Ice: glaciers, ice bergs, bergy bits, growlers, pack ice, mother nature’s awesome beauty and terrible power equally encapsulated in all these frozen incarnations of water. We have been both mesmerized, awestruck and giddy with excitement at the ice’s pure beauty, and at the same time threatened by its awesome power.
Early in our trip, sailing up the coast of Greenland whether through ice berg alley or up Greenland’s many Fjords, ice bergs were common – these massive extraordinary ice sculptures, some 80 to 100 feet above the waterline, captured our imaginations as we sailed past them. With the time, space and fair weather to admire them, we could stare and explore their shape, their many shades of blue and white, and hear the deep groan as a berg calves and a giant chunk falls into the sea. It was as if the ice was there to inspire rather than threaten.
Near Qaanaaq, the most northerly permanently inhabited town in Greenland (and one of top three in the world), we were finally afforded the ideal moment to strap on our crampons and climbing harness’, as we discovered an easily accessible glacier sloping down to the coast and into a moraine before entering the sea. Stepping on the glacier for our first traverse, the ground team were wearing smiles of child like excitement. Our little adventure was rewarded when, to our surprise, we discovered an incredible curving glacial river carving a deeply crevassed gorge through the glacier. Clear blue water, so pure as it raced down into the sea. The day afforded extraordinary imagery and the chance of a little play, as we belayed into the crevasse to practice self rescue techniques.On our second ice climb we reached the top of a snow covered peak on Ellesmere Island, the second largest Canadian Arctic island and the jumping off point and tragic end point for many arctic and polar expeditions. Here we under took an early morning climb as the sun rose behind us (up here that means starting at 0130!), its golden light splayed across Ellesmere’s rugged snow caped mountains creating the sensation we were climbing in the middle of an oil painting. On our way down, we slide on our asses as if we were tobogganing and warmed ourselves with hot chocolate when back at the boat.
But when the weather turns, so does the ice: from a source of joy, pleasure and fun to a menacing and frightening thing. Several days ago, on our approach to Qaanaaq, clear skies turned grey, and a deeply dense fog set in, our visibility reduced to 20 meters. We could barely see past the bow of the boat the fog was so thick. Using only radar, we swerved in an out, around the bergs, in many cases never even seeing the ice, showing only as indistinct red blob on the radar screen, pass us by a mere 25 meters away. Some bergs we did see, appearing like an apparition out of the mist or giant ghost ship– so close we could almost imagine it whispering to us, before it slipped silently past and disappeared into the fog. With radar set at only ¼ mile to ensure detection, a moment’s lapse in attention would lead to an aggressive swerve to avoid collision or potentially worse.
But the ice’s most frightening moment did not come until yesterday, catching us slightly off guard as Exiles and her unkempt crew were enjoying their first well deserved rest in weeks. After a relaxing day climbing, baking, the odd chore and a movie on the computer, a couple adjourned to the cockpit for an end of day cigarette. And lucky we did. Our ever vigilant captain, while staring wistfully off into the horizon, noticed sheets of ice coming into the bay from the sea. We decided immediately we should pull anchor and move. Anchored less than 100 m from shore, if trapped in the ice as it moved inland, it would drag us ashore with it. The crew quickly donned our gear and prepared to weigh anchor. But here the ice does not wait for you to get dressed. In the 20 minutes it took to get suited up, the ice was on us, encircling Exiles as it drifted quickly into the bay, sped on by tidal currents and the increasing wind we had been expecting. As we started to pull up the anchor, the pack ice met our bow and froze around the anchor chain. Its grasp was so tight that as we winched up the anchor, we actually pulled the bow of boat down into the ice, raising our stern, rather than raising the anchor. We were trapped. Smashing the ice with ice poles didn’t work, the ice too strong. Moments away from cutting loose the anchor, we were able to shatter the ice by driving Exiles directly into it, bringing her full weight down on the pack. It’s not a welcome sound, the boat crunching and grinding over the ice – sail boats are not ice breakers – but she did it; freed the anchor, Exiles’ bow popping out of the ice’s seemingly unbreakable grip. The anchor raised, we still had to pick our way through the ice pack to safe harbour further toward the entrance of the bay. As we fled, we noticed yet another polar bear – on the same pack ice that had almost trapped us. A sigh of relief and awkward smile as we realized that had we not broken free of the ice, the bear could have easily saddled up into the cockpit for a cup of tea or for dinner.
Thirty minutes later we had again laid anchor. It was midnight. Cold. The wind starting up. And initial drops of freezing rain pelting the galley windows. Free for the moment, but we were not out of danger, the increasing wind and the changing tide could bring new or even the same sheets of ice back. Setting 3 hour anchor watches, checking on the ice every 20 minutes, we prepared to settle down for the night. The first few hours passed without difficulty, but we could hear the storm gathering momentum, the wind howling through the mast, slamming ropes against the deck, the rain driving harder and harder, turning to sleet. At 0630 this morning, the call came: “All hands on deck!” The ice was back and moving faster than before – within the twenty minute window of our watch system, the pack had surrounded us again. And again we had to fight to break out, again the ice grinding against the hull and shaking the whole boat, freezing around the anchor chain as we tried to escape a second time. And again, we were seconds away from cutting loose the anchor before on her third try Exiles drove over the ice and freed us from her clutches. Sailing away into the driving wind and sheets of frozen rain and ice to yet another hopefully safe harbour.
Finally at about 9 am this morning, we found a small bay, more exposed to the rain and wind than our previous anchorage, but seemingly free of ice. Again setting watch but with a substantially increased vigilance, we settled in for a twelve hour wait to let the storm we have been hiding from pass us by. We had been lucky once again, but with a powerful lesson on the speed and power of the ice. What in the morning is a blissful sunrise and glassy ice free water can, 10 hours later, turn into an ice trap. And with bears in the area, we can, with some confidence, say: “I’d rather be sailing.”