Arctic Gatekeepers

Sir Wilfred Laurier, Canadian Coast Guard, arctic waters, ice.

Published as 'Arctic Gatekeepers'

Surprisingly, everyone made it to dinner, they also made it to breakfast and lunch. The Coast Guard icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier was taking a whipping from the weather in the middle of the Bering Sea. But not a meal was missed.

While the two cooks dished up three squares, the seas served up a storm that included winds gusting to 90 knots and 10-metre waves that broke over the bow, drenching the bridge four storeys above.

The captain ordered all loose items secured and all outer decks off-limits - any one of these larger waves could wash a person overboard to their death in near freezing waters.

But for the 32 crew on board the Laurier this was simply another day at the office in a long history of patrolling Canada's Arctic.

The maritime history of Canada's Arctic is a story of ice and men. It begins with explorers trying to chisel a route through the Northwest Passage in vessels ill-suited for what lay before them. The price they paid was extreme: Many of their ships became icebound for years at a time. Some, such as Sir John Franklin's two ill-fated vessels, the Erebus and the Terror, and George Washington De Long's Jeannette, were frozen in time forever.

In September 1880, Great Britain transferred Arctic sovereignty to Canada. While the new country had sent survey ships north, it would be almost a quarter century before the government dispatched Capt. Samuel Bartlett in 1903 to establish permanent stations, collect customs, administer justice and enforce law and order - in short, exercise Canadian sovereignty.

A century after that first official foray, Canadian Coast Guard Arctic operations constitute a significant portion of its efforts, but compressed into the three months of the year not considered winter in those latitudes. Even during these months, ships venturing into these waters would still find icy doors closing around them if not for the Coast Guard, gatekeepers of the Canadian Arctic.

In early July, ships from four of the Coast Guard's ports - St. John's, Dartmouth, Quebec City and Victoria - make their way north. Their mandate, as spelled out by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, includes search and rescue (or SAR, an emergency situation that takes priority), and maintenance of marine navigational aids (called navaids). Their other roles include ice-breaking and ice escort for government and commercial ships, support for scientific research and, by their presence alone, flexing Canada's sovereign muscle.

To watch the Coast Guard at work, I traveled on the icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier, under the command of Capt. Mark Taylor. Our route would take us from Cambridge Bay on Victoria Island in the Arctic Archipelago to the Beaufort Sea, the Chukchi Sea, the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska, and the Bering Sea; then we would thread through the Aleutian and Pribilof islands into the North Pacific and down the outer coast of Vancouver Island to the ship's home port of Victoria, B.C. The journey of more than a month would cover over 6,000 nautical miles.

We left Cambridge Bay on a late September day with a fresh crew. Our crew would have five weeks of work before bringing the ship home for another crew change in Victoria and a winter season on the B.C. coast.

The ship's first task was the retrieval of navigational aids in Cambridge Bay and Simpson Strait, waters that separate the lower Arctic Archipelago from mainland Canada. Navaids consist of both onshore markers and water-based buoys, some with beacons, indicating reefs or shoals. In high-traffic harbour areas, they define shipping lanes. Their deployment each navigation season helps guide the flat-bottom supply barges that feed tiny Inuit communities such as Gjoa Haven and Taloyoak on the north shore of the continent. At season's end, the Laurier, generally the last ship in the region, effectively closes down the waterways - turning off the lights as it leaves.

The men worked quietly on the bridge. Capt. Taylor, a disciplined man with the sinewy build of a dedicated tri-athlete, watched the approach to the buoy. In subdued tones he directed quartermaster Ivan Campbell to make slight alterations at the wheel; each instruction in turn confirmed by Ivan.

"1-9-0 will be the course."
"And 1-9-5."
"Starboard wheel, Ivan."
"Starboard wheel."
And moments later: "Wheel is hard at starboard."

The only other sounds were the ticking of the wheel making its way through its compass degrees interrupted by an apparent distress signal over the radio that was quickly confirmed as a false alarm.

As the ship came alongside the buoy, deck-hands on the well deck, four levels below the bridge, grappled with it and hooked it to a crane. The bosun, Mel Hull, orchestrated their movements with those of winchman Steve Wight. Mel, a tough seadog of 40 years' experience with a surprising hand for needlepoint, is erudite, yet frequently given to unleashing a barrage of epithets at young crew members. His hand signals talked to Steve, two decks up in the winchroom, like a catcher to a pitcher, as Steve coaxed the buoy and its two-tonne anchor onto the well deck.

At this point in the journey, the ship was retrieving two types of buoys: four-metre-long green, tubular markers and slightly longer, red, pointed ones (indicating port and starboard passing), all bobbing like roman candles in the zero-degree water. But these markers were toys compared to the buoys and moorings the crew would later retrieve in the Bering Sea and North Pacific.

Mayday. My position 270° 5.25 from Wilk Island Storis Passage. Engine room flooded. Require assistance.

Mayday from the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Camsell after sustaining severe ice damage off Jenny Lind Island, Sept. 10, 1978.

Until explorer John Rae concluded in 1854 that the Northwest Passage was navigable and Roald Amundsen sailed it in 1903-06, the western and eastern Arctic had been mapped but not connected. In 1845, Sir John Franklin had set out on his journey to forge the link but after taking the heavily ice-obstructed Victoria Strait route, perished along with his 134-man crew.

These waters remain a nemesis to all in the Passage. "This ain't Kansas," somebody said from the bridge of the Laurier one day, "This is where hell froze over."

By the time I boarded the Laurier, the annual ice had disappeared from the main shipping lanes of the western Arctic, leaving only the permanent ice pack north of the commercial lanes. Icebreakers such as the Laurier open frozen doors to the region through the annual ice to ships supplying northern communities, industrial ships en route to and from mines and oil fields, scientific and survey vessels, and the odd cruise liner or pleasure craft. In 2002, the German cruise ship Hanseatic twice called on the Coast Guard to escort her through the ice-choked waters.

I had previously watched ice-breaking in the eastern Arctic in the summer of 1999 when fragmented ice put a chill in a two-person expedition I was on to circumnavigate Bylot Island by kayak. The CCG vessel Henry Larsen picked us up, and from her bow I watched - and felt - as she made her way through annual ice from Baffin Island's northeast tip into the community of Pond Inlet, leading a supply ship carrying critical goods for the community.

Although a lighter icebreaker than the Henry Larsen, the Laurier ? an 83-metre, twin-screw, three-engine diesel-electric - is capable of cutting through two metres of ice at a constant speed of six knots an hour. The technique is to ride her bow up on the ice and shoulder her way through with her weight while cutting with her submerged ice knife.

The knife is located on the reinforced hull where the bow and the keel meet. It is not an appendage added to the bow, rather a bite that has been taken out. The right angle it forms makes a steak knife out of a butter knife and both cuts ice and prevents the bow from riding too high, possibly beaching the vessel on the ice.

The Coast Guard's ice-breaking work is heavily supported by Canadian Ice Services, another branch of Fisheries and Oceans. From its office in Ottawa, Ice Services continually analyses ice data from plane and helicopter reconnaissance, satellite surveillance and reports from ice observers such as Charlie Daigle on board the Laurier. This information is then made available on the Internet to guide vessels through the Arctic. Daigle's analysis of ice and weather patterns is essential to the captain's navigational decision-making. But Ice Services and reinforced hulls do not make an icebreaker impervious to ice.

In the wee hours of Sept. 10, 1978, while breaking ice near Jenny Lind Island, off King William Island in the Arctic Archipelago, the Coast Guard vessel Camsell slid off the frozen pack, splitting her port side on an immovable shelf of old ice. The mid-ship gash - approximately four metres long and a half metre wide - allowed arctic waters to flood her engine room. By mid-morning the water was up to her main deck and the ship had to be beached, patched and towed back to Victoria. It took a year for officials to decide whether she was worth saving and another year to repair her.

In the early days of October, we steamed westward out of Amundsen Gulf following the northern coastline of the Yukon and Alaska. We had a Coast Guard fuel cache to restock on pancake-flat Baillie Island, an unleavened piece of land being chewed at the edges by winter's scouring ice and summer's lashing waves. Fuel drums near the shore had to be moved back and others had to be shipped ashore by the Laurier's helicopter. In the pink-grey light of morning, pilot Mike McNulty and seaman Greg Swift repositioned the cache closer to a 10-metre navigational tower clad in day-glow orange planks, its beacon powered by a solar panel until the long winter dimmed its lights.

The cache and others like it along this northern coastline serve Coast Guard choppers in the spring as they service shore-based navaids until the icebreaker arrives in July. As well, they provide emergency fuel for commercial helicopters and Inuit hunters in need. Such contingency was not always so carefully considered in the past.

The Chief of the Expedition will be careful not to endanger the lives of the party, and while neglecting no opportunity of furthering the aim of the Government, he will bear in mind the necessity of always providing for the safe return of the party. The safety of the ship itself is not so important.

Official Journal, Canadian Arctic Expedition, 1913-1918

On Aug. 10, 1913, a little farther down this coastline where the mouth of the Colville River spills into the Beaufort, the Canadian government-sponsored expedition vessel Karluk ran aground in 17 feet of water. Her captain, Robert Bartlett, was eventually able to free her, only to have her trapped in the ice pack of an early winter. The Karluk was one of several vessels that were part of the most elaborate Arctic expedition in history with a large crew and a multi-national scientific contingent of 13, the largest ever sent on such a journey. Separated from the rest of the fleet, the Karluk was crushed in drifting pack ice north of the barren Russian island of Wrangel. Her crew, which included an Inuk woman, her two daughters and a cat, were forced to sled what provisions they could save across miles of shifting ice to the island. Nine months later, after walking to Siberia and making his way back to Alaska, Capt. Bartlett had the remaining crew and feline rescued. By then, 11 crew members had died.

"Past arctic explorations were adventurous and of little value. They constitute an international steeplechase ... a system opposed to true scientific discoveries ... Immense sums have been spent and much hardship endured ... while strictly scientific observations have been given secondary status ... "

Karl Weyprecht, German arctic explorer and visionary whose views influenced the formation of the first International Polar Year of 1882-83, the first world-wide coordinated scientific enterprise.

Now, 90 years after the Karluk, Coast Guard ships are serving as floating platforms from which a multinational scientific contingent continues the slow unraveling of the mysteries of these arctic waters. Since the mid-1990s, the Coast Guard has increasingly included scientific research as part of its Arctic mandate. In return for use of Canadian ships, foreign scientists help offset some costs and share their information with Canada. The program has been so successful the Coast Guard plans to dedicate one of its icebreakers solely to science for six months of the year. The other six months would see it on regular duty in the St. Lawrence.

In the summer of 2002, more than 100 scientists and technicians from research labs in Canada, the U.S., Japan and China participated in studies, in the western Arctic and using a Coast Guard vessel, on the impact of climate change on the environment, including North America's largest fishing grounds - the waters surrounding the Aleutian Islands.

In mid-October, we arrived in Dutch Harbor on Unalaska, one of the larger of the Aleutian Islands that are strung like pearls from Alaska to Siberia ? a 1,600-kilometre necklace between the Bering Sea and North Pacific. It was mid-October, days before the crab season marathon when, in just four or five days, fishermen would harvest 3.4-million kilograms of crustaceans from these waters. Along the many wharves, cranes were busy loading boats with metre-and-a-half-long crab pots. The pots were stacked everywhere: on deck, on docks, even in the parking lot of the Grand Aleutian Hotel. The hotel bar that night was tank-full testosterone with a building frenzy of crab fishermen raring to get to sea in what is described as the world's most dangerous profession.

Eight scientists joined this leg of the Laurier's tour to retrieve and service data-collecting moorings in the Beaufort and Bering seas. Moorings are the workhorses of marine data collection. At their most basic, they include instruments that record conductivity (the water's salt concentration), temperature and density. They are to the oceanographer what pulse, temperature and blood pressure are to the physician: basic health statistics describing the pelagic patient.

The luxury model of data collection is the rosette, a collection of water sampling bottles bundled like dynamite and suspended in an aluminum and stainless steel frame. The 24-bottle rosette on board the Laurier is owned by Canadian Institute of Ocean Sciences (IOS). It has a price tag of $150,000 and can be dipped to a depth of 7,000 metres and immediately retrieved.   It is not a mooring that is left unattended at anchor. 

The more basic moorings are strung like a fishing line but using chains and weights. When it is time to retrieve a mooring, an on-deck transponder locates the unit and "wakes-up" its release mechanism. Fingers are crossed until the bright orange float bobs to the surface, is snagged by the crew and hauled in by the winch.

The Japanese, worried that new  moorings they were testing might rust and fail to release (a $200,000 loss) sent one of their scientists, Hiro Uno, back onboard by helicopter for just one day to make an expensive exchange of an inexpensive part.

Seven scientists from the IOS, the University of Alaska and the U.S. government Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory boarded the Laurier in Nome, Alaska and for 10 days the ship zigzagged the Bering Sea tracking down moorings and taking a whipping from the weather. Of the 18 moorings sought, four remained in the depths. The crew dragged the waters but in the end the instruments were left behind for future attempts with other hired vessels.

We returned to Dutch Harbor where the scientists disembarked and the ship took on 650,000 litres of diesel fuel, a $279,000 fill-up that took more than nine hours. The town was quiet, the fishermen had not yet returned from crabbing. A day later, as the Laurier made her way through the North Pacific en route to Vancouver Island, word came over the radio of an explosion on a fish-processing ship in the Bering Sea that had left a number of crew missing. Had we still been in the region, the Laurier would have put aside research for rescue. On average, the Coast Guard responds to 50 SAR missions in the Arctic per year.

" ... sighted warship on horizon ... Time 9:25 pm. First salvo arrived crashed in front of light(house) ... Second salvo arrived ... Three windows broke in lantern ... Six salvos fired ... Started down tower. Shells exploded about quarter mile away ... run down stairs. Shells too close for comfort.?

Robert Lally, Estevan Point lighthouse keeper, June 20, 1942

At the end of October, the Laurier worked its way down the west coast of Vancouver Island, retrieving, in the early morning fog, a number of 11.5-ton "long-leg" buoys for decommissioning. They were a considerably greater challenge than those retrieved at the start of the journey. Once the mist lifted, the ship moved on to refuel Nootka and Estevan Point lighthouses, two of the 27 manned lighthouses that remain along the B.C. coast.

Drums of lubricating oil and fuel were ferried by helicopter to the compound on minuscule San Rafael Island at the mouth of the Nootka Sound, a collection of white clapboard buildings with red tin roofs. Then, a short way down the coast at Estevan and before fog temporarily halted work, they flew in 1,000-litre fuel bladders - containers that resemble slightly deflated, mammoth soccer balls set in steel frames - for a total refuel of 20,000 litres, half of the lighthouse's capacity.

The Estevan lighthouse is the stuff of postcards: a white, eight-sided monolithic structure with flying buttresses, resembling the massive trunks of B.C. firs that surround the compound. When it was completed in 1909, the lighthouse was one of the largest free-standing concrete structures on the West Coast at 46 metres high, weighing 25 tons and capped by a powerful beacon to warn sailors of dangerous shoals.

But on this day, a fishing boat made its way through flat blue waters beyond the unhurried white surf, an eagle soared above the driftwood-littered shore, the bright sun glinted off the steeple of the tiny native church at Nootka, all suggesting a peaceful - pacific - coastline, belying the fury that can unleash along this stretch of water. For a century, West Coast ships have relied on lighthouses for their survival, and so too have the lighthouses relied on the ships for theirs: Coast Guard vessels bring everything from fuel to fresh fruit.

Fifty years ago, Estevan Point got a delivery of a different sort. On the evening of June 20, 1942, much to the amazement of the keeper and his wife, a Japanese I-26 submarine surfaced a few kilometres offshore and began attacking the lighthouse with 25 to30 rounds of 15-centimetre shells. This was the first time since 1812 that enemy fire had hit Canadian soil. There were no casualties and no damage, but lights along the coast were quickly dimmed, having perhaps more impact on Canadian shipping than Japanese subs. Since 9/11, international terrorism once again has raised concern about Canada's 202,000 kilometres of porous coastline.

That it be resolved that the Senate is of opinion that the time has come for Canada to make a formal declaration of possession of the lands and islands situated in the north of the Dominion, and extending to the North Pole.

Resolution proposed in the Senate by Senator Pascal Poirier, Feb. 20, 1907.

The challenge of defending Canada's vast coastlines borders is nowhere more difficult than in the Arctic. But while ice provides a great rampart, global warming could change that. Since Britain transferred its northern rights to Canada in 1880, the boundaries of our sovereign arctic waters have remained in question.

During the past century, the Canadian government has tried a number of approaches and theories to claim Arctic lands and, later, to claim Arctic waters as mare clausum - closed, sovereign seas: it sent early expeditions to plant the flag in northern lands, charged for whaling permits in the early 1900s, conducted Eastern Arctic Patrols from 1922 until the 1950s and relocated Inuit to establish habitation. But even with a flurry of other tactics, including expansion of offshore zones and a Northern reporting and clearance system for foreign ships, vessels entering Canada's arctic waters are still not compelled to check in.

Canada is embroiled with Denmark over claims to tiny Hans Island, north of where this country butts heads with Greenland, but its most recent and definitive statement on sovereignty was made Sept. 10, 1985 by Joe Clark, then Secretary of State for External Affairs.

"Canada's Sovereignty in the Arctic is indivisible," he said. "It embraces land, sea and ice. It extends without interruption to the seaward-facing coasts of the Arctic Islands. These islands are joined and not divided by the waters between them. They are bridged for most of the year by ice. From time immemorial, Canada's Inuit people have used and occupied the ice as they have used and occupied the land."

Exercising Arctic sovereignty is part of the Coast Guard's mandate, so after a month on board and seeing no signs of specific activities enforcing sovereignty, I asked Capt. Taylor how they carry out this task. In his typically minimalist way he said: "Just being there." Marty Bergman, director of Arctic Science for the Coast Guard, was also concise: "Showing that we are capable of taking care of our own country is the best way of displaying our sovereignty."

But are we taking care of our Coast Guard?  The crews display a staggeringly impressive ability to maintain their ships, but no new vessels of the Laurier's size have been built since the 1980s. "It's almost criminal how we do not maintain our fleet." says Rob Huebert, professor of Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. "The Coast Guard is virtually Canada's one and only defence against sovereignty infractions."

Crews continue to coax a little more mileage from the aging fleet. A tour through the engine room of the Laurier with senior engineer Ashley Humphrey revealed no less than three dozen complicated systems that had to be maintained at sea - sometimes in very rough seas.

Imagine cramming all the public utilities of a city such as Ottawa into a ship less than 100 metres long - water creation, purification and desalination, sanitation, power generation, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, firefighting, machine shop, electrical shop, fuel management, transportation, and so on - and sending it out to sea for four months and maintaining it with few spare parts and the knowledge of a handful of people. "It's more complicated than running a city," said Ashley, "because of rolling seas, choking ice and a constant relocating of that city."

Coast Guard ships will again head north next summer to act as  Canada's presence in our Arctic waters and to clear critical supply routes to northern communities.  The Canadian Coast Guard remains a story of ice and men -- although increasingly women too -- keeping the doors open on that frozen continuum.

By Pamela Coulston
Ottawa Citizen, 'The Weekly'
November 16, 2003

Writer Pamela Coulston lives in Wakefield.

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