In our small bay of refuge, we rest for the evening. The trials of a day tangling with ice flows has been both physically and emotionally taxing, and we enjoy a moment of reprieve.
The bay we’re moored in is crescent shaped and has several pieces of sea ice nestled to its far side. It’s defined by a sweeping band of gravel separating the ocean from a smaller lagoon behind, a patch of calm that visually extends our bay back to appear like a triangle of water with an arc of gravel tracing through it.
Sheltering the bay to the east is a small hillside of shattered limestone stacked in benches, almost castle like in form. I stroll to the top to take in the view of Sellwood Bay and stumble upon two small oval depressions in the landscape each surrounded by large pieces of rock. Both depressions are similar in size, roughly 10ft x 5ft, and are cut into the hillside to garner protection from the wind, the wind that’s been strafing us today.
Seven years ago while walking the beaches of King William Island with local historian Louie Kamookak we would discover a similar site. It was over 800 years old, caribou bones still scattered about the floor, evidence of a meal long ago eaten, frozen in a time.
Several months ago, before embarking on this adventure, I decided I’d share my journey with my two young daughters in a very special way. I’d write a message to each of them (Caitlin 9 and Arianna 7) and address them as my daughters in the future, to the two young women I anticipate they’ll become. It was more emotional than I anticipated as I was transported to a time when I may no longer be with them. I rolled each note into a small scroll, added a personal item for each girl and placed them in a small sealed PVC tube. I have the PVC tube with me now and I place it adjacent to one of these ring sites, one snapshot in time resting beside another.
If my daughters want to retrieve their notes they’ll need to travel north to find them. They’ll need to experience the arctic themselves, they’ll need to experience a place that is deeply important to their father, a place that may be profoundly changed when they get here.
I place the small time capsule under a large piece of limestone and take a GPS reading. The rest is up to my girls.
We definitely had our hardest and most eventful day so far yesterday. Things started to go pear shaped around 7am. Denis and myself were on the oars and the last 2 hours of our shift had been great with very calm conditions. The next hour saw a strong wind whip up, the swell became very choppy and there were dark clouds on the horizon. We pulled as hard as we could for the next hour to try and get in behind a headland to take some shelter but Mother Nature was too strong.
We put out the sea anchor to try and halt our backwards progress, it wasn’t ideal but we couldn’t make any progress with the oars. We rested for a few hours and Kevin and Frank tried to make some progress but again to no avail. Our depth was ok to use the ground anchor so they deployed that and we agreed to rest up for a few hours in the cabin and go again as soon as conditions would permit. We were all exhausted and fell asleep.
We then woke to the crunching sound of a large ice berg nudging up against the boat. The ice berg had pinned our anchor line and hard as we tried, we couldn’t free the line. Because the berg was moving, the nose of the boat was starting to be pulled underneath it so we had to cut the line and in doing so say good bye to our anchor. We then spent the next few hours trying to battle our way out of the choppy conditions but again we simply couldn’t make progress into the wind and find a safe place to shelter.
The best option (out of a bunch of bad ones) was to use some ice screws and anchor the boat to an ice berg that was anchored to the ground and close to shore. So we did this and fell into the cabin once again exhausted. After a few hours the berg cracked and shifted so we had to scamper quickly to free the ice screws and quickly work to prevent the boat hitting the rocky shore line where it could have been damaged.
At this point the wind had whipped up to about 20 – 25 knots and was pushing us hard onto shore. Kevin and Frank were still in their dry suits. Denis and myself weren’t but that didn’t matter it was all hands on deck. Frank and Kevin released the ice crews, Denis and myself attended to our centre board and rudder. By now we were virtually on shore so all four of us jumped into the water to physically hold the boat from grounding into the rocky shoreline.
At this point Denis and I were in our socks and underclothes absolutely soaked. Frank and Kevin held the boat while we jumped into our dry suits. We tried to use our winch to pull the boat safely up on shore using some logs as rollers but there wasn’t anything on the shore we could use that was a strong enough anchor point so we simply had to try and row the boat away from the shore. It was like rowing on a treadmill and we were pulling as hard as we could to simply stop running aground. 20 minutes of this and one would be absolutely shagged so we rotated into 20 minute shifts for the next few hours.
This was back breaking stuff but we managed to get away from the shore line and eventually we found a place where we could safely beach the boat, take some shelter and regroup. We used the opportunity to dry our clothes and the cabin (everything was soaked), we lit a fire, had a big feed and got the spirits up again after our adventurous day.
We all agreed that we will now have to wait for a decent weather window before we can push on so hopefully this comes soon. We have been cautious up to now and rightly so. We are far too remote to be taking any stupid risks and doing so would be absolutely foolish. One thing we are all very clear on now is that we can only move when we have half decent weather conditions. If the weather is rough but in our favour, that’s fine but anything that is pushing us backwards or dangerously towards rocky shorelines means we just have to shelter and proceed again when its safe. That is the reality of moving up here in Arctic……
A peculiar rapping sound against the hull wakes me up. All four of us are asleep, the Arctic Joule held fast on the ground anchor in the midst of a heavy windstorm. I lie in such a way that I face out the cabin door, able to survey water conditions by just sitting up. I bolt upright with the banging noise but don’t see a churning sea like I expect. “Holy shit!!, I shout, “It’s ice!!”
In seconds we’re all on deck facing down a 100ft x 100ft ice flow that has wedged itself up against our bow. It’s being pushed hard from the storming wind and is moving directly over us. We try to release our anchor but it’s stuck as this multi-ton piece of ice some 30-40ft thick has positioned itself above it and is making it impossible to retrieve. We push the bow away to gain a few meters of slack to loosen the anchor but it’s of no us. The ice sheet is being pressed against us and we can’t move. Our anchor line becomes steel cable tight and the boat begins to moan under the strain. The nose of the bow starts to drop, being pulled down by the anchor line and the weight of the moving ice. We need to do something immediately or we’re going to be swept under the ice.
It all started off smoothly enough a couple days ago traversing a 35km section of open water across the bottom of Franklin Bay. We worked through a band of small debris about 3 kms in width and made it to the Parry Peninsula without much effort. A favourable current and tail wind followed us down Franklin Bay granting us a staggering 120 kilometres of travel in 24 hours, a distance of over double our previous longest mark. Nearing the coast we notice a wall of dark cloud approaching from the north east as a massive low is currently camped over the Beaufort Sea (bad enough that we received a cyclone warning from one authority) and is forecast to throw ugly weather our way
Within an hour the storm is upon us and the sea builds wild again. The shoreline is steep and rocky and no place for a surf landing. This makes for a few tense minutes negotiating breaking waves and strong winds until we find shelter in a tiny gravel lee – as hostile and exposed as a lee can be – and some protection from the storm. We spend the rest of the evening rocked by the sea, a growl of any angry gale our only company.
By morning the wind has died again and it’s easy going for three hours until once again a menacing grey mass begins to build in the north west. When the wind storm hits we are about half way across an exposed 15km traverse from one headland to another. The push from the wind is so hard that we can’t keep our line and we’re swept into the open waters of Sellwood Bay. We’re moving in the wrong direction so we elect to drop the sea anchor to slow the negative push.
A sea anchor works like an underwater parachute and, depending on it’s size and drag, can stop a boat in the water or significantly slow its movement. Our sea anchor is too small for the job and allows us to be pushed at nearly 1km/hr towards the far shore of the bay. We retire to the cabin knowing there’s nothing we can do but wait.
As we’re slowly pushed to the far shore of Sellwood Bay the depth of the water becomes shallow enough to deploy a ground anchor allowing us to replace slow negative movement with no movement at all. A quick scan of the horizon indicates no ice and we all lie down for some rest.
This chunk of ice that appears across our bow is completely unexpected. There had been no ice around us when we retired to the cabin an hour ago. And even if there had been, we present such a small bulls-eye on a such massive target that the chance of a piece of ice actually hitting us seemed very remote. Somehow this big chunk of ice has found us.
The groaning of the boat and the dipping of the bow leaves us no choice. Like having your coat tails caught under a steam roller, there’s only one outcome here. I pull out the serrated knife from my PDF, crawl to the bow of the boat and cut the anchor line. “Ping” The rope is as tight as piano wire and explodes with the touch of the blade. We spring free.
We’re a couple kilometres from shore and the wind begins to push us in quickly. One dilemma switches to another as we sail head long towards a rocky beach with no anchor to keep us off it.
As we get closer we do everything in our power to keep ourselves away but it is all a matter of time. With wind unabated we’re forced to find as smooth a section of beach as possible and head in. The moment the bow of the Arctic Joule runs up onto the gravel we jump out and prevent the stern from swinging broadside to the waves. The water is waist deep and icy cold and we take turns standing in it to keep our bucking bronco from breaking free and breaching.
Just when all seems hopeless another ice flow appears a few hundred meters off shore heading in our direction. This one is smaller than the behemoth we tangled with earlier but still carries enough girth to be imposing. It will be on top of us soon.
We make a sharp effort, push off from shore and head into the lee of the incoming ice. It becomes grounded on the seabed as we had hoped and we take the opportunity to use it as a moorage. Clambering atop the slab we place two ice screws into the ice and are able to rig a satisfactory anchor – in reality an ice climbing anchor – that we hold fast to. We’re in the lee of the ice a short distance from shore and safely out of the wind.
Denis is a secret fan of the 80′s pop rocker Chris de Burgh and on a number of occasions after particularly challenging days on this trip has threatened us with a serenade of a de Burgh classic. He’s so happy with our mobile ice moorage that he names it Chris, Chris de Berg, the iceberg that is.
Moored to Chris, out of the storm, we take a deep breath after our ordeal but no sooner are we out of our drysuits do we hear a thundering crash outside and a thump against the boat. Chris is disintegrating, pounded from the waves. As he breaks up he may twist, tumble and somersault and we’re attached to him. It’s another mad frenzy of donning drysuits, leaping onto a disintegrating berg to free ourselves and then be cast again into a breaking surf and winds.
We’re at wits end and start rowing intensely a mere meters from shore. We put ourselves on 20 minute shifts, the effort required being so high, and just to keep going. Over the course of several hours we creep along the edge of shore and discover a tiny bay partly choked in ice that will provide us protection. We slip in to our safe harbour, finally out of the wind and out of the storm.
The temperatures have sky-rocketed since arriving on Nicholson Island and the mosquitos have emerged on their hunt for blood. Their presence is overwhelming, their numbers incalculable. I know why the caribou run stir-crazed down the beaches of this island.
We leave Nicholson on calm seas heading east to the Bathurst Peninsula. It’s a shocking change from previous days with seas like glass and temperatures in the mid-20′s. We row continuously for the next 26 hours through smooth waters and positive currents but, in the arctic, good things never last long.
As we begin to round Cape Bathurst the wind begins to build. It’s subtle at first, a light riffle across an otherwise glass like surface, but it builds quickly. The cape presents a vertical black wall of permafrost that rises some 40 ft from waters edge, a green carpet of tundra bends and tumbles from atop its upper surface pulled seaward by the eroding bank. It’s an imposing sight, a shear wall extending itself into the icy mist, and one that makes retreat impossible if things turn bad. And they turn bad.
The wind has built into a strong blow and is white-capping now pushing us directly onto shore. The water here is very shallow and as the seas build so do the steepness of the waves. By the time we reach the most exposed section of the cape the wind is in a frenzy as is the sea. Waves begin to break randomly around us, finding the shallow spots to in the undulating sand shoal surface below. Rowing through big waves is one thing, handling breakers is another. Waves begin to wash across the deck and we realize we’ll need to find find shelter from this storm sooner than later. It will take another hour of hard rowing before a foaming sand shoal presents an option. On the other side of the shoal is calmer waters, a lagoon with seas dampened and broken. There appears to be one section of the sand bar that’s deeper as waves aren’t breaking as aggressively across its surface. We turn the nose of the Arctic Joule and dash for the opening. A yell to the cabin to lift the rudder at exactly the right moment and we scud across the sand and into protected waters. It’s raining, it’s cold and the wind is howling but we’re in calmer waters for the moment.
We leave our shelter on calmer seas but the weather is cloudy and is now very cold. Rounding the cape we move from the Beaufort Sea and officially enter the Amundsen Gulf. We’re excited by the moment but are sobered by the reality that this next phase brings the ice.
The body of water in the Amundsen Gulf that we now need to contend with is a large body of water called Franklin Bay. At about 125kms across it’s mouth (from Cape Bathurst to Cape Parry) and 150kms in length, Franklin Bay looks like a large pizza slice removed from the pie that’s the arctic coast. There’s significant ice throughout the bay and our only choice is to travel south, deeply into it, until we find and adequately safe point to cross.
The wind begins to build again as we start heading South but this time, for the first time, they’re square at our back. Small ice flows are everywhere and we use considerable caution to negotiate a path but by end of day we are virtually sailing down the coast, our rowing motion simply show, adding little to the overall speed.
In 1826 John Franklin travelled these shores and chartered this landscape for the first time. The quest for the North West Passage was underway and Franklin travelled up the Mackenzie and headed east in hopes charting a potential route. He would discover and name a unique geological phenomenon on the shores of the bay that bears his name, the Smoking Hills.
The Smoking Hills are exactly that, mountainsides of billowing smoke that appear as swaths of unhindered forest fire, without the forest. On a technical level they contain strata of hydrocarbons (oil shale’s) auto-ignited by sulfur-rich lignite deposits within the surface. On a non-technical level they are plumes of grey smoke, similar in look and smell to the clouds emanating from a volcano that rise from the flanks of the hills. They’ve been burning continuously for centuries.
Frank and I are on our shift in the early hours of the morning, the wind has calmed and the sky is painted with charcoal bands of cloud backlit by the deep orange of a dying arctic sun. Ice forms, contorted into the exotic and the grotesque, float among us, tinged in pink, mirrored on the flat sea. Clouds of smoke rise from black cliffs marching to the horizon. A large whooshing sound to my right. Mist rises from the sea and a dark serpent slides above the water to disappear again, the gentle flick of a tail sending it to the depths. A humpback whale, in this Tolkienesque world.
Our rest in the sandbar lee is a short lived affair as we’re eager to make our first big open water crossing across Liverpool Bay to the Bathurst Peninsula. If we had our choice we’d have made a number of larger crossings already but conditions have made this impossible.
Since entering the Beaufort Sea two weeks ago we’ve been hampered by relentless Easterly and North Easterly winds. For a vessel travelling under motor or sail winds such as these (15-35Kn) might be manageable but for our 2500lb behemoth, presenting lots of windage for very little relative forward propulsion of two people rowing, strong winds stop movement in its tracks.
For the Arctic Joule strong winds in open water mean being pushed backwards or being anchored and holding fast. Strong winds close to shore mean options: the use of island lees and peninsulas to hide and maneuver behind and beaches that can be used to drag the boat when rowing is impossible. The strategy is working, albeit slowly.
Strategy or not, we need to make an open crossing and move out across Liverpool Bay in the early hours of this evening. Winds are predicted to dissipate by midnight and our hope is that the seas will diminish as well. The moment we pull out from the sandbar lee however we are hit with a jolt. The waves are sharper and tighter in rhythm than before. A strong sense of ill-ease washes over me but we’re committed to our line and we keep our tempo high. The steep faces of water that bear down on us have such a menacing presence that I get in the habit at focusing on them only after the’ve rolled up under the boat and are charging away from us. My ostrich approach to discomfort seems to work
The boat rocks wildly and for the first time this trip a mild sensation of nausea starts to well up in my gut. I put it out of my mind and focus on watching for the next wave, trying to time my oar stroke to catch it and trying not to hit Frank’s oars in the process.
Our plan is to make a direct line across to Cape Wolki on the Bathurst Peninsula but the strong north wind does not subside as was forecast and we’re driven further south to Nicholson Island, home to a cold-war era distant early warning (DEW) line radar station and about two-thirds the way across the bay.
Nicholson Island is roughly 10 kms long and 3 kms wide and rises to a height of roughly 300ft. On this summit sits the DEW line station with a 60ft radar tower standing guard over a low lying single story metal clad structure, a series of diesel storage chambers and a couple of large white geodesic domes.
We decide to stretch our legs, anchor the boat in knee deep water and head out on the island for some exploration. The DEW line station is several kilometres away so we stick closer to our moorage and poke around. Within minutes a large arctic fox comes to investigate us but scampers off when he catches our scent. We haven’t bathed in nearly three weeks so our scent comes easily. Hawks fly overhand screeching at us in alarm. We’re confronted by an agitated herd of caribou on the beach, driven mad by swarms of mosquitos, and intent on passing us to get to the water in order to escape their pursuers They quiver uncontrollably, powerless to the insects, and charge pass us with wild-eyed, crazed abandon.
By the time we get back to the boat we realize the tide has slipped out faster than we anticipated and we’re now beached, stuck until the next high tide. Frustrated but resigned we take the forced break set about cleaning up the boat, drying out gear and doing a little more exploring.
We rounded the tip of the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula after two weeks of hard effort, sand bars and unfriendly winds. We’ve been looking forward to this moment for days, to finally feel a little wind at our stern heading south into Liverpool Bay. Murphy was an Irishman I suppose and must be taking a keen interest in our expedition as the wind shifted to an East North East when we made the turn and, although forecasted to weaken, built into a stormy blow. We held firm, convinced the winds would subside, and kept pushing down the coast. The waves grew larger and steeper until we were in the largest seas we’d seen on this expedition. The water at Cape Dalhousie is exceedingly shallow and big rollers become very dangerous breaking waves in moments. Sand bars loom everywhere, potential time bombs in a turbulent seascape.
By the time we’re looking for an exit strategy we realize a way out on the coast is barred by a continuous sandbar running parallel with the shore. A calm body of water lies tantalizingly close on the other side but is impossible for us to reach. Trying to negotiate this surf zone would be dangerous for us and potentially catastrophic for the Arctic Joule.
Paul and Denis finish their shift and Frank and I take over. It’s a tenuous shift change as the potential of a wave swamping the boat is always a risk when crew members are moving in and out of the cabin. I stand behind Paul at his rowing station, he gets up, I jump in and Denis keeps rowing to keep the boat on the correct angle to the waves. I take on this roll as Frank changes places with Denis. A moments inattention could see the boat swing broadside to the waves and be rolled.
I’ve never paddled or rowed in seas this large and feel both anxiety and exhilaration. Steep walls of water build out of nothing and run at us, tips frothing, their intent unknown. But no sooner are they upon us, they’re sweeping under our bow and marching deftly to an explosive end on shore. We’re not in their cross-hairs it would seem but we keep a close eye on this angry mob, ensuring no change in will or intent.
A break in the sandbar appears after 90 tense minutes of rowing and we decide to go for it, turning the boat into shore and running with the waves. This is the most dangerous position to be in as a large wave can surf the boat, swiftly turn it broadside and roll her. My hearts in my mouth as a large wave begins to build behind us, roll up on our stern and begin to push us aggressively.
The Arctic Joule is a big gal. Her weight and girth are a challenge into headwinds and over sandbars but she’s in her element here. The wave doesn’t push AJ around, she holds her course perfectly. Our big lady is comfortable in these waters. After a few tenuous minutes were whisked into calmer waters and anchor until the wind subsides. We’re happy the Arctic Joule is exactly the way she is.
The world is not on track to meet the target agreed by governments to limit the long-term rise in the average global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius (°C).Global greenhouse gas emissions are increasing rapidly and, in May 2013, carbon-dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in several hundred millennia.
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