LABRADOR AND ELLESMERE ISLAND 2014
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.