September 20, 2016
We’re just beginning a month-long scientific journey to the Beaufort Sea on the Canadian icebreaker the CCGS Louis S. St.-Laurent. The Joint Ocean Ice Expedition is a collaboration of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Beaufort Gyre Exploration Program with the Department of Fisheries and Ocean Canada, and I’m here on a National Science Foundation grant to capture in video, photos, and writing the exciting work of scientists who study the Beaufort. Men and women from many parts of the world represented by organizations in Canada, Japan, the United States and China come here in the dropping temperatures of Arctic autumn to study the physical properties of the Beaufort, its currents, chemistry, life forms, and ice formations. Some are new to the Arctic but many return year after year to collect more data. For those few modelers who work primarily in front of a computer screen all day, perhaps this is like nothing they’ve done before.
I wonder why there’s so much interest in the Arctic at this time in the history of the planet? What kind of science goes on here? And who are these devoted scientists drawn to polar regions? How do the newcomers see things, and what about the veterans?
From Burlington, Vermont, I took a Greyhound to Montreal then a plane to St. Johns, Newfoundland, for the night. Leaving the hotel, two of us heading for the ship in the 4 AM darkness. Coming through a roundabout on the way to the airport, the driver said, “New roundabout. Only three roundabouts in the Province [he means all of Newfoundland and Labrador], and there are going to be accidents until everyone gets used to how to handle them.” (Later, I discovered the other man in the van was none other than the captain of the Louis himself, Wayne Duffett, also a Newfoundlander.)
We arrived at Woodward Aviation, Hanger 5, at 4:45 a.m. to check in and weigh our bags. Standing around the waiting room as the men and women of the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) gathered, I noticed only a few young cadets sprinkled throughout, one with a guitar.
Outside was a jet (half cargo/half passenger seats) to fly us the two and half hours north to Iqaluit, Nunavut, on the coast of Baffin Island where we’d refuel and then fly another 3 hours west to Kugluktuk, formerly called Coppermine, home of the “Copper Inuit.” The native people here fashioned the copper they found lying on the beaches with pebbles and rocks into fishhooks, spear points and ulus (knives).
One obvious reason for starting out so early from St. Johns (the time zone is 1.5 hours later than Eastern Time) is that the process of getting the crew to the ship from Kugluktuk is a time-consuming one of helicoptering six people at once, starting with the officers and ending with us, the supernumeraries (as we are called on all the Coast Guard forms). I was in the second to last helicopter trip to the boat, so to kill the hours I walked into town. The tawny and rocky earth and the cold wind off the hard blue sea reminded me of the Norwegian Arctic coast of Vardo at the easternmost tip of Norway, where I’d been last year at this time, looking out over Siberian waters (I’m writing a book about the great polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen who made a great polar expedition in his famous Fram in 1893-96 and came very close to being the first to reach the pole.).
After the Louis’ fresh crew of 55 or so were onboard the icebreaker, a ride of maybe seven minutes per trip, five of us took out our GoPros and point-and-shoots and filmed the helicopter ride over. Never have five people been seen filming each other filming each other filming each other. Hilarious. I got some good GoPro shots over the pilot’s shoulder and Jean Mensa who came on the next and last trip got great footage from the copilot’s seat.
Once on board, we spent our first few hours getting lost in the labyrinthine corridors, us newbies passing each other over and over, moving from deck five to six, back to five, then to four and three and back down to deck five. Every time I left my little cabin on deck 5 (bed, wash basin, small chair, desk and fan) I got lost again, and each time some crew member not only told me how to get to the mess hall, to the bathrooms, to the laundry for fresh sheets and towels, and most importantly back to my own cabin, but he or she actually walked me there making sure I wasn’t gonna be Charlie of the MTA who never got off that train. (Did he ever return? No, he never returned…..) It was a bit embarrassing until one of the crew said, “Don’t worry, we all get lost when we first get onboard.” This is going to be a great trip with so many friendly crew aboard.
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