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
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.