Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Latitude: 68˚25′ N      Longitude: 101˚96′ W
Speed: 8 knots             Wind: 19 knots
Temperature: -1˚C (30˚F)

The alarm on my iPod pings at 06:00 hours. Through the porthole, the sky is a lovely bluish-grey. It’s one of those sun-cloudy days. We are just off Jenny Lind Island.

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I’ve been warned that staff cannot be late for the morning meeting at 15 minutes after wake-up. So Cathie and I are both up an hour earlier, and showered and dressed and sitting in the library before the first staff member arrives. The itinerary for the day is laid out at these meetings, and it’s decided who is giving a presentation and when. As well, Stefan assigns zodiac drivers and gun bearers (our polar bear spotters) for the shore landings. Every meeting ends with him saying, “Kill them with love.” That sums up the essence of our meetings and staff. Everyone is positive and fun.

Being only 30 metres above sea level, Jenny Lind Island is low and flat with a wide sandy beach. All that can be seen from our porthole is a rounded rocky coast. Though uninhabited by humans, the island is home to a large population of snow geese, muskox, and an abandoned Distant Early Warning Line station.

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Jenny Lind, 1820-1887

The island was named in honour of the “Swedish nightingale,” opera singer Jenny Lind. Born in  Stockholm in 1820, the soprano took Europe by storm; the Maria Callas of her day. In 1847 she sang at a concert attended by Queen Victoria. Rumour has it that Felix Mendlesson wrote passionate letters to convince her to have an adulterous affair with him. The rumour doesn’t include whether she did or not. News of her angelic voice reached P.T. Barnum who convinced her to come tour America. She agreed for $350,000. Barnum was a shrewd promoter. When Lind arrived in New York in 1850, over 30,000 people lined the docks to greet her, despite the fact that no one had heard her sing because there were no recordings of her voice. The gramophone wasn’t invented until 1877. The first ticket for her American debut concert was auctioned off for $225, a small fortune even by today’s concert ticket standards.

After breakfast, our expedition leader Stefan gave a zodiac protocol briefing in the lounge before our first shore landing. To disembark off a zodiac, you slide up as far to the front as possible, turn to face the ocean and then swing your legs over and onto the beach.

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We then geared up in the mud room, which is a big room 20 foot ceiling. Orange waterproof expedition jackets and pants hang on a long line from the ceiling, similar to a dry cleaner’s type system.  Shelves line one wall with hundreds of green lined rubber boots. In the centre of the room is some big unidentifiable piece of machinery, once used by the Russians for their hydro-acoustic testing, or whatever scientific listening they did. Hanging on the railing around this machine are dozens of life jackets.

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AC female staff ready to board the zodiac – L to R: Ree Brennin, Cathie Hickson, Carolyn Mallory, Susie Evyagotailak, Latonia Hartery, and me.

The life jackets are rather innocuous, being a roll that hangs around your neck with straps in the back that clip in the front. It has a yellow pull tab, but is supposed to inflate if you fall in the water. These are nothing like the full floatation vest you wear tubing or on a Seadoo. We get our boots and life preservers on here in the mud room, then line up along the deck by the gangway to load into the zodiacs.

Staff goes ashore in the first zodiac. The guys with guns scout the area for polar bears. When, we get the all clear, the ship is radioed, and the passengers load into the zodiacs, 10 at a time, and are come ashore.1-IMG_0132

The passengers are self-assigned into three walking groups. The long walkers troop inland a kilometre or so. The medium walkers follow at a more leisurely pace, photographing the scenery and spotting evidence of muskox hoof prints and goose droppings, of which there is an abundance. I am with the short walker group who meander along the flat sandy beach.

08-IMG_0167We discover scattered seal bones higher up the beach, which Andrew Qappik surmises has been dragged there by a polar bear.

10-IMG_0182The plants growing along the shore and inland are small, low to the ground. Lichen and tiny succulents hardily cling to rocks and stones.

We also find an old piece of drift wood, rather an exotic artefact in this treeless zone.

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The sun reaches out now and then from behind clouds and casts a gorgeous light that sparkles on the water. There are a few large pieces of ice floating off shore.

The cruise itinerary included a stop in Gjoa Haven on the east side of King William Island. But the ice conditions for the east side of the island are not favourable, so the itinerary changes. We will head straight up Victoria Strait, west of King William.

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After lunch, as we are just sailing with no more shore landings planned, it’s a good time to have the staff presentations. As this is a Northwest Passage trip, it is decided that the ship’s historian give the first talk about the various expeditions in search of the Northwest Passage. That would be me. A little daunting to go first, but I am eager to chat about all these fascinating expeditions. Everyone finds a seat in the lounge on Deck 6. We draw the blinds and pull down the screen, and I give my PowerPoint “The Ins and Outs of the Northwest Passage.”  I think it goes okay. My talk is followed by ornithologist Cam Gillies presentation about “Tracking sea ice changes in the summer of 2014.”

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At our daily 6:45 p.m. recap in the lounge, Jocelyn, the hotel manager, announces that one of Franklin’s ships, either the Erebus or Terror, had been discovered off King William Island’s west side where Inuit had reported in 1859 seeing a ship in the ice. It is exciting news. And in addition to that it is announced that the Vavilov carried some of the sonar equipment used in the search, and the equipment was still onboard in a cargo container. Four men from Defence Research and Development Canada are also still onboard as custodians of the equipment. (I knew the guy with the muscle shirt and tattoed sleeves wasn’t a passenger.)  Incredible too is the fact that because we are sailing up the west coast of King William, we will be passing the very spot where the historic sunken ship is.

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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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