Curtains of Music

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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