Summer in the Arctic and dust, not snow, covers the ground. In Gjoa Haven, an Inuit settlement on King William, an island in the heart of the North-west Passage, there's dust on the seats of skidoos. Dust, too, on the coats of the scrappy sled dogs that are tethered in long lines waiting for winter and starter's orders.
About them, teenagers charge around on battered all-terrain vehicles, kicking up more dust, making the most of the light evenings and the comparatively balmy 10C temperatures. It's hard to imagine amid all this, with the sun shooting in laser-bright arcs off the town's tin-roofed houses, that somewhere in or around this island, Sir John Franklin, Britain's most intrepid 19th-century Arctic explorer, met a dark and icy end trying to discover the fabled North-west Passage.
He vanished more than a century and a half ago, but the fever to find the remains of Franklin's expedition still runs high in the remote Canadian Arctic, some 3,000 miles from British shores. Earlier this summer, Canadian authorities unveiled the wreck of HMS Investigator, one of the many, doomed 19th-century rescue ships sent in search of Franklin's expedition. Then, just last week in the town of Gjoa Haven itself, archaeologists unearthed what could be the Holy Grail of Arctic exploration history. At the behest of local brothers Wally and Andrew Porter, a box was excavated containing, the Porters claim, long sought-after records from the ill-fated Franklin expedition that might reveal its final whereabouts.
He was old, overweight and his ships spectacularly over-burdened when Franklin left for his third Arctic expedition in 1845. The British Admiralty brushed this aside with a uniquely Victorian arrogance as the fervour to conquer the Northwest Passage once again reached a peak. There was prize money at stake (£20,000 offered by the British crown) for anyone who could navigate the illusive, icy waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But beyond this, there was the chance to forge crucial northern trade links between Europe and the Orient, one that would challenge the Iberian monopoly on southern routes to the spice lands and, in addition, avoid stormy sailings around Cape Horn. But was Franklin the man to fly the Empire's flag into the uncharted north?
Probably not, given that he had survived his first expedition charting Canada's Arctic coast by eating his own boots and being rescued by Indians. There was much that the British could learn from the three centuries of sailors who had battled to find a northerly route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific – in short, to travel light and use local expertise. Instead, highlighting the egotism of the time, Franklin's expedition sailed out of London laden with chests of fine china, dead-weight sledges and canned food that would later finish them off with lead-poisoning. After three winters trapped in ice, Franklin's crew abandoned their two ships, the Erebus and Terror, somewhere off the coast of King William Island and were never seen again.
I manage to stop at this remote part of the Arctic Archipelago on board an eight-day tour with the innovative Cruise North Expeditions, uniquely led by a local Inuit team. In true expedition style, there are no promised ports of call as conditions can change suddenly. Our first two days' passage from Resolute Bay to King William is devoid of ice or high seas, but we hear that another cruise ship has run aground in shallow straits to the far west. "Even with the ice receding, there's only been clear passage here for about five years," says Dugald Wells, President of Cruise North, a former marine engineer who has been working in the Arctic since the mid 1980s. "I came up here because it was fun – a real frontier. It still is, but you have to respect the fact that only 50 per cent of these waters are surveyed," he says.
Luckily, my co-passengers, aged from five to 83, are an amenable bunch, open to sudden changes of plan that at points involve long periods at sea. These sailings are broken up by informative lectures from the expedition team on everything from Arctic history to botany. The passengers are also a worldly lot, among them a German TV crew making a documentary about remote corners of Canada; an academic from a Quebec university collecting data to support the regulation of tourism in the Arctic (an embryonic destination compared with Antarctica); and a multi-generational Inuit family on their summer holiday.
More numerous are the North American and European photography and wildlife enthusiasts. The ship's resident twitcher, George Sirk, a one-man cabaret act of avian imitations, guides the birders aboard. They are thrilled with sightings of gyrfalcon, the world's largest and fastest falcon and, easier to get on camera, purple sandpipers and flocks of teeny snow bunting, which twitter and flit around the docks during shore landings in a manner as cute as their name suggests.
A brief show from the Northern Lights – rarely seen at this northerly latitude – gets even those passengers without bird books cooing at the sky. It is long past midnight when they're spotted by one of our number en-route from the bar to bed. Living proof that late-night drinking does pay, we dash up on deck to brave the elements clad in T-shirts and an alcoholic glow, too excited to risk going below for more clothing. As the call goes out to sleeping passengers, they gradually gather at the bow with their wellies and jackets hastily pulled on over pyjamas. The lights are faint but there is no mistaking their ethereal green moving in undulating curves and cascades just above the horizon. I go to bed an hour later and warm up quickly, but the awestruck grin remains frozen to my face until morning.
During the day, when landings allow, those of us holding out for the big mammal show – polar bears, caribou and humorously hirsute musk ox – take hopeful walks along unmapped beaches, guarded by armed crew strategically stationed on higher ground. But on rocky hillsides we mostly unearth the smaller of the Arctic species: miniature meadows of shimmering cotton grass, tiny forests of Arctic willow. "You're walking in the tree tops!" beams the ship's botanist, Liz Bradfield, as we trot unseeing past the heroic fauna that stands no more than an inch above the harsh tundra. It's easy to work up a heat walking in five layers of thermal clothing. Bit by bit, layers are peeled off until, one sunny day, a much-vaunted "polar bear" swim is initiated. Those of the crew who don't go in stand by with essential Arctic beach kit: thick towels and a defibrillator.
The water is thick with chunks of ice that dwarf our sizeable Zodiac inflatable boats, and it's just a notch above freezing. I wade in and am out again in agonising seconds, although my feet take 10 minutes to stop throbbing. Daniel Scott, a hardy Brit by way of Australia, goes in with mask and snorkel. As does the ship's tireless marine biologist, Marie-Josee Desbarats, motivated not by the kudos of taking an Arctic plunge but to get a closer look at the near-microscopic creatures submerged in the ice floe.
Later that evening, with an icy glow still present, I tell myself that I have genuinely worked up the appetite for yet another three-course dinner. Meals on board, varied and plentiful as they are accomplished, are all the more impressive when you consider that the kitchen must work partly with what's available in port. Yet, I would have eaten the superb Artic char, either grilled or locally smoked, for breakfast, lunch and dinner had it been so served. I wonder about plucking one out of the water at Bellot Strait one morning, such is our proximity to wildlife. Bearded seals flop on and off the steaming ice floe, a musk ox is seen grazing on the mossy hillside and, within minutes, finally, polar bears have been spotted. A mother and baby bear, agile as mountain goats, come down a steep rock face, settling on the beach to watch us bob around on the Zodiacs just offshore. For at least 15 minutes we observe one another, our group more open-mouthed than theirs, before they trot casually back up the cliff.
During the next few days we would all be staggered by such close encounters with wildlife. One afternoon we get within near-petting distance of two snoozy Artic hares that sit at our feet like plump white pillows while we take endless photos. We move off before they do. Another morning before digesting our own breakfast, the Zodiacs get within 30 feet of a polar bear eating his (the remains of a narwhal), on the shores of Devon Island. He seems as unfazed by us as is the vast musk ox that crosses our path with the nonchalant swagger of a cowboy as we are trekking later that day. "You can pretty much guarantee that for these animals, this is their first encounter with humans," says expedition leader Jason Annahatak as we continue on our way around yet another aptly unnamed bay.
Only in his twenties, Jason is already a role model for the young Inuit staff that work with Cruise North. In communities often beleaguered by a lack of further education, unemployment and alcoholism, work aboard a cruise ship can seem a bright opportunity, but for some young Inuit the realities of living away from the tight family net often brings on homesickness and demotivation. Employing confident, unflappable team leaders such as Jason has done wonders for the company's training and retention of local youngsters, something it is committed to.
On Beechy Island, the last of our excursions before we return to Resolute Bay, I am reminded of the hopes of other young souls. Against a looming wall of grey mountains stand the graves of four 19th-century seamen. Three of them, Franklin's crew, perished in the interminable years that the expedition spent stranded on these hostile shores. One, a member of a subsequent rescue party, died when his ship was forced to winter here.
Huddled together as if finding comfort in closeness, the four gravestones stick out of the frigid expanse of scree-scattered beach like crooked teeth, the tiny plot all but swallowed up against the endless sea and sky. It's hard not to feel horror at their loss, and the loss of so many others that followed them in the name of Franklin's doomed venture. Would they be turning in their graves, permafrost allowing, at the knowledge that their one-time prison is now a pop-in for pleasure cruisers?
Back in my cabin, boots off, hands defrosting, I catch a glimpse of the graves through my porthole, small and stoic against the skyline. And there they will stay, unseen, until another ship passes by. And, unless those mysterious papers in Gjoa Haven do contain the Arctic Grail, in these seasonally impenetrable waters, that could still take more than a long cold winter.
How to get there
Sarah Barrell flew to Montreal with Canadian Affair (020-7616 9184; canadianaffair.com), which offers return flights from £298. Cruise North (cruisenorthexpeditions.com) packages for 2011 are sold in the UK through Discover the World (01737 218810; discover-the-world.co.uk) and Frontier Canada (020-8778 0149; frontier-travel .co.uk) and cost around £4,500.
Canadian Tourism Commission ( canada.travel).