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!


3 thoughts on “Fjords, glaciers – bears and icebergs.

  1. Phew indeed, but so glad that everything seemed to fall into place (better late then never) for the AUV / Gavia team 🙂

    I’m also really glad you didn’t get pitched over the side of the boat in a cage – although pictures of that woudl’ve been something to see.

    Glad it’s winding down for you. Here’s hoping you get to catch up on your sleep now 🙂
    Looking forward to any other post that you might share.
    But ultimately looking forward to seeing you again !

    Safe voyage home.

  2. Thank you for the incredible Arctic saga, Anna. CBC news reported to day that 160 ice free days in the Arctic is about all the resident polar bear population up there can take, and as your captain said earlier, the multiyear ice is going faster than expected, and those ice free days are increasing. It is a priviledge to still be able to see a mother bear and cubs. Cherish the memory.
    The bears are hanging out in Churchill now waiting for the bay to freeze. We have just finished building a new facility for Churchill Northern Science there.

    Maybe in your next post you can say why the Americans blocked your landing in Greenland? All is not friendly in the Arctic.

    • Hi Richard,

      Thank you so much for your kind words. I have a great list of books to read now, with ideas coming from yourself and the captain here. Have you read “The Arctic Grail”? Supposedly it is the classic for work in and the environment of the Arctic.

      I should write another little article – possibly about the docking at Thule Airbase, but also about the oil and gas companies that are sponsoring much of the Arctic research that is done on board The Amundsen. It’s a bit heartbreaking. I plan on sticking to my morals and values however, and not spinning any science for this industry.

      Enjoy your weekend, and hope to see you on the ski trails this winter!

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