The elements give no quarter

Northwest Passage Diary: up here in the Arctic we’re at the mercy of the fickle weather. We just have to adapt accordingly

Thu, Sep 5, 2013, 13:21

In his book Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez describes the Inuit word quinuituq
– deep patience. I think I’m starting to get a sense of what this really means as we continue to struggle with the varying weather conditions that have come our way. One day about a week ago, I was rowing with my top off and applying sun cream, the following day was freezing cold, everything was wet and the only way to make progress was by pushing the boat through the water. This is the nature of travel up here in the Arctic. We’re at the mercy of the fickle weather so we just have to adapt accordingly.

Saturday proved to be our hardest day so far: a strong wind whipped up, the swell became choppy and dark clouds appeared on the horizon. We pulled as hard as we could for the next hour to try and get in behind a headland for shelter but the wind was too strong. Trying to halt our backwards progress we put out the sea anchor and rested for a few hours.

Pinned down
We awoke to the crunching sound of a large iceberg nudging up against the boat. The iceberg had pinned our anchor line and, hard as we tried, we couldn’t free it. Because the berg was moving, the nose of the boat was starting to be pulled underneath it. We had to quickly cut the line so the boat wouldn’t get pulled under the iceberg. In doing this we lost our ground anchor. The next few hours were spent trying to battle our way out of the choppy conditions but again we couldn’t make progress into the wind to find a safe place to shelter.

The best option was to use some ice screws and anchor the boat to an iceberg close to shore. After a few hours the berg cracked and shifted so we had to scamper quickly to free the ice screws and prevent the boat hitting the rocky shoreline.

At this point the wind had whipped up to about 20-25 knots and was pushing us hard onto shore. Frank and Kevin released the ice screws; Denis and myself attended to our centreboard and rudder. By now we were virtually on shore, so all four of us jumped into the water to physically hold the boat from grinding into the rocks. Denis and I were in our socks and underclothes, absolutely soaked. Frank and Kevin held the boat while we jumped into our dry suits. We tried to create a pulley system and use our winch to haul the boat safely up on shore using some logs as rollers, but there wasn’t anything strong enough on shore so we simply had to try and row the boat away.

It was like rowing on a treadmill and we were pulling as hard as we could to simply avoid running aground. Such was the intensity of it that we rotated into 20-minute shifts for the next few hours. This was back breaking stuff but we managed to get away from the shoreline and eventually found a place where we could safely beach the boat, take some shelter and regroup. We used the opportunity to dry our clothes and the cabin, lit a fire, had a big feed and got the spirits up again.

Given the stop/start nature of the first three weeks and the fact that there is a wall of ice about 150km ahead of us , it’s sometimes difficult to stop looking ahead and figuring out logistics to see if we can still make it across the passage to Pond Inlet before the winter freeze sets in. However, one way or another, we will only be out here for about six more weeks. I really want to savour every moment of this expedition no matter how far we get.

Moments like a couple of nights ago, for example. We were treated to a majestic midnight sun which sent incredible amber colours across the hills. We saw some humpbacked whales nearby and were treated to one of the clearest rainbows I have ever seen.

So, while sometimes things are very difficult on this expedition, there are also moments of magic that make it all worthwhile. This “deep patience” the Inuit speak of is essential for travel up here and for life in general.

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