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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.

-Chris

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!

-Diana

Seal Meat

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Famed anthropologist and adventurer, Knud Rasmussen once said, ‚ÄúYou need to experience the seal meat to enjoy the orange.‚ÄĚ His meaning,¬†of course, was that arduous experiences cause you to better appreciate those moments of sublimity. With this in mind, let me say that we have been eating one¬†hell of a lot of seal meat. To recount, harrowing landing at Ft. Conger; back-breaking sled haul across Lady Franklin bay; three days together in a tent¬†riding out hurricane class winds; and yesterday.

We arose early and, noticing the drop in the wind, got on the water and began to paddle under grey cloudy¬†skies and frigid conditions. They grew worse as the day progressed with gallons of sea water slipping into our spray skirts. At¬†6pm, we found a break in the¬†ice foot and we were able to find an inhospitable place to stop ‚Äď it was an ice bench covered in meltwater and debris from the hillside. No place to camp nor¬†freshwater. But we were stuck. Bryce whipped up grilled cheese sandwiches and Dianna made soup, and then we huddled together on a tarp in our bags and¬†hoped for conditions to improve. I’m not sure if I have ever been so tired and exhausted as at that moment.¬†Five hours later, the wind abated and the tide¬†grew favorable and we resumed paddling. After an additional three hours on the water, we located a nice place to camp, shared a¬†4am¬†dinner and fell asleep¬†exhausted. It’s on days like this that I invoke the spirit of Knud and say, ‚ÄúPlease, man, send us an orange!‚ÄĚ

Each time my suit has kept me completely dry. THANK YOU!!!!

-Mike

p.s. A personal shout out to our friends at Kokatat. I’ve fallen neck deep into Arctic waters on four occasions so far (I like to keep track of these things).

The Storm

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We have been waylaid by a hurricane-strength Arctic storm the past 3 days. Passed in a mixture of treacherous conditions, we have avoided outside contact out of a combination of fear of worrying others and of jinxing our safety. Now that the worst may be through, here is the story of our terrifying weekend.

On Saturday the 8th, we awoke and found open water ahead, which we used to turn past Cape Baird. Finding our way blocked by ice at the Pavy river, we turned back and beached our kayaks on the North of its great desolate and windswept alluvial fan, where we prepared grilled cheeses and lolled around in calm 50 degree temperatures. We all reacted with confusion when an alternating warm and cold southerly wind blew our loose bags across the beach. Half an hour later, the sustained wind speeds were 30 mph with gusts up to 50 mph, and so we scoured the Martian landscape for places to camp. We have since named this godforsaken place Exposure Beach. Not a single ridge or ravine gave protection from the winds. Absent any other option, we tied the kayaks to a gravel-filled duffel bag and found a shallow ditch just a foot high in which we took our sleeping bags and little else. Laying as flat as possible and packed in like sardines, the wind buffeted us, and we hoped the storm would pass us by.

At 4 am on Sunday the decision was made to leave our wretched bunker. Wind speeds were sustained above 60 mph and gusts were above 100 mph, enough to break the readout of our anemometer. Our ditch offered no protection, and we were scoured by a mist of sleet and dust, turning us into technicolor caricatures of Dorothea Lange photos. In a hurried, stumbling manner, blown over repeatedly, our group moved North, carrying our bags and tent with us. We found no ledge or bench on which to lie safely, and the decision was made to erect our geodesic tent where the wind was at least reduced somewhat and pray that it would weather the storm. The erection of said tent has been captured on video, and is a story in its own right, at the very least a monument to careful teamwork. Once erected, with Bryce and I holding on for dear life to the outside and Mike and Diana weighing it down from the inside, Steve went to work Jerry-rigging two dozen guy wires to hold the windward side of our tent together in the storm. That we are alive is a testament to his quick thinking and engineering skills.

With the tent up, we turned to preventing its flight. For this we can thank the Dillons, who spent much of the subsequent two days seated on the windward side¬†of the tent as it bounced violently. In this ‚Äúsafer‚ÄĚ location, wind speeds were sustained over 70 mph, frequently gusting over the the 100 mph maximum¬†of our anemometer. By the kayaks, the torrential speeds were indescribable, and crawling became the only option to reach them on the few trips anyone made.¬†Even at a half ton each and tied off to a ton of gravel, these kayaks strained at their leashes.

The next two days were spent huddled, awaiting any abatement in the storm, hearing the brutal wind howling through and over the tent, nervously looking around during particularly fierce gusts, leaving only to pee, braced against the wind and mostly over ourselves, and hoping against all hope that we had done enough to keep the tent intact. Through myriad anxious moments, we survived, and sit now in the comfort of 30 mph winds that we have celebrated by cooking and leaving our refuge to brush our teeth.

This afternoon, after a challenging hike to the top of Cape Baird, we found the sea ice that had formerly stopped our progress blew North to Cape Distant and clear East to Greenland. To the South there is nothing but ocean ahead. With luck this will become a kayak trip after all

-Chris

So Much For Kayaking

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This is supposed to be a kayak trip, but so far we have covered maybe only two miles, actually using¬†paddles. Yesterday we woke to calm sunny skies, and to an ocean clogged with sea ice halfway to Greenland. It¬†seemed like we would have to wait there for days, but then, when the tide started to ebb, the ice moved away from the shore and we¬†got to paddle! We didn’t make it far, but it was beautiful, ice floes everywhere, super calm water, and then, just too much ice to continue.¬†So we headed to shore for what we thought would be a short break, but it’s turned into one which might last quite a few days.¬†The wind has picked up. We are hunkered down. It is cozy, but we can’t make grilled cheese in the tent.

Grilled cheese! It is so much tastier than the same ingredients raw. Bryce has become master sandwich maker, and¬†whenever it isn’t too windy, and we have the time, that is our preferred lunch. Today though, it is too windy. After seven days, we are beginning to¬†miss things like tacos, fresh veggies, clean socks, and being clean. In this wind, everything has become covered in grit, aided by our copious butter intake.

-Diana

A Birthday Miracle

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Don’t let any of the team sugarcoat it. Yesterday was brutal with a capital ‚ÄúB‚ÄĚ. Last night I expected more of the same, as a jumble of¬†ice blocks some more than 2 meters high blocked today’s route. I went to sleep feeling thrashed and a bit despondent.

We awoke this morning to a unique sounds – squeaking, blowing, deep guttural groans. Bryce, who turns 21 today, exclaimed: ‚ÄúDad, it’s a birthday miracle!‚ÄĚ And¬†it is. Overnight the sea ice has blown a large distance from shore which means open water kayaking. Yeah!!!!

-Mike

Wonders of the Arctic

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Last night we put on sunscreen before we went to sleep, so as not to get sunburned as we slept.¬†It looked like a nice night, and where we landed wasn’t the most ideal place to set up a tent. Up here the sun keeps circling us, never setting.¬†It was a beautiful ‚Äėnight,’ sunny and warm.

Our crossing of Lady Franklin Bay was grueling. Fun too! And so beautiful. We had to haul our kayaks across 18 kilometers of ice. That is a long way! Twice we found leads Рnarrow cracks in the sea ice where we led our kayaks like dogs on a leash Рbut the rest of the time we just worked ourselves like we were pack animals. Half way across we saw a few Ivory Gulls. They are whiter than the ice. There are only a few thousand of them on this planet, so that was an amazing sight.

This morning we woke, and all of the rumble jumble of sea ice that had packed up against the solid ice we had been walking across has drifted away. That means that today, for the first time, we are going to be able to actually kayak, get in the boats and use the paddles. It also means that, had we waited a day on the far side of this Bay, we could have kayaked across it too. Conditions change fast here.

As a side note, a narwhal just swam into our Bay!!!

Cheers, Diana

Nonstop

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We are tired humans. Today we hauled kayaks over 22 km of ridged, ponded, and rubbled ice. 12 hours of nonstop exertion.

We have sympathy for Nansen’s poor men.

-Chris

Who Knew the World Was So Warm?

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Yesterday our little group pushed, pulled, and floated our kayaks over 10 km of thin sea ice densely populated with melt ponds. In the best moments we were gondoliers, effortlessly punting our kayaks through bright blue canals on the ice, the resemblance broken only by our attire (peculiarly aesthetic dry suits) and our voices (mine being only a bit shy of pitch perfect baritone). In the worst moments, which were most of them, we were a team of snapping pack animals dragging a ton of food, equipment, and clothing each. We were rewarded in our efforts by 50 degree temperatures and a quiet, soft place to sleep instead of the ice of the night before.

Today we wake at Distant Cape on the north side of Lady Franklin Bay, at the base of a sizeable alluvial fan that spreads out from an old coal seam once mined by the original Greely expedition that gave it its name. We may be the only humans to set foot here in 150 years, and subsequently the only to be spoiled by an indescribable view of snow capped Mount Campbell across the Bay, with Nares Strait and the gargantuan Peterman glacier lying in the distance, on which the sun see, to perpetually shine. One would be forgiven for thinking we were in the fjords of Norway if not for the unending broken expanse of sea ice spreading out in every direction. Tomorrow we push onwards across the bay, and expect to camp on the ice again. We will be skirting the line of sea ice that divides the land fast sea ice of the bay from the mobile, broken ice of the Strait itself.

2 days more of hauling await, wish us luck!

-Chris