Northwest Passage (6)

Beechey Island 

Warning: Historical Narrative Ahead!

It was early morning and the ship was moving cautiously through the gloom of Lancaster Sound.  A light rain driven by a brisk wind pelted the foredeck but our eyes were riveted on the hulking island that lay ahead of us.  We were now in the waters of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago following the track of 19th century explorer Sir John Franklin who had searched for the elusive Northwest Passage 160 years ago.  Our goal today was to land on Beechey Island, and we all knew this was where his ill-fated expedition had begun to unravel.


Scouting Team Heads to the Shore of Beechey Island (8:45 AM)

Even today, transiting the Northwest Passage is not a routine undertaking.   What Franklin and his 129 crew members were attempting in 1846 would not be accomplished for another 60 years. The environment here is far less hazardous now than it was then. In fact, it is much different than it was 10-25 years ago.

What sets Franklin’s attempt apart from the many other failures was the enormity of his disaster.  The full story still is not known but the two ships and all 129 aboard essentially vanished.  As numerous search expeditions gathered clues over the next decade, it became apparent that the two ships had been trapped in the ice, were abandoned, and the survivors had begun an agonizing and horror-filled death march through a frozen and merciless landscape in a vain attempt to find help.  It was not until 2014 that one of the ships was found; the other was still missing although we knew an active search was underway several hundred miles to the south (see red arrow on map below).


Ruins of Northumberland House, built in 1853-54

The image above shows the remains of a supply depot constructed to support the massive rescue effort for Franklin and his crew.  The depot quickly proved its value in 1854 for the crews of the supply ship that sank offshore and four other ships that had been trapped in the ice and were abandoned.  (One of the latter four, the Resolute, eventually broke free on its own, was found 18 months later by an American ship, was refitted, and given back to the British.  Two decades later, wood from the decommissioned Resolute was used to make 3 desks, one of which was a gift from Queen Victoria to the US President.  It is still in the Oval Office.)


Gravesites of Three Members of Franklin’s Crew

It was on Beechey Island that the first clues to Franklin’s fate were found by a search party six years after he disappeared.  Remains of several small structures and other relics showed they spent their first winter here.  More ominously, the gravesites of three of his crew members indicated that problems had already occurred (see image above).  But 126 men and the two ships were unaccounted for and their prospects were grim.  It was now 3 years after their supplies would have been exhausted.   And the barren landscape surrounding the gravesites hinted at the horrors that faced the crew at that point.


Map of Franklin’s Route

(From James P. Delgado, Across the Top of the World, 1999, p.113)

Some 40 expeditions were launched in the search over the ensuing decades and little by little, more clues were uncovered.  Today, much more is known but key elements remain a mystery.  The Zodiac ride back to the comfort of our ship was subdued as we tried to imagine how different the conditions were in those days.  We had yet to even encounter a piece of sea ice.


Sea Ice, North of Somerset Island in Barrow Strait (4:30 PM)

As if reading our minds, the captain decided to alter the route to give us a glimpse of sea ice conditions (see image above). It stretched for a number of miles but was neither as thick nor as expansive as one would have encountered only ten years ago.  We would experience sea ice only one more time and that also would require a substantial route deviation.


Evening, Barrow Strait (10: 20 PM)

As we left Barrow Strait and headed south into Prince Regent Inlet which separates Brodeur Peninsula and Somerset Island.  We would learn more about Franklin’s fate in the coming days as we neared the area of the  Franklin expedition’s terrible finale.

To be continued….

Northwest Passage (5)

After departing Greenland, we sailed across Baffin Bay during the night heading toward Lancaster Sound.  By the early 19th century, two hundred years after the ice-choked Sound had blocked the Bylot and Baffin expedition (see previous post), every effort to penetrate its waters had ended in failure.


Sunrise, Baffin Bay, Approaching Lancaster Sound (4:08 AM)

But finally, in August 1819, Edward Parry led an expedition into Barrow Strait, the eastern entrance to the Arctic Archipelago and reached a point beyond Lancaster Sound that would turn out to be the half-way point of the Northwest Passage. The onset of the sea ice blocked further progress, however, and they overwintered on Melville Island.  In February, they made an overland trek westward some 80 miles or more to find a location where the sea resumed.  Even so, the spot was so thick with sea ice it required digging down more than 14 feet before reaching sea water. It immediately flowed up almost to the surface of the ice convincing them they were right.  Six months later, their ships trapped at Melville Island were able to break free of their ice and Parry sailed home to a hero’s welcome.  He had gone far further than any European but the Northwest Passage remained unconquered.

Our goals today were far more modest and, unmolested by any pesky sea ice, we entered Dundas Harbor on Devon Island at the eastern entrance to Lancaster Sound.  We had reached the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.


Approaching Dundas Harbor, Devon Island (9:28 AM)

The skies were now clear, but a low hanging fog provided a mysterious quality to the planned landing area for the Zodiacs.  As we neared the island, the sun and fog combined to create a stunning example of a “fog bow.”


“Fog Bow,” Duindas Harbor

This phenomenon is similar to a rainbow, except the much smaller water particles of fog make it (according to a lengthy technical description) virtually impossible to see the colors that characterize a rainbow.

When the fog cleared, Zodiacs carried us to the shore and a nice hike over a hill to the site of an abandoned post of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.


Abandoned RCMP Post, Devon Island

From the crest of the hill, one can imagine why this spot might have been selected back in the 1920s as an outpost for Canada to assert its sovereignty over its northern territory.  However, the easy weather of August (actually above freezing when this image was made) is deceiving.  Over the following decades it was sporadically abandoned on several occasions, no occupation lasting more than a few years.  It was last occupied in 1951, and the buildings are slowly deteriorating.  Two grave sites of individuals who had been assigned there served as a grim foreshadowing of what we would encounter tomorrow.

Northwest Passage (4)

I must apologize for the temporary pause in posts about this trip, but the past week has been a mad dash to finish the downloading, selecting, and starting the printing of images for an upcoming Open Studio event that will happen (gulp!) in less than four weeks.  I have about a dozen prints to take over to my framing guys tomorrow and I hope they don’t have a backlog of other requests because I still have another 12-15 to go.  I am wondering if I was a little rash in promising to feature the Artic in this year’s show.


Evening Clouds, Baffin Bay

Enough complaining!  Time to resume the story.  The weather turned gloomy as we left Ilulissat and continued north up the western coast of Greenland.  It would turn out that cloudy weather is the norm here, but landscape photographers find that can often bring opportunities.


Light Rain, Baffin Bay, West Coast of Greenland

We were now entering Baffin Bay, named after one of the early European explorers who searched for the Northwest Passage.  We were following the track of Robert Bylot’s and William Baffin’s 1616 expedition that pushed to a point (770  45’)   that  would not be matched for another 157 years.  On that voyage, Baffin provided the first maps of the shoreline we were now passing.  The conditions they encountered that summer as they threaded through the pervasive sea ice were far different than what we were experiencing 400 years later:

“Our shrouds, ropes, and sails were so frozen, that we could scarce handle them.”

Source: James P. Delgado, “Across the Top of the World,” p. 41.


Once Upon a Time, A Glacier was Here

Unlike Bylot and Baffin we still had seen no sea ice and, as we passed along the coast, we saw valley after valley that not long ago had been funnels for glacial ice sheets terminating in the sea.  The glaciers are barely visible now, only the debris-filled moraines left behind as they retreat.  Today, those valleys only have a stream of meltwater coursing down the moraine as the glaciers continue to lose ground.

The next day we stopped in Kullorsuak, a small Inuit village where we disembarked (via Zodiacs) to see demonstrations of traditional hunting and fishing as well as a start-to-finish butchering of a recently killed seal.  We were given the opportunity to sample the very fresh, raw seal’s liver but I graciously allowed the person next to me to enjoy the portion that I was offered.  I will also omit photographic evidence of these activities in accordance with my policy of censoring images of a disturbing nature. The Inuit here, as elsewhere, have been interweaving the practices of western society into their culture. Pallets of Coca-Cola and kids checking their iPhones were as common as the numerous sled dogs who remain a key means of transport during the long winters.


Leaving Kullorsuak at Sunset

(Note houses on right side)

Our last day in Greenland was spent near Savissavik, cruising in Zodiacs among grounded ice bergs in a so-called “iceberg graveyard.”  The low hanging clouds and light rain created a primeval mood as we passed between scores of ice monuments, sculpted into bizarre formations by nature’s elements. My favorite was the 40-foot tall speciman with three arches shown below.


Rare Triple-arched Ice Berg, near Saviisavik, Greenland

Next: Across Baffin Bay into the heart of the Northwest Passage

Northwest Passage (3)



Iceberg, Ilulissat Fjord (Estimated height: 100 feet)

Icebergs!  That’s why everyone comes to Ilulissat, Greenland 220 miles inside the Arctic Circle and the site of the Ilulissat Icefjord named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. The fjord is the “sea mouth” of Sermeq Kujalleq, one of the few glaciers through which the Greenland ice cap actually reaches the sea.  The melt water from most of the others flows to the sea via streams, rivers, or waterfalls.  Moreover, it is one of the fastest and most active glaciers in the world, producing more calf ice than any glacier outside Antarctica.


Detail of Reflections from Iceberg

We would be there for less than 14 hours but managed to arrange for a 2-hour cruise through a good part of the navigable fjord then a 3-mile (round-trip) hike to a promontory that overlooked the fjord.


Black and White Image, Iceberg in Ilulissat Fjord

For a close-up view of the icebergs, we joined about ten others on a small fishing boat and set out for the fjord under a brilliant blue sky.


Ilulissat Fjord (Estimated height: 75 feet)

Birds wheeled by the boat as we motored through the frigid water and we caught a glimpse of two humpback whales in the distance.  Occasionally, groups of harp seals popped up to check us out.


Humpback Whales, Ilulissat Fjord

The actual face of the glacier is many miles up the fjord and boats cannot get past the jumble of stacked up icebergs which are grounded, unable to float out to sea, until they have melted to a smaller size.  Those shown here are the smaller ones that have floated free.  Our walk would take us to an overlook of the fjord where the larger ones are stacked up on each other.  But the only way (for a tourist) to see the face of the glacier is by helicopter, something we did not have time for.


Fall Colors, Arctic Tundra overlooking Ilulissat Fjord

The walk, mostly along a wooden boardwalk, took us on a scenic route over the tundra which golden yellow in its fall colors.  The boardwalk was necessary to protect the boggy tundra which could not withstand the impact of frequent hikers. After about a mile we came to a steep hill that would afford us a spectacular view of the fjord.


Overlook of Ilulissat Fjord

Our vantage point in the image above is situated about 150 feet above the ice immediately below us. It was difficult to believe that the mountains of ice and snow in  the distance were icebergs that had broken free of the actual glacier which was still many miles up the fjord to the left.


Panorama of Ilulissat Fjord

The image just above is a six-image photomerge taken from the spot where the person in the previous image was standing and looking to the left.  It was hard to leave this spot, but we didn’t want to miss our ride back to the boat in order to continue a journey that had only just begun.


Northwest Passage (2)

Apparently, the fact that I was able to get the previous post published while still on our vessel in the Arctic Circle ranks as a minor miracle because it was the only time I had access to sufficient bandwidth.  So the following series will be a post-trip report on the highlights.

After departing Kangerlussuak, our first stop was in the small city of Sisimiut, Greenland so our vessel could be fueled and provisioned for the long voyage ahead.  The town of about 5,000-6,000 is the second largest in Greenland and the fishing industry is the primary economic activity.



Sisimiut Harbor

Illulissat (mentioned in the previous post) was still one day away, so we took the opportunity to explore Sisimiut hoping to find a post office to mail some post cards.  Sisimiut is the northernmost town in Greenland that has an ice-free harbor in the winter.  It has been a settlement for 4,500 years and today combines traditional Inuit culture with the practices of Western society.  The average high temperatures in August are in the mid-40s (Fahrenheit).

arctic-d-16-08-17-0537-blogSisimiut Marina


Hillside Overview of Sisimiut

We stopped in several establishments asking for directions, an interesting exercise given that neither English, French nor Spanish were spoken by anyone we met.  Here one needs to know Inuit and/or Danish. The usual response was to point in the general direction we already were heading.  The image below shows a view of the Pisiffik supermarket which was full of the same products we might find at home and a few that we would not (e.g., seal liver).

arctic-d-16-08-17-0562-blogPisiffik Supermarket

A small café had sandwiches and drinks plus a TV showing the Rio Olympics.  We managed to communicate an order and then sat down to watch a few heats of the 800-meter women’s race. The food was pretty good and afterwards we continued the search for the post office which we finally located.  Stamps and cards were purchased with Euros and change was provided with Danish Kroner.

But tomorrow, we hoped, the true excitement would begin.  We would arrive in Disko Harbor to see the fabled Ilulissat Icefjord, the glacier designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.   It is considered to be the most productive (in the sense of producing enormous icebergs) glacier in the northern hemisphere.

Stay tuned…….

The Northwest Passage (1)

A little over two weeks ago, I boarded a charter flight for Kangerlussuak, Greenland where I would begin a 23-day trip inside the Arctic Circle.  We have been out of internet range for most of that time and this has been my first opportunity to publish a report on the journey.  Due to bandwidth limitations we have been asked not to upload large files so this will be brief.

The initial phase of this expedition took us from Kangerlussuak (47 miles north of the Arctic Circle) along the west coast of Greenland as far north as Savissavik before we turned west across Baffin Bay and the entrance to the fabled Northwest Passage.

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Setting Moon, Davis Strait  (about 4:00 AM, 17 August; Nikon D800E on tripod, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at 200mm; exposure 1/200th sec. @ f/11, ISO 1600)

The glacial ice cap that covers Greenland represents the last vestiges of the Wisconsin ice sheet that 10,000 years ago extended well into what is now the Midwestern United States.   The ice is still over a mile thick in some places, but its retreat has accelerated in the last decade or so and the effects are apparent as our ship sails along the coast line.

But as we approach Ilulissat and Disko Bay on our second day, the size and number of icebergs are impressive.

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Blue Iceberg, near Ilulissat, Greenland (About 4:30 AM, 18 August, Nikon D810 handheld, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at 185mm; exposure 1/1,000th sec. @ f/14, ISO 800)

I hope this short post and two images get past the ship’s digital gatekeeper but more reports will be coming depending on our traveling situation.  In the meantime….

Keep shooting…..