ELLESMERE ISLAND ARCHIVES 2012

 

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December 10

My obituary of the great Ellesmere scientist Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith is in the current issue of Arctic, the journal of the Arctic Institute of North America. Here's the link to the full pdf of the article.

December 1

I've written two books on Ellesmere, but I'm hardly the first or only traveler to become obsessed with the place. Among my contemporaries, Graeme Magor and John Dunn have both done many Ellesmere trips. Graeme and I have teamed up on a couple of occasions; the cover of Arctic Eden was taken during one of our sled journeys. John's a photographer, while Graeme was interested in the history of Ellesmere long before I was. I first saw such subtle items as the RCMP Blue Books -- invaluable reference material for the Ellesmere traveler -- on his bookshelf.

I was sometimes impatient when Graeme wanted to poke over old Otto Sverdrup camps for hours; at the time, all I wanted to do was go, go, go. Slowly I've become a more rounded traveler, able to focus on photography, writing, history or go, go, go as the occasion warrants.

All three of us have been traveling Ellesmere since the late 1980s, and it's a great pity that new generations of travelers have not discovered this island in the same life-changing way. Expeditions there tend to be single projects. Admittedly, if the cost of chartering Twin Otters was as high when we started as it is now, we would have had little hope of indulging our addictions.

In the months ahead, two sledding expeditions will be based in the Ellesmere region. One will spend two and a half months or so following 1,000 kilometres of Sverdrup's 1898-1902 explorations. I'm always suspicious of expeditions done by motivational speakers claiming that they are going to places "that no one has been before and have only been mapped from airplanes", considering that Inuit have been traveling that region for thousands of years and even I have sledded just about their entire route. Still, it's a long manhauling expedition on the wildest, most beautiful island in the Arctic, and that itself makes it worthy of note.

The second expedition is an ambitious trek in the Polar Night up the strait between Ellesmere and Greenland. Beginning this month, it's a depot-laying journey and shakedown trip for an unsupported night North Pole expedition the following winter.

Unique journeys like this are rare and refreshing: The public tends to think of adventurers as imaginative, but in the polar regions anyway, most adventurers do the same copycat North and South Pole routes as everyone else. Unfathomably dull. This one is original, and I'll follow it with interest. I'm not convinced they'll succeed -- sledding Kane Basin and Nares Strait in the dark is a pretty technical trip -- but the first month should tell.

November 6

Recently I've been helping historian Robert Bryce with some information on travel along specific parts of Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Islands. He's trying to reconstruct Frederick Cook's 1908 route -- the one Cook claimed took him to the Pole, but didn't. He definitely reached the northern tip of Axel Heiberg -- Cook was careful not to take photos that might reveal where he was, but one image shows his party camped at the foot of a large crack in the Black Cliffs (Svartevoeg) of northern Axel. That crack is unmistakeable to the few of us who have seen it.

Cook's attainment of the North Pole was discredited long ago, in large part thanks to his rival Peary. But Peary's own falsification of his journey to the Pole a year later was very slow to emerge. Peary had powerful allies, including the National Geographic Society, which well into the 1980s forced any polar traveler that they supported to toe the Peary line. They were the last holdouts; earlier Peary supporters, such as The New York Times, abandoned his case decades earlier. In recent years, there have been enough books and articles from fair-minded historians like Bryce, analyzing documents only recently available, to make Peary's own hoax plain. And yet the public has been slow to embrace the fact that neither Peary nor Cook made it. Why?

Not long ago, every kid grew up reading that Peary "discovered" the North Pole. It was a clean, simple answer to the basic geographical question, Who was first to the North Pole? Nowadays, there's not a satisfactory replacement answer. Amundsen flew over it in a balloon; some Russian aviators landed there in the 1930s, a US sub surfaced there in the 1950s; Ralph Plaisted was first to reach it over the ice, by snowmobile, and Wally Herbert did it a year later by dog team, etc. These are not clean answers, in the way that Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon, Amundsen won the race to the South Pole, Columbus discovered America and Hillary and Tenzing were the first atop Everest. If your five-year-old asks you who was first to the North Pole, what are you going to say? The now-complicated answer partly explains why Peary will get credit by default for some time yet, at least by those craving a non-nuanced answer to a simple question.

August 20

Today is the anniversary of the 2011 plane crash in Resolute Bay that killed 12 people. Plane crashes, unfortunately, are nothing new to the north. Almost every community, including Resolute Bay, has the crumpled wreckage of past aviation disasters on its outskirts. But because this was a large aircraft rather than a bush plane, the toll was higher.

Some crashes are the result of pilot error. That seems to have been the case with the Box Top 22 crash near Alert in 1991. Perhaps in a spirit of atonement, the pilot died of hypothermia during the long wait for rescue after giving his own parka to one of the injured passengers.

Other crashes come about through the vast distances and difficult weather conditions in the Arctic. Landing spots may be few, wind rips, fog comes and goes. Even small bush planes have instruments, but in most places the ground does not, and you still need eyeballs to land.

One reason that Twin Otters are the workhorses of the High Arctic is that they have twin props. If one engine fails, the other can bring the plane to safety.

The investigation into the 2011 Resolute crash has not yet released its results, but families of the victims are suing several entities, including the military, which had temporarily taken over the Resolute airport during its exercises. It was a strange place to have crashed, not at all in the flight line of the airport's one runway.

August 1

Arctic hares at the Tanquary Fiord airstrip, around midnight.

Envy the park wardens at Tanquary Fiord. They spend two to three months stationed at one of the loveliest spots in the Arctic. The crisp air has no hint of the oppressive southern humidity of midsummer. They live in a comfortable camp, except when they're doing foot patrols along obscure, never-before-hiked routes and turning up archaelogical and historical artifacts. They deal with about a dozen hikers a year, some years much less than that. Since Quark stopped taking its icebreaking cruise ship into Tanquary, they don't even have to handle the once-a-year, one-afternoon flooding of the fiord with 100 red-parka'd tourists.

Hiking groups, usually led by a Blackfeather guide, either do mountain-hugging loops out of Tanquary or fly a little further on to Lake Hazen and hike the 115 kilometres back to Tanquary.

The Hazen region is not quite as scenic as Tanquary but its wildlife opportunities rank among the best on Ellesmere. Arctic wolves, Peary caribou and muskox are common here. Red-throated loons mate in nearby ponds; arctic terns divebomb hikers near their nests.

The one challenge of this top-of-the-world hiking, apart from the cost of getting here, occurs during the increasingly frequent warm spells in July. All rivers are glacier-fed, and warm weather creates torrential melting that swells the rivers and makes them difficult or impossible to cross. The Macdonald River, near Tanquary, is hard to ford even in average weather; it is impossible during a warm spell, although sometimes a 5 am crossing, when the glacier melting is minimal, can work. For liability reasons, the Quttinirpaaq National Park site includes the ridiculous recommendation not to hike during the last half of July because of the river crossings. In other words, they are saying, don't hike during the best of the short High Arctic summer. I'd advise, rather, bring neoprene booties, a flexible attitude and deal with whatever cards you're dealt. High Arctic rivers tend to be fairly narrow, and even the wider ones are braided, or channeled, so you're only crossing 20 feet or so at a time. Crossing a swift, thigh-deep stream is one of the best exercises in concentration you'll ever be exposed to.

A refreshing icewater crossing.

July 31

Tanquary Fiord

Last week I wrote how the only two regular tour destinations on Ellesmere are Alexandra Fiord and Quttinirpaaq National Park around Tanquary Fiord. Adventurous operators have led groups to other spots, such as Makinson Inlet and Otto Fiord, and cruise ships have put Zodiacs ashore for an afternoon here and there, but Alex. Fiord and the Tanq/Hazen region are the only regular ecotourist destinations. That is, if one or two groups a year can be called regular.

Tanquary Fiord has always been hard to reach, but it's become even more inaccessible in the last decade as the cost of charter aircraft has skyrocketed. It's a five-hour Twin Otter flight from Resolute, the last stop of large aircraft from southern Canada, to the park. Then the aircraft has to fly back to Resolute. Passengers on regular commercial flights don't have to worry about getting the plane back to its origin, but charter clients pay the full two-way cost. So tour operators are very keen to run back-to-back tours, so the outgoing group gets out on the incoming group's charter.

When I first visited Tanquary in 1995, one person's share of a roundtrip flight was a little more than $2,000. More if you went as part of a tour group, but if you were just paying 1/8 of the flight, that was the ballpark. (A Twin Otter carries 8-9 people with gear.) Now a 1/8 roundtrip share may set you back $10,000. It also costs $3,500 to fly on First Air from Ottawa to Resolute return. Although I haven't traveled with hiking/kayaking tours on Ellesmere for a decade, I can believe what I've heard, that the client profile has changed from schoolteachers who salted away their pennies for an expensive but affordable once-in-a-lifetime trek, to lawyers and others with serious disposable income.

Tomorrow: Quttinirpaaq National Park

July 30

Here's a spritely obit of Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith published in today's Daily Telegraph by someone who obviously knew him. Geoffrey would have enjoyed this.

July 27

Heard today the very sad news that Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith died last week. Geoffrey, 89, was one of the great old-time arctic scientists. I wrote about him in The Horizontal Everest. In the early 1950s, he became the first glaciologist to study the ice shelves of northern Ellesmere, traveling by dogteam along the entire north coast. Some years later, he and several other scientists overwintered in what is now Quttinirpaaq National Park. The following spring, Geoffrey became the first to climb Barbeau Peak, the highest mountain in Canada and the US east of the Rockies. Later, he turned his attention to the Antarctic, and he has a cape on the Southern Continent named after him.

I met Geoffrey twice at his home in Sissinghurst, England, sleeping in what he told me was the same room that "Major Tilman" [famous mountaineer, sailor and author HW Tilman] stayed in during his visits. I admired Geoffrey so much in part because of his great sense of arctic history. While doing glaciology, he nonetheless had the drive to become an expert on High Arctic explorers. In the course of his travels, he found many of their cairn notes. Many's the time, after considerable research, I skied to a site on Ellesmere hoping to find an original note from Nares or Peary, only to learn that Geoffrey had been there years earlier. At one spot I found Geoffrey's own 40-year-old note, still legible, in an old tin.

I'll be doing an obit of this graceful man for an arctic journal, so let me shelve further thoughts for now.

July 24

The two spots on Ellesmere that have seen a modicum of regular tourism are Alexandra Fiord and Quttinirpaaq National Park around Tanquary Fiord. Outfitters have operated in both these spots for over 20 years. Alexandra Fiord is principally a summer kayaking destination, although I've also skied it in spring. It doesn't work well for backpacking because cliffs and icefields limit long-distance mobility on land. The day hiking is great, but you really need a water vehicle to access the variety that this polar oasis has to offer. My introduction to Ellesmere came at Alexandra Fiord, and its rare combination of scenery, wildlife and history make it the ideal taster's menu.

Alexandra Fiord has one of the only airstrips in that area, a wicked, soft, sandy, short strip often victimized by crosswinds from the nearby Twin Glaciers. Bush pilots hate it.

Several white-and-blue buildings from an RCMP post active in the 1950s and 1960s are still used every July by botanists for long-term studies of High Arctic plants and climate change. Its wildflower meadows, watered by three streams, are the best on Ellesmere.

Next week: Tanquary Fiord.

Kayaking during first trip to Ellesmere.

Meadows awash with arctic poppies, heather and avens.

The old RCMP post at Alexandra Fiord.

May 23

Under the guise of an "expedition", some young tourists led by a couple of guides are off to climb Barbeau Peak. I have a history with Barbeau: in 2002, I was part of the sixth party to climb it. Ours was hardly an expedition, either. It was closer to a made-for-television event, because it was done for the film, Horizontal Everest (available from the Store). We landed on the ice cap at the foot of the peak, skied up 2,000 feet or so, then affixed crampons for the last 15 minutes. Here's a YouTube clip from that June evening:

There were three people in our group. Neither myself nor the producer/sound person were climbers. Ironically, the only real alpinist was the cameraman filming my progress, fellow Canmore-ite Glen Crawford. It gave me a sort of perverse glee to see our climb reported in the American Alpine Journal as among the noteworthy ascents of that year.

Barbeau is basically a two- or three-hour walkup. The only reason that this highest peak east of the Rockies has been so infrequently climbed is how remote it is. If you have the money to charter a Twin Otter there and back from Resolute (about $40,000), you can get to the summit.

Approaching the summit of Barbeau Peak. You can walk to the end of the rock band, then stomp up the last icy bit with crampons.

May 6

Geologist Ray Thorsteinsson died recently at the age of 91. Ray was a legend, one of the few scientists whose work in the High Arctic bridged past and present. He went north by airplane but traveled by dogteam or on foot for months at a time, like the old explorers. His "geological investigations" in 1956 led him from the newly constructed Eureka Weather Station on Ellesmere overland to Canon Fiord, then to the Schei Peninsula on Axel Heiberg, and back across to Borup Fiord, which became weirdly famous a few years ago when the media latched on to its "alien-like life forms" -- really, sulphur-loving bacteria. From here, he continued to Hare and Otto Fiords. Otto Fiord, he told me, wallowed in knee-deep snow, while Hare Fiord, immediately south, was marginally protected from westen snowstorms by the mountains of neighboring Axel Heiberg and its bare ice was so fast that he couldn't even get off his dogsled to pee.

Ray's travels led him to make historical as well as geological discoveries. He found Hans Krueger's 1930 cairn note at Andersen Point on Meighen Island, and a pickax left by Fitzhugh Green of Donald MacMillan's Crocker Land Expedition in 1914. He also retrieved some cairn notes left by Vihljalmur Stefansson during his Canadian Arctic Expedition in 1915, including one marking the discovery of Meighen Island. When I visited Ray at his office at the Geological Survey of Canada in Calgary, he gave me a color photocopy of that cairn note, which I've framed and hung in our home.

Occasionally, decades later, I visited the same sites as he did. At Robert Peary's wind-blasted cairn above Cape Thomas Hubbard, at the northern tip of Axel Heiberg Island, I found a fragment of a bottle that Ray had left when he looked over this site in the 1950s. He was the first to visit the Peary cairn since Sgt. Stallworthy during his search for Krueger in 1932.

Ray had a theory of where on Axel Heiberg Island the missing geologist Hans Krueger's remains might turn up, and one summer Alexandra and I spent three weeks around that site, looking unsuccessfully. But that same summer, a previous undiscovered Krueger camp was found by a geographer a mere 15 miles away.

Nowadays, scientists aren't travelers, but Ray was one of the last of the researchers who also qualified as explorers.

February 15

More unpublished Ellesmere images:

A sled boat used by the RCMP in the 1920s or early 1930s. It had steel-shoed runners on the bottom so it could be dragged more easily over sea ice.

Crossing a glacier-fed stream in Quttinirpaaq National Park: the hardest part about summer hiking in the High Arctic, especially during warm spells when those streams can run dangerously high.

Iceberg on Eureka Sound.

February 8

Some unpublished Ellesmere images:

Spring mirage, Buchanan Bay

Camped on the icecap at the foot of Barbeau Peak, just before climbing the highest mountain in Canada and the US east of the Rockies.

Arctic hares often assume cat-like positions.

Alexandra in Fram Haven, explorer Otto Sverdrup's first wintering spot.

The grave of Niels Petersen, who died of scurvy in 1876 on the Nares expedition. Located near Alert.

First night on Ellesmere: Aug. 1986. Time, just after midnight. Gotta love it.

January 18, 2012

The New York Times published an article yesterday about Jon Turk and Eric Boomer's circumnavigation of Ellesmere. It's always interesting to review the comments following a mainstream article like this one on arctic travel. Most were supportive -- "Good work", "You're living my dream," etc. Predictably, a small number of negative remarks came from the No Tomfoolerys -- sober paterfamilias types who seem to regard adventure as a tacit rejection of the life that they themselves have chosen. You always run into a few of these; they are also the ones who write angry letters to newspapers about search and rescue costs, but find nothing contradictory about contributing to Medicare for smokers and overweight people.

 

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