Expedition Report: Bellot Strait to Fort Ross

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30th August 2016, by Meret:

Around midnight we approached the renowned Bellot Strait. The land around it looked like a flat bread with little bites taken out of the top of it. Everyone had been telling us about the currents in the Bellot strait and how careful you had to be about timing the crossing right. We just had one slight problem, we were half an hour too late. Either we’d try it anyway or anchor in the next bay and try it in twelve hours, well 11.5, instead. Another factor to consider was the darkness. Though it still isn’t getting completely dark, it was as dark as it gets and we could only just make out the water just ahead of us and the black cliffs looming high above us on either side of the entrance of the straight. While I thought we were heading to the next bay it turned out we were going to try it, full well knowing we may have to turn back 2-3 hours down the line with a strong current against us.
All adults were up and dressed warmly ready for 2-3 hours of difficult conditions and full concentration. I hadn’t slept since my morning watch and still had to write the daily report. It was going to be a long night…
The Bellot Strait is an 18 mile long passage between the cliffs of Boothia Peninsula and Somerset Island. It is known for its currents and riptides between shallow rocks that make it hard to navigate. The narrow winding, sometimes shallow, channel is part of the reason why the currents are so strong but also the difference in tide doesn’t help. On the western side there is barely any tide, here on eastern side there is around two meters.
The passage was discovered by a British ship looking for Franklin in 1852. It was named in honor of the French Navy officer onboard, lieutenant Joseph Bellot. But not until 1937 could the Hudson’s Bay Company ship Aklavik push through this ice filled strait (Cameron Dueck, 2012, The New Northwest Passage).
The first part of the strait was very calm and straightforward, contrary to what we had expected. What we didn’t know on deck, was the strategic way Dario was tackling the strait. Like in a river that meanders, there are the outer edges of the corners where the current speeds through, here at up to 8 knots. The inner side of the corner is where the water curves back around on itself and forms an eddy with little or at least less current and calmer waters. We were using the eddies with less current against us to our advantage. We hugged the shore staying in one eddy until there was a corner in the opposite direction. Then we would have to leave the eddy and cross the strong current in the middle, so to not lose height and make it into another eddy, we ferry glided across the strait from one side to the other. We had about 4 knots of current against us in the eddies. The wind was from behind us and jumped rapidly between 8 and over 26 knots. Without our sails helping us out we
would have had even more trouble making any way. As it was there were parts, where we were just about doing 2.5 knots.
At 2am as it started getting lighter, we passed Zenith Point, the most northern point of continental North America. It lies at 72N and is the very tip of Boothia Peninsula.
Soon after this point strong visible whirls and currents started. The boat swayed violently from side to side as the currents took over our steering. You could see the currents on the surface, a jumble of one going this way the other that. It was a guessing game to know, which one would get a hold of Pachamama. We were hand steering at this point to be able to react instantly. Sometimes it felt like we’d almost stopped moving, other times we sped along at nearly 7 knots. We passed the famous Magpie Rock, that is nicely placed in the middle of the channel on the eastern end and most often than not isn’t visible. A little later without warning Dario put the autopilot in and said: “Welcome to the Atlantic, we made it! But only just, had we been even 10 minutes later it may have been different.”
We also didn’t see any ice whatsoever. From Cameron Dueck’s book ‘The New Northwest Passage’, we new ice in the strait was one of the more unpredictable aspects of the strait. They speak of the survey ship Baffin that struggled against the ice motors full blast for two hours to avoid being crushed. The ice reports the ship had gotten were 3hrs old and had said the passage was free of ice. SY Silent Sound themselves had done the NW Passage and the strait 7 years prior and tell of the ice they encountered in the eastern part of the strait.
By now it was light, the eastern sky was coated in a range of pinks and oranges behind the silhouette of Somerset Island. The scenery of Boothia Peninsula beside us was stunning. The rocks were colored a mix of browns, oranges, greys and reds. Though we hadn’t any polar bears or narwhals, we seemed to be enveloped by soaring fulmars.

We had company as we anchored in Fort Ross early in the morning, tired from the nights navigation. Polar Bound was anchored slightly further up the bay.
After a good mornings sleep Dario, Salina and Andri paddled to over to Polar Bound for a chat, while the rest of us got breakfast ready.
Sabine spotted some funny looking purple things in the water, they had little wings that they flapped to move through the water. After closer examination they, we could see they had a transparent snail shell on their back. We also found a little animal that had two little horns on what looked like the head, with some orange inside it. This sat on a torpedo shaped soft body with orange colored point. Just below the head there was something purple inside it. It also had wing-like structures it used to gracefully move through the water. They distracted us for quite a while, the kids catching ever more and bigger ones.

We headed for shore, our gun with us, as Polar Bound had seen a polar bear close by only yesterday. On land again we ran straight to the white wooden cabins. All the windows of the first cabin were shattered and pieces of glass lay all over the floors. There were five small rooms. A stove was in the center of the main room and two armchairs with the springs showing were nearby. Torn wallpaper pieces hung from the walls above the fridge and shelves. We wondered who may have lived here and how it would have been to overwinter in a cabin like this. The second hut had a big sign above the entrance saying “Hudson’s Bay Company, Incorporated in 1936”. This hut had been kept up and was in better condition, here you could possibly overwinter if you had no other option. To get in, you have to remove ten or so wooden bars that are wedged in front of the door. Inside you are welcomed by a cozy room with a small kitchen, heating stove, a central table and bunk beds for eight people. The
kitchen has bits and jobs of food people have left but you’d have to have enough with you or you’d have to hunt to survive a whole winter. The room is decorated with maps, flags and t-shirts earlier boats passing through have left. On the wooden bunk beds are drawings of boats that made it this far with lists of the names of the crew and the date of passing. Most dates are sometime in August, the earlier ones from the boats going west, the later ones from those going east. Upstairs there is a bookshelf and a camping toilet.

Now for some history:
After years of not finding Franklin and his men the searches became less and less. Lady Franklin was not happy about this, so she bought a three-mast schooner Fox and asked Francis Leopold M’Clintock to go out once again, in search of signs from her husband and his men. The first year M’Clintock didn’t make it into the Passage but in the spring of the second year he got to Beechey Island. There a memorial was built for Franklin, as requested by Lady Franklin. He then sailed further south and got to where we are anchored now. M’Clintock and crew decided to hide here from the harshest winter with their schooner and spent the winter of 1858-1859 here. Apparently, he set up camp here in order to send out teams with sleds to continue the search. Eventually near Point Victory they found notes in a cairn from Franklin’s men, they outlined the captains death and their attempts to flee the Arctic.

Soon, we were joined by David Crowley and his son from Polar Bound and set off on a hike to the cairn on the summit of the nearest hill. According, to the crew from Silent Sound there were bottled messages up there but we only read after we got back onboard. The land looked so rocky and dry we all brought our trainers for the walk. It turned out that the flat parts were in actual fact a bog. Thinking back now it makes sense: The ground here is all permafrost that thaws in the ‘warm’ summer temperatures and ever more with the increasing temperatures. In very shady corners there was still a blanket of ice covering the ground. The melt water then collects in the little valleys. Each step we took on the bright green moss carpet was like squeezing a sponge and our feet were soon nice and soggy. Plus our sponge was full of icy cold water. With wet feet we returned to the hut to quickly warm up and further admire what previous visitors had left there. Then we braved the even colder paddle back to Pachamama.
It was remarkable to see a carpet of vegetation covering the landscape, that had looked so barren. Lichens of all colors covered the drier rocky areas and sometimes almost looked like intentional pieces of art. When we examined the small vascular plants a little closer, we could tell they were adapted to these arid harsh conditions. Firstly, we noted the small leaves all the plants had. This is to prevent desiccation, or in other words water loss. Since rainfall and generally water in its liquid form is scarce up here, preventing water loss is extremely important. Much like cacti in the desert that also don’t want to lose to much water, the leaves were thick and had a waxy layer on them. Then we noticed that many had little hairs on the leaves or that the leaves were very close together. These are both methods of water retention, this helps the plant capture the water and keep it there when there is some.

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