Okay, first off, I'm an idiot. Lets get that out of the way right off the bat. I have never been so unprepared for a trip on the land as this one. Ever. I forgot eating utensils, plates, cups, and sugar, and now that I think about it, toilet paper. I left the meat in the fridge. I left my sleeping bag behind, and as I couldn't find my rubber boots I just took my snow pacs. Even though those last two could have had serious repercussions out here, luckily everything just ended up as an inconvenience. But what a trip.
We went to the Floe Edge this week for three days. The Floe Edge is one of those magical places on the planet. Something that everyone should, but unfortunately only a few people get a chance to, experience. Simply put, it is the edge of the land fast ice. It isn't always an easy place to get to, but it is worth the trip.
Gary has pretty much worked seven days a week since he got here, and we've been talking for awhile that it would be a real shame for him to be up here and not experience being out on the land, and especially missing the Floe Edge. So we've been talking for awhile about going, and originally planned on leaving a couple of weeks ago, but we finally got it together this week. Three of us, Gary, Johnny and I, would go out on two machines. We planned to leave first thing Monday. But as usual, things rarely go as planned. Another one of Leah's brothers, Samson, got back from the Floe Edge Sunday night, without good news.
Samson told us that a large part of the Floe had broken off and that he didn't think we could get safely to the Floe Edge. He said that the edge was now just past Ship Point and that there were a lot of fractures in the ice. We decided to bring the crew in to work for Monday morning and put off the trip until conditions were better. Come Monday morning things looked alot brighter, a report from the camp of the National Geographic group stated that the ice was good and that there were a lot of Narwhal there. But we had a crew at work and wouldn't be able to leave until afternoon. We sent the crew home at lunch and planned on leaving around two o'clock.
Murphy's law by this time had taken a firm grip on our departure, and as it turns out we didn't leave until after four o'clock. Our route would take us out of Arctic Bay, into Adams Sound, then north on Admiralty Inlet to the Floe Edge. We were taking two snowmobiles, each pulling a komatiq (sled). Johnny would be pulling the larger komatiq (24 foot) which had the iglutak (a little hut for the sled) with Gary on board. I pulled the small komatiq with the gas. Depending on where exactly the edge was we would have about a 150 km trip one way.
Right away we encountered the first crack in the ice. Sea ice is a very dynamic entity and this time of year cracks form across the ice. These can range from a few inches wide to "it's time to call search and rescue we're drifting out to sea" wide. It is rare that you can not find a route across the cracks, usually (but not always) there is a spot where the one side of the crack doesn't meet the other and you can move through in kind of a large "S" to the other side. At any rate we made it across the first crack with out a problem and eventually made our way to Admiralty Inlet. We stopped for our first tea in the lee of an older smallish iceberg, which has probably spent several seasons in the arctic after making its way from Greenland.
It was clear that we were not going to have easy going. We had foggy, rainy weather and all of the way to Ship Point we fought a stiff wind. The ice was rough most of the way, with a lot of water on it, and soft slushy snow where the large drifts had been. We crossed several large cracks but by about 9 o'clock we had made it to Ship Point and found a spot to camp. We wanted to camp back from the Floe Edge and before going any further to reduce the risk of the ice we were camping on breaking away, and at this point we believed the Floe Edge was still just a little way north of us.
Ship Point is the southern point of the mouth of Baillarge Bay, the second of the fiords that press east from Admiralty Inlet. The shoreline here, indeed much of the shore line of Admiralty Inlet, are high cliffs, deeply scarred with runoff. They resemble castles to me, or the grand hotels of old. It was here that we began to encounter Northern Fulmars. Not surprisingly, as the cliffs betweed Baillarge Bay, north to Elwin Inlet (the first east running fiord) are home to a very large nesting colony of Fulmars.
After a hot supper and hot chocolate we made camp and finally got ready to turn in. The fog had cleared somewhat and we had a great view of Ship point. Just before turning in we heard an avalanche down one of the cliffs but could see nothing. Gary and I retired to the tent and Johnny crawled under a caribou skin in the iglutak. He said he had planned on sleeping under the caribou skin anyway, and was not going to use his sleeping bag which he'd given up to me. I'm not sure if that was indeed the case, however caribou is much warmer than any sleeping bag so I wasn't feeling too guilty about using his bag, just stupid for leaving mine behind.
The next morning, again in fog and fighting a head wind, we headed north once more, fully expecting to travel a short distance to the Floe Edge. We did travel only a short distance to the next crack, which was only a little north of where we had camped. There were numerous Ringed Seal at this series of cracks and fractures, a larger concentration then I have ever seen together before. The Ringed Seal is the common seal of the Arctic, and this time of the year they frequently haul themselves out of their aglu (breathing hole) or out of cracks and sun. The other seal that is normally found up here is the Bearded Seal, but there are not near as many of them. Once the ice has gone out herds of Harp Seal move into the area, searching for Arctic Cod.
The area around this crack near Baillarge Bay was riddled with fractures and small cracks, but it was surprisingly easy to maneuver around them. The Floe Edge, however was not here as we had been told. So we kept heading north. The ice however was generally better to travel on as we went north. It was not as rough, and although there was still a lot of water on the ice it was shallower. Although there were a couple of pools we went through deep enough to get the belt on the snowmobile wet enough that I had to get off and push. Fortunately by this time I now had Gary's rubber boots and stayed dry. My snow pacs were still wet from the first day's journey.
At Elwin Inlet we encountered the next, and what would prove to be the last, crack we had to cross. It, however proved to be a formidable challenge to find a way across. We went first in one direction, then in the other searching for a way across. We came across the tracks of the National Geographic group which showed us that the crack had opened since they had passed by. This crack was from two feet to, oh, ten feet across. After finding the tracks we turned back in the direction we just came, settling on a large block of ice on which to cross. It is quite something to look down into the black water as you pass by, knowing it is hundreds of fathoms deep.
Sea ice differs from fresh water ice in several ways. It is much stronger and more elastic than fresh water ice, and more importantly doesn't rot the way fresh water ice does. In the melt fresh water ice, weakens and "candles" and even fairly thick ice can be dangerous. Sea ice, on the other hand, melts it doesn't weaken. With at least two feet of ice underneath us we were perfectly safe, and where it cracks, one can go right to its edge without danger that it will give away.
Once by the Elwin Inlet crack we were only eleven kilometres from the Floe Edge. We knew we were getting closer because of a phenomenon called Ice Blink. Low clouds over the ice are lighter in colour than low clouds over open water, due, of course, to the reflection of light off the ice. We could see the band of dark clouds getting closer and closer, and about the time I was thinking to myself "Man, we've got to be almost there" I could suddenly see the dark band of water ahead. We were finally at the Floe Edge. For those with maps or GPS that are interested in where we were, we were at 73 degrees 38 minutes North, and 84 degrees three minutes West. Where we stood, was at the edge of the land fast ice, in the middle of Admiralty Inlet, with in sight (had it not been foggy) of Lancaster Sound, and probably within sight of Devon Island. We were literally a step away from hundreds of fathoms of water.
Bird life abounded, Northern Fulmers soared and wheeled. Every once in awhile a large flock of them would go by, looking very ernest in getting to whatever destination they had in mind. Thick-billed Murres and Guillmots flew back and forth or swam just off the edge of the ice. Glaucous Gulls came and went, and Black-legged Kittiwakes flew steadily by in groups of five to ten. Several flocks of shorebirds flew by tantilizingly close, but not close enough for me to identify. Every flock of shorebird was flying northeast along the Floe Edge. King Eiders flew by in pairs or small flocks, and a large flock of female eider went by but I was unable to tell what species they were.
To be continued....