North West Passage Expedition

Progress Reports


     Thursday  August 30th.                         PB

A Day in the life of Northabout 5



Come raise your glass with us! 

We're out and almost through.

Yesterday morning we  rounded Point Barrow, in a cold north-westerly wind, light ice floes behind and fog to half a mile. 

Now we've only 300 miles  to go southward to the Bering Strait and we'll be through the Northwest Passage. 

A week ago it all seemed so problematical, maybe this, if that-and it was, but we've scraped through and if we weren't now so whacked, and didn't still have a couple of thousand miles left to go, we'd be elated and ecstatic---which we are anyhow. 

This day last week we were heading for Tuktoyuktuk ( pronounce it as you see it , with emphasis on the 'uk' ) This was a village on the eastern side of the Mackenzie River,  delta until the DEW ( Distant Early Warning ) Line Station was built here in the 50's. But it was the Oil activity in the 70's and 80's that really changed it, and now dormant, have left it for dead, or nearly so. 

In the dark early hours of Friday morning in fine calm weather, we motored in along the shore-transits that mark the twisting channel in. Then the big bay within opened before us. We wanted to go to the village jetty, if there was one. We could see the Dew Station, all domes, masts and lights. We could see sheds, machinery and containers; tugs and barges, but no jetty. We went to anchor and slept.

We had an introduction to the NTCL Port Captain, Tom Edmunds, who generously and quietly set aside his time and gave it to us. Tuk is said to be one of the few good places along the NWP to haul up a boat. Now we could see why.

The places in the Canadian Arctic  get their annual supplies on barges which come north from Great Slave Lake ( the end of the road ) along the Mackenzie River to Inuvik and Tuk. Here they tranship to sea-going barges and are towed, 3 to 6 at a time, to their destination. That's it for another year.!

Winter transportation of shorter distances is done on ice-roads. When the sea freezes to about 7 feet thick,  they level and mark a route, along which a Cat D8 Bulldozer will pull a 'cat-train' of sledges, including a 'sleeping-car' for the drivers and workers. 

We got diesel, we didn't get water, the tank-truck didn't show, Wilson Adey let us use his lathe to machine a part we  needed. The local RCMP, 5 in this detachment, gave us use of their showers and a rundown on the local scene ( from their perspective.)

The village is shabby and lacks visible vitality; dysfunctional lifestyle, the boom gone, its people don't seem to have much going for them. Amundsen, writing of  Gjoahaven in 1906, hoped that its people would be saved from 'civilisation'-a farseeing man.

Ed Dillon gave me a lift in his pick-up from the village back to the NTCL barge-jetty where our boat was. He was Irish. His grandfather had married a Cree Indian down south and his son, Eds father had moved up here. 

We left Tuk at first light on Saturday last, keen to be on our way, 450 miles to Point Barrow.

The first 120 miles across Mackenzie Bay gave us a great sail; in a following wind our two headsails were spread 'wing-and- wing', a trade-wind sail set up in the cold. Dinner was caribou steak. We wanted to stop in at Herschel  Island, an old whaling centre. In dark and fog, with echo-sounder, radar and GPS, we poked into Pauline Cove and anchored in 3 metres. We slept.

Next morning on the gravel beach, 200 yards off, a figure moved.  Behind were the old timber sheds , now being preserved and maintained as part of a national park. The two Inavaluit Park Rangers, Ricky and Frank, will be there until September 14th. They gave us the 'tour'-and their perspective. Franks grandfather had said to him

"White man came in womans clothes. Ten years later, we had a book, the Bible,  and they had The Land."

The whalers wreaked havoc. The native population in the area was 2,000 before they  with their disease, reducing it to 200. "Then the whalers brought in natives from outside to do the work, all for guns, alcohol and trinkets" 

Beautiful island, there is even a covering of green grass-lichen. With ice clear sea, we left to go westward on its seaward side. Mike, our undisputed naturalist now, had it 'in his bones' that there would be caribou to be seen. He kept a bow-vigil, scanning the cliffs as we passed a half-mile off. Then we saw the bear, a large one, swimming between us and the shore. Rounding towards him, not too close, we saw him swim behind a floe 100 yards off and then walk up onto the shore and climb up a very steep cliff, his four legs splayed, no bother. Gone and all so fast. And I would have felt safe at the top of that cliff! 

From Herschel to Point Barrow was 400 miles. The   ice-charts showed a 50-miles band along by Demarcation Point.( the Canadian/ Alaskan border.), then an ice free band behond. The east wind should push the ice out from the shore, if the solid pack-ice would leave room for it to move. Blown ice  moves at 30 degrees clockwise to the wind, in the northern hemisphere, the Coriolis effect, the same one that turns the bath water exiting, the way it does. 

We pushed on in mostly clear water with all speed, engine, sails and sometimes both, mostly in light winds, all the time with fog greater or lesser.

At longitude 141 degrees, the Canadian border with  Alaska, we had a little flag changing ceremony, taking down the red maple-leaf and raising the stars and stripes. 

Immediately afterwards, we  ran into serious ice. In the twisting, turning and backtracking to get out of it, Kevin reckoned that we had the wrong flag up many times over.!

About 10 pm, local time, dark coming on, ice now all about but loose and fog down to about 200 yards, we were going in to anchor in Demarcation Bay. Its eastern entrance was clogged with ice, impassable. Its wider western entrance, a mile further on, was clear, as far as we could see. Then the engine gave a queer rattling noise-O, Lord! With headsail drawing lightly, we ghosted, in fog, into the bay, now dark and ran our anchor out.

And dark were our thoughts as Frank and Gearoid set to work on the gearbox. Thoughts of having to lay-up the boat here for the winter, radio in a bush-plane, flying out with gearbox, bankruptcy !  All flashed before my mind so quickly. Happily the lads had all to rights soon again and we slept soundly. 

At dawn, 4 hours later, still in fog, we 'felt' our way out of the bay , our position not so clear because the chart is about mile out in this area. This was last Tuesday. Our Log for most of that Tuesday tells of our struggle to get through ice. We tried to go along the shore, where it was lightest. There there was an ice-free strip of about 20 yards. But even with our centre-board up and us drawing only 4 feet, we still went aground again and again.  In one instance the engine wouldn't refloat us. We were stuck on an ice lump under our keel. Using the dingy, we ran out an anchor and line back to one of our sail winches. With this winched bar taut, most of the crew in the dingy to lighten the boat and the engine going flat out, she pulled off.

By nightfall we were going good-o, and kept going through the dark, there being just enough light to make out the floes. We weaved through them. The lands abeam of us here are rich in oil, caribou and controversy, not yet opened up to extraction. Bush may change that. 

20 miles east of Prudoe, we took the 'lagoon route', 10 feet of  water generally, and clear of ice. On the VHF radio we could hear the chat of the Prudoe oilfield. Workboat men, few words, laconic.

We spoke to a few, unseen, and rattled on in freezing fog, with ice in our rigging. One of the guys on the radio had worked with our friend Mal Walsh. 

Wednesday was better for us. We blasted on, happily through light ice only, but with the solid white line to our starboard never far away. Now we weaved through ice at 6 knots, which only weeks earlier would have had us slowing to a crawl.

The weather forecast for our area, Cape Lisburn to Cape Halkett,  gave Small Craft Advisory, 25 knots , north-easterly, --great. 

 Our Log shows:

"09.10     Ice floes frequent,     Reduced from yankee to staysail. Running rigging frozen"

10.40    Cold wind blowing. Light ice all over boats deck."   

We rounded Point Barrow at 6am on Thursday.    Happy. 

The village of Barrow  was 10 miles on. We had hoped to anchor off and have   breakfast there-the Lonely Planet, Alaska  gives some places. There was too much wind and surf on the shore to safely land in the dingy.  

We shook hands, drank a celebratory tot, raised twin headsails and were on our way.   

Through all this, Kevin bakes the bread daily, Frank, Mike and Gearoid feed us dinners, John rolls the camera ( you've read the reports, now see the movie!), and Jarlath oversees all this with equanimity.  Brendan Minish, back in Castlebar, with friends unseen in Winlink, make possible all this cyber-communication. 

Like climbing, when you get to the summit, you're not finished yet.

It's 500 miles southward to the Bering Strait. Officially this is where the Northwest Passage ends. As this is written on Thursday evening, we're well on or way south-it all seems so easy now, no ice no creeping along the shore. 

Watch out Nome, only a hundred miles behond the Bering Strait. We feel a celebration coming on! 

And then it's 600 miles to Dutch Harbour  in the Aluetian Islands and a further 1,200 miles, across the Gulf of Alaska, to Vancouver.

We've a bit to go yet.

A Day in the life of Northabout 5  

Pictures from expedition

Progress Reports


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