Monday, September 8, 2014

Lat: 53˚25′N   Long: 113˚55′W
Temperature: 5˚C (41˚F)

By 07:00, the lobby of the Executive Royal Inn was filled with luggage. This is a group of serious travellers.

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Two buses arrive and the AC staff is tasked with loading luggage onto the buses.  Fine snow started falling, just to prime us for our northern adventure. Luggage and passengers loaded, we headed to the charter flight section of the airport. We sat on the bus outside a chain link gate waiting for our First Air plane to be fuelled with gas and food. At 09:30, the bus pulled through the gate and we got out and trooped up the plane steps. Staff sat in the first couple of rows. We take off in cloud and light snow, destined for Cambridge Bay on south-western Victoria Island.

We flew into sunshin11-P1120770e over a vast expanse of flat terrain with lots of lakes. We landed in Yellowknife for a pit stop to gas up, but didn’t get off the plane.

At 13:30 p.m., the plane touches down in sunny Cambridge Bay (Iqaluktuuttiaq, which means good fishing place).  We disembarked directly onto a muddy expanse… I can’t say ‘onto the tarmac’ because it isn’t paved.

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Inside the door of the small airport, I meet my first muskox. But he hasn’t moved in a while, not since he was shot and stuffed.

Somewhere between getting on the plane in Edmonton and walking into the airport in Cambridge Bay I lost one cap on my poster tube. I’m glad it isn’t raining, as my maps are now in danger of getting wet through the open end.

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The airport is jammed with people who will head south on our plane. Many of our AC staff and departing folks know each other and the small airport is buzzing with conversation.  Some of these people are from the Victoria Strait Expedition and have just come off the vessel searching for a Franklin wreck. They are all mum on that subject.

Stefan assigns the staff duties. The passengers are being bussed into town to the high school where there will be a cultural performance. The majority of the staff is going along, and will also accompany the passengers on a walking tour of the town that will end at the beach where the zodiacs will be waiting to ferry everyone to the Akademik Sergey Vavilov.

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I am given a beach assignment, loading the luggage from the First Air vans into the zodiacs. I immediately regret giving up my Good Life Fitness membership. I am wearing my felt lined rubber boots, so will have dry feet in the water getting into the zodiac. On the school bus, I put on my waterproof pants, tucking them into my boots. I am later told tucked in is not the way to wear them, because the water can easily go over your boots instead of being deflected by your pants.

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I see the Vavilov anchored in the bay from the bus window as we head into town. The big white ship looks like it has a three story building stuck on it. Unlike the two-level long (love boat style) Sea Adventurer that we were initially supposed to take, but engine troubles resulted in it ending up in dry dock for repairs in Nuuk, Greenland.

This is the first cruise I have been on, other than a 1,000 Islands boat cruise. Actually, it is the first real ship I have been on. I have gravol in my bag, but hope that I’ll soon get my sea legs and not need it.

We do a bucket-brigade-style luggage load from van to zodiacs. There are a lot of suitcases.  The luggage is put in a net in the zodiac that will be hooked up and loaded onto the ship by crane. Luggage gone, we get into the last zodiac and head to the ship.

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The zodiac sidles up to a three foot square landing base from which a narrow metal staircase – the gangway – leads to the ship’s deck, two stories up. A seaman grabs my arm and hoists me onto the little floating dock. Unsteadily, I grab the railing. My laptop bag is slung across my chest, but my backpack is hanging over one shoulder and slowly slides down to my elbow as I climb the swaying metal gangway. Each stair tread is arched, which is a bit unnerving. I have a momentary panic that my long poster tube might slip out of my gloved hand and fall through the stairs into the ocean below.

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The Vavilov was built in 1988 as a Russian research vessel to conduct hydro-acoustic ocean research, so it is relatively quiet with its engine droning deep in the hull. The Vavilov’s main living quarters are contained within six levels. The bridge and lounge are on the sixth level, the library on the fifth. The dining room and the mud room, where the life jackets and gear are kept, are on the third level. Cabins are on the third, fourth and fifth levels. What seems a complicated series of stairs and hallways will soon become familiar as we make this our home for the next 15 days.

Our small group has a private tour of the ship. Then it’s time to head to shore to meet the guests, which is a flurry of finding lifejackets and assisting folks into zodiacs.

042-P1120890Once onboard ship, passengers find their luggage on the aft deck, and rooms and get settled. My cabin on third deck, shared with the wonderful geologist Cathie, is surprisingly large. It has a couch, a desk and chair, skinny little cupboards, and a sink. The women’s public toilet is across the hall. This is very convenient, except the noise factor when people are seasick later.  I volunteer to take the top bunk. In the absence of hammocks, it seems like a proper seafaring thing to do: sleep on the top. There is a chocolate on our pillow!

Dinner in the dining room down the hall is buffet style, and we sit at any table we choose. After dinner, we all troop up to Deck 5 for a lifeboat drill. The orange lifeboats are totally enclosed and hold about 50 strapped in people. It is a relief to know that in an emergency we will not be drifting around the Arctic Ocean in open boats.

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We then convene in the lounge on Deck 6 to get the scoop for the next day’s activities. Our first shore landing will be on Jenny Lind Island.

Afterwards, I put my maps up on walls in the halls. The biggest one is a detailed map of the Arctic that I will trace our daily route on with dry erase markers. Another map shows the seven Northwest Passage transit routes. Two other maps are archival maps. One, of course is Capt. Bernier’s 1909 map, which shows the west side of Baffin as a straight line, as it wasn’t surveyed and mapped until 1910.  I have poster size archival photos of the Canadian expeditions – Low and Bernier and co., which I will post when I do my talks.  Maps up, it’s time to turn in. The staff is to meet 15 minutes after wakeup call, which is at 07:00 tomorrow. I drift asleep, as our ship sails into Queen Maud Gulf, charting a course eastward for Jenny Lind Island.

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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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