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.