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The Arctic Pilot says that with the rounding of Point Barrow east to west, a vessel transiting these waters completes the Northwest Passage. We aboard Arctic Tern are not sure why this would be, as it’s commonly held that the passage is at least Arctic Circle to Arctic Circle, if not Atlantic to Pacific.

Still, it’s a big moment for us. We are currently four miles from making Point Barrow, where we will turn finally and definitively south for Nome and our Pacific exit.

Compared to others, our passage over the top of Alaska has been a breeze. Quite literally. After our fight with headwinds in Coronation, Dolphin and Union and Amundsen Gulf, the wind has become forcefully favorable. For three days now we’ve been following a brisk and building easterly under headsails only. Winds came on to 30 knots yesterday; touched 40 overnight and are still in the high 20s as I write. Seas have been bombing along at 3 and 4 meters, breaking heavily, and requiring us to hold on with two hands while cooking and three while pouring out the coffee. Cups and bowls unattended go flying, as does the odd crewmember who misses his or her grab as the boat goes by.

What’s more, ice conditions have been perfect, which is to say there hasn’t been any. Reports tell us that from roughly Demarcation Point and west, the ice pack has receded to 73N while our course line climbs through 70 and 71N, and at Barrow, the pack has pulled back a full 110 miles toward the pole. This has allowed Les to set a great circle route between Cape Bathurst and Point Barrow that has needed no adjustment.

This is markedly different from many experiences, notably those we aboard have been reading of these last weeks. Willie De Roos, in *North-West Passage* describes a harrowing run along Alaska. The pack ice that year (1977) pushed well in toward the coast and forced him onto a course that nearly grounded his Williwaw on north Alaska’s endless shoals. Jarlath Cunnane describes similar experiences atop Alaska in *Northabout* (2000), and David Scott Cowper’s first crossing was similarly distressed. Shakleton once quipped that he hated adventures that went too smoothly, but we on Arctic Tern are not complaining.

(These perfect conditions have prompted one reader to ask why we are in such a hurry. The answer is two-fold: one, if ice were to become an issue on this leg, its most likely point of contact would be Point Barrow itself. If we met ice there, the likelihood of spending the winter of the beach would jump exponentially. Two, ice is not our only worry. Winter weather between Point Barrow and Southeast Alaska, Arctic Tern’s final destination, has already commenced in the form of blasting gales. Simply put, it’s time to get out of the north.)

Our friends on Drina, currently 150 miles east of us, have not had such an easy run of it. Their second auto pilot gave out last night, forcing their three crew from 4-on 8-off watches into 2-on 4-off and hand steering. Having had a similar experience on my first North Pacific crossing, I can report that two hours at the helm never felt longer than when the weather is cold. And ours still hovers between 2 and 3C. A few hours later Drina reported that their main sail had split. They may search out an anchorage on the west side of Barrow so as to effect a repair.

Worried as we are for the Drinas, spirits continue to be high among the Ternies. When not sailing, we are talking of Alaska and what to expect in Nome, still days away. Les has promised shore leave of a duration longer than one hour (all that was allowed in Tuk and a few other stops). So now we are dreaming of simple things. Hot showers. The fresh scent of clean laundry. And the equally beguiling smells (not to mention tastes) available to patrons of rank and frothy frontier bars.

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Sept 12

Wind: East 15
Sea: 1 Meter
Sky: occluded, high ceiling, no rain/snow
Temp: Air, 6C and dropping; Sea, 3.5C and dropping
Bar: 1018 and dropping

At 141 degrees west longitude our world changes. It comes back into focus. At least that’s the case if you ask our chart plotter. Much of the route we are just completing through the Canadian High Arctic is poorly laid down. In places, coastal lines and soundings have not been updated since the original voyages of discovery, and our chart plotter has responded to this cartographic ambiguity by omitting any information whatsoever for the Northwest Passage. For weeks we’ve been looking at a gray screen with blobs of green where land might be.*

But that’s all about to change. In thirty six miles we enter American territorial waters; we cross into that part of the Beaufort Sea that is north of Alaska, and with that our plotter finds its feet again. Suddenly there’s the familiar yellow for land, white for water, bottom contours and the reassurance of soundings. And as if to put a coda on this happy event, some early humorist has given the adjacent spit the name of Demarcation Point. Demarcation indeed!

We’re number counting now. Demarcation 36 miles; Barrow 343; Nome 941. They’re all THREE digits for the first time this age. The goal of completing the Northwest Passage is no longer abstract; it feels immanent. And our conversation reflects our excitement.

We talk endlessly about Alaska. This is new territory for everyone aboard but me-for Les and Ali, this is the second attempt to get there, so the approach is sweet; curiosity is bubbling. Does it have trees (we’ve been above tree line since mid July)? Is it very wet? Does the water freeze over in winter? Will we see otters? How do I say Keyshican? What are the people like? Can we pan for gold? Is it OK to have a rifle? How do we troll for salmon? Will the Bald Eagles still be there? Do the towns have bars (Greenland villages are kind of dry and Canadian Inuit villages, decidedly so). Are Grizzlies as big as Polar Bears and do they walk the streets? Where are the hot springs?

Evening. Now the boat flies along in the dark under a heavy sky. Wind is building from the east; a small sea is running. A flash of moon reveals whitecaps. Ali cooked dinner tonight. She prepares most of our serious meals, not because she wants to but because she is the best cook aboard. Her fish pie uses the last of the Arctic Char, fresh-caught for us from a river near Cambridge Bay. A celebratory meal. Welcome to Alaska!

But there is a moment when we notice the sea temperature. From 4 degrees it has dropped to 2.5. Captain Bob Bartlett says that one can “smell” ice approaching by rapid reductions in sea temperature, Our ice is still out there some 25 miles north, out of sight but not out of mind as we race down this narrow, slowly closing corridor. We are entering Alaska, but we are not out of the woods.

*We have back-up electronic chart sources and a slew of paper charts, so we are not lacking for pilotage aid. Still it is odd the Garmin plotter draws a blank for the Northwest Passage.

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Today is September 10, and Pt Barrow is 600 miles west.

At 1PM local we rounded Cape Bathurst’s Baillie Island, a low dark line, and with it we have transitioned from a passage dominated by close sounds, inlets, and straits. We have exited Amundsen Gulf and are entering the vast and open Beaufort Sea.

Passing Bathurst in particular is a big step. Jutting north into the Beaufort, it can form an ice gate. In 2013, the pack failed to clear from Bathurst, delaying many boats, causing others, like Arctic Tern, to turn around. But this has not been our worry this year. Bathurst has been clear most of the season.

Our worry is time. Our delay back at the early parts of this passage means that we have entered the Beaufort late in the year. Of the several hurdles yet to overcome, one is Pt Barrow far to our west. Barrow is the turning point where the northeast coast of Alaska stops trending north and turns sharply south. Like Bathurst, it too is an ice gate.

Because the truth is that the Beaufort is vast but it is not open. It is mostly pack ice. Currently that ice is well back of the long and shallow Alaskan coast. Near us the pack is as high as 70.30N and it is currently north of Barrow by some 130 miles.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is it can’t stay that way forever. Some time in the fall, ice and the coast meet and are solidly joined all winter.

The Arctic Pilot says of Pt Barrow, “In autumn, the prevailing winds become NE and quickly bring the pack down to the shore E of the point. It is advisable to leave Point Barrow by 1st September and in any event not later than the 10th September.”

So we are late, and we have far to go.

Our companion yacht Novara is now well ahead of us. We lost radio contact last night. She has fuel enough to make Nome; we may not see her again. And our friends on Drina are a day behind; like us, they are headed for Tuk and fuel for the last leg.

Of the eleven yachts that began their east to west transit of the Northwest Passage earlier this year, we three boats are all that remain. We have done well. We are approaching our final hurdles. Weather is in our favor.

But will we get through before the ice returns?

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Sept 6-9

We had waited patiently in Byron Bay for better weather, and thinking headwinds had moderated, we put back into Dease Strait early on Sept 6.

Snow covered the low, bleak hills of south Victoria Island and no wildlife could be seen. Still no birds in and about the water, a condition that has persisted since entering St Roch Basin. The featureless topography, the lack of fauna, and temperatures hovering at zero have lent a sense of desolation to this part of our passage, a sense that was broken briefly at sunset when we passed Richardson and Edinburgh Islands. Here the land rose fortress-like out of the sea, high walls constructed of rust-brown hexagonal rock, solid in places, torn and ragged in others. We all piled on deck to see. But once through Edinburgh Channel, the low land returned.

Wind came up to 30 knots from the NNW overnight, so at 3AM we gave up and put into a bay of no name below Belcher Point at 68.27N and 113.09W, an inviting crescent on the chart which shallowed too quickly to enter. We anchored outside in 7 meters.

Next day rewarded us with a repeat performance. Headwinds had moderated overnight, but built strongly from the north once we made our turn into Dolphin and Union Strait, reaching between 30 and 35 knots by mid afternoon. Steep seas to three meters with little separation between laid wetly over Arctic Tern, and the bow flung around such that Nick, attempting a nap in the forward berth, went repeatedly airborne and complained of losing a tooth on one of his crash landings.

At 3PM and as we came abeam of Camping Island, a bigger wave and a loud bang. On deck we found that a shackle fastening one of the main sheet blocks to the boom had parted (we were running with reefed main at the time). We doused the sail and headed for the shelter of Bernard Harbor, anchoring at dusk directly under Chantry Island’s southern headland at 68.45N and 114.36W. When I came below, Ali had already poured five healthily portioned Gin and Tonics, which cheered the crew immeasurably.

Next morning, Les replaced the shackle with strapping in a jiffy and we were underway again, departing Bernard Harbor to the north. At 2PM and in a lumpy NW swell and 20 knot headwinds, Novara passed us. She had departed Cambridge Bay a full day after Arctic Tern, but is a longer and faster boat. We waved and exchanged radio greetings as this may be the last we see of her. She carries enough fuel to press on to Nome, whereas we are planning a quick stop in Tuk in a few days time.

Calm night; flat sea as we pressed on. A full moon to Arctic Tern’s port side and a red, streaky sky to starboard.

Next day we happily finished with Dolphin and Union Strait and entered Amundsen Gulf, and by way of celebration, the wind came on strongly from the NW, again on the nose, but skies were clear and the day warmed to 11C. Nick and I reefed sail yet again, but neither of us wore either foulies, gloves or hats, a first. Nothing to expect for long, however; the snowy mainland mountains were visible to port, and the ice pack is reported to be at 70.30N.

We round Cape Parry as I type. 215 miles to Tuk. The forecast calls for (a blessed) east wind, which is in fact northeast at 10 knots, but at least it’s not on the nose.

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Sept 5

Departed Cambridge Bay early on Sept 4th for an anchorage in Edinburgh Islands, 141 miles west in Dease Strait. Forecast called for NW winds increasing to gale force some several hours after our estimated arrival at Edinburgh; our timing looked good.

A misty fog in Cambridge Bay changed to light NW winds and snow in the channel. And for the first time this passage outside temperatures of 2C were lower than sea temperature of 4.5C. Wind increased over night in Dease and backed into the W. By my watch at midnight we were beating into a steady 30 knots with gusts to 40 and three meter seas. Under a double reefed main and staysail we went tack upon tack without making much headway against south Victoria Island’s Sinclair Creek, and finally we had to admit that our gale had arrived early. We put back to an anchorage in Byron Bay, an 18 mile retreat, just before dawn.

Wind blew steadily from the WNW at 20 – 35 knots all the next day. Intermittent rain with a slushy snow. I baked bread and finished Willie de Roos’s *North-West Passage* without going on deck even once. None of us did. Reading, quite conversation, napping and eating made up our agenda.

We have now departed for our second attempt at Dease. Wind calm. It is snowing lightly and the low hills of Victoria are dusted white. The channel is a mess of swell from the SW.

Events during our brief stay in Cambridge were few but notable. When we moved Arctic Tern to the pier for fuel, an engineer from the airport greeted us with the news that his community had contained not a drop of diesel since May. He recommended we take on his “Aero fuel” (Kerosene?) and add 2% 2-stroke outboard engine oil to it for lubricity. This solution resonated with Les. We purchased four gallons of said oil, mixing in most of it as we filled with 1000 liters of Aero. The purchase of the oil increased fueling costs by about 25%.

That afternoon and evening could only be described as a collection of mishaps. The cultural center closed just as I arrived, and the heavy rain that followed interrupted my hike to visit the wrecked Maud, immediately turning Cambridge Bay streets into the best frontier town mud traps. I called on the local Pizza Hut, there to purchase a large pepperoni with mushroom for the crew of Novara, whose steerage repair project had consumed the entire day without coming to resolution. Only after waiting in line and placing my order did I learn that the Pizza Hut had no pizza, only fried chicken. The counter person expressed neither regret nor surprise (expression not appearing to be a much valued skill), and only offered the chicken after I asked what else might be available. I declined.

Separately, Ali had invited the Novaras to dinner on Arctic Tern, this to share a large Arctic Char being delivered. But an hour before festivities, the local fisherman returned to report that the Char from yesterday’s catch had frozen together into a misshapen lump. He could hacksaw off a portion if we liked or we could wait for him to catch another. Ali was, thus, forced to concoct a Spaghetti Bolognese on the fly. Capping what was a delicious dinner and lovely evening with the admittedly tired Novaras, one of their crew, Phil, fell overboard and had to be handed back on deck, a double embarrassment as Arctic Tern’s last three bottles of wine with dinner, shared amongst us all, could not be blamed.

Eventful times, if not particularly happy. And given the miles in front of us, we were more than willing to depart.

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Ice piled on point of Fury Beach

It’s been ages since we’ve had internet “strong” enough to post photos, so this slug of images captures some events experienced on Arctic Tern between her stay in Graham Harbor for the penultimate and then ultimate time and her arrival in Gjoa and then Cambridge Bay. All events are referenced in the intervening blog posts. Also see captions.

We’ve just landed in Cambridge. My first job, to get to the local hotel and its restaurant (and its WIFI) for this work. Noon. The restaurant fills. A mix of school kids and blue collar workmen on break. All have burgers and fries with emphasis on fries. Fries are the thing. Done with this; now I can eat too!

Graham Harbor from ridge top.

Fossil found in rock of Graham Harbor.

Graham Harbor from the spit protecting it.

Graham Harbor from the spit protecting it.

Snow on the boat the day we are pushed back to Graham Harbor.

Snow on the boat the day we are pushed back to Graham Harbor.

Snow on the headlands of Graham Harbor the day we depart.

Snow on the headlands of Graham Harbor the day we depart.

Fun at the helm, headed south for Port Leopold.

Fun at the helm, headed south for Port Leopold.

Ice Pack ahead.

Ice Pack ahead.

Nick poling ice in Port Leopold.

Nick poling ice in Port Leopold.

Les looking for an open anchor spot in Port Leopold.

Les looking for an open anchor spot in Port Leopold.

Nick, Nikkie, Les in the cockpit.

Nick, Nikkie, Les in the cockpit.

Les, coffee, ice, and the cliffs of west Prince Regent.

Les, coffee, ice, and the cliffs of west Prince Regent.

Ice pack in Creswell Bay.

Ice pack in Creswell Bay.

Ice and sunrise in Creswell Bay.

Ice and sunrise in Creswell Bay.

Ice pack in Creswell Bay.

Ice pack in Creswell Bay.

Ice "stack" outside Fury Beach.

Ice “stack” outside Fury Beach.

Our Fury Beach Anchorage, lines to the shore.

Our Fury Beach Anchorage, lines to the shore.

Ice piled on point of Fury Beach.

Ice piled on point of Fury Beach.

Fury Beach ice pile; we anchor behind this.

Fury Beach ice pile; we anchor behind this.

Fury Stream and where I got fresh water.

Fury Stream and where I got fresh water.

White Boulder becomes a Polar Bear.

White Boulder becomes a Polar Bear.

Ice Pack near For Ross.

Ice Pack near For Ross.

Polar Bear on ice sheet outside Levesque Harbor.

Polar Bear on ice sheet outside Levesque Harbor.

Polar Bear, Levesque. He hung out as if performing.

Polar Bear, Levesque. He hung out as if performing.

Seal Dinner aboard Tandberg Polar. Note Father Christmas; Glenna and Ann from Gjoa.

Seal Dinner aboard Tandberg Polar. Note Father Christmas; Glenn and Ann from Gjoa.

Tandberg Polar gathering. Captain in smart sweater.

Tandberg Polar gathering. Captain in smart sweater.

Crew of Novara, Arctic Tern, Tandberg Polar, Gjoa.

Crew of Novara, Arctic Tern, Tandberg Polar, Gjoa.

Polar Bear, Levesque. He hung out as if performing.

Polar Bear, Levesque. He hung out as if performing.

An ice landing outside Fort Ross.

An ice landing outside Fort Ross.

Fort Ross shelter. Note bear-protected doors.

Fort Ross shelter. Note bear-protected doors.

Mango in West Bellot. Note man in scaffold.

Mango in West Bellot. Note man in scaffold.

Ice plug in Bellot.

Ice plug in Bellot.

Ice, up close and personal in Bellot. How to get through to beyond that point?

Ice, up close and personal in Bellot. How to get through to beyond that point?

Sunset enroute Gjoa. Or is it sunrise?

Sunset enroute Gjoa Haven. Or is it sunrise?

Slushy stuff off Cape Victoria.

Slushy stuff off Cape Victoria.

Gjoa Haven emerges from Fog.

Gjoa Haven emerges from Fog.

Gjoa Haven. Just by way of proof.

Gjoa Haven. Just by way of proof.

Celebratory Dinner! Have made it to Cambridge.

Celebratory Dinner! Have made it to Cambridge.

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Sept 1-2

Wind: Calm to S 10

Sky: Solid Occlusion, fog early, no rain, then clear.

Temp: Air 8 to 10C, Sea4.4 to 5.3C

Sea: Calm, light wind chop

Bar: 1005

Departed Gjoa Haven early for Cambridge Bay. Hurry is the name of our game now. Sept 10 at Barrow looms large. Bought 40 liters of diesel from Novara by way of security, but previous economy means we have the fuel to make it.

Simpson Strait: all prepped for major pilotage exercise, but found it so well marked that the major challenge was finding the range beacon. No more difficult than a run down San Pablo Bay, though one wonders how Amundsen did it. Conditions were perfect; under the gray sky and over gray water, the near infinity of low featureless islands stood out black as if stenciled in place. Current ran to one knot with or against as it pleased, but bore nor relationship we could figure to the tides as predicted for Gladman Point.

More challenging was Storis Passage, only because its bottom is shoaly and poorly sounded. Our course west and southwest followed an intermittent 40 meter contour, but even with that we encountered a 1.7 meter pinnacle at 68.35.8N and 99.37.5W where 12 to 20 meters was charted depth (roughly .5 miles south of shoal patch “PA Reported 1961”).

Now we have left behind our companion birds. Fulmars and Murres are absent from St Roche on to Gjoa Haven, in Simpson Strait and Storis Passage too. They roost in cliffs, which also disappeared after rugged Bellot Strait, and here the land is low and bare and gives the impression of being freshly graded for construction—an entire territory ready-made for a housing. But this does not suit our birds.

We also seem to have left ice behind. The Red Sea had parted for Arctic Tern between west Bellot and Gjoa Haven; we pushed the engine revs and skinnied as fast as ever we could between the coast and pack ice gently moved offshore by the NE wind. The strategy for this stretch to Gjoa was to stay well inside, and where the pack began to approach the shore at Pt Davidson and between Kent Bay to Cape Victoria, we rode the 25 meter line, only having to weave between chunky bits a few times. In James Ross Strait, occasional loose pack, but once in St Roche Basin, water temperature quickly rose to 4.5C and all ice vanished.

On to Cambridge it has been much the same. We see pack well to the north in Alexandra Strait, pass below a tongue of ice off Jenny Lind, and see pack again in Icebreaker Channel, but water temperature stays high. Ice is no closer than the horizon.

On our first day out of Gjoa, wind slowly filled in from the south over the afternoon and we were able to sail much of the night.

Lush sunset. Clear night sky. This is a compound novelty. After months of timeless daylight (in July in Upernavik, the sun circumscribed the sky, defying gravity) our days now end in darkness. We are returning to the natural order of beginnings and endings. But lately we have been robbed of the full effect by an everlasting leaden sky. Until the last two nights, our approach and departure from Gjoa Haven.

I had midnight watch with Ali on our approach. As the sun disappeared a small boat interrupted the glassy horizon, oars dipping. This turned out to be an ocean rowboat, Avia, powered by Charles Hedrik, whose goal, this year, was Tuk to Pond Inlet. To this singlehander, it seemed a lonely, tiresome pursuit, even without the ice. We gave the man a bag of dried fruit and nuts, candy bars, and a small jar of Vasoline (to sooth the sitting).

Then the decks of Arctic Tern cleared as others went below and to bed. Quietly we slipped toward Gjoa Haven and, to my wonderment, stars appear. It takes hours for darkness to be full and for my sought constellation to emerge, the Big Dipper and the North Star so high in the sky as to break your neck. Later, a brief show of Northern Lights. Just a whisp at first, like a ghost transiting the firmament

But on our departure from Gjoa Haven Northern Lights were the feature event. I came on watch to find the whole crew there already. Snaking ribbons were forming and reforming horizon to horizon, curling like rivers hung vertically and pulsing gray and pale green. There was a rhythm to their movement, and when they formed overhead, the effect was of looking up into a vaulted tapestry whose height was the stars. Up close light cascaded down, as if billions of tiny glow beads were falling from the end of a curved celestial table. And again, a sense of cadence. Like curtains of music, exclaimed Ali, a nonsensical description which we all agreed a perfect summation. The light lasted for several hours, moving through from south to north like a cloud front.

As I write we are three hours from Cambridge Bay, where we will fuel and depart as quick as ever we can. Weather is good. We must take advantage.

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After our return to Depot Bay on Tuesday, August 25th, I received an email from my wife saying that my father had died at 4:30pm the previous day. He was 93 years old.

At that time we on Arctic Tern had just arrived at our most remote location to date. The closest airport was 300 miles away, but behind us ice moved down on a strong NE wind, blocking a retreat up Prince Regent Sound, and ahead, Franklin Strait had yet to shake itself of winter. We were fighting to maintain an anchorage free of ice and had no hope of escape until something shifted ahead. In our quest for the Northwest Passage, we were now at our most committed and vulnerable. Against this the news of my father’s death hit hard, but it failed to surprise.

  • Retrieved from the baby sitter’s house at night. Limp body lifted to the car. Cold night air wakes me. From his shoulders a boy is shown the constellations.
  • Morning pancakes at a road side diner outside Stockton. We two sit at the counter. The edges of cake are crispy and the butter, soft and salty. It is a man’s world, the diner. Truck drivers and retirees chatting in the corner. It feels a secret world I’d been let into, though it is but a work trip for him and a stint of summer vacation with dad for me.
  • Tying a bowline “the way we learned it as Merchant Marines.” I watch his hands work the line. I think them very strong. Once when we live in Alaska, I go for a row in our dinghy and get swept by the outgoing tide. The Coast Guard rescues me with their ship’s tender. When they toss me a line, I whip a bowline in the end so fast that the tender pilot pays me a compliment. My pride at that far outweighs the shame of rescue.

Dad had been declining for several years. When I announced in 2010 that I would attempt a solo cruise in my small boat, he was already having trouble holding a conversation. Over time, repeated small strokes had taken their toll. Still, my adventure interested him deeply, and he wished to help me plan. We would talk for hours about the differences between compass variation and deviation, for hours because he couldn’t quite remember which was which. And then he couldn’t remember that he didn’t remember.

  • Fishing for halibut with dad from an open boat in the channel outside Sitka. I am a teen. I have just discovered spitting; spitting, I know, is manly. “Why do you spit?” he asks. It is a gentle but pointed question. I never spit again.
  • An offhanded remark, “I know I am not good looking,” he says. I am a child then. My only context for handsomeness is my father. I am shocked by his admission; find it incomprehensible.
  • Fresh spring onions. He eats them with every dinner, for strength. Mother cleans a small bunch and lays them next to his plate in line with the flatware. He eats them with unusual gusto. I try to copy but cannot.
  • Family scrabble games—he always wins. He has a fine memory for facts and places, a keen sense of geography, and a large vocabulary which he enjoys using. Even with these advantages, however, he sometimes makes words up. I learn to question him. But often even these made-up words are in the dictionary, I find. I couldn’t believe it!

Conversations with him became tortuous. Dad knew he was failing to communicate; he became frustrated, frequently shutting down, and I did not always push to get through. Through to what? It was too difficult.

Then once about a year ago we fell into a bout of talking. It lasted over an hour. The subject, I think, was a particular musical band or instrument from his younger years in the Midwest. I say I think because we never got there. I asked him questions (Do they play trumpets? Do they march? Is it a school band? Are they from Chicago? Do they dance? Is it Polka? Were they your friends? Did they use sheet music?) and Dad would answer “yes” or “no” but then often change his mind. Sometimes a question would create a spark; he’d attempt to form the word for this sudden flash and fail. He’d strike at the word with his head, then sink back. I’d resume my query, two men playing 20 questions, neither knowing the answer. What was different, though, was that we were BOTH trying to get through. It was the trying, the joint effort, that was meaningful.

  • The loudest sneeze I’ve ever experienced. Slowly his face scrunches, his whole body rears back, and he simply explodes–hayeroof!–a roar that registers on the Richter scale. If you don’t see it coming, it can scare you right down to your toes. Mom screams from the next room; my sister jumps, then looks disgusted. No amount of complaining ever gets him to entertain a more civilized sneeze.
  • The smell of his mariner’s uniform, which hangs in his closet my whole young life, though he retires from the sea before I am born. It carries the rich scent of bunker fuel and grease, smells that, to a boy, bespeak the big world of heavy machinery, toughness, adventure. But each time I wear the coat I’m disappointed; it does not fit.
  • Everything to do with stories, he adores. He loves reading, writing, talking, even public address. But he can’t tell a joke to save his life. Once I attend a presentation dad gives to a group of seniors in Stockton. He opens with a joke, as is the fashion, but somehow manages to start with the punchline. Neither the talk nor he ever recovers.

By the time I left for the Arctic, Dad was essentially silent. Mom, his caretaker for years, reports he began to lose his famous appetite. His eyes couldn’t focus long on the television or distinguish it from the light in the kitchen. When we talked on the phone he couldn’t remember where I was. “Phoenix?” he said, when I called from Greenland. During my last visit home, I sat close to his chair and put my hand on his bare ankle. We sat this way most of the evening. When our eyes met he nodded his head as if knowing.

  • Playing baritone duets with him. I even transcribe (badly) hymns we can perform in church. He is a march-kick-march kind of musician, and I am embarrassed to play with him in public. But sometimes at home and in the privacy of our living room we hit upon such sweet harmonies together. We play the same song over and over, holding the last bright notes as long as our lungs will allow. We lean back, basking in our satisfaction.

For years I have been philosophical about my father’s always-immanent passing. “We get old; we die, and we have known this forever” I said. But I was leaving something out; something I couldn’t quite touch. Several times I began a eulogy for what was obviously coming, but couldn’t figure how to start. The file still sits empty on my desktop.

After all, what does one say?

  • When I am ten and my dad is 50, I suggest that if we each live to be as old as the patriarchs, that ancient generation whose span reached toward a thousand years, we will be very much the same age. He will be 1000 years old on my 960th birthday. We’ll be peers. We’ll be equally strong and equally wise! I am pleased with this deduction. Dad just smiles.

I hike out to Fort Ross the day after I get the news. Fort Ross is two buildings and all that remains of the Hudson Bay Trading Company’s post on the shores of Depot Bay. One of the buildings is derelict, but the other is kept up by the RCMP as an emergency shelter. Inside are beds, a stove, food, maps, and a log book to be completed by any who pass that way. It has become a tradition for yachts attempting the Northwest Passage to sign in. I write my name and address, my boat name, the year. Then I walk around taking photos. But just before leaving, I circle back and enter below my name, “In Memory of my Father, Roy Reeves, who died in California on Monday. He got me here.”

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Aug 29
Wind: NE 20
Sky: Solid occlusion, rain last hour
Temp: Air: 4C; Sea, -1C
Sea: slop to 1 meter in Franklin
Bar: 1003

Onward to Gjoa Haven.

At 6am (local) we departed Depot Bay for an attempt at Bellot, targeting our entrance into the strait for the last two hours of the west-setting current. Wind still sharp from NE. Novara, Gjoa, Arctic Tern weighed together–Arctic Tern got her anchor first but soon was passed by larger Novara; smaller Gjoa trailing. Waves and a blast of the horn as we passed our friends on the Tandberg Polar.

The previous day’s hike to Kennedy Island’s western ridges allowed us to see the first half of Bellot and revealed a solid ice band crossing the whole of the strait at Zenith point and clear water beyond. We hoped the two intervening tides would wash that out, but were not surprised the next morning to find the ice band still at Zenith. A close inspection showed clear water to starboard and another ice band just past Halfway Island showed clear water to port. The west-end opening, however, was solidly plugged.

Before arriving, we noticed a vessel making slow way towards us through the plug. This turned out to be L’Manguier (commonly known as Mango), a red-hulled French “tug” with a tall scaffolding and a man on watch atop. The bridge informed us that the ice plug was indeed heavy going but more open on the north.

Novara, a mile on, approached the plug first, and after one experiment (bow out of water in imitation of an ice breaker) cut to the right, wiggled through, and then sprinted north around the ice spit that reached in but did not yet lay upon the northwestern point.

We cut in a little earlier. The current closed our chosen lead just as we approached and Arctic Tern met a solid chunk head on. We backed and tried again, Nick, Ali and I poling from the bows as Les maneuvered. Large ice blocks were swirling in the tide. Several times we were squeezed and pivoted around. We found the pieces too large to push, so we stopped and allowed the current to work the ice in our vicinity until more leads opened; then with gentle pressure from the engine and more poling, we eased our way through. The entire process took about 20 minute.

We exited Bellot at 9am, a fast, clean passage. We saw clear water and no ice line in the offing of Franklin.

Gjoa was not so fortunate. From my vantage she appeared to enter the main ice plug and then rise, heal over, and stop. As we rounded the Franklin side of the plug, I spied a Polar Bear on the ice roaming a quarter mile from Gjoa’s position. We called over to inform.

At this time we also saw that the Akademik S. Vavilov, an ice-strengthened cruise ship (looked more like a battle cruiser in binoculars), was approaching Bellot’s western exit. Gjoa called requesting assistance, reporting that they were fast atop an ice ledge with no ability to go forward or back. Reconstructing from what we heard over the radio (by then we had lost the Gjoa side of the conversation), over the next hour, the Vavilov made slow way toward Gjoa in an attempt to cut a lane for the small sailboat. This appears to have failed, for next we heard, a line was being passed and Gjoa was towed out, whether by the ship or a heavy launch we could not tell. We look forward to hearing her story when we all arrive in Gjoa Haven. Likely Ann and Glenn have some spectacular photographs of a particular bear.

Two hours after entering Franklin, we were passed by a northbound sailing vessel, Lady Dana making for Bellot, and the ice breaker, Pierre Radison, could be seen on the western horizon, sitting at the ice line and waiting to escort the Vavilov to Cambridge Bay. Ahead of both was a cargo ship. All told, it was a busy day in Franklin Strait.

(Later I also learned that our friends on Drina have departed Maxwell Bay, where they retreated from Port Leopold, and are making fast southing toward Fort Ross.)

One lesson for me was how on one’s own boats are in the arctic ice. Once we had escaped the ice plug in Bellot, there was no practical way for us to return to Gjoa’s aid. Not only was she on the other side of the barrier, she seems also to have been embayed. When we weighed that morning, we appeared to be a fleet of three yachts, but that was a fiction.

Our current plan on Arctic Tern is to push this opportunity; to continue on overnight, if the way remains clear, the 210 miles remaining to Gjoa Haven, there to fuel and press on again. We have effected an important escape, but we are far from home free.

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After a long nap and a bit of much needed washing, we descended upon Novara. We had been invited for cocktails, an event not to be missed even if the cabin were on fire. Brit Steve Brown, Novara’s owner, and crew of three climbing friends had come to the Northwest Passage after a long look into the fjords and Baffin Island east. They’d found a way through the ice in Regent that turned us back, arriving in Fort Ross the day before.

Soon after our boarding and tour, the crew of Tandberg also descended. Within moments a gathering whose intent conversation had slowly circumnavigated our collective Arctic experiences turned into a party fueled by an endless supply of rum, Steve’s, and an ancient bottle of Balentine’s disgorged from the bilges of Tanberg (label mostly worn away) and delivered to Novara’s table by Father Christmas.

Visitors from Tanberg were four of the six crew, a coiffed, neatly dressed (colorful knit sweater, colorful knit cap) captain, a rotund, avuncular engineer whose lack of English kept him in the corner, an affable, thick-fisted mate, Sean Connery fan and voluble singer of bar songs, and Father Christmas, unanimously nominated because of his large white beard, rosy cheeks, and red cap. Beyond these likenesses, however, similarities began to run thin. For example, Father Christmas was rather quiet, a chain smoker with an unusual sensitivity for the gravitational effects of a full shot glass, and a disbeliever in the healthful effects of bathing. This latter quality was apparent to all, but it was Nick who afterward explained its reason. “Bathing washes away my essential oils,” he reported Father Christmas as saying, “and makes me cold.” The night ended with several rounds of “The Drunken Sailor,” and we departed, having partaken enough of Novara’s hospitality to raise her lines two inches.

Four hours in our bunks and we were awakened by ice grinding against the hull. The pack was invading Depot Bay, rounding the eastern point en masse and flowing in like pale lava. Les called for immediate departure and we were underway before Novara, whose chain was impacted. She was an hour getting out. We poked into Brands Island bay, but found it too choked with ice; then opted for Levesque Bay.

On our way we spied a mother and cub Polar Bear inspecting us from the western edges of Levesque, and then another two bears on the pack ice to the opposite side. Both sets were curious, approaching us as we did they. The mother and cub came down to the beach, and one of the pack-ice bears came out to the edge and hung there scratching and rolling like a dog in grass until it was we who bored, longing for a warm cabin and our bunks.

A few hours sleep in Levesque on a lovely sunny morning; then lunch. As we moved to the salon for coffee, Les noticed pack ice invading Levesque. So we weighed again, this time following Novarra, who pounded through the closing windows, leaving her red bottom paint for us to use as day marks, and were back in icy but unmoving Depot by mid afternoon.

Now strong wind from the NE has cleared Depot of ice and, we hope, is opening a lane to Gjoa Haven. Tonight we retire to Tandberg for Arctic Stew, advertised as Seal and Arctic Hare, both recently acquired by the crew. The hare has been hanging for a week and is finally ready. As are we.

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Port Leopold. A few bergy bits growled disinterestedly against the hull overnight. Six hours of deep sleep and then Les rousted his crew for a conference. Given the sustained northwesterlies and a forecast calling for more, Les believed the already weakening pack south of our location would open a lane along eastern Regent all the way to Bellot. We should take advantage of this opportunity for immediate southing.

We departed after a quick breakfast and made a clean run the first 90 miles, during which time we encountered no ice in our path, though the pack was visible well to the east. We also had as much as a two knot current in our favor along eastern western Regent, allowing us to slow the engine, save fuel, but still make a handy 7 knots.

Well within Creswell Bay, and during my watch with Ali, we came abruptly upon 7/10ths ice, which we worked for several hours south and west with no success. From the spreaders and in the coming day I could see leads in the tight pack, but the leads did not connect up. Each entry we made was a dead end within a few moves, and after a number of attempts, we were forced to concede. “The Northwest Passage is like a chess game,” said Les stoically, “in which the opponent can invent queens at will.” This failure affected all of us. Each knew our remaining fuel wouldn’t allow for more than one other unsuccessful foray.

Coming southerlies required that we find appropriate protection, but without backtracking all the way to Batty Bay (fuel waste), a challenge along the coast of Somerset Island where for miles straight, high cliffs crumble directly into the sea. At Fury Beach, we noticed a small spit extending out from the miles of wall on the north side of Fury Stream. And at its most outer point, the spit was piled with beached pack ice. Considering this to be our best bet, we anchored at 10pm on Aug 23 and immediately put two lines ashore, pulling Arctic Tern well in as the wind turned to the south.

A quite supper and a subdued celebration of Ali’s birthday, her second consecutive in Regent. I suggested this was likely an historic Arctic first, but the thought failed to strike any cheer into the proceedings. Les set anchor watches (a few growlers were roaming about), took the first and the rest of us hit the sack.

Two hours later we woke with a bang. The tide had turned in an instant and with it the current. Suddenly Arctic Tern was beset by a fast-moving ice sheet that had, the moment before, been making slowly away from the boat. Unluckily, this sheet, the size of a basketball court, was far larger than its cousins.

Now Arctic Tern was on the move with no question of protest. We quickly abandoned the two shore lines, spinning them off their reels to the bitter end. Then we raced to raise the main anchor. Too late. The ice sheet had hooked it well underwater and was dragging the bow down. We were forced to pay out more chain. The chain in the windless screamed-we hardened up and then the anchor was plucked clean from the bottom as Arctic Tern ran in the clutch of the flow, first narrowly missing the ice pile-up at the end of our spit and then narrowly escaping a push onto the beach.

All of us had ice poles pushing at whatever piece was closest. In fact, the large ice sheet was a collection of lightly fractured ice blocks, some of which could be slowly moved away, some not. Slow work. Half an hour later we were a mile down the coast, but had escaped the flow unharmed. We returned to the anchorage, which remained without current the rest of the night.

Next day I went ashore to search out fresh water for our tanks. On entering Fury Stream (mostly tidal and thus brackish near the beach), I noticed a white boulder atop the nearest sunny hill, a rock larger and rounder than one nearby that Ali had mistakenly called a polar bear the previous day. Far inside Fury Stream, I beached the dinghy, hiked up a jagged canyon another 100 yards and took 60 liters of pure snow melt from a small falls. In a low area of mud, fox and muskox tracks and even the large paw of a polar bear.

When exiting the stream, happy with my take, I happened to look to the hill where I found my white boulder had awakened, was standing on all fours and intently examining, with sparkling black eyes, a vista that included me. In all these weeks of exploration, we had seen nothing wilder than an Arctic Hare, and so I had been comfortable leaving on my own and without the riffle. After a long look the polar bear wandered slowly off.

The rest of the day was spent in taking water from the stream, but as a shore party whose compliment included one person on watch with the riffle.

Fury Beach had provided its protection, so after supper and a hopeful ice chart we departed again for Bellot. This time we skirted much of the tongue of pack that extended into Creswell Bay, and came to anchor opposite Fort Ross at noon on August 25th.

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Aug 17: Departed Arctic Bay for Port Bowen in Prince Regent Sound. After a week of waiting, ice in Regent showed signs of opening to Bellot, even if Peel continued as a solid block of impenetrable ice. At the head of Admiralty, we moved slowly through a line of dispersed pack ice several miles wide whose water, covered in rime the size of large cartridge shells, tinkled as we made our wake. Then, mid way over Brodeur Peninsula we received a message that Jimmy Cornell and Aventura were leaving the Northwest Passage, and that two of his crew, his two mates Nick and Nikki, were hoping to continue on. We changed course for Graham Harbor on Devon Island, to add them to our ship’s company. Yes, back on Devon Island, where we had already spent so many days.

Aug 19: Departed Graham Harbor for Devon’s Gascoyne Harbor, this so as to position near the rest of the tiny fleet of boats still attempting the Northwest Passage. There had been word of an ice breaker in the area, and tug, Tandberg Polar, working a barge to Cambridge Bay, there to wrest Amundsen’s Maud from the mud for transport back to Norway. Mid passage we received ice charts showing significant ice clearing in Regent all the way to Bellot and a tongue of clear water in Peel below Bellot all the way to Gjoa Haven. Big moral boost aboard Arctic Tern. We abandoned Gascoyne and made for Rigby Bay, so as to have a clean shot at Regent next day.

Aug 20: Departed Devon’s Rigby Bay for Port Bowen…again. Forecasts called for south wind veering to southwest at 20 knots but instead it stayed south and built to 30. Four hours into our passage, Arctic Tern pounded into a growing swell, making progress slow. Expensive progress too. We were using too much fuel, so we put back to Devon’s Graham Harbor. Snow fell. The hills of Graham, such a desert just the day before, were white to the beach.

Aug 21: Departed Graham Harbor for Port Bowen…again. Snow fell all night but the wind lightened and went SW as we motored. Mid afternoon ice charts showed 1-3/10ths above Bellot sticking mostly to the west side of Regent and a band of red and yellow below. What began to bother Les was the NW wind we were expecting to develop and last several days. This could close us into east-side Regent bays. We decided to change plan again and put into Port Leopold on Somerset Island, even though the charts showed Leopold embayed with ice. All evening we worked through 1-3/10ths ice and anchored in Port Leopold, NOT ON DEVON ISLAND, at 3am. Ali made eggs on toast for us by way of celebrating our escape from Devon, after which we went to our bunks tired but happy.

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Our neighbor in Arctic Bay, a lovely aluminum cutter named Gjoa (previously Taonui, Tony and Coryn Gooch), developed propeller problems on the passage from Greenland. Given the paucity of travel lifts in this part of the world and the general absence of divers (water temp in the bay, 2.5C), a way of getting at the the offending part was not immediately apparent, all of which came up in conversation when Gjoa owners, Glen and Ann, visited Arctic Tern for coffee and pastry one morning.

Les and Ali’s home cruising ground is famous for big tides. As a consequence, they’ve had a number of opportunities over the years to dry out their various boats on a steep beach, of which there are plenty here. Problem solved, they said. And since neither Glen nor Ann (nor Randall) had previously careened a boat, services were offered and gratefully accepted. A quick check of the tide tables indicated the best cycle began that afternoon, and so did we.

My part of the operation was to function as bow line anchor man as Gjoa nosed into the shoreline. In fact, this was but a titular responsibility, for past the tying of a fancy knot to a dull cement block, the job quickly devolved into one of security guard.

Apparently in Arctic Bay the beaching of deep keel boats is not usual, and the children turned out to observe. All of them. For the young ones the event was better than a whale kill, better than a visit from the local ice breaker’s helicopter (which happened next day), better than almost anything.

So, as Gjoa slowly lowered to her knees I attempted, more or less ineffectually, to prevent her from becoming a Jungle Jim or a target for rock throwing. Similarly I functioned as answer guy. Here are some examples,

  • “Can we visit now?” asked one kid eagerly attempting to climb the bow pulpit as soon as the receding water allowed him to do so without getting wet.
  • “What’s under the water?” this from a boy pointing at the keel. Keel boats are unknown up here.
  • “Is it dead?”
  • “Does it have an engine?”
  • “Does it go fast. Like Vrrrrm!”
  • “What’s that word (referring to the boat’s name)?”
  • “Where are you from?”
  • “Where are you going?”
  • “Mister, can you take my picture?”

My intent in snapping photographs was to document Gjoa’s careening for my own record, but instead I caught a portrait of Arctic Bay’s children.

Both are in sequence below.

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This is day four in Arctic Bay, the fourth day of a stay we thought, upon arrival, might extend to two. We hurried our fueling (the right choice as that day was bright and clear) and we hurried our internetting (also correct as that day was asoak with slushy rain).

But we are still here.



Behind us in Lancaster Sound is clear water. Forward of our next logical stops, Cambridge Bay (or Gjoa), is clear water, but ice continues to thoroughly block a 600 mile stretch in between.

Our route through this area can follow one of two courses:

  1. Out Admiralty Inlet, west in Lancaster Sound and around the Brodeur Peninsula; down Prince Regent Inlet, west through Bellot Strait, then south in Franklin, Larsen, and Victoria Strait; OR
  2. From Lancaster we can continue west to Peel Sound and there head south to Franklin. (One might argue that M’Clintock, Prince of Wales, and M’Clure also offer opportunities for escape, but not one who has consulted ice charts.)

Map showing general features of the leg between Arctic Bay and Cambridge Bay and the two routes.

Of the above two routes, the latter is preferred because it bypasses Bellot, a narrow squeeze with strong currents and rocks, not to mention that the strait is usually ice-impacted. Most reports I’ve encountered of yachts making a Bellot crossing have involved the escort of an ice breaker, assistance we are keen to avoid due to the yacht damage that such follow can involve. (Why? Note this video showing a very tough yacht, Fine Tolerance, being towed out of a dangerous ice situation by an ice breaker.)

Our problem of the moment is that neither of these two routes is open. Depending on the wind, the thick ice in Regent has presented several opportunities over the last week. After a recent strong westerly, there was a long tongue of clear water from the opening and along the western shore all the way to Bellot. Since that opportunity, ice has moved across the top of Regent and has also re-impacted much of the western shore.

This was NOT an opportunity lost, however, because beyond achieving the eastern entrance to Bellot Strait, there has been nowhere else to go. On the ice charts (more below) Bellot, Peel, and Franklin have been consistently painted red (full of compact ice) since the first Canadian Ice Service report of that area came out about a week ago.

The Canadian Ice Service produces a once-daily, graphical summary of ice concentrations, thickness, and stage of development for the whole of the Canadian Arctic. On these charts, concentration (what we are primarily concerned with) is represented in 10ths of completeness of coverage, 10/10ths being compact ice with no leads and 1/10th being open water with the occasional ice cube. On the chart these ranges are represented by colors, thusly:

<1/10th, open water, light blue

1-3/10ths, very open drift ice, green

4-6/10ths, open drift ice, yellow

7-8/10ths, close pack ice, orange

9-10/10ths, very close pack ice, red

Go here and scroll down half way to see images of what these ice concentrations look like.

This is how it all adds up on a chart:

Canadian Ice Service Ice Chart for August 10, 2014. Peel Sound and Prince Regent are the two large, vertical waters on top of the chart.

Canadian Ice Service Ice Chart for August 10, 2014. Peel Sound and Prince Regent  Inlet are the two colorful, vertical waters on top of the chart. White is land. Arctic Bayis near Nanisivik, top right of chart.

By way of illustrating how unpredictable these situations are, see below charts which show the same area as above for mid August of 2013, 2012, and 2011. The difference is vast.

with titles Ice - Queen Maud - 2013 vs 2012 vs 2011 (1)

Remembering Les Lesson #11, “Don’t hope to push a small yacht through ice concentrations above 1-3/10ths” (colors blue and green) and you can quickly see why we’re not advancing. Not even an ice breaker has approached Bellot so far this year.

Of course, this does not keep us from planning. Moltke may have said that “no plan can withstand contact with the enemy,” but he would never have gone to the field without one. Each day the ice moves, and the situation changes. Last week we laid a course over the Brodeur Peninsula to Port Leopold on Somerset, but overnight the forecast called for a shift of wind that could fill the port with ice moving north out of Prince Regent. We then decided to remain here as a slow breakup continued in Peel, but now a tongue of ice extends across Regent and could, with the coming westerly, fold over Admiralty, so now we consider a move back to south Devon Island tomorrow…depending on tomorrow’s forecast. Our plan must follow the ice’s lead.

Our biggest challenge is that of timing. There are two gates that must be passed before we are “free” to proceed south. One is Cape Bathurst, an infamous ice “choke point” in an east to west transit, currently open for some time now. The other is Point Barrow in Alaska. Both Bathurst and Barrow are impacted by the Beaufort Sea ice pack, which can ride predominantly northerly winds back toward the coast later in the year.  Encroachment of ice from the north and increasingly stormy fall weather mean the Admiralty Pilot advises shipping to be past Barrow by September 1st, the 10th at the latest.

It is roughly 2200 miles from our currently location to Barrow, meaning that if we departed today, we would need to average roughly 80 miles per day to achieve Barrow by the theoretical September 10th cut off. This is well within reach. Still, we would like to advance upon our goal soon.

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Time enough to download images of Arctic Bay while waiting for laundry to dry, and to note some interesting tidbits about this hamlet, more or less at random:

  • Laundry cost: $50. Access is the one hotel’s laundry facility. No load limit; just wash till you’re done. No access to showers though. I washed my head in the janitor’s sink.
  • Room rates: $295 per night, per person. “It costs us so much to get things here,” said the clerk when I asked. The hotel has ten rooms, is made of metal siding, utilitarian; very clean and well kept. Lunch: $40 per person. Only one room is booked these last two days. While I sit typing in the dining room, I watch one cook come in and prepare one meal for one man; later one dishwasher comes to clean.
  • Internet: free…in the hotel.
  • Cell phone provider: none. No cell service. This is a marked departure from Greenland, where even the smallest community warrants a tower. I’m told the lower limit in Greenland is 20 residents.
  • Number of residents in Arctic Bay: 600, mostly Inuit. Officially it’s a “hamlet.”
  • Number of industrial-sized satellite dishes in town: 7.
  • Number of churches: 2. Two buildings. They are next to each other and joined in the middle. No sign announces the denomination of either.
  • Months bay is ice free: 3. Usually.
  • Hobby and passion of most: hunting. Narwhals arrive here in spring. The Killer Whales find the pods further out in Lancaster and herd them into the shallow ends of bays for slaughter. When the Narwhals get this far up Admiralty Inlet, they are tired and scared and are an easy kill for villagers who take to the bay in open boats. Narwhal is a favorite food animal and their yearly visit, much anticipated.
  • Number of restaurants, cafes: none.
  • Number of groceries: two. Presumably this is to encourage competition and keep prices low.
  • Can of Campbell’s Chunky Beef Soup (540ml): $12.89.
  • Can of tinned coffee (925 grams): $22.49.
  • 12 pack of Coke: $25 … on sale now, $14.95.
  • Presumably this sale is driven by the immanent (August) arrival of the once-yearly supply ship. The whole village turns out. Containers are lifted to the beach, items disgorged, rushed to the store, rushed to houses. Les and Ali saw the ship unload last year. As it lowered a pallet on which sat a new washer and dryer, one of the wires broke, tipping both items into the bay. Next delivery? Next year.
  • In winter, locals will go out into the bay and cut holes into the seven foot thick ice, lower nets and catch scads of Arctic Char as they run up the fjord.
  • In winter, the local gendarmes can visit Pond Inlet (next town east) via snowmobile. It’s a 24 hour run. “We pack tea and a tin of soup; we don’t stop,” said one officer. Half of the journey is on the frozen sea.
  • In winter, water is delivered to Arctic Bay homes still frozen, chipped from the reservoir near the diesel tank farm, put in large plastic bags, placed on doorsteps. Each house must melt its own. “We don’t use much water in winter,” said one woman.
  • Cost of a new house: $250,000. Houses are very small, usually one story and in no way extravagant. The price is driven by the cost of transporting all materials here. We are well above tree line. Nothing grows here that one could use to build with. Consequently, there is a severe housing shortage in Arctic Bay. One man we met is married and has four children; he lives with his in-laws. This is usual.
  • Cost of seal meat: depends. Seal hunting is common and the meat is still a preferred source of protein. Hunters who bring back more than they can use often sell it from the center of town to locals and visitors for a small fee. Seal meat can also be purchased in both of the two groceries, where it is in the freezer section, pre-portioned, and $25 a pound. It is flown in.
  • “My best shot ever,” said the man who delivered our diesel to the shore, “got a seal on the ice from 100 yards.”
  • Cost of diesel: $4.68 a gallon. “Diesel costs less here than it does in Newfoundland,” reports Les. Ironically, it’s Newfoundland where these fuels are refined and shipped from.

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Below is my log for Aug 10th plus photos at bottom of our passage from Upernavik, Greenland to Arctic Bay.

Aug 10

Wind: West 20

Sky: Overcast with rain now. Full sun here in Arctic Bay most of day. Snow flurries predicted by morning.

Temp: 43f

Anchored Arctic Bay (at last).

Departed Cummings early morning of Aug 8. Wind calm, overcast. We were looking forward to a long, easy run to Arctic Bay for the fuel we need to move deeper into the Northwest Passage. Arctic Bay: a “hamlet” (official title) of some 600 residents, mostly Inuit; 120 miles south of Cummings Inlet and 60 miles up Admiralty Bay. All seemed well until we got to the mouth of Cummings, where, even from two miles away, we could see a long line of white at the horizon, pack ice. Pack covered the entrance, we learned on approach, and had even wrapped inside the point.

At thickest it was a quarter of a mile wide. We moved close to the ice edge on the western end and found 9/10ths ice with no tempting leads to speak of. A long low swell rode in from the SE, and the ice made crackling sounds as it ground together. Sizes ranged from irregular 50′ x 100′ sheets to odd smaller stuff the size of sheds, cars, suitcases.

Thought for a time we might not get through today. We cruised just inside the line all the way to the eastern headland, and there what had initially looked the thickest turned out to be 1 – 3/10ths ice. We wove our way out with only the gentlest kissing of the ice.

Learning from Les and Ali:

  1. Even those smaller to medium sized pieces weigh many tons. Try moving them with the boat, even a boat like Arctic Tern, and it’s very likely the boat that will move.
  2. Be cautious entering the ice field under any circumstances. Remember, its huge weights are always moving. In swell, be doubly cautious as ice can slide down waves and pin the boat between two pieces. In swell and wind…well, just try to avoid this. Think of ice as moving rocks.
  3. Don’t judge pack ice from a distance; you have to get right up on it to see the true situation. Here the vista changed for us as we approached. At first it looked like ice was only on the right side of the channel; not so; it covered all. As we approached, it looked like there were leads in the middle right sections that turned out to be nearly complete blocks. Only by cruising the ice edge did we finally see to the left side the thinning that let us out.
  4. Get as high in the boat as is practical; use binoculars even quite close up to explore for near leads as they move into the pack.
  5. Note that many of the larger ice sheets extend out under the water into your lead like shoals. They can hole the boat. Avoid.
  6. In a lead, try to leave yourself room to turn the boat around. If your lead turns out to be a dead end, you can’t back the boat up for any great distance without risking the rudder and propeller.
  7. Always look behind you. What is a lead in front can quickly close behind. Do all you can to avoid getting trapped inside.

It took us two hours to get out.

After exit, we saw only random ice bits and none in Arctic Bay when we arrived 20 hours later. No wind until the last hour of our trip.

Temperatures during our ice excursion and in the whole of Lancaster Sound were our lowest yet. Sea temp went slowly from 2+C to its lowest at -.01C. It rose quickly near the south end side of Lancaster and is up to 2.5C now. Air temps were very low, down to 2C near the ice pack and in Lancaster. Both Les and I were bare handed during our ice escapade, and mine were on fire by the end.

Gear: I didn’t wear any more clothing than usual (“usual” equals about five warmth layers and a tough shell) but would have had to if we had wind. I wore my mittens once out in the channel, but without their exterior covering; better to fit in pockets. One improvement to them would be to get light fleece mitten inserts.

My only issue during the crossing and in general is fingertips and toes. Tried putting fleece gloves (rubber glove inserts) inside mittens, but mostly these kept cold fingers cold. Gloves I find are terrible for allowing warmth to grow and only work when the hands are very active or already warm.

Arrived Arctic Bay about 4am local time next day. Slept 3 more hours while waiting for town to wake.

Activity of the day has revolved around getting our fuel. We need full tanks to make our next leap.  We took on 600 litres today for a total complement of just over 1000 litres. Figure about 1 litre a mile and Cambridge Bay, 720 miles, is well within reach.

Fueling is good exercise in Arctic Bay. No fuel dock; not even a pier. Les went ashore early to arrange for the fuel truck and was told the right man would not be around until 1pm. We brought all our jerry cans to shore by noon; checked in at 12:30 and by 1pm the fuel truck came to the beach, and the entire transaction was done there. Ali and I made one trip to the boat with six cans to fill the starboard tank (freezing weather; sharp wind off the beach with fog; our hands red and painful quickly).  And the rest were then ferried to the boat in three trips. Lots of lifting and toting of 40lb fuel jugs. We’re all worn out but pleased to be prepared for next run.

Now we are, once again, waiting for ice to melt or move or otherwise dissipate.

Photos are recent voyaging: Across Baffin Bay to Canada, time in Dundas Harbor and Cummings Inlet; ice we encountered on departure from Cummings.

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Below is another attempt at sending a blog post from the middle of nowhere, via satellite, and at 160 characters per message.

August 8 and we are still anchored Cummings Inlet–fourth day. Either our fuel stops, like Arctic Bay, are iced in or we are weather bound. Right now it’s the latter. As I write an east wind to 40 knots howls in Lancaster Sound. In our bay, winds come racing down the mountain ice cap from the northeast, and the rigging moans. We are boat bound.

Except for an invitation to pancakes this morning. In the calm before the storm we three rowed over for breakfast with DRINA, a 50 ft ketch also pursuing the Northwest Passage that pulled in last evening.

Two hours later and after much pleasant conversation there was so much wind we couldn’t row back, though it was but eight miles that separated us from Arctic Tern. Kindly, DRINA offered a tow in their dinghy (plus outboard). The chop drenched us all.

We hung our wet clothes in the cabin to dry, but gusts coming down the flu put the heater flame out until we built a guard over the exit. Then we made a pot of coffee and grabbed our books, there being not much else to do in such weather. I’m reading THE ICE MASTER, about the 1913 Arctic Expedition disaster aboard Karluk, a questionable choice given current pursuit.

Yesterday Ali went for a row to the falls on the other side of the bay for the exercise and to fetch some excellent local water, this while Les and I busied ourselves with our books. Two hours later and she had not returned. Les scanned with binoculars and saw that Ali was some ways between us and the fall and making slow way. When we rang her on the radio, she said all was well though the oarlock had parted. She was forced to paddle the dinghy as if it were a canoe, not quick work with an inflatable and 20 gallons of water aboard. Also, the occasional Walrus inspection tended to be distracting, she said. But she insisted she did not need help.

We weighed anchor and effected a rescue anyway, for the pleasure of the distraction.

While we had Arctic Tern near the waterfall, Les decided to anchor and top off all our tanks.

Devon Island. Imagine a Grand Canyon by the sea or a Lake Powell with glaciers. Such desolate, arid land looks unlikely to host such torrents of water. Yet here it is. Glacier melt. Pouring off icy-cold, diamond-clear, and so pure it tastes like snow flakes.

All afternoon I rowed our jerry cans back and forth between bubbling stream and boat until our tanks overlfowed with the best drinking water yet invented, which I rated very satisfying work.

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Hi readers. This is Joanna, Randall’s other half.

Randall and I have tried out a new trick for posting his updates this week. Where he is, he has no internet connectivity. He can, however, text me messages. 160 characters at a time.

So here’s his post. Texted to me, then pulled together, for you.

Arctic Tern and her three charges are anchored Cummings Inlet for the third day, this due to pack ice, which is holding hostage our fuel depot, Arctic Bay. Our second choice for fuel, a town called Resolute, seems nearly clear, but heavy pack ice blocks eastern Lancaster, baring our approach. To a small boat pack ice is essentially floating rocks, and even a strong steel boat like this can only make way in very light ice concentrations. So, for the moment we have to be prudent explorers. Ice conditions have improved greatly since we arrived from Greenland, but we must be patient, and more patient we must wait here, which is dull work.

Now, I’ll admit that yesterday’s excursion ashore to sneak up on the local herd of Walruses from behind and shoot them with our cameras had its moments of excitement. Either we are less smelly than I thought or Walruses are terribly short sighted, because our approach was roundly ignored. Even the warning scream of Icelandic Gulls failed to rouse these beasts from their afternoon slumber. Walruses eat clams which must live in incredible numbers up bay, because not a single of the herd of 50 looked like it could, or should, eat even one more. When one did roll over, its movements suggested it was made up entirely of fat. Our book says that Walruses can eat for several days non-stop, and one killed for science (as noted in our book) had 700 clams in its stomach. Of course, life is not all feasting for Walruses. They live the winter on the pack ice where “room temperature” is consistently well below freezing, in which case their assiduously developed summer blubber comes in quite handy.

I think Les and Ali took well on 300 pictures in 30 minutes during which time we observed much belching, yawning, wheezing, whooozshing (this appeared to be an attempt at sleep-whistling: fail), whisker twitching, lots and lots of sleeping, and nothing else as to “nothing else,” this does seem to be our lot of late too, because that excursion aside, we are very much boat bound here on Arctic Tern.

Rain today. All of us stuck in the cabin. Ali let me bake bread yesterday. Today I got to make Curry. Beyond that it’s just reading, writing and waiting for the next day’s ice report. It’s actually quite dull. But this too is part of the romance of expeditioning.


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Aug 1 – Aug 4

If we had been surprised to find “the other” Arctic Tern on Bylot, we were doubly so when rounding the point into Dundas: there *three* other boats already at anchor! Granted, we’d met them all in Nuuk. They were Jimmy Cornell and team on Aventura, a yacht in his group named Suilven, and our now friends Sam, David and Peter on Lillian B. There wasn’t a marina for 1000 miles and the closest town, more an outpost, was over 120 miles south, but of the seven boats we knew making an attempt at the Northwest Passage this year, four were now gathered in the same anchorage.

Here we entered what we hope is a short wait-and-see time. We must have fuel before advancing too far, but ice charts continue to show our three possible fuel stops, Pond Inlet, Arctic Bay, and Resolute as inaccessible due to ice. Pond has the reputation of clearing late, and its status had been unchanged for several days. Resolute was still encumbered with winter’s fast ice, but a pool was developing around it, making it hopeful, and ice in Arctic Bay was moving if not exactly clearing.

Les Lesson #11: Don’t hope to push a small boat through ice much above 1-3/10ths, even a steel one. The Canadian Ice Service publishes daily, highly detailed arctic ice charts, one feature of which is a measure of ice by its density of distribution at water top in a range of 10ths. 1/10ths ice is virtually clear water and 9/10ths is virtually complete ice coverage; the other tenths express the range in between. Much of the ice we see blocking our way to Arctic Bay, for example, is 4 – 6/10ths, and to the greenhorn aboard (me) it is tempting to pursue passage in it. But Les waggles his finger and insists I be patient. Ice is heavy, always moving, and can close behind you in an instant. And 4 – 6/10ths ice is just too much.

So, having no immediate appointments we visited shore and the abandoned Royal Canadian Mounted Police station, a collection of huts on the south-facing headland, which we found still stocked with diesel for the stoves and a mound of coal. Otherwise, however, the facility was dilapidated, due largely to years of vandalism.

At the top of the hill, we found two grave stones in a neat picket fence, which marked the final resting place of two, young RCMP officers. Both men were in their twenties when they died, and each was killed by self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the head while on patrol, but their deaths were in different years and locations, making one wonder at the emotional difficulty of a post on an uninhabited island miles above the arctic circle.

On the return, we met the crew of two other boats, Aventura and Lillian B., also out for a hike.

That evening a north wind suggested we move our berth up into the fjord a few miles for better protection, and after a next day’s hike here, and no better ice reports, we departed for Cumming Inlet 50 miles further west.


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July 30 – 31

Our crossing from Greenland ended as it began, with the thrumming of Arctic Tern’s big Ford diesel. Wind we encountered from almost every quarter in Baffin Bay, but its voice was soft and inconsistent, and its arguments failed to persuade us to raise more than a reefed main as steadying sail. We had places to be: reports for Pond Inlet had hinted that the grip of ice was loosening; we wanted to get there.

At departure from Upernavik, we passed through an archipelago of icebergs from the nearby glacier, but their numbers quickly thinned to none as we pushed west. Only after the halfway point did they again appear on the horizon as solitary, tabular giants. In deep fog, a particular feature of my watches (to the point that it’s become a standing joke), these bergs might first appear as bright spots on the radar. In clear weather, we could often anticipate the approach of a berg before it topped the horizon, this by the thin line of brash it left in its wake.

Les Lesson #7. Always pass an iceberg to windward. As large bergs melt they calve chunks of themselves into the sea. This line of brash falls quickly to leeward and can be a hazard. (Les and Ali have a tremendous amount of high latitude experience. Given this passage is training for the Figure 8 solo run, I have been carefully noting their teaching moments in my log as “Les Lessons,” some of which I’ll share here.)

On the morning of our fourth day at sea, Bylot emerged slowly from fog (on my watch!), and we anchored in a bay of no name on the southeast corner of the island. Here we found another Arctic Tern, a research boat out of Iqaluit known to Les and Ali, white hulled and rocking gently in the swell beneath guano covered cliffs. Its hatches were closed, its crew still asleep.

Once anchored, Ali immediately made a large breakfast of fried eggs, bacon and beans with lots of hot coffee by way of celebrating of our successful entry into the Canadian Arctic. Then we all retired to our berths for a long sleep.

In 1963, the explorer, H.W. Tilman, chose Bylot, a blocky island that fits like a puzzle piece into Baffin’s top right corner, for his summer adventure, a trek across its ice field. Bylot attracted him because it was “difficult to reach, little known, uninhabited, and mountainous” and because its maps were “pleasingly vague.” Given this bit of history, we were eager to explore for ourselves what we could, but this was not to be.

Three hours into our respite, the other Arctic Tern woke us with a tap on the hull and news in the form of updated ice charts and weather reports, neither of which were favorable. Pond Inlet, our nearest intended fuel stop, was still solidly iced in and a coming southeaster made our anchorage untenable. So, with disappointment we quickly departed Bylot and steamed north.

Midway across Lancaster Sound the southeaster came on with winds to 25 knots. Arctic Tern frothed along at 8.5 knots under reefed main and full-out Yankee. As we approached Dundas Harbor, a small bay on south Devon Island just inside the sound, a stronger wind brought rain and fog, making for a thrilling, if cold, dashing slalom through the bergs along the coast. We dropped anchor in Dundas Harbor in the early evening, had a hot dinner and again hit the sack.


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July 29

Day three of our crossing of Baffin Bay to the Canadian Arctic.

We are 230 miles west of Upernavik as I write and Arctic Tern is steaming on a glassy sea, making (currently) for the Bylot Island coast, 130 miles further on. I say “currently” because Les and Ali are weighing our options for both where to enter the Northwest Passage (via Pond Inlet or Lancaster Sound) and where to get next fuel. These decisions are intertwined and impactful. Here are some of the factors.

1. Distance. It’s roughly 3,000 miles from Pond Inlet in the east to False Pass in the Aleutians and escape into the Pacific. The route is long, often shoal infested, and some has no soundings at all (imagine a chart whose water is just white space, no depths). Safe pilotage requires great care, and then there’s the issue of…
2. Season Shortness. In a typical year, pack-ice in the arctic begins to break up in middle to late July and can start to refreeze before the end of September, giving an explorer about two months to get from one end to the other. We need to get a wiggle on. No big deal, except that…
3. Unevenness of Thaw. The dispersal of pack-ice is far from consistent across the entire run. Much of it doesn’t thaw, but rather breaks up and is pulled out to sea. Passages between the islands are narrow; currents or storms can clear the way ahead while blocking a retreat. What was open yesterday may be closed a few hours from now. Imagine logs flowing through a jam. Add to this…
4. Fuel Requirements. Winds in Arctic summer are undependable, are usually light to calm with the occasional gale. Motoring is to be expected. Given the distances and the probable need to backtrack if one’s path is closed by ice, most small yachts like Arctic Tern require a number of fuel stops. Between Pond Inlet and Cape Bathurst (1600 miles) there are five villages where diesel can be taken aboard, but several may require significant deviation from one’s desired route. Realistically, only two or three are usable, and there is no guarantee any will be ice free when called upon.

How does this all add up for us?

For several days Pond Inlet (closest fuel) and Navy Board inlet have been relatively ice free *except* at the elbow and the village. Only today has a sliver of water opened in front of the village. We might be able to enter Pond for fuel but instead of exiting Navy Board, we’ll have to backtrack to enter Lancaster Sound from the east. Lost miles and time.

If we skip Pond and enter at Lancaster Sound, our next fuel stop at Arctic Bay is 80 miles down a dead-end. It appeared to be clearing days ago, but is now impacted; what’s more, ice is flowing down south Lancaster and partially blocking the entrance. Assuming we can enter and *can* get to the village, our long return to Lancaster might be much delayed.

Resolute, above Peele Sound, a further 170 miles, is hopeful but dangerous; it’s an open roadstead that’s famous for roving ice. Moreover, if we arrive to find it closed, we might not have the fuel to return to either of the others, and we won’t have enough to continue on to Cambridge Bay.

Another option is to anchor somewhere east of all three and wait. But waiting, too, is dangerous.

We must have fuel. Where? Right now it’s even money.

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“Land of the Midnight Sun,” a tag-line for high latitude Alaska, conjures a false image of the far north because it suggests an occasional phenomenon, like the aurora borealis of winter. In fact, here summer is a time of *perpetual* sun. Consider that for Upernavikians (Lat 72N), the bright orb fails to set at all between early May and early August. And on the June solstice, when other places celebrate their longest day, the sun over Upernavik describes a perfect circle in the sky, boxing the compass at 41 degrees above the horizon.

The opposite is also true. Winter is one long wearisome night. So, now Upernavikians are taking advantage of this perpetual day by being perpetually active, by being out and about always.

On Arctic Tern our sense of time also warps. Inexplicably, dinner hour has slipped from 8PM to nearer 11, after which I walk the town. I pass kids playing a form of football in the ship yard. They have been playing all day. They kick a ball against the empty Royal Arctic containers stacked to one side of a large paved lot. On impact, it says, kapow!

Sometimes older kids take over from the young. They kick the ball from further back and with greater force, but they wear out. They retire to the sidelines for a smoke and to check their cell phones and then the little kids return. They kick the ball with an enthusiasm being released from its hibernation. Kicking, laughing, kicking. Kapow!

But they are not the only ones out. Adults walk the streets at all hours, Inuit women often arm in arm talking quietly. Men go purposefully to the harbor and return. A fork lift roars to life, trundles a pallet of goods from the wharf to the grocery.

At 1AM I crest the hill that holds the airport in place. All over town people are moving. Two fishing boats return to port; a charter leaves for a run to Illulisaat, delivering a group of scientists stranded in town by a week of fog. A knot of people gather at the pier to wonder at Arctic Tern. A more formal game of football is being played on the crushed-granite field outside the gymnasium. Even bergs are energetic, growling out from the Upernavik Glacier and pouring into the sea.

I am in my bunk by 2AM. The sun has just come from behind cloud. I have hung my oilies so they block the light into my berth, but I cannot escape the impression of sunup.

Then fireworks erupt from the other side of the town. Kapow! Kapow! The sledge dogs begin to howl.

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A collection of cabins built onto the side of steep rock and scree facing west and an open harbor often imprisoned by ice blocks calving from the Upernavik Glacier.

Dwellings are brightly painted to the Greenlandic theme: colors are primary-red, yellow, blue, and green. Only one house has striped itself in pastels. Windows are small and triple pained. Laundry is hung out to dry. I see thermal underwear blowing in the breeze. It’s July.

The winter’s deep freeze means no municipal plumbing is provided. Household water is delivered by truck and pumped to indoor tanks. Toilets do not flush; their bowls are hung with black plastic bags that are taken to the street when full.

Sledge dogs howl from where they are chained in front yards, back yards, or just off the street, their runs long since mud caked, as is their fur. They are infrequently fed in summer and only fed at the end of a day’s work in winter. A sledge dog is obedient when hungry, otherwise wild.

Above the village, the mountain is flat, dynamited to make way for the airport, a just-fit affair, oddly flat and uniform in a geography starved for anything like regular geometry. Upernavik flights are frequently turned back due to fog, which the airport cannot rise above. Being stranded in town is such a commonplace that it provides a steady income for Gina, the local boarding house operator.

The town has one grocery with household goods on the second floor. The cheapest bottle of wine is $25; a frozen Tbone steak is $19. The bananas just arrived by boat are brown. The potatoes are fresh and hard, and we buy 10 pounds.

Just outside the grocery is a stand, painted blue, from which the local fishermen sell their catch. Arctic Char and Cod are a usual offer, but only seal meat is available during our visit.

The town has one tavern, not open during our stay, two churches, one hospital; an overlarge gymnasium provides recreation facilities during the months of icy darkness.