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Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Bitter Sweet of the Arctic

We wait eagerly in the early morning light, watching fog descend like a waterfall, down glacial carved valleys, clinging to the Arctic earth like a child grasping hold of a mother’s leg. The sun rests behind a clouded curtain touching the ripple-less sea with its stern arms, beaming down and giving us hope that the solar eclipse performance will begin and be what we all hoped it would be. Many folks gathered on the bow, while some of us, weary from little sleep congregate on the bridge, enjoying the warmth and brewing excitement of this significant event. We had placed ourselves in the best position possible to view this phenomenon, in Lancaster Sound in the Canadian High Arctic, nestled beside Prince Leopold Island. People had signed on to this trip specifically to view the Solar Eclipse first hand, and although challenged by fog and ice which slowed us down tremendously, we were here, right on time, awaiting the profound embrace of our dear sun and splendid moon. All of a sudden it was realized that the light was dramatically and suddenly disappearing, as if a dimmer switch was being turned gently, cautiously and deliberately. The many passenger faces I once recognize as they stood on the bow were suddenly shadows, as a thick band of deep orange formed on the horizon and the light disintegrated. Seconds later the entire scene of island and ocean faded into an unfamiliar darkness, where night is foreign to these northern lands at this time of year. The insomniac sun was being blocked by the moon and the nearby nesting birds settled. The breath of Arctic air stalled and lingered as we stood deathly still in absolute awe. Like a lover’s first kiss or that memorable hold, the moon and sun lay against each other, blocking the light that penetrates this planet, yet only for a moment. Frozen, still, silent and mesmerized, we curiously watched what seemed a simple sunrise yet on fast forward, evolving with every blink of our eyes, as the sun was revealed once again by the vanishing shadow of the moon. Wow, astonishing for those that have never witnessed a solar eclipse before and perhaps a slight murmur of disappointment from those who, in the past have observed one without the obstruction of cloud or fog. This was a tough trip to lead, the juggling of all needs and demands from a group of 109 people who journeyed with us in the Arctic bringing with them a variety of expectations, Arctic dreams and desires. I look at the Arctic as I would my office and like any typical office it requires dedication, flexibility, effective communication and a means to roll with the punches. This relatively short season, for me -3 voyages instead of 5, actually felt rather long due to the on going however typical Arctic obstacles, or rather - ice obstacles. The areas which we usually can get in to were chocker blocked with ice causing sudden changes to the itinerary where plan Bs and Cs were often, without a doubt, expected. One significant change stands still fresh in my mind and it was a reminder to even me that there is only so much we can control in this inhospitable and remote polar region, where wind, ice and weather dictate our every move. Like I inform our passengers, “Mother nature is our true expedition leader”. On August 3rd we arrived into Arctic Bay, a small, friendly northern community of 600 people or so, to disembark passengers and embark another 109 fresh faces. By this time we were already on to plan B as ice prevented us from penetrating into our usual community of Resolute to exchange passengers. The town was expecting us and had prepared a performance by local drummers and throat singers, to entertain our disembarking passengers who had the entire day to wait for a 4.30pm plane departure. We also had to clear customs here having visited Greenland prior to entering into Canada. The day began with colorful action when the customs officers, whose luggage had not arrived, were directed by their head office to refuse a zodiac ride to our ship because they did not have their uniform mustang float suits. And so it was arranged that staff and passengers would come to shore, passports in hand, approach the civilian looking custom officers sitting at a school desk perched on the sand and receive clearance using a ink pad that our Captain provided. Shortly after, I was informed by a staff member whom was tasked to find out when and where the performance was taking place, that the entire town was completely unavailable due to the suffering from a ‘big night on the drink’ hangover. Most of the town was intoxicated and sleeping. The night before, a shipment of alcohol arrived on the plane, therefore a mid summer solstice booze up was spontaneously started. Thankfully it was a sunny day as our passengers eagerly awaited their departure from this desolate Arctic town. And then the plane broke. Just before take off, it was announced that the plane will not be taking off due to a mechanical failure. In the same breath while meeting and greeting our keen and eager new passengers, our staff was sending food, sleeping bags and mats to the local gymnasium where our tired, disappointed previous passengers were preparing to spend an entire night, on the floor in Arctic Bay. I was desperately grateful to have our ships doctor, who was also departing with this group, flawlessly and eloquently manage this (what could have been an absolute nightmare) situation. Finally, at 2.30am, I left the shore arriving back to our anchored ship, and feeling like a concerned mother whose children were away from home for their very first time, I tossed and turned in my cabin bunk. The following late morning, the plane, finally fixed, departed as our ship heaved up the anchor to begin Voyage 3. Pee soup fog and ice riddled waters continued to delay us during the beginnings of this trip, however the ice obstacles brought gifts we were all grateful for. Numerous Polar Bears were sighted and Walrus were seen on at least 3 occasions, including a nursing mum and calf, as we excursioned on shore and by zodiac, traipsing on the barren arctic tundra. Greenland granted us with sun-filled days as we hiked on Meadows where Muskoxen grazed near by and zodiacs cruised along side gorgeous glaciers. Soon I too was flying away from this northern land, west coast bound heading for home. I couldn’t resist, with the plane filled with only our voyage 3 passengers, upon our tarmac touch down in Ottawa, getting on to the plane intercom with an announcement – “I would like to inform you all that our landing into Ottawa will be a ‘Dry Landing’. (While onboard, before every excursion I inform our passengers whether the landing will be a dry landing (a dock, gumboots not required) or a wet landing (on a beach, gumboots required) And so…I am grateful for another successful season where once again I was able to cherish the divine Arctic light, enjoy the encounters with staunch and fragile Arctic animals, delight in the beauty of the land and ice as well as treasure the profound interactions with the people of the north. And here, with the challenges of polar travel, was my bitter sweet of the High Arctic. Please note the Arctic poppies and the Inuit child images were taken by Anne L' Hirondelle


Anonymous said...

A wise woman once showed me that Plan C is always the best--never again will I fall for Plan A (boring!).

However, this tale is epic--my goodness--what witness to your skills as a flexible and ardent leader!

--Darcy (not sure when, if ever, you will read a comment on a post this let me remind you I was on the Svalbard, Greenland, Iceland 09 trip...with my mother...)

Anonymous said...

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