“Tourists would rave over this scenery.”
-- Douglas Robertson, 1931, while visiting Ellesmere by ship
"There is great beauty in the Labrador interior, but it is the strange beauty of unutterable loneliness." -- William Duncan Strong
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Every month, I get emails from readers planning an arctic trip and asking for advice. I'm usually happy to help, but when their expedition route includes arctic national parks, it's hard to be encouraging. The regions themselves are usually beautiful: Labrador's Torngats, for example, ranks among the loveliest wildernesses in the country. But a national park designation is the kiss of death for independent arctic travelers. You can't carry a firearm in an arctic park any more than you can in Banff or on the West Coast Trail. But arctic parks have polar bears. You need a firearm to travel safely in polar bear country. This is a huge problem.
Before the Torngats became a park in 2005, a small number of enterprising travelers ventured here every year. They kayaked, hiked, climbed, canoed. Some fell in love with the place, and adopted it as their wilderness home, returning sometimes yearly to deepen their connection with the place.
Torngats park officials have tried an imaginative and controversial approach to the visitor experience. They gave up on the Torngats as a destination for everyone, and especially for independent travelers. They created a camp at the southern boundary of the park, protected from polar bears by an electric perimeter fence. It's similar to some safari camps in Africa, which likewise keep well-heeled tourists from being chomped by lions. Every summer, Parks Canada organizes charter flights to this base camp. Here, visitors can day hike for a few days in the company of Inuit from Nain, who are permitted to carry firearms in their region's national park. Everyone returns to the fenced-in camp to sleep and dine.
It's an interesting concept: day hiking plus a cultural experience, in which tourists trek a little and hear how much the land means to local Inuit. Nevertheless, I would argue that it is solely an introductory trip that allows no opportunity for ambitious visitors to further their connection to the place. It would surprise me to hear that anyone has paid to visit the camp more than once. Financially, it's doubtful that the base camp has been successful, as Parks Canada is now trying to privatize it.
It's not the Torngats park's fault that national regulations prohibit firearms in all national parks. On the other hand, it is convenient for locals to keep those rules in place, and not lobby to have them relaxed, changed or dropped. A handful of people make good seasonal money guiding. Why give visitors the means to travel safely without a guide?
Alexandra and I were the first official visitors to the new park, when we kayaked the length of the Torngats in 2006. (We were given special permission to carry a firearm.) With some exceptions, we were also the last independent travelers. Quebec has an adjoining park called Kuururjuaq on the landward side of the Torngats. In the interior, polar bears turn up less frequently. Visitors can fly in from northern Quebec and backpack into the high mountains. I'm not aware of any encounters with polar bears, though these can happen anywhere.
As I wrote here a few years ago, one group did try to travel the coastal Torngats in the old-fashioned way. A few years ago, a Sierra Club tour brought a party of backpackers into Nachvak Fiord, the heart of the park. I had exactly the same introduction to the Torngats back in 1991, when I flew in by floatplane to do a magazine story. There were no polar bears in the region then, but our guide carried a shotgun in case of problems with black bears.
Nowadays, however, Nachvak Fiord bristles with polar bears. Every couple of years, I visit Nachvak Fiord as a resource person with cruise ships. The only time we haven't seen multiple polars bears was a day when it was too foggy to see anything.
The bold Sierra Club group didn't have a gun, only flares and bear spray. One polar bear hung around their camp for two days. On the second night, it dragged one of the group from his tent. Miraculously, he survived.
A firearm is not the only answer to polar bear deterrence, and especially not the first response, but it is a vital last resort. Once, i had to chase away a polar bear without a firearm backing me up. It was my fault; I hadn't seen signs of polar bears for weeks and I'd let my guard down. I left the gun in the tent when I went for a hike. Afterwards, I felt relieved, of course, but I also felt embarrassed. You just don't go anywhere polar bear country without a firearm within arm's reach at all times.
Not all northern parks are as dangerous as the Torngats. Quttinirpaaq, on Ellesmere Island, has many safe areas. I feel quite comfortable hiking the Tanquary Fiord and Lake Hazen area without a gun, even though one tour group did have an encounter with a polar bear at Tanquary a few years ago. But historically, polar bears are not common here.
I'd feel more nervous around Quttinirpaaq's Fort Conger these days. I've explored there for days at a time. Historically, it's one of the jewels of the High Arctic. Few signs of polar bear have ever been spotted there. But traditionally, the sea in that region featured mostly multiyear ice -- poor for seals. Now it's first-year ice: good for seals, and by extension, for polar bears.
Polar bears are the one specifically arctic hazard that even otherwise experienced outdoor people aren't familiar with. You may be lucky and go years without a bad incident, as I have on occasion. Or you may have so many encounters that it colors the entire trip. During one stressful section of our Torngats paddle, Alexandra and I had 11 bears in a week pass within 20 meters of our tent. Most of these bears were just wandering past, but to be in that situation without a firearm at hand would have been foolish.
When I began my arctic travels, I took a course, got a firearms permit, bought a gun and went out. It has worked for me, but I've made a lot of mistakes over the years, especially with gun maintenance. I'm not a hunter, never grew up with guns, and sometimes my lack of fluency with firearms increased the risk, both to myself and to the bear. In an ideal world, it would be good to see Parks Canada offer polar bear deterrent courses to would-be independent travelers. Then all visitors could enjoy the arctic parks, including those of us who don't want to stay in a tourist camp, don't want to hire an Inuit guide and yet aspire to travel as safely as possible.
A shout out to David Welky, a professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas. His book, A Wretched and Precarious Situation, is a biography of U.S. explorer Donald MacMillan's Crocker Land Expedition of 1913-17. It comes out November 1.
During his research, I helped out a tiny amount by giving some background on MacMillan's routes on Ellesmere Island, which I've covered in their entirety. It's always a pleasure when professional historians ring up for information, because it suggests that my books come off less as tales of hairy-chested sufferfests than adventure underpinned by intellectual curiosity and passion for the Arctic.
The review copy arrived today, and I was happy to see that like virtually all serious contemporary historians, he acknowledges explorer Robert Peary's deliberate deceptions, including his pseudo-discovery of Crocker Land, a nonexistent island in the Arctic Ocean north of Ellesmere. I wrote a chapter about the Crocker Land Expedition early in The Horizontal Everest, specifically about the unpleasant Fitzhugh Green and his panicked murder of the Inuit guide Peeawahto.
An original platter from the Nares expedition of 1875-6 to northern Ellesmere Island recently turned up at an antiques valuation in England. Such items, though rare, are not uncommon: Calgary bibliophile Cameron Treleaven, owner of Aquila Books -- Canada's one arctic bookstore -- once showed me several plates from the Nares expedition in his personal collection.
While researching The Horizontal Everest, I spent several days at a small table in the back of his shop, poring over the obscure Parliamentary Papers on the Nares expedition, to which Treleaven kindly gave me access.
End of an era?
When I was in Resolute Bay earlier this week, I spoke to Steve Piercey, the longtime airport manager, who gave me some sobering news. For the last couple of years, Kenn Borek, the only charter airline that allows independent travelers to fly to magical destinations like Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Islands, has all but phased out off-strip landings, on both sea ice and tundra. If you absolutely must land off-strip, you must pay for an extra Twin Otter to do a dummy landing without passengers, purportedly to ensure safety. This doubles the already astronomical price of a charter.
A Twin Otter lands on the icecap near Barbeau Peak, on northern Ellesmere Island.
For some time now, the bean counters and corporate liability lawyers have been taking over. Originally, beginning in the 1960s, bush pilots were both innovators and cowboys. Pioneers like Weldy Phipps invented the tundra tire, a giant soft wheel that allowed short takeoff and landing planes to put down on bumpy tundra. Pilots were "artists with an airplane", landing their craft with scientific precision on narrow hilltops. Now and then, of course, they dented or totaled a plane. Almost every northern village had its plane wrecks, but accidents were considered part of the cost of doing business in the north.
When I started traveling Ellesmere Island, the first wave of those great bush pilots, including Phipps, Duncan Grant and Dick Dubliquy, had retired, but the second generation remained individualists who "kicked their aircraft as with spurs", in the words of arctic botanist Josef Svoboda. Some were overly bold, others conservative to a fault: A certain pilot was nicknamed One Cloud, because he refused to fly unless the sky was perfectly clear. Karl Zberg was a hard-cussing Swiss expat who had left two planes on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean when he landed on thin sea ice and one ski broke through. After years of flying, his enthusiasm for the landscape remained undiminished, and he often slid down his window and dipped the plane to port to photograph a particularly beautiful Ellesmere scene with the little point-and-shoot he kept in the sleeve of his flight suit.
Doug McLeod, known as Cowboy Doug because of his lope, kept a layer of tin foil in his headphones because he didn't want radio waves zapping his brain. When Alexandra first flew with him, he pulled a cold pancake out of his pocket and offered it to her as an inflight snack. Doug had a remarkable if peculiar memory and could read a book on the tax code and then recite what was on page 273, section 4. Some of them had 30,000 hours at the stick, and were capable of incredible feats of piloting. Their work was far beyond "driving a taxi in three dimensions," as one jet pilot dismissed his profession to me.
Karl Zberg, top, and Doug McLeod
In 2002, during the making of the Horizontal Everest documentary, the camera crew and I flew with Karl Zberg on his last flight. First Air, which had competed with Kenn Borek in Resolute for many years, was getting out of the charter business to focus on their scheduled flights. They were doing well at that, said Karl. An accident during off-strip flying could lead to a lawsuit that would hurt their lucrative mainstream business. Though chartering a Twin Otter seemed expensive to us individuals, it was small potatoes to a corporation that was charging increasingly huge bucks for arctic flights. Today, a roundtrip flight from Ottawa to Resolute costs about $7,500. That's not a typo.
Some First Air pilots tried to make the transition flying the milk runs from, say, Iqaluit to Arctic Bay, but these mavericks and oddballs weren't cut out for flying taxis in three dimensions and soon retired. Meanwhile, Kenn Borek now had a monopoly on High Arctic charters. Prices shot up. In the mid-1990s I paid $1,200 to share a Twin Otter one-way from Resolute to Tanquary Fiord, in Quttinirpaaq National Park on Ellesmere. A few years later, it had risen to five times that.
Next, Kenn Borek began insisting that a second plane accompany pickup flights at the North Pole for safety. A few years later, they stopped supporting North Pole expeditions altogether. Then, the recent policy about requiring a dummy flight before any offstrip landing. Given the exquisite ability of both pilots and plane, this is really just another exercise to further minimize liability. One wonders to what extent this direction came because the company's entrepreneurial founder Kenn Borek died in a car crash in 2002. Founders often sympathize with the adventurous spirit in a way that their accounting and legal departments do not.
It's still possible to charter, as long as you land at one of a small number of official airstrips -- Tanquary Fiord, Lake Hazen, Eureka, Grise Fiord. Eureka, in particular, is a gateway to a wonderful part of the island. But the 15 or so expeditions I've done that began with offstrip landings probably won't be repeated.
A postscript: Besides the Arctic, I've traveled Russia a lot, and even made the effort to learn Russian to be able to get around without a translator. It's a wacky, dark, sad, vigorous place, and Russians endure Kafkaesque situations all their lives. Despite my fondness for the place, I'm well aware of how much better we have it, and how much more freedom. But they have one freedom that we do not, and it is very perceptible: Because their society is not litigious, they are not forbidden a thousand things that we are beause of the risk of a lawsuit. In my pursuit of photography in Russia, I've clambered over sloped rooftops and scaled radio towers for better angles. No one cares. You don't need a million dollar insurance policy and a two-month application process; if anything, just a bottle of vodka or Canadian whiskey as a bribe. In the case of the radio tower, the official simply warned me that the electrical field near the top could screw up my body's own electrical system. Then he gave me his blessing.
Below, a Twin Otter and its pilot strut their stuff at Cape Herschel, just south of Alexandra Fiord on Ellesmere Island.
The town of Resolute, gateway to the High Arctic, was named after a 19th-century British vessel that explored the region in the 1850s under Henry Kellett, in search of the vanished party under Sir John Franklin. The Resolute's sister vessel, the Investigator, became trapped in the ice at the north end of Banks Island; recently, researchers found its remains in shallow water just east of the mouth of the Thomsen River.
Floe ice trapped the HMS Resolute itself in the summer of 1853. It couldn't escape before winter set in, so it was abandoned. Unlike many ships, however, including Franklin's, it was not crushed in the pack ice, which can exert tremendous force on a ship's comparatively flimsy hull. Two years later, in 1855, it was found more or less intact by a whaler under Captain James Buddington. In future, Buddington would become a controversial figure during Charles Francis Hall's Polaris expedition of 1870-1.
Buddington brought the HMS Resolute back to England, where it was restored. It never saw arctic duty again, but served within English waters until 1879, when it was taken apart.
At this point, a ship's saga usually ends. The timbers find various uses. A beam from one anonymous ship -- recognizable from the broad arrow insignia denoting British government property etched into it -- became a support beam in the old home of my late friend, glaciologist Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith. But part of the Resolute became more famous than the intact ship itself. It was made into an ornate desk which the British government presented to US President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. It still serves today as the desk in the Oval Office.
In the marginally survivable High Arctic, the richness of an ecosystem depends on the smallest advantages. Even a single rock can create a small hothouse environment around it. Snow accumulates around rocks, so the ground stays moist longer. (Lack of water, not cold, is often the limiting factor in this polar desert.) Rocks, especially dark ones, also absorb warmth from the sun, so the immediate vicinity is several degrees warmer. The photo below shows the comparatively thick moss around an Ellesmere rock. This rock sits in sunshine 24 hours a day in summer, so even the north side is a mini-oasis.
On Ellesmere Island, this phenomenon was first noted by the British Arctic Expedition in 1875. Edward Moss, their physician and naturalist, sketched a boulder in the meadows beside Alexandra Fiord, on the central east coast. Jottings on his watercolor remarked how the vegetation was richest in the immediate vicinity of the rock and became progressively sparser as the distance from the boulder increased.
Some years ago, Alexandra and I visited the boulder and set up a similar image, which I've published in my book Arctic Eden and elsewhere. The detail below shows the small but distinctive ecosystem around the boulder.
The heat-gathering powers of a rock affects plants down south too. Our backyard is gradually greening up after the devastation of the 2013 Alberta flood. Since we sprinkle seed but don't lay sod, the grass remains patchy, but it's richest around our sit rock, below.
The New York Times carried a long piece this weekend about the 1969 Plaisted expedition to the North Pole. An insurance salesman from Minnesota, Ralph Plaisted was attempting to lead the first snowmobile expedition to the North Pole. But because explorers Robert Peary and Frederick Cook never actually completed their treks, Plaisted's turned out to be the first surface expedition of any kind to the pole. What was particularly good about the article was its no-nonsense treatment of these historical charlatans. No "We'll never really know for sure" hedging that is still prevalent in the expedition world, though not in the academic one. Just a graceful dismissal.
January 20, 2016
A news story today mentioned that 2015 was the hottest year on record by a wide margin. A thermal map, below, showing warmer-than-normal and cooler-than-normal parts of the world accompanied some of the articles. Apart from Antarctica, you'll notice that the only place on earth where it was colder was eastern Canada/southern Greenland. It was a bone-chilling year to do a winter sledding trip in Labrador, as my partner JB MacKinnon and I found out last February. Almost a year later, the toes of one foot are still slightly numb.
In the early 20th century, ownership of the eastern High Arctic islands -- including the three biggest, Ellesmere, Devon and Axel Heiberg Islands -- was still in dispute. Canada had the strongest claim, thanks to the 1875 British Arctic Expedition, but Denmark, Norway and to a lesser extent, the United States also had an historical presence. Fearful that the islands might slip out of its possession, Canada established a small number of Royal Canadian Mounted Police posts in that far-flung region in the early 1920s. At the time, no Canadian Inuit lived on those islands, and these RCMP posts gave a small national footprint. Every spring, the RCMP men would do long dogsled "patrols" to extend their presence.
Craig Harbour today
The first post to open was Craig Harbour, in 1922, near the SE corner of Ellesmere. It was a good location for hunting, since it lay near the North Water polynya, which teemed with wildlife, but the dark little bay in which the little settlement stood frequently experienced katabatic winds avalanching down from the ice cap behind.
A couple of summers later, in 1924, two other posts were established. Dundas Harbour, on southeastern Devon Island, was even more inconveniently located. Not only was it also windy, but strong currents made the sea ice along the entire south coast of Devon prone to breaking off without warning -- very dangerous for those spring sovereignty patrols.
Dundas Harbour (three)
Today, arctic cruise ships often visit the remains of Dundas Harbour. It's pleasant enough in summer, walrus are sometimes spotted off a nearby point and you can even see, as in the photo immediately above, the serrated peaks of the Bylot Island ice cap in the distance across Lancaster Sound. A little fenced-in graveyard commemorates the deaths of two RCMP officers who died within a year of each other: one shot himself deliberately -- a suicide -- the other shot himself accidentally in a hunting accident.
The furthest north station was halfway up the east coast of Ellesmere Island, on the Bache Peninsula. Located in one of the handful of small polar oases in the High Arctic -- an area of local good weather -- this was, despite its higher latitude, "by far the most pleasant and attractive place in the Eastern Arctic," wrote one veteran policeman.
Bache Post in the 1920s, and its remains today.
Bache's comparative delights were not, however, easy to reach. Sea ice often kept the supply vessel from reaching the station, which was located deep within a bay, at a notoriously ice-choked narrows between Canada and Greenland. Often, the ship left supplies (and swapped personnel) at a more accessible depot 30 km away. The ruins of a makeshift cabin erected for the waiting men still exists. A sign above the door declares, "Kane Basin Detachment Royal Canadian Mounted Police", below. I write about the adventures of the RCMP officers at all those posts in a chapter of The Horizontal Everest.
In part thanks to those RCMP stations, by 1929 the other countries withdrew their claims and the High Arctic Islands became part of Canada. By 1933, these posts, which cost $100,000 a year to maintain, were shut down. And although some of them were periodically reactivated in the years ahead, their job at that point was reinforcing Canadian presence rather than establishing it.
When Alexandra and I kayaked the length of Labrador's Torngat Mountains, we saw a polar bear swimming about half a kilometre offshore from a beach called Iron Strand. Suddenly, I saw a flash of black, and the bear disappeared. Polar bears can hold their breath for quite a while, so I assumed that it had seen a seal or fish and swam underwater after it. But I watched the water for half an hour, and the bear never resurfaced.
In recent years, with diminishing sea ice, killer whales have been moving north, and have been spotted as far as Grise Fiord, on Ellesmere Island. Had the flash of black been a killer whale? Cetologists I spoke to had never heard of a killer whale attacking a polar bear, but deemed it possible.
On this recent cruise along the Labrador coast, I mentioned this incident to Inuit hunter and fellow resource person Derrick Pottle. He had an alternative theory. Greenland sharks, he said, had turned up with both polar bears and caribou in their stomachs. Greenland sharks are among the world's largest sharks and can grow over 20 feet long. Like killer whales, they turn up in Labrador waters. In Jill Fredston's excellent book, Rowing to Latitude, she cites a close call during their travels along the Labrador coast when a Greenland shark accidentally surfaced beneath their kayak, lifting it out of the water. They braced frantically until the shark submerged and they managed to avoid flipping.
A 140-year-old bottle of beer sold recently at an auction in Britain for $6,400. The beer was brewed for the British Arctic Expedition under George Nares in 1875-6 and was called Allsopp's Arctic Ale.
The Horizontal Everest and Arctic Eden cover the Nares expedition in detail. This ale, "sweet-tasting with a hint of tobacco", according to the auctioneer, was not the only thing those 120 men drank. They wrote of sampling solidly frozen scotch at -76F. And every morning, they drank their tot of lime juice, mixed with alcohol, as an antiscorbutic.
It didn't work very well -- the British Navy had recently changed its source of limes to an inferior product -- and half the men came down with scurvy. Four died.
This bottle of old beer turned up in someone's garage, but the expedition also left some alcohol behind on northern Ellesmere Island. In 1953, during his glaciological researches, the late Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith found two bottles of Nares's rum in an old cache, below. He and his partner drank one bottle on the spot; he opened the other a few years later, on his wedding day.
Artifacts from the Nares expedition remain common on Ellesmere Island, though I doubt that any bottles of beer have survived. Here are a few items:
140 year-old graffiti: One of the sailors carved the name of his ship, the HMS Alert, into a rock.
One of several gigantic cairns built on Ellesmere Island by the Nares expedition.
Rusted hoops from the expedition's food barrels.
The grave of Niels Petersen, one of four men on the expedition to die of scurvy.
Better late than never, JB MacKinnon's interview on ExplorersWeb about our Labrador snowshoe trek.
Here's an interview about our Labrador expedition on Explorersweb. James's interview should be online later this week.
An expedition comes off not just because of good planning and competent participants, but because many people take an interest and help. On my first trek across Labrador, the head of the local ski club in Churchill Falls put me up on his couch and arranged for the company heliciopter to fly me to my point of departure. A Quebec outfitter flew in a two-way radio, so that when I reached one of his cabins after 400km, I could let my family know I was okay. And when I finished in Nain, I received hospitality from dozens of people who'd never met me -- a couch, a meal, tea and cake, welcome conversation after 46 days alone.
Someone always helps, but some expeditions rank higher on the hospitality quotient than others. This last one might sit at the very top of the heap. James MacKinnon and I had an astonishing amount of support, before, during and after our trek. Partly this is the famous Labrador hospitality, but I have to think it's more than that. Somehow we connected with great folks who put themselves out on our behalf, and I'd like to thank a few of them here.
We couldn't have done the expedition without Rob Pilgrim. I met Rob in 2012, during my expedition with Noah Nochasak. At the time, Rob was organizing the biannual Cain's Quest snowmobile race through Labrador. We kept in touch afterward, and when Rob heard of our plans through southern Labrador, he more or less took charge of our well-being. If our expedition had a manager, it would be Rob. He did more than we could ever thank him for, and put us in touch with other vital local contacts.
Felix Fequet was Rob's counterpart in St. Augustine. Rob and Felix know each other through snowmobile forums but have never met in person. Felix gave us the coordinates of unlocked cabins that we'd run into in his area and cleared with the owners that we could stay there. He put us up when we reached St. Augustine and drove us 100km by snowmobile to Old Fort, the start of the Trans-Labrador Highway, from which we hitchhiked back to Goose Bay. Like Rob, Felix kept tabs on us through our daily Spot reports. Although we were out there by ourselves, we never felt alone, thanks to Rob and Felix. They watched our backs.
Martha MacDonald works for the Labrador Institute. We met in 2005, when I gave a talk at the Mina Hubbard Centennial, celebrating the controversial widow of tragic Labrador explorer, Leonidas Hubbard. This time, Martha and her partner Al Niles, a science teacher in Goose Bay, put James and I up during our time in town. They fed us great meals every night, lent us their vehicle so we could run the many pre- and post-expedition errands and even gave me the chance to experience a concert at their town's new and very shwank theatre. Thanks, guys!
Bern Crawford is one of those intimidating Labradorians who seems to know how to do everything with his hands. One of the last craftsmen making traditional snowshoes, he made James's backup bearpaws and fixed the frayed webbing on my own. Bern spends 60 to 70 hours making each pair of snowshoes; little wonder it's a dying art. Since every snowmobiler in town needs snowshoes as part of his kit, Bern is usually months in arrears, but he made time for us.
I've known Ingried and Orville Crocker for years and watched their kids, Connor and Charles, grow from four-foot nothing to six-foot everything. Connor and Charles were raised in the warmest and most supportive family atmosphere I've ever seen. As my partner James put it, "Even the teenagers around here are nice people." The Crockers stored my sleds for years between expeditions and even lent us one of their own.
February 5, 2015
Off to Labrador today with JB MacKinnon to sled 400 kilometres from the Innu village of Sheshatshiu, near Goose Bay, to St. Augustine, on the Quebec North Shore. Snowfall after snowfall has hit southern Labrador this winter; recently, one snowmobiler got stuck in waist-deep snow -- in his own backyard. Goose Bay often gets lots of snow, and stop signs are presciently mounted on high poles. Even so, the signs are almost buried.
Here in the Alberta Rockies, skiers wish for such powder. But for a sledder, fresh snow is the enemy, and wind and cold are friends, because they transform soft snow into a hard surface over which a sled can glide. This is the essence of manhauling. You can't do it well in southern regions where the snow is soft. The sled sinks, and you have to move aside all that snow with each step. With a heavy load, that's grueling, sometimes impossible.
But in open arctic regions, or in cold, windblown areas like the winter prairies, wind magically transforms all that airy snow into a surface that can become so hard that sometimes a footprint makes no mark on it.
Despite the smile, horrible sledding.
This is more like it!
ExplorersWeb reports that Kenn Borek Air will no longer fly their charter aircraft in support of North Pole expeditions. You can partly blame climate change -- the Arctic Ocean freezes more briefly and thinly than it did 10 or 20 years ago. But I suspect that the decision is largely the advice of Borek's lawyers. Why risk an otherwise lucrative business on an Arctic Ocean landing? it's a lawsuit waiting to happen.
Kenn Borek used to be one of two charter airlines based in Resolute. The other was First Air (and before them, Bradley Air Services). In 2002, First Air got out of the charter business. A First Air pilot told me that it was a legal decision: The company was making plenty of money with their jet service and scheduled northern flights. They had assets which they didn't want to risk if a charter went wrong.
The Arctic has always been a dangerous place to fly in, and so the bush pilots who worked these regions were among the best in the world. So were the planes they flew. The Twin Otter first came to the High Arctic in 1965. Before this, rugged aircraft like the Piper Cub ruled the north. Fifty years later, the Twin Otter remains the only small plane in much of the High and eastern Arctic. Its dual engines allow the plane to continue to fly safely if one conks out. In a wilderness with large swatches of ocean and typically 500 kilometres between communities, the twin props remain a vital safety feature. The Twin Otter is slow -- "It's the only plane that'll take a bird strike from the rear," one pilot quipped -- but it can take off and land on small rough strips, gravel deltas, sea ice and tundra. Once I timed a Twin's takeoff: From a dead stop, it was airborne in nine seconds.
The bumblebee drone of a Twin Otter is a siren song to arctic travelers, signifying both adventure and the way home.
Despite the pilots' expertise and the plane's short takeoff and landing abilities, accidents happened. Rare is the arctic village that does not have airplane wreckage on its outskirts. Offstrip landings were particularly hazardous. One pilot lost two planes to thin sea ice, one on the Arctic Ocean and one between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. In one case, a wheel first broke through. Then a second wheel. Soon the plane was straddling the ocean just by its wings. Crew and passengers crawled out through the pilot's exit. Eventually the plane sank to the bottom of the ocean. Everyone was picked up a few hours later by a second plane.
Another crashed his plane at Fort Conger on Ellesmere Island and wired his radio back together with artifacts from the Greely and Nares expeditions.
Wreckage of one of several planes near Resolute.
Until a few years ago, arctic bush flying had some of the aviation romance that author and early mail pilot Antoine de St-Exupery so beautifully describes in Wind, Sand and Stars. Pilots ruled their vessel like dictators. "See that handle?" Duncan Grant liked to say to his new copilots, pointing to the seat adjuster. "That's the only thing you're going to be touching."
Rather than just fly directly to their destination, early pilots like Grant often explored for hours on their own. Grant was legendary for finding countless historic sites and telling no one of his discoveries, so the sites wouldn't be plundered by the souvenir hunting that was rife in that era. "They were artists with an aircraft," says one scientist who flew with them in the 1950s and 1960s.
Bush pilot Karl Zberg flew first for Bradley Air Services, then First Air. Even with 30,000 hours in his logbook, he always carried a pocket camera and often opened the window to snap the scenery.
Most pilots weren't reckless. Some were just the opposite. One frustrating fellow went by the nickname of One Cloud, because it was said that he wouldn't fly if there was even a single cloud in the sky.
Gradually, however, companies reined in these individualistic pilots. Rules tightened. When I first flew on Twin Otters, pilots often agreed to take an offstrip payload of 3,200 pounds; that's now down to just over 2,000 pounds. In arctic flying, the Era of the Liability Lawyers had been creeping up slowly but inevitably, and is now upon us.
Every year, I volunteer to prescreen the films of the Banff Mountain Film Festival. Four or five of us sit in a darkened room at the Banff Centre and view all the entries in a particular category. We help decide which films get shown at the festival in early November.
One of the payoffs of prescreening is that we view some good films that won't be shown at the festival. Sometimes they're too long -- there's only so much room for feature-length entries. Other times they're not mountain-y enough, although this restriction has been relaxed in recent years. Adventure films, in particular, can take place anywhere -- an ocean, the Arctic -- although the other categories still require an alpine component.
This time, I prescreened the Mountain Culture and Mountain Environment/Natural History categories. Because of my expertise on Ellesmere Island, I was also asked to view one of the Adventure films that took place in the High Arctic, about the four guys who last year skied up the west coast of Ellesmere, following part of the route of the Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup. I wrote about their expedition here last year. (See Archives 2013) Their film, which is a pretty good one, is called The Mystery of the Arctic Cairn, because they were looking for the same elusive Sverdrup cairn that a partner and I once unsuccessfully searched for. This was an important landmark -- Sverdrup's farthest north, and a symbol of Norwegian sovereignty in the region. Last year's group did find a pile of stones that in their excitement, they assumed was Sverdrup's -- but it was only the cairn built in 1906 by Robert Peary that we had also found years earlier. When I pointed this out to them, they swallowed their disappointment with good grace.
There is a remote possibility that we all did find Sverdrup's cairn. Peary could have simply destroyed Sverdrup's note, then added his own message and claimed that he built the cairn. There is no evidence for this, but it would fit Peary's personality. He felt particularly threatened by Otto Sverdrup, an explorer who accomplished far more in the Ellesmere area than he did.
Peary could likewise have secretly removed Sverdrup's other significant missing cairn, at 80 55' on the northwest coast of Axel Heiberg Island. Here, Sverdrup left a note declaring sovereignty over the High Arctic islands for Norway. My partner and I likewise searched for this one. Cairns are easy to spot in the open landscape of the Arctic, and the fact that these two important markers have disappeared may not be a coincidence. In the past, I have wondered whether RCMP Sergeant Stallworthy was under orders to destroy this evidence of Norwegian sovereignty when he dogsledded around Axel Heiberg in 1932.
Both: Looking for Sverdrup's end cairn at 80 55' on western Axel Heiberg Island
Incidentally, The Mystery of the Arctic Cairn was not their choice of title. Their working head was New Land, a tribute to the name of Sverdrup's own volume of explorations. But their distributor changed it to the sexier name. Book authors and magazine writers do not get to decide the title of their own works. With magazines, the editor does that. With books, it's the publisher, although the author has input and can veto something truly obnoxious. Arctic Eden, for example, is my title, although I had to fight to avoid options like Vanishing Eden being imposed on a book that has nothing to do with climate change. The book's subtitle, Journeys Through the Changing High Arctic, was a political compromise made during the battle to keep Arctic Eden as the book's title.
Some unpublished images from Ellesmere's exotic neighbor, Axel Heiberg Island. Axel is just as lovely as Ellesmere and parts of it feel even wilder. As a summer travel destination, it doesn't offer Ellesmere's variety, because an ice cap covers much of the interior, and while there is still plenty of unglaciated land on which to roam, rivers from the melting ice cap interrupt travel -- or at least longer distance travel. On the other hand, Axel is exquisite for sledding.
The sandy margin east of Good Friday Bay. Rare flatness in the High Arctic.
Flat Sound is actually not a sound but a shallow inlet between mainland Axel Heiberg and the Schei Peninsula.
The terminal moraine of the Thompson Glacier, at the head of Expedition Fiord. With its companion, the White Glacier, these are the two most studied arctic glaciers in the world. Researchers have been coming here almost continuously since the early 1960s. Their camp features the only human structures on Axel Heiberg.
Ren Bay, looking north toward the northern tip of Axel Heiberg. The large dome in the distance behind our sea ice camp is probably the backside of Cape Thomas Hubbard.
The cairn built by Robert Peary atop Cape Thomas Hubbard in 1906 is not visible from shore, because the top of the cape is so broad and flat. From this point, both Frederick Cook (1908) and Donald Macmillan (1914) ventured north over the Arctic Ocean. A hard thing to attempt today, even in May, with much more open water. Note how the dark open water is reflected on the underside of the clouds, an arctic phenomenon called a water sky.
Axel Heiberg's best-known feature, the fossil forest emerges in dark bands from badland hills.
Sand Bay, on southwestern Axel Heiberg. While walking this shore, Alexandra spotted something I'd heard of but never seen before: rare hedgehog, or rose rocks, below.
View from just beside the outhouse barrel at Colour Lake, near Expedition Fiord: surely one of the world's most beautiful outhouse views.
The long finger of Wolf Fiord, on southern Axel Heiberg, during summer breakup.
Windblown Buchanan Lake, near the east coast.
Even in the High Arctic, most glaciers are clearly retreating.
Alexandra inspects a Thule sled runner, the first artifact ever found on western Axel Heiberg, a notoriously poor area for hunting.
A woman from Black Tickle, Labrador, was interviewed recently about life in this fading town. Like most residents, she doesn't want to leave. Her description of Black Tickle as a safe place for kids is classic: "I don't have to worry about someone snatchin' them up. The only thing I have to worry about is the scattered polar bear."
A lot of Canadian media are linking this weekend to new video footage of the HMS Breadalbane and repeating Parks Canada's assertion that it's "the most northerly known shipwreck”.
It’s not. Even ignoring the ones in Svalbard, which are the northernmost in the world, there is one further north in Canadian waters: The Proteus went down in 1883 while trying to rescue members of the Greely expedition. It is 600km further north than the Breadalbane. Its location, on the east-central coast of Ellesmere, is well-known but it’s much more difficult to reach, because it’s in 1200 feet of water.
Historian Robert Bryce, author of Cook and Peary: The Polar Controversy Resolved, has just come out with a supplement to that 1,000-page work. Drawing on a lost notebook of Cook's that the author discovered in Denmark, Bryce tries to piece together the route Cook actually took during his faux-march to the North Pole in 1908.
This is a book more for scholars than for the public. It transcribes the journal, analyzes which of several possible versions of Cook's narrative is most likely and explains obscure references. To keep the flavor of Cook's notebook, Bryce structures his annotations in the same chaotic way, making for a hard read. It's a useful document, however, for Ellesmere-ophiles.
Among Bryce's interesting discoveries, it turns out that Cook made a brief detour into Canon Fiord to lay a cache. He also left supplies near the isthmus of the Schei Peninsula. I've sledded that area a few times without spotting anything, but if I ever visit there again, I'll spend some time poking around. That's the sort of tidbit I read these specialty works for.
Full disclosure: I gave the author a fair amount of information on travel conditions and what specific places along Cook's route looked like. Except for part of western Axel Heiberg and north Devon, I've sledded the entire route myself, including Canon Fiord. Alexandra also supplied the map that Bryce used to show Cook's route.
Canon Fiord. Frederick Cook camped beside the lowlands on the right-hand side.
Arctic history, unvarnished
Because everything decays so slowly in the Arctic, historic sites are often rich in artifacts. One of the rules of travel is not to take souvenirs. Some sites, such as Adolphus Greely's Camp Clay on Pim Island, are diminished today because visitors have ignored these ethics. Artifacts weave a magic spell around the sites. It entrances even people like myself who were slow to be interested in history.
Until the 1970s, even scientists used to take souvenirs. Today, that's no longer done, with one exception. Sometimes officials will remove artifacts for museums or study. That's fair, I suppose, though one subset of this practice remains crass: Gussying up the artifacts for display.
Consider the example below:
The first image shows the Nazi weather station when it was discovered in Labrador's Torngat Mountains in the early 1980s. The site included the antennas, the big rusty meteorological/transmitting cylinders and, on the ground, lots of old dry cell batteries to power them.
The people who worked the site removed the big cylinders and antennas and gave them to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, where they lurk in an obscure corner, above. I might argue that leaving them in Labrador might have been more inspirational: the 200 or 300 annual cruise ship passengers -- and the occasional independent travelers -- who visit the Torngats would have got more out of them than visitors who file past what is really a bland museum exhibit. But that's not the main issue. Some curator had the bright idea to paint the artifacts in grey camo! This vandalism shows a lack of understanding of how these talismen can conjure up the past.
In their original decrepit state, the cylinders might have told a subtle story: maybe one side was weathered more than the rest, so had been facing the prevailing northwest winds. One might have had scratches from the claws of a curious polar bear, or graffiti etched in by some unrecorded visitor, even one of the U-boat sailors. Painting them eliminates any possible forensic discoveries. These could be replicas. They have no magic.
Sometimes you don't even need to remove the items from their location to muck them up. Consider this tale of two cannons:
Near the abandoned village of Okak, between Nain and the Torngats, an old cannon lies on hill overlooking Okak Bay. I don't know its origin, but poking around it, looking for clues, graffiti, messages, is great fun. It belongs in this haunted place. It enhances the mood. A visit to Okak would be poorer without it.
The second cannon perches atop the hill overlooking the town of Cartwright. The city fathers have seen fit to paint the 18th-century weapon and mount it on a whitewashed wooden stand. On this wild hill, looking north toward the Wonderstrands and Cape Porcupine, it looks chintzy and out of place. Did they think that a new-looking cannon is more interesting than the same one lying, rusted, on its side nearby where George Cartwright himself left it?
The folks in Cartwright had the excuse of not being experts. Somebody had a bad idea, and the town innocently went with it. The fate of the Nazi weather station, ruined by a professional curator, is much more disturbing. But in both cases, you have to ask: What were they thinking?
January 6, 2014
Beginning this year, I'll be adding Labrador news, history and adventure to this page, as well as continuing my coverage of Ellesmere Island. In recent years, I've been focusing more on Labrador. I've already written two books on Ellesmere. For 20 years, I traveled there almost exclusively. I know the island as well as anyone ever has. And although my love affair with Labrador has been rekindled after a long hiatus, I wish I could continue to explore the High Arctic every year as well.
In recent years, however, travel to Ellesmere has become forbiddingly expensive. Ellesmere was never a cheap destination, but until about 2002, it was affordable. Then First Air got out of the Twin Otter charter business, leaving Kenn Borek with a monopoly in Resolute. Spiraling gas prices added to spiraling charter costs. In 1996, you could share a Twin Otter to Tanquary Fiord for $1,200 each way, organized by an outfitter who coordinated several flights a summer. You could stay for two, four or even six weeks. Now one's share is closer to $5,000 each way. This assumes that you can find a charter plane to share. Hiring your own would be in the neighborhood of $65,000. Finally, there's the $5,000 (!) return flight from Ottawa to Resolute and back. Black Feather tours now cost $20,000 per client ex Ottawa for a 12-day hike in Quttinirpaaq National Park.
I've always been a dirtbag traveler, and my secret for doing 30 expeditions to Ellesmere has been to find affordable ways north. I discuss some of these techniques in The Horizontal Everest. There are still ways to eliminate most of the cost, but not consistently, so my Ellesmere projects will be intermittent, not counting my almost yearly visits as a cruise ship lecturer. For personal trips, I'll focus on bringing off a handful of projects that I've wanted to do for years. If I was starting my career now, I would simply be unable to develop a lifelong passion for Ellesmere. Although there's a chance that someone who can afford getting there will fall for the place, more likely Ellesmere will see individual adventurers doing just one or two expeditions.
Labrador has its own magic, though in my heart it will always be #2 to Ellesmere. But unlike Ellesmere, it remains accessible (with difficulty) to the ordinary bloke.