Kayak Nunavut ’99, Part 5

Kayak and komatik on sea ice with Pamela Coulston, Pond Inlet, Nunavut.

Kayak Nunavut 99
Published August 8, 1999
Dispatch 5

£ 20,000 reward will be given by
Her Majesty's Government
To any Party or Parties, of any country, who shall render efficient assistance to crews of the discovery ships under the command of Sir John Franklin.
1 - to any Party or Parties who, in the judgement of the Board of Admiralty, shall discover and effectually relieve the Crews of Her Majesty's ships 'Erebus' and 'Terror', the sum of £ 20,000.
2 - To any Party or Parties who, in the judgement of the Board of Admiralty, shall discover and effectually relieve any of the Crews of Her Majesty's ships 'Erebus' and 'Terror', or shall convey such intelligence as shall lead to the relief of such Crews or any of them, the sum of £ 10,000.
3 - To any Party or Parties who, in the judgement of the Board of Admiralty, shall by virtue of his or their efforts, first succeed in ascertaining their fate, £ 10,000.

Lady Franklin and the British Admiralty never heard from Sir John Franklin after he headed out in 1845 to look for the North West Passage because he was dead. His financial backer and family didn't hear from John Ross either when he headed out looking for the Passage in 1829 and after two years presumed him dead. But another two years later - four since setting out from England - he was found out rowing in Prince Regent Inlet near Somerset Island. They didn't hear from us for eight days because we couldn't solar charge our computer batteries and beam in on the satellite.

Oh, the frustration! After months of planning and consulting, one or more links in our sun-solar panel-block batteries-inverter-computer and satphone batteries chain is not cooperating. It has become our nemesis and is consuming almost all our thoughts and energy when not moving camp. We have tried endless configurations with only slight headway in charging before the inverter alarm sounds. While we have 24 hours of daylight here in the Arctic summer, the skies have often been overcast. In the end, it was simply that: not enough sun. Like our own heavily taxed bodies we demanded far more than we've supplied.

But once again, we did ask of our bodies in order to make the crossing from Baffin to Bylot hauling our 300 kg komatiq (sled) mounted with kayaks and gear. We had been camped at Sidlerosik, an ancient hunting camp on the north shore of Baffin waiting for the fog to lift. Finally at 1 a.m. we headed out. We followed the Baffin shore for two hours then struck out across the inlet. It was a moment of elation that we were finally crossing to Bylot. Within an hour we reached a 15 metre wide lead extending all the way between the two islands. This was the water we needed to make the crossing. Had we not expected to need the komatiq on the other side we would have cached it for later retrieval and kayaked across in a few hours. In the end, with the sled, it took 12 hours of back-breaking labour.

A man of genius makes no mistakes,
His errors are volitional and are portals of discovery.
James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

Oh but how painful these portals of discovery be! (and I'm not feeling the least bit clever). Halfway through to the other side, making our way in a languorous fashion under full sun and reminiscent of The African Queen -Mike as Bogart pulling the rig through the water walking along the ice edge and I perched on top of it all as Hepburn - we decide to haul the damn thing back onto the ice and cut a 45 degree angle to the abandoned Scottish whaling station. Wrong, really wrong. At this time of year, melt pools have begun to form on the ice surface. They, and their counterpart ridges of dry ice patches, run east-west, not north-south or circular. Our decision to pull again meant we were dragging the rig against the grain. Instead of running with a rib of ice as we had done all along the Baffin coast (hard as that was) we were now pulling up and over, up and over. Down we would go into a wallow and face boot-topping zero degree sea water with the sled running up on our heels, up we would go and be slammed into a backstep when we hit the end of the harness. It was a traverse of an icy sear-sucker. It was a very hard lesson.

The early explorers had to learn as they went as well. John Ross and crew had a painful four-year long lesson in the 1830s. He'd been to the Arctic before back in 1818 with the ships Alexander and Isabella. He made headway into Lancaster Sound looking for the Passage but turned back when he saw what he named the Croker Mountains. What he probably saw was a mirage.

Mirages are quite common in the Arctic and the kind most likely to be seen are 'superior' mirages, which make objects look larger than they are. By contrast, mirages in hot climates are more likely to be 'inferior' in that they make objects look smaller. They're the kind that 'create' a pool of water on a highway or give a thirsty man false hope in the desert.

Superior mirages commonly occur on icebergs or ice flows, and are romantically named Fata Morgana after King Arthur's sister Fairy Morgan. The light travels slowly through the cold air just above the ice then faster through the warm air above that and curves back to the cold. The effect is to elongate the object vertically to create towers and peaks, and for John Ross a mountain. We saw one when we made the crossing: a huge iceberg dominating the inlet about 55 km west of us. A half kilometre later we saw it as it really was, a small nondescript berg.

Ross returned to England to face ridicule but after a short retirement to his Scottish estate, the Passage drew him out once again. (Some can't get enough; he was still exploring the Arctic at the age of 73).

He headed out in May 1829 on a steam vessel, had mechanical problems from the get-go but still made good time across the Atlantic to Lancaster Sound. They salvaged two years of canned and dry goods from a cache left by Edmund Parry years earlier. Late in the summer the ship became ice bound and remained so for four years. During the winters they tried to maintain their spirits with work and exercise but Ross himself wrote in his log "Amid all its brilliancy, this land, the land of ice and snow, has ever been, and ever will be a dull, dreary, heart-sinking, monotonous waste under the influence of which the very mind is paralyzed, ceasing to care or think…for it is but the view of uniformity and silence and death… We were here out of our element, as much in the philosophy of life as in the geography of it."

In the summer he tried to make headway but the ice held fast. "To us, the sight of ice was a plague, a torment, an evil, a matter of despair". They finally abandoned the ship and hauled their supplies and three smaller launches over the ice on sleds, making their way for open water at break-up. (I'm thinking I can hum this tune). By August, 1833 they hit water.

At the same time, a Captain Humphreys was out plying the waters of Lancaster Sound. He had a ship's worth of whale oil and baleen and decided to take a day or two to look for any remains of Ross and crew before heading back to England. Coincidentally, he was sailing Ross's old ship the Isabella. He had just about tacked eastward home when the lookout spotted the three launches. They sent a whaleboat out and there found the desperate Ross and his skeletal crew. When Ross asked from which ship the whaleboat had come he was told "The Isabella of Hull once commanded by Captain Ross", to which the emaciated Ross replied, "I am Captain Ross." "But," said the astonished crewman, "you've been dead for two years."

And so here we are, cosy in our tent (send no search parties). The inclement weather has at least forced us to rest. When we arrived we had been awake for 30 straight hours, 12 of them spent hauling the rig. Again we are in a traditional site dating back millennia. We have pitched our tent near ancient tent rings, taking care not to disturb the rocks.

More recently, in the early 1900s, this was also the site of a Scottish whaling station. But the whaling industry in northern waters finished soon after this station was established, the bowhead whale hunted to near extinction. Now all that is left is the huge iron rendering vat rusting by the shore and a greatly diminished gam of whales that return each summer to feed in the nutrient-rich waters surrounding the island.

For a second night we remain in this site. I go outside to check the komatiq and kayaks. They appear safe at the end of their tethers, which Mike has fixed to the ice with 15 cm ice screws about 50 metres offshore. I can't get to them. East winds and low tide have pushed the broken ice foot that runs along the shore into an upswell of pans, a tumble of frozen dominoes. The fog has obscured even the ground at near distance although it is possible that across the inlet on Baffin all is clear.

Most nights, as we made our way along the Baffin coast, we watched a fog move in from the open waters in the east and along Bylot's shore. A grey, nebulous snake bending with the bends of the coastline, encircling the island. I am reminded of some lines from T.S.Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock which I recall as "The yellow fog that rubs its back along the window panes/ the yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window panes/ licked its tongue into the corners of the evening/ let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys/ lingered in the pools that let stand in drains/ slipped by the terrace/made a sudden leap/ and seeing that it was a soft October night/ curled once about the house and fell asleep." And so the fogs curls once about seagirt Bylot and to the noise of a building east wind against our tent, we too fall asleep.

By Pamela Coulston
Published August 8, 1999
The Ottawa Citizen
The Montreal Gazette
The Edmonton Journal
The Calgary Herald

More Posts