Kayak Nunavut ’99, Part 9

Kayak and ice pans, Arctic waters, Pond Inlet, Nunavut.

Kayak Nunavut 99
Published September 5th, 1999
Dispatch 9

This was not an emergency. This was not a search and rescue. We were not being saved (as such). But when the Coast Guard choppered into our camp one evening to check on us, we gratefully accepted the lift back to Pond Inlet.

At Niaqunnguut 'the land shaped like a human head' (Cape Graham Moore) we finally conceded that we could not continue on our counter-clockwise circumnavigation of Bylot Island in time to meet the participants of the second component of our journey at Tay Bay. For more than a week the fragmented annual ice daily teased us with a slight dispersal only to return on the next tide to pack the water surrounding the promontory. Almost three hundred kilometres separated us from Tay Bay and we couldn't move a metre offshore. Our only option was to return to Pond Inlet. But how? Backwards was as equally blocked as forwards.

In the bay separating Cape Graham from Button, known locally as Itirlak 'small crossway', there appeared to be a sufficient stretch of flat ground on which to land a Twin Otter. If we could get to it, if the ground was hard enough and clear enough to land the Otter and if there was no fog on that one day of the week that the plane was in the area, we could get a lift out. If.

For two days after the gale at Graham Moore we remained tent-bound. Although somewhat abated, the rain continued to fall and the winds to blow and create williwaws on the water. Finally we could wait no longer; we had to get to the landing strip. There was just enough clearance in the litter of ice through which to paddle so we began to pack the kayaks, a task made extremely difficult by the surf surging against the rocky shoreline. To make matters worse, an eddy was drawing large pans of ice, the size of swimming pools and metres thick, up against the shore. The kayaks were at risk of being crushed between a rock and an icy-hard surface.

We launched and began to fight our way through down-drafting wind, churning water and a closing ice pack. A few times we had to hold our position and wait for the drift to open a thin corridor between pans. There was just barely enough time to shoot both kayaks through — with Mike yelling: "paddle! paddle!" — before the ice closed back in. When the wind really slammed us from behind we could only brace our paddles on the water and stabilize against the force. We finally got through the worst of it only to be forced back on shore by packed ice.

We dragged the kayaks up on the beach and walked to Button Point to scan the conditions further south. As far as we could see with the binoculars our passage was blocked, confirming that for now our only possibility for returning to Pond remained with the plane. We set up the satellite phone and called to arrange a side-charter of the Twin Otter that comes in once a week from Resolute. We didn't reach our contact but left a message for a pick-up when the plane was in town, which was scheduled, as it always was, for the next day, Wednesday. We also called André Lalonde, our contact back home, to re-schedule the arrival of the participants. Mike then made one last sweep of the horizon with the binoculars. There, out on the ice pack and moving towards us, was a bear.

He was difficult to detect at first, being white against a white backdrop, but, like a great leader, his presence drew complete attention and respect. Where the ice ended he slipped comfortably into the zero degree water. Warmth was no issue; he was heavy with a layer of blubber made thick from a winter of feasting on ringed seals including pups born on the ice in May and June. The hollow shafts of hair in his thick coat maximize solar power by conducting warmth to the heat-absorptive black skin underneath.

He came right to the point (as it were), sat down on his ample haunches and began to eat the sedge grass at the shore. So un-bear-like: grazing like a horse, sitting like a dog, contemplating like a Buddha. The remains of a sled dog and of a seal were nearby but only after a half an hour of greens did he go to investigate the meat. We watched him for an hour from about 50 metres away before he caught wind of us and raced back to the ice with a seal flipper flapping between his jaws. He was so scared that he dropped the flipper. At the next pan he looked back over his shoulder at the meat, took a few steps to retrieve it, changed his mind and headed back out on the ice pack.

After he left, we set up camp. Coincidentally, our site was just down the shore from an inukshuk, a stone cairn erected by Mike and Jeff McGinnis more than a decade earlier when they completed their sail through the Northwest Passage. Their voyage was the first wind-powered traverse of the Passage, a distance of 4,000 kms that took them three summers. Now here Mike was once again, this time with me, attempting another first.

To confirm the next day's side-charter, we again called our contact in Pond. We knew that even with a confirmation there was no guarantee we would be picked up. For two weeks we had tried for a drop of a piece of equipment. That did not even require the plane to land, just to fly low and toss the well-padded parcel onto accessible terrain. Both times we were fogged in and the plane circled and retreated without discharging our box. Landing to pick us up reduced our chances even further. But we were not prepared to hear that, without notice, the flight had been switched -- to Tuesday. They had come and gone that day and would not be back for a week.

While we had seen incredible sights during this journey, logistically we had been given few gifts. Once again, circumstances were not in our favour. But there was no room for frustration. Just as we could not change the ice and wind, we could not change the fact that for the time being no boat or plane could get to us and we could not paddle out. Because we were never able to get beyond Cape Graham Moore and reach our next cache we were however reaching a food shortage. That too would just have to be dealt with.

Three days passed; the ice did not budge, we did not budge. We spent our time exploring, drawing, photographing, writing and reading to each other from our one book. On the fourth day, after measuring out one of the last remaining meals and sharing the last chocolate bar, Mike opened the book to read. He had just launched into the first paragraph when I heard an engine. We scrambled out of our tent. There, flying low over the ice of Baffin Bay was a helicopter. Behind it, plowing a furrow through the ice field was its mother ship, the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker the Henry Larsen.

The helicopter landed a short distance from the tent. The engineer walked toward us, head down and shoulders hunched against the draft of the still-rotating blades. He said they'd been asked to check in on us as they were spending the night offshore of Button Point waiting to escort a supply ship through the ice to Pond. Did we want a lift in to town? They could either fly us there that night, leaving the kayaks behind, or we could stay on board the ship and be dropped off with all our gear the next day. Now experts in patience, we were hardly in a rush and at that point a night on board sounded like an invitation to the Ritz. We packed our gear.

The sight of them was almost surreal and not the least bit ironic. For most of the journey we had had unfavourable weather and undispersing ice. When we returned to the tent for dinner that night conditions were no different and the horizon gave no hope for change. But when we emerged from the tent we found not only a chopper and an icebreaker, but also the most glorious skies and retreating ice. Our window to the north had finally been thrown wide open but our commitment to part two of the expedition gave us no choice but to turn our backs on the opportunity. Mike and I slipped into our kayaks. The seas were calm and the skies pink and lavender as we made our way through the opening ice pack to the ship. Those northern gods - Boreas, Aquillo, Arktos — must have been laughing: it was the finest stretch of water we had yet paddled. These were the conditions we had waited a month for; they arrived with the Canadian Coast Guard.

By Pamela Coulston
Published September 5, 1999
The Ottawa Citizen
The Montreal Gazette
The Edmonton Journal
The Calgary Herald

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