“Well,” we thought. “Here we are again!”
I’m talking, of course, about the south arm of Pasley Bay, where the pack ice closing up in the last blog post had herded us as neatly as if it had been planned. There was nothing to worry about, really; the pack was busy filling up the northwest arm, and from the snug anchorage we’d just returned to it was just a distant line of white. Next morning it was still distant, but having filled one arm, was sort of overflowing down into the others. With baleful eyes we watched the pack edge all day while a west wind whistled over the high gray-brown gravel bar that forms Edwards Point, and by evening decided to set an anchor watch against the approach of ice.
It may have been the next morning, or maybe the one after—time runs differently when you haven’t much to do but wait—that I was woken around two AM by the gentle scrunch of ice against chain. It hadn’t been even close when the ice watcher last looked, but we were learning quickly that pack ice can sneak up on you in a moment. The weight of the pack bearing down on the bar-tight anchor chain was forcing the bows toward the water, and we quickly let out a little chain to relieve the pressure. It was a temporary measure, since the ice just pressed onto it again in a few seconds.
After several futile experiments with stretchy bits of rope led aft, and a kedge to windward to swivel the boat in hopes the ice floe would slide by (to what end, with endless floes behind it to take its place?), we made the agonizing decision to slip the cable and tie up to a nearby floe. Usually when the anchor chain is slipped it’s buoyed for future retrieval, but a buoy would just be scrubbed off by the ice in a moment. Instead, we tied a long nylon line to the last link of the chain, and letting that sink to the bottom, took the line ashore in the dinghy and made it fast to a piece of rock. It was to be hoped that the line would lie along the bottom under the ice, and when that cleared, we could retrieve line, chain, and anchor.
Free from the anchor, Polar Sun’s bows bobbed back up, and we rafted up to the nearest convenient floe and tied her on with ice screws of the sort normally used for mountaineering. This was far more comfortable than worrying about the anchor, and Taya, the other unhappy boat that was sharing our prison, soon came over and joined us on the floe, her own anchor at the very end of its chain.
So began the ice-dance that we trod for the next several days. The boat might be steady for a day or an hour against a floe, then within moments the floe would split or the ice would press in tighter and we would have to move quickly to another place. Usually the wind was blowing, making maneuvers difficult, and ever we were backed closer and closer to shore and shallow water. On one exhausting day we moved the boat six times as the pack growled and shifted and split around us. Meanwhile Taya was treading her own measure, sometimes alongside, sometimes, with her shallower draft, closer to the ever-pressing shore.
But you must not think that it was all bad. The icepack, in the glow of early morning, was beautiful to see. Renan, the expedition’s photographer, had a field day with his drones and his underwater camera, and all day the longsuffering Rudy sent cameras and lenses up the mast to him, flew drones, and set up photos to shoot.
There were musk ox onshore, though how they sustained life on the tiny mosses and occasional ground-hugging micro-shrubs is mind-boggling. There was an arctic fox, and there were polar bears. I encountered one, one morning as I walked on the ice near the boat. There he was, quietly blending in with the ice hummocks while I stood out, with my black jacket, like a pimple on a downy cheek. We made eye contact for a split second, then with a cordial nod decided to go separate ways. We had been backing apart slowly for some moments before I had the presence of mind to get out a camera.
All that to say that the only truly regrettable aspect of our confinement was the time that slipped away—nine days’ delay puts the season far along in this region of razor-thin margins, and we went from expecting triumphantly to get to Alaska with plenty of time to survey our options, to wondering whether we’d get there at all this year. Of course, any thought of future days and times was hopeless while we were trapped, because the ice could release us any day, or keep us in for another week, or a month, or a year.
Every day Mark went ashore to walk about and look at the close-packed ice to seaward. Renan improved the time with endless pictures, while I enjoyed, as best I could, the experience of being trapped in Arctic ice—I mean, not everyone gets to do that—and once you got past the grimness of the outlook, there was much beauty and wonder to satisfy the mind and cheer the heart. Were we foolish? Who can say, when every decision has unending variables? Careless? That I do not think, since our vigil never ceased. Unlucky? Perhaps from one perspective, but our time in Pasley bay was one that I, at least, cannot regret, and count myself lucky to have experienced.