• A Visit to the HMS Erebus

    The Northwest Passage Day 4

    “I think over again my small adventures, my fears. These small ones that seemed so big. For all the vital things I had to get to and reach. And yet there is only one great thing, the only thing to live to see the great day that dawns, and the light that fills the world.”
    -    Inuit Song (unknown)

    The Back Story

    For centuries, men searched for a shipping route from Europe through the Arctic waters to Asia. It wasn’t until 1906 that someone made the complete passage. Roald Amundson, in his ship Gjøa, navigated successfully using a route that took him through Rae Strait.

    The stories of the quest for a passage are riveting. Perhaps the most famous of all is that of Sir John Franklin, who set sail in 1845 with two very well provisioned ships. Franklin and his men never returned. Search expeditions were unsuccessful. Explorer John Rae was the first to discover significant artifacts from Franklin’s expedition and to learn about the crew’s fate from the Inuit who lived in the area.

    Piecing together the clues from various sources—notes, artifacts found on land, three bodies buried on Beechy island, accounts from the Inuit—we know that Franklin’s ships became bound by ice in 1846 near King William Island. He died in 1847 and Captain Crozier assumed command. In 1848, the crew abandoned the ships and attempted crossing the tundra by sledge. It is likely that the men died because of scurvy, lead poisoning, starvation, and extreme weather. John Rae had evidence that some men had turned to cannibalism although the British refused to believe it at the time. That evidence is now irrefutable.

    What of the ships? They were assumed sunk, but the question was where? They weren’t in the area where they were ice locked. The HMS Erebus was found in September 2014 in Queen Maud Gulf. The HMS Terror was found in September 2016, in a location north of the Erebus. In both cases, stories passed down by local Inuit helped to pinpoint the location of the wrecks.

    The Plan

    Parks Canada manages the sites jointly with the Inuit. Underwater archeologists found the wrecks to be in excellent condition, filled with artifacts. Last evening, they brought reproductions of many of the artifacts and showed us video footage and photos of recent discoveries—infomation that had not yet been released. This is the china used on the ship.

    Each site is off limits to the public and boats must keep out of the protected area around the sites. Inuit Guardians camp out on land close to the sites to keep watch. Parks Canada arranged to test a public experience with passengers from the Ocean Endeavour. This would be the sixth attempt in three years. The others were all scrubbed due to weather. Despite some windy weather and ocean chop, this day looked to be one of success.

    The plan was for us to visit the Inuit Guardian camp, the research barge Qiniqtiryuaq, and the RV David Thompson research ship. My group would be the second to go. We would travel in Zodiacs. Shortly after the first group departed, we were told that the visit to the Inuit Guardian camp was cancelled due to wind and high wave action on shore. The Zodiac drivers couldn’t ensure a safe landing. Instead, the Inuit Guardians (a heartier bunch than us passengers) would come to the ship for the day and give presentations about their role. The good news was that the barge and research ship visits were still on, although we were cautioned about the tricky transfer from Zodiac to vessel.

    The Visit

    We headed to the Mud Room, suited up, and disembarked onto the Zodiacs. It was windy and a bit choppy.

    Out on the horizon we could see two tiny vessels. The one on the left is the research barge and the other one is the research ship.

    The R.V. David Thompson is about the same length as the HMS Erebus. The Erebus was home to 129. I believe the captain of the Thompson said there were 15 people on board his ship.  The sailors on the Erebus must have been cramped.

    When we approached the David Thompson, I saw a rope ladder and immediately realized this would NOT be the way to embark. Fortunately I was tall enough to scooch my butt up on to the deck. Others had to be dragged and lifted.

    Our first stop was the dining area to see all the high tech toys used by the scientists. These are some of the cameras they use. The one on the left is for high quality video for use in documentaries. The contraption on the right is a drone. The smaller camera in the back is what they use to fit in tight spaces where they can’t go. They also showed us an ROV and a quick-and-dirty sonar-like imaging device which they use to scout an area. If they find something, they then use a slow, high quality scanning device.

    We then went upstairs to meet the captain and the scanning engineer. Both had been on the project for years and recalled the excitement of seeing an image finally form of the wreck. It was a tight space, but we got to see the scanning workstation and images of the HMS Erebus.

    We disembarked and sped across the water to the research barge. It seemed a bit wavier but our driver did a good job positioning the Zodiac without getting it stuck under the barge. By this time, everyone realized rope ladders were sheer folly and that the scooch method was best for those tall enough. Otherwise, the men on the barge would pull up the passenger.

    The barge had three main areas, each one made from a shipping container. One was an archeology lab where they catalog artifacts and start the desalination process in an effort to preserve the objects. We were shown all the new finds for the day, but were not allowed to photograph them as the information was still confidential. We saw a boot, a bottle, and a metal object yet to be identified.

    Another container housed an air compressor and a warm water circulator. These were to make diving for extended periods comfortable. Rather than carry tanks of air and wear a wet suit, a diver breathes air sent through a hose and wears a warm suit. The warm suit is an underwater garment through which warm water is circulated continuously. The scientists claim is it like being in a spa. Unfortunately for today’s diver, they turned off the circulator due to noise. They needed the relative quiet to conduct the tour for us.

    The third container is the dive monitoring team. They watch and communicate with the research diver.

    Scientists consult a map of the HMS Erebus to get grid numbers that are used to catalogue any finds.

    A series of tubes are connected to the diver—air to breathe, exhaled air, warm water, camera, light, and communication. The diver uses an underwater pencil to make notes. This diver had to come up to get another pencil while we were there.

    Surfacing for a Pencil

    The barge was so fascinating that it was difficult for me to leave. But with 164 passenges, all wanting to experience the HMS Erebus, our time was limited. The tours continued throughout the day. In the evening Parks Canada and one of the archeologists gave another presentation.

    I really appreciate that the research scientists gave up a day of research for the sake of science communication. Their research season is never longer than 6 weeks and can be much shorter due to weather. Last week, the wind was so bad that they had to tow the barge to calmer waters, postponing some of their work.

    Before the ice forms, they close up the barge and move it to a safe winter location. They take the R.V. David Thompson to southern Canada where the team can access it easily from their lab in Ottawa. One year they were unable to move the vessel south due to early ice.  

    Everyone—Parks Canada Rangers, Inuit Guardians, Adventure Canada staff, research scientists, and passengers—felt the day was a resounding success. I could almost hear a collective sigh of relief when the last passenger climbed aboard. No one had fallen into the water. No one had tripped over the dive cables or knocked into the artifacts. No one had dropped anything off the Zodiac onto the wreck. It was an amazing day!

  • Jenny Lind Island

    The Northwest Passage Day 3

    “Remember, no matter where you go – there you are.” – An Irish Proverb

    No one knows why an Arctic island was named after the Swedish opera star Jenny Lind. She toured North America from 1850 to 1852 but there is no evidence that she ever visited the Arctic. I assume a Swedish captain who was an opera fan chose the name. Today would be our first foray off the ship, and it would be to Jenny Lind island. 

    Jenny Lind is a migratory terrestrial bird site for such species as Canada goose, lesser snow goose, and Ross’s goose. It is also home to a number of mammals including musk oxen, fox, and caribou. Polar bears are a possibility, which is why the ship sent a scouting team to ensure we wouldn’t run into any. If the team sees polar bears, we can’t land. If they don’t see polar bears, then the bear monitors form an armed perimeter within which we humans can roam.  Today, I signed on to the advanced hiking group, so we brought an armed bear monitor with us.

    The Canadian arctic is essentially a desert. The land is  flat. The plants are very tiny. It’s difficult to imagine that something as big as a musk ox could find anything to eat, but they do. We are traveling at the end of the summer, which is why we haven’t yet encountered any sea ice. Our ship is not an icebreaker, so the captain choses routes that minimize ice travel. I think he is being super cautious because this boat almost didn’t make it into the Northwest Passage and had to be escorted by a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker for part of the way. 

    Both the desert conditions and the lack of ice surprised me. Like many people, I thought the Arctic would be more like Antarctica, but with polar bears running all over. I learned to look for and appreciate the small things—Arctic willow, saxifrage, wintergreen, lichen, and Arctic mushrooms. 

    Someone spotted a few musk ox, so we spent most of our hike trying to get a closer look. Most of us started calling them musk dots because all we could ever see were some dark dots on the horizon. Even with magnification, it wasn’t possible to identify them definitively. We were definitely scraping to find mammals although we did encounter a few birds. Most of the migration was over. It seemed the animals had moved on as well. 

    I saw a number of dead things—birds, a fox head (below), vertebrae, and discarded antlers.  There was also evidence of the goose migration—feathers and lots of poop. At this time of year, Jenny Lind was desolate.

    At one point I looked back at the ship, which was situated such that it looked as if it was grounded and abandoned. It reminded me of the many explorers who overwintered in the Arctic. To make any progress looking for a northwest passage or other resources, expedition ships committed to several-year journeys. At this latitude long summer days turn to long winter nights and impassable icy oceans. The ships, beset with ice, and their crew would sit and wait. 

  • A Sea Day: Learning Lots and Hearing Rumors

    The Northwest Passage, Day 2

    At 8:30 AM the mellifluous voice of our expedition leader, Jason Edmunds, drifted out of the speaker in our cabin. “Good morning. Good morning Ocean Endeavour.” Then he told us our position (latitude and longitude) and reminded us of what we were to do next, which was eat breakfast. Then he ended our wake-up call with a pithy quote.

    “Travel is more than seeing sights; it’s a change that goes deep and permanent in the idea of living.” – Miriam Beard 

    Today turned out to be a sea day—steaming through Coronation Gulf. Our onboard marine biologist, Pierre Richard, said that this part of the ocean is too shallow to support the nutrients necessary to attract marine mammals and birds. So even though I went out on deck to look for wildlife, I found none. Just a flat sunny landscape for most of the day. The Adventure Canada staff kept us busy indoors with lots of talks.

    Thirty-nine people make up the Adventure Canada (AC) staff. These are people responsible for the trip, not the ship. (The ship crew is a completely different company that leases the ship and crew: cabin staff, stewards, cooks, engineering, navigation, and so on.) The AC staff are talented people—a botanist, Inuit culturists, geologists, photographers, artists, musicians, an ornithologist, marine biologists, high Arctic adventurers, archeologists, a land claim specialist, naturalists, writers, historian, a medic, and a cruise director. Many of these people are also certified Zodiac drivers. Another subset are trained to monitor for polar bears and deter a bear if necessary (they carry guns with rubber and real bullets).

    Today I learned about:

    • Polar bear safety
    • Archeology sites and how to behave around them
    • An introduction to Inuit culture by Susie Evyagotailak, an educator, language consultant, and amazing beader. 
    • An introduction to the birds of the arctic by Judy Kennedy, who was with the Canadian Wildlife Service for 30 years. 
    • An account of a trip taken by Mike Beedel (, an extreme adventurer, photographer, and guide.
    • The History of the Franklin Expedition and the Search for the Erebus & Terror given by a guest from Parks Canada—the woman who manages the Erebus & Terror archeological sites.

    My brain was full by the end of the day! I learned a lot, but when the bar staff passed out champagne for the evening Captain’s welcome, I was ready for it. And even more happy that the after-dinner program was  a concert by on-board musician Mashall Dane. 

    During the day rumors were floating around that we might be the first ever visitors to the H.M.S. Erebus site. Both the Parks Canada and the AC staff were buzzing with electricity. They wanted to talk about it, but they didn’t want to disappoint us. Parks Canada chose Adventure Canada as the beta testers for visits to the Erebus. But over the past few years the ship made five unsuccessful attempts due to poor weather conditions. Would this sixth attempt be successful?

    This is a 3-D printed model of the Erebus wreck, as reconstructed from imaging files. The guide to the image is below.

    The H.M.S. Erebus wreck, discovered in September 2014 after having gone missing in August 1845, sits at the bottom of the sea near the hamlet of Gjøa Haven. The visit, if it was to happen, would be to the archeological barge Qiniqtiryuaq that sits over the wreck as well as to the R.V. David Thompson, the research vessel where the scientists stay during their short research season. We were still two days away from the location. The weather forecast wasn’t promising. Stay tuned!

  • Arriving Above the Arctic Circle

    The Northwest Passage, Day 1

    The cruise through the Northwest Passage started in Kugluktuk, a remote hamlet in Nunavut, Canada located above the Arctic Circle. Kugluktuk is neither accessible by road nor does it have a deep port capable of berthing our ship. Kugluktuk does not have regular air service, but it does have an air strip. So my journey began in a chartered AVRO RJ85/RJ100 turbo prop from Calgary. 

    We drew the short straw in that we were assigned to flight 1 with a 5:00 AM lineup for check in. After security we waited at the gate until boarding time.

    After about two hours of flying (and being fed breakfast on the plane) we landed in Yellowknife to fuel up and empty the lavatories. We weren’t allowed to leave the plane during this time. We had a limited view of Yellowknife both from the air and the stopover, but due to the gold and diamond mining, and wilderness activities, it was bigger than I expected. After about 45 minutes or so, we took off for Kugluktuk, about an hour flight.

    Located at the mouth of the Coppermine River in the territory of Nunavut, Kugluktuk was renamed as such in 1996. Nunavut was separated from the Northwest Territories in 1999. A little over 1,400 people live in Kugluktuk. Although it has had a record high in the 80’s F, the average high in August is in the mid-50’s F. 

    When we arrived at the Kugluktuk airport, I understood why there was a need for the earlier tech stop. There is really nothing there. The terminal is a small building that can’t fit many people. The restrooms can’t handle the crowds. 

    Rideshare businesses like Lyft are non-existent, as is public transportation. Our expedition leaders arranged for a school bus to shuttle people from the airport to the Kugluktuk community center, but many of us chose to walk. 

    The day was cold, hovering around freezing, with a slight wind and an occasional snow flurry. It was a good day for a brisk walk. The airport was in the outskirts of town, so we walked past meadows and got a good view of the ship. 

    It would be our home for the next 17 days. There she sat, in the water, waiting for us. It would be some time before we could board. The ship had to clean up from the last guests and ready the cabins for us.

    Being above the tree line, the vegetation is all short. Once in town there isn’t much of it, as dirt roads and simple homes make up the landscape. The social center of town is the community center. It houses regional offices and a large multi-use auditorium where people can gather for dances, sports, and other social activities. 

    The townspeople were friendly, smiling, and talkative both during our walk through town and in the community center. The town seems mainly to populated by Inuit, although we met a non-Inuit couple and their giant white dog who had recently moved there.

    The town welcomed us to the community center where we could get coffee and outfitted with our blue Adventure Canada coats. Many townspeople set up talbes to sell handicrafts—children’s clothing, mittens, and other items. They also invited us to visit the cultural center next door. 

    When the ship was ready, they radioed for us to meet at the dock where Zodiacs would ferry us to the ship. But first we were given a lesson in Zodiac safety, including what to do if someone falls into the cold waters. The transfer process was slow because each passenger and their carry ons had to be searched and passports checked upon embarkation. Our checked bags arrived later, as they went through the ferrying and searching process separately.

    After embarking, we were immediately send to the dining hall to eat, as our schedule was a bit off. After lunch we went to our room to relax and wait for luggage.

    About 16:00 we had a short briefing about the ship in the main Nautilus Lounge. We were sent to our rooms to await the call for the Abandon Ship drill. The drill took awhile to go through, making me wonder if we’d actually make it off in a real disaster given the time that the roll call took. 

     Although this photo makes light of the drill, a few years ago, a ship on this same route struck a rock and had to be evacuated. 

    After the drill, we went back to the room to settle in again before the Inuit welcoming ceremony. Ten Inuit people participated in the ceremony. After an Inuit blessing, one of the Inuk woman lit the Qulliq, a traditional Inuit lamp. That was followed by a drum dance. What a great way to start a voyage!

    As the sun set, we pulled out of Coronation Bay and steamed on to our next destination.