Stuck in ice on Bear Island: wind, belugas, cake and shotgun practice

Northwest Passage Diary

Denis pulls after the boat gets stuck in ice at Bear Island

Denis pulls after the boat gets stuck in ice at Bear Island


This has been an eventful week in our bid to to row 3,000km across the Northwest Passage, the sea route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Following recent iceberg challenges, my three male colleagues and I continue on our way. We notice a woman setting up camp on the shore, and go over to say hello – we are quite excited to speak to somebody other than each other.

Her name is Diane Hache, and she is kayaking some of the same route as us. Diane, who is in her mid 50s, has three adult children and is doing her trip solo. I feel a bit of a wimp after meeting her. Here we are in our big boat with a water maker, food and supplies and there she is doing it all on her own.

She is down to the last of her food and has only salt water to drink. Her shotgun isn’t working, her sat phone is dead and she hasn’t spoken to her family in weeks. We give her our phone, charge hers, and top her up with fresh water and chocolate. It’s nice to be able to help a kindred spirit.

In the early hours of Monday morning, we round a point called Cape Parry and a blanket of fog descends. For the first time on the trip, the sea awakes and begins to swell.

Within 30 minutes, we are being pushed around in circles, unable to keep a consistent heading. We can’t hold our line, and instead of travelling south as planned, we are dragged east into Darnley Bay towards a huge ice pack.

Only the tiny Bear Island separates us from the ice. As we approach the island, our only chance, a thicker fog suddenly reduces our visibility to about 100 metres. It’s a tense moment. Denis and I put on our dry suits and join the lads rowing on deck. We are only 250 metres from the island and still can’t see it.

Frank and Kevin navigate us towards the island. When we finally spot it, all we can see are cliffs. If we are thrown against them our boat could be destroyed.

We are now upwind of the island and trying to scout out a place to safely land. We pick out what appears to be the only viable spot and go for it. We beach the boat and quickly set about trying to rig up an anchor system. It takes an hour or so, but we manage to tie her up on the beach.

We are anxious for the next two days, as the boat is trapped by ice. We set up our tent and stay for a few nights. It’s an opportunity to get some practice with the shotgun: firing consecutive shots as fast as we can, as we’d need to do if a bear was coming at us. Well, we are on Bear Island.

Once the weather eases, we head south to a small community called Paulatuk. We pass a beluga hunting camp and pop in to say hello. Brothers Joe and Steve Illisiak invite us into their warm cabin and offer us hot coffee. There are many such camps up here. All the hunters live in Paulatuk (population 400). The beluga is an important part of their diet and the hunters provide food for the entire community. They hunt beluga in July, then in August they turn to Arctic char and move onto geese and caribou later in the year. We eat raw beluga, then jump back in the boat to continue on our way.

We are excited to reach Paulatuk as it means we can resupply the boat with food, get a replacement ground anchor and eat something other than freeze-dried food.

We wash all our clothes, have a hot shower, eat a home-cooked meal and sleep in a real bed, appreciative of these “everyday luxuries” that we usually take for granted. Local people pay us a visit and a woman named Stephanie Liethead has even baked us a cake. The hospitality of local people here is overwhelming.

We’ve made good progress since leaving Paulatuk a few days ago and, as I write this we’re in the middle of rounding Cape Lyon. Just 750km to Cambridge Bay, our next port of call.

Dispatches from Paul Gleeson’s Northwest Passage trip will be published in The Irish Times over the coming weeks

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