Arctic Blog. Journey to Greenland and the Canadian High Arctic - Part Two
August 30th Tuesday
When I awake, the ship is coming to anchor off the small hamlet of Grise (pronounced Greeze) Fiord in the Canadian High Arctic. Here the clock goes back another hour. We are now in Canada and all our passports have to be checked. The shore party heads for the beach in two Zodiacs to pick up a pair of Canadian immigration officers who have flown to this remote spot from who knows where. There is a heavy swell running and breaking waves along the shore make the landing wet and hazardous.
For some reason the Canadian authorities will not permit the Kapitan Khlebnikov to fly her two Russian helicopters in Canadian airspace so two smaller Canadian helicopters have flown some 4,500 km (3,375 miles) to reach this spot from Alma in Quebec Province. This takes their pilots, David and Patrick, four days and 25 flying hours. Along the way they have to refuel fourteen times, mostly from jerry cans carried on board. On their last night, visibility closed in and they had to put down on Devon Island in polar bear country, sleeping with one eye open on the helicopter pontoons. So now we have four helicopters on board – two of which are not permitted to fly! We are given a familiarization tour of the Canadian machines so we can best figure out how to squeeze our anorak-padded bodies and cameras into the smaller machines.
Grise Fiord is located on Ellesmere Island at 76 degrees 24 north latitude, 1200 km (750 miles) north of Arctic Circle. Here, the sea remains frozen for 10 months of the year – only breaking up in mid-August. From May to August the sun never sets and from October to mid February it never rises above the horizon. In fact it had been light all day until August 18th just 12 days ago and the length of each day is currently shortening by 17 minutes every passing day. In just two months time it will be dark 24 hours and the sun will not reappear until February 10th next year! The average annual temperature is -16 C. Its Inuit name “Aujuittug” translates as “The place that never thaws”. They have one resident nurse and a doctor visits once per year. One supply ship per year brings supplies and fuel. The settlement is very exposed and there is no vestige of a harbour. The only practical way out is by air. The fare to Resolute (of which we will hear more later) is C$1,200 and to Inukjuak (see below) is about C$8,000.
Grise Fiord is now a thriving community of 150 but has a shameful history. This settlement, together with the town of Resolute, was created by the Canadian government in 1953, to assert sovereignty in the High Arctic during the Cold War. Eight Inuit families from Inukjuak, on the eastern shore of Hudsons Bay in Quebec province, were forcibly relocated to an even more remote spot not far from here. The reason given was that there were too many people in Inukjuak to support sustained hunting of caribou and moose. After being promised homes and ample game to hunt, the relocated people were dumped on the barren shore to discover no buildings and very little familiar wildlife in this treeless, bleak and frigid spot 2,200 km (1375 miles) from home. They were told that they could return home after a year if they so wished, but this offer was later withdrawn as it would damage Canada's claims to sovereignty in the area. They were, in effect, pawns in a game of international politics. A second group of Inuit from Pond Inlet in Northeast Baffin Island were added to the first which caused further tensions as they came from an entirely different environment and spoke a different language.
For those interested in learning more, a good website is: www.grisefiord.ca or Google: “Grise Fiord - The Qikiqtani Truth Commission”.
Unfortunately conditions are too rough to allow the Zodiacs to land us safely on the exposed beach which is a great disappointment as the school teachers have organized a show to be put on in the assembly hall by the local children. A few kids with their teachers, together with the most elderly lady inhabitant, are flown onto the ship by helicopter which must be a great thrill for them. The teachers are well spoken and clearly dedicated. The group puts on a curtailed show for us in the auditorium. Among the Quark team traveling aboard the ship is Kataisee - an Inuit lady from Baffin Island. She has been educated us ignorant folk about Inuit culture. We learn many things from her and she runs a class for making Inuit style mittens. I reckon we have at least 18 different nationalities aboard ship.
We are now definitely in polar bear country and we receive a mandatory briefing on how to behave ashore. This basically revolves around the concept that Polar bears have a triple A rating as the top predator and that everything else – including people – are on their menu. From here on, whenever we go ashore we will be accompanied by team members armed with long guns. These will be to deter curious bears – not to harm them. As if on cue, a bear is spotted miles away on rocky cliffs.
August 31st Tuesday.
At 0445 it’s daylight but overcast. The wind is a brisk 25 knots and the temperature a chilly 0 degrees C. There is plenty of ice and the Khlebnikov has to do some light ice breaking. I spend time on deck but it is very cold especially with ship underway.
We spot a couple of distant polar bears on the ice but they are much too far away to photograph. We pass through Hell Gate – a channel about two miles wide with steep mountains on either side. It is misty and snow is falling so visibility is limited. We encounter solid ice and the Kapitan has to do what she was designed for. She is brought to a standstill a couple of times and needs to back up and ram to break through. It is impressive to watch the solid ice split and then crack wide open.
September 1st Thursday.
There are no landings or flights today.
I attend a lecture about the ecology and importance of sea ice by Cecilie and learn a number of interesting facts. Not only does sea ice provide shelter and protection to a number of species but the algae, which grows on its underside, is the basis of a food chain which includes krill, fish, whales, seals and ultimately polar bears.
Salt water freezes at -1.8 degrees C. In the Antarctic silver fish have antifreeze in their blood to prevent it from freezing.
Emperor penguins dive to 574 meters (almost 2,000 ft) and stay submerged for 26 minutes. Halibut descend to 1,000m (almost 3,300 ft). Hooded seals in the North Atlantic have the shortest lactating period of any mammal. They feed their young for only 3.8 days during which the pups gain 7kg (15.5 lbs per day) guzzling milk witha fat content of 60-70%.
In the afternoon, we reach Tanqueray Fjord which, at 81.4 degrees, is our most northerly point. We are now a mere 750 Km (470 miles) from the North Pole. I had imagined this place to be stuffed with massive icebergs. Actually there are none and, in fact, this fjord has a relatively benign climate considering its location.
September 2nd Friday
I am up at 0600. Breakfast at 0700 and we are ashore by 0800. There is high overcast with a weak sun trying to break through. The surrounding mountains are covered with fresh snow.
It is another wet landing and, from the stony beach, the Kapitan Khlebnikov looks dramatic against the backdrop of the snowclad mountains. The keen walkers (designated “Vikings”) go ashore first and set off on long hike up a local mountain accompanied by an armed escort. As usual, I opt for the less taxing “contemplative” ramble led by Bob. This place is administered by Parks Canada who have a base here but the buildings are closed and locked because the staff have already left for the season. A Canadian flag crackles in the wind and a wind sock marks the unsurfaced air strip. A collection of ancient equipment lies abandoned in the snow.
We ramble for a couple of hours examining moss, lichens, a purple saxifrage and willows just a few inches high – the best they can manage in this harsh environment.
A trunk the width of a thumb may have as many as 150 rings - indicating that many years of growth.
A BBQ is arranged on the foredeck with a wide range of meats and, for desert, baked apple stuffed with marzipan. It’s a long time since I tasted baked apple and what a wonderful setting in which to do it with the surrounding mountains bathed in pale Arctic sunlight.
After lunch, we take our first excursion aboard the Canadian helicopters. This takes a long time because together they can only accommodate eight passengers whereas the Russian machines can accommodate eight apiece. Each flight includes a sightseeing pass over the adjacent glacier followed by a landing to allow everyone 30 minutes on the ground before returning to the ship. The view from the top of the glacier is stunning and the silence total – when not broken by the thrashing roar of the helicopters! The Canadian pilots are less conservative than their Russian counterparts and on the return journey we sweep down a narrow gully just feet away from the heavily fissured face of the glacier.
September 3rd Saturday
After breaking ice along the way, the Kapitan Khlebnikov anchors off the Eureka weather station. I decide not to go ashore as we have to wear our boots for the wet landing from the Zodiac but need to carry shoes to wear inside the weather station. I find that removing boots is not an easy task. A special boot removing device is provided on each deck aboard ship (see photo). Landings are delayed by one hour after learning that the weather station operates on Central time and we are still on Eastern time. The base is manned year round with 16 staff in summer and 8 in winter on a schedule of 6 weeks on followed by 6 weeks off. The temperature today is 0 degrees C.
We take a helicopter ride in afternoon and land on the airstrip inland from the base. We are each allocated for 30 minutes ashore. The snow is knee deep. We see musk ox both from the air and also a couple of individuals from the ground. They are too far away to get decent photos. I find it amazing they can thrive under these extreme conditions.
We are underway again at 6.35.
September 4th Sunday
I am up at 0530 and exit onto the foredeck. It is really beautiful but very cold at 0 degrees C plus the wind chill. The surrounding mountains gleam white with snow. There is ice on the deck. The frosty fingers of winter’s ice blast have definitely arrived.
After lunch, we have a helicopter sight-seeing ride over the Skaare Glacier bordering Eureka Sound. It is my turn to be allocated the co-pilot’s seat in the white helicopter. Absolutely fabulous view! Photographically, I somewhat blew it because, being a ten minute flight, for the first time I did not carry spare camera batteries and the cold weather proved me wrong. What a stupid mistake! Fortunately had the small TS5 with me as a back up as back up so all was not a total loss.
Dinner is delayed both by the flight and also by the distant sighting of a polar bear on a large ice floe. It is too far away to get decent photos – although we all try our best. We just settle down for dinner when another bear shows up reportedly much closer. There is a mad exodus from the dining room and there is a most beautiful bear just a few yards away from the ship. He is curious but does not seem unduly disturbed by the presence of the great alien object so close to him.
September 5th Monday
This morning, the captain rams the ship into an ice floe to allow us to disembark onto the ice and photograph the ship. The ice is not sufficiently stable for us to be able to use the regular boarding ladder and we have to go by Zodiac which are run at speed onto the edge of the floe. I find that the camera autofocus does not like the cold. The ship backs away leaving us marooned on the ice. Later we have a helicopter flypast so we can view the ship underway.
We are scheduled to head south through Belcher Channel but ice is reported at nine tenths coverage with 80% being dense, multi-year ice. Of the seven times the Khlebnikov has attempted this passage she has been successful only twice. Instead we take a longer route back through Hell Gates.
September 6th Tuesday
With our journey approaching its end we have a schedule to keep so we spend most of the day the day at sea which is sufficiently rough to send spray sweeping across the foredeck.
While underway we attend more lectures in the auditorium. From the first - on terrestial mammals in the Arctic – we learn that lemmings are a very important food source and that the word “rodent” comes from the Latin “rodere” meaning to “gnaw”. The word “Carnivore” comes from the Latin “caro” meaning “meat” and “vovare” meaning to “devour”.
Ecological food chains sometimes start with plants leading to herbivores and thence to carnivores but sometimes it is the other way around with carnivores creating changes to the physical environment. A recent example of the latter is the effect on the flow of the rivers in the Yellowstone area brought about by the protection and re-introduction of the wolf. Another is the nitrogen in northern forests provided by bears feeding on salmon.
A few days ago we had a lecture concerning the world’s climate in which opened with the following quote by Winston Churchill:
“The further backward you can look the farther fwd you can see.”
These words are certainly relevant to this subject. We learn that the world’s climate is affected by a number of regular cycles:
Milankovitch cycles which come around every 100,000 years; Axial Tilt every 41,000 years and Precession every 25,800 years. The Little Ice Age between AD 1400 and AD 1800 was a symptom of this. It is an inconvenient truth that global temperatures follow very closely follow the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere which lengthy and painstaking research has established is now higher than at anytime in the past 800,000 years – and it continues to accelerate.
Today we attend a second lecture on this subject by Pam Le Noury and Alison Kirk-Lansten addressing various aspects of the climate and mankind’s effect on it.
97% of the world’s scientists agree that the world’s climate is changing and that the changes are due to us. The remaining 3% disagree - not so much with the basic facts but with where it is likely to lead us in the future. On the present trajectory, we can expect to reach a figure of 4 degrees C warming by the end of this century which will lead to very severe outcomes. The current goal is to take steps to try to restrict this increase to 2 degrees. It is still just possible to achieve this goal but only if we all play our part.
Some examples are that a two year old goes through 5,000 disposable diapers which will be around for 400 years. It has been estimated that discarded K-cups used in Keurig coffee machines could circle the globe 11 times.
Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff” addresses this general subject.
“We are the first generation to be affected by climate change and the last generation who can do anything about it”.
And yet, in some quarters, the use of the term “Climate Change” is forbidden and the whole subject is described as a hoax. Words fail me!
There is enough sunlight falling on the world in one day to provide the world’s energy needs for one year.
We reach Radstock Bay on Devon Island in late afternoon where an impressive bastion of rock erupts from the snowy landscape. We land by Zodiac and plod through knee-deep snow. Unfortunately the artifacts we come to see are mostly buried beneath a heavy white mantle but the surroundings are inspiring.
We return to the ship for dinner while she relocates a few miles to Beechey Island. At eight pm, with only one hour of daylight remaining, we take a long, rough, Zodiac ride to the shore where we have to surmount a snow drift to get off the beach. We trudge through the snow to four lonely grave markers. Three are from the ill-fated Franklin expedition which tried and failed to discover the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic during the winter of 1845/46 aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. Three members of the party are buried here. The ships then departed for Peel Sound never to return. The fourth grave marks the final resting spot of a sailor from HMS Investigator who reached this spot from the Pacific Ocean. At the time these victims were laid to rest, no one party had transited the long-sought Northwest Passage. There is irony in the fact that the bodies of men who had completed different halves of the passage are buried here together in this bleak and lonely spot. At the time of writing, a total of just 138 vessels have transited the NW passage. After leaving Resolute, the Kapitan Khlebnikov will be making her 18th transit.
Following lengthy investigations, lasting several years, under the auspices of Parks Canada with the help of private organizations and using Inuit 19th century oral testimony, the remains of HMS Terror were finally located in September 2014. More recently, the remains of HMS Erebus were discovered on September 14th 2016 - just 8 days after our visit to this isolated place.
With evening closing in, we do not stay long on shore. I find it hard going through deep snow and I need two hiking poles sticks to prop me up. With the wind at our backs, we have a smooth ride back to the ship under a lovely evening light. This a place of stark ethereal beauty but one which places high demands on every living organism which call it home.
September 7th Wednesday
Overnight we reach the settlement of Resolute which, like Grise Fiord, is another place selected for the relocation of Inuit during the 1950’s. There is not much here in the way of facilities and we have been warned that flights in and out are frequently delayed due to weather conditions.
We are anchored well offshore because of shallow water and a stiff breeze is blowing. To get ashore requires we take the roughest Zodiac ride of the entire trip taking with us our carry-on luggage and carrying our regular footware. The Zodiacs are bouncing up and down about four feet at the foot of the ladder down the side of the ship. Checked baggage will be flown by helicopter directly from the ship to the airport. The Zodiac drivers skillfully ride the waves as we hang on tight ducking the spray, negotiating our way between bizarre-shaped ice floes grounded in the shallows. Once ashore, we make it to a bus which takes us to the hotel where we are relieved of our boots. Here we are provided with sandwiches and have a long wait wondering whether the incoming flight will make it. Visibility comes and goes. There is supposedly wifi – the first since leaving Ottawa – but although it seems to connect, nothing actually works.
After a couple of hours we learn that the plane is on its way and I take the first bus leaving for the airport 3 km distant. This turns out to be a good move as it skids off the icy road on the return journey. The remaining passengers – of which there remain quite a number – have to be brought to the airport four at a time in a 4 wheel drive vehicle.
Snow is falling and a grader keeps the runway clear. The incoming aircraft finally arrives bringing the next load of passengers who will replace us for the ongoing journey through the NW passage. We all mingle together in the arrival/departure hall and we warn them of the exciting ride ahead of them to the ship by Zodiac. They are issued with their anoraks and the boots we have just relinquished but then comes the word that not only is the road from the airport too hazardous negotiate but the Zodiac landing site is now obstructed by ice. There is talk of flying the joining passengers out to the ship by helicopter but the cloud ceiling is currently too low. Quite an exciting start for the newcomers, many of whom have never experienced this kind of trip before.
To our great relief, the incoming aircraft is refueled and de-iced and we are loaded aboard at 4 pm for our flight to Ottawa. There is an intermediate stop for refueling and crew change at Iqaluit on Baffin Island. The total flying time from Resolute to Ottawa is 5 hrs which is the same as a flight across the width of the US. This really brings home the immense distances involved in traveling to this remote part of the planet. We arrive in Ottawa at 1130 pm. It has been a long day but a bus meets the plane on the tarmac and we are driven directly to the hotel with our luggage which is delivered direct to our rooms.
It has been a wonderful trip, very well organized by Quark Expeditions and their dedicated staff and lecturers. Many thanks to the Russian crew aboard the venerable and well traveled Kapitan Khlebnikov who made this journey possible.
Many thanks also to the Austrian catering team who provided such wonderful meals and pastries.