The (high)lights of Herschel and Barter Island in a watch By Hester Jiskoot

Hester Jiskoot

The (high)lights of Herschel and Barter Island in a watch By Hester Jiskoot, 10 Sept 2019 Suddenly a blinking light appears on the horizon at the start on our midnight watch. During the next four hours we slowly creep closer and this one intermittent bright light becomes flanked by an evenly-spaced strip of white lights with the occasional red, and then some variegated lights trailing on the west. Once each of these light elements becomes clear enough to make a sum of the whole, we see that we are looking at what we expect: a lighthouse, an airstrip and a settlement. We are approaching Barter Island, with its village Kaktovik, the easternmost settlement on the Alaskan North Slope. During our four hours of watch, from midnight to 4:00 we ultimately leave this island on port and when we pass over the helm to the 4:00-8:00 watch it disappears behind them. We can then crawl into our bunks for a short four-hour stint of sleep on the gently rocking ship, until the clockwork cheery “breakfast-is-ready” call by Gijs.

Photo Hester Jiskoot

This watch has been uneventful and therefore one of the hardest for us: we are propelled by diesel engine as there is no wind; it is dark and damp; we navigate by compass only. A compass that is fortunately working like a dream again, now we have travelled a distance from the magnetic north pole. Because of the darkness we miss out on seeing the tallest peaks of the Brooks Range, including its pinnacle Mt Isto, which exact height of 2736.0 m above sea level has only recently been established yet which may continue to change as peak glaciers continue to melt under current climate change. Because of the cold during this dog watch it is hard to zone out and relax on deck, so when not at the helm  watch members walk circles around the main mast, hide in the sails stored on deck, or stay close to the helmsperson to chat and keep things lively. After days of breathtaking and zealously dancing northern lights, this night we have to do with lazy and broad chalky strokes on the celestial slate. For only a short while we observe this aurora: it is not a show to wake up members of the other two watches.

In addition to our normal watch duties, I have been taking scientific measurements along the entire Northwest Passage Route. If possible, I record a set of weather measurements at the start and end of each of our two four-hour block watches: so up to four times per 24 hours. Most days I photograph and classify clouds around solar noon, and enter these data into the NASA Globe cloud observation app. Whenever possible I take Sea Surface Temperature (SST) measurements using an old-fashioned bucket method and by lowering a string of thermistors to a water depth of 5 m. All these measurements will help fill a huge geographic gap in the scarce ground observations in the Arctic region, especially the Arctic sea, and will help verify satellite data and increase our understanding of cloud, weather and ocean processes. It will also reconcile data recorded from far above the earth surface with that taken from the waterline perspective. The air temperature so far has varied between 1.4 and 17.2°C with wind chills going down to -5. The SST has been between 2.5 and 11.2°C, and what surprised me most was that while we were navigating sea ice in Peel Sound the ice floes were drifting in a warm bath of sea water of about 7°C.

Photo by Hester Jiskoot

Ultimately, we resort to checking our compass course and observing the lights of Barter Island, which at times look like a party-boat. This brings back fond memories of our previous day – this last stop on Canadian soil warms our hearts as well as our cold hands and feet at the helm. We anchored at Pauline Cove on Herschel Island and visited the historic Simpson Point site of Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park, a living park and home of the Inuvialuit people. Herschel Island was formed during the last ice age by an ice sheet lobe pushing up portions of the frozen sea floor. Now you can see these old sea sediments exposed in the 100 m high cliffs around the island. The cultural-historical aspects of the island will be detailed in a future blog, but the highlight for several of us was an evening of alternating sauna time and dips/swims in the polar sea. The cozy warm wood-burning sauna was generously started for us by the Park Wardens, and it was a blast to experience this together. On the dingy-ride back to the Tecla we were first treated to the sight of two probable Northern Hawk Owl attempting to land on the ship’s stays and mast, and later to the most amazing northern light show you can imagine. Rotating and swirling lasers shining down on us, ranging in colour from green to light yellow to red. Short and sweet and before we knew it this wild show was over.

Photo by Hester Jiskoot

From the sea surface temperature measurements of this morning we know that our polar bear dive in Pauline Cove’s was in cold sea water of 3 – 6°C. With a refreshed mind we have now embarked on our last long stretch to Nome, which we will do without stopping. We are heading Northwest across the Beaufort Sea, in a straight course connecting the lovely Herschel Island with Point Barrow, which is inaccessible to us as we won’t land and clear customs until we are at our final destination of Nome. This start of our last leg, an offshore stint of about 1000 nautical miles, is quite in contrast with the otherwise convoluted and varied Northwest Passage Route. After the many events and excursions our onboard world has suddenly become small, and it further shrank today because the rain, fog and clouds have enclosed us, not surprising in Alaska, and stayed with us the entire day after we had left the light of Barter Island on port. Let’s see if tomorrow will bring us more wind or better sight, or both.