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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.”
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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.


A Lesson In Patience For Denis

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I normally leave the blogging to the boys, but I thought it might be interesting to hear how I’m getting on nearly a month into my first expedition, and in particular the last couple of days, well 60 or 70 hours because the days all run into one up here….

With all the drama of the last few days we really needed to take stock of what it is we are doing and if we are going down a dangerous road. I do feel that while situations we found ourselves in were dramatic we all clicked into gear and made the right decisions at the right times, we all knuckled down and the team dynamic was fantastic. This expedition has been in the planning for nearly two years; very early on we decided the best vessel for the journey was an ocean rowing boat. This would allow us to have a craft that was capable of handling very rough sea conditions we expected on the long crossings some over 150k in length. We didn’t feel this was possible in a smaller more maneuverable craft like a sea kayak. The planned crossings have not been possible because of the ice coverage and the danger of ending up in a soup of massive icebergs. To avoid this we have had to stay much closer to the shore and skirt around the bays like one would in a smaller craft. The difficulty with this is that the ocean rowing boat is much more susceptible to wind. So the danger is that we are blown away form the shore out to the ice that lurks off shore. This is absolutely not an option as the boat would be destroyed and we would be in serious danger. The only available option is to do as we have been doing and to travel when we can. You cannot imagine how frustrating this is, we make light of it but it eats at you every minute you are not moving forward. That is why we dragged the boat along the shore for nearly 100k, and is possibly why we have been flying closer to the wind then we ever intended. We have simply been trying too hard. Traveling in the arctic is about patience. You will not meet any of the local people around here who gamble with the weather, you simply wait, and if the situation doesn’t improve sufficiently you wait some more. There is no sense in pushing on, as Mother Nature is right on top of her game up here. If you make mistakes or push your luck you get punished. We have accepted this and will pick and choose our movement even more carefully going forward.

Having the personalities we have on our team this is possibly the most difficult thing for us, pushing on would be easy… as ridiculous as it sounds.

When I went looking for something like this trip I was told by all the experienced people I met that the mental side is the hardest part. We have proven that we can grind when we need to and we have proven to ourselves that as a unit we make the right calls when the chips are down, now we need to did even deeper and find more patience… not an asset I have possessed in abundance in the past, but I came here to find out about myself I guess and its surprising that with all the action going on it could be a lesson in patience that I find the most valuable..

I have a framed Irish rip off of the good old English saying, keep calm and carry on…. It reads, “Keep going, sure its grand” that won’t be applicable up here………


Frank Holds The Line

Boat in ice medium
We awake to calm seas gently lapping our refuge bay. The telltale sign of change is the stillness of our cabin but it’s often easy to miss. The gentle rocking of the boat and the sudden silence from a screaming wind has a tendency of keeping one asleep rather than rousing them to work.

We rally quickly and begin retracing our lost ground across Sellwood Bay reaching our previous high point within a couple hours. The day unfolds nicely with light winds and comfortable temperatures being the mood of the moment. Deterioration in the weather begins on the fourth rowing shift when offshore riffles begin to build quickly. We’re near land, skirting the inside of a large field of broken ice, and make for the best lee we can find. Our options are much more limited now that we have lost our anchor but we find a suitable moorage on a gravel beach and rest until things settle. After the trials of the last 36 hours we are gaining an appreciation on how quickly things can change up here.

The winds die by 2:30am. It’s Frank and my shift and we head out into a drizzly morning shrouded in arctic fog. Our visibility is a mere 50 meters and we travel solely by the aid of GPS and compass. It’s an eerie sensation moving forward, seeing nothing in a milky blankness until the contorted form of a decaying chunk of ice glides past, a weary foot soldier returning home from some far off battle.

The seas begin to change as we round Cape Parry, the deep breathing of an ocean swell beginning to make itself felt. Within minutes the winds have blown up and are pushing us hard into open water. The fog remains thick and we loose all sight of land. Steep waves reflected from the invisible cliff walls of the cape are mixing with the big swell of the gulf and the chop from the wind. We begin to spin in circles and can’t find our line. At first we think our GPS has gone haywire but regardless of how hard we try our bow is forced around and we spin wildly. A strong current appears to be in this mix and we can’t break free from it.

The wind has built into a very strong blow and is pushing us into open ocean, into the heavy pack ice of the gulf. After our ice ordeal a couple days ago this is the last thing we need at the moment but it’s happening nonetheless. Eventually we manage to hold a straight line in a southeast direction, 45 degrees to the wind driven wave direction and start rowing hard. We want to get as far away from the crazy waters of the Cape as fast as we can. Unfortunately our direction is away from land, out into the gulf, right into the path of the pack ice.
Our GPS indicates there’s a tiny island, no more than a speck really, smack-dab in our existing path. It’s a stroke of luck at a moment when not much is being passed around. If we can hold our line we may be able to make land on it. The seas are building and the fog remains thick. Frank holds a line that will drift us about a kilometer above the island where we can turn and surf our way down to it. Or it least that’s the plan.

It’s a tense 30 minutes battling cross-seas to make our turn. The scream of the wind dies as we start to glide with it. “It’s like landing a paraglide on a postage stamp” Frank quips.

Sitting among white-capping rollers we race towards our island shrouded in fog. Paul and Denis come on deck to help us spot, facing backwards in a row boat takes some getting used to and, in times like these, is not very practical.

“We’re only 300 meters out”, Frank shouts, “Do you see anything?”
“Nothing yet”, replies Paul.

One hundred and fifty meters out and Paul hollers “Land ho”. Out of the mist a dark shadow appears, steep cliffs, crashing waves, little hope. We begin to ferry sideways to see if there’s any potential landing point. On the far side there’s a steep gravel beach, 40 meters wide, totally exposed to the waves, our only choice.

The waves push us in hard. Paul steers the Arctic Joule as Frank and I maintain a steady row. We hit the beach, leap out and keep the stern perpendicular to the surf. It’s a drill we mastered on Sellwood Bay a couple days back. Denis and I quickly set up a winch-pulley system while Frank and Paul control the boat and we haul the Arctic Joule ashore.

Somehow we managed to hit this tiny islet in the midst of a storm with zero visibility. Had we missed it we would have been pushed straight out into the grinding pack ice of The Amundsen Gulf. I’ve never been happier to be on terra-firma.

Arriving on Refuge Islet – as we’ve come to call it – results in round-the-clock work as our storm has worked itself into a gale. By late evening huge chunks of ice are everywhere, blown in by the incessant wind, and they’re stacking up along our beach. Most are small to medium sized ice flows but one is a towering giant well over 40 ft in height.

We haul the boat as high up on the beach as our winch system will allow and wait. By morning our boat is encased in a slushy porridge of ice with larger chunks growling about.

The storm has intensified has switched direction and bears down right on the boat. If it wasn’t for the surrounding ice moat, the Arctic Joule would be pummeled.

The forecast isn’t promising with lots of high winds in the days ahead. It looks like our little rock haven in the Arctic ocean will be home for the next little while.


The Time Capsule

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In our small bay of refuge, we rest for the evening. The trials of a day tangling with ice flows has been both physically and emotionally taxing, and we enjoy a moment of reprieve.
The bay we’re moored in is crescent shaped and has several pieces of sea ice nestled to its far side. It’s defined by a sweeping band of gravel separating the ocean from a smaller lagoon behind, a patch of calm that visually extends our bay back to appear like a triangle of water with an arc of gravel tracing through it.
Sheltering the bay to the east is a small hillside of shattered limestone stacked in benches, almost castle like in form. I stroll to the top to take in the view of Sellwood Bay and stumble upon two small oval depressions in the landscape each surrounded by large pieces of rock. Both depressions are similar in size, roughly 10ft x 5ft, and are cut into the hillside to garner protection from the wind, the wind that’s been strafing us today.
Seven years ago while walking the beaches of King William Island with local historian Louie Kamookak we would discover a similar site. It was over 800 years old, caribou bones still scattered about the floor, evidence of a meal long ago eaten, frozen in a time.
Several months ago, before embarking on this adventure, I decided I’d share my journey with my two young daughters in a very special way. I’d write a message to each of them (Caitlin 9 and Arianna 7) and address them as my daughters in the future, to the two young women I anticipate they’ll become. It was more emotional than I anticipated as I was transported to a time when I may no longer be with them. I rolled each note into a small scroll, added a personal item for each girl and placed them in a small sealed PVC tube. I have the PVC tube with me now and I place it adjacent to one of these ring sites, one snapshot in time resting beside another.
Time capsule small
If my daughters want to retrieve their notes they’ll need to travel north to find them. They’ll need to experience the arctic themselves, they’ll need to experience a place that is deeply important to their father, a place that may be profoundly changed when they get here.
I place the small time capsule under a large piece of limestone and take a GPS reading. The rest is up to my girls.
Kevin at Dorset site 2 small


A Tough Day At The Office

We definitely had our hardest and most eventful day so far yesterday. Things started to go pear shaped around 7am. Denis and myself were on the oars and the last 2 hours of our shift had been great with very calm conditions. The next hour saw a strong wind whip up, the swell became very choppy and there were dark clouds on the horizon. We pulled as hard as we could for the next hour to try and get in behind a headland to take some shelter but Mother Nature was too strong.

We put out the sea anchor to try and halt our backwards progress, it wasn’t ideal but we couldn’t make any progress with the oars. We rested for a few hours and Kevin and Frank tried to make some progress but again to no avail. Our depth was ok to use the ground anchor so they deployed that and we agreed to rest up for a few hours in the cabin and go again as soon as conditions would permit. We were all exhausted and fell asleep.

We then woke to the crunching sound of a large ice berg nudging up against the boat. The ice berg had pinned our anchor line and hard as we tried, we couldn’t free the line. Because the berg was moving, the nose of the boat was starting to be pulled underneath it so we had to cut the line and in doing so say good bye to our anchor. We then spent the next few hours trying to battle our way out of the choppy conditions but again we simply couldn’t make progress into the wind and find a safe place to shelter.
Chsi de Berg small
The best option (out of a bunch of bad ones) was to use some ice screws and anchor the boat to an ice berg that was anchored to the ground and close to shore. So we did this and fell into the cabin once again exhausted. After a few hours the berg cracked and shifted so we had to scamper quickly to free the ice screws and quickly work to prevent the boat hitting the rocky shore line where it could have been damaged.

At this point the wind had whipped up to about 20 – 25 knots and was pushing us hard onto shore. Kevin and Frank were still in their dry suits. Denis and myself weren’t but that didn’t matter it was all hands on deck. Frank and Kevin released the ice crews, Denis and myself attended to our centre board and rudder. By now we were virtually on shore so all four of us jumped into the water to physically hold the boat from grounding into the rocky shoreline.

At this point Denis and I were in our socks and underclothes absolutely soaked. Frank and Kevin held the boat while we jumped into our dry suits. We tried to use our winch to pull the boat safely up on shore using some logs as rollers but there wasn’t anything on the shore we could use that was a strong enough anchor point so we simply had to try and row the boat away from the shore. It was like rowing on a treadmill and we were pulling as hard as we could to simply stop running aground. 20 minutes of this and one would be absolutely shagged so we rotated into 20 minute shifts for the next few hours.

This was back breaking stuff but we managed to get away from the shore line and eventually we found a place where we could safely beach the boat, take some shelter and regroup. We used the opportunity to dry our clothes and the cabin (everything was soaked), we lit a fire, had a big feed and got the spirits up again after our adventurous day.

We all agreed that we will now have to wait for a decent weather window before we can push on so hopefully this comes soon. We have been cautious up to now and rightly so. We are far too remote to be taking any stupid risks and doing so would be absolutely foolish. One thing we are all very clear on now is that we can only move when we have half decent weather conditions. If the weather is rough but in our favour, that’s fine but anything that is pushing us backwards or dangerously towards rocky shorelines means we just have to shelter and proceed again when its safe. That is the reality of moving up here in Arctic……