Farthest North

Northwest passage
Beechey Island, at 74 1/2 degrees North latitude.

It was cold as Polar Sun motored at length into the spacious bay behind Beechey Island, and we were grateful there was no wind to further chill the person who ventured out of the enclosure to drop anchor a couple hundred yards from shore.  The coolness was no wonder: we were above 74 degrees of north latitude—the northernmost point of this voyage—and even though it was the warmest time of summer, with the sun of midnight bathing the majestic cliffs that surround Erebus and Terror Bay, the cold was deep and abiding.

We were here, even though it’s a little out of the way for a Northwest Passage transit, to visit the memorials to the long-lost Franklin Expedition and the three graves of the first of that ill-fated party to perish in the Arctic.  We went first to the east corner of the island, where just before a cliff rises steeply into the sky, a cluster of small monuments and cairns stands on gravel terraces.  The ground around is scattered with hundreds of barrel staves and hoops, rusty cans primitively soldered, and the small timbers of wrecked boats.  The cans and barrels, and a flattened coal heap behind the ruins of a stone and timber hut, were supplies left by a relief expedition in hopes that some of Franklin’s lost men would find their way back to Beechey Island.

I was expecting the monuments on the terrace above the hut to be in keeping with the vast solemnity of the place.  It was foggy by now, and the forbidding gray landscape invited sober introspection into the brevity of life and all that.  Of course there was a marble slab to commemorate the lost Fraklin, and a brass plaque placed by McClintock, who came looking for him, but then there were other memorials completely unrelated, as though everyone wanted to carve their name on the same tree: people who had nothing whatever to do with the tragedy that had begun to play out here, but simply wanted to slap a cairn or plaque in a place where the one or two passers-by each year would see it while looking for something else.  Seriously, why not stick their mark anywhere else on Devon Island, or someplace more remote?  It seemed dreadfully tacky, and we were glad the graves of Franklin’s crew were off at the farther end of the beach, unsurrounded by hangers-on of later decease.

But we didn’t spend too much time navel-gazing at Beechey: there was an opening through the pack ice to Peel Sound, and no telling how long it would stay open, so after taking a quick dip just so I could say I’d swum at our Farthest North—an investment that paid immediate and large dividends of regret—we got an early start across Barrow Strait.

Peel Sound is notorious for being choked up with ice—completely impassable some years—but after some tense moments circumventing pack ice near the entrance, we found it completely open and enjoyed a glorious sail south-along with the asymmetrical spinnaker.  As the following wind gradually died and was replaced by stillness, we took a look at the forecast and began grimly to survey our options.  There was a southerly gale predicted, and the best refuge was blocked by ice—ice that the wind would surely blow into the path of a boat hove-to outside to ride it out.  The next best option was Pasley Bay, in one of whose arms we’d be safe from the blow, but Pasley is notorious for ice, and there was a good chance the ice would blow straight up there and trap us in.

Northwest passage
South Arm of Pasley Bay

There were no good choices, but the gale was a certain danger while the ice, so far, was just a chance, so we decided to ride it out in the shelter of the southern arm.  It was surely the right choice wind-wise: after re-anchoring several times to escape shifting floes in the bay, we rode the gale out unscathed, and made for the exit the moment the breeze died down.  In company with another boat that had sheltered with us, we steamed south until we encountered thick pack ice blocking the way.  Who knows if perhaps we would have found a way through it if there hadn’t been a dense fog?  Who knows if, fog or not, we would have tried to force through it if we’d known what was coming ahead?  It’s often easy to know what one should have done, but that’s rarely a luxury of the moment.

Turning around, we tried to find our way past the other end of the ice, hoping to get into a harbor thirty miles to the north, but the ice was thick all the way to shore five miles from Pasley. Polar Sun was in a diminishing pocket of water, closed off in all directions. Disgruntled, we turned back for Pasley Bay, and wound up racing an edge of the pack as it drifted inexorably across the entrance.  We made it through, by dint of bar-tight sheets and roaring engine, half a moment before the door clanged shut, as it were, barely the proverbial biscuit-toss from land, and with just inches below the keel.

Northwest passage
Bleak landscape at Pasley Bay

We were glad, Reader, glad! to squeak safely back into Pasley Bay, but I wonder what we would have felt had we known we were going into our very own prison of ice.  Perhaps it’s best we didn’t know, and could feel relief, at least for a time, at being out of the pack and into the bay, which stretched before us without so much as an ice cube in sight.  Were we foolish, or careless, or unlucky?  In the Arctic it doesn’t seem to matter: ice will serve all three the same fate, and give them all the same chance.  Perhaps I’ll leave it to you to judge which we were in the next installment.

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