Managed Expectations

Crossing Baffin Bay from Greenland to Baffin Island.

The tricky thing about expectations is that no matter how well you lay them out with the best information at hand, they rarely resemble the reality you’re ultimately confronted with.  We had arrived in Ilulissat fully expecting the Baffin Bay ice pack to dissipate by early August so we could casually sail over to the Sam Ford Fjord and rendezvous with a kayaking team that was shooting rapids on Baffin Island.  Well, not only had the ice pack not dissipated, it was 9/10ths coverage in a long tongue all the way up to nearly 74 degrees North—the latitude of the upper tip of Baffin.

First sight of Baffin Island. Several hours later we were in pack ice.

Luckily for the kayakers, they had a backup plan of sorts, which was more than we had—all we wanted to do was get around that ice pack and get into Pond Inlet, the northernmost community on Baffin Island.  The first part of it worked according to our recently managed expectations—we found the ice pack glistering in the midnight sun and got around the top of it with little difficulty.  Then things went south, and so, literally, did we.  A blistering headwind made us fall off almost on a direct course for the ice-choked Sam Ford Fjord, but sailing fast in not quite the right direction is always better than pounding by engine into a hammering chop at three knots.

Our proposed three-day stroll across Baffin Bay turned into a six-day slog, and we made landfall a day’s going south of Pond Inlet, with some pack ice to weave through at the end just because.  Weary and grateful, we dropped anchor behind Nova Zemla Island and slept till late next day.  Waking refreshed, and greeted by a dozen belugas who swam casually by, we had a fine motor up into Pond Inlet, a downwind sail along it, and a late-night arrival at the settlement.

Anchorage at Nova Zemla Island, Baffin.

For nearly the first time, expectations were exceeded positively, in that a brand new breakwall and harbor had been built since the latest edition of the coast pilot, and we had a wharf to tie up to instead of an open roadstead to anchor in.  It was a peaceful interlude after seven days of thrashing uncertainly about in the ocean, and a treat to get fuel delivered to the wharf rather than carry it down in jerrycans.  After the bonanza of fresh supplies in Greenland, the two grocery stores would have been a sad disappointment if we had been in any position to be snobbish.   We weren’t, though, and gladly loaded up on whatever they had.

Navy Board Inlet, with glaciers approaching the water.

Luxurious as the wharf was, its luster faded when an offshore breeze came on to blow Polar Sun right against it, and grind her poor, deflated fenders further into shreds.  Rather than spending a bumpy night snatching against the high walls of steel rip-rap, we took the fair breeze and sailed for the Navy Board Inlet, which connects Pond Inlet with Lancaster Sound to the north.  It was a rollicking sail, dead downwind with nasty patches of cross-swells where tide and winds collided, and scattered icebergs bobbing ponderously in the swell.

Devon Island, with an iceberg that looks like a sleeping cat. Even the wildlife is ice up here.

We had meant to anchor on Bylot Island in Tay Bay, where Alvah Simon wintered aboard his boat the ‘Roger Henry’—you can read about it in his book, “North to the Night”—but found the winds gusting most frightfully katabatic as we approached, and positively shrieking off the high, barren hills as we labored slowly inside.  What had been described to us in Pond Inlet as a natural paradise of wildlife, with narwhal calling to their young across the hills, and polar bears frolicking in sunny meadows while walrus and musk ox capered in the gin-clear water, was instead a raging valley of violent winds tearing up water so thick with mud you could almost dice it.  Any wildlife destined to survive had fled ages before, and we turned tail and followed suit, blasting at length into Lancaster Sound, where the breeze mellowed at last into something rather more civilized.

The Devon shore of Erebus and Terror Bay, approaching the Beechey Island anchorage at midnight.

By late afternoon we had shaken out all the reefs, and were making good time diagonally across the Sound toward Beechey Island, a long-anticipated stopover that I’ll tell you about next time.  For now, though, sailing under the forbidding cliffs of Devon Island, we wondered why these should be shattered limestone while Baffin has more cliffy granite; why jagged peaks there with flat-topped tableland here?  The scenery is as varied as it is majestic, and every bit as bleak as enigmatic.  An imposing place, this topmost corner of the world, rewarding with awe those who brave its dangers, but ready on a whim to punish the foolish, the careless, or simply the unlucky who dare to sail this far.  Expectations mean very little up here, and we would learn in coming days to shelf our expectations and just take each moment as it came.  Stay tuned for what came next, Reader, but don’t expect too much!

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