef Ringness, but migrates several miles each year.
3. The geomagnetic north pole - At the north axis of the magnetosphere (the geomagnetic field that surrounds the planet) is the geomagnetic north pole. This point is located in Greenland, but varies slightly based on solar influences.
4. The northern pole of inaccessibility - Defined as the farthest point from any coastline, the northern pole of inaccessibility is located about 700 miles from the nearest landmass.
Visiting the geographic north pole is a relatively recent possibility, considering that the first person to stand at true north did not do so until 1948. Adventurers continue to attempt to reach the north pole by a variety of methods, including hot air balloon, snowmobile and dog sled. Today, the most common excursions to the North Pole are via icebreaker ship or flights by plane and helicopter.
As there is no actual land at the north pole, but rather polar ice cap; sea and weather conditions determine how close to 90 degrees north one can actually visit. This pack ice can measure up to 5 meters thick in some places. For this reason, icebreaker cruises are a good way to visit, as the ships are specially designed to cut through the sea ice that forms in the polar regions.
Many icebreakers carry helicopters on board, for sightseeing and shore and ice landings, and most cruises feature educational seminars conducted by polar experts.
Sightseeing flights are another way to visit the polar region. Many flight tours offer several land stops, including fjords, weather stations and Inuit towns. Some also offer dog sledding experiences among the icebergs.
Many tour operators offer a variety of land-based excursions such as wintertime trips to view wildlife by day and to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis (the northern lights) by night. Daytime activities on these tours may include dog sledding, igloo building, and experiencing the culture of the native Inuit people. Other tours focus on viewing specific wildlife, such as polar bears, in their natural habitat.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Located within the coastal plain lands of northern Alaska and Canada, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is a protected wilderness ecosystem where a wide variety of bird, mammal and plant species live within its diverse habitats. It is one of the largest remaining areas of wilderness intact on earth today and was created to preserve both wildlife and wilderness.
With 36 species of fish and land mammals, 9 marine mammal species and more than 160 migratory and resident bird species, one of the most impressive things to view within the refuge are the Porcupine Caribou, which number over 100,000, that migrate to the coastal plains every June for the birthing of their calves.