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–A Short Video

For a change of pace, I thought I would offer up something a little different in this post.  The previous ten posts about this Northwest Passage journey have consisted of words and still photographs.  This time it will be a video report with a musical background.

The Northwest Passage: Into the Arctic Circle

This was my first experiment with video and it was clearly a learning experience.  Perhaps the most important lesson is that, at least for me, a video production is a team effort.  Above all, it requires a talented editor and I had the good fortune to have an excellent partner in this effort.  Her name is Samantha Politis and she took a batch of video files shot with my Nikon D810, a few seconds of drone footage captured by Fredieric Michel, the ship’s videographer, during the visit to the Ilulissat Icefjord (used with his permission), a musical score that she and I selected (license fee paid) and weaved them into a 3 minute video.

I hope you will take a look and let us know what you think.

Next Post (This time for real)–Smoke and Fire)

Northwest Passage (10)

First, many apologies for the long absence since the last post.  But now it’s time to resume the story of this journey.


Edinburgh Island, Overlooking Coronation Gulf

Following our experience standing fog-bound on a piece of sea ice about the size of a handball court, we departed Victoria Strait and sailed west.  The next morning we arrived in the Coronation Gulf, near the location where Samuel Hearne, a Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) fur trader arrived in July 1771. By reaching this point he became the first European to reach the North American shores of the Arctic Ocean. He took a 1,000-mile (one-way) overland route from the west side of Hudson Bay, following the course of the Coppermine River which empties into the Gulf.  As Hearne looked out over the ice filled water, he concluded—incorrectly—that this was not a viable route for a Northwest Passage.


The Route Through Coronation Gulf


Ridgeline View of Coronation Gulf

Samuel Hearne was yet another colorful figure of North American exploration.  After joining the British Navy at age 11 and seeing considerable action in the Seven Years War, he sailed to Canada and signed up with Hudson’s Bay Company for whom he explored much of the unknown territory north and west of Hudson Bay.  His 458-page book, “A Journey from Prince of Wale’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean” was highly praised when published for its meticulous detail of the areas he explored and for his lucid descriptions of life among the Native Americans.  It has since become a remarkable collectible.  A first edition copy sold for $11,000 at a Christie’s auction in 2012.  A detailed history of Hearne’s life can be found in Kenneth McGoogan’s book, in which he asserts that Hearne was the inspiration for Samuel Coleridge’s epic poem, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”


Fall Colors, Edinburgh Island

On this day, however, we would land on tiny Edinburgh Island, across the Gulf from where Hearne stood almost 250 years ago. Here we would undertake a 3-mile roundtrip hike up a valley featuring the colorful hues of tundra at the height of autumn.  The valley was flanked by steep cliffs on both sides and we spotted several peregrine falcon nests on the ledges.  Their occupants could be seen spiraling above, looking for prey.


Entering Jesse Harbor

The following day we continued west to Jesse Harbor on Banks Island where we encountered an environment quite different from the vibrant tundra on Edinburgh Island.  Here was yet another variant of the polar desert, one with very little vegetation. We hiked past meltwater ponds up a barren ridge and later descended to a sandy beach like none we had seen on this trip.  Other than some distant muskox, there were no sightings of wildlife but we did see numerous signs (tracks, scat, bones, and hair tufts) of animals and birds.  They apparently chose not to stay around to greet us.


The tracks of dozens of birds and small animals surrounded the muddy edges of this pond. 


Tracks of Large Bird on the Beach


Single Vertebra Bone of Unidentified Animal

Next Post–Smoke and Fire!

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 (8)


Departing Fort Ross, we entered Bellot Strait, a narrow channel that would take us into Peel Sound where we would resume tracking the route of John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition and learn more about his extraordinary wife, Lady Jane Franklin, and her unceasing efforts to galvanize the British public, the British Government, and many others on behalf of her missing husband.


Bellot Strait with the northernmost tip of the North American continent on the left

Bellot Strait, separating Somerset Island from the Boothia Peninsula (see map below), is named after Joseph Rene Bellot, a young French naval officer who offered his services to Lady Jane Franklin to serve on a rescue mission that she was personally organizing. (For a detailed English account of Bellot’s Arctic experiences, consult this article.  For French speakers wishing a more complete exposition, obtain a copy of the book by Nadine and Jean-Claude Forestier-Blazart.)



Sunset, Peel Sound, after exiting Bellot Strait

On Bellot’s first trip, as second in command, he discovered what others had missed, the strait that now bears his name and the key to one variant in the routes through the Northwest Passage.    But the expedition failed to find any trace of Franklin, largely because the ship’s captain ignored Bellot’s advice to head south.  Had they done so, they likely would have found the evidence discovered by others 7 years later.  Bellot’s habit of volunteering for the most dangerous tasks led to his death on his second voyage in 1853.  He offered to lead a small group on a dangerous trip through a treacherous stretch of sea ice to deliver dispatches to another ship.  On the third night, he fell into the freezing water and disappeared.

On our own voyage, we were beginning to learn that it was impossible to predict what would happen on any given day.  The next morning started early with  a 7:00 AM encounter with several pods of beluga whales close to the shore of a narrow inlet.


Pod of Beluga Whales

A little later we would have our own encounter with an abandoned vessel, albeit one of little historical consequence .  A 21-foot runabout with forward console and twin outboards was spotted upside down on the shore of a small bay.  Several storage containers were scattered along the shore as well.  Two Zodiacs were sent out to investigate while a pod of Beluga whales cavorted in the shallow waters about 700 yards away.


Recovery Team Assessing Abandoned Boat

The recovery team prepared the mystery boat for loading it aboard and transporting it to the next village while the ship’s naturalists and photographer hiked down to get a close look at the Belugas.


Nathalie Michel, ship photographer (in red), gets close to the belugas

My photograph (above) using Nikon D810 with 70-200mm with 1.7 extender eqiuvalent to 340mm.


Beluga Whale with Calf

Nathalie’s photograph above, using Nikon D4s with 80-400mm telephoto at 80mm (there’s a lesson here–get close when you can).

Later, we rode zodiacs into a different bay to observe a number of polar bears picking over the skeletal remains of Beluga whales on the shore.  Live Belugas moved contentedly through the shallow waters seemingly oblivious to the fate of their relatives on the shore.


Polar Bear with Cub

At day’s end, with the recovered boat securely lashed down on the foredeck, we headed south in the direction that Lady Franklin repeatedly implored the leaders of search expeditions to explore.  She, like Bellot, was ignored by almost all of them, who seemed to think other routes held more promise.  (Canadian author Ken McGoogan has written the best book about her, “Lady Franklin’s Revenge.”)  She, more than any other person, was responsible for sparking the massive search effort as well as Franklin’s legacy.


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

We were heading toward the area where one of Franklin’s two ships was found in 2014, (red arrow in map above) although the specific underwater location has not been revealed, apparently to preserve its integrity.  We did know, however, that an active search was currently underway to find the second ship.  So far, no results had been reported although the summer window for underwater surveys would soon be ending.

Next:  The Mystery of Franklin’s Disappearance Solved (mostly)….

Northwest Passage (7)

Prince Regent Inlet, one of the several choices now available for transiting the Northwest Passage, is packed with historical locations some of which date back almost two millenia.   It is also brimming with potential for wildlife sightings.  However, we were also experiencing some heavy weather with strong winds and choppy seas, so the plans for a landing at Fury Beach to observe the 191st anniversary of the scuttling of the HMS Fury had to be—well, scuttled.  (Those interested in further details about the Fury and Edward Parry’s search for the Northwest Passage can find more here.)



Polar Bear, Unimpressed by our Little Armada

But Plan B turned out pretty well.  A sheltered bay was located that included a polar bear walking along the beach.  Zodiacs were launched and the bear cooperated by staying put, relatively close to the shore.  It was working on a carcass of an unidentified animal and as long as we didn’t get too close, it seemed uninterested in us.


(Tight Crop, Nikon D810 with 70-200mm f/2.8 and 1.7x tele-extender, handheld, 1/200th sec. @ f/4.8, ISO 800)

That evening, our ship hosted the crew of the s/v Vagabond, a 47-foot sailboat especially fitted for overwintering in the Arctic.


S/V Vagabond

We had passed them a few days earlier and our captain arranged for them to come aboard for a presentation on their research work and what life is like living on a small boat in the Arctic winters.  It was an unusual crew, Eric Brossier, his wife France, and their two charming daughters aged 6 and 8 years old.  Their main activity is data gathering for a variety of research institutions on a wide range of topics.  They also derive income from providing logistical support for filmmakers, photographers, and others.  More on the Brossier family can be found here.

Later that day, another Zodiac run took us to Fort Ross, the site of an abandoned outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company.


This outpost was built in 1937, abandoned 11 years later

The organization has a long history in North America, dating back to 1670.  The original land grant was equivalent to 40% of the total land area of modern Canada.  Known first as the dominant fur trader in North America, it is now a major international retailer, owning such subsidiaries as Saks Fifth Avenue.  More about the company’s history can be found here.


HDR image of interior of living area

Approaching the southern tip of Somerset Island the next day, another Zodiac excursion took us into Hazard Inlet.


Overlooking Hazard Inlet

 Here we had our first chance to walk on tundra, something akin to stumbling across an enormous sponge with hidden crevices and random sogginess.  Over a thousand years ago, small populations of both the Dorset and subsequently the Thule cultures lived here long ago.  The Dorset people arrived in the Arctic as early as 500 BC and were displaced by the Thule (arriving between 900-1100 AD).  The Thule are the ancestors of the modern Inuit inhabitants of the Arctic.  Scattered archaeological remains of the settlements could still be seen, including gravesites with skeletal remains forced to the surface by cycles of freezing and thawing over the eons.  We were starting to notice a theme of the difficulties humans have had surviving in this harsh environment.

The tundra seems hospitable to the small flowering plants scattered about.  They were already fading in anticipation of the approaching winter, but aging boulders were festooned with colorful displays of lichen.


Lichen on Boulder


Next up:  Bellot Strait, named after a charismatic French explorer who searched in vain for the lost Franklin Expedition



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.