Today, Wednesday August 9th at 0815 GMT -2, Exiles crossed 80 degrees latitude, stopping with Kennedy Channel in sight, Canada visible to the west and Greenland to the east, after a remarkably successful sail through the pack ice in Kane Basin along the rugged and inspiring shoreline of Ellesmere Island. The 24-hour sail through the Basin was punctuating by a stunning encounter with a polar bear snoozing blissfully on a massive sheet of ice. Due to the skill and cunning of the Captain and First Mate, and their execution of a perfect stealth approach under sail, we were able to pass within 10 meters of the slumbering giant before our gasps of awe startled him awake. What followed was a 20-minute stare down between the king of the north and the Exiles gang, ending only when the bear decided we were less interesting than we generally think, and rambled off in search of something more exciting to do on his floating ice home.
The pack ice through Kane Basin was navigable under sail with favourable winds allowing us to make 5 or more knots for much of the leg, even through some of the more ice choked parts of the Basin. Believing Lady Fortune might be casting a favourable light on our expedition, and despite satellite images courtesy of the Canadian Ice Services indicating Kennedy Channel to be impassable to Exiles, we began to entertain hopes that sailing through the Channel and into Hall Basin and Discovery Harbour – the Headquarters for the doomed Greely Expedition and the Peary expedition to the north pole – might be possible.
However, as we crossed 80 degrees, the satellite images proved correct: ahead lay only ice, confirming that, even for sailors in the arctic, science trumps mysticism (magnetic deviations and inverted compass readings aside). Barred from progressing further, the team decided to moor up to a floating ice pack for a small celebration of our achievement and deliberate our next move. Wedging the bow of Exiles up a small crack in the pack, we anchored ourselves to two ice screws and disembarked for a wander on a floating island of ice. A round of drinks and a toast to our patron saint, Bernie Peissel, was followed by some horse play and what must be the most northerly voluntary arctic swim in generations – Vladimir Putin, eat your heart out.
Still entertaining thoughts of progressing further north, we have reviewed the ice images with greater scrutiny in the hopes of finding even the smallest lead through the channel. But as menacing as the ice pack can be, a more immediate concern is brewing to the south – a massive 40+ knot system is moving in from the south west. Going further north today runs the very real risk of getting trapped in the shifting and moving ice – or worse. Looking for safe havens in which to take refuge to ride out the storm has proven difficult. Our first choice, Dobbin Bay is iced and inaccessible, further south, so too is Princess Marie Bay. Our only viable and most prudent option is to make a southerly run back through Kane Basin to Buchannan Bay and what we hope will be safe harbour in Alexandra Fjord – home to an RCMP Post abandoned in 1963. But even this choice has its risks, as it is furthest away and in the direction of the on coming storm. As of this writing, we are halfway through a 100-mile race to the entrance to the Bay, as we try to out run the impending gale. Our window of time is small, but if current weather predictions hold true, we hope to be safely tucked away for what could be a 3-4 day wait with 4-5 hours to spare. The scale of the storm will undoubtedly impact and alter the current ice flows in Kane Basin and Kennedy Channel and could potentially open up previously ice blocked passages (or further close them). The possibility of weathering the storm and making a second attempt through Kennedy Channel remains alive. Let’s hope Lady Fortune continues to smile on Exiles and her motely crew.