BEYOND THE ARCTIC CIRCLE
“Jesus Christ is staring at me. His imploring eyes glare at me from the tattered fleece blanket. His crucifixion scene is printed on. Blackened scars from dozens of cigarette burns pock the blanket like a gangrenous shotgun wound. Ironically, considering the scene it depicts, the blanket is nailed to the wall in a poor attempt to cover a shattered window.
A deep, dank smell of wetness infuses my nostrils. Dozens of other once loved religious pictures and postcards adorn the walls of the derelict hunting cabin we have taken shelter in. The serenity of the scenes they portray contrasts sharply with ‘Jeb’, the name scrawled and circled in dripping blood red paint that is etched across the wall in front to me.
Two hundred and fifty miles north of the Arctic Circle, deep in the wilds of Canada’s frozen north, these are not the sights or smells I expected to be waking up to.
All night rainwater has dripped from numerous fistsize holes in the roof. The sound of flowing water has finally got to me. My bladder, beyond full, is on the verge of revolt. I desperately need to pee.
Wriggling clockwise I search hastily for the exit to the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag. Blistered hands fumble painfully with the zip. My body, still adjusting to the harsh reality of this trip, aches from deep within. The first week of an expedition takes a special kind of determination to endure, and an even more special kind of sickness to enjoy. I am obviously not that sick, because all I feel is pain.
Matt groans as I step over him and head for the door. We have long since given up any hope of making progress today. The storm outside continues to unleash its cold, wet fury. I throw on a few layers. My clothing already infused with the ‘lived-in’ stench known to adventurers and the homeless alike.
The smell is simultaneously disgusting and comforting, like a warm embrace from an elderly relative. I struggle into salt encrusted raingear, cover all exposed flesh, and ready myself for the hungry hordes that await me.
The mosquitoes up here should no longer be classified as insects. They are flying leeches, the size of small eagles, with a vampire’s thirst for blood. Going to the bathroom means offering up your best bits as an all you can eat buffet to the insatiable little pricks. Needless to say, its war -- and we are losing on every front.
Before stepping outside I reach for the shotgun, check the safety, chamber a round, and cautiously sling it over my shoulder. If the mosquitoes aren’t bad enough, we are permanently on high alert for Polar and Grizzly bears. Outside an unsettling array of massive paw prints and claw marks pock the mud and sand.
Opening the door I’m relieved to see her still there, a stark white hull sitting forlornly just beyond the reach of an incoming tide. She looks pathetic, like a child’s toy washed ashore by the angry sea. The sight is a slap in the face, a not so gentle reminder of the enormity of this undertaking.
But only eight days into an expected seventy-day expedition things already look bleak. Just three hours after setting off our boat started leaking. Just three days in our main stove stopped working. These and other equipment failures, poor weather and our own lack of preparation have us crawling along, making little progress towards our goal. It remains unspoken, but fear is gnawing away at our resolve minute by minute. The worst thing is I’m not actually sure what I fear most -- the weather, the bears, drowning, lost at sea or merely facing up to my own inadequacies. What I do know is stormy days spent ashore only increase the pressure we feel, and turn up the volume of the scared voices within our heads.
It is with these voices in my ears that six hours later I stand waist deep in the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean. The storm has eased a little, we think. The opportunity to hoist our tiny sails and make good headway has lured us away from the warmth and safety of our sleeping bags and out onto this boiling brine of an ocean.
A wave breaks over the bow and Matt digs out a hard stroke with his left oar to keep us straight. I lower my shoulder and push. Bracing against the stern of the boat I take one, two, three lumbering, lurching steps forward, urging us seaward. Matt’s bearded face grimaces as he begins to uncoil into another stroke.
With momentum building I launch out of the water, and flop belly first into the boat, and then swivel my already freezing legs into the cramped position we steer from.
It’s a 15-minute fight to clear them, but once beyond the breakers we fill our small red sails with 15-18 knots of a bone chilling north westerly wind coming straight off the pack ice just beyond the horizon. One hour ‘on’, one ‘off’, that’s the way we spend our time. It’s too cold to spend more than that motionless, hunched over the tiller steering us north-ward.
The hour ‘off’ is spent doing awkward half squats, or throwing thousands of jabs and uppercuts in a feeble attempt to generate some body heat. In this featureless world the miles pass by in an agonizing mental and physical numbness. That is until the severity of our situation dawns on us.
“We’re gonna have to surf her over that bar!” I scream to Matt, not sure I want to put words to that most horrendous of thoughts. Secretly I’m hoping he won’t hear me. The violence of the wind and waves drown out my words, never to have been uttered. Will that make this hell we are in any less real? He turns sharply to face me, and the look on his face confirms everything I am trying to deny.
Sailing downwind we didn’t noticed the storm, nor the wind and waves building rapidly around us. That is, until now.
Laden down with 450kg of expedition food and camping supplies we are the metaphorical wounded gazelle. The looming storm the lion pride closing in for the kill.
Whipped white and frothy by gale force winds the seas now smother, cover, and coat us. Six-foot, seven-foot, eight-foot waves explode all around. Icy Arctic seawater slaps into our faces, and floods unabated into the boat.
Our beautiful red sails, until recently so full and proud, hang from the mast like crumpled pieces of toilet paper. Another gear failure is preventing us from fully lowering the main sail, adding to our already out of control speed.
We have made a schoolboy error. The storm is back, with renewed vengeance. Clouds the color of charcoal swarm angrily across the horizon, ocean and sky have blended as one. A greyness has enveloped us and we are alone, a tiny speck on this raging sea.
Manically, I fight to steer the boat, as we skid out of control down face after face of steep, snarling waves. Wild eyed, Matt works frantically on our tiny bilge pump, trying his best to reverse the rising water level in the boat. It’s a battle I’m positive he is losing. The lions are closing in and we seem destined to a watery demise.
Inside our increasingly desperate minds is the knowledge that capsizing now will spell certain death for both of us. Quickly hypothermic, the near freezing waters will claim us within minutes, not hours. Wryly I remember a pre-expedition conversation about easing into things before they got ‘tough’. If this is easing into it, then I want to know how to ease out of it.
But there is no easing out of this situation. We have been caught out over 10 miles from shore. Our only chance of survival is a strangely out-of-place sandbar. At least, anywhere else in the world I’d consider it strange to come across a sandbar this far out to sea. Yet here in Kugmallit Bay, we are getting used to finding sandbars in strange places. Over the past seven days we’ve crashed into, bumped around, and skidded over what seems like hundreds of them.
Their presence is courtesy of the mighty Mackenzie River. Draining much of northeastern Canada, each year it dumps 100 million tons of sediment into this remote Arctic bay. The tidal currents and seasonal sea ice then shape and reshape the sediment into an ever-changing array of sandbars.
Ahead of us, plumes of spray erupt into the air like a Las Vegas water show. It’s come to this. Our only chance of survival is to surf this small, heavily laden, open rowboat down the faces of five to eight-foot high breaking waves. Then, scrape our way over a bar of unknown depth, crossing our fingers it is made of more sand than rock; all the while dealing with the now gale force winds and freezing Arctic waters -- and for nothing more than a faint hope that we might find calmer seas on the leeward side of the bar.
The bar is coming at us fast or us at it. One after the other, the waves gain rapidly on us from behind, standing proud and tall for a moment before falling and foaming over and around us. Another one jacks-up and we are off, sliding down its graygreen face. The bow of the boat snaps to the left, and then whips viciously to the right, the tiller snatched out of the death grip I have assumed on it.
I grab and grope to regain it, my focus solely on keeping us straight. Ahead of me Matt is bent over fumbling to find the rope that retracts our keel. A loud metallic clang tells me he has succeeded, just as another wave rocks us dangerously over. Water pours in. We both leap to the high side of the boat, leveraging our bodyweight to balance our wayward steed.
“This is it! We’re going all the way on this one” I yell as a wave hoists our stern high into the air. Thrust forward, we rocket ahead, our date with destiny only seconds away.
Listening closely to the terrible noises emanating from beneath us we wait for the sound that tells us we are done for. But it doesn’t come. The bar is mostly sand. I offer up a hurried thank you to whoever listened to my silent prayers.
With an ominous violence the rudder runs aground and kicks up into the air. I am no longer in control. A heartbeat later the hull smashes against the bottom.
Matt turns and stares at me with imploring eyes. His body poised to explode into a leap overboard and put emergency actions into play. I gesture him to wait and turn around. Grabbing the airborne rudder in my gloved hands I sink it as far back into the water as it will go. Without steerage we will quickly be turned broadside and rolled over. Icy water instantly fills my glove, reminding me again it’s all or nothing up here. We are on our own. Any rescue will come looking for bodies, not survivors.
Just two weeks prior to departure we discovered our boat’s hull hadn’t been re-enforced as arranged with the manufacturer. Already feeling committed we elected to make quick repairs and carry on. As we scrape and screech our way over the bar, solid land still many miles away, I am questioning the sanity of that decision.
Wave after wave simultaneously swamps the back of the boat, and surges us forward. A rooster tail of sand billows behind in our wake. Yet with every inch gained forward the waves lose some of their menace. A half dozen more shunts by passing waves and we will slip off the back of the bar and into deeper water. Gloriously deep, almost waveless, water.
Just as quickly as it was on us, the bar is behind us. We sit stunned, our crumpled mainsail snapping testily overhead. The wind continues to howl but the waves, now less than a foot, slap impotently against us. Half frozen, hungry, and hopped up on adrenalin we needed shelter, pronto. Proper shelter, the kind only dry land can provide.
We also need a place to lick our wounds, to regroup, to reassess. We need time to dip deep, very deep, into the well within and find the confidence to continue. Shrunken and shrivelled, but still alive, as the mutual understanding that backing down from this challenge now will haunt us too much. Some dreams are ok to let go of, but this isn’t one of them. Somehow we must find what we need to carry on.”
Carry on they did. 1,200 nautical miles, 41 days, and two amazing beards later Cam Webb and Matt Mcfadyen hauled their small boat ashore for the last time, short of their goal, but full of adventures.