Into the Ice
Return to the Northwest Passage
by Roger B. Swanson
August 11 found us anchored in Port Leopold, a barren windy bay
on the northeast corner of Somerset island about 100 miles south of Resolute. It
looked like a good anchorage for us to wait because it was well protected from
all but south winds and relatively ice free. We went ashore to check out a small
lonely isolated house on the beach, the only thing we could see that indicated
mankind had ever visited here. The deserted house appeared to have been here a
long time but was in reasonably good condition. Walking along the beach we found
a large stone on which was clearly inscribed “EI 1849”. On returning to the boat
we found that James Clark Ross, one of the explorers sent out by Lady Franklin
to search for her husband, had spent 11 months here over the winter of 1848-49.
The expedition consisted of two vessels, Enterprise and Investigator.
|Inscription on stone at Port Leopold left by James Clark
Along the beach we saw what appeared to be the graves but they were not marked
so we know nothing of their origin. Tire marks indicated that an airplane had
landed recently and we found a cache of several drums filled with aviation fuel.
Obviously this place was not as isolated as we first thought. Several campsite
stones and many animal bones indicated that hunters or tourists must
occasionally stop here.
The waiting continued. In addition to the iridium telephone, we were in high
frequency radio contact with Peter Semotiuk at Cambridge Bay located about 500
miles southwest of Port Leopold. Peter maintains a radio network for the purpose
of helping small craft such as ours trying to make the Northwest Passage. We
were also in contact with the Canadian ice information service.
|Chris in galley - he was justifiably proud of this one.
Both Peter and the ice office were concerned about ice concentrations forming
north of us and suggested we move back to Erebus Bay. With some apprehension
concerning how much ice we would encounter, we got underway the evening of
August 15 in winds gusting over 30 knots. Luckily we didn’t find much ice, the
winds eased a few hours later, and we made the 75 mile passage back to Erebus
Bay without any problems.
A week was spent waiting in Erebus Bay for ice conditions to improve farther
south. We often saw polar bears ashore, one day seeing four of them at one time
scattered along the shoreline. This tempered our enthusiasm for taking long
walks along the beach. Our time was occupied in various ways. Boat maintenance
always takes part of our time, but bread baking had become a contest among the
five cooks on board. The goal was to see who could bake the most perfectly
shaped and best tasting loaf of bread when his cook day came around. Cookies and
brownies were other popular items thanks to Gaynelle’s foresight in choosing a
good selection of mixes while provisioning back in Norfolk. Many hours were
spent exploring the Cloud Nine library that contained good variety of
reading material including several books about the Arctic. I sometimes preferred
to find something to read that was totally unrelated with the north to get my
mind off the Arctic and our tedious waiting situation.
On the fifth day the wind started to blow from the east causing us to move to
the east side of the harbor for better shelter. It was well we did because the
wind soon increased to gale force and continued for three days gusting above 50
knots at times. Twenty four hour anchor watches were standard routing, but
fortunately our anchor continued to hold. The constant wind was stressful, but
we were happy to be in a safe anchorage.
|Judd with whale skull at Port Leopold. The James Ross
wintered here in 1848-49.
Finally the wind eased. With improvement reported in the ice conditions to the
south, we were underway the evening of August 24. Since Peel Sound on the west
side of Somerset Island was filled with ice, we headed toward the northeast
corner of Somerset Island and Prince Regent Inlet. Along the way a problem
developed with our refrigeration clutch. Since our route passed close to Port
Leopold again, we put in and anchored for three hours to make the necessary
repairs in calmer conditions. Completing this, we continued south along the west
side of Prince Regent Inlet in relatively ice free water to Fort Ross, 72-00N,
94-13.6W at the east end of Bellot Strait.
Along the east coast of Somerset Island we passed Fury Beach. It was here that
one of Edward Parry’s ships, Fury, was crushed in the ice and had to be
abandoned in 1825. The men were taken aboard his other ship, Hecla, but there
was not enough room for the stores so they were cached ashore on what became
known as Fury Beach. These stores became a godsend seven years later when the
starving Ross expedition traveled overland and was able to reach the cache and
utilize both the stores and Fury’s abandoned boats.
Bellot Strait is a narrow stretch of water 17 miles long that separated Somerset
Island from the Boothia Peninsula. It is completely choked with ice most of the
year, but is the only gateway to the Northwest Passage if Peel Sound is closed.
Bellot Strait is known for swift tidal currents up to 8 or 9 knots in some areas
and is often choked with ice that can either clear or plug solid in less than 24
hours. Another hazard is Magpie Rock that is barely submerged in the middle of
the eastern end of the channel where the currents are particularly swift. Large
chunks of ice can come through this strait like huge bowling balls smashing
anything in their path so it must be approached with caution.
|A full dinghy with Cloud Nine and Jotun Arctic
crew including dogs.
At Fort Ross we meet the 43 foot Norwegian sailing boat, Jotun Arctic,
with its crew of six persons and three sled dogs. The skipper, Knut, and his
wife had spent the last two winters in the Arctic attempting to transit the
Northwest Passage. He told us we were the first sailboat they had seen in two
years! It was nice to have company again and we became close friends. Fort Ross
is an old Hudson Bay trading post, but is no longer occupied. It consists of two
small wood frame houses, one of which is maintained and stocked by a private
research society for the purpose of studying polar bears. They maintain a
working heater, fuel, some provisions, and sleeping facilities, thus providing a
comfortable shelter. I assume it is primarily for their own use, but entry
instructions near the door make it available to other travelers as well. The
windows are carefully boarded up with removable plywood panels and the door is
guarded by 2x4 bars to keep the bears out.
|Cloud Nine crew surveys landscapde near Fort Ross -
Bellot Strait is visible in left background.
We waited another week at Fort Ross that included riding out another 40 knot
gale. The waiting was especially hard because I felt it was becoming dangerously
late in the season. The Canadian ice office as well as others familiar with
Arctic weather patterns had told me that one must wait until September 1st to
see if Franklin Strait will open up. They felt there was still enough time to
turn back and escape to the east if it did not and Knut agreed with this
opinion. With this encouragement we decided to wait until September 1st to make
our decision and Fort Ross was the best place to wait. It had been said that the
Arctic teaches patience. It does, but the stress was beginning to tell on all of
This has been an excerpt from Roger Swanson’s book Into the Ice.
In the next installment Swanson and his crew sail with Jotun Arctic
through the Franklin Strait.
Roger Swanson is from Dunnell, Minnesota. He has cruised Antarctica twice,
almost the Northwest Passage and circumnavigated four times.He has received
numerous international awards for cruising and seamanship.