BE­YOND THE ARC­TIC CIR­CLE

Outer Edge - - Contents - By Cameron Webb

“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.

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