Monthly Archives: August 2013

Collecting Arctic Data

Sandbars guard the exit to Paulatuk and prove to be a headache for us on the row out of the community. We make a five kilometre detour before setting our heading to the far eastern shore of Darnley Bay and Cape Lyon beyond.

We row into the deep waters with the intent of cutting a large corner of the bay with a traverse. The idea quickly shows its weaknesses. This direct route to the far shore is shorter in distance than one more closely following the coastline but this direct route also exposes us to more risks. Travelling further out in the bay means water depths too deep for our ground anchor. If a wind starts pushing us where we don’t want to go we’ll be limited to our sea anchor to slow us down. We discovered the hard way in Sellwood Bay that our sea anchor still allows significant drift enough so that in a twelve hour blow we’d be right back where we were three days ago.
Darnley Coast small
We make the difficult decision to head closer to shore, to take the longer coastal route in shallower water, so we can better control our movement. Our decision proves to be a good one as the next 24 hours has us deploying our ground anchor twice, both times to halt the aggressive push of a 20KN south easterly that would have blown us right out into the middle of Darnley Bay.

The wind eventually dies down long enough for us to row continuously to Cape Lyon, a 24 hour burst that claws back some lost time. The calm seas help us in our data collection duties as well. We’re teamed up with the Vancouver Aquarium and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and they have tasked us with collecting ocean data along our route so that ocean scientists might get a better picture of what’s happening to the waters of the North West Passage. We use a special device called a CTD that measures a host of different ocean characteristics including conductivity, temperature and depth as the acronym indicates.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has very little CTD information across the passage making our data collection a very valuable endeavour. Understanding what’s happening in the arctic ocean will help better understand what climate change is actually doing up here.
Deploying CTD small
Deploying the CTD is a fairly straight foreword process but is one that still requires effort and commitment certainly from rowers who often have their hands full with more pressing issues. The device itself is roughly 3 feet long and 4 inches in diameter and has a number of black rubber hoses emanating from the white cylindrical body. The CTD is attached to a down rigger and is steadily lowered to the ocean floor, a five pound lead ball attached to the underside to facilitate a smooth decent in the water, and is brought up again. This is done twice. All the data is stored in the device but routinely is downloaded to the computer to ensure nothing is lost. We try to take measurements once to twice per day.

There are drawbacks having a boat the size of the Arctic Joule but there are advantages too. Thanks to our big bessie we’re able to collect scientific data that may help scientists better understand the waters of the arctic and how the water is being affected by climate change,


Shopping Up North

I’m one of those guys who absolutely hates shopping, never have liked it and probably never will. However the time we spent in the Northern Store in Paulatuk was probably the most enjoyable shopping experience of my life.

We just finished our first “shore meal” which was part of the resupply we did at Paulatuk. We decided to budget food supplies for 30 days to get us to Cambridge Bay and then add in an additional 10 days of “shore food” which would be eaten in the event that we are forced to shelter on land along the way. So in total we have 40 days of food supply on board which should hopefully see us through to Cambridge Bay which is about 750km away. (We sent additional food ahead to Cambridge Bay before we left Inuvik)

The “shore food” that we added consisted of lunch’s and dinners (we have enough breakfasts on board). For lunch’s we have some meat and pasta or meat and potato dishes that you simply add boiling water to. For our dinners, we got some spaghetti and meat sauce which again is simple to prepare. Being Irish myself and Denis also bought a bag of spuds (potatoes) and we have some mayonnaise and cheese left over from Paulatuk so this can be added into the mix at some point too. I also bought a bag of march mallows for fire toasting at some point. Obviously it would be great if we never had to use this shore food as it would mean we are constantly moving but considering we just had our first shore meal, it was probably a good call.

We’ve added in one extra meal into the our daily menu now which will be a bowl of noodles – we have chicken and beef flavours. So in total now we have four meals a day each – porridge for breakfast, two freeze dried meals and a bowl of noodles. In between we have also have half a bar of chocolate and a choice of either a power bar or a pop tart per day per man.

Each of us also bought whatever extra’s we wanted. We all bought a 700g bag of nuts that we can dip into. Myself and Denis decided to make up 20 little “treat bags” so we each have one of these per day for 20 days (or however long we can make them last). In mine I have some additional nuts, a few jellies, some skittles, one jam biscuit (to have with the cup of tea) and a few crackers.

We also bought more coffee, sugar and coffee mate. In an effort to make the coffee mate last longer, we agreed to start using a spoon rather than just pouring it into our cups. So we each get one spoon of coffee mate per hot drink we have. We got the hazelnut flavour too which is delicious. All in all I think we’re in good shape on the food front for the next month or so.

The ground anchor we picked up in Paulatuk is working well. This is something we will need to use regularly for the remainder of the trip and is quite important.

I had stupidly burnt one of my socks while drying it near the fire a few weeks ago so I bought another pair of warm socks which means I now have 3 pairs. One that I row in, one dry pair to keep for cabin wear only and then a spare pair for when either of the other two gets soaked (as will happen at some stage). I also bought an extra pair of gloves to keep the paws warm when on land. We all have neoprene gloves to keep our hands warm when rowing and these work well but having a dry pair for time on land will be a big help. I did have another pair but they weren’t great so I’ve upgraded a bit.

So that’s the end of my shopping for a month or so. Time for a coffee now before hitting the oars…….


Heading into Paulatuk

It’s not long after leaving Brown’s camp that the wind builds again. It’s a tune we’re familiar with now, moving forward until we can’t, finding a suitable lee, setting up our Helsport tent, waiting until the wind dies again.

It’s hard to underestimate how frustrating this is for us with even a moderate headwind stopping us in our tracks. If we had kayaks now we’d forge along at 4 to 5 kmph but we don’t and stop we must – Quinuituq.

Eagerness to keep moving aside, tent time is a nice time for us. We pass the hours waiting on the wind playing cards (hearts) and chatting about where we are, what we’re doing and the food we miss. We keep the discussion of missing our families to ourselves.

Sleeping in polar bear country is a little different than the norm. You sleep with a shotgun. The gun made me uneasy at first – I’m a big city kid from Montreal and have had little exposure to firearms – but I find myself fairly complacent now. Our 12 gauge rests at my feet, tucked up beside Denis’s head. There are no cartridges in the barrel, just in the chamber, and the lock is on. Potentially deadly but currently benign, we fall asleep easily.Gun at Denis's head small

Over a decade ago I heard about a Vancouver based kayak team attempting to paddle the Northwest Passage. Early in the trip, while camping on a beach, a polar bear leaped on their tent and mauled them. They were able to get a shot off in the mayhem, missing the bear but scaring it off, and had to call for rescue. During the ensuing wait, with one of the paddlers badly hurt, the polar bear remained close by, weighing its chances on another assault.

Strangely enough I feel no anxiety when sleeping here. We’re prepared for the things we can be, we don’t  worry about things we can’t.

The wind holds strong for the night and is kind to us in the morning. We row continuously for the next 27 hours with little interference and glide into Paulatuk at 13:00 on silky smooth seas, a cloudless, pastel blue sky our welcoming small

Communication with the outside World

Readers may wonder how we’re able to communicate from one of the remotest places on earth, uploading blogs and images daily to our website and the Vancouver Sun. Well, it’s all done through satellite technology and a healthy dose of patience.

ADAIA Communications is instrumental in making our communication system what it is. They’ve helped us pull everything together and make what can be potentially a very confusing setup into something that’s easy to figure out and runs smooth.

The key to the whole system is the satellite phone and we’re using an Iridium 9505a model. Iridium has excellent coverage throughout the arctic and was the right choice for us.

Our computer is a Macbook Air laptop that’s compact and durable, with a solid state drive – no moving parts to break. All our blogs are written on this and all are images are uploaded to it too.

To make transfer easy from the computer we have a small wifi hotspot connected to the phone via a special connection device and cable. The wifi hotspot called the Optimizer has special drivers that take information received from the computer and process it so it can be sent as data through the satellite phone. It works like a charm.

We use a special email account through Ocensmail that facilitates connectivity through satellite phone. It monitors file size and allows files to be uploaded and dropped (happens all the time with a sat phone) and then to restart where they were left off. This is a very important point as some file scan take 20 minutes or more to upload. Having the call drop at minute 19 and not restart at this point can be extremely disheartening.

Sending text files is easy to deal with as they are small in size and can be cut and pasted into the body of an email but photos are a different beast altogether. The image size captured on our camera a Canon D600 is 24MB (24,000kb) per image. The realistic maximum size of photo I can send via a satellite data connection is 50kb. Needless to say some serious resizing needs to be done. I could send larger files but wait times would be onerous. As it stands a 50kb file will often take 15-30 minutes to be processed and sent across. This is why we don’t send lots of images and can’t send video.

The entire communication system is charged by a 12V battery that is being perpetually charged by solar. With 24hr daylight, this is proving a very good system.

Readers who have been following us on our website will have seen that we have a dynamic mapping program connected with Google Earth that shows our location as we move. This is done through a small device called a Spot checker that transmits our location via satellite. It uses minimal battery power and just runs away in the background keeping track of we’re going. It has an SOS component to it too.

Arctic Communications

- Kevin

The Madness Of The Mind

Arctic Joule in ice at Refuge Islet
Most of the books I read are non fiction and many are autobiographies. I love reading about people and I find the human mindset intriguing – why we do what we do, why we often don’t do what we really want to do and how the mind and our own “head space” can have such a huge influence over the direction our lives take. I think it’s an area of human performance that is often overlooked.

For many years now, I’ve been a big believer that the body follows the mind so in advance of departing on this trip, I did spend some time on my own mental preparation and one of the things I did was to bring some letters with me from my family. I did this when I rowed the Atlantic and found it to be a very helpful boost at tough times. Sort of like “a mental solar panel” that helps recharge the mind and spirit. Perhaps this is akin to simply chatting with a friend or loved one when something goes wrong. So this time round, I asked my family to write whatever they want in the letter knowing that I will dip into this “mental well” periodically throughout the trip.

Whether it’s down to having the experience of the Atlantic under my belt, the fact that there are four of us on this trip or perhaps just being a bit older now, I’ve found myself experiencing far less “low moments” on this expedition so I haven’t felt the need to dip into my goody bag of letters. The only real negative feeling for me has been a periodic sense of frustration at our slow progress even though I know logically that there is nothing we can do about it. Ice and wind will always trump human power.

Yesterday Denis and I were chatting about this and we both agreed that when the trip is over, we simply want to be able to look ourselves in the eye and say we did absolutely everything humanly possible to get across the North West Passage. Essentially that we emptied the tank and left it all out there.

So later in the evening, I found myself in an interesting head space where once again, we were forced to shelter from the wind’s desire to push us out towards the menacing pack ice. But rather than feeling frustrated, I actually felt some contentment because I know we’re doing everything we can to make progress and most importantly we’re being as safe as we can about it. We had set up camp for the night on land, the dinner was nearly ready so I decided to take a walk up to a quite spot looking out over Darnley Bay, to read a letter from my goodie bag – this one was from my Dad. I wasn’t feeling low but I just wanted to read a letter (something quite rare in today’s world) so I thought why not.

I went from feeling fairly good before reading it to feeling great afterwards. Thank you Dad for taking the time to do this in such a thoughtful manner. Thanks also for the reminder that my golf game is crap and that I still owe you a pint from our last outing earlier in the summer. I’m looking forward to this pint later in the year (and a rematch) and I think its fair to say we will not be having just the “one”.

Today is day 28 of our expedition, we are pushing things as hard as we humanly can so the intention is to simply keep doing this in a careful manner. The mind is in a healthy place and we are on the move today. Better not say that too loud as sometimes I think Mother Nature senses that you’re feeling good and then goes nuts on us………


Hospitality Of The Northwest Passage

Our relocation from Refuge Bay to Refuge Islet speaks to a theme developing in our expedition, a theme we plan to alter as soon as we can. Our ordeal heading into Refuge Islet – or Bear Island as the local Inuvialuit call it – would have been a little less stressful had we had an anchor on board the Arctic Joule but as readers know, we lost that in our Refuge Bay ice incident a few days earlier.

Refuge Islet is ringed with precipitous cliffs, save for the tiny steep beach we ran up on, and eliminated our moorage options. Had we had an anchor we could have positioned ourselves in the lee of the island and kept ourselves safely out of the storm without issue.

The storm, in the end, lasts for two days unabated. It pushes well into gale force category as it’s a far more powerful display than the gale that raked us just outside of Tuktoyaktuk some weeks back.

In the early morning hours of day three the winds finally subside. We’ve been patiently waiting this moment and quickly break camp and ready the boat. It’s only a five kilometre hop to the far shore from our island but these five kilometres might have been five thousand in recent days, the impassable morass of wave and wind it represented.

We’re all a little anxious upon departure, our nerves ragged after the previous days, but the rhythm of the rowing eases the mind and before long we’re skimming along the east bank of the Parry Peninsula with Refuge Islet in the mist.

Before long we spot a small cabin on the rocky shore, the first manmade shelter – other than DEW line stations – that we’ve seen since leaving Tuk almost a month ago. We swing in for a closer look.
There are three boats moored adjacent and several people on the beach. One of them gives us a big wave and our eagerness to meet other humans draws us in.
Joe Illisiak at Brown's Camp small (1)
Brothers Joe and Steve Illisiak are on the beach waiting for us introducing themselves and welcoming us to their camp. “There’s hot coffee inside”, says Steve, pointing to the cabin, a single storey grey plywood box with a large radio antenna in front. “We glassed you guys from way out. We wondered if you were coming in.”
Hot coffee to weary rowers is like creamed honey to bears and we stumble over one another heading in.
The cabin is dark and bare with an old couch, table and chairs, several cots and a small kitchen counter rounding out the furnishings. Five men are inside and all are quick to welcome us. There’s a purity in the genuine hospitality of people in the north, something I’ve experienced in Alaska and the Yukon, and that sense of generousness washes over me here too. We are told this is Brown’s Camp, a beluga hunting station, and that everyone present is a resident of the hamlet Paulatuk to the South.

“Please, there’s coffee here, noodles and soup over there, take what you want, make yourself at home”

Joe explains to me that the crescent bay we’re situated on is a perfect hunting station for belugas. “When we we see them surface at the point out there we head out and coral them into this dead end bay.”
Polar bear bones small (1)
The belugas are then forced into shallower water until they need to come up for air at which point they are harpooned and shot. There’s no sugar coating it, it’s a brutal process, but an essential one for these people.

We joke about craving a can of Coke and how we’d like to buy a case when we get to Paulatuk. “Pop costs you over $4.50 a can in Paulatuk.” says one of the men. “A jar of peanut butter is $19.00″, says another.

Harvesting food from the land and sea is what the people of the north have always done and will continue to do. The grotesquely overpriced ‘western’ food found in the remote villages of the north are more an aberration than a diet reality. Who could afford such prices and for what? The ‘country’ food in the north is proven to be far healthier for the people and is there for the harvesting.

I speak to this from an interesting perspective. I’ve been a vegetarian for over three decades now and eschew eating meat in my daily life. When I undertake adventures I eat anything that is offered me and in this case it would be raw beluga. Beluga can be eaten raw, cooked or fermented. Fermented beluga, or muktuk, would appear to be the hands down favourite among my hosts (it tastes like hazelnut evidently) but that option isn’t on the table here. For me it is raw meat and blubber with dash of salt. The consistency of the blubber is like butter, the meat tough like sinew. The flavour reminds me of ham, there’s no hint of fish at all.
Beluga meat small (1)
Walking around camp I notice bones clearly from a what clearly was once a very large animal. “Polar bear” says Joe, “Ten and a half footer. I shot him in the spring.” I try to imagine this animal standing on its hind quarters. A typical ceiling in a home is 8ft. I picture this monster two and a half feet taller and my heart moves into my throat. “Are there many around now?” I ask with feigned nonchalance. “They’re probably all out on the ice” says one of the younger men, “but you never know.”

The wind is strangely quite, a sign for us to keep moving. Good travel is proving as rare as vegetation for us up here. We bid adieu to our new friends and begin rowing south.