Being pummelled by sustained 100-kmph winds that gust even higher is an unnerving and humbling experience. I’ve endured winds like this in a tent only twice before (while skiing to the South Pole in 2008/9 and when traversing frozen Siberia’s Lake Baikal in 2010) and each time I remained awake through the ordeal certain our tent would be destroyed. But the tents weren’t destroyed on those two times and our tent isn’t destroyed this time either. The tent is the 4-season Svalbard from Norwegian tentmaker Helsport. It may be a shameless plug but I can’t imagine a better quality product for keeping you alive. This past spring a skier attempting a traverse of Greenland’s icecap lost his tent is a windstorm and died from exposure. The value of a durable tent can’t be overstated in a harsh arctic environment.
The Arctic joule takes a hammering too and by the end of the storm her deck is covered in a layer of fine gravel, her rearview mirror is smashed, her hull paint is partially removed from the constant abrasion from the beach and two of her sealed hatches are compromised and filled with sea water. Like a boxer in a difficult prize-fight, she’s taken a beating in a later round. She’s is in her corner now and she’ll be ready when the weather bell sounds.
Being stormbound has given us the opportunity to explore the surrounding landscape and we’ve ventured out hoping to see more. Muskox dot the hillsides, their numbers abundant in what must be an arctic haven for them but only an arctic wasteland. We set out up a large river valley that creates a distinctive sinuous rift cutting sharply into the landscape as it meanders away from the sea. The valley walls are a mix of steep tundra and crumbling bluff that spill onto to a bed of river rock below. Only a trickle of water meanders through.
The landscape heightens as do the walls of our valley and after an hour of walking we slip down to the river and follow it back to the boat. Dwarf birch and willow tussle for space and cower from the wind. The splash of lingen berry bushes explode against the brown and green of the scrub and caribou bones are scattered everywhere. Bands of exposed rock reveal a greenish tinge as they disintegrate on their airy perch. Copper I surmise, a valley of resource for the south. The community of Coppermine (Kugluktuk) is just a short distance away. Does man’s hand really need to come here, to this truly wild place?
Escape finally comes after spending three nights and we begin rowing in earnest with a moderate northwester pushing us obliquely down the coast. We point the bow to shore and row to offset the vector of northward push while the vector of westward push moves us along at a comfortable 4.5-kmph. It works well if the wind isn’t too strong, too strong would mean pushing us out to sea.
We row continuously for the nest 36 hours and elect to row through the night even though evening brings complete darkness now. Rowing in total darkness is best done on quieter seas and is an altogether different experience than daylight rowing. On this night we are entertained with a display of northern lights streaking green across the southern sky, like mist caught in the rays of a midnight sun.
By morning we’ve made it far enough the coast to start our traverse of Willingdon Bay. The 32km crossing is committing, as all big crossing are, and we move with a light southwesterly pushing us from behind. Fortunately it’s only in the final 7kms that the winds shift and intensify and has us struggling to shore.
We’re camped in the lee of Cape Enterprise and await calming winds to start moving East to Cambridge Bay.