Heavy ice forces Skip Novak and his crew to abandon their attempt to get through this fabled passage

We have turned back from our attempt at the Northwest Passage. On August 12th another sat photo and ice chart showed little or no movement in Peel and Larsen Sounds and the ice guru’s predictions about a late August open water route or the possibility of these sounds not clearing at all seemed to be holding. The majority of our team on board had to fly back to Europe on the 20th, so a decision was made to retreat east into Lancaster Sound to be in Pond Inlet by the 19th. This seemed the only sensible way to spend the time in hand. Even if we managed to get them off in Resolute by the 20th, and then forced a route through Peel and Larsen (if at all possible) by the end of August it would be a very late scenario in getting away safely to Point Barrow and beyond by mid September (when my insurance for this passage runs out). Any problem along the way such as ice moving in shore in the Beaufort Sea, heavy westerly winds or mechanical breakdown could raise the risk of an over-winter by an unacceptable amount. We had calculated that to do this passage safely in one season we would need to be in Cambridge Bay by August 15th.

26th August – Temperatures are getting warmer as we move south only two days away from the Straits of Belle Isle that separate Newfoundland from the Canadian mainland – and we haven’t seen a piece of ice for the last 24 hours. We have seven hours of darkness now – a novelty – the aurora borealis and a waning half moon have taken advantage of it to entertain us tonight.

Our group of Italians left us in Pond Inlet on the 20th and flew back to Milan leaving Chuck and Henk and I to push the boat south to Maine, with the addition of Mohrgan, a Canadian kayaker who we ‘pressed’ off the beach.

Our last two days were spent in Albert Harbour near Pond and on the last day the group climbed up Mt. Morin, a 1200 meter scree and glacier trek that culminated with impressive views over the ice cap on Baffin Island to the south and across the inlet to Bylot Island to the north. This was a fitting and strenuous end to our more or less ship bound 30 day expedition cruise focused on a transit of the Northwest Passage.

On the evening of the 19th we anchored in 15 meters off an open beach at Pond Inlet and took a walk ashore in what is a fairly cosmopolitan Inuit community, at least compared to the feel of Antarctic Bay.

They boasted not one, but two hotels, two supermarkets (I stretch the use of the word ‘super’) and along the dusty summer streets we met many southlanders beginning and ending adventure activities which use Pond as a base. Pond boasts a population of 1500, again almost all Inuit and they enjoy a daily flight from the Inuit capital Iqualuit that links up with Ottawa. Bylot Island is a national park and other designated parkland lies within the area of Eclipse Bay so tourism is not only the main, but also the only industry apparent.

Just to torture ourselves I checked the ice chart today and luckily (it must be admitted) the conditions in Peel and Larsen Sounds are much the same, choked with 9 to 10/10’s pack ice.

If this critical passage does not clear this season it will be two years running which I’m told is rare. Nevertheless the Northwest Passage will always be there, global warming notwithstanding and frankly global warming is a factor which has very little to do with multi year ice either persisting or flying around at random.

Armed with our limited experience of over one month in the area, looking back I am not sure I would attempt this again with a view to making it through in a single season and the reasons for this are many. To engage the NWP on its own terms, you must accept the possibility of an over winter. And frankly an over winter is a necessity to experience the Canadian Arctic. To complete a transit of the Northwest Passage is an accomplishment (a test of nerve, more to the
point), but to do so in a single summer is not really interesting for its own sake. Other than the kudos of getting through, the rewards are not high on the ground. In the short window of opportunity your whole focus is moving on. There is no time to meet people along the way to appreciate their extraordinary lifestyle, and like all these particular places this needs time measured in weeks and months not hours and days. When the channels are clear you would
think twice about stopping along the way for a look see, and with good reason, as an unplanned winter is continually staring you in the face.

Unfortunately Pelagic Australis’ main area of activity is in the far south and it would not be feasible from a financial point of view (there is always that question of sustenance) to winter her here. However, there is always the original Pelagic biding her time and it is not without possibility that another attempt can be considered. Wintering her in halfway would make sense – maybe not with crew on board, but certainly you would want to rejoin the boat in the spring and participate in the lives of the Inuit – dog sledding overland and on the sea ice hunting along the way. To do this not as a tourist (more or less) implies time on the ground to get to know people. Waiting for the summer break-up would be a respite, a period to relax and wait for nature to call the shots instead of forcing the route.

The fact of the matter is that for a cruising ground, once up and around the corner of Baffin Island the landscape is much the same: rocky, barren and at short glance pretty lifeless, at least in comparison to what we are used to in the south. Wildlife is there, but you need specialist knowledge and again – time – to seek it out. This is quite impossible when you are obsessed with the ice charts and moving on as far as possible to the next obstacle.

Another difference of note is the style of expedition cruising. The distances between shelters are sometimes measured not in the tens but in the hundreds of miles, so you spend most of the time on board. Unlike the south where we can get in close, tie to shore and hunker down safely, in the high Arctic these anchorages are almost non existent. Instead it’s big bays or open roadsteads and either the bottom is extremely shallow very far offshore or there is no
bottom at all to anchor in. And the shoreline has nothing at all to tie to unless you took the time to dig with pick and shovel and bury your second anchor.

But these are mere bagatelles that we will soon forget. What we will remember are those dead calm midnight runs threading our way through the sea ice, while a cold arctic sun slides along the northern horizon.