August 10, 2011
Resolute to Pond Inlet, Nunavut, Canada
Canadian Coast Guard Icebreaker
Until recently, the Northwest Passage was the sole domain of Canadian Coast Guard cutters and a few vessels purpose built for travel in these ice-choked waters. Rapidly diminishing sea ice has opened the Northwest Passage in summer to all manner of vessels, but one couldn’t say there’s a traffic jam up here. During our month in the Arctic we traveled over 3,500 miles and encountered only a dozen boats; power and sail as small as ten meters, the sturdy ice class expedition cruise ships, Hanseatic, Le Boreal and Bremen, and several CCG cutters.
Hanseatic and Le Boreal
Estimates from various sources suggest that no more than 180 vessels have completed the entire passage.
This year the ice cleared several weeks earlier than normal in the eastern and western Arctic, but break up and melting in the central Arctic was delayed by an equivalent length of time, hence our decision to double back to Pond Inlet, rather than traveling west from Resolute. The ever changing light, weather and sea conditions, and surprise wildlife sightings continued to amaze us by the minute and provided a totally different perspective on the return trip.
We cruised day after day without seeing another vessel. When a target appeared on the radar our first thought was to look for another boat, but invariably, it would prove to be an iceberg.
Ice As Art
By the end of the first week the reality of how alone we were began to set in. The vast emptiness of this country was emphasized even more when flight seeing provided panoramas sixty to seventy miles distant with no sign of civilization.
Arctic Landscape from Helicopter
We were in the land of the Midnight Sun and experienced continuous daylight. In the early hours after midnight the sun dipped towards the horizon and then began to rise again. On one spectacular evening the full moon rose and at the same time the sun reached its lowest point on the opposite horizon.
Twenty four hours of daylight allowed us to maximize the use of the helicopter and several times we pushed our pilot’s fourteen hour duty day to the limit.
In Croker Bay, Devon Island, an impromptu champagne party was organized on one of many un-named glaciers.
Full Moon and Berg
Chief Stewardess Vania Hard at Work
(Photo Vania Lawgun)
(Photo Vania Lawgun)
At Radstock Bay we ferried everyone to the top of a soaring, flat topped rock tower to stage a picnic lunch in fifty degree weather. A rough shed perched near the edge serves as a winter shelter for polar bear researchers.
Picnic at Caswall Tower
Stunning Rock Formations at Caswall Tower
Near Caswall Tower we found clusters of whale, narwhal, and seal, bones; evidence that the area had once been inhabited by the Inuit, or possibly their Thule predecessors.
Earlier, five snow white Beluga whales were spotted cruising close to shore in the bay below.
The three hundred mile range of the helicopter was a reassuring safety lifeline for Asteria. We cruised in luxury with an endless supply of fresh water, ample provisions, and adequate fuel to take us from Iceland to Japan. I have great admiration for the toughness and fortitude of those we encountered on the small sail boats who enjoyed none of the amenities and provisions for safety that we took for granted.
Santa Maria Australis
We had yet to get a good view of walrus, but were finally rewarded in Blanley Bay, a narrow inlet on Devon Island.
Waterfall from a Tidal Glacier
We had launched the largest of our tenders, a 26’ heavy duty aluminum boat with inflatable pontoons all around, to view the face of a tidewater glacier.
Launching the North Wind
Stevie spotted a herd of several dozen walrus basking on a narrow spit at the head of the bay.
Walrus cavorting in Blanley Bay
The boat was stopped at what was thought to be a respectful distance, but this obviously wasn’t far enough for the alpha male of the group. He swam menacingly towards the tender and intimidated all with his pugnacious, bloodshot eyed stare.
Alpha Male Walrus
Even Stevie, who had faced many walrus in a small boat, urged caution as this unpredictable beast could have easily done serious damage to our tender. He then related several tales of walrus attacking Inuit hunters in their boats near his village of Qikiqtarjuaq, Baffin Island.
From afar the landscape appears stark and barren, but close up one sees delicate, small flowering plants adapted to thrive in the brief summer.
The presence of large, pure white Arctic hares who survive solely on this foliage is testimony to the abundance of small plants.
We crossed Lancaster Sound and into Admiralty Inlet to the tiny hamlet of Arctic Bay nestled beneath scenic bluffs.
Church at Arctic Bay
Arctic Bay appeared neat and tidy with a more prosperous atmosphere, most likely due to the Nanisivik lead and zinc mine that had provided steady income for twenty six years before reaching the end of its viable production.
A Manchester United Fan
Ubiquitous Baby Carrier
We cruised back into Admiralty Inlet and were smacked with thirty knots of wind and eight foot seas. Our destination of Strathcona Sound was close by and after an hour of bashing about we were again in protected waters. We saw the leftovers from the mining operation, a scattering of steel containers, a few pieces of heavy equipment, and several small buildings, all in the process of being removed as required by Canada law.
Traveling from Devon Island to Arctic Bay had not been in our original plans. It was a long haul and that had introduced another long run to get to our next destination The decision now had to be made whether to begin the exposed passage to during the night or wait until daylight in hopes the wind would diminish. A daylight run in rough weather is rarely preferable to a night passage. One may not sleep well, or at all, but the less moving around the ship, the less opportunity for injury. We had gambled on good weather and now it looked like that bet had been lost.
We took advantage of the helicopter for a reconnaissance flight to the unprotected waters of Admiralty Inlet and were surprised to find the wind had dropped to twelve knots. An added bonus was spectacular scenery during the short flight.
Spectacular Scenery Near Arctic Bay
It turned out to be a cruel hoax by Mother Nature. By the time we had run down Strathcona Sound and entered Admiralty Inlet the wind had piped up to thirty knots again. The guests agreed (some more enthusiastically than others) that they were up for the ride and we continued on. A long night later, we entered the sheltered waters of Navy Board Inlet.
That afternoon we anchored at Ragged Island, Milne Inlet and saw an even larger pod of narwhals (100 plus) than on the previous trip. Two bowhead whales lolled nearby, but refused to show us their magnificent heads or massive tail flukes.
Our Favourite Berg in the Fog
Back in Pond Inlet we anchored near the monster ice berg we had seen two weeks earlier aground off the shoal in front of the village. It had rotated 180 degrees, but had lost little of its visible mass.
On the beach were tough, mongrel sled dogs chained in a row, howling at the slightest disturbance. Their main fare is raw narwhal blubber and seal meat.
Dogs Trying to Break Open a Seal
On one occasion the owner had thrown a whole seal to the dogs, confident that when they were hungry enough they would find a way to open it up.
The terrain at the north end of Baffin Island and nearby Bylot Island is some of the most spectacular and varied scenery in the Arctic north. Our contract for the helicopter included a minimum number of flight hours per day and Asteria’s owner generously included the crew in fulfilling those hours.
Baffin Mountain Tops
We flew near the highest point of Baffin Island, a great ice field with dozens of glaciers streaming out in all directions, then followed the largest tongue to its gravelly end, and finished with a wild, cowboy ride down the melt water river to the sea.
Wild Ride Along a River
On our last afternoon in Pond Inlet we piled into the Zodiac and made our way ashore for an Inuit presentation of throat singing and traditional sporting contests that required extreme levels of fitness and athleticism.
That night we celebrated the culmination of our two trips with another great feast. During the previous sixteen days, our Chef, Belinda, had prepared two meals daily for seventeen crew and three meals a day for ten guests. She continued to amaze us with her stamina and creativity and produced five exquisite desserts for our farewell dinner.
Early the next morning we ferried guests and luggage back to the airport via helicopter. Stephane and Claude loaded the B2 to its maximum with their gear and extra fuel and lumbered skyward towards home base near Montreal.
Helicopter Fully Loaded For the Return Flight
Those of us remaining on Asteria exhaled a huge sigh of relief on successful completion of our trips, and pointed Asteria west towards Nome, Alaska, twelve days distant.