Fjords, glaciers – bears and icebergs.

Phew! C’est fini!

So I’m sitting here, alone in my bunk room with one of those ukulele songs playing on repeat. Perfecto. It seems like there are a lot of “Pfews”, ‘Whews”, and general sighs while I write – but the past two days take the cake. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing to complain about up here, except for the need of a few good sleeps.

Rewind three days – we’re hightailing it out of Greenland waters (where the Americans wouldn’t let us land). Fast forward one day – and I wake up in a fjord (Gibb’s) on the northeast coast of Baffin Island. I don’t think I can do it justice – it’s hard to paint a picture of it. You wake up and look out your window and cannot see the sky because of the vertical rock next to you, so you stumble across the ship and try the other side – but same thing. By the time you get back to your room, don a light coat and toque, and get outside – the sun is coming up and all you can see are giant pillars of rock with ice blue glaciers careening down their sides. Half an hour later the captain announces that there’s a polar bear ahead – so this time you’re smart enough to get out the legit winter coat, gloves and a camera. There certainly is a mama with her two cubs tracing the water’s edge apparently waiting for sea ice to form for easier travel. Yah, nothing to complain about.

And the day just got better. Emails (when the satellite signal was able to reach us) confirmed all my beacons for the next day were up and running (I’m seriously having dreams about beacons – nightmares about power supplies and deactivation magnets being left on). So I put on so many layers I looked like Little Tommy from A Christmas Story and hopped in the barge for an afternoon of AUV testing – mapping the side of one glacier reaching the water. The always-cooperative, cold-loving, light-as-a-feather submarine actually dove, collected data, and came back to us! Miracles!

All of this was the perfect set up for Saturday (fast forward one more). 6:30 a.m. at the officer’s wheelhouse (bridge) showed just the faintest edge of PII-B (aka Piib, Vanilla Ice II, looking for other name suggestions…?).  Clear skies, little wind, calm waters, a balmy -8 C (I’ll take it!). The barge was off with the AUV team for their last shot at mapping under an iceberg. Promptly at 9 am when I was to leave for the first site with my stalwart volunteer team members, John and Steeve, lady winter decides to unleash in vigour. I was pretty sure we were done right there, since the helicopter wasn’t going to fly in anything like that. So we wait, and wait, and wait. As we wait, the captain and crew brainstorm alternate transportation onto the ice, including a hydroplane boat, ski-doo, and being dropped over the side of the bow in a cage! Thankfully the faintest window in the clouds appeared during that last discussion and we were off.

This island is double the size of PII-Ba (Piiba, also needing a new name) at 12 x 6 km. With visibility so poor the best aerial shot looks like this:

Melt line through Piib.

Even with a much larger surface area than Piiba, her thickness was much less and in spots the walls sloped easily to the sea, making for prime polar bear habitation. So after a thorough fly around, Guillaume (our hero who I found out piloted the helicopter in Resident Evil (which he also says is a terrible flick?)), drops us off and we get straight to work. Taking the same two volunteers worked amazingly well – everyone knew the routine and we took 45 minutes off of our site time on last weeks island. The only glitch came while I tried to take thickness measurements with my home-grown radar system. There are so many cords and connections, that something is bound to disconnect – and when the snow starts flying once again, you can’t see the screen of your instrument, snow is crunching in your laptop keyboard and the heli pilot radios that he is coming immediately, you start punching every button available – and if you’re lucky you just may hit the one that is freezing your screen! (P.S. I did figure out the problem w/ the settings).

The tough guys.

Just add that to the adrenaline rush, pack up exactly when the helicopter arrives and get back on board. For sure that was going to be the last trip, especially when someone on board sees a polar bear swimming in the water off the island. But we stay on standby throughout lunch and the afternoon, with Gui giving the go ahead (with a weary captain’s ‘ok’) around 2:30. Somehow I’m allowed onto PII-B one more time. As Gui flies away, we are radio-ed to be told we have 45 minutes. No pressure! Procedure may have been altered  slightly, but everything was completed – and more! I’ve gotten to do a few heli trips now, but my heart is always in my throat during boarding. Crouching over our equipment, the heli landed less than 2 meters from our heads (in a snow storm). Later, Gui tells me that is nothing, and if it was bad would’ve landed his front skid 6 inches from us. We’d be his reference point! He did tell us that on the first landing in the morning, all the snow flying around gave him nothing to refer to, so he used the smallest crack in the ice and landed perfectly. Basically, I’m just saying that he is the reason we were able to do anything yesterday.

I think it was during the first sight, that word over the radios let us know that my friends on the barge actually got Gavia the AUV under the ice. Somehow, on the last day of this three month project, everything was coming together. The ship was even doing casts for nutrient and salinity/temperature analysis – and got in 8 out of the 8 stations around the berg. Field work is fun and awesome, but last night I was happy to be done, especially with all the back and forth, yes and no kind of day we had.

I don’t know what else you’ll be getting on this little blog on the way home. We’re steaming south and science work is pretty well wrapped up. I’m sure on the one week transit I can come up with something fun.

Have a great week everyone!


Programming Dungeon

My favourite so far:

Floating Ice Castle

Hello again!

The seas are a rolling here in Disco Bay, near Thule, Greenland (US Airbase) where we came to seek shelter for the night. The 100 km hour winds out at sea haven’t reached us here, but the swells certainly do. I didn’t even have to touch the slope controls on the treadmill today – the seas produced natural terrain for me!

It has been a few days since all the ice ops excitement, and I must confess that the shifting from field work to data crunching was a bummer to get used to.

8000 feet up, ¨Vanilla Ice¨

Between learning new mapping software for a school course and then being coached (extremely patiently) through MatLab to correct for iceberg drift (which occurred while the AUV guys mapped the underwater draft of the berg while I was on top), my head was about to explode. 3 1/2 days later I was allowed up for air, out of the deep depths of the ship.

Approaching Greenland

And that’s all I have to report! Greenland looks like an adventure waiting to happen though. The high ups at the air base would not let us disembark onto their territory today, but I am tempted to bribe our Icelandic team member to take me kite skiing across the icecap.

I think it is about time not to just write about whatever it is I do all day here.

So, A One Month, Ship-board Arctic Survival Guide:

1. Bring your Gravol and ginger chews – not getting sick on ferry crossings does not translate into seasickness immunity.

2. Do not have said ginger chews in plain view.

3. Do not eat all said ginger chews before you even get anywhere near rougher seas.

4. Learn how to say NO in multiple languages. A good friend has taught me well in English. It must be perfected for use en francais as well. If you are incapable, you may get sucked into promising to sing a Neil Young cover at the next bar night backed up by guitar and harmonica.

5. When packing your one nice Sunday outfit, remember that you on board with many lovely french ladies – and when they dress up, it is serious. Heels, not Birkenstocks, are the footwear of choice – and wearing the same outfit three Sundays in a row just is out of any realm of possibility.

6. Come up for air. As in, do not get stuck underwater looking at computer screens for days on end. Non-circulated ship air is a must for proper brain functioning.

7. Ask before you eat the unknown. This goes for anywhere actually. Consequences in previous postings.

8. Prepare music. You may require other genres to balance the cowboy country from the kitchen, heavy metal on the ship TV channel, classic rock in the bar or instrumental covers of 80s hits available in The Sweatbox.

9. If you don’t, you may be stuck listening to three of your little brothers ukulele recordings on repeat.

10. No matter how much you loved having the top bunk as a kid, it may be worth fighting for the bottom bunk for this extended period of time.

11. Sip a little wine, see how your french improves! Call it practice.

12. Build up your karma and pray to whomever you choose – that you will have chill work mates with good senses of humour. Or it will be a long trip!

13. Befriend the helicopter pilot. He is a good guy to know and creates the fun around here!

14. Take advantage and make yourself the hit of the ship and buy everyone a round at the bar on Tuesday night. Cheapest place you will ever do it at 2 dollars a beer.

15. Do not hesitate to break out the extra-large, extra orange float suit. It is cozy, if not flattering.

The suit that is meant to float, not fly.

Just keep swimming…

Holy man. buckle down, this could be an epic.

I’m sandwiched on my cozy top bunk, curled up under the covers writing. I’m not a big napper, but I thought after the adrenaline filled past 48 hours I would surely conk out. Oh well, I’m pretty much guaranteed a sleep of the dead tonight.

So! Rewind to Wednesday, the day that I thought it was Tuesday until about 7 pm. The day was spent just getting ever detail settled – the tools were packed, everything charged up fresh in my bag of electronics (3 GPS units, 1 GPS/radio, 3 GPS tracksticks, 2 cameras…), my volunteers from the crew and science personnel sorted out (John and Steve will appear later in this tale I’m sure), beacons ready (ha, we’ll talk about that later too), my ablation stakes all painted lovely and clashing orange and red… and that lovely computer program that Richard worked up for me was running like a charm on my laptop. Things were looking good!

So good I tried to get a run in the sweatbox squeezed in after dinner. Halfway through the captain called us in for a briefing on how the ops were going to look the next morning though. Guillaume, our helicopter pilot, was there as well along with the AUV team who were going to give our good friend Gavia another run. Again, all systems go! We were hesitant that the weather was going to box us in. Thankfully we woke to a gorgeous sunrise and we were packing up the heli promptly at 9. It’s a crazy feeling, being the one in charge of such an outing. It meant a lot for me to get everything just right – as so much time, energy and resources (and not just my own) were put into the project. And it was a one shot deal.

So the day’s plan: get the helicopter up to take pictures of the entire iceberg for geometry analysis later, survey where we want the 2 sites to be set up, land and do all work at station 1, be picked up the helicopter and repeat at station 2, get back in the helicopter and try to recover a beacon that had been placed on the ice island (PII-Ba by the way – which John, Steve and I have renamed ‘Vanilla Ice’) over the summer. This last item was considered to be a bonus, as it was a white canister air deployed on the island, possibly covered by snow and ice, and poor coordinate readings. So for me, last on the list!

Site 1, Steve gets down to work with the ice auger. I brought a drill and multiple batteries for the guy, but nope – he enjoyed the manual labour (and I think it kept him warm). 5.5 meters later and he’s still lookin’ good. Meanwhile I’m setting out 4 of those aforementioned GPS units around the area (we were going to have good coverage, no doubt). They were actually for the AUV team, god bless them, for if they were to actually get under the ice island. The GPS were necessary to record the drift of the ice island (moving about 1/8th of a nautical mile/hour) so they could make sense of the data coming from below. Check that, on to reconstructing my pretty ablation stakes (for surface melt readings) – these had to be reconstructed since the PVC conduit lengths wouldn’t fit in the helicopter as they were. The drill did come in handy for this little operation. On to ground penetrating radar measurements (GPR) to record the total ice thickness. This was the part I was holding my breath for the entire morning, as my little Palmtop had ceased to exist and the batteries would run dry awfully quick, and more so in the cold. Presto, Richard’s dream program came through and amazing graphs were actually produced. Probably not as exciting to anyone looking at this, put to me, oh it was a relief.

Stake in, beacon tied on. Check, check. 2 hours down. Call in the helicopter to move on about 5 km down the ice. This thing is 6 k long and 2 k wide. Don’t melt on me by next fall!

Ok, so site 2 was exactly the same. But we were moving fast with the practice.

What you really want to know, is how incredibly awesome it is out there. Sorry to bore you with the dry stuff. I’ll say it again – I have no idea how I came to be so fortunate to be doing work up here. It’s as real as it gets. The island was so big, I could have been on some polar desert with no end in sight. Once and a while you would see the ships towers crest the horizon, but that was it. We were 51 ft above the water, walking through valleys, carrying a gun for polar bear ambush, finding where rivers of meltwater meandered and eroded the ice. And Baffin Island was just south of us, with incredible mountains all striated and running straight into the sea. Pictures imperative.

It took a little longer to get the helicopter back to us this time around. But we had been dropped in lunch, which was wicked. I was going to be a slave driver and make the boys keep working as I thought we’d be done quick. Little did we know that plans were changing on board. We were called to about finding the lost beacon – we were no longer to recover it and bring it back, but to keep it there and do more measurements and set up another stake. The guys were troopers and we went to it, with scientists on board getting me more material (as my extra wasn’t going to suffice). We were able to find the beacon after criss crossing the island multiple times (the beacon was a mile from its coordinates = quality).

All is well and good. We’re dead tired by the time we got back on ship and a warm shower was the best thing ever. I am not complaining – we all had an awesome day, but it was on the chilly side for sure.

Sitting down to dinner (I packed in some serious pasta salad that night), the AUV team tromped in, not looking so happy with their situation. Apparently Gavia was going along, all sensors blinking away, when the barge froze up, literally. After reboarding, lunch, spraying all the pipes with warm water, they were back at it. And of course this time the AUV had no more intentions of going under any ice. She had given them their chance.

Instead of a nice early evening and pats on the backs all around, it was AUV surgery time. Literally. We were wearing head lamps and plucking at wires with tweezers. I was done a bit earlier, but the guys were at it til 2 am. And then up at 7 because they were going back in! And thank heavens they decided they wanted another shot, because as this was all going down, I was waiting for my pet beacons on the ice to start transmitting.

————–Note: Author had to take a break at this point and get in a session in the sweatbox. Advisory that you may need something similar before continuing. ——

Back to the beacons. They never did start transmitting. Now begins the comedy of errors. Point form may be easiest:

1. The original beacons ordered by my supervisor at Carleton never showed up to Kugluktuk (Coppermine) on time. They were lost in the mail. Irony: loosing track of tracking beacons.

2.  Some beacons already on-board. These are good ones that will be saved for another island closer to Newfoundland. Arsenal of beacons from the University of Manitoba on deck as well.

3. Trade deal goes down with U of M crew. I am told a certain 4 beacons have had their power connected and were tested earlier. Bingo, all I gotta do is remove a magnet and attach them vertically to my posts.

4. Mis-communication…power had at one time been connected – but certainly wasn’t anymore! Can’t blame the beacons for this one. This is after doing some exploratory surgery on a dummy beacon still on board. Richard the genius comes through with an instrument that can sense the transmission signal, so I don’t have to wait for satellites and emails to tell me these ones are working.

5. Back to the heli! Unfortunately this stops all other operations on board. The AUV team had devised an experiment which had the ship taking water samples at increasing distances from the ‘berg, but only one was actually completed.

6. Richard, Robbie (the chief scientist) and I got to go tramping around on the ice island again though. I swear I didn’t do this on purpose. End of story: beacons are signalling away to the heavens as I write this. We are all happy. You should see the email chains.

More fun stuff. Guillaume the pilot is a bit of a cowboy. And this is a cushion job for him with the coast guard I sense. So he took us for a tour yesterday, up to 6000 ft, down buzzing the ice, landing on a pillar of ice separated from the mother berg just wide enough to land on and 20 m high. Then we found remnants of a seal kill by a polar bear. It had to be pretty fresh. Now I understand even more the need for the bear watch.

Tip: Go to the washroom if you have to, before you leave. No matter how much of a royal pain it is to take off that damn one piece. Because on the ice there are no trees to hide behind, and the Quebec guys you’re with will think you’re totally nuts when you tell them what you’re going to do.

Vanilla Ice!



Ah! The day has arrived. Tomorrow morning I should be heli’ing with 2 volunteers onto ice island PII-Ba off of Lancaster sound. Someone was saying last night that it doesn’t get any more real than this. And with the equipment malfunctions I was dealing with then, I’d say it felt real, as well as really frantic.

But, things work out! Only because I have a computer programmer who performs miracles on occasion as a team member. The ground penetrating radar (gpr), a home made concosion of wires, transmitters, oscilloscopes, antennae and a HP Palmtop that was out of production literally before I was born, decided it didn’t want to collect any more data. It had enough.

So this gpr takes ice thickness measurements, which was pretty much the reason for me coming. I would still be able to set up ablation (surface melt) stakes and deploy beacons (for drift), but the thickness would be good for myself and the AUV team. Plus it can be compared with measurements from next summer.

In the end, after all tries at recuperation, miracle programmer from Iceland re-wrote the program on my laptop. It is amazing, he is amazing, I bought him a beer, and will continue to do so until we bring this ship into port.

And then there is the story about the beacons… but I won’t make you read about that too.

All in all, it should be really fun tomorrow! I’m trying to locate a beacon that has been placed on the island a year ago – white canister buried in snow within a 100 m radius. Easy! And then my actual experiments (and that is certainly what they are) will be done at the two ends of the 6 km long berg. Hopefully, things will go smoothly for the AUV team too. We tested out all of the sensors yesterday by lowering the torpedo over the side of the boat from the front deck on an A frame and slings, and everything was top notch then.

One funny bit – this is from the first night I was here and kept forgetting to write about, but I was just in the fridge so it reminded me. I was sitting with my new compatriots and the British/Icelander is eating something that I thought would be a tuna salad. Asking if it was good, he proceeded to tell me to try some. He didn’t know what it was, someone had told him and he forgot. So I tried it, said thanks but no thanks on having more. The guy next to us then lets me know that it is head cheese —-  sheep’s brain! Oh man I kept my composure, but was quivering inside.

And on that note, ’til tomorrow!


Thanksgiving Char

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

On the boat here, Thanksgiving was a healthy portion of Arctic char that we had picked up from Cambridge Bay, NU just last week. When it comes to holiday meals, I’m fairly particular about getting my serving(s) of cranberry sauce and apple pie, but I’m overly satisfied with the substitute.

If I thought the first few days on the ship were a whirlwind, yesterday was a full out hurricane. Un-real. After a meeting with the ICEBERGS team and the officers of the ship with the objective to get everyone on board familiar with what we are trying to accomplish and the logistics of our ops, we were invited to dine in the officers lounge avec le capitain (oh la!). It was a nice meal, if somewhat formal – but halfway through the call we’ve all been waiting for came through the loudspeaker, “un ours polaire, sur la port.” Now, it was quite rude of us to all hope up and leave our hosts – but I’ve never been great with formalities anyways.

Just as I’m sitting down to check the computer after lunch the captain (he comes up a lot in this story, just a warning), raps on my door and yells as he’s going up the stairs “ice island!” I follow him to the bridge and dead a head, there she was, in all her glory. Cameras are snapping (still with us since ‘le ours polaire’), and the captain says “well that’s what you need, isn’t it?” Not for myself in particular (I’m looking at targets farther east), but the submarine team (formerly Team AUV – we’re looking for a T-shirt logo/saying if anyone has any creative input). So it was all systems go for our well oiled Gavia AUV. Barge deployed and testing on the real deal. Unfortunately….you probably know how this ends up if you’ve been reading the past entries and newsletters. Little Miss Gavia was not going to put her nose under that cold ice. Who can blame her, honestly?

That was too bad, since we had the full attention of the ship, but it was not without any success story. Andrew (UBC) sacrificed his hand to the icy sea and towed Gavia behind the barge so that she could map the side of the Amundsen’s hull with her Swathpath+ sonar (fancy, eh?). The guys have been devouring data all day and have come up with a sweet 3D image – which at this point is awesome, even if it is a ship’s hull.

So the work is done, I’ve had my warm shower – it’s Sunday dinner and the wine cellar is open for business. The captain likes us so much that the team gets to dine in style yet again. And oh man was it ever worth it. As the wine kept flowing, the conversation took a turn for the worse (or best – it’s your opinion). Setting the stage – it is myself and 5 men between the ages of 28 and 50 lets say. And someone starts a tale of an awesome bachelor party…but someone always has a better one, you know. When the captain finished his (he is a true tale weaver), I was crying. The captain proceeded to clear the tables from the dinning room, call in all researchers and crew, stop the boat for the night (this is very very unusual I am told, for no transiting or research to be taking place), and turn into a DJ on the IPod for a dance party.

Ok ok, back to why you are all really reading this. Science science science! There isn’t too much else to report from today except my finangaling with 6 different makes, models and software of and for GPS units. And spray painting PVC neon colours. But two nights ago (Saturday) we did have fun with an ROV (remotely operated vehicle), which we have dubbed “Whinnipiglet”. Maybe I won’t digress into that story… We just hucked her right over the bow of the ship and controlled her like an old school car chase video game from above. I felt like I was shooting for Planet Earth while I watched the screen. And the best part? She worked!

So it’s almost go time for the ‘on-ice’ crew  (which is just me, by the way). It has been an awesome experience to work with all this crazy equipment with the under-ice guys, but my excitement and nerves are growing as we start crunching ice and heading east towards PII-Ba, my first target ice island. Both of my targets, this one and PII-B (near Clyde River, Baffin Island) are remnants of the much larger Petermann Ice Island (PII) that broke off of the Petermann Glacier in Greenland in 2010.

If anyone is wondering the whole point of me being up here for a month and writing about these silly ice cubes – I’ll give you the brief run down. Ice islands are fracturing from ice shelves more and more frequently due to a warming arctic. These are then hurtling southwards along Canada’s east coast. They are also pushing westwards (along with traditional icebergs) into uncommon territory. All of this is happening while oil exploration and drilling is increasing off of Canada’s east coast, and the Arctic coast as well. Putting two and two together…these enormous ice islands could potentially wreck any construction (e.g. oil platform) in its path. I hope to help in the improvement of the Canadian Ice Services’ ice island drift and deterioration models.

So that’s that. I had to put that little disclaimer in – I was feeling guilty for just recounting my eating and sightseeing exploits.

Until next time!



The Sweatbox

Originally from October 7, a.m.

They are coming fast and furious now – the chunks of ice outside my window as
well as the blog updates. Figure I better get them in before the next satellite
decided to somersault up there in the heavens.

We’re on day 3 of the Arctic tour, and will be conducting the third round of
AUV tests early this evening when the ship stops at the next research station
#312. We’ll be out deploying off the barge again (as we did yesterday, details
to follow), while fellow researchers collect water samples and box cores from
the ocean sediments. Another operation is commencing shortly too – the
helicopter will take off and land on a piece of multiyear ice (approx 3-6 m
thick) to recollect a beacon and mooring that has been logging ice thickness
and ice/water temperatures.

Backing up for the time being – yesterday was day 2 and the second round of
AUV missions, which were far more successful that day 1. As in, the AUV
actually dove underwater – fancy that! We took off on the barge
around 9:30, and motored out a few hundred meters away from the mother ship.
This was no protected bay like day 1, and the seas were a-rollin’. My photo
album from this outing is limited, as I was in the cubby hole whenever my hands
weren’t needed, focusing all attention on keeping breakfast down. My teammates
had a good chuckle at my tactics later (slumply sitting, eyes closed, arms in
the zen buddhist position (I was praying to all deities by that point)), but we
were all feeling every wave crashing into the flat bottom boat.

Other than sea sickness – the trail runs went smoothly. A run of the AUV at
10m and another at 50m. We had added 300 g of weight to help keep Gavia
propellers underwater, and also made a few software adjustments. Conductivity,
temperature and depth (CTD) data was collected for at least a short spurt –
which is a major accomplishment as well. The issue came when we were trying to
retrieve our little AUV after it’s missions, as the swells and whitecaps were

hiding her very well. The hydrophone (above) only picked up a short signal,
so we were forced to return to the Amundsen to pick up our satellite phone
which Gavia will send lat and long coordinates too. Finally, with the
help of coast guard crew on the lookout, we spotted her and got GAVIA back on board
and we returned to the ship where I got some more solid footing!

The rest of the day was spent doing small chores. And it was Thursday, so bar night number 2 was on! This time it was a bit
quieter, as researchers were catching their sleep early since we would be
stopped at a station from midnight to 8 am and they’d be working through the
night. But the ship’s captain was there with us, feeding us jerky arctic char
(delicious and full of omega’s the captain told me with his French accent). The
captain sat with our team later on and I was astonished to hear that he had
been reading articles and papers in preparation for the helicopter deployment
and my boarding of an ice island to come later in the tour. He has been
incredibly helpful – getting us out for test runs as much as possible – and
also looking out for me! It is comforting. He continued discussing the fate of
the arctic and his dismay at what little is being done to protect it and the
globe in general. He would rather see work done to stop our contributions to
global warming instead of making preparations for adaptation to the situations
that warming will cause. He predicts no multiyear ice will be present in the
arctic after 2016. He has a bet on it with a friend even ($100). I guess that
brought the mood of this piece down a few notches, but it’s worth reporting.

To lighten things now, I just completed my first session in The Sweatbox.
Treadmill running while the ship careens through a minefield of ice chunks is
so fun, and when you `come on lets sweat` on repeat, it doesn’t get any
better! Running here is perfect too – I don’t have to increase or decrease the slope
because I just run up the waves!


`The Sweatbox`

Ok everyone. Off for now!