Belfast business takes travelers to the Arctic

Polar bears spotted near Labrador by those aboard the Wanderbird.
Courtesy of Karen Miles
Polar bears spotted near Labrador by those aboard the Wanderbird.
By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff
Posted Nov. 08, 2012, at 7:04 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — The converted Dutch fishing trawler weighs 160 tons, but looked tiny next to the looming glacier in the slate-gray northern sea.

Karen Miles, one of the two captains of the Wanderbird, recently showed the photograph that was snapped this summer on the boat’s long expedition north toward Baffin Island and Greenland. She and her husband Rick Miles have been steering the ship between Maine and the Arctic for 11 years now. Passengers pay to come aboard for legs of the journey, which this summer lasted six months and covered 7,000 nautical miles.

The couple is happy to introduce folks to the wild beauty found to the north.

“We really fell in love. Every year when we go back, we try to get a layer deeper. Usually our compass just points us north,” she said. “I am incredibly fascinated by Inuit culture. The more I learn about it, the more beautiful and fascinating I find it. And there’s something about ice that’s beautiful and compelling.”

The two captains used to run a windjammer out of Rockport, the Timberwind, for 15 years. But they dreamed of purchasing a vessel that could sail the world on long expeditions. After a long search in places such as Alaska, Scotland and Scandinavia, they found the Wanderbird waiting for them in France. The Dutch ship was built in 1962 and featured high-quality steel, she said. The Mileses took the boat down to “bare steel” and then made it something special — a motor-sailor that can carry 12 passengers comfortably.

The trip costs ranged this year from about $1,000 for a five-day trip to the fishing villages of the Maine coast to about $5,200 for a 17-day expedition in the north.

“Inside, she’s like a classic wooden boat,” Karen Miles said. “On the outside, she’s really rough and tough.”

A boat is one of the best — and only — ways to get around the remote communities of Canada in places such as Labrador and Newfoundland.

“So many of those northern communities don’t have roads,” she said. “We think of Canada as the border towns — but it’s really a vast country, and somewhat sparsely populated.”

With the Wanderbird, the Mileses, their crew members, passengers and dogs can anchor in small harbors, meet the locals and check out the sights. Those sights might include polar bears cavorting on the ice, glaciers calving and native villages.

“People from all around relate to the fishing vessel,” Miles said. “People are very much nonintimidated by us.”

Often locals will come to the Wanderbird with photos of the old fishing trawlers that they, or their fathers, once used to fish for cod and herring.

They’ll stay for dinner and share stories.

“It’s a casual exchange of friendship and it’s very wonderful,” she said.

This May, the Wanderbird began sailing out of its homeport of Belfast for trips to look at puffins and other seabirds. Then the captains turned to the north, heading first to Sable Island off Nova Scotia. The low, sandy island is known as the graveyard of the North Atlantic, she said, and has a resident population of wild horses that has descended from an early shipwreck.

Then, the boat went to St. Pierre and Miquelon, French fishing outposts located south of Newfoundland and Labrador.

“That’s a favorite,” Miles said. “St. Pierre has pastry shops. It’s a French, cosmopolitan, wild northern island mix.”

On the island of Miquelon, they met some children, who brought their father to the boat.

“He gave me 20 lobsters for a gift,” Miles said.

They went to Labrador, where polar bears on land jumped into the water.

Tessa Wood, a crew member from Hampden, said she was struck by the size of the bears.

“When we first saw them, they were lying down. Then they stood up. I didn’t realize how big they were until they stood up,” she said. “And I realized then that they were absolutely enormous.”

Miles said it’s nice to have some distance between the boat and the bears.

“We love polar bears — seeing them from the ship. That’s the only place we want to see them from,” she said with a smile.

Other animals sighted by people aboard the Wanderbird included humpback, fin and minke whales, seals and a Gyrfalcon, an Arctic bird that is the largest falcon. It landed on the bow of the Wanderbird after catching common murre, which it ate in front of the people aboard.

“I’ve been waiting 10 years to see one,” Miles said of the Gyrfalcon.

They also had the chance to visit some Inuit settlements and learn about the culture and shop for some art. The Mileses also run the Northern Lights Gallery in Belfast, where they sell carvings, photographs and other pieces of art found on their travels.

“It’s hard to believe somebody who lives in a place where there’s no road is making this quality of art,” she said.

The couple is looking forward to next summer’s long expedition, she said. They won’t go as far as Greenland this time, but will still make it to polar bear country.

“When I’m away from the north, I miss the smell of the Labrador Sea,” she said.

For information, visit the wanderbirdcruises.com or call 338-3088.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/11/08/news/midcoast/belfast-business-takes-travelers-to-the-arctic/ printed on December 19, 2014