The prints aren’t huge, likely double the size of man’s hand, but the profile is unmistakable: grizzly bear. They seem very fresh, likely minutes old, prints of a bear in flight (we surmise) having seen a strange object approach through the fog.
We stole 28kms today. The weather forecast had been for high winds and difficult travel but our morning builds to a guarded calm and we jump at it – calm water in the arctic is as rare as winter sun in Vancouver after all.
Remnants of DEW Line Site PIN-2 has been staring at us from our evening’s moorage and we elect to pop in and take a look. I find these decommissioned sites far more desolate and lonely than the surrounding landscape purely because of the echo of a past human presence. Poking around them is always fascinating.
Once on shore we make a short walk uphill and are presented with a grid of large metal shipping containers neatly placed in row and column, as cold and ordered as an accountants ledger. Adjacent is a smaller grid of large plywood boxes on palettes. A large sign boldly states: “CAUTION PCB STORAGE AREA TRESPASSING IS PROHIBITED” An unhappy legacy to time past.
A gravel runway sweeps across the site, compact and useable. A large metal clad airplane hanger lords over, its shape strangely pleasing in an architectural sense, its proportion and form reminiscent of a post-modern expression. It’s all so strange in such a landscape.
A medium Northwester builds to push us to our next point of protection. Patrick, a retired meteorologist who is kindly helping us with our forecasts, suggests the winds will intensify soon. We find protection and the winds do as he says, to near gale force. It’s nice having a guardian angel or two.
We’re able to get to shore in this lee and elect to sleep in the tent for the night.(tent poles are fixed from the last wind storm) The ground in the area is low-lying with grassland, tidal flats and gravel bars wrestling for dry their share of the dry ground. Looking for a good tent spot has us searching the area and this is when we see the tracks.
A grizzly bear print stands out like no other with divots from the large claws radiating out from the body of the print. When seen side by side, the front paw prints turn in towards one another indicating a slightly pigeon-toed stance.
These tracks look like they’ve dug into the mud in an explosive gallop. Did this animal scurry off in a hurry? Was it us it was running from?
We are now 6 weeks into the trip so needless to say there has been a slight emergence of some facial hair over this time. Prompted by a comment from a friend in Vancouver, we were chatting about this recently. Our beards are all quite different so here’s my take on them:
Frank’s Grizzly Beard – without a doubt top of the beard food chain, this beast takes on a life of it’s own at times. I think it actually did some rowing yesterday while Frank was resting. If you look at Frank’s face for a few minutes you can actually see it growing. An absolute monster of a beard !!
Kevin’s Polar Beard – a healthy beard no doubt but one that contains a strange mix of red and white, mostly the latter. Definitely a candidate for Santa Claus in the near future, Kevin’s beard needs very close monitoring as it is aging rapidly. There’s a chance by the time we get to Cambridge Bay, the red in the beard could be completely gone.
Denis’s foxy beard – this is definitely the one beard that provoked the most discussion amongst us. This is an out and out “ginger beard” but the tash part is a peculiar blonde colour which makes it harder to see. All of this is in striking contrast to Denis’s dark black hair on his head so there’s definitely some freakiness going on here.
Paul’s badger beard – mine is obviously the pick of the bunch, good growth but unlike the last time I had a beard, there is now a healthy dose of grey in the chin area. I like to think this gives it a “distinguished” look but as the lads point out, it’s actually just a sign that I’m getting old
On my last shift, I was listening to some Dylan and had a quiet chuckle to myself when “Blowin’ in the wind” came on as this pretty much sums up our movement. We’ve had a few great days with calm seas and glorious sunshine so we’ve made good progress (about 130km over the past 48 hours). Some stiff south easterly head winds decided to come visit us so we spent most of yesterday on anchor in a small bay. It’s mad (or maybe not so mad at this stage) how comfortable you get with the confined cabin space and sharing it with 3 other lads.
We had a good feed last night, a mug of scald (tea) and a few games of cards before hitting the hay around midnight. When all four of us are sleeping in the cabin together, we aren’t quite on top of each other but there is virtually no room between us so we essentially sleep shoulder to shoulder in the cabin. As odd or uncomfortable as that might sound, it’s actually not too bad – it’s amazing how easy it is to sleep when you are really exhausted. Although waking up inches from Denis’s mug on one side and Frank’s on the other isn’t exactly how I would look to normally start my day.
The forecast wasn’t great for the next 24 hours but around 3am, the wind died off a bit so we got back on the oars and have been going for the past 6 hours or so. The sun has left us and the fog is back so visibility isn’t great but at least for now we’re moving forward…..
The beaches of the Northwest Passage eventually catch the detritus of the arctic waters and leave it on display for all to see.
Rusty oil cans rank as the hands down leader in arctic rubbish, their matt reddish tinge regularly catching our eye against the steely grey background of rock and stone. The shear number of used drums speaks to the difficulty of motorized travel in the region as does their abandonment to a certain indifference to the landscape.
Driftwood abounds on the beaches, the massive outflow of the Mackenzie River still being felt as far afield as the Dolphin and Union Strait where we are. There is no lack of firewood when we need it. Styrofoam is an ordinary observance here as well, its properties resisting decomposition like few others.
We stumble upon a strange device the other day that appears like something from outer space. A stainless steel cage is encircled by six plastic floatation balloons and houses a long blue and white instrument with three orange faced saucers at its end. I’ve never seen anything like it before. We mark the point with our GPS and take down a company identification email to let them know where the device lies.
An email from the company explains: “What you have found is a device that measures ocean currents. Before breaking free of its mooring it has been deployed about 100m below the surface, measuring current speed and direction for every five meters of the water column. Data from these sensors are used by scientists to map ocean currents around the world, in order to understand our environment better.”
The rock strewn ramparts of the Northwest Passage talk to a a more demanding history as well. In the course of one 24-hour rowing session we sight two shipwrecks, boats of an indeterminate age stranded high on shore, their final act on display, their history unknown.
The last two days have been tremendous for us with the wind dying and our rowing efforts continuous. But good things always come to an end and southerlies have returned with a vengeance. 25-30KN winds are forecast for the next couple days and thanks to sage advice from our meteorological eyes-in-the-sky we’re hunkered down in a relatively protected bay at Cape Young. We travelled over 120kms in the last 48-hours so our spirits are high as we head into our forced layover.
The coast we observe as we row is rock strewn and bleak. Small patches of green are the only living respite in a world of rock in all its forms. It’s a brutal place, hostile and unforgiving.
For me, with sensibilities developed in a temperate climate, the arctic at first seemed vast and untenable, a veritable barren land without life. But mine is a slow voyage through this Northwest Passage and my eyes are allowed to linger on the landscape a little longer and as they linger life begins to peer back. It comes in the form of the piercing stare of a snowy owl, motionless in a state of ostensible indifference. It sneaks up upon me as a playful splash from a bearded seal, furtively approaching to investigate our craft, curious but cautious. It holds me captivated through the crazed gallop of young caribou running frantically down a beach, it’s head swinging wildly as if tortured by some invisible demon, a demon I know to be the mosquito.
Life moves through the arctic in a very different way. It abounds at times and doesn’t exist at others. A river mouth will appear barren until it is teaming with arctic char, a lagoon placid and empty until a hundred
beluga speckle its waters porcelain white. Existence in the arctic is a tenuous balance but life here is strong, it is tenacious and it survives.
One of the tricky things with being on sea anchor over the past 36 hours has been the false lulls. On numerous occasions, the wind eased enough for us to think that perhaps we can jump back on the oars and go again. This “false lull” would last 15 minutes before the wind reverted to a strong head wind and so we would find ourselves back on anchor. After a few false starts, we were wise to the trickery of the wind and so we just stayed put. Finally yesterday, we got a lull that was real and so we got going again. Although at times, we had a challenging cross wind which negatively impacted our speed, at least we were able to make progress and this is what we’ve been focusing on.
Just before we managed to get going, we spotted a sail boat on the horizon which was the first we have seen so far. They must have spotted us too as they came up next to us for a brief chat. The Swedish boat was about 40ft long and the crew (two of whom were on deck) were on the way to Greenland. They reckoned they will reach Cambridge Bay within 4 days – it could take us 4 weeks !!
We are now getting a few hours of darkness during the nights. It’s not total darkness just yet (my guess is we will have that within the next 2 weeks or so). Denis and I were on the oars around 3am when all of a sudden we spotted some lights on the horizon. They were the navigation lights of a boat but then we realized there were multiple boats. We first thought 2, then revised our guess to 3 before thinking there were possibly up to 5 and they were moving very fast towards us. It was actually a bit freaky, like we were being chased by Aliens or something. We briefly wondered if this was the Canadian Coast Guard and if so why were they flying towards us at such frantic speeds.
As they got near, we realized they weren’t boats at all but four high powered jet skies and an even higher powered support boat. We chatted with them for a few minutes. They has started in Seattle and were on the way through the passage and then across the Atlantic to London. They were planning to go around the entire world but London was as far as they were going this year. After a few minutes of chat, they took off into the night. We reckoned they were comfortably doing anywhere between 50 and 70km an hour. At that exact point we were struggling with the conditions and were doing about 1.5 km an hour – I’d be lying if I said we weren’t a little jealous……..
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