The temperatures have sky-rocketed since arriving on Nicholson Island and the mosquitos have emerged on their hunt for blood. Their presence is overwhelming, their numbers incalculable. I know why the caribou run stir-crazed down the beaches of this island.
We leave Nicholson on calm seas heading east to the Bathurst Peninsula. It’s a shocking change from previous days with seas like glass and temperatures in the mid-20′s. We row continuously for the next 26 hours through smooth waters and positive currents but, in the arctic, good things never last long.
As we begin to round Cape Bathurst the wind begins to build. It’s subtle at first, a light riffle across an otherwise glass like surface, but it builds quickly. The cape presents a vertical black wall of permafrost that rises some 40 ft from waters edge, a green carpet of tundra bends and tumbles from atop its upper surface pulled seaward by the eroding bank. It’s an imposing sight, a shear wall extending itself into the icy mist, and one that makes retreat impossible if things turn bad. And they turn bad.
The wind has built into a strong blow and is white-capping now pushing us directly onto shore. The water here is very shallow and as the seas build so do the steepness of the waves. By the time we reach the most exposed section of the cape the wind is in a frenzy as is the sea. Waves begin to break randomly around us, finding the shallow spots to in the undulating sand shoal surface below. Rowing through big waves is one thing, handling breakers is another. Waves begin to wash across the deck and we realize we’ll need to find find shelter from this storm sooner than later. It will take another hour of hard rowing before a foaming sand shoal presents an option. On the other side of the shoal is calmer waters, a lagoon with seas dampened and broken. There appears to be one section of the sand bar that’s deeper as waves aren’t breaking as aggressively across its surface. We turn the nose of the Arctic Joule and dash for the opening. A yell to the cabin to lift the rudder at exactly the right moment and we scud across the sand and into protected waters. It’s raining, it’s cold and the wind is howling but we’re in calmer waters for the moment.
We leave our shelter on calmer seas but the weather is cloudy and is now very cold. Rounding the cape we move from the Beaufort Sea and officially enter the Amundsen Gulf. We’re excited by the moment but are sobered by the reality that this next phase brings the ice.
The body of water in the Amundsen Gulf that we now need to contend with is a large body of water called Franklin Bay. At about 125kms across it’s mouth (from Cape Bathurst to Cape Parry) and 150kms in length, Franklin Bay looks like a large pizza slice removed from the pie that’s the arctic coast. There’s significant ice throughout the bay and our only choice is to travel south, deeply into it, until we find and adequately safe point to cross.
The wind begins to build again as we start heading South but this time, for the first time, they’re square at our back. Small ice flows are everywhere and we use considerable caution to negotiate a path but by end of day we are virtually sailing down the coast, our rowing motion simply show, adding little to the overall speed.
In 1826 John Franklin travelled these shores and chartered this landscape for the first time. The quest for the North West Passage was underway and Franklin travelled up the Mackenzie and headed east in hopes charting a potential route. He would discover and name a unique geological phenomenon on the shores of the bay that bears his name, the Smoking Hills.
The Smoking Hills are exactly that, mountainsides of billowing smoke that appear as swaths of unhindered forest fire, without the forest. On a technical level they contain strata of hydrocarbons (oil shale’s) auto-ignited by sulfur-rich lignite deposits within the surface. On a non-technical level they are plumes of grey smoke, similar in look and smell to the clouds emanating from a volcano that rise from the flanks of the hills. They’ve been burning continuously for centuries.
Frank and I are on our shift in the early hours of the morning, the wind has calmed and the sky is painted with charcoal bands of cloud backlit by the deep orange of a dying arctic sun. Ice forms, contorted into the exotic and the grotesque, float among us, tinged in pink, mirrored on the flat sea. Clouds of smoke rise from black cliffs marching to the horizon. A large whooshing sound to my right. Mist rises from the sea and a dark serpent slides above the water to disappear again, the gentle flick of a tail sending it to the depths. A humpback whale, in this Tolkienesque world.