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Storm Day 3

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Update: the mountain hardware satellite tent is composed of 9 circles, 8 hexagons, 6 pentagons, 10 acute parallelograms, and 39 equilateral triangles. Today day 3 of waiting out a new Arctic storm. Forecast looking ominous for the next 3 days, too, but spirits are high despite the earth shattering boredom.

A haiku:

The Arctic is cold.

Seriously, really cold

Cold as the dickens

‚Äď Chris

Wind Storm: Day 2

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Perched high above Nares Strait, we have literally dug ourselves in for the foreseeable forecasted future. Using paddles, an ice axe, and our hands, we have dug a platform for our tent directly below a rock outcrop on the top of a hill. Finally, my farming skills come in handy. We now lie comfortably in our vintage Mountain Hard Wear dome tent, in the only protected spot within sight. Out of the worst of the wind, we will sit here for days listening as sand and gravel spray the tent. At least we are well protected from the gale like conditions that persist outside. And at least the sun is shining!

“Arctic Jail‚ÄĚ is what we are calling our aerie, our perch.¬†One could not wish for a more beautiful campsite! But what are we to do for days when blizzard conditions persist outside? Sleep, eat, and sleep¬†some more. My goal for the day was to wash my hands. Done. But to no avail. Everything is covered in grit. Everything. Leave a cup out for a¬†minute and it will start to fill with sand.

This wind has driven the ice away to the Greenland side of the Strait, so now there is at least the¬†possibility of kayaking again, that is, once the wind dies down, but the forecast shows no end in site. Until then, we wait, and mark¬†the hours by small things ‚Äď like the pancake breakfast Steve made for us in the tent this morning (actually¬†5:00 PM¬†or so). Pretty good,¬†but I still like oatmeal the best.

Because we are in such a protected spot, I am not scared, but in the back of my mind, I do wonder,¬†will we get to Carl Ritter Bay in time for our pick-up? It is not that far away. But this journey is not in our control at all. The ‚Äėtypical‚Äô weather¬†of flat calm waters and clear blue skies is not happening. We have left the arena of ‚Äúcamping trip‚ÄĚ and entered one of adventure.



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We have lately enjoyed the grueling, 5 km/day ice foot travel as we slowly turn down the coast towards Carl Ritter bay.¬†On our left is the formidable ice ridge, thirty feet high. On our right the limestone slopes of North Ellesmere, land appropriately classified as¬†‚Äúthe Barrens.” This progress is a halting amphibious slog through an alien but starkly beautiful terrain. 60 degree slopes with boulders hanging¬†precipitously. Gorges to make Todra jealous. Multiple waterfalls starting 1000 feet high. River valleys that bunch ice into fortifications 100 feet high.

Today the ice foot ended. It just petered out, running into a slight spit of land and quitting, probably just sick of being sledged on. Between here and Carl Ritter lies a massive wall of ice on shore and the immobile pack of Nares Strait. We are stuck, two weeks until our planned exfiltration. At a not-discussed-in-camp level our impotence is embarrassing. We started as wealthy, well-kitted westerners, supposed to dominate the Arctic, just another place on Earth. Speaking for myself at least, the experience of hugging a minuscule and vanishing serpent of former ice just a few meters wide, with mountains of ice on our left and mountains of stone to our right, has been humbling. We took the bare scrap Nature afforded us, and now even that is gone. In 21 days, our kayaks have been in the Strait for just 3 hours.

Maybe nature will open a door instead of a window.

So we wait. Our feelings about a forecasted multi-day storm have changed from annoyed and uneasy to annoyed and hopeful. Unlike our last encounter, we are prepared for this storm. We are camping in a small alcove, 500 feet up, covered in musk ox droppings. normally this would be an opportunity for a game of throw-the-poop-at-Mike, but instead we took it as a sign that a herd waited out a previous storm here. The view is panoramic and insufferably beautiful, overlooking the ice-clogged Strait clear to Greenland, with Hans island slightly visible to our South. While the storm blows over, we plan to enter a state of torpor, napping our way through the next 72 hours.

As we drowsily drift through the days, listening anxiously to the wind, rereading the Naturalists Guide to the Arctic‚Äôs mammal section for the fifteenth¬†time (and maybe, finally, getting through the pictureless ‚ÄúPlants‚ÄĚ section) and memorizing the number of polygons in our tent (1 octagon at the tents¬†apex, then 4 hexagons, 6 pentagons, and roughly 10 acute parallelograms ‚Äď I’ll have to recount ‚Äď all connected through an elaborate¬†mesh of ‚Äď again have to recount ‚Äď 42 equilateral triangles) we have a first-class view of the show and the only power that dictates travel in the high Arctic.


A Changing World

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Judged by loaves of bread, we are half way through the journey. Loaf nine was cut into; the original 58 pounds of dense rye sourdough continues to sustain us, mainly in the form of grilled cheese. Surprisingly, with all of our messing around with clocks, we have had only one more lunch than actual day of journeying. The meal that often gets skipped is dinner. When the wind is howling, and it is freezing outside, it is simply too cold to cook dinner.

After 18 days, we’ve gotten into a rhythm, but in many ways, this is a vastly different journey from the one we had envisioned.¬†For one, we had planned to kayak, to actually get in our boats and use paddles to propel ourselves. We have now resigned ourselves to the fact that this might not happen. We will continue to haul them over the ice foot (which is currently all ice, no gravel) and pull¬†them through the leads and bits of open water that open up around high tide. This is grueling work, and to travel 5 kilometers this way takes hours and wipes us out. We had hoped to travel 300 miles. Now, getting to Carl Ritter Bay, just 100 miles from our start point,¬†we will consider a success.

There are so many things we had hoped to do on this journey, but can’t, because¬†Nares Strait is clogged with such a disarray of ice that travel through it is impossible. Until we can travel in the Strait there will be no fishing¬†for halibut and no collecting water samples for micro plastics sampling. Chris won’t be able to deploy his wave buoys and we won’t be¬†able to visit Hans Island, a tiny island, a chunk of rock claimed by both Canada and Greenland, where every few years the two¬†nations stake their claim by helicoptering in and leaving a bottle of their best national whiskey, reason enough for us to try to stop¬†by.

What we get are imposing views and stunning campsites, one after another. The tundra is vast, sweeping up into bare rugged mountains on all sides. Seemingly delicate wild yellow poppies and purple saxifrage dot the landscape, adding color to a world that is otherwise blue and gray. To be the only humans in this wilderness is an awe inspiring experience. Stark beauty, wild and remote, it is only the changes in the ice that remind us that even up here, far from all humans, the world is changing.


Where Is All the Marine Wildlife?

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We are seeing bird life that is much reduced compared to what Steve has seen here on previous expeditions.¬†And we haven’t seen any marine mammals since leaving the south side of Lady Franklin Bay. Last time Steve was here he was seeing¬†thousands of Harp Seals. We haven’t seen any. Why is that? We have a theory. And that theory is that the same ice conditions that are making it¬†really difficult for us to travel in the Strait are making it really difficult for both marine mammals and birds to forage for food. Stretched¬†out to the horizon, the ocean is covered with a mumble jumble of ice, lots of small floes all smushed up together, with almost no ocean¬†showing underneath. Where could a seal come up for air? And how about a Narwhal with its unicorn tusk? And there is no open water¬†for birds to go fishing in.

All of this is conjecture, but what we are seeing is new. Is the Arctic Ocean falling apart?


What is a Day?

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‚ÄúIt must be¬†Monday,”¬†Steve mumbles as he drifts off for what might be a nap, or might be something more. ‚ÄúThink so‚Ķ‚ÄĚ

A few days ago, or better said, a few circles of the sun ago, we faced up to the awkward situation that we no longer¬†knew what to call day and what to call night. Are new days ushered in by breakfast? Or do they commence after eight hours of sleep?¬†Does one start a day with work, and end it relaxing with a cup of tea? We had gotten ourselves into a rhythm of sleeping anytime¬†we could, eating meals in the order of breakfast, followed by lunch and then dinner, and dragging our kayaks around during the ‚Äúnight‚ÄĚ high¬†tide, and it was adding up to feeling wrong. Especially since the tide cycle is a full 25 hours, and our tired bodies want something more¬†like a 20 hour cycle. In this icy Arctic environment, the lure of a warm sleeping bag is irresistible.

Reversing AM for PM has helped, sort of. The evening light is magical. And having a bridge meal of grilled cheese fixed the meal issue. But a new bridge meal is in order, because we are off again. Pancakes maybe? What I am hoping is that we are not eating more than three meals every 24 hours, Because if we are, we are going to be really bummed out and hungry the last few days of this journey.

Watching the sun circle around the horizon is mesmerizing. And when we can see it, we are warm enough.¬†But on those cloudy days, or when the sun is hidden behind a mountain, it is cold, and despite the beauty all around us, it is hard to leave our ‚Äúcozy‚ÄĚ tents.


Open Water

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We had a bit of Knud’s orange today.¬†Perhaps not a full slice, but a much needed respite to our travel the last couple of weeks. When we awoke at the¬†campsite Chris described, we saw a glorious stretch of open water heading south, which meant¬†we could finally paddle, provided we could get ourselves and kayaks over the ice foot. This was a challenge Steve solved. We hauled our loaded kayaks on top¬†of the ice and dropped them down the other side over a sheer drop of 3-4m. Then we climbed down into our boats lowering ourselves along a line Steve had¬†installed for this purpose. Getting into the kayaks was made more precarious because the current was swift moving and filled with chunks of ice ranging from¬†the size of small stones to large refrigerators. It definitely was a pulse-elevating way to start the day. But then we were paddling in calm water under a¬†glorious blue sky.

In the space of a few hours we covered more distance than the few days before. We continued¬†until our way was blocked by a large expanse of grounded sea ice ‚Äď back to hauling the kayaks. Urgh! (An Inuit word meaning “urgh”). After several more hours, Steve led us through a maze of grounded ice. It was like a slow moving, visually stunning Disney ride ending at our campsite. And now, it’s time for Mike’s¬†Arctic Haiku:

Everything hurts

Except possibly my ear lobes

Need ibuprofen


Ice Foot

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Observation: a small autonomic mercy is that when under severe psychological stress humans tend not to snore. This is one of the small blessings counted as last night as we huddled five in a three person tent to wait out a now-northerly wind. As our morale degraded, the group ENT-situation at least trended up. In 15 days we have fought for a total of 30 miles. 22 of these have come in two days: 12 sledging across the land fast ice of lady franklin bay,and 10 kayaking the day after the hurricane blew most ice to the North. The remaining 8 have been covered in arduous fashion along the ice foot. The entirety of Nares Strait is ringed by an ice foot some 5-30 meters high. As tides move sea ice up and down the coasts, it piles and piles, forming towers of rubble that pack densely on the shoreline. Over time, water fills cracks and gullies in the rubble and freezes, forming a dense wall at the elevation of the average tide. If caught in the open pack, it is a near-impenetrable barrier when the tide is low. At low tides, we attempt to sledge along the now-melting foot, at high tides we try to kayak over it.

Yet conditions are against us. In the 1800s, despite Greelys description of the foot as ‚Äúterrifying,” ‚Äúdreaded,” and “feared,”¬†the ice foot was the main mode of transport for Arctic explorers as it was flat and extensive. Now, the thinner, small-floed Arctic sea ice has resulted in a horror show of ridges and valleys, and means horrendous slow going.¬†In 8 days¬†of ice foot travel we have portaged, sledge, kayaked, waded through chest deep¬†Arctic water, flailing all the time through ridges and potholes (Mike leads the team with 10 full tumbles). We have traveled 10 miles in those 8 full,¬†exhausting days.

Still, I type this after 6 hours in which we traveled 2 miles. We sit in a protected ravine behind a 20m high wall of ice on a glorious sunny day. On the other side is fractured and churning pack ice clear to Greenland, that one can, after a climb, sit and observe from the comfort of a courtside seat. For all the complaining, struggle, ardor and pain, the Arctic and its ice retains its ability to stun, and for that we will keep moving, ice foot be damned.


A Changing Arctic

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This is day eleven, or maybe twelve, or thirteen? We have lost track. With the sun circling endlessly, and our moves–or non-moves, rather–dictated by the tides, what constitutes day or night doesn’t actually matter. What does is that we have been working hard¬†to eke out each kilometer. In all of this time, we have had only one day where we have been able to paddle, and that day was against a headwind.

Nares Strait is filled with ice. It is like a super highway of ice leaving the Arctic. From the shore we can see it blasting past us, going south, the direction in which we want and need to go. Imagine the pull of water going down the drain, a giant slushy of small and large floes, meadow sized and boulder sized, impossible to paddle though, impossible to walk upon.

Conditions here are different than Steve has ever seen before. In the past, paddling here has been possible because the¬†floes leaving the Arctic have been big. What we have seen is ice like rubble. At this point in time, the only possible way forward is to half paddle, half drag our kayaks along the ice foot–that ring of ice left on the shore after a winter of rising tides repeatedly¬†freeze, kind of making a ‚Äėring around the tub‚Äô of ice. Anywhere, but right next to shore, is not safe.

Yesterday we dragged our kayaks along this ice foot at low tide. It did not work out. We won’t try low tide again.¬†The ice foot was half melted, lots of rocks. We made some progress, but at the expense of our bodies and our boats.¬†You could see bits of shredded red plastic coming off the bottom of our rugged custom kayaks. Eventually, we gave up and grabbed what we needed and walked the last few kilometers to the river delta to camp. While the wind came up, once¬†again, we set up camp, and waited out the latest gale, before heading back to retrieve our boats at high tide. That walk is a story in itself.

So here we are, at this wide windswept river delta, camped near tent rings, one thousand years old, left here by people from the Dorset culture. The sun is out, the wind is at a tolerable level. When we set out on this journey, we had hoped to make it 300 miles south to Alexandra Fiord. Now, I just hope that we can make it 40 miles in the next three weeks to Carl Ritter, where a Twin Otter could come to pick us up. Our isolation is palpable. When the wind picks up, and the sun is behind the mountains, it is cold, and I feel really far away. It is so incredibly beautiful, stark. It is not easy witnessing change on a geologic scale.

So here is to hoping that at some point, there will be a break in the flow of ice, and we will be able to really paddle!