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Expedition Report: Herschel Island, Swimming in the Arctic, Noe turns 7!

12.-15.82016, continuation from last report:


12.-15.82016, continuation from last report:

On our walk in the hills, the children found the leg bones of a caribou and we got to see the snowy owl, a white spot in the distance, that has been hanging around one particular valley .

Communication between the various groups on the island happens via handheld VHF radios. So took ours with us too and as we were enjoying our lunch looking down over the village, we got some very exciting news. The Rangers were getting wood and water to heat the sauna for us! We had all just accepted the fact that wet wipes and freezing cold water would have to do, if we wanted to be minimally cleaner. Sabine had braved the cold water the day before we got to Herschel but the rest of us hadn’t dared yet. Now, we knew a warm sauna would be waiting for us after we got back to camp.

Paden, one of the park rangers, had shot a snow goose, and showed the kids how to remove the feathers, gut and prepare it for cooking. It turned into a whole biology lesson looking at the intestines, which are as long as Pachamama, and how the gizzard, essentially the teeth, of the goose works. The gizzard is filled with stones that grind against the food and thereby mash it, before it goes into the stomach to be fully digested.

Then with high expectations we headed to the sauna. And it certainly did not disappoint! We all worked up a good sweat for half an hour and then ran in to the -0.6 degrees Celsius warm Arctic sea for a dip. Our first swim in the Arctic Ocean didn’t last long and soon we were all back in the warmth of the wood heated sauna, only to repeat the whole process. It was a wonderful way to get clean and relax after the crossing from Nome. It also ended up being some bonding time in a completely different setting with the people we had shared the same couple of square meters with for the last week.

Noé always manages to have his birthday party in the most spectacular places and once again this year did not disappoint. We had decided to do a surprise birthday party for Noé, since we weren’t sure we’d be able to go on shore for his actual birthday on the 15th. And so it came, that he celebrated his birthday with wonderful people in the oldest house in the Yukon. The community house on Herschel was built in 1893 and still looks the same as when it was first built.
Fresh and like new from the sauna shower, we returned to the community house to cook a feast of Älplermacaroni for all the people of the island. The others brought pizza, the snow goose from the morning and fish. It was a delicious and merry meal. A yummy chocolate cake and the story, of how Noé came to be who he is today, followed. Even a pile of cards and presents found their way in front of him. He got puzzles, goodies, a really good bird book, that will certainly be used by all on board and frequently, and most impressively of all a 14000 to 15000 year old part of a mammoth tusk. Thank you to everyone for their wonderful presents and making this last minute surprise party for Noé such a success! He certainly won’t ever forget his seventh birthday party any time soon.
Afterwards, a presentation by Dario, music by the children and games followed, making us instantly adopt Herschel time: going to bed at 4am and getting up after noon.

The next day, we got to talk to Team Shrub, from the University of Edinburgh, a little more and learn all about the research they are doing. They are using drones to look at plots of vegetation and how the tundra on the island is changing in response to the warmer temperatures. In these plots they look at what plants grow and how or whether this composition is changing, how much the plants are growing and when their growing season is. They have been seeing the plants get taller and start their growing season earlier in the year, though they are not growing longer at the end of the season. They are not sure why this earlier growing is happening yet, whether it is the later on set of freezing temperatures, which means the ground doesn’t freeze as far down and could mean there are more nutrients available when spring comes or earlier springs in general. As mentioned yesterday there may also be links between vegetation and erosion rates.
An earlier study done on Herschel island shows that not only plant but also animal communities are changing.

The study looked at how red foxes have been expanding their range further and further north in response to the warming temperatures. The red foxes are larger than the Arctic foxes and have been known to displace them when present in the same areas. At the moment they are co-existing but the researchers are not sure how much longer this will be the case. Usually, the red foxes dominate once well enough established. The Arctic foxes are faced by a challenge, as they can’t endlessly expand north. How they will respond will be seen in the near future. Whether they are displaced due to competition in prey or something else is currently unknown, but interestingly the red foxes seem to be larger the further north they are (The New Northwest Passage, Dueck, 2012).

In the afternoon, we got a tour from park rangers Sam and Paden, who told us all about the history of the island. It had been a very important hunting ground for the Inuvialuit, a lot of valuable furs such as the soft white Arctic fox pelt, muskrat and much more were sold from there. They told us as many as 2000 people had lived there, before the whalers came in. They mainly hunted bowhead and right whales and caused dramatic declines in their populations. The whalers initially wanted the blubber to make oil, which was used for example in burning lamps. Later, the baleen, used for corsets in Victorian Europe, was in high demand. Some of their shacks coated in tin are still standing and as we wrote yesterday, one last freezer is still there.

Many of their graves can be seen further along the beach in Pauline Cove. They are all white and stand out in stark contrast to the green tundra. Most of the whalers died young in their early twenties from some sort of a flue. Herschel had also been used by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to breed sled dogs, their enclosures are still there abandoned since 1964. In 1987, the 116km2 of Herschel Island became the first territorial park on the Yukon. This means the local Inuvialuit can still hunt and fish there. Any houses built on the island must have the exact same size and be in the exact spot of a former house to insure it stays true to its history. Sam’s granny was the last to live on the island year round, she had also raised her children there. Her house has been left abandoned since her passing in 2012.

As we were about to leave all the groups came with boxes of left over food for us. Bagels, cheese, frozen fruits and veggies, butter milk, meat and so much more are now stored away. Who said you can’t get any good food in the Arctic?! Thanks, to all of them we have been eating like kings and queens for the last few days!

We really cannot put into words how incredible the short 40 hour stop on Herschel was but it certainly refilled our batteries ready for the next part of the passage. It was amazing to be so warmly welcomed and taken in by everyone there and to hear about all the interesting things they are doing to understand and document climate change.
You all gave us two wonderful days filled with joy and happiness!
A small token of our gratitude is shown by the signed wooden paddle and the TOPtoTOP Victorinox knife we left in the community house. The paddle was made by Noé two years ago in a camp we visited for Alaska native children to learn their cultural heritage. The other way we tried to say thank you was by taking 8 of the scientists and rangers out for a sail out of Pauline Cove, our anchorage.

After dropping of our extra crew and saying many goodbyes, we set off once again on our journey eastward. We had little wind at first but it has picked up since. Fixing our autopilot has has occupied the majority of our time since we left. After almost a day (24hrs) of efforts by Dario and Sabine, we have decided to let it rest in peace for now. This means we are constantly helming once again and quite exhausted by that already. The children are the only ones that aren’t lacking from severe lack of sleep. On top of it all Dario is now also ill.

There has been a lot of fog. When it cleared at some point yesterday we saw many seals. One, maybe a bearded seal, was particularly noisy and came to within 5 meters of the boat.
Today, was Noé’s 7th birthday and we celebrated with many presents, a cake, and delicious Pachamama hamburgers. The carefully decorated cake reflected our passage so far on it with polar bears, seals and ice bergs. We wish him the very best for the next year of his life. We all feel incredibly lucky to have him with us and hope he has an exciting year filled with many adventures and answers to his many questions! May his smile spread joy wherever he goes.

10th August 2016: Noé summarizes the day, Whales and Polar Bear Sighted

10th August 2016 — Noé summarizes the day:

image1 (4)We woke up and it was before eight in the morning. And then we saw many whales and after that we saw a polar bear 30ft away. After that we wanted to anchor but it wasn’t very deep and we would have had to paddle far. So we sailed on instead and we saw 4 bowhead whales. And then one whale came up really really close to the boat it was humongous, I was the only one that saw it though.

What a day! For me, it all started with Andri waking me up saying: “Meret, there are whales.” Most of the adults hadn’t gotten much sleep last night because the autopilot failed and they had to hand steer. I really didn’t want to get out of my warm sleeping bag. Should I have told the children to wake me up if they saw cool wildlife? Had they really seen whales? Turns out they had, but Andri’s second call was what got me out of bed instantly. I ran straight on deck in my pajamas forgetting even my slippers. “Meret, POLAR BEAR!” And sure enough as I came on deck the head of a polar bear floated past Pachamama not 10 meters away. Our first polar bear sighting!!!
While everyone had been on the starboard side looking at the whales, Christina had noticed what she thought was a buoy on the port side. She was worried we were about to hit it and sail into a net, she couldn’t quite believe her eyes when she realized what the supposed buoy was. “En Eisbär!!!”
Behind the general excitement our feeling were mixed. Most of us were a little nervous having a polar bear so close but we were also concerned. Was it ok for a polar bear to be so far out in the ocean? Christina was all but ready to go save or help the polar bear. Afterwards we read in our ‘Guide to Marine Mammals of Alaska’ (Wynne, 2012) that they are ‘Usually within 180 mi of shore.’ Did that mean on the ice or that they could swim that far? Alegra’s German book about polar bears said they can easily swim a few hours or up to 100km. Being about 25 miles offshore our bear may have been fine but if it was looking for ice it was swimming in the wrong direction. It was swimming parallel to the icepack. This brings us to a general problem polar bears are facing. When they swim out looking for ice, they can no longer just swim or anywhere and get to pack ice. The ice is further and further offshore and the chances that they will find it and that it is also thick enough for them are ever smaller. If the ice was at the latitude it was around Point Barrow then it still had far swim.

We had planned to anchor off Barter Island and spend a few hours on shores. However, once we got there it got shallow a lot further out than expected. The charts showed a meter more than we were reading on our depth sounder and we knew the bay was known for shifting shoals. With roughly a kilometer to paddle to get to shore in icy cold water and the wind picking up against us for the paddle back, we decided we’d sail on and wait till Hershel Island to have firm ground under our feet.

On the way we saw 4 whales. They were quite a distances away but we think they were bowhead whales. Some seals also popped their heads up near us.

As we sailed on the winds were light and there wasn’t much swell or waves, we took this chance to empty out, clean and rearrange the actor locker. We had also lost a screw there in Nome and were keen to have another good look for it. We cleaned out all the sand and dirt using toothbrushes and cloths but the screw didn’t show up. We also applied some antirust formula to the pipe of the front heads.

Since the two windows in the heads were still leaking, Dario and Sabine put another layer of silicone around the seals. If this still, doesn’t work we’ll have to thin of a new approach for fixing the leak.

We have our spinnaker up. This light weight sail is ideal for covering decent distances in light winds. We had around 6-9 knots of wind and were going around 4 knots.