Friday, September 12, 2014

Latitude: 73˚27′ N      Longitude: 90˚90′ W
Wind: 20 knots           Speed: 8.9 knots
Temperature: 2.5˚C (36.5˚F)
Time change: one hour ahead

We are now at Port Leopold on the north-eastern end of Somerset Island, at the confluence of four Arctic waterways: Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, Peel Sound and Prince Regent Inlet. A massive mountain walls the back of the bay. It looks like a corner of the island. Its snowy sides rise out of a bank of scree, which stretches down to the water’s edge. I have seen a painting of this done by one of Ross’s men on the search expedition, which overwintered here.

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Latonia’s morning presentation, “Arctic Archaeology 101,” about the early Paleoeskimos and the Thule migration sites, informs us about the qarmats (houses) that we would see at our landing.

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The sky is ominously grey and cloudy, with wisps of snow. This weather is to be expected come mid-September. I’m excited to be here, having read so much about this spot. It is so remote but stunningly beautiful in the most austere way. I wonder if anyone of us would survive a week here. The staff zodiac lands on the snow covered shore of Port Leopold, also known as Whalers’ Point. A big blue iceberg is grounded at the edge of the shore.

024-IMG_0572On the raised beaches, and then farther up the hillside, are about 10 Thule qarmat.  Rock outlines of the shallow dug houses and collapsed whale bone roof supports remain as valuable evidence of the people who lived here during the fall and early winters between 1,300 and 1,500.

James Clark Ross, in command of the first Franklin search expedition, spent the winter frozen in this bay with his two ships, Enterprise and Investigator from 1848 to 1849. One of his men carved the ships’ initials – E.I. 1849 – into a large erratic boulder down the beach from where we land. Ross also left one of the ship’s boilers and a cache of supplies onshore.  The supplies were appreciated in 1850, when William Kennedy rowed into the bay to see if any notes about Franklin were left in the boiler. The ice closed in separating them from their ship, and he and the men with him in the boat spent five weeks at Port Leopold waiting to be rescued.

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I can see the round dark shape of the boiler on the spit in the distance. One of the photos I have hung up in the Vavilov is of AP Low and his men at this boiler in 1904. A cache of supplies was left for Amundsen’s 1903 North Magnetic Pole expedition. He never picked up these supplies and they are beside the boiler in the photo.

LR.2837.port leopold.cropLow raised the Ensign beside the Norwegian flag and left a note in the boiler advising that this was Canadian territory and anyone hunting there would have to pay duties to the Canadian government.

Port Leopold is also the site of an abandoned Hudson’s Bay Company building. The post was only operational for one year, from 1926 to 1927.

We wandered about on the beach for about an hour looking at the qarmats and inspecting the hardy little plants poking out of the snow.

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The ship weighed anchor after lunch and headed north to Prince Leopold Island. It was fun to be out on deck as the ship pushed through more broken ice. We anchored near Prince Leopold Island about 16:00 hours.

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The island rises spectacularly 250 metres (750 ft) out of the ocean.  The top of it was shrouded in cloud, which drifted from it like smoke. It had a surreal look that reminded me of the cliffs of insanity in the Princess Bride. These cliffs are nesting grounds for thousands of thick-billed murres, northern fulmars, and black-legged kittiwakes.  The seabirds generally occupy the site from early May to the end of August. The majority have now migrated south.

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Ornithologist Mark Mallory has spent time on the island, studying birds. We had a mesmerizing hour-long zodiac tour through the scattered ice pans below the cliffs. It was interesting to be at ice level and watch the birds all around us on the water, in the air, and on the cliffs, while Mark narrated stats of birds and answered questions over the radio.

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At Recap, Michelle showed a photo of a gyrfalcon she had taken at Port Leopold. Not surprisingly this falcon, largest in the world, is prized for its white feathers. Michelle also had a photo of the rare Mallory bird (a fulmar with Mark’s head on it). Cathie talked about the corona mass ejection or the unusual solar activity presently happening, which could affect GPS, but meant potentially fabulous aurora borealis.

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A raucous Kitchen Party was held in the lounge after dinner. Host David Newland treated everyone to his fine musical talent, and it was fun to sing along when we knew the words. Stefan’s midnight workshop “Understanding Ikea Instructions” was cancelled due to poor attendance.

Cathie says the best time to see northern lights is in the middle of the night. So I set the clock for 02:00 hrs.

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About Season Osborne

I am a writer with a passion for Arctic history. After finding a photo of Capt. Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, who claimed the Arctic for Canada in 1909, I was inspired to write my master’s thesis on Bernier’s contribution to Arctic sovereignty. This ultimately led to extensive research into Canadian and ‘foreign’ expeditions to the North, which morphed into my recent book, In the Shadow of the Pole: An Early History of Arctic Expeditions, 1871-1912.
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