Monolith A wonder on life's journey

17Feb/14Off

Ice Would be Nice


A changing climate has turned the treacherous Northwest Passage into a pushover, discovers Roderick Eime

We’re crowded on the bridge, at least 20 of us, peering out to the horizon with powerful binoculars and telephoto lenses. Surely we’ll see something soon.

Polar bears, whales, countless seabirds and even a rare species of Caribou are all checked off, but something is still missing up here in the high Arctic of Nunavut, Canada. It’s ice.

Up until the last decade, the Northwest Passage was only achievable, if at all, during a small window of opportunity in the northern summer when favourable winds and currents allowed a narrow corridor through the pack ice. The first person to successfully navigate a vessel through the labyrinth was Roald Amundsen in 1906 – a feat that took him the best part of three years.

Beginning almost 200 years ago, scores of brave (some say foolish) explorers set off in waves in an attempt to claim the 20,000 pounds reward offered by the British Admiralty for the discovery of a North-West (sic) Passage. Early attempts were conducted in unusually low ice conditions and bore promising results, but by the mid-19th century, the ice had rebounded and efforts culminated in the famously disastrous expedition by former Tasmanian Governor, Sir John Franklin, who vanished along with his 128 men and their two ships.

Now here we are aboard the Akademik Ioffe, a well-travelled and sturdy former Soviet polar research (some say ‘spy’) vessel steaming confidently through the narrows of the Bellot Strait, a notorious little sliver of water that thwarted almost every navigator before us. The chap who named it in 1852 actually had to the sled the whole way on ice and it wasn’t traversed by a ship until 1937. Some of our complement is actually aboard a little Zodiac runabout for the 25 kilometre run, stopping to set foot on the northernmost point of the American continent, Zenith Point at 72 deg N.

Prior to this, we’d been way up at 74 degrees on Beechey Island, the site of Franklin’s winter camp and burial site for three of his early casualties. This rocky appendage to the much larger Devon Island serves as northern gatekeeper to the east-west Parry Channel. These graves are the only contemporary memorial to Sir John Franklin’s famous folly. From forensic examination of the well-preserved bodies in the 1980s, it was found they succumbed to a mysterious combination of lung disease and lead poisoning thought to be from poorly soldered cans of food. Numerous other memorials and a now ruined winter refuge were added in later years.

“Ice at two o’clock, and what’s that? A bear?” comes the call from Boris, our patient and vigilant expedition leader. At the exit of the strait we finally encounter the ice he’d been studying the night before on the daily satellite chart and there, through the strongest binoculars, we see a lonesome but very large male polar bear, nostrils aloft, already sniffing us out. Given we are something like a day ahead of schedule because of the effortless, ice-free journey so far, Boris decides we’ll keep the bear company for a bit.

The following day is a similar doddle south down through Larsen Sound and after a hearty lunch of steaming broth and roast lamb, we go ashore at the triumphant-sounding Victory Point. In truth, there's nothing victorious about Victory Point. Named, not after some long-forgotten battle, but after the ship commanded by Capt. John Ross during his arduous 1830 voyage.

We land on a desolate and rocky shoreline in our well-rehearsed procedure where shotgun-toting scouts disembark ahead of the main group to set up a polar bear perimeter. After the abundance of hungry carnivores sighted at Coningham Bay, there's plenty of reason to be cautious.

Dotted along the ridge above the high water mark are several stone cairns erected to attest the arrival and departure of various vessels and their shore parties. None, however, are likely to be the original cairn built to mark the initial progress and later demise of Franklin's last surviving men who suffered, as searcher John Rae wrote in his 1853 report to the Admiralty, "a fate as terrible as the imagination can conceive."

None of the monuments we examine contain any clue to their origin. Some weathered mahogany once fastened with modern stainless screws and some soggy, illegible scraps of parchment are all that remain of previous visits. But it was here that the famous official Admiralty document was found in 1859 bearing definitive news of the fate of Franklin.

The document's first entry was on 24 May 1847 signifying 'all well', but further messages scribbled in the margins told a much gloomier tale, including the death of Franklin himself just two weeks later.

It read in part:

April 25th, 1848. Ships Erebus and Terror abandoned ... Total loss by death to date, 9 officers and 15 men ... Start tomorrow for Back's Fish River.

Despite a forensic examination of the puzzling remains by the search party, the mystery of the Franklin Expedition's demise remains unsolved. But as far as the Admiralty was concerned, the costly expedition was lost and the 'case closed'.

Our journey ends as Franklin’s should have at the unlikely outpost of Kugluktuk, an Inuit settlement almost to the Beaufort Sea where a vintage 737 is sent to collect us and bring new adventurers for the return journey. As the old jet taxis through a cloud of dust to the ramshackle terminal, I try to imagine those wretched souls man-hauling heavy lifeboats and scavenging anything to survive in the harsh, featureless landscape of the Arctic. If only they’d waited 150 years, they could have done it in a canoe.

Go2
GETTING THERE: Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) flies daily from Sydney to Vancouver and directly onto 59 Canadian cities. One Ocean Expeditions provide connecting charters from Ottawa and Edmonton.
STAYING THERE: The historic Fairmont Chateau Laurier, Ottawa. (www.fairmont.com) has rooms from around A$250/night. TripAdvisor 4/5.
CRUISING THERE: One Ocean Expeditions (www.oneoceanexpeditions.com) offer two annual 14-night Northwest Passage expeditions aboard the 100-berth Akademik Ioffe in August between Kangerlussuaq (Greenland) and Cambridge Bay (Canada). Enquiries: Active Travel (www.activetravel.com.au) 1300 783 188

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