North West Passage Expedition

Progress Reports
Three Days in the life of Northabout by Frank Nugent





Wednesday 15th August A ONE HAT DAY!

Yes it is! After yesterday, which was a definite "2-hat-day", as Mike would put it.

It started pleasantly, leaving Gjoa Haven at 5:00am, about an hour after daylight. Two hours later we anchored off Todd Island. It is well documented that some of his men, struggling southward, died here. In Gjoa Haven, we had it confirmed. John even got a "Treasure Island" type map drawn for him showing the location of bones and a skull.

Geese flew overhead, always just outside the range of Terry's "dinner-catcher", two large hawks or maybe small eagles hovered, we walked, very nice, loads of broken animal bones, but no Franklin. Then the skull was found, small and with the jaw missing. We left it as we found it. The Eskimo always bury their dead carefully under large stones - because the ground is permanently frozen, grave digging is not done.

This is Franklin country all right; Terror Bay is beside us, Starvation Cove across from us.

But to continue our own story; After Todd Island we navigated in mist through the tortuous islands and shoals of Simpson Strait, lining up shore marks and watching the depth sounder. By evening the wind was up to force 7 from ahead; we were out of the Strait but making only 2 knots. Feeling our way shoreward we got shelter in Secchi Bay, anchored and slept.

This morning, the wind has dropped, visibility is not to bad at all - and one hat is fine!

To take up were we left off last week.

To the west is Barrow Strait. Travelling westward, we could see a band of ice to the north, preventing access to Resolute, about which we didn't care too much, and Beechey Island, about which we very much did. This is the site of Franklins first winter stay, including the graves of the first three men to die. From an exhumation/autopsy done 15 years ago, it initially appeared that lead poising from the newly invented tinned food process, was the cause.

Happily with our visit to Port Leopold, and disappointed not to see Beechey, we turned south down Peel Sound. If you wanted to have your name on a map around here, being of British "nobility", in the 1820 - 50 period, or indeed a "sponsor" was the way to go; not withstanding that the Eskimo have names for every stream, hill and valley where they hunt.

In Peel Sound we met only brash-ice. Such a small statement conveying so much. We expected, based on all the Canadian Ice Information and stories from Franklin to Willy do Roos that Peel Sound would be the "stopper".

Not for us; we coasted southwards, swinging in to see Bellot Strait where there was a shore ice band of about 3 miles, and onwards to Cape Victoria.

This Peninsula has history. John Ross had sledged there, with our man from Dundalk, McClintock, at a time when no man had yet sailed down Peel Sound (no white man that is!).

As we came into anchor, a large black caribou waved his head and was gone. We walked the ground, saw the rings of stone, which had held down Eskimo Summer Tents and saw the spent cartridges of their descendents, our contemporaries. Surprisingly there are no cairns, an omission we made good (the ethics of cairn building not withstanding) and left a message within, in a Powers Whiskey bottle, empty of course.

A plane passed low overhead - the "look-ahead" for our new friends on M.V. Turmoil, about which more to come.

The chart shows shallow water south of Cape Victoria, depth unspecified. We can advise that the depth is less than that of "Northabout". The benefits of our lifting keel were necessary to get out to deeper water.

James Ross Strait, is narrow and shallow. We wound our way through in near perfect conditions, but were surprised not to find an island, shown as PA (position approx.) on our chart. It sure was, about ½ mile out of place, just abeam, a bunch of rocky fangs barely peeping over the water. With relief we continued and next day approached Gjoa Haven.

Now we have nights, about 4 hours nightly. In the last few days we have come south from 74 Deg North to 68 deg North, 360 miles. This, together with the coming of autumn, has taken us out of the halcyon days of 24-hour daylight. Know we now when we should be in bed.

As we approached, the airport tower, as we thought, was clearly visible - it wasn't, it turned out to be an old DEW line station (Distance Early Warning - a hangover from the Cold War).

Approaching the village, following the route described by Amundson, we touched bottom, raised centreboard and continued to anchor in the sheltered small inner bay. Ashore an RCMP police pickup followed our progress. It was about midday on Sunday, 8 days after leaving our last habitation, Qaanaaq Greenland.

Months of preparation and communication had gone into details of the Immigrant and Customs aspects of our entry into Canada. Even the spectre of Foot and Mouth Disease had been raised.

These problems melted away in the welcome by RCMP constables Todd and Christine; it was first names all the way from the very beginning. They brought us up for showers, gave us the run of the laundry machines, stamped our passports and told us that in 2 hours time there would be a "Drum Dance" in the hall as a welcome from the Elders in the village.

And there was, straight back in to "the-old", with "sean-nos" signing. Telling (we were told in translation) of polar bear and walrus killed, starvation winters, flowers in summer - we got the "short-version". T.G.

We responded with a medley, our "act" is getting almost polished. Even Kevin and Gearoid have found voices they never knew, Jarlath is Musical Director.

Gjoa Haven is dusty, scattered, with 1,000 inhabitants. It has a large school, sports complex/pool, 2 shops and ATV's (All Terrain Vehicles, little 4 wheel quads), like mosquitoes buzzing. Mammy's use them shopping and picking the kids up from school, teenagers "cruise" in them, hunters go to the "land" in them.

That Sunday night, we were fed by Christine and Todd in the RCMP house. Thanks a million. We were the first visitors this year. Last year two boats called. The Annual Supply vessel is due the first week in September. Official support for the community is generous and empathetic, the people are hugely friendly, but school drop-out and domestic-violence (DV) appears to be a problem, not withstanding this being a self-voted "dry" community.

We met Paulus Amundson! A grandson of the man himself. A likeness plain to be seen. Driven around in the RCMP pickup, we saw the village and out to the edge of the "land" - that wilderness where that hardy race of Netsiliks managed to thrive on abundance of Beluga, Caribou, Seal and Bear. Living in igloos by winter and travelling in summer with tents. Dogs and Skidoos in equal numbers - the new heavy sledges being pulled by high HP skidoos. The hunting here is still more real than "hobby/weekend".

The reduced "Northabout Ensemble" (Frank, Jarlath and Terry were changing the engine oil) did our "act" in the school. We explained where we are from with a map. The kids preferred clapping to the music.

I spoke to a man who told me that when he first came into Gjoa Haven " from the land", that there were 9 houses - and he's not so old, about 55 I'd say. As we talked, his grandson played on the shore with a bike, and his wife fished with a rod and spinner for their dinner. She lost the spinner. "What now?" I asked. "We'll check the net I have outside". Subsistence living indeed.

What a contrast was our dinner on Monday Evening. M.V. "Turmoil" arrived. We had met briefly back in Qaanaaq, same NWP intent, but different style - I think I mentioned the seaplane? For hospitality her owner Gary Comer cannot be equalled. But more importantly, he does things with his vessel; "Turmoil" has been to Spitzbergen, The Amazon, Bering Sea. Yes indeed, no ornament or "Trophy-boat", with his 20 crew and guests on board and eight of us, his saloon was barely crowded, as we happily sang for our supper - wither they wished it or not, we think they did?

They left Gjoa Haven an hour a head of us. At their 300 miles a day, we are unlikely to see them again, but with ice now blocking the way in Cape Parry, 500 miles ahead, who know's?

If you read this Gary, Philip and All, Here's thanking you.

As I said, this is a one hat day, we have not had to many "2-hatters". The weather and ice reports are not bad at all - we have had worse times in St. Patrick.

We are bound now for the village of Cambridge Bay, 250 miles on, with Tuktoyuktok 650 miles after. Then its 450 miles along the north coast of Alaska to Point Barrow. Reluctant to say it, much less write it, but the NWP looks within our grasp, if -----

Filming Report & some impressions - Part 1 John Murray

A film is being made of the expedition, which along with the story of the North West Passage will form the basis of a one-hour documentary to be broadcast sometime next year on RTE. For the tech heads - it is being shot wide screen on Digital Betcam - which is the best video format in general use. We also have DVCPro and DVCam back up cameras in case of any problems with the principal camera (a Sony DVW 790).

We have seen some amazing sights and places and the trip is going exceedingly well, with remarkably good weather in general. Filming highlights so far have to start with the west coast of Greenland - a first visit for myself and a magical place with a very primeval sense about it. About half way up the west coast is Disko island and Disko Bay where many of the whalers and explorers of old stopped and resupplied before heading north into the ice. One of the great advantages in filming in this part of the world at this time of the year is the fact that you get long hours of evening light, then sunset and then perhaps 20 minutes later - another few hours of sunrise and early morning light. After having suffered countless appalling Irish summer mornings - shivering at 4.30am half way up a mountain in the vain hope of actually seeing the sun rise - the pleasure of prolonged evening and morning light - with no night in between is indescribable - and hopefully will make for some nice images and good storytelling. I digress. Disko Bay besides being a spectacular place also is a crossroads for all manner of pack and berg ice - which come from many different sources. One becomes quite a connoisseur of the various categories of ice - bergs are big lumps that usually have broken off glaciers, pack ice is usually the remnants of last years frozen sea ice, brash is a soft melting mush of any ice, growlers are small ice lumps which hang low in the water and dent your boat if you don't spot them, and so on…. Looking at the ice in Disko Bay - most of it moves imperceptibly - but doing time lapses on the camera means you can see just how active and swift the ice movement actually is - apparently immobile icebergs the size of mountains move stealthily along while the lighter pack streams around their base.

Many of the older churches in these Greenland coastal towns overlook the sea and are very photogenic. Some of the towns are picturesque - brightly painted kit house march up the different hills on stilts. Flat ground is in short supply in main of these places, the airport gets the best bit and everything else makes do.

From Greenland we headed over to Canada and had a beautiful evening as the last hills of Greenland disappeared below the horizon. There wasn't much filming for a few days until we headed for Lancaster Sound - the start of the North West Passage proper. It was a cold wintry morning when we sighted Lancaster's northern cape and from there we entered the sound - something of a misnomer in that it is almost as wide as the Irish Sea. It was a remarkable feeling to look into this body of water for the first time, a stretch of water, which for so long was the key to the North West Passage. On the day we entered, Lancaster's wide free waters almost invited you in, there was no sense that it leads into a labyrinth of islands, peninsulas and ice choked channels which drove many a ship and its crew to distraction and death. Somewhere or way this sound led to the Pacific - and this was an interesting thought as we sailed right in and wondered what happens next. We didn't have to wait long and a day later we ran into some fairly dense pack ice in fog and the boat started to do the work for which it was built. We filmed Northabout as it pushed barged and cleaved its way until the pack became too thick and we waited for 24 hours until it eased. I hopped onto a reasonably safe looking ice floe to get some shots of the boat from the ice - and it's an eerie sensation to be suspended in fog amongst the silent floes. The early explorers were stuck in these sorts of situations for long durations - we could motor our way out whenever a lead appeared. Shortly afterwards we stopped off at Port Leopold where we filmed the bay where some of the early searchers for Franklin over wintered. This was a magical spot where the only sounds were a number of white Beluga whales blowing a few 100 yards offshore. Then a quick dash back to the boat and off we went - deeper into the maze.

To be continued..

Note 1
thanks to those who have emailed us we will reply when we thaw out.

Note 2
This website is now available on Netscape as well as Internet Explorer.

Three Days in the life of Northabout by Frank Nugent

Pictures from expedition

Map relating to this report

Progress Reports


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