Northwest Passage (Final)

After departing Jessie Harbor on Banks Island, we headed south for yet another bizarre Arctic scene, the “Smoking Hills,” a 25-mile stretch of shoreline named by John Franklin in 1826 on his third expedition searching for the Northwest Passage.


The Smoking Hills, Franklin Bay, Northwest Territories

The phenomenon of these burning cliffs is neither geothermal nor volcanic in origin.  Deposits of low-grade, sulfur rich coal spontaneously ignite when exposed to oxygen.  As the hills erode, the coal is exposed to the air and starts burning.



Onsite View of the Smoke

We boarded the Zodiacs and headed for the shore, wondering whether the opportunity to breathe sulfuric acid was a good idea.  The climb up the muddy slopes was difficult, but soon we were looking into a ghastly scene evoking Dante’s Vestibule of Hell and the inscribed words: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

Deciding that the noxious fumes were begining to foster hyperbolic literary allusions, I returned to the shoreline to inspect what turned out to be, at least in geological terms, a psychedelic experience.


Multi-hued Rock Formation, Franklin Bay



Large Stone (Football size) with Unexplained Markings

arctic-chapter-11-d-16-09-01-3764 Multi-hued Cliffside, Franklin Bay



Basalt Boulder with Folded Seams of Sulphur


Shoreline of Franklin Bay, Northwest Territories

Before heading to the Bering Strait and our final stop in Nome, our captain deviated once again from the normal route in the hope of one last encounter with sea ice.  We headed northwest from Point Barrow, Alaska into the Arctic Ocean and a heavy fog where a batch of sea ice had been reported.  After a few hours we began to see individual chunks of ice on either side of the ship.  As the numbers increased, we could easily see dark spots on the ice just under the water—it was ice algae which is the base of the Arctic food chain. Krill shrimp feed on these algae, and krill are a key part of the diet of whales, seals, fish, and some birds.


Ice algae–Small Dark Spots in Center Section

Sea ice also serves as resting spots for seals and walruses and we passed examples of both as the ship moved through the water.


Bearded Seal, Arctic Ocean



Walruses Abanding Ice Floe, Arctic Ocean

Finally, late in the afternoon, we turned back to the south.  Soon we would pass below the Arctic Circle into the Bering Strait and within a few days end our journey in Nome, Alaska.

Some final thoughts—

The Arctic at first glance appears to be a desolate, hostile environment.  But if one looks more closely they will see spots of brilliant colors in the tundra: reds, oranges, yellows.  The deep silence and broad landscapes suggest an emptiness but then you come upon a massive pod of hundreds of narwhals slicing through the water alongside you.  A grey leaden sky turns brilliantly red as the sun shoots through a narrow opening low on the horizon.   You stoop to inspect a tidal pool and see dozens of tiny transparent sea butterflies and sea angels, the size of your thumbnail, carried back and forth by the motion of the water.   We began our journey exploring a 25-mile long channel choked with towering icebergs and a few weeks later we came across a 25-mile stretch of hills that were on fire.  It’s an amazing place and I hope to return.




Northwest Passage (9)

We were heading into the area where one of Franklin’s two ships was found in 2014 and where an active search was underway in the hopes of finding the second ship.  So far, no results had been reported and the summer window for underwater surveys would soon be ending.  Finding the HMS Erebus two years ago was a huge news story in Canada, with the initial announcement coming from the Prime Minister’s office.


Sunrise, James Ross Strait

As the rising sun painted the morning clouds with gold and pink, we moved through James Ross Strait with King William Island on our starboard side. We then entered Rae Strait (see map below) which is named after Dr. John Rae, one of the great Arctic explorers of the 19th Century.  During a trek in 1854 searching for Franklin, Rae traveled north along the coast of Boothia Peninsula and discovered that King William Land was actually an island with a strait separating it from the North American mainland.  That fact made it a key piece of the Northwest Passage.   Fifty years later, Roald Amundsen would use Rae’s discovery by taking a route through the strait—now known as Rae Strait—and becoming the first to navigate the entire passage.


Lord Franklin’s Fatal Expedition

King William Island also was the key to the mystery of Lord Franklin’s fate.  During that 1854 search, Rae turned up a number of artifacts from the ships and stories from the Inuit told of white men trekking south, starving, and dying.  His reports back to Britain included this rather delicate phrasing:

“…from the mutilated state of many of the bodies, and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life.” 

The report horrified England’s Victorian society and especially Lady Franklin who refused to believe the reports of cannibalism.  The full story of Rae and his exploits can be found in Kevin McGoogan’s book, “Fatal Passage.”

We stopped for an afternoon at Gjoa Haven, a small settlement on the southern tip of King William Island.  It is also a historic location in the saga of the Northwest Passage.  Roald Amundsen overwintered here during his successful first-ever transit of the Northwest Passage.  He was hemmed in by ice for 22 months but finally completed the voyage 3 years after his start in 1903.


The Bell of HMS Erebus, Submerged to Prevent Oxidation (photo from Parks Canada)

The village has an excellent museum that now hosts the ship’s bell from the Erebus which was found in September 2014, 30 feet below the surface.    And that evening, in fact, we would pass even closer to the Erebus (red arrow on map above) after departing Gjoa Haven.  We wondered how the search for Franklin’s other ship, the Terror, was going at its undisclosed location nearby.

The next day the ship’s captain altered our route to find a pack of sea ice that reportedly had pieces large enough to hold small groups of people who might want to walk on it.  The irony was escapable: Just over one hundred years ago, Amundsen was stuck here for 22 consecutive months because the sea ice was so thick.  On the same route today,  it was necessary to go out of your way to find some.


Coming Upon a Field of Sea Ice

As we first approached the icee zone, an impressive cloud formation was building overhead.  But two hours later we were enveloped by a heavy fog.  Nevertheless, the landing was still on and we eagerly boarded the zodiac.  Surprisingly, the ice was not at all slippery.  The rough surface provided sufficient traction to walk about without any difficulty.  The thick fog added a mystical quality to the surroundings.


View of the Ship from Platform of Sea Ice


Zodiac Maneuvers through the Fog


Sea Ice Sculpture

Just five days later, the research team looking for the HMS Terror anounced that it had been found in a King William Island bay which, amazingly, is already named Terror Bay!  We had been no more than 10-15 miles away from that spot as we headed west from Gjoa Haven.  (An interesting historical footnote.  Among its various exploits, the HMS Terror had been with the British fleet in 1814 that bombarded Fort McHenry in Baltimore, an event that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the lyrics for the “Star Spangled Banner.”)

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.