Arctic Gatekeepers (Uncut Version)

Sir Wilfred Laurier, Canadian Coast Guard ship, in Arctic.

Published as 'Arctic Gatekeepers'

For centuries they came, they saw, they froze. Rugged Orcadians sailing under the flag of the Hudson's Bay Company, proper English gentlemen making their way in His and Her Majesties' Sailing Vessels and later brash entrepreneurial Americans and sovereign-minded Canadians, all attempting to thaw the frozen secrets of the Arctic archipelago and the elusive Northwest Passage. Vini, vidi – damn! More ice.

In conclusion, I would earnestly pray that He who is Lord both of sea and land … that He would prosper your search for our dear friend Sir John Franklin – pilot your vessel, and bring you all home safe again to Old England's shore.

Francis Harding
A Short Form of Prayer for the Use of those Engaged in the Arctic Expedition, MDCCCL,
April 1850

It is a story of ice and men. The maritime history of Canada's Arctic begins with bold explorers trying to chisel a route through the Northwest Passage, pick-axing through a frozen continuum in vessels ill-suited to what lay before them. Many were lodged in the ice for years at a time and some, such as Sir John Franklin and the crew of the Erebus and Terror and George Washington De Long with the crew of the Jeannette, frozen in time forever. Ships venturing in to these waters would still find icy doors closing around them if not for the Coast Guard, gatekeepers of the Canadian Arctic.

Canadian government marine services were born with the birth of the country. In the first session of Parliament the year after Confederation, the government entrusted the Department of Fisheries and Marine with the operation of all non-naval vessels. For the next 135 years a perpetually morphing government would put a variety of departments at the helm of the fleet. (Today, the Canadian Coast Guard, la Garde Côtière Canadienne, itself formed in 1962, is under the Department of Fisheries and Oceans). For the most part, these early vessels sailed and steamed the waters of Canada's lower coast lines, primarily ensuring safe and regulated passage for commercial vessels through the important shipping lanes of the East Coast, the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes. Except for clearing a shipping lane though Hudson's Bay to the rail link at Churchill, the government was not concerned with the Arctic.

In September 1880, Great Britain transferred her rights of Arctic sovereignty to Canada. While the new country had sent survey ships north, it would be almost a quarter century before the government sent Captain Samuel Bartlett there in 1903 to establish permanent stations to collect customs, administer justice and enforce law and order, in short, exercise Canadian sovereignty. After over-wintering until the summer of 1904, Bartlett arrived at Cape Herschell on Ellesmere Island and hoisted the Canadian flag. For the ensuing decade the government made great effort to plant more flags sending Joseph Bernier north in 1906-07, paying $67,000 to the Norwegian Otto Sverdrup for his arctic discoveries and taking over sponsorship from the National Geographic Society for the ill-fated research voyage of the Karluk under its self-centered, self-saving leader Vilhjalmur Stefansson.

A century after the first official foray, Coast Guard arctic operations now constitute a greater portion of its efforts, efforts that are concentrated in the three months of the year that effectively are not winter at these latitudes. (The department was, however, unable to provide an estimation of those efforts). In early July ships from four of the Guard's ports – St. John's, Dartmouth, Quebec City and Victoria – begin the journey north to carry out their mandate. Primarily, the mandate includes search and rescue (or SAR, which takes immediate precedence over everything else when an emergency arises), maintenance of marine navigational aids (navaids), icebreaking and ice escort for government and commercial ships, scientific research support, and, by their presence alone, flexing our sovereign muscle, albeit a muscle that is criticized as welter weight in a world of heavy weights.

But what, in a practical sense, does carrying out this mandate entail? To see first-hand what a Coast Guard ship does in the Arctic, I traveled with the White crew of CCG vessel Sir Wilfred Laurier, under the command of Captain Mark Taylor, from Cambridge Bay on Victoria Island through the Beaufort Sea, the Chukchi Sea, the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska, the Bering Sea, the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, the North Pacific and down the outer coast of Vancouver Island to the Laurier's home port of Victoria, a journey of more than a month covering over 6,000 nautical miles. We left Cambridge Bay late September after a crew change from Red to White. White crew had five weeks of work and bringing the ship home before the crew changed Red again in Victoria and she began her winter season on the BC coast.

The crew'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 are both onshore markers and water-based buoys, some with beacons, indicating shoals, reefs, shallow water, and, in high-traffic harbour areas, define shipping lanes. The seasonal deployment of these buoys – they won't survive the annual ice – helps guide the flat-bottom barges of supplies that originate in the south, come overland to Hay River on Great Slave Lake, then 1800 km down the Mackenzie River and up to a thousand more along the north shore of the continent to tiny Inuit communities such as Gjoa Haven and Taloyoak. The Laurier, the last ship in the region, effectively closes the waterways down for the season; the last one out, turn off the lights.

The men worked quietly on the bridge. Captain Taylor, a disciplined man of sinewy build, a committed tri-athlete, watched the approach to the buoy. In subdued tones he directed the 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 when this was reached, “Wheel is hard at starboard.”

The only other sounds were the ticking of the wheel making its way through its compass degrees and a distress signal over the radio, soon confirmed as a false alarm.

On the well deck, four levels down from the bridge, deck hands grappled the buoy and hooked it on to the crane. The bosun Mel Hull orchestrated their movements and those of winchman Steve Wight. Many of the men out here have surprising alter egos including Mel, who is a tough seadog of 40 years experience with a hand for needlepoint. He is erudite yet capable – and frequently given – to unleashing a barrage of epithets at young deck hands: to be ‘melled' at the crew jokes. His hand movements talked to Steve two decks up in the winchroom. The gestures were subtle like those from a catcher to a pitcher as Steve coaxed the buoy and its two-ton anchor on to the well deck.

Two types of buoys were retrieved: four-metre green tubular markers and slightly longer, red pointed ones bobbing like roman candles in the zero-degree water, indicating port and starboard passing, respectively. But these PVC buoys bobbing like crayons in the gray waves were toys compared to the buoys and moorings they would later retrieve in the Bering Sea and North Pacific.


Mayday of the CCG Vessel Camsell
after sustaining severe ice damage off Jenny Lind Island
September 10th , 1078

This inner pocket of the Arctic surrounding King William Island, Simpson Strait to the south and James Ross and Rae Straits to the west was the last link connecting the Northwest Passage. Until Rae concluded it was navigable in 1854 and Roald Amundsen sailed it in 1903-06, the western and eastern Arctic had been mapped but not connected. Sir John Franklin set out to connect them but took the more heavily ice-infested Victoria Strait to the west of the island where his ships were locked in ice and the entire crew of 134 men died of starvation, exposure, and possibly lead poisoning and botulism as well. “This ain't Kansas,” somebody said from the bridge of the Laurier one day. “This is where hell froze over.” These waters still remain a nemesis of the Passage.

By the time I boarded the Laurier the primarily annual ice had disappeared from the main shipping routes; the permanent ice pack was, generally speaking, beyond the southern commercial shipping lanes in the western Arctic. Icebreaking opens frozen doors to supply ships and, like navaids, ensures the arrival of critical supplies to the remote communities of the north and the departure of grain, minerals and hydrocarbons south, although in recent years the Nanisivik and Resolute mines have closed. It also allows passage for 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 upon the Coast Guard to break ice and escort her through these same choked waters.

I had previously had occasion to watch icebreaking in the eastern arctic when fragmented, un-dispersed ice put a chill in a two-person expedition I was on to circumnavigate Bylot Island by kayak. From the bow of the CCG vessel the Henry Larsen 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, the Laurier takes a similar approach. This 1100 class 83-metre twin-screw, 3-engine diesel-electric ice-breaker is capable of cutting through 2 metres of ice at a constant speed of 6 knots per hour. The technique is to ride the bow up on to the ice and both shoulder her way through with her weight and to cut her way through with her submerged ice knife.

The ice knife is located where the vertical line of the bow stem meets the horizontal line of the keel. It is not an appendage added on to the bow, rather it is a bite that has been taken out. The right angle that is formed makes a steak knife out of a butter knife and both cuts ice and prevents the bow from riding too high up on the solid pack like a beached whale.

Ice breaking is heavily supported by another branch of DFO, the Canadian Ice Services. From its office in Ottawa, Ice Services conducts continual analysis of ice data fed back from plane and helicopter reconnaissance, satellite surveillance and visual 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. Charlie'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 ice-breaker impervious to ice.

In the wee hours of September 10, 1978, while breaking ice near Jenny Lind Island (again those dangerous waters off King William Island) the CCG vessel Camsell slid off the frozen pack she was breaking, scraping her port side along an immovable shelf of multi-year ice. In the process, she sustained a mid-ship gash of approximately four metres long and a half metre wide allowing immediate flooding of her engine room. By mid-morning the water was up to her main deck. She was beached, patched and towed back by tug to Victoria where it took a year for officials to deliberate her fate and another year to repair her.

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

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 fuel cache to re-stock 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 slung over by the Messerschmidt chopper from the ship. In the pink-gray light of morning, pilot Mike McNulty and seaman Greg Swift re-positioned the cache closer to a ten-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 serves Guard choppers in the spring as they service shore-based navaids until the Guard's ship arrives in July. As well, they provide emergency fuel for commercial choppers and Inuit hunters in need. Such contingency was not always so carefully considered in the past.

On August 10, 1913 a little further down this coastline where the mouth of the Colville River spills into the Beaufort, the Canadian government-sponsored expedition vessel Karluk ran aground in seventeen 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. Only a month and a half earlier she and two other large vessels and a variety of smaller craft embarked from Esquimalt, B.C. on what was then the most elaborate Arctic expedition in history with numerous crew and a multi-national scientific contingency of thirteen, the largest ever sent on such a journey.

The voyage was under the command of Expedition Leader Vilhjalmur Stefansson who was apparently more concerned with discovering land in the high reaches of the 141 st meridian (later proved non-existent) and the attainment of scientific discovery than the safe return of crew and vessel; indeed he prophesized that the Karluk would undoubtedly be crushed and sunk at some point. On this point he was right. The Californian fishing boat remained trapped in the ice and drifted for five months – although sans Stefansson and a select few scientists who abandoned ship near the Alaskan shore under the dubious excuse of hunting for food – and was crushed in drifting pack ice north of the uninhabitable Russian island of Wrangel. Her crew, which also 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 Captain Robert Bartlett had the remaining crew and feline rescued.

“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
Visionary of the first International Polar Year

Now, almost ninety years later, Coast Guard ships are serving as floating platforms from which a multi-nation 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 provide some cost recovery and share their information with Canada. The program has been so successful that plans are underway to dedicate one of its ice-breakers solely to science six months of the year, with the other six months on regular duty in the St. Lawrence.

In the summer of 2002, more than 100 science personnel from various research labs in the US, Japan, China and Canada participated in a number of studies, primarily in the western Arctic. The scientists used over 120 days of ship time to collect data which will improve understanding of the impact of climate change on the environment, including North America's largest fishing industry by volume, hauled in from the waters surrounding the Aleutian Islands.

We arrived in Dutch Harbor on Unalaska, one of the larger of the many islands strung like pearls from the Alaska panhandle to Siberia, a 1,600-kilometre necklace between the Bering Sea and North Pacific. It was mid-October, days before the make-or-break crab season marathon, where in just four to five days fishermen would extract from these waters the annual 7.5 million pound quota dragging crab pots up from the depths in no-matter-what weather. Along the many wharves cranes were busy loading the boats with crab pots, wire cages about 1.5 metres square and a half-metre deep. They were stacked everywhere: on deck, on dock, even in the parking lot of the Grand Aleutian Hotel. The hotel bar that night was full-tank testosterone with the building frenzy of crab fishermen revving to get out to sea in what is described as the world's most dangerous profession of all.

These waters have sustained native Aleuts for millennia and Russians for a decimating burst of pillaging following the expedition of Vitus Bering in 1741-42, yet another voyage in the history of the north that ship-wreaked. Accompanying Bering was the eager young German naturalist Georg Steller. Between ministering to scurvy-ridden shipmates Steller compiled extensive studies on a variety of birds and marine mammals including ones long since extinct – the spectacled cormorant and Steller sea cow as well as the possibly never-existent ‘sea monkey' which has otherwise never been scientifically observed. He also wrote an authoritative chapter on fur seals as part of his posthumously published monograph De bestiis marinis . When the surviving crew returned to Russia their reports of the number of fur seals caused a rush greater than that for Yukon gold. “I can say without lying that it is impossible to make any computation. They are innumerable,” he wrote. Unfortunately, his meticulous observations almost led to the obliteration of these creatures. A history of the Aleutians published in 1823 noted that between 1743 to 1823 the fur of over 2 million fur seals, 200,000 sea otters, 143,000 sea otter tails and 108,000 blue foxes, among others, were taken from these waters, netting the Russian treasury over 10 million rubles in taxes. The fur seal made a long climb back, but it and other marine species continue to concern biologists studying these waters.

Eight scientists joined this leg of the Laurier's arctic 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 (that is, the water's salt concentration), temperature and density, or CTD. 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 water sampling bottles bundled like dynamite and suspended in an aluminum and stainless steel frame. The 24-bottle rosette on board the Laurier , owned by Canadian Institute of Ocean Sciences (IOS) has a price tag of $150,000 and can go to a depth of 7000 metres. More basic moorings are strung like a fishing line but using chains and weights that could reel in a whale. One or more instruments are strung along a heavy chain anchored to the sea floor with a 1,225-kilogram stack of train wheels. A remote-controlled, releasable yoke connects the chain to the anchor. A steel metre-diameter float crowns the chain swaying 50 metres under the surface, beneath the reach of ships and ice. When it is time to retrieve the mooring, a hand-held transponder locates the unit, ‘wakes-up' the release mechanism (dormant until then to conserve batteries) and tells it to unleash. Fingers are crossed until the bright orange float bobs to the surface and the winch hauls the catch in. Worried that their moorings wouldn't release brought a jolly Japanese scientist Hiro Uno on board for just one day to make an expensive exchange of an inexpensive part.

When they were first deployed a month earlier, the Japanese moorings had titanium release yokes connected to their chains by stainless steel shackles. Later, the scientists worried the incompatible metals may result in accelerated corrosion and release failure and thus irretrievable moorings. While it was an expensive day for the Japanese – roughly $14,000 for the ship plus Hiro's intercontinental house call – loosing this mooring would have cost them $200,000. Other scientists joining the ship weren't so lucky.

Seven scientists from the IOS, the University of Alaska and the US government Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) boarded the Laurier in Nome Alaska. For 10 days the ship zigzagged the Bering Sea tracking down moorings, dragging the waters for un-cooperative ones (of the 18 sought, 4 remained in the depths) and taking a whipping from the weather. For a couple of days a storm lashed the ship with hurricane-force winds gusting possibly as much as 90 kts and 10-metre waves breaking over its bow on to the well deck and drenching the bridge, four stories up. The Captain ordered all loose items be secured and all outer decks as strictly off-limits —any one of these larger waves could wash a person overboard to probable death in near freezing waters. “This is as rough as you'll see the Bering,” experienced crew commented, but flumes built into the ship's fuel tanks mitigated the rolling normally associated with heavy seas by slowing the sloshing of fuel.

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 over nine hours. The town was quiet, fishermen had not yet returned from crabbing. There was no word yet as to the success of the season, nor whether they would make it through without fatalities. A day later though, as the Laurier made her way across the North Pacific to Vancouver Island, word came over the radio that a fish processing ship had had an explosion on board in the Bering Sea and a number of crew were missing. On average, the Coast Guard responds to 50 SAR missions in the Arctic per year. Had we still been in the region, the Laurier immediately would have put aside research for rescue.

“…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 ship worked its way down Vancouver Island, retrieving, in the early morning fog, a number of 11.5-ton ‘long-leg' buoys to be decommissioned – a considerably greater challenge than the ‘kid's stuff' they retrieved at the start of the journey. Once the mist had lifted, the ship moved on to re-fuel Nootka and Estevan Point lighthouses, two of the 27 manned lighthouses that remain along the B.C. coast. Drums of lube oil and fuel were slung by chopper across to the Nootka compound, a collection of white clapboard buildings with red tin roofs on miniscule San Rafael Island at the mouth of the Nootka Sound where early Spanish explorers once kept cattle.

Afterwards, a short way down the coast at Estevan, they slung 1000-litre fuel bladders, resembling slightly deflated mammoth soccer balls set in steel frames, for a total re-fuel of 20,000 litres – half of the compound's capacity – before a temporary fog bank put a halt to the work. This tiny point of land, flanked by the vast blue of the Pacific and the vast green of coastal rainforest was where, in June 1774, the first European and native contact on Canada's west coast apparently took place. Its 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 that 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 glint off the steeple of the one-room native church at Nootka, all belying a peaceful – pacific – coastline and masking the fury that can unleash along this stretch of water. For a century west coast ships have relied upon 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; 50 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 kilometers offshore and began attacking the lighthouse with 25-30 rounds of 15-centimeters 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. The prospect of war elsewhere in the world once again has raised concern about Canada's 202,000 kilometers 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.

Un-seconded resolution proposed in the Senate
by Senator Pascal Poirier, February 20, 1907

The challenge of defending Canada's vast coastline is nowhere more difficult than in the Arctic. Ice is our greatest rampart: a trend in warming could reverse that. Since Britain transferred its northern rights to Canada in 1880 the question of our sovereign arctic waters has ebbed and flowed. Over 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 ran early expeditions to plant, literally, the flag in northern lands, charged for whaling permits in the early 1900s, conducted the Eastern Arctic Patrols from 1922 until the end-1950s, re-located Inuit to establish habitation, quoted sector theory, strait baselines and historic rights, expanded offshore zones from 3 to 12 to100 to 200 miles and initiated the NORDREG reporting and clearance system that politely asks, but does not compel, vessels entering those waters to ‘check in.'

Most of the current foreign challenge refers to Canadian Arctic waters (although Canada is embroiled with Denmark over claims to tiny Hans Island, which lies almost latitudinally unimaginable at 80 degrees north between the two countries). The government's most recent and definitive statement on the subject was made September 10, 1985 by then Secretary of State for External Affairs, Joe Clark:

Canada's Sovereignty in the Arctic is indivisible. 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. After a month on board and seeing no signs of specific sovereignty activities, I asked Captain 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.”

Despite its aging fleet of icebreakers (no new ships have been built since the 1980s), the Coast Guard is impressive in its capability of taking care of the Arctic and taking care of those still lured by it – still challenged by it – centuries later. Even with the current warming trend it remains a story of ice and men – although increasingly women too – who keep the doors open on this frozen continuum.

Pamela Coulston
Box 426, Wakefield
Quebec, J0X 3G0

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