Week 12 Staying Tuned

Date Posted: 5.18.2009
Location: 68º14'N 66º07'W
Davis Strait, Nunavut, Canada
Weather Conditions: Foggy and snowing, 28°F (-2°C)
It’s Wednesday and we are working on the trail report to be posted on Monday—way early obviously. The reason is that once we resolve the situation we are currently in, we need to move at the greatest haste with the highest speed possible with no stopping until we are done. Yesterday we stopped the sleds, and turned around. “I never remember having done that before on any earlier expeditions” says Mille. “It was hard to do, but a surprisingly easy decision for me to make. There was
no doubt in my mind.”

  Explore inside the tent
  on Education Day!
Aaron is on the phone with Mikkel; the generator is acting up but sounds like Aaron has figured out the fix back at the office. Whenever possible we use the power generated from our solar panels to generate the electricity needed for all the electronics in use on Education Day, but today we are out of luck as we need to get that generator going. It is actually only a matter of minutes before sunlight is 24 hours a day here! In Clyde River, today, May 13, is the first day of the year when the sun never sets below the horizon for months to come. However, as far as it may seem sitting in our tent right now, we are actually only about 157 miles from Clyde River in a straight line, or as they say ‘as the crow flies’... (in our case it would be geese – we heard the first ones coming from down South fly above our heads this morning). We are still not getting enough juice though—the solar panels are simply not charging full power because of the thick layer of fog that envelopes us in a moist blanket.


  Watch just how tiny
  we are compared to
  a (small!) iceberg.

“Before we left Qikiqtarjuaq I checked the weather on the Environment Canada website. The forecast for the seven days ahead was clear skies, sunny and warm,” says Mille. The part about it being warm has kept true, but every day it has been overcast with thick fog. “Its like being in a rain forest!” sighs Mikkel with a smile. Well, because the air here in the Arctic ‘polar desert’ (remember last week’s pictures of gravel, sand and rock with very little vegetation) is so dry, one really notices when there is moisture in the air. The moisture usually comes with the Spring ‘break-up.’ Mille explains, “I don’t know this for a fact, but I am pretty certain that what we are seeing is a local phenomena, meaning the fog is created by the floe edge as the sea ice has begun the process of melting and breaking up some miles out from us towards the middle of the Davis Strait. Fog gets created in this process and then pushed in towards land during the warmer temperatures in the daytime. Every night we can see it clear in the horizon to the east of us, the region over the floe edge, and then the cooler air and clear skies pushes in towards us.”

    Polar Bear Track
The nice thing about the cloud cover is that it has left the temperature during the day cool enough that with a slight breeze, the Polar Huskies have not been slowing down bothered by the heat. But, it is probably also why we have been struggling with what we call ‘white light’ or ‘flat light.’ It is very hard to describe ‘flat light’ because it is so hard to grasp the experience without being in it. It’s easier to explain what happens: you can’t see a thing! You can see landscape, like the mountains along the coastline here, but you cannot see what is going on right underneath your own two skies or a few feet ahead of you. Everything is just white and looks to be flat! It seems there are no shades. So, you can literally be going up over ice chunks, pressure ridges of ice or through deep fluffy snow without realizing it until you see the dogs and the sled go up, down, or plowing through the sputtering snow flakes... or find yourself standing with your mukluk inside a polar bear track without noticing it!

  Watch the polar bear
  tracks on our path

We couldn’t miss the tracks on Monday though. There were simply so many of them—big and smaller ones, zigzagging across the ice of the bay and crossing our path. This made complete sense to us. We were dogsledding among lots of islands and there were many seals out basking on top of the ice in every direction you look. As the day went by with no actual sighting of any bears, we were starting to think that the ‘feast of seal’ obviously available to any bears in the neighborhood were keeping them busy and away from us. We had reached an area with pack ice – pushed up ice that is difficult to navigate through. Disko was doing a terrific job in the lead taking commands - “geee... chaw, chaw- no, straight ahead – ok, gee GEEE (gee is right, chaw is left), while the rest of the Polar Huskies patiently stayed focused leaning into the harness at the right time to not get stuck with the sled. It was deeper snow too, making it difficult work.  This was especially true since it was impossible to see anything until the last second or when we were literally right in the middle of it.


  Watch the ‘gee and
  chaw’ as we plow our
  way forward

At one point Kodiak and Nazca, immediately behind Disko, put their noses in some big polar bear tracks going spot-on in the direction of a bear!  This was through some pretty big crushed up ice, that we were otherwise navigating the long way around. Mille stopped the team and took a look at the tracks. It was hard to see if they were heading in or out, but it looked like in. She considered for brief moments to put Disko on the track and follow it out—it looked like it might be a really good trail and the dogs would be fired up to be in the tracks that were obviously fresh. She decided not to do it. Polar bear tracks are a bad idea to be following should it turn out that you are actually following and catching up to the bear itself. The decision was a good thing. It was not too long after the bear tracks that Mille noticed something dark in the horizon. It could have been part of a mountain that we were heading for in the very far distance; but then again, it seemed a lot closer than that. Was it a snowmobile! It was not moving very fast for it to be a snowmobile! Finally, Mille stopped the team and dug out the binoculars.

It was a polar bear! The bear was standing completely still with its back to us with absolutely no movement. With the sleds stopped, the Polar Huskies’ ears perked up and they began sniffing in the air. The skis came flying off our feet as Mikkel loaded a gun and Mille was ready with the bear flares. The bear was straight in front of us about 600 feet away.  That may seem like a far distance, but once you have watched a bear charging forward at top speed, you know that it is only a matter of moments to cover such a distance for a polar bear, and at a much higher speed than the Polar Huskies can escape!

  Watch Mille’s reaction
  to the polar bear


Mille continues, “I could not see what he was doing. I did not want too shoot anything into the air yet since that may make the Polar Huskies move forward in his direction, so Mikkel and I started howling and the Polar Huskies instantly joined in - howling, yelping and throwing themselves into the air.” With this movement, the bear turned his head. He looked at us with his head hanging low. We kept the dogs howling. He finally slowly walked a few steps in the direction away from us while looking back. It seemed like ages, but it probably was just a few minutes later that we put the sleds in motion. Mikkel, being on the back sled, fired the first bear banger into the air so that it would not freak out the dogs and take them in the wrong direction—they barely flinched, all seeming to understand that whatever we were doing was aimed at this huge animal to our side. Now at a brisker pace walking parallel to us, we could see that the entire one side of him and up over his back was covered in something... maybe old blood or seal oil.... that is why he had looked so dark. Mille shot off two bear flares. Disko and co. were moving at such a good pace that to the bear it must have seen like this fast-moving caravan was trying to race ahead to cut him off. He stopped, stared and turned to his right, heading for the pack ice. We were elated! We made incredible mileage that day pushing a bit later into the night to get as far away from his path as possible.

Qikiqtarjuaq is nicknamed ‘the iceberg
capital of the north’

We have had a supply of dog food put out on an island in a cabin out of ‘bears reach’ to lighten up out load on our way to Clyde River, thinking that break-up is on its way and we want to travel fast north. The locals tell us break-up should not begin for another three weeks, but we had been warned of deep snow and since we waited out a heavy snowfall in Qikiqtarjuaq on Friday, we were happy that Jimmy from Qikiqtarjuaq brought the re-supply out ahead of us a couple of days earlier on his snowmobile. However,  his tracks were quickly covered by winds and more snow.

    Disko after being pulled out of the
  Arctic Ocean

Mille was yelling out commands to Disko leading out the first sled. Mille goes on, “I had called out for Disko to take the team left when the team went right. I called several times for him to correct it. He did not respond to me and I was finally so irritated I skied up to the front of the team and was actually going backwards in the direction I wanted them to be heading, while looking to see what on earth Disko was doing!? I couldn’t see him and I thought he was standing behind Kodiak and Nazca. They and the rest of the team were all just standing calmly looking ahead of them, Kodiak and Nazca kind of looking down. I heard a “bloop” and a quiet whimper and then I realized it – Disko’s tugline, the entire gangline the dogs are attached too was somehow straight ahead of Kodiak and Nazca on the ground but where was Disko??? I dove through the snow to get there. Another bloop and Disko’s voice. He was in the water, his head and body bobbing up and down as he was trying to get a grip on the thick ice cover to pull himself up. Screaming for Mikkel’s help I threw myself to the edge and grabbed for him. He went under again and finally I had a grip and I pulled as he pushed against the wall of the ice with all his might and he was up! Shaking and seconds later wagging his tail.” We were pretty shook up, now all of a sudden looking at the ice in front of us with completely new eyes. There was nothing to see but snow cover. Was it an unusually large seal hole? Was it deep slush and water running on top of the ice? Or, was it really a lead of open water?

Where Disko fell through the snow and into
the lead of open water below

Carefully investigating the area with skis and ski poles, it turned out for the worst. It was a lead of open water at the place Disko fell in, maybe about 4 feet wide (~ 125 cm), but just a short distance away where Mille was steering to cross with the sled. The lead was upwards of 6 feet wide (~ 2 meters) – a gap in the ice into the Arctic Ocean, probably running from the shore of one island to the other, and terrifyingly covered up by a thick layer of fluffy snow. There was no way to detect it, not even for Disko. Now what? We could get around it most likely with little trouble by heading into the shoreline and then hug it to get over and around the lead. But there was more to this. We were following a traditional route and no one had mentioned to look out for open leads here and worst, we could not see them because of the snow cover - even if the light was not so flat. Did we actually want to move ahead? Mille grabbed out the satellite phone, made some calls. One to Jimmy to to hear what he had seen. Had he seen any signs of the sea ice shifting up when he came through there? Was this normal and it was just that no one had told us to watch out? The other call was back to Aaron at Education Basecamp. He then started to make calls instantly to the communities north of us to ask questions. The sleds were turned around and we backtracked to be miles away from the area to set up a camp. Time to consider all options and lay out a new plan.


  Watch Disko who has
  just been pulled out
  of the Arctic Ocean

The crux of the plan was whether we move ahead or if we need to say this is it and make our way returning to Qikigtarjuaq, to end the expedition there. Mille explains, “At the time I decided we turn the sleds, the facts were these: we are carrying three days of full supplies of dog food on the sleds and the cabin with our re-supply is, if we push, maybe 3-4 hours away from us, that is as long as we can proceed safely crossing the ice out to the island. Once at the island we are to load up the sleds adding some 340 lbs (~150 kg) of weight to each sled making our loads considerably heavier to pull particularly in deep snow. The plan was for it to take us upwards of 12 days before we are in Clyde River going across sea and land to get there. The fact that we cannot see if there are wide leads of open water because of the deep snow cover means that we will have to dogsled staying close to shore. This makes the path to Clyde River much longer and it will be slower travel with deeper snow. Regardless, we will have to cross some big spaces of sea ice going forward. Even if we push hard, when the sea ice starts changing, 12 days are all of a sudden a long time. On the other hand, with three days of food on the sled, that gives us enough time that we can turn around and make it back to Qikiqtarjuaq.”



Explore the area around the lead of open water.
Can you actually see where the lead is running about one mile long from island to island?

At 3 PM we will turn on our satellite phone and make a call back to Aaron at Education Basecamp to find out what he has learned. During the last time we spoke he had been on the phone with our own GoNorth! Cool Scientiest Shari Gearheard who lives in Clyde River (maybe you talked to her during the week 2 chat? – Join the chat this week to talk about climate chaos!)  Shari had just returned from her own long travels out on the land. She shared with Aaron that the snow cover this year is reported to be extremely deep for the region with places around Clyde River measuring waist deep!!!! That is not normal. Different from what one might think, this high Arctic region is a polar desert where the norm is actually little precipitation even down here closer to Qikiqtarjuaq, which historically gets more snow than anywhere else in Nunavut. Shari also said, that yes indeed, the sea ice has already started shifting. Last, an Elder and hunter that works with Shari in her study of sea ice and Inuit knowledge, just came back to Clyde by snowmobile from this direction yesterday morning.  He too reported of unusual conditions: many widening leads and much open water, and yes, hidden for the naked eye because of the snow cover.

    Mikkel in the tent

Our mantra is always ‘safety first’ and we will not be on our way to Clyde River unless we are able to pull together a very good and different plan. “I am still hoping for the best scenario to happen,” says Mille. That is, we can get one or several Elders to make a trail based on their knowledge of how the leads of ice develop and behave during break-up in this region. With that knowledge, we can put less load on the sleds so we can travel lighter and thereby faster – deep snow or not – getting us to Clyde River and off the ice as fast as possible with lightning speed!

Polar Husky Superstar Lightning  

Lightning is this week’s first Polar Husky Superstar. Disko, obviously once again this week pulled through as a fantastic lead dog with his incredible attitude and morale, but Lightning is coming up right in his paw prints. She has a very loving personality that easily wins you over; but more than that Lightning is an intelligent force of power to be reckoned with. A strong puller and very observant to her surroundings, it is obvious she is learning every day and gaining confidence. We will be looking to her this week to jolt our team forward and go as fast as possible no matter what direction we take from here.

    Polar Husky Superstar Good Thunder
Goodie, this week’s other Polar Husky Superstar, is one who cares little about direction as long as he gets to use his massive strength. Much like thunder, one has no doubt when Goodie is moving around - loud and boisterous. That is if he is not rolling over on his back raving for a good belly rub, that... any time is obviously a good time to give him! Different from Lightning, ‘Goodie’ has absolutely no lack in confidence and like his famous historic namesake Chief Good Thunder of southern Minnesota (where Aaron grew up), he is becoming the chief of the Polar Husky pack. Only time will tell where our pack will be heading next. Whether Lightning, Goodie and the rest of the gang will be leaning into their harnesses for our sleds to continue on towards Clyde River, or return to Qikigtarjuaq, we hope it will be decided over the next 24 hours. Stay tuned.