Sunday, 12 August 2012

The North-west Passage

Since I was "outed" last week in an Edmonton Journal story, there is no need to hide my secret hobby any longer. For almost my entire life, I have had a fascination with the polar regions, with an emphasis on the Canadian Arctic. This has translated into a book collecting obsession, especially the Arctic and Antarctic exploration literature. Last year I realized my dream of many decades and sailed through the North-west Passage. I have been fortunate to visit many places in the world, but no trip has captivated me more than a trip to the Canadian north. I was inspired by the spectacular landscapes, watched incredible wildlife, reflected on the historic sites, and admired the local people of a place that is so near (it is Canada, after all), yet so far away.

The following are a few reflections from that trip. I flew from Toronto to Kangerlussuaq on the south-west coast of Greenland. The trip ended at the western end of the North-west Passage, and I caught a flight from Tugluktuk (on the northern mainland coast of Canada) back to Edmonton.

Approximate route of the trip (
Jakobshavn Fjord
Most of the icebergs that are seen on the east coast of North America come from the Jakobshavn Fjord on the west coast of Greenland. Think of Greenland as being a large bowl, with mountains being the rim that keeps the water (ice) inside. There is so much ice in the interior of Greenland that the weight has pushed down the land -- most of the interior land is actually below sea level. The Fjord is one of the few drains for the ice to escape. Ice slowly moves down the Fjord, until reaching the "freedom" of Davis Strait. Oddly, the water currents carry the ice north into Baffin Bay, before eventually turning it around and then descending south.

The rate at which the ice traverses the Fjord has greatly accelerated in the past few decades (i.e., the bathtub is emptying faster). One theory is that the water on the ice surface melts, seeps into the cracks leading to the bottom of the glacier, and this helps “lubricate” the slide towards the ocean.

This is but one example of many that I saw that illustrated the effect of global warming on the Arctic. One can debate the causes of global warming, but there is no doubt that the impact on the north is profound, especially on the people and wildlife.

Ice flowing down the Jacobshavn Fjord. Note the large ship in the middle of the picture.
Beechey Island
The highlight of the trip was the visit to Beechey Island. Since the age of 12, I have been fascinated by the quest to discover the North-west Passage through the Canadian Arctic. I've read all the exploration journals, up to and including Roald Amundsen’s successful traversal of the Passage (1903-1906). Leading up to that you have the dramatic stories of Martin Frobisher's illusion of fool’s gold (1576-1578), the mutiny on Henry Hudson’s voyage (1610-1611), the incredible overland journey of Samuel Hearne (1770-1772), Franklin’s overland expedition that endured horrific starvation ("the man who ate his boots",1819-1822), the incredible escape of John Ross (1829-1833), Franklin’s tragic voyage for which there were no survicors (1845-1848), and the intense search for his fate that culminated in discovering a trail of bones and a single document (McClintock, 1857-1859). All these stories fired the imagination of a young boy would yearned to be an explorer. In many ways, I realized my dream by becoming a scientific explorer rather than a geographic explorer.

Beechey Island is where Franklin’s expedition spent its first winter (1845). Three men died and were buried on the Island. The graves are visible to this day (although the original headboards have been replaced with replicas), and were made famous in the 1980s when University of Alberta anthropologist Owen Beattie exhumed the bodies.

For me, it was a sombre experience to visit this sad memorial to the lost expedition. I felt compelled to dress in my best clothes, give a minute of silence, and reflect on the tragedy that befell these three men and, eventually, their compatriots. Amidst the barren landscape -- all rocks with not a sign of vegitation anywhere -- one could imagine the sense of isolation and hopelessness that the crew must have felt as their ships were soon to become inextricably trapped in the ice.

The three Franklin graves on Beechey Island (the fourth is from a Franklin search expedition).
Polar Bears
Two days later, our ship anchored in Conningham Bay on the south-east end of Prince of Wales Island. So far we had not seen any whales on the trip, and the captain decided to make a short detour because Beluga whales often populated the bay.  Although we arrived late at night and were far from the shore (because of shallow waters), from the ship’s bridge the crew could see animal activity in the distance. Thus, we were roused at 5:30AM and quickly boarded Zodiac boats to bring us closer to shore. Almost immediately we were witness to a spectacular sight. Apparently as many as six Beluga whales had been trapped near shore when the tide went out. They were quickly discovered by the polar bears, and the feast commenced. Before me I saw 22 bears: some were eating, mothers were caring for cubs, young bears were wrestling in the water, some were swimming, others were posturing. It is the grandest spectacle of raw Nature that I have ever witnessed.

The polar bears of Conningham Bay.

Navigating through "brash ice" (small pieces of icebergs) off the coast of Illulisat, Greenland. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this personal insight into a fascinating land so close to our hearts ... By the way, the North-West Passage issues and the fate of the last Franklin expedition was in the news yesterday: