During our first morning in the High Arctic, a polar bear drove us off Beechey Island. We had been walking along the snow-dusted beach where, in 1850, American explorer Elisha Kent Kane discovered the graves of the first three sailors to die during the tragic 1845 expedition of Sir John Franklin.
Kane, serving as doctor with the First U.S. Grinnell Expedition, had been standing with a couple of British officers on the icy, snow-covered shores of Beechey when a sailor came stumbling over a ridge, hollering: “Graves! Graves! Franklin’s winter quarters!”
Kane led his fellow searchers in scrambling over the ice to the makeshift cemetery where we had previously lingered. “Here, amid the sterile uniformity of snow and slate,” he wrote later, “were the headboards of three graves, made after the old orthodox fashion of gravestones at home [in Philadelphia].”
A few of us had had begun walking along the beach towards the ridge where Franklin’s crew had piled tin cans filled with pebbles, intending to use them as ballast. The polar bear, which had been loitering at water’s edge half a mile away, began trotting around a curved bay in our direction.
This one-ton creature, we knew, could outrun a race horse. So we scrambled aboard the Zodiacs, the inflatable craft in which we had landed on the beach. No sooner had we fired up the engines than the bear stopped running. It stood a moment gazing at us, then turned and shambled off over a hill.
History said goodbye to the natural world. But both would be back, and the meeting and mingling of distinct northern dimensions would prove characteristic of our two-week expedition.
This “High Arctic Adventure,” mounted jointly by Quark Expeditions of Connecticut and Toronto-based Adventure Canada, attracted eighty-seven passengers – most from North America (New Mexico to Newfoundland) but some from England, France, Switzerland, and Australia. Everyone had travelled to Ottawa, then caught a charter flight to Resolute Bay in Nunavut, where we had hopped into Zodiacs, boarded the Akademic Ioffe and settled into cosy cabins.
The Ioffe is no fancy passenger liner but an expeditionary vessel built and operated by Russians. Still, it offers radically different conditions than those faced by the early explorers. In 1853, when he led the Second U.S. Grinnell Expedition north to search for Franklin and the Open Polar Sea, Elisha Kent Kane sailed in the sail-powered Advance – an eighty-eight-foot brigantine that weighed 144 tons. The diesel-driven Ioffe, by comparison, is 384 feet long and weighs 6,450 tons – almost forty-five times the weight of the little wooden Advance.
One hundred and fifty-five years ago, after waving to a last group of whalers off the coast of southern Greenland, Kane lost contact with the outside world. He got trapped in the multi-year ice and, to survive, had to lead a spectacular escape using sledges and small boats. On the Ioffe, we had satellite telephones and email and could have summoned helicopters or other vessels in the event of emergency.
Where Kane battled scurvy and starvation, we ate three square meals a day in a full-service dining room and enjoyed snacks and single malt scotch in a comfortable lounge. The superbly literate American explorer, who came from a prominent Philadelphia family, entertained his men by declaiming the poetry of Alfred Tennyson.
The Ioffe carried a dozen resource people. These included two Inuit (Eskimos) from South Baffin Island; a Sante Fe-based art historian, Carol Heppenstall, who is a leading interpreter of aboriginal art; a marine biologist, an archaeologist, an ornithologist and a narrative historian (yours truly) who, with Berkeley-based Counterpoint Press, has just published a book called Race to the Polar Sea: The Heroic Adventures of Elisha Kent Kane.
For some passengers, the expedition was mainly about culture. Meeka and Jamesie Mike outlined the rudiments of the Inuktitut language and demonstrated how to hitch a dog team. And on the north coast of Baffin Island, we visited Pond Inlet and Clyde River, where we heard throat-singing, played Inuit games, and hosted a community barbecue. Along the way, we bought Inuit carvings and craft products and the Mikes raised $15,000 for a cultural “core knowledge” initiative.
For a second group of passengers, the expedition was mainly about the Arctic outdoors. At Croker Bay, we cruised along a glacier face and among spectacular icebergs. At seven or eight locations, we spotted polar bears, usually but not always alone, and a couple of those creatures clearly perceived us as seals wrapped in goretex.
While traipsing around Devon Island, we drew within a couple of hundred yards of a herd of muskox – as close as anyone wanted to get. And at a walrus haul-out near Monumental Island, while riding in Zodiacs, we drew so near a herd of one hundred walrus that people were gagging at the smell.
History buffs, too, had their moments. That first morning on Beechey, after fleeing the polar bear, we puttered east along the coast to Cape Riley and put in at the ruins of Northumberland House. Here, in the early 1850s, a British search expedition built a storehouse to serve Franklin, should he ever reappear. The rough structure remains visible, though now it lies in ruins, surrounded by rusty tin cans and barrel staves.
On Day Six of the voyage, we visited Dundas Harbour on Devon Island, the largest uninhabited island in the world. Here, from 1924 to 1933, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police maintained a post comprising a house and three or four outbuildings, all of which remain standing.
At this same site, but seven decades previously, in 1853, an adventurous shaman from Baffin Island met the Franklin-searcher Edward Inglefield, who had sailed north into Smith Sound to 78 degrees 28 minutes. Kane would exceed that latitude by about 12 minutes (14 statute miles).
On the Ioffe, the history-minded were hoping to equal or better Kane’s high-latitude mark – a realistic objective given that the multi-year ice in the Arctic is a far cry from what it was in the mid-nineteenth century.
But on Day Six, at four o’clock in the morning, the captain found himself driving north against storm force winds gusting to fifty knots. The temperature of the sea water had fallen to within one degree of freezing, and the ship had started to ice up. Given time, and because the water ahead lay open, the captain might have put into a sheltered bay, waited out the storm and then pushed on. But at 77 degrees 25 minutes, about eighty-five miles short of Kane’s mark, he turned the Ioffe around and sailed south.
For many on board, major highlights were yet to come. My own favourite moment of the expedition came on Day Nine in the middle of Clyde Inlet, off the north coast of Baffin Island. The expedition’s finest Zodiac driver, John “Flipper” Suta, had agreed to convey me to Clyde River because I had to do a series of radio interviews.
Within minutes, in the fog and waves, we had lost sight of the ship. We passed a few icebergs, nothing huge, and Flipper got the Zodiac pounding along at fifteen or twenty miles an hour. Five or six miles from the ship, with the waves and rolling swells reaching a height of eight to ten feet, so that roaring over them felt like riding a roller-coaster, an image came to me unsought.
The scale was smaller, but yes, we were climbing upwards against one of the giant waves that featured in The Perfect Storm. When we crested that magnificent swell and started down the other side, I heard someone laughing a wild-sounding, crazy-man laugh and wondered who it was. I glanced over at Flipper and, in that instant, with a rush of exhilaration, recognized the insane laughter as my own.
Watch a video here.
Ken McGoogan sails as a resource historian with Adventure Canada.