07/09/10, Herschel Island
Early this morning the weather was pretty unpleasant. Cold, windy and very, very foggy. We couldn't see the shore and didn't know if perhaps Ariel IV might have slipped into the harbour unseen during the night. We had received an email from them saying that they were heading here from Snowgoose Passage.
They hadn't actually anchored in the night, but did arrive just as the fog was partially lifting. In the end it cleared to another beautiful but chilly blue sky day. There has been a really quite strong force 6 easterly wind blowing all day. It is in the right direction. Manageable but probably best to be in harbour. In the distance on the mainland were some impressive mountains that we had not even glimpsed yesterday. Certainly we could not have picked a better spot to make a new gaff.
We are anchored in Pauline Cove on Herschel Island. Our old friend Franklin was the first European to come here on one of his overland expeditions. It then became a major whaling centre. Whalers would winter here coming from Alaska to get a head stsrt in the brief season. At its peak 500 men would spend the winter here. There are a large number of buildings her and it is now a Yukon Territory Park. Very well maintained and possibly one of the highlights of our trip.
The first job was to chisel out the old one from its throat fitting, without breaking the metalwork. No mean job but a bit of brute force and ignorance did the trick. One can definitely say that the original one was put together soundly. All this was done ashore which made it far easier. There was a brazier with copious drift word to light a roaring fire.
We also decided to save on gas and have a BBQ on the beach! Grilled chicken and roast spuds. Unfortunately we left the potatoes in too long and they became a bit brick like. All delicious though. Speaking of gas there were loads of huge cylinders connected to some of the buildings but nothing we could use. There is a very well equipped refuge house that even had a loaf of fresh bread in it!
After that we needed to remove all the other fittings from broken gaff and disassemble the spare jib pole. Then we needed to shape the various end to fit which involved lots of planing and sanding. The current state of play is that it all fitted together. All the exposed areas have been epoxied and varnished as necessary. Only a pair of brass rubbing strips need to be attached and then we can start fitting it back to the mast and attach the sails. Been hard work but very satisfying to have effectively made a brand new spar. Shows the advantage of working with wood.
The aim now is to leave tomorrow and head west. We are only 40 miles from the USA-Canada border, called Demarcation Point. There is a bay there we can stop in if necessary.
After that it is 350+ miles to Barrow where I am planning to fly home. There are several possible impediments to this plan. Firstly there is the phenomenon of ice that we have rather got out of the habit of worrying about. There is a band of 7/10ths of ice extending about 60 miles offshore, that hasn't changed for a while now. There is a narrow passage inside it but it depends how narrow and we will have to make a decision as to whether to try going inside or the long way round the outside.
Secondly there is the wind. Slightly oddly, we have strong easterly winds here, as correctly forecast by the Canadians. Yet the Americans are forecasting quite strong westerly winds (not what we want!) only 40miles from here. These would both be most unpleasant and slow our progress. My mum can go back to checking ice and weather forecast.
Finally there is the issue of actually getting off the boat in Barrow. There is absolutely no shelter there. It is just an open roadstead- ie a straight beach. If the winds are strong then it might not be possible to put me, and all my stuff, into a small boat to get onto dry land. Only time will tell
And the final surprise was the sauna ashore here. Thanks to the Swedish experts of Ariel IV and especially Niklas who went to great effort to get it all set up and running and find fresh water. Sibeal started the trend with Niklas and Lotte. Maire went on her own, whilst Andrew and I finished off the repairs to gaff and came back extolling its virtues and said that we must try it. Thanks to her exhortations, Andrew and I set off ashore, as Ariel IV set off towards Demarcation Bay. The Herschel Island sauna truly is a bizarre wonder of the Arctic. Fully kited out with pine benches and the most enormous wood burning stove and plenty of huge pieces of beautifully seasoned firewood. Suffice to say, Andrew and I had the most wonderful sauna that culminated in us skinny dipping at 10pm in the waters of Pauline Cove with a beautiful sunset and our faithful companion Jupiter rising in the East. We were accompanied to hoots on the ship's horn from Maire and Sibeal. I don't know if Sibeal took any photos but even with the longest telephoto lens, there'd have been nothing to see! We celebrated our achievement with a well-deserved Guinness.
It was a most wonderful and surreal experience and I would put a sauna on Herschel Island as one of the 101 things one must do before one dies (assuming the shock of actually doing so doesn't kill you. I am really grateful that Maire pushed us into taking the sauna and that the Scandinavians showed us the way.
06/09/10, Herschel Island
Sorry for the gap in blog posting. Incompetence on my part meant that I failed to include the text in my email on Sunday, and I am late in sending Monday's post due to tedious technical problems. So much to write about. No doubt though about where I must start.
At about midnight I had just clicked send on yesterday's blog. It was Sibeal's watch and she asked me to check on the engine throttle, which was charging the battery. I happened in the dark to look up at the sails and noticed that the main really didn't look "right". To my horror, I saw that the gaff had broken about two feet behind the main mast. Young Larry is a traditionally gaff-rigged boat. Most modern rigged boats have the biggest main sail that is triangular. A gaff-rigged sail is more square-shaped and the gaff is the wooden spar that hols up the top of the sail.
At the time we were sailing with the wind behind us. Our destination was actually dead down wind which paradoxically isn't always the easiest point of sailing as there is a risk of gybing (when the mainsail and the boom can violently crash over to the other side of the boat and cause harm to the boat or the head of anyone who might get in its way. To avoid this risk we had been sailing about 30 degrees off the wind and had a rope set up called a preventer to stop any gybes and indeed we had not gybed. The wind was about a force five which isn't unreasonable. We were going nice and fast but everything seemed under control and safe. It is still not at all clear why this should have happened. The bit of wood that broke did not seem rotten. It did break at the end of the fitting (called the throat) that attaches it to the mast so it could have had some form of pivoting force that caused it to snap but we aren't sure why.
Clearly this was not a high point. I called everyone upon deck and with a great team effort we managed to get all the sails and spars back down to deck level and mercifully the sail seemed intact. There was a real risk that it could have shredded itself. We wrapped it all up and continued on our way only slightly slower with just the front jib sail and the back mizzen sail. We planned to continue to Herschel Island and reassess things in daylight.
Not long after that I was woken by Maire to look at our first viewing of the Northern Lights! Wow. One of the Tuk residents had said we should see them soon and she was right. So much for only seeing them on calm nights though.
Just as we approached Herschel Island, Maire and I got a glimpse of a solitary whale- the first since I was on board. We arrived into the anchorage bay on Hershel Island in the late afternoon with bright blue skies. There is the remains of an old whaling station here and it looked like there was a lot to see ashore.
First of all however our priority was the gaff. We disentangled it from the (intact) sail and rigging. Next we undid all its fixings to the mast etc. a few days ago I mentioned a pole for the front jib sail. We have also been carrying a spare for this, attached to the rigging. Andrew had meant to take this off as an unnecessary encumbrance. It transpires that the gaff, the jib-pole and its spare are all the same length and size.
Andrew and Maire brought the boat from its designer and builder, Dick Coulture. We are deeply indebted to him in thinking ahead and building in such a backup solution.
Tomorrow's task will be to remove all the fittings from the old broken gaff, and the spare-jib pole and swap them round. We have made a start on this. It is fair to say that they are pretty firmly wedged into the fittings and that it isn't going to be easy but I am sure that we will manage somehow. Needs must!
Clearly this is a set back and you feel you isolation from outside support up here, but it could have been so, so much worse.
Once we had done as much as we could this evening we got another reward of a school of at least 8 beluga whales actually in the harbour. These are a unique and easily identified pale colour. Apparently their skin makes for the best and most prized Maqtaaq, if there is such a thing.
We then decided to have a stroll around the abandoned buildings here. I have to say that this is perhaps on of the most amazing places that we have visited in the Arctic.
To do it justice will probably take a whole blog in itself, so more tomorrow folks.
05/09/10, The rather splendidly named Beluga Bay- despite its absence of said whales so far
The man with a promise of a cylinder of propane in a red truck never materialised. No more baking by Maire until we get some more. Disaster.
We joined Sister Fay and the community in the Catholic Church for their Sunday service. Daryl has done a great job putting it back together. The wood burner had been cleaned out and had made a big difference in drying it out and warming it up. Next week they plan to jack it up three feet to bolster its surroundings on the sinking permafrost. Hope that goes well and it doesn't break in two. It was a lovely service and Sister Fay gave an excellent sermon of the theme of wisdom. I have to say I was very impressed with Sister Fay and as an example was the way she very effectively dealt with a pair of bickering kids- making them tell each other that want to make the other one happy and not listening to wo started it.
Afterward we were made incredibly welcome in her house with bread, cheese, fish and baked beans. It was a privilege to be so invited into their community. very interesting to hear their insights interchanges in their community. As an example the next generation had kept their taste for caribou but lost it for seal. Apparently one has to start early to get a terse for whale/maqtaaq. Clearly and advantage of my getting older is that I need not preserver in trying! Daryl had also constructed a new see-saw for the kids or a 'teeter-totter' as they call it. Just as we were leaving an eagle was spotted pestering the gulls for some fish that had been washed ashore. Impressive sight.
We then found Tuk's only taxi to see a woman carver, Mary-Ann, who lived some way out of town. Before getting back on board I managed to get a very brief sniff of internet access and it was lovely to have a chat online with my new fiancee, Liz. She has sent me an email form the captain of the Hanseatic with copies of pictures of Young Larry they took. I also found out in a text that I had lost out to daughter Eleanor in our monthly competition for pinch-punch with mutual sense of humour failures when we lose. Taking advantage of my lack of internet access (and a time-zone delay) isn't playing fair. I would never stoop that low. An important ritual, even though we are both are old enough to know better.
After all this, we were a bit after our intended departure time. We weighed anchor and washed copious quantities of mud off the chain and anchor. We set off through the narrower and shallower western entrance.
Sister Fay and two of the local kids, Marcus and Dominic, came out to the point to wave us off. In order to really lay on a show we chose a nice patch of shallow ground very close to the point to go hard aground on a falling tide!
We were well and truly stuck and it was soon clear that we were not going to be able to motor ourselves off. We launched the dinghy and with some struggle managed to lay a kedge anchor. The aim of this is to put out an anchor in the deep water (actually only metres from our well wishers on the point) and use the anchor winch to pull our bow round and into deep water. This actually worked a treat and we were on our way. Some loss of face but Sister Fay was there to help us afloat. She might have some excellent photographic evidence of our embarrassment but at least we managed to get off under our own steam.
We have just had a clear chat with Peter Semotiuk updating us on the weather forecast, which is currently favourable. We are reaching along beautifully at 7.5 knots.
We are bound for Herschel Island, which we should reach tomorrow afternoon. There is an abandoned community there as apparently a small museum. There is another shallow-water short cut called Workman's Passage. Not sure if we will be brave enough (or daft enough) to try it after today's little escapades!
Local knowledge tells us that we should start being able to see the northern lights (or Aurora Borealis which is a phrase that my speech impediment renders impossible for me to pronounce!) any night now. Apparently the best chances are on a clear, still night-so not tonight with reasonably strong easterly winds.
as for 9/4/10
We got into Tuk last night at about 10pm. We seem to have got our clocks a bit confused and ended up an hour too far behind the locals here in Canada's North-West Territories. What I do know is that by the time we get to Alaska we ought to be 9 hours behind the UK (or Irish Time as Maire seems to stick to wherever she is- a policy that I can see some logic to). We celebrated in the now traditional with Hanseatic hot whisky and wine.
Once again (as in all the communities we have visited) the people in Tuk have been fabulous. As example, Andrew and Maire were walking though the town and a woman called Maureen stopped them and said that we must as visitors see the çice-houseâ and would we like to meet her there at 7pm? Obviously we said yes, and it was a definite "must see". They had dug a shaft over 30 feet into the permafrost to form a network of nature's deep freezer. From the base of the shaft were 19 individual storage rooms. Bizarrely they are colder in summer, -8 degrees, than winter, at -1 degree. In the winter, the snow and ice insulate things and the earth's heat (such-as-it-is is) cannot escape. It was extraordinarily dark down there with no lights other than a couple of torches.
My impression of the permafrost was that it is frozen earth. In fact it is really just ice with thin strata of sand. It lit up beautifully (or trans-illuminated to use a medical phrase) when a torch was put up to it. On the ceiling were the most incredible ice crystals. The individual rooms were used to store fish, seals, whale meat etc. Maureen who had shown Billy Connelly around on his 2008 NW Passage tour refused to take any money for showing us around.
If the permafrost were to melt then Tuk would be below sea level.
Almost everyone stops and says hello or at least waves. One optimistic chap tried an impressive pick-up line with Sibeal of "I haven't seen you round Tuk before". He might need to polish up his technique a bit.
Earlier we had filled up with diesel. Finally I got to help with the process, having missed it in Pond Inlet both this time and in 2008. On that occasion it had been a real struggle getting the jerry cans up onto the much higher decks of Arctic Tern from a pitching dinghy in rough weather. Not that Andrew kept reminding me or anything about how I had previously abandoned him to this unpleasant task.
The two supermarkets were open on a Saturday, but otherwise the town was effectively closed. We are still struggling to get hold of propane gas to cook with. There is a hint that one individual might be able to sell us a cylinder later tonight. Fingers crossed. We have also stocked up with food. I managed to resist buying corn on the cob at $2.50 each!
One of the other key local features of Tuk are pingos. These only happen here and in one other site in Siberia. They are also permafrost related. Apparently water seeps in, freezes and expands and leaves a vacuum and more water comes in. The result is that the ground rises up in a big mound. They can also happen out on the seabed and cause an unpleasant and unpredictable hazard to navigation.
In the shop I met a guy leading a team building a wooden walkway on the largest of the pingos who said that if we could get a taxi out there, he would take us across to see them in his boat. Getting a taxi wasn't that easy. There is only one in the town who I tracked down to the health centre, but she was busy doing a medical evacuation to the airport. I arranged that if we walked out, she would pick us up. Sibel and I set off walking about an hour to the site. I then met the chap who stood us up as his team had a "new job to do".
Walking out we went past bays with phenomenal quantities of beautifully aged driftwood that apparently comes down the Mackenzie River. After that we walked past the town dump. On of the less scenic parts of arctic life is the disposal of waste. It is never going to decay and is far too expensive to ship back down south. The waste will be an eyesore for years to come.
We got out reasonably close to the pingos, which are impressive mounds. They are very delicate and global warming threatens their very existence. On the way back we got a lift with the sister of the health centre whom I'd been talking to earlier who was giving some new nurses a tour of the area.
The community has a number of churches including two catholic ones. We looked in the first and it seemed in a pretty poor state of repair. On looking in the next door building a retired policeman called Daryl was doing sterling work ripping out the rotten and it was clear that both buildings were getting some much needed love and attention. He sent us to visit the sister here (there is no priest), a wonderful woman called Sister Fay. And I am not just saying that because she gave us tea and home-made cinnamon buns! All the time people were popping in for a chat and it was clear that she was making a significant impact. She was telling us of the work that she and the Society of Vincent de Paul do for the needy people of Tuk and how in the 5 years she has been here she has noticed the community regain a sense of purpose and hope.
She had also mobilised a group of kids to strip down and paint an old mission ship called Our Lady of Lourdes that now looks resplendent next to the church.
Looking at the distance still to cover, it is looking almost impossible for me to be able to guarantee making it to Nome in time for my flight home. I will need to look into closer alternatives such as Barrow.