Saturday 31 August – Cambridge bay, by Steven Luitjens

On this last day of August we are sailing south of Victoria island out of the Dease Strait and into Coronation Gulf.  Many names on the maps of this area were allocated during the first half of the 19th century, when the HBC (Hudson’s Bay Company) and the British admiralty sent out exploration ventures that named the hilltops, bays, straits and sounds as they were first observed.  Where we are now reminds of Queen Victoria and her coronation (about 1840).

You need a moustache if you want to join!

Since 2 days ago the weather has changed and there is no more enjoying sunshine in lighter dress in a sheltered spot on deck.  We regularly have light snow (in Canada named flurries) and a stiff north to northwesterly breeze with air temperature a bit above zero celcius, but which feels very much below zero.  Only those on watch stay on deck and even they sometimes wander into the kitchen to warm their hands.  Also volunteering for doing dishes has become popular as a means of staying warm down below a bit longer.  Most of us have found another layer of clothing, or a heavier duty all weather coat to put on.  Only captain Gijs appears immune to cold, since he adjusts sails and coils ropes with bare hands.  This weather was forecast and people in our last port, Cambridge Bay, had warned us, but such cold has to be experienced to be really appreciated.  Apparently the weather we had until then was unusually warm and the current conditions are more typical, so back to normal it is!  The first snowflakes for the year probably indicate that summer, or what goes for summer here, is over.  Bruce Peterson, a local at Cambridge Bay for 48 years, told us that he makes the annual snowman for his children sometime in October and that this fellow normally lasts well into May.  Due to the longevity of the snowmen they give them names and regard them as companions, just as others have pets at lower latitudes.

We had a lengthy 3 day stay at Cambridge Bay, which was interesting from several directions.  Firstly it is the regional logistics hub, with daily flights from Yellowknife and ongoing local flights to the surrounding communities, of which we have already visited Taloyoak and Gjoa Haven.  There are government services, including a new, 2019, large research building: CHARS for Canadian High Arctic Research Station.  During our first day here the station held an open day and after visiting schoolchildren left, several of our group attended public talks by research staff.  It is a service facility with intended research conducted by staff from distant universities and scientific organisations, in winter there will be much less activity than in the summer months, although some research into ice and snow will obviously have to be done during winter.  The shore party quickly spotted a genuine cafe/lunch bar and enjoyed a morning coffee and then ordered burgers and snacks.  Canadian commercial news was displayed on a large flatscreen TV and it showed that we had not missed much:  more Brexit,  POTUS tweets and some fires in the Amazon that will contribute to climate change. 

Next the man who had lunch adjacent to our table commenced a conversation by highlighting his dismay at the demolition of a very tall radio mast several years ago.  Since he had lived here pretty well all his life, this landmark had been dear to him, and he missed it very much, he was offered to buy it for 1$, but maintenance would have been prohibitively expensive so down it came with a thud and only a short section is on display at the local heritage open air park in front of the council building.  After having gotten the heavy subject of the radio mast out of the way, Bruce Peterson turned out to be a friendly, knowledgeable local, with considerable resources due to his ownership of a business that does building, earthmoving, transport, and in fact it might be easier to describe what he does not undertake. 

Mount Pelly and it’s monument. Thanks you Henry Steen

After some time he judged that we needed to be shown the town by vehicle and next a bus, complete with driver, appeared for a ‘Tour de Ville’.  Firstly a visit arcoss the bay to the fuel depot for taking on some diesel, then the combined USA-Canada military post where three very large radar domes keep an electronic eye on who moves in and out of the place (with aircraft and ships).  Next the tour passed along the foreshore where the small wharf is and past the CHARS research station where we picked up another 5 of the Tecla crew.  Past the float plane operation it went and to the turnaround point where a metal bridge crossed a small river.  On and next to the bridge about 7 local Inuit were fishing some with normal rods and others with spears.  Our driver/guide told us that exactly this time of the year the Arctic Char are running upriver.  These fish, like salmon, live and grow at sea, but as an adaption these fish go upriver each autumn to spend the winter at the bottom of freshwater lakes that are abundant inland. 

Steven op de Gjoa

The Inuit have traditionally congregated around rivers this time of the year to spear these fish and prepare them as winter food by drying the fillets on rope made of sinew from seals that was strung between cairns of rocks (you need some poles in a land where the tallest, and only trees are arctic willows that do not grow taller than 25 cm).   The bus tour next led us to a fish processing facility where Arctic Char were prepared as fillets and then sent by plane to exclusive restaurants in Canada’s metropolises down south, and some was smoked as jerky.  We purchased some of the latter to taste the local flavour later on board.  After the bus driver showed us a new suburb where frantic building in a tundra landscape took place he proceeded to the town centre, which we had early that morning already covered on foot.  When we passed the firestation and the bank for a second time we requested to be dropped off at the research facility where the tour ended.  The bus driver was given a tip, and we hope that the fantastic hospitality shown to us can be enjoyed by other visitors in the future.  At the research station we had hoped that WIFI might be accessible, but unfortunately only for those working there so the electronic isolation was maintained.  The only means of internet access available was the (free) use of a laptop in the Library/Heritage Centre. 

GJOA 1903

The second day at Cambridge Bay, Thursday 29 Aug, was spent with more cafe Saxifrage,  shopping, hiking and visiting the Heritage Centre.  The latter is inside the HighSchool, but as an annex.  Entry is through a common door with the school, where you take off boots/shoes, which is standard practice in the arctic, apart from shops where you can wipe the mud, or dust off your footwear.  The Heritage Centre has some nice expositions of Inuit culture including traditional clothing made from caribou and ringed seal skin, some harpoons and spears, a handcrafted kayak covered with waterproof handstitched sealskin and interactive flatscreen information boards that did not work.  The same room contained the library that contained a comprehensive collection of literature about the Arctic history, culture, economy and stories.  Additionally leather sofas made this place a sort of ‘heaven in the outback’.  Late afternoon at the wharf, while waiting for transfer to Tecla with our zodiac, a large and very wide cargo transport approached the wharf.  A tug which had been towing 3 large barges into the bay, had rearranged and tied the 3 barges side by side in the inlet and it was now pushing the barges alongside the wharf.  Slowly the large vessel came alongside and made fast.  The cargo included at least 25 SUV’s and 4-wheel drives, as well as trucks, earthmoving equipment and a dozen or so containers.  We heard that a lot of this cargo had come down the MacKenzie river (from Great Slave lake where the railroad from Edmonton ends).  Much had been sitting past winter by the mouth of the MacKenzie in Tuktoyaktuk, because ice conditions last year prevented further transport.  A few joyful locals came to the wharf to welcome vehicles that had been purchased one and a half years ago.  This barge we were told was also the last transport for the year, so if its not on this ship then ‘next year’. 

Steven with moustache, Dutch boat and Frisian hat!

Day 3 at Cambridge Bay was not fully planned, I think, but captain Gijs needed extra time for arranging pump parts that will be important for the Pacific crossing and he wanted to make 100% sure that the parts will be ready in Nome when the ship gets there in September.  We enjoyed more walks, cafe and library and Simon obtained a local fishing licence and went off to the steel bridge over the river to try his luck.  A group of us hired a vehicle, a massive Ford F150, for a trip inland towards Mount Pelly.  After a 1 hour drive on the rocky gravel road they reached the foot of this hill, which is the tallest point in the surrounding flat tundra.  The hill, named after a director of the HBC, is an elongated hill of just over 200m a.s.l.  It provided beautiful views of the surrounding tundra, which is dotted with numerous large and small lakes.  If Finland is the land of 10,000 lakes then Canada must have 100 times more (mainly because it is 100 times larger).  Late afternoon when everyone returned to the ship stories were told in the comfortable kitchen on board.  With the now icy breeze and flurries outside everyone appeared ready for further travel and new adventures elsewhere.  Luckily Gijs also had success with the pump so no 4th day on shore was necessary.  One of the last to return was Simon, the fishing licence had not been in vain!  He proudly showed a near 1m long Arctic Char that he had caught himself.  Since Simon is good looking, or ‘fits in well in the arctic landscape’ whichever way you look at it, he was given two smaller Arctic Char by local ladies and thus he brought more than sufficient proteins for all aboard for a day.  Gutting and filletting the fish in icy cold water was probably the worst of Simon’s day, but he persevered and we had ‘Char sushi’ and a large tray of fillets for next day’s dinner.  It felt like we could now, like the local Inuit, live off the land.  The Arctic Char tasted beautiful, especially with  the salad and spaghetti-garlic-spinach dishes prepared by Jet.

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