Standing bear watch

Our conviction that, in general, polar bears are a rather lazy lot was strengthened as the wind weakened. We were rowing into an anchorage on Baffin Island. Our observation of the bears so far bore little resemblance to the humorous image in my head of our likely interaction with the bears, courtesy of the warnings we had received from many of the Greenlandic hunters we met before crossing the Davis Strait. Picture nine skinny men dangling from the rigging of an 11th century Viking ship while a huge white bear rummages around on deck, waiting for the humans to begin dropping from exhaustion.

Hilarious until we reached the first anchorage that also happened to contain a polar bear. To the frequent question, “You are carrying a gun aren’t you?” I always answered emphatically “Yes!” without elaborating that our artillery consisted of one rusty old 16-gauge loaded with bird shot. The haste of our adrenaline-aided, Monty Pythonesque retreat from Polar Bear Number 1 would have been much more impressive had the bear at least bothered to roll over and look at us.

Little changed during our second bear encounter, two days later. We barely managed to sneak into a lonely, high-walled anchorage just as a gale cranked itself up outside, so bear or no bear we were there to stay. Much to my relief, the bear showed far less interest in us than we did in him. All told, I don’t think the thing moved more than 50 feet in two days. Which is not to say that I was worried that anyone was going to fall asleep on bear/anchor watch. At the change of the watch, little mention was ever made of the downdrafts slamming into the water off of the high cliffs, the tug of the 20-foot tides, or the condition of the chafe gear on the rode, but if the bear so much as lifted his head everyone knew about it by morning.

We sailed out of Gale Bound Cove and away from Lethargic Bear Number 2, only to have the wind die entirely. Rowing all day along the stark, forbidding shores of Loks Land with Davis Strait looking like a mill pond got us as far as the entrance to Kane Channel by about 1700 on August 14th.

I elected to cut through into the mouth of Frobisher Bay from the northern side of the peninsula because, by failing to mention the existence of the channel at all, the Sailing Directions didn’t make it sound as automatically fatal as another possible route that also allowed us to skip going out and around. We were under oars and therefore able to pick our way slowly (as if we could row our 25-ton boat in any other manner) around any hazards that we might encounter along the poorly charted route. And finally the water was very clear, allowing us to see the bottom coming up long before we needed to worry about hitting it in a boat that draws three feet armed only with a lead line (the steep rock walls lining the channel suggested that depth was not going to be a problem unless we intended to anchor).

Plus, if we were going to thicken the calluses on our hands, we might as well do it in the wake of as much Arctic history as possible. Not only were we re-tracing the route of Leif Ericson’s voyage of discovery, in a boat authentic down to the treenails and hand-forged iron rivets fastening her planks, but there we were in the mouth of a channel named for Elisha Kent Kane, an American Arctic explorer who had last passed this way in 1851. Contrary to what looked to be the likely path the ebbing tide would take, when we got there the current was most definitely against us, a fact made all the more obvious by the white bergy bits swirling toward us in the black water. The tidal current tables and the waterline on the shore both agreed that the tide might switch within the hour, so we hunted around for somewhere to drop our fisherman where it would actually hit something. Easy to spot Once you’ve seen one polar bear, it is very easy to pick out the next against the dark rock of the land. That creamy yellow white just isn’t the same color as a patch of snow, or those whitish bear-sized boulders. Immediately after finding a bottom that wasn’t too far down for our anchor, we also found ourselves in the company of four bears, and, to make matters worse, the biggest bear of them all not only rolled over and looked at us, but got up, walked down to the water, and started swimming.

Now, Snorri has only two motive optionssail or oars. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty apt descriptiona boat with few options, 54 feet long, 16 foot beam, powered by one 1,000-square-foot squaresail or eight oars (or both, a practice we affectionately called motorsailing). She was, by modern standards, vastly inefficient, not to mention devoid of creature comfortsunless you pointed her downwind, whereupon all her less than amusing performance characteristics vanished like smoke before the wind and she became a thing of incredible beauty. Off the wind, our top speed was 10 knots in 20 knots apparent wind. Upwind, however, all those repressed memories came flooding back as we would tack through 130° or more, depending on sea state, and the actual act of coming about became dangerous in wind speeds above 15 knots. With enough sea room, wearing (gybing) was a far safer maneuver, easier on both crew and rig. Our speed made good to windward averaged about a knot.

Her shallow hull sat to her lines courtesy of 14 tons of granite cobbles from the glacial moraine at the head of Ericsfjord in Greenland, and several additional tons of gear, food, and water were all stowed under the deckboards or in the open cargo bay aft of the mast, which made her a remarkably stiff boat with a very sea-kindly motion. Her full ends and ample beam gave her great buoyancy climbing ocean swells, partly offsetting the fact that any water landing on deck, whether it fell from the sky or leapt up from the ocean went straight to the bilge, often by way of my duffel. While anchored, the only shelter on board was a tarp that covered the forward half of the boat and, when underway for extended periods, a small deck tent big enough to shelter the off watch. Sprinkle eight Americans and one Dane (and a smattering of modern safety gear) liberally on deck, and there you have itViking Voyage 1000, an attempt to re-trace Leif Ericson’s voyage of discovery to the New World in the year 1000, as described in The Greenlanders’ Saga. Leif apparently left his father’s homestead in south Greenland, overwintered somewhere in northern Newfoundland or southern Labrador via Baffin Island, and we aimed to do the same. Which, of course, meant surviving several bears seemingly intent on Viking cutlets for dinner. You can’t set a squaresail with the bow pointed into the wind, so we quickly switched the rode to the stern and short-scoped it. Next we hung the yard, with the sail furled, from the top of the mast, with the end of the daisy chain on deck, ready to drop the sail. Last, we benched all eight oars, mostly to feel like we had done all we could do toward a quick exit rather than because we truly believed that, with a top speed of two knots in a flat-out sprint, eight humans could row a 25-ton boat faster than a polar bear can swim. Off the wind, even the fitful little puffs rolling down the gray mountainsides would be enough to get us moving, but it would be a close one. With a great sigh of relief we watched as the bear continued swimming along the far shore, and kept right on going out of sight over the horizon. The tide had just turned in our favor when one of the other bears on the far shore, who had hightailed it uphill as the Big One swam past, came back down to the water and started swimming straight at us.

Pulling up stakes That was enough for meno sense in hanging around and watching my Greenland imaginings come trueso we yanked the anchor from its tenuous hold on the bottom and started rowing. The chain’s rattling loudly over the sheerplank frightened the bear en route, and it turned around and swam back to shore. We continued rowing along the narrow passage, with Scaredy Cat bear following along on one shore, and another we had not seen while anchored keeping pace on the opposite shore. Feeling a little like bear chow on the hoof, we rounded a corner at the end of Kane Channel into a small, island-studded basin. We were shortly going to start losing light, making eyeball navigation difficult; our anchorage options were few and far between; the wind had come up gently on our nose; and, anyway, nowhere we could row at a knot would ever put us out of range of the bears that were just around the corner and headed our way.

So we stayed right where we werea great anchorage really, but for the bear that just walked over the hill and down to the water. We all stood on deck and watched, armed only with our cameras, thrilled and a little scared, all wondering if it shouldn’t be the other way around. Rob, the boatbuilder and heftiest crewmember, suggested that survival didn’t depend on being fast, just faster than one other person, and, judging from the exchange of sidelong glances, some of the crew were sizing each other up in new ways. I finally voiced the sentiment that was hanging in the air: “I don’t want to discover that we can’t scare this bear off as it is clambering up and over our three-foot freeboard. Everybody get something to make noise with.”

The moment the bear’s foot hit the water we started jumping up and down, waving our arms, beating on the pots and pans with belaying pins, blowing the conch horn, and shooting off the shotgun. All of which caused it to retreat up the hill a ways, then turn and reconsider us from a safer distance. What really put him to flight was the next bear over the hill, who also came straight down to the water. Round two with the kitchen percussion section and firearm fireworks, and finally our immediate vicinity was bear free, not that any of us thought it would stay that way for very long.

Despite the fact that I was experiencing life from the deck of a Viking knarr, as a born-and-bred 20th century American, occupying any other than the top link of the food chain was something I hadn’t bargained on, and it was turning out to be a bit stressful. After five days and eight polar bears, it was time to take our leave of Baffin Island. Although, in our defense as Viking wanna-bes, it wasn’t merely the presence of large numbers of large carnivores that hustled us on our way. Add to the list that it was already mid-August, we were traveling on an open boat with no engine on the poorly charted shores of Baffin Island, we had yet to cross the Hudson Straitwhich at the very least I expected to be a miserable experienceand, once across, we still had 600 miles of erratic weather and remote Labrador coastline to pass if we were to reach the Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, before the water turned solid once again.

Dodging walruses Offshore looked like the place to be, away from the sharp teeth of the land critters, and the annoying influence of coastal land forms on our wind, even though we would be jumping off into the five-knot tidal sluice of the Hudson Strait. Much like the Norsemen of 1000 years ago, without a fair breeze, preferably a good bit aft of the beam, it was not worth the wear and tear on boat, body, or soul to venture out. If caught out, the boat was weatherly enough to hold her own on a lee shore, and seaworthy enough to ride out a gale, but to seek out those situations in the Arctic would be as foolish now as it was then. Unfortunately, nestled inside the rock buttresses of our anchorage, it was very difficult to tell exactly what the wind was doing. Poking our nose out and having a look was a pretty common precursor to decision making on the fly. We were all excited and a little edgy as we set out into a broad bay peppered with breaking ledges, grounded icebergs, of course a couple of polar bears wandering the shore, and, just to liven things up, herds of walrus snorting from the water around the islands. We were forced to handle sail repeatedly in the rapidly shifting air. In almost any swell, anything close enough to the surface to worry about in our shoal-draft cargo boat would give itself away, so Doug caught me by surprise when he turned from bow watch and screamed “Rock!” and then almost as quickly yelled “Never mind!” as the rock showed its gleaming tusks and swam away.

Once away from the land, the breeze was indeed fair, a steady 15 knots from the NE, and within an hour of entering the mouth of the Strait the tide would begin flooding, giving us wind with the tide. Everything said go, save my nagging fears about getting caught out in as potentially dangerous a place as this. The other option was Resolution Island and making a safe landfall as darkness fell, in the fog, with a seven-knot current on the beam as we rowed upwind. The sea flattened out into a gentle hissing swell after the tide turned, as if to make up for dumping several hundred gallons over Hodding’s head as he was trying to light the stove, and we passed a cold, wet, glorious night sliding across the Hudson Strait. We anchored in False Bay, Labrador, the next afternoon, and immediately dove into our duffels to get warm and dry while remarking on the unexpected beauty of the Torngat coast. Our grand plans for a celebratory day ashore were cut short by Erik’s scream, gesturing wildly at our welcoming committee: a polar bear, 50 feet away, and swimming casually toward us.

By Ocean Navigator