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 Ross Expedition.

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 expedition
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 us.

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.