Some impressions from the guest crew on the North West Passage journey.


On Friday August 9th our Arctic adventure commenced the next phase, entering the Canadian archipelago proper.  After captain Gijs and Rob returned from a short shore in the morning visit the anchor was lifted, the rubber dingy hoisted on board and the engine put in gear.  The welcoming, but smudgy settlement of Pond inlet slowly disappeared in the distance and into insignificance compared to the glaciated mountains of northern Baffin Island behind the town.  Without wind and thus motoring, but with the arctic sun doing overtime it was very pleasant on deck even in light clothing.  Nearly everyone brought their lunchplate on deck.  Afterwards reading and conversation with our backs against the warm and soft dingy, or lying on the sails that are stored on deck.  After several hours the ship entered ‘Navy Board Passage’, which is the waterway to the west of Bylot island that connects to Lancaster Sound at its northern end.  A cluster of birds indicated the location of a dead Narwhal, now we know what they look like we are hoping to spot a live one.  Further into the passage we regularly saw seals with their round heads bobbing above the water, but as the ship gets closer they invariably dive under water.  Bylot island looks small on maps of the Canadian arctic archipelago, but when sailing around it the true size becomes apparent.  The island has a main mountain range at the eastern and northern sides, a large glaciated interior, and on the southeastern side a gradually rising plain with some vegetation, which is used by caribou. 

Lancaster Sound is the dominant sea strait that runs westward from Baffin Bay and provides access by sea to the centre of the Canadian arctic archipelago.  Lancaster Sound is about 100km wide and it runs west for some 400km and continues westward, where its name changes to Barrow Straight. Further west is a continuation named Parry Channel and Ultimately McClure Sound, which at its western end opens up to the Arctic ocean.  If ice were absent there would thus be a deep water ocean connection between the Arctic ocean and the North Atlantic via Baffin Bay.  However the westernmost sections (McClure Sound and Parry Channel) are still year-round impassable with ice and preclude shipping via this route.  Lancaster Sound is the result of a massive glacier, which during ice-ages provided a way to drain the ice-buildup on the northern part of the Canadian ice-cap into the sea (Baffin Bay).  The ice has eroded Lancaster Sound to a depth of 500m in the east and at least 200m further west where it is called Barrow Strait.  There are several wide inlets to the north and south, which originate from side glaciers that contributed to the main Lancaster glacier.  Due to erosion of the main channel and compounded by isostatic rebound since the last ice-age (that is areas of land that were under a thick ice-cap during the ice-age have been uplifted since the ice has molten) the general level of land on either side of the sound is roughly between 100 and 300m. Near the eastern opening of the sound into Baffin Bay the mountains are much higher, up to 1500m, part of the western rim of the Baffin Bay rift, or West Greenland rift zone.

The landscape of Lancaster sound is thus like open sea with distant headlands visible, especially to north shore, part of Devon Island.  In the east the rocks are old gneisses and migmatites, which form irregular shaped mountains.  Further west are sediments from the paleozoic era, which have horizontal bedding and form regular cliffs with top layers often harder layers and the slopes scree from softer rock types. Between the headlands and cliffs are deep inlets, where further distant cliffs and hills are visible.  On top of the plateau is often permanent snow and ice and regularly the ice forms small glaciers that follow valleys towards the sounds.  Most glaciers melt before they reach the water level but several make to sea. 

The Tecla entered Lancaster Sound early morning Sat August 10th.  Motoring along under quiet conditions.  Just where Navy Board Inlet entered the sound was a shallower zone, which is exploited by seals to catch fish.  Our crew spotted quite a few surprised seals bobbing their heads up and disappearing under water once the ship got closer.  We had seen seals also in the inlet before, but only occasionally.   After heading north for about an hour we caught an easterly breeze and sails could be hoisted and the engine turned off.  Right from the start of entering Lancaster Sound some ice could be spotted, but initially it was limited to a few pieces that could easily be avoided.  Later during the morning watch  (08.00 to 12.00hrs) a line of ice pieces was kept to port, while we sailed in a northwesterly direction, approximately diagonally crossing Lancaster Sound.  Eventually the line of ice was crossed without much trouble and behind was open water again.  In the afternoon a bit more ice was seen and some nearby, but the evening watch encountered a much denser zone of floating sea-ice without a clear path through.  The wind had dropped to weak and after starting the engine captain Gijs gave instructions to the watch crew: one person at front near the bow with responsibility to signal any ice that looked like short distance impact chance.  Others assisting with watching, but standing out of the captains walk around the wheel.  Also a 5m long pole to push ice away was placed in readiness. 

So Gijs commenced with admirable slalom between the ice pieces and shoals, which would have graced a downhill ski champion.  The ice kept coming, every now and then an open straight of a few 100m appeared, but invariably more ice was behind.  We noticed the analogy with a computer game where navigating obstructions is followed by just more challenges in the next level.  Although most sea-ice forms flat shoals and small pieces, several floats have irregular ice shapes on top and melting sometimes leaves odd table, or mushroom shapes.  Recognising various animals, fantasy creatures or whatever forms part of crew entertainment.  After about an hour of concentrated navigation the ice density decreased and eventually a regular course could be steered again.  On the next watch another dense ice patch was encountered this time compounded by fog, but in the course of Sunday morning the ice gradually disappeared and the ice flows were but a memory.  In the meantime air temperature had dropped and the wind speed picked up so that conditions on deck were truly arctic. Some light showers overnight added to ‘character building conditions’.  In the end most of on this trip joined to experience today’s conditions, while yesterday’s sunny reading on deck could have been enjoyed at many places at lower latitudes. 

The hot meals (breakfast with porridge,  lunch with soup and freshly baked bread, and warm evening dishes like Spaghetti bolognese, Goulash, Chili con and sans carne, etc,  are devoured and keep us warm with a full belly.  As they say true love, but in this case arctic enjoyment goes through the stomach.  Hail Jet (and Gijs and Sam for bread and breakfast).

Steven Luitjens

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