Monthly Archives: August 2013

Lady Franklin

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Jane Griffin, the wife of explorer Sir John Franklin was the exact opposite of her bland, humourless husband. She was a dynamic spirited woman with huge aspirations hamstrung by the traditional Victorian values of the time. Her outlet became her husband’s career, channeling her own go-getting personality into the stagnancy and lassitude that was his. She pushed Sir John Franklin to undertake his infamous Northwest Passage expedition making convincing arguments that it was essential for his stature and his career:

“The character and position you possess in society and the interest – I may, celebrity – attached to your name, belong to expeditions and would never have been acquired in the ordinary line of your profession.”
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When Sir John Franklin disappeared on his Northwest Passage quest, she would fund numerous expeditions to find him. Ultimately it would be one of her personally funded expeditions, not the British Navy’s, that discovered the truth of her husband’s faith.

We’re currently moored at the tip of Cape Lady Franklin at the edge of the Coronation Gulf. It’s a milestone for us as we’ve left the mainland and are now on the shores of Victoria Island.

An email greeted us this morning saying: “Congratulations on reaching Victoria Island. Austin Bay is always notorious for the bad currents and it is amazing you made it in the single shot. Lady Franklin Point and Becher Point are welcoming you.” I suppose lady luck really did follow us yesterday.

Cape Lady Franklin is home to another decommissioned DEW Line station with it’s metal containers, domes and structures peering at us over the shoulder of gigantic man-made gravel ridge.
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We’re hunkered down in a small plywood clad shelter cabin that serves as a hunting cabin at times of the year. Muskox, caribou and fox skeletons are scattered among the rocks as is various drying racks and tools used in the post hunt process.

The cabin is the perfect respite for us after several days of non-stop rowing. It’s a guilt-free pleasure as unfavourable winds are blowing outside. Spartan by normal standards this little 12ft x 12ft box is a 5-star hotel for us. Plywood bunks and cooking counter round out the interior – everything we need.

Catching our eye, a short distance from the cabin, are seven white crosses in the gravel. It’s an unexpected sight in such a lonely outpost but this appears to be a cemetery of sorts, a bulging roll in the gravel in front of each cross speaking to something beneath. The wood crosses appear new and seem to replace older ones that lie close by. There’s the remains of a cross of flowers blown some distance away, a few flowers still holding shape and colour. We’re hundreds of kilometres from any community and there’s no markings on the crosses.

I can’t but help wonder who these people were and why they’re here.


A Change Of Shelter

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The last two and a half days have seen us rowing non-stop. Except for some short breaks to wait out a change in the current we’ve been doing our 3-hour shifts essentially uninterrupted. This has been an unexpected surprise for us as the forecast has not been optimistic for this period.

The crossing from the mainland to Victoria Island is a hurdle we’ve been anticipating for some time. We make our traverse at the narrowing of the Dolphin and Union Strait where it feeds into the Coronation Gulf and use Lambert and Camping Islands as stepping stones of sorts, as points of protection for us if inclement weather roles in.
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With the narrowing of any large body of water there’s always the concern of increased currents and ocean anomalies that we’ve experienced rounding some of the larger capes. In many ways we’re a cork in these waters going where the wind and currents take us. It’s an unnerving reality – certainly when making larger crossings – and one we’ve come to live with. We counter this actuality by anchoring when we can or by anticipating where we’d be pushed if we can’t. Weeks ago when rounding Cape Parry we were being blown towards a 5+ ice pack (50% ice cover and no place for any boat other than an ice breaker) in the middle of Darnley Bay. Had it not been for our fortuitous landing on Bear Island we would have been cast into a heaving mass of ice akin to a thousand steel shipping containers grinding together in the midst of a gale. It was a sobering moment that has us anticipating worst case scenarios a lot closer now.
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On our crossing of Dolphin and Union Strait we cut the corner from Camping Island to Victoria Island, heading straight across Austin Bay to Cape Lady Franklin. The exposure to weather is more committing on this line but the saving in distance and time is impossible to resist. The weather only deteriorates in the final minutes of the crossing and we pull into another DEW Line station at the tip of Cape Lady Franklin.
Cape Lady Franklin Cabin Denis cooking small
There’s a small shelter cabin on shore and the prospect of a night in something other than our boat or tent has us giddy with anticipation. As the winds build and the skies darken, we unload The Arctic Joule and make our way to our evening shelter. We’ve finally have a little lady luck on our side, a little Lady Franklin luck.


The Muskox (oomingmaq)

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It looked like all the other big boulders on the shore, until it moved. Frank spotted it at the end of our shift. “Pass me the binoc’s would you?”, he said looking to the mainland. “Yep, it’s a muskox. Let’s head in an check it out!”

We direct The Arctic Joule towards shore and start moving as smoothly and quietly as we can as not to spook the muskox. He spots us of course, how couldn’t he, and scampers off over the rise. There’s little doubt this one’s a lone bull, drifting solo in summer months, who’ll eventually find a herd to travel with in winter.

We beach the boat and walk inland in hope of catching a glimpse of this fellow. He seems to have disappeared altogether but Frank spots him in repose over a small rise. Like hunters we move in quietly to get off a clean shot but instead of rifles we carry a Nikon D600 and a Canon HV30.

The muskox rises to its feet when we’re a couple hundred feet away. His head is high and he’s agitated. Frank keeps moving forward to within 100ft, drops to a knee and starts filming. Our bull ramps up his threat display by lowering his head and rubbing the inside of his foreleg against a pear shaped gland below his eye. This is unique to muskoxen and is called “whetting of the horns.” If he starts to tilt his head in a provocative manner or rake his horns against the ground we might be running for cover.

A muskox is a wild looking creature. A frontal gown of long guard hair give the muskox a striking presence, a creature on the fringe, a barren land shaman, an arctic pirate. If Keith Richard’s passes on I could see him coming back as a muskox.

Although it looks to be of the bison family the muskox traces its ancestry to the sheep/goat family. It’s only living relative is the taking of northern Tibet.

The inuit call the muskox oomingmaq, meaning “animal with skin like beard”. We have something similar on our team: it’s Frank, “man with face like beard”, his facial guard hair equally extraordinary.

Our presence finally gets to much for Murray. (We had him named within minutes of sighting him) Murray the Muskox slowly turns away from us and then explodes into a run. He disappears over a rocky ridge left again to his lonely walkings.


From Ebb To Flow

Frank waiting in cabin for current to die (1)
One of the challenges travelling the Northwest Passage is anticipating the play of currents on our movement. The difference between a current with us and against us is the difference between easy rowing and none at all.

We are told that the general background current in this section of the Northwest Passage is from west to east but we’ve come to learn that site specific factors of tide and wind play are far more important in its prediction.

Before heading out on this expedition I had a discussion with oceanographer Bill Williams – Bill is the man behind our CTD testing operation – and he cautioned me about the currents that form around Cape Bathurst on the Beaufort Sea. “When the wind blows from the west you’ll have a 4KN current moving with you”, he advised, “but an easterly wind will do the opposite.”

We’ve found that wind and tide have a profound influence on current throughout the passage, it’s not only limited to Cape Bathurst. The ebb and flow of tidal movement mixed with the push from wind makes the predictability of current something more akin to sooth-saying than it is to critical analysis. We find ourselves continually fooled by what we think should be the correct direction but isn’t.

Under a light wind today we struggled to maintain a speed of 2-kmph. Each oar stroke had the heaviness of the boat in the pull and we knew we were fighting a current. We anchored, rested for a couple hours and tried again. This time we maintained a speed of 3.8-kmph as the tide switched from an ebb to a flow and made our movement easier. It’s easy to see that patience is one of the most important qualities in an arctic traveller: Quinuituq


A Mixed Bag

The past few days have been a bit of a mixed bag for us. Our progress has been slow as we continue to get hit by challenging winds. We’ve been doing our best to steal some mileage in between the patches of stiff headwinds but overall it feels like we’re currently spending more time sitting around than we are rowing which is frustrating.

Our freeze-dried meals are stored in a few of our deck hatches so when you reach in to grab one, it’s essentially a lucky dip to see what you get for your meal. We knew we had some freeze dried egg mix in one of the hatches but up to now, we hadn’t yet found one.

To make up scrambled eggs, you just add water to the mix, stir it up well and then cook it over a flame (just like you would do scrambled eggs at home). Well earlier this week we pulled out two of these beauties so our breakfast on Wednesday morning was scrambled eggs and a sausage which was a real treat for us. We have one bag of sausages so these are somewhat of a delicacy for us when we have them. Our breakfast is usually a bowl of porridge washed down with a coffee so the eggs and sausage was a very fancy change for us.

We also have 1 power bar each per day but our supply will run out before Cambridge Bay. So when we got to Paulatuk a few weeks ago, we added in a few boxes of pop tarts to supplement the power bars. I’ve never really eaten pop tarts before but they’re actually delicious and go great with a cup of tea (what doesn’t). So since Paulatuk, we can have either a power bar or a pop tart each day. As with all our meals, we’ve been fairly rigid with sticking to our daily rashions so we were quite surprised to learn last week that our pop tarts were finished. We searched the boat but in vain and the mystery of the disappearing tarts shrouded the boat for a few days as we all knew that nobody was eating extra ones on the side.

Yesterday morning, Denis found the remaining stash of pop tarts; this felt like we had all just received an extra Christmas present!!

The last 24 hours have been frustrating. We pulled out of our last shelter point in the early hours of Friday morning but we had a very strong current against us which slowed us to a near standstill. When you row The Arctic Joule into a strong current, it feels like somebody is pulling the boat in the opposite direction and so every stroke requires huge effort and feels like your pulling the entire dead weight of boat. which makes for very hard rowing at very low speeds. As we were making virtually no progress, we dropped the anchor after a few hours to wait and see if the current and wind would ease to a point where we could actually make some progress again.

Just before we got going again, Denis spotted our first Grizzly Bear. We were anchored about 150 – 200 metres off shore and the bear was right beside the waters edge. It was very exciting to see such a powerful creature like this in its natural wild environment. At first it was just lying amongst the sea weed by the shore line, then it raised itself up on its hind legs and focused its attention towards us sticking its nose in the air to smell our presence. This is day 43 of our trip so I’m sure whatever scent the bear picked up probably wasn’t all that pleasant.

Frank went into the water to get some footage for the documentary. The Grizzly did start moving into the water towards Frank but there was plenty of distance between them and the bear didn’t really move much further before returning to the shore. This was a quite a large Grizzly and as far as we could tell looked well fed and healthy. We spent about 40 minutes in the company of this magnificent animal before deciding to push on.

The bear shuffled off quite quickly when he heard the clunking sound of our anchor as we pulled it in on deck.

After we got going again, the first hour was a slog but the current gradually eased and we are currently making good progress. We have some mixed winds forecasted for the next 24 to 48 hours so we’ll just keep plodding along as best we can. In the last few minutes, we have just rounded Cape Bexley which means we are now pushing south east towards Cambridge Bay. We still have another 450km or so to go before we reach Cambridge Bay but rounding this Cape is another milestone for us along the way and the bear sighting has definitely lifted everyones spirits……..


Down Wind Of A Grizzly

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Our previous evening’s storm blows itself out by the middle of the next afternoon and we start moving again. The weather report is grim but our hope is to poke along like yesterday and steal another few kilometres when the wind takes a breath.

We make the first of two moderately large crossings in chunky water with light winds and are happy with the effort. But the sea has begun to build and we slip into a well protected bay for dinner and some sleep.

It’s 12:30am, we’ve eaten and we’re readying for bed. Night is much more pronounced now with the ten minutes of reduced light dropping off each successive day making itself felt. In just over a month darkness will match lightness on a regular day.

Paul is last into the cabin and observes that the wind has died. Windless conditions, no matter when they occur, mean movement for us. This is one of those moments where I find myself digging deep. It’s dark and raining out and I’m in my sleeping bag ready for sleep.
“Pop in a quick three hour sesh?” Frank asks with the enthusiasm that I feel. “Sounds good” I lie, and we start packing up.

We slip out of our bay, a bruise of broiling clouds pushing across the horizon. A misty drizzle blankets us as I slip my iPod on under my hood. Pink Floyd, I float through the twilight.

There is no pain you are receeding
A distance ship smoke on the horizon
You are only coming through in waves
You’re lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying
When I was a child I had a fever
My hands felt just like two balloons
Now I have that feeling once again
I cannot explain
You would not understand
This is not how I am
I have become Comforably Numb

Denis spots him while sitting at the oars. A strong current had stopped us after a shift and a half and we’re currently anchored about 200 meters off shore in very shallow water. “I see a bear!” Denis states matter-of-factly, “No, really, I see a grizzly bear!!”
Grizzly3 smallLying in the kelp at the edge of shore is a large brown bear. He’s completely oblivious to us and he’s a giant. His massive shoulders support a huge dish faced head, his distinctive hump make him unmistakable: grizzly bear.

Frank quietly slips out of the boat to get a steady shot with the video camera – the boat is rocking and the water is only a couple feet deep even out this far – and we’re noticed. The bear immediately stands up on his hind legs and starts vigorously shaking his head back and forth to pick up our scent. He’s aware of us now and he’s not afraid. Far from it.
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Our mighty bruin starts to move towards us in the water. His body language speaks to us on a primordial level. His head is low and the hair on his back seems to be standing erect. He moves with slow deliberateness, eyes locked on us. The body language says it all. On some primitive level we all fear being hunted and this bear has peaked this vestigial urge. Denis grabs the shotgun and readies a shot in the air.

But our bear is just letting us know who’s boss. After a few minutes he turns and slowly heads back to the kelp bed he came from. He sets about making a bed and lays down to rest. When he finally lowers his head, he turns it away from us, disinterested and unafraid. It’s a humbling moment, one we’ve been waiting for all trip.