In Sverdrup’s wake

One hundred years ago, Otto Sverdrup, in his famous ice-ship Fram, sailed from his native Norway into the uncharted and unclaimed waters surrounding Ellesmere Island, Canada, which was then north of Canada’s upper reaches. Four years later, in 1902, he emerged from the high Arctic with maps that defined the coastlines of Ellesmere, Axel Heiberg and Ringnes islands, maps that stand up to today’s standards of accuracy. These spectacular accomplishments, along with the fact that his name is now barely recognized among the eclectic pantheon of polar explorers, spawned the Otto Sverdrup Centennial Expedition – the official title of our northern adventure.

The brainchild of Dr. Graeme Magor, this expedition sought to commemorate Sverdrup’s achievements, using modern technology to shoehorn Fram’s capabilities aboard our little yacht Northanger. One of the scientists would study the conduction of acoustic waves over snow surfaces, which has implications for construction work in the Arctic; while another would study microscopic artic mites, creatures that may shed some light on the advance of global warming. The plan involved sailing Northanger from Norway, across the Atlantic and into the far reaches of Jones Sound, where Sverdrup wintered Fram, freezing her into the ice for the winter and conducting our scientific and educational program via satellite link to a website.

My partner, Keri Pashuk, and I are generally not in favor of these kinds of re-creation expeditions (witness the endless attempts to re-create Shackleton’s awesome struggle for survival in South Georgia), but when Graeme outlined his plan for us in 1997, there were enough new elements in it to get us interested. Our own long-term plans with Northanger included some kind of Arctic winter experience and this seemed like a way to do it. Two Norwegian scientists, Guldborg Sovik and Lars-Robert Hole also answered Graeme’s summons and continued their Arctic research during the trip, but perhaps the most startling addition to the crew was Graeme’s two-year-old daughter Keziah. We believe strongly that with the wonderful, new lightweight tools and knowledge that are now available to us, we ought to be out there pushing the envelope with the barest necessities. We signed on.Choosing a winter home

Our 54-foot steel ketch Northanger fought hard to get into Hourglass Bay, at 76° 24′ N, 87° 49′ W, on Ellesmere Island. Heavily loaded, we left a gala ceremony at the Fram Museum in Oslo, Norway, beating hard across the gloomy North Atlantic. We raced up the west coast of Greenland and crossed Baffin Bay to fetch up in the lee of Coburg Island, which guards the eastern entrance to Jones Sound off the southern coast of Ellesmere Island. The boating season here, such as it is, ranges from nothing at all to about six weeks in length, and we were fortunate to have arrived in a reasonably good year. Violent katabatic winds from the glaciers of Ellesmere Island pummeled us as we worked our way through the thick pack ice that was streaming out of Jones Sound.

Eventually we reached Grise Fiord, Canada’s northernmost community, to pick up the last of the supplies that we hoped would sustain us for the long winter ahead. These included two huskies that were appointed to warn us of polar bears during the four-month period of darkness and masses of toys from Keziah’s well-wishers in the south. Only one other sailboat had ever made it to Grise Fiord, visiting ashore for only two hours before being forced into a hasty retreat by encroaching ice. We did not tarry either. While the light northerly breeze held most of the ice off shore, we bolted down the northern edge of the sound, gazing in awe at the great Arctic capes and fjords that bear the names given to them by Fram’s men. Scarcely able to believe our luck at the favorable weather, South Cape, Baad Fiord, Muskox Fiord and Cape Storm passed by to starboard as Northanger covered 80 miles to our appointed winter harbor with only minor anxiety.

Winter aboard a boat had never been contemplated here before, and we selected the tiny indentation in the coast, Hourglass Bay, as the site for our adventure while we were swinging at anchor a world away, in Florida. Then, using only the geometry of the bay as a guideline, we decided that it was the only place along that 100-mile-long coast that offered a modicum of protection from the ice pressure that was bound to occur in Jones Sound. All that could be deduced from the chart was its general outline and a smudge of blue showing that there were shoal depths in the bay. All other inquiries about the place yielded no information at all. Here we were, 8,000 ocean miles later, perched at the very edge of the bay’s opening with the wind rising, the numbers on our depth sounder steadily dropping to reflect the building waves as they broke over the shoals guarding the entrance. Keri and I surveyed the chaos on deck, six exhausted adults, a two-year-old child, two feisty huskies, assorted satellite equipment and the overflow of supplies, still packed in cardboard boxes. Several members of our crew were not toilet trained – we had to get into that bay.

Criss-crossing the entrance from Cape Storm to Bear Head, we found the deepest channel into the bay’s interior by trial and error, each error forcing us to winch up Northanger’s retractable keel a little farther until we barely scraped over the shallows in five feet of water and anchored, thankfully, behind a small promontory. With the always-threatening pack ice out of sight for the moment, it was time to survey our winter home.

Hourglass Bay is exactly what the name suggests: a wide entrance narrows to a constriction half a mile wide, before opening into the inner bay about a mile in diameter. The austere curves of the brown hills enfolding the bay seemed friendly enough, if a little boring. Like many fjords in the high Arctic, the bay was fraught with shoals and high winds, making anchor watches a full time occupation. Northanger disgorged her contents onto the beach, rising nearly a foot out of the water as tons of food, equipment and built-up tension from the long ocean passage were ferried across to the welcoming shore. We arrived on August 23 and with less than a month to go before the sea froze solid for the winter, we had a monumental task to complete. Since the job of winterizing the boat would completely consume our efforts, the rest of the crew bent to their own jobs, building the hut that would serve as an emergency shelter on shore, hauling endless loads of water and fuel, storing and inventorying food – the list was endless. Frequent windstorms and snowfalls hampered the work and although we hungered for the time that the bay would freeze, freeing us from the chore of keeping the boat in the right position, time for our autumn preparations was limited. This time was also key for the completion of the fieldwork that formed the basis of the winter’s scientific program. Lars was studying the conduction of acoustic waves over snow surfaces, while his wife Guldborg hunted for the tiny Arctic mites that would form her study samples for later analysis. Graeme’s wife, Lynda, worked full time to meet Keziah’s ceaseless demands. The darkness approached with amazing speed, temperatures plummeted faster and faster and we were by no means ready when the entire bay froze over on Sept 27, 1999.

From a position of comparative sanity (in Florida), there were two things we feared most about the coming Arctic winter: the freeze-up and break-up of the ice. We feared the freeze-up because it signaled the finality of our descent into winter. It was more of a psychological barrier than a physical one, but once the surface of the bay froze there was no going back. Not that going back was ever an option, but the freeze would be the end of anything remotely familiar until we emerged in 12 months time.

During the spring break-up of the ice, there would be the danger of millions of tons of winter ice on the move with the vagaries of wind and current, Northanger set amongst it. I shuddered at the thought of all those shoals in the bay and knew that the resource we would rely on most when that time came was luck. Lacking the time to imagine otherwise, we fantasized secretly that the four-month dark period of the winter would be a time to take stock, to enjoy some sort of unique dreamlike existence of moonlight and crystalline cold few people have ever had the privilege to know. We hoped we could sleep and gather strength for the onslaught of spring, safely encased in our little bubble of steel in the frozen tableau of the north. How wrong we turned out to be.

By Halloween the sun disappeared completely, leaving only a grudging hour-long gray glimmer at midday. Shortly after our little dried-turkey and canned cranberry celebration to usher in the new millennium, Hourglass Bay was visited by a south-easterly storm. The temperature warmed up dramatically to about 20° C, the wind raged to 50 knots, uninterrupted for five full days. Any movement other than a brief dash outside was folly; the risk of losing sight of the boat in the blinding drift invited fatal consequences. We settled back to wait it out. When we emerged, I noticed that the boat had taken on a pronounced backward tilt. A blizzard in the Arctic is a bit like a sandstorm in the desert – superdry snow crystals flow like sand and anything that stands proud of a level surface will be buried quickly by the drift until the surface is flat and smooth once again. Snow piled up around Northanger until only the pilothouse and masts projected from the snow, giving a clue to the presence of the boat beneath. It was the weight of this drift, pressing down on the ice, that trapped the boat’s stern section, which had caused our backward slide. The ice could not grip Northanger’s rounded bow and it floated upward, exacerbating the tilt.

We hardly noticed it inside the boat; in fact, it was a bit of a curiosity. Life went on as normal. Lars and Guldborg immersed themselves in analysis of the reams of data they had collected for their studies. Keri and I busied ourselves with the multitudinous chores which assured the comfort of our living space. Temperature, ventilation, heat, water, all required constant attention. The family, now living in the shore shelter, visited for dinner occasionally and we enjoyed our splendid isolation. The alarm bells that rung in my mind faded. It wasn’t until the third such storm in mid-January that the crisis started. I awoke one morning to find that the faucet in the galley was dripping. Not much of a problem in the normal world, but up there it really set the klaxons going. It meant that the galley faucet, usually two feet above the waterline, was now underwater. Somehow, the level at which liquid water would sit had “walked” up the hull and I realized that the snowdrift in which we sat was being saturated by water from below as the pressure on it increased. This froze quickly, increasing the weight of the floating surface and the cycle continued. During the frantic preparations for our journey into the north a number of things were left undone. One of these was the proper sealing of the rear-locker doors, and they had been leaking annoyingly all the way across the Atlantic. If our backsliding continued much further, they would lie below the waterline, endangering the boat in the spring when the melting ice could flood into the hull through the leaky seals.

I thought ruefully that rather than reading so much about Sverdrup’s experiences, we should have paid more attention to Alvah Simon’s harrowing ordeal described in his book North to the Night. Some years before, Simon had taken his 38-foot sailboat into the ice and faced the exact problem we were having. He came within an ace of losing his boat in the spring when the water lapped only inches away from his open companionway. I was not about to let that happen to us.

At first we tried to lighten the snow load around the boat by shoveling it away, hoping that the ice trapping Northanger’s stern would rise without the extra weight on it. We shoveled mightily for two weeks, dragging away sled load after sled load of snow, shifting many tons away to a goodly distance. None of this backbreaking labor in the freezing darkness produced any effect whatsoever. The relentlessly drifting snow filled in our excavations almost as soon as we dug them. More storms deposited their load, and the dripping tap in the galley became a steady stream. Clearly we were sinking farther and farther through what appeared to be solid ice. Even our emergency igloo, which we constructed behind the boat, seemed to have sunk below the level to which liquid water would rise. The temperature dropped into the minus 40s, the darkness total. Temporarily defeated, we decided to wait for the rising sun to illuminate our problem, since all of our work had to be done by the light of our head-lamps. The work also detracted seriously from the scientific effort, and I knew that we would have to rally the crew together for another attempt to save the boat if there was a chance of success.

Simon won his battle at the eleventh hour by using an ice chisel to chip away the ice around his rudder and propeller, freeing the stern from the ice’s death grip. In our headlong rush to get into Jones Sound, I had not had the time to look for such an implement in Greenland. An ice-chisel is a chunk of sharpened steel on the end of a long handle, the simplest of tools, so I thought. I set about making one by sharpening and flattening the end of a piece of steel pipe and shaping a wooden handle to drive onto the other end. Proud of my efforts, I started attacking the ice with it. It soon became apparent that there was more to the design of the tool than one would think. Delicate shards of ice rattled away from the blade with my most energetic jabs and it took me a long time to see that the force of my blows was being absorbed by the blade’s deflection as it slammed into the ice. I needed some much heavier artillery. I woke my chainsaw from its slumber and began cutting swiftly through the ice. Initial elation at the fast progress evaporated as soon as the blade bit through to the sea. Salt water gushed through the engine and the great silence of the Arctic prevailed. The pickaxe also showed promise, but as soon as a hole opened through the ice, it too was defeated, as it could not be wielded below the water. Astounded by our inability to dig even a small hole through the ice, we once again abandoned the task.

It was the end of January before we received our first visitors in the bay. Intrigued by our presence, some members of the Grise Fiord community promised to visit us by snowmobile. In order to cover the 100-mile distance across sea ice in the darkness, they had to wait until the ice thickened along the entire route. On the 18th, the silent darkness was split by revving engines and headlights as Seeglook Akeeagok and Jeff Qanaq dismounted their snowmachines. As we welcomed them aboard, Akeeagok revealed that he had brought with him a real tuk, the Inuit word for ice-chisel. Compared to my own puny blade, this thing was massive, a deadly-sharp chunk of iron welded to a thick iron shaft; it wouldn’t have looked out of place on a pneumatic hammer. If I had the arms to wield it, I finally had the means for our salvation.

All through February we labored. Two weeks of work with the heavy iron chisel, shovels and sleds yielded a six-foot deep hole around the stern. Sometimes the drifting snow completely erased each day’s efforts. Then, as the propeller started to emerge from the imprisoning ice beneath the probing of the chisel, I lanced the blade in a shade too heavily. Black water gushed into the hole from below, filling it in minutes. The six-foot chisel handle was too short to reach down to chop at the remaining ice around the rudder. The water froze quickly in 35° F, obliterating all our efforts. Before the water froze, it lapped up to within two inches of the rear lockers – we had played and lost once more.

I dug again. This time I knew that we were playing for keeps. Lacking any faith in our solution, the rest of the crew had all but abandoned the effort. I couldn’t blame them – as we sank farther into the ice, so their own tasks had fallen behind and they were worried about accomplishing all of the expedition’s other aims. This time though, I knew what I had to do. I chopped down through the ice with fast-fading arms, excavating the whole area of the rudder and propeller to within six inches of the water, even as another problem cropped up. As I dug, I was removing all the insulation provided by the ice cover and the sea froze even deeper beneath the floor of the hole. It began to seem like a bottomless pit. Two weeks after the glorious rise of the first sun on February 11, I was ready. Eight feet down, beneath the flaring curve of the stern, I hacked desperately at the floor of the hole, freeing the propeller completely. Again the black water rose and I scrambled to the surface, holding my breath as the water surged in, filling the cockpit and stopping just short of flooding the lockers. With renewed energy, using the last of our insulated rubber gloves, we used the now-extended chisel to reach eight feet down below the water to hack away the rest of the ice on which I stood only moments before. Nothing happened.

Every day, as we hacked and chopped at the 10 inches of new ice forming around the stern, I looked at the waterline, searching for the clue that would tell me that the hull was rising through the ice, propelled by its own buoyancy. After ten long days I knew I had it. So sensitized to the smallest changes, I detected that the waterline had receded down the hull by a mere millimeter. We were on our way.

The next day it was two millimeters, then three, then the stern started bounding upwards at the incredible rate (for the Arctic) of an inch and a half a day. One day in March Northanger finally broke free, bobbing on an even keel again after months of anxiety and punishing work. In spite of the amazing array of technical equipment we had packed aboard, a simple iron-age implement saved the day. Sverdrup, I’m sure, would have approved.

Out of danger for the time being, we had a little time to enjoy the incredible return to life of spring in the high Arctic and to recoup our energies for the test to come. As the sun leapt higher and higher above the horizon, the ice that imprisoned us for so long began to melt. The breakup of the Arctic sea ice every summer is one of the greatest shows on earth, and we were right there in the ring with the lions.

Greg Landreth and his partner, Keri Pashuk, are now voyaging between Newfoundland and Greenland. They live aboard Northanger full time.

By Ocean Navigator