August 20, 2015
Etah is not a village, there are three small hunting cabins but two of them are dilapidated beyond use. As I was writing my last blog a rather alarming amount of pack ice was drifting to the end of Foulke fjord where we were anchored. Halfway down Foulke fjord is an island that blocks most of the pack ice from getting to the end of the fjord where Etah is, for every piece that you can see at the end there are hundreds on the other side of the island. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to get out and sail south.
Once past the island we were in thick of it, ice everywhere. Pack ice is very different then icebergs or bergy bits. Pack ice is not very high off the water, often only two or three feet of ice is showing above the surface but one piece can go on for several hundred yards. It becomes a jumble of slow moving pack ice mixed with icebergs of all sizes. Pieces drift this way and that, leads open and close. I’ve added two pictures but a camera gives the pack ice no justice. When looking at the pictures imagine being surrounded by the pack ice in all directions as far as the eye can see.
We slowly worked our way through the ice looking for one lead after another. Sometimes there was no lead so we would aim our boat at the smallest chunk of ice and slowly (and gently) push it out of our way. And so it went for several hours until some eight miles later we popped out of the pack ice just south of Cape Alexander. This all sounds rather dramatic but it wasn’t that dangerous. We had a reliable forecast (Predictwind) with nothing but light winds and flat calm conditions. Had there been wind we would have stayed in Etah until it subsided. Our hull is also made of steel which makes a big difference. In 2013 when trying to drag an abandoned 48 foot sailboat to Bermuda things got out of control and we were rammed hard by all 38,000 pounds of it and we hardly got a dent. So we weren’t too worried about the pack ice (at least the smaller stuff), we spent most of our time eating cookies and joking around. In these types of situations it’s much safer to remain calm and clear headed, freaking out is counterproductive.
Research can be broken into two categories. On one side you have the act of collecting the data, whether it’s lowering a CTD or dragging a trawl. On the other side you have managing the data, which is hugely time consuming. Nikki has seven different science logs as we are conducting five different types of research some of which simultaneously. We were out of the pack ice and on anchor but instead of relaxing Nikki had hours of different data that had to be moved to various excel spreadsheets along with a typed description of each corresponding event. This whole organization wouldn’t exist without Nicole. I don’t know anything about how to properly manage scientific data, work scientific software, etc. Nikki spent five years working on NOAA research vessels and that’s how she learned. I plan the expeditions and captain the ship but as far as the research goes Nikki deserves all the credit. It works out well as we both have something important that we are in charge of.
We went further offshore to do some deep water CTD casts and again found the pack ice. By this point we were well south of Cape Alexander which seems to usually be the southern edge of the pack ice. Nikki wanted us to get to an underwater ledge where it drops off to 2,300 feet deep to deploy the CTD and look for the warmer saltier water column. We followed a solid chuck of pack ice for a more than a mile until the fog came. This never ending chunk of pack ice was surrounded by a field of jumbled pack ice that went on for a good many miles. We got close to the underwater ledge but once the fog rolled in you can’t really tell where the leads in the ice go, so we did a cast in 1,900 feet and retraced our step back to ice free water.
We are currently in a very interesting anchorage off Qaanaaq a town of 700 (with fuel). We are at the mouth of a large fjord that goes back over 45 miles and it is an iceberg making machine. We have an incredible number of icebergs behind us, some of them are monsters. Icebergs have a very deep draft in proportion to the freeboard (so to speak) and since we are anchored in fairly shallow water we are protected from 95% of the icebergs. Once and a while a small berg comes and you have to push it away with your whisker pole but usually they are no bigger than a refrigerator.
We will to wrap up our research objectives up in the High Arctic and head back south soon. Lots more to do down there.