We row into Cambridge Bay, Nunavut this afternoon – August 28th, 2013 to officially conclude the Mainstream Last First expedition. The snow squalls that dogged us earlier in the day have lifted and blue sky and sun greet us as we end our journey. It feels like a fitting end.
Over the past 54 days we traversed more than 1500-kms of the Northwest Passage from Inuvik, NWT to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut and come away humbled and awed by the experience. We had hoped to make it to Pond Inlet, Nunavut by early September but this has proven impossible. Severe weather conditions hindered our early progress and now ice chokes the passage ahead.
Our ice router Victor has been very clear in what lies ahead. He writes, “Just to give you the danger of ice situation at the eastern Arctic, Eef Willems of “Tooluka” (NED) pulled out of the game and returning to Greenland. At many Eastern places of NWP locals have not seen this type ice conditions. Residents of Resolute say 20 years have not seen anything like. Its, ice, ice and more ice. Larsen, Peel, Bellot, Regent and Barrow Strait are all choked. That is the only route to East. Already West Lancaster received -2C temperature expecting -7C on Tuesday with the snow.”
Richard Weber, my teammate to the South Pole in 2009 and without doubt the most accomplished polar skier alive today, is owner and operator of Arctic Watch on Cunningham Inlet at the northern end of Somerset Island. Arctic Watch faces out onto our proposed eastern route. Richard dropped me a note the other day advising: “This has been the coldest season with the most ice since we started Arctic Watch in 2000. Almost no whales. The NWPassage is still blocked with ice. Some of the bays still have not melted!”
The days are getting significantly shorter now and the temperatures are dropping fast. Our intention all along was to make it to Pond Inlet by mid-September as the lack of light and colder temperatures would significantly curtail our movement and slow us down. Extrapolating from our current rate of movement, even if there was no ice in the passage ahead, we’d require at least another 50-60 days to make it to Pond Inlet. Throw in the issues of less light, colder temperatures, harsher fall storms and lots of ice blocking the route and our decision is easy. Moving forward at this point would be foolhardy and hubris won’t force our hand. Cambridge Bay, Nunavut is our final port of call.
We’re disappointed that we’re unable to reach our intended destination of Pond Inlet but this disappointment is tempered by the knowledge that we’ve done everything in our power to achieve our goal, a goal whose outcome wasn’t wholly under our control. Our message remains unaffected though, bringing awareness to the pressing issues of climate change in the arctic.
The expedition has opened our eyes to the issues like we never imagined. We’ve experienced the arctic in a truly unique way and have had the privilege to speak with the people that live here and to hear their stories on climate change. And they’ve told us lots.
Floyd Roland, the former premiere of the North West Territories and the current mayor of Inuvik speaks of winters that now begin a month later than when he was a kid, of strange and inconsistent weather patterns that were once far more predictable. Elders Billy and Eileen Jacobson of Tuktoyaktuk speak of winters shortened by a fortnight at either end, of grasshoppers in the arctic, of grizzly bears and wolverine further north than ever seen before. Daryl Nasagaluk of Tuktoyaktuk speaks of beavers now appearing in arctic waters, damming the rivers and destroying the run of white fish. Hank Wolki in Paulatuk speaks of the thinning sea ice that surrounds his community, of the dangers of winter travel within a warming arctic. Marlene Wolki of Paulatuk speaks of a shifting winter season, of picking blueberries in late September during a time when the land was once frozen, of an ice-free Darnely Bay in October, something unheard of when she was young. Brothers Joe and Steve Illisiak in Brown’s Camp tell us of grizzly and polar bears interacting now, of the new hybrid bear on the scene – the pizzly and the grolar, of rarely seen pods of killer whales prowling their waters. Joe Ohokannoak tells us of grizzly bears on Victoria Island now, of ravens being common place where once they never ventured. The arctic is changing and it’s changing dramatically. We know this because the people that live here tell us so.
The Inuit have a word ILIRA. It has no equivalence in the English language but it’s a word that defines our journey. Ilira is the sensation you feel when you glide down the waters of Franklin Bay under a setting sun with sulfurous plumes of smoke erupting from the hillsides beyond and a giant bow head whale surfaces just meters away. Ilira is the feeling you get when you go to sleep at night facing a mirror smooth ocean bay and awake to a cauldron of sea ice, churning and grinding in it’s place. Ilira is the sensation when a 9-ft barren lands grizzly stands on it’s hind legs, discovers you’re there and slowly walks towards you. Ilira is the sensation of rounding a precipitous rock walled cape in gentle seas knowing that bad weather is on it’s way and in seconds your world could be chaos.
Ilira is the gentle flush of fear that comes with awe. Ilira has defined our journey through the waters of the Northwest Passage.
The expedition challenged us in ways we couldn’t have imagined and we dodged a number bullets along the way. The bullets came in the form of a pan of multi-year ice intent on running us over in Franklin Bay, in the form of wind, storm and current wanting us to experience the grinding pack ice of Darnley Bay all close-up and personal, in the form of a southerly wind so strong we’re powerless as it pushes us out into the Amundsen Gulf.
But with the bullets also came the wonder: a beluga whale rising inquisitively from the surf mere meters away, stumbling upon the ruins of an ancient Thule site on secluded bay we never intended to visit, watching the horizon twist and bend and turn upon itself as the heat and cold from air and water played games with our mind.
We would like thank Eddie O’Connor and Mainstream Renewable Power who, through their generous support, allowed us to undertake this expedition and to speak to the pressing issue of climate change in the arctic. We want to thank our team of sponsors and supporters – a list far too long to list here – who have helped us throughout this journey. Without them we could have never got here. And, of course, we want to thank our family and friends who have had the confidence and patience to see us through this endeavour. Without them on side none of this could have ever happened. We fly home tomorrow, our heads still spinning with the experience. Thanks so much for following!!