On­board an Arc­tic Ice­breaker Tony Flem­ing

Passage Maker - - Contents - STORY & PHO­TOG­RA­PHY TONY FLEM­ING

Among high-lat­i­tude junkies, the Rus­sian ice­breaker Kap­i­tan Kh­leb­nikov is a le­gend. Built in Fin­land in 1981, she has spent much of her work­ing life tak­ing in­trepid trav­el­ers to the ends of the Earth. I join this ven­er­a­ble ship at Kanger­lus­suaq, in south­west Green­land, fol­low­ing a char­ter flight from Ot­tawa, On­tario. She has ar­rived here from Vladi­vos­tok, by way of north­ern Siberia, Sval­bard, Ice­land, and the east coast of Green­land.

My fel­low pas­sen­gers are mostly in­vet­er­ate trav­el­ers who seem to have vis­ited ev­ery coun­try imag­in­able. We num­ber around 90, com­pris­ing 18 na­tion­al­i­ties. With­out ques­tion, the per­son who has trav­eled the far­thest is Chris Had­field, who has made sev­eral trips into space, com­mand­ing the International Space Sta­tion in 2013. Like most of those on board, I share a de­sire to visit re­mote and hard-to-reach places. Not for me: loung­ing on a balmy trop­i­cal beach un­der sway­ing palms, nurs­ing a drink sport­ing a minia­ture um­brella. Call me nuts, but I pre­fer to ex­pe­ri­ence na­ture in the raw, where sim­ple sur­vival can­not be taken for granted. That said, I pre­fer to visit such places on a suit­able ship and, when ap­pro­pri­ate, un­der the pro­tec­tive um­brella of an ex­pe­ri­enced tour com­pany. Such a ship is Kap­i­tan Kh­leb­nikov and such a com­pany is Quark Ex­pe­di­tions.


Once aboard, we head for open wa­ter down the 90-mile Son­dre Strom­fjord and, overnight, reach Sisim­iut, Green­land’s sec­ond largest town. This is the only port on the en­tire trip where the ship is able to come along­side and we can walk ashore. Here we take on board 700 tons of fuel, and at a rate of 60 tons per hour, giv­ing us time to tour the town and visit the bustling har­bor.

We travel overnight and an­chor the fol­low­ing morn­ing in Disco Bay, near the town of Ilulis­sat—pop­u­la­tion 4,800—220 miles north of the Arc­tic Cir­cle. Here, we find our­selves in the com­pany of a flotilla of ice­bergs the size of apart­ment build­ings. We wait im­pa­tiently for the Zo­di­acs to be launched and, once aboard in our brightly col­ored anoraks, we head for these breath­tak­ing moun­tains of float­ing ice. Brash tin­kles past the hull of our Zo­diac as we put­ter slowly among these be­he­moths. We are care­ful not to come too close. Their im­mense mass, hid­den be­neath the wa­ter, melts faster than the vis­i­ble 12% above, mak­ing them prone to cap­siz­ing with­out warn­ing. Etched into their sur­face is a his­tory of pre­vi­ous wa­ter lev­els—of­ten at an­gles strik­ingly dif­fer­ent from the cur­rent wa­ter­line. Float­ing just on the sur­face is a pod of hump­back whales, ex­hibit­ing a be­hav­ior called log­ging.

Af­ter lunch aboard ship, the Zo­di­acs take us to Ilulis­sat. Size­able chunks of ice drift around the bustling har­bor, but they do not in­ter­fere with the rare lux­ury of a dry land­ing. Af­ter a de­mand­ing up­hill hike, we reach a curvy board­walk lead­ing to a place that over­looks the as­ton­ish­ing—and sober­ing—river of ice stem­ming from the Ja­cob­shavn Glacier. Des­ig­nated a UNESCO World Her­itage Site in 2004, this is one of the few places where the Green­land ice sheet, which cov­ers 80% of the coun­try, is in direct con­tact with the sea. Along its 6-mile face, this glacier re­treats 130 feet ev­ery day, dis­charg­ing as much as 20 mil­lion tons of ice— enough to sup­ply New York City with wa­ter for a year.

Con­tin­u­ing north, our next port of call is Uum­man­naq, 70 de­grees north lon­gi­tude and 375 miles above the Arc­tic Cir­cle. Founded by the Danes in 1763, it has a pop­u­la­tion of nearly 1,300. The mir­ror-calm wa­ter re­flects many sculpted ice­bergs drift­ing serenely around the ship. The town it­self is dom­i­nated by a dis­tinc­tive fin­ger of bar­ren rock al­most 5,000 feet high. We are lucky to en­joy another dry land­ing from the Zo­di­acs and spend sev­eral hours ex­plor­ing Green­land’s third largest town. From here, the ship heads deeper into the fjord for a helicopter ex­cur­sion over the Store Glacier. In the helicopter, we skim mere feet above the heav­ily crevassed sur­face, pock­marked with pools of azure melt­wa­ter.

A day at sea takes us 400 miles north through Baf­fin Bay past Cape York where we had hoped to land. Fog thwarts these plans,

though, and we are un­able to catch even a glimpse of the cape. Ex­pe­di­tion-style cruis­ing re­quires a flex­i­ble sched­ule, and just like plea­sure cruis­ing, the weather is al­ways the ul­ti­mate ar­biter of when or where we can go. We con­tinue on to Parker Snow Bay, where we are of­fered a choice of three hikes—long, medium, or con­tem­pla­tive. As usual, I choose the last. Even this “re­lax­ing” hike re­quires walk­ing over loose stones or boggy muskeg. A weath­ered hut on the beach re­mains the sole me­mento of a long-de­parted ex­pe­di­tion. The rocks are dec­o­rated with color­ful lichens. Over­head a skein of geese flies in line astern, their mourn­ful cries pen­e­trat­ing the si­lence.

Our last port of call in Green­land is Qaanaaq, pre­vi­ously named Thule. I arise early to pho­to­graph ice­bergs bathed in the pale light of dawn be­fore they fade from view be­hind a shroud of mist. There is no jetty and the Zo­di­acs ground on a muddy shore for a wet land­ing. We hike up the un­paved main street to the mu­seum, where an Inuit guide de­scribes the tech­niques used to hunt nar­whals from kayaks. Stealth is the key. Pad­dles with nar­row blades are used to re­duce splash. The hunters com­mu­ni­cate in whis­pers and ap­proach from a di­rec­tion that does not cast shad­ows on the wa­ter ahead of the kayaks. A tra­di­tional hand-thrown har­poon is used to at­tack the nar­whal. It is at­tached to a blad­der fash­ioned from seal­skin, which helps to tire the wounded an­i­mal when it dives. Our guide tells us that the amount of ice has greatly di­min­ished in re­cent years, mak­ing hunt­ing in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult.

We fol­low a rough track to the ceme­tery where graves are dec­o­rated with ar­ti­fi­cial flow­ers, as the gen­uine ar­ti­cle can nei­ther grow nor sur­vive in this en­vi­ron­ment. Tufted heads of cot­ton grass dance like bal­leri­nas in the brisk wind. Along the way, we pass many sled dogs pegged to their ken­nels, await­ing the ar­rival of snow. A promi­nent satel­lite dish brings a mixed bless­ing. On one hand it con­nects peo­ple to the out­side world but, on the other—es­pe­cially to the young—it brings home the scope of op­por­tu­ni­ties avail­able to oth­ers liv­ing in less iso­la­tion.


Thus far, our jour­ney up the west coast of Green­land has been within the bounds of fea­si­bil­ity for a well-con­ceived and well­con­structed yacht. The main prob­lems have been that the area is ex­tremely re­mote and the weather win­dow for safe cruis­ing is ex­tremely short. Although a few cruis­ing boats with hardy crews have suc­cess­fully nav­i­gated the area we have cov­ered so far, the re­gions we plan to visit from here on re­quire a true ice­breaker, such as Kh­leb­nikov, whose cut­away spoon-shape bow is de­signed to ride up on top of the ice, forc­ing it to give way to the weight and mo­men­tum of the ship.

It is the evening of Au­gust 29 when we leave Green­land and en­ter the even more re­mote Cana­dian High Arc­tic. When I awake the fol­low­ing morn­ing, the ship is drop­ping an­chor off the small ham­let of Grise Fiord. A shore party from the ship heads for the beach to pick up a pair of Cana­dian im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cers who have flown to this re­mote spot to clear the ship and check our pass­ports. There is a heavy swell run­ning, and break­ing waves along the shore make the land­ing wet and haz­ardous.

The Cana­dian au­thor­i­ties will not per­mit Kap­i­tan Kh­leb­nikov to fly her twin-en­gine Rus­sian he­li­copters in Cana­dian airspace, so two smaller Cana­dian he­li­copters have flown about 2,000 miles from Alma, Que­bec, to reach this spot. This haz­ardous jour­ney has taken their pi­lots four days and 25 fly­ing hours. Along the way they have had to re­fuel 14 times, mostly from jerry cans car­ried on board. On their last night, vis­i­bil­ity closed in and they had to land on Devon Is­land in po­lar bear coun­try, sleep­ing one eye open on the helicopter’s pon­toons.

Grise Fiord is on Ellesmere Is­land at 76 de­grees 24 min­utes north lat­i­tude, 750 miles north of the Arc­tic Cir­cle. Here, the sea

re­mains frozen for 10 months of the year, the ice only break­ing up by mid-Au­gust. From May to Au­gust the sun never sets, and from Oc­to­ber to mid-Fe­bru­ary it never clears the hori­zon. The av­er­age an­nual tem­per­a­ture is 3 de­grees F. Grise Fiord’s Inuit name Au­juit­tug trans­lates as “the place that never thaws.” The com­mu­nity has one res­i­dent nurse, and once per year a doc­tor and a sup­ply ship visit.

Grise Fiord is now a thriv­ing com­mu­nity of 150 res­i­dents, but it has a shame­ful his­tory. This set­tle­ment, to­gether with the town of Res­o­lute, was cre­ated by the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment in 1953 to as­sert sovereignty in the High Arc­tic dur­ing the Cold War. To cre­ate this set­tle­ment, the gov­ern­ment com­pelled eight Inuit fam­i­lies from Inukjuak, lo­cated on the eastern shore of Hud­son Bay in Que­bec, to re­lo­cate 1,375 miles to a re­mote spot not far from Grise Fiord. The rea­son given was that there were too many peo­ple in Inukjuak to sup­port sus­tained hunt­ing of cari­bou and moose. Af­ter be­ing promised homes and am­ple game to hunt, the re­lo­cated fam­i­lies were dumped on the bar­ren shore to dis­cover no build­ings and very lit­tle fa­mil­iar wildlife in this tree­less, bleak, and frigid place. They were told that they could re­turn home af­ter a year if they chose, but this of­fer was later with­drawn. They were pawns in a game of international pol­i­tics.

Con­di­tions are too rough to al­low us to land safely on the ex­posed beach, which is a great dis­ap­point­ment for the school­teach­ers and chil­dren who have or­ga­nized a spe­cial show for us in the vil­lage assem­bly hall. A few kids, their ded­i­cated teach­ers, and the most el­derly woman in town are flown onto the ship by helicopter. This group puts on a much-ab­bre­vi­ated show for us in the ship’s au­di­to­rium. We then have an op­por­tu­nity to learn about lo­cal crafts. Among the Quark team trav­el­ing aboard the ship with us is Kataisee, an Inuit woman from Baf­fin Is­land. She has been ed­u­cat­ing us about Inuit cul­ture, which in­cludes the mak­ing of Inuit-style mit­tens.

Af­ter leav­ing Grise Fiord, we pass through Hell Gate, a chan­nel two miles wide and sub­ject to strong cur­rents. The moun­tains on ei­ther side are hid­den from view be­hind cur­tains of mist and driv­ing snow. Float­ing rafts of pack ice in­crease in num­ber and size un­til they co­a­lesce into a solid bar­rier. Kh­leb­nikov plows stead­fastly ahead, frac­tur­ing the ice with spi­dery cracks that splin­ter and widen as they zigzag ahead of the bow. The for­ward

deck is a great place to watch—and feel—the clash of mighty forces. On rare oc­ca­sions when brought to a halt, the ship backs up and charges for­ward at full speed, ram­ming the un­yield­ing bar­rier un­til it splits apart to let us through. On the bridge of the Kh­leb­nikov, which is open at all times ex­cept dur­ing crit­i­cal ma­neu­vers, is the per­fect place to ob­serve the tech­niques used to nav­i­gate through ice.


On the af­ter­noon of Septem­ber 1, we reach Tan­quaray Fjord, which, at 81.4 de­grees north lon­gi­tude, is our most northerly point. We are now a mere 470 miles from the North Pole. Af­ter another wet land­ing on a stony beach, the keen walk­ers (des­ig­nated “Vik­ings”) among us are first ashore and, ac­com­pa­nied by an armed es­cort, set off on a long hike up a lo­cal moun­tain. As usual, I opt for the less tax­ing “con­tem­pla­tive” ram­ble. This place is ad­min­is­tered by Parks Canada, which has a base here, but the build­ings are closed and locked, be­cause the staff has al­ready left for the sea­son. A Cana­dian flag crack­les in the wind and a wind­sock marks the un­sur­faced airstrip. A col­lec­tion of an­cient equip­ment lies aban­doned in the snow.

We ram­ble for a cou­ple of hours ex­am­in­ing moss, lichens, a pur­ple sax­ifrage, and wil­lows just a few inches high—the best they can man­age in this harsh en­vi­ron­ment. A trunk the width of a thumb may have as many as 150 rings, indicating just as many years of growth.

On our re­turn to the ship, a bar­be­cue ap­pears on the fore­deck. The crew has se­lected a wide range of meats and, for dessert, baked ap­ple stuffed with marzi­pan. It’s been a long time since I tasted baked ap­ple and what a won­der­ful set­ting in which to do it, with the sur­round­ing moun­tains bathed in pale Arc­tic sun­light.

Af­ter lunch, I take my first ex­cur­sion aboard the Cana­dian he­li­copters. Each flight skims over the sur­face of the ad­ja­cent glacier and then lands to pick up the next group, al­low­ing ev­ery­one 30 min­utes on the ground be­fore re­turn­ing to the ship. The view from the top of the glacier is stun­ning and the si­lence to­tal—when not shat­tered by the roar of the he­li­copters. On the re­turn jour­ney, we sweep down a nar­row gully just feet away from the heav­ily fis­sured side of the glacier.

The days pass in a blur as the ex­pe­di­tion team works to cram in as many ex­cur­sions as pos­si­ble. For each ad­ven­ture, no mat­ter by Zo­diac or helicopter, we need to dress in wa­ter­proof pants, muck boots, anorak, and PFD—plus, of course, a hat, gloves, and cam­era(s). Pil­ing on all this gear in the warmth of the ship’s in­te­rior is an ex­haust­ing process, and it’s ac­tu­ally a re­lief to go out­side where the tem­per­a­ture is be­low freez­ing and a stiff wind adds to the chill.

An Aus­trian ca­ter­ing com­pany pro­vides ex­cel­lent meals, pas­tries, and teatime treats with re­mark­able con­sis­tency, con­sid­er­ing reg­u­lar sched­ules are of­ten dis­rupted by un­planned events. One night, the evening meal is de­layed by the dis­tant sight­ing of a po­lar bear on a large ice floe. We have just set­tled down for din­ner when word ar­rives about another nearby bear. There is a mad ex­o­dus from the din­ing room, and we rush on deck to see a most beau­ti­ful bear just a few yards away from the ship. He is cu­ri­ous but does not seem un­duly dis­turbed by the pres­ence of the great alien ob­ject so close to him.

On our sec­ond-to-last day, the cap­tain rams the ship onto an ice floe to en­able us to dis­em­bark and pho­to­graph the ship. The ice is not suf­fi­ciently sta­ble to use the reg­u­lar board­ing Tour de Force

lad­der, how­ever, so we once again board the Zo­di­acs, which are then run at speed onto the edge of the floe. From here we can in­spect the bow of the ship, which looks re­mark­ably un­scathed af­ter the abuse it has taken. Once back on board, we take turns on helicopter flights to view the ship while she is un­der­way, thrust­ing her way through the ice.


On our last evening, we an­chor off Beechey Is­land and at 8 pm, with only one hour of day­light re­main­ing, we take a long, rough Zo­diac ride to the shore where we have to sur­mount a snow­drift to leave the beach. We trudge through knee-deep snow to four lonely grave mark­ers. Three are mem­bers of the ill-fated Franklin Ex­pe­di­tion, which left Eng­land in 1845 and tried in vain to dis­cover the North­west Pas­sage aboard the ships HMS Ere­bus and HMS Ter­ror. The fourth grave marks the fi­nal rest­ing spot of a sailor from HMS In­ves­ti­ga­tor who reached this spot from the Pa­cific Ocean. At the time these vic­tims were laid to rest, no party had tran­sited the en­tire North­west Pas­sage. Ironic how the bod­ies of men who had com­pleted dif­fer­ent halves of the pas­sage are buried here to­gether in this bleak and lonely spot.

All 129 men on the Franklin Ex­pe­di­tion died. For 11 years fol­low­ing their dis­ap­pear­ance, a suc­ces­sion of ex­pe­di­tions from Eng­land searched for clues, but the fate of the miss­ing men and ships re­mained an enigma. Then, af­ter years of renewed search­ing by Parks Canada, the re­mains of HMS Ter­ror were fi­nally lo­cated just eight days af­ter our visit to Beechey Is­land. Those of HMS Ere­bus had pre­vi­ously been found, two years ear­lier, in the fall of 2014.

Overnight we reach the set­tle­ment of Res­o­lute, which, like Grise Fiord, was another place se­lected for the re­lo­ca­tion of Inuit dur­ing the 1950s. The Kh­leb­nikov has to an­chor well off­shore be­cause of shal­low wa­ter. This is where I, along with nu­mer­ous other pas­sen­gers, leave the ship and, in true ex­pe­di­tion tra­di­tion, the weather has the last word. A stiff breeze whips up the sea so the Zo­di­acs tak­ing us ashore are bounc­ing up and down about four feet at the base of the lad­der. Dressed in full gear and en­cum­bered with check-in bag­gage, board­ing is quite a chal­lenge, but once aboard we hang on tightly, duck­ing the spray as the driv­ers skill­fully ride the waves, ne­go­ti­at­ing their way be­tween bizarrely shaped ice floes grounded in the shal­lows. This land­ing is es­pe­cially wet and, af­ter plod­ding through snow, we board a bus for the ho­tel where we are re­lieved of our boots, which had been pro­vided for the du­ra­tion of the trip. In a fi­nal twist, the first bus to the air­port skids off the icy road on the re­turn jour­ney and the re­main­ing pas­sen­gers—of which there are quite a num­ber—are brought to the air­port, four at a time, in a com­man­deered four-wheel drive ve­hi­cle.

It re­mains doubt­ful whether the air­craft will come at all due to the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing weather but, to our great re­lief, ar­rive it does, and we are fi­nally on our way. The Boe­ing 737 takes five hours fly­ing time to reach Ot­tawa from Res­o­lute—em­pha­siz­ing the vast­ness of the dis­tances to the places we have seen. It has been a mem­o­rable trip, su­perbly or­ga­nized, aboard a leg­endary ves­sel.

Top: Built in 1982, the diesel- elec­tric ice­breaker has trans­ported crew and ad­ven­tur­ous pas­sen­gers hun­dreds of thou­sands of miles through the icy wa­ters of the Arc­tic and Antarc­tica. Mid­dle: Clothes and fish are hung out to dry in Qaanaaq, for­merly...

Op­po­site Left: Green­land is sparsely pop­u­lated and vil­lages are dom­i­nated by the im­men­sity of their sur­round­ings. Above: Po­lar bears rely on the pack ice in their hunt for seals. This bear may never have seen a ship be­fore and came within 40 me­ters—...

Stand­ing on the bridge while the Rus­sian ship, Kap­i­tan Kh­leb­nikov, breaks the ice north and west of Green­land.

Above: Brash ice sur­rounds our Zo­diak as we cruise be­tween ice­bergs calved from Jakob­shavn Glacier at Ilulis­sat. In this one lo­ca­tion, up to 20 mil­lion tons of ice are re­leased from the Green­land ice­cap ev­ery day— enough to keep New York city with...

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