Tuesday, October 25, 2011

CTV News - HMS Investigator Documentary

To view the CTV News documentary about the HMS Investigator expedition click the Frozen In Time icon.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Bidding the Arctic Farewell

In my opening blog I mention how fortunate I have been over my career to work with a diverse and passionate group of explorers and archeologists. These individuals mirror the range in projects they undertake. I was talking with Marc Andre, the Director to the Parks Canada Underwater Archeology Service in the wee hours of bright sunshine one morning about our top projects in our careers. Sitting in the inflatable waiting for divers to surface in this bizarre landscape I reflected a bit.

Since joining the NPS I have had the privilege to photograph many once in a life time projects. Early on, right out of film school, I found myself living off the coast of the Florida Keys in the Dry Tortugas NP where the casemate of the civil war Fort Jefferson was my bedroom, crossing a drawbridge over a moat was my morning commute, and diving on shipwrecks 7 days a week was my job. Years later I was the project photographer for the Friends of the Hunley and the National Geographic on the HL Hunley recovery expedition. For six month we worked off-shore diving in surface supplied hard hats along side commercial divers on a project of massive scale. After months of intense work and weeks of 24hr operations we finally recovered the 1st successful submarine in maritime history which sank off the coast of Charleston, SC in 1864 – crew still aboard. In 2000 I was shooting documentaries for History, National Geographic and Discovery for the 65th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack on the USS Arizona. Around this time I was also working with one of the great underwater cinematographers, Pete Romano, owner of HydroFlex and the best UW director of photography anywhere, on the feature film Pearl Harbor. In addition to diving with the director, Michael Bay, and participating in the insanity that is a Hollywood blockbuster I was able to help the film crew capture the essence of the USS Arizona as it rest today. (sadly, the real USS Arizona was ultimately not “real” enough for the director and he had Industrial Light & Magic build him an entire Arizona model which appeared in the film). Just a couple years ago I was shooting for a PBS NOVA program, a lifetime series favorite and professional dream. These projects, combined with the experience and dives on so many other projects around the NPS and internationally have generated a lifetime of experiences.

2011 HMS Investigator Underwater Team
To be honest though, this trip with Parks Canada to the Arctic has ranked up there as one of the very best. It’s the whole package. The ships history, the recent discovery, the remote location, the fact is never been seen underwater all make it a standout. More than just the subject of the project, the environment and living conditions have made is special. It’s the absolute opposite of a high tech, research vessel based, closed circuit rebreather mission. The Parks Canada Underwater Archeology Service are some of the most talented and dedicated individuals I have ever worked with. Add to that they are generally great guys with the right balance of work and family wrapped with a Canadian sense of humor. They have not only invited this lone American on the expedition, but insured that all the logistics of living in the part of the world for any amount of time were taken care of. My tent, sleeping bag, dry bag, food and even dive gear (minus the dry suit and heater vest – with water this cold, I had to be sure) have all been provided. They have taken me in as part of the team both in this remote location, and the project kick off, cookout hosted by a Ryan’s parents in Edmonton.

So as I bid the Arctic farewell, I will always remember the tundra, the perpetual sunlight and never-ending magic hour, a virgin shipwreck and its it’s shallow frigid final resting place. Perhaps more than anything I will recall the friendships that were formed in the tents, adding boiling water to an unknown substance in a bag, stirring and calling it dinner. The laughs when its 2am and just for fun you decide to blow up your drysuits and sumo wrestle on the beach just because you can. I will remember the team of Parks Canada archeologist who trusted me to document one of the most significant projects in many of the their careers. All this and they even let me hold the Canadian flag every now and then. Thanks guys, it truly was the project of a lifetime.

2011 HMS Investigator Team

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Recovering History

One of the primary distinctions (or battles) between archeologist and salvors (treasure hunters) is the disposition, or resting place, of artifacts recovered from historic sites. Granted, as an underwater photographer my opinion may not count in this community, however spending the past 15 years traveling, diving and shooting for them I have a decent “outsiders” perspective. Perhaps the most contentious issue is the recovery of artifacts and if those artifacts are held in public trust for the benefit of education, historical context, and further investigation – OR- are sold to the highest bidder in some effort to pay off investors, stock holders or overall pirates.

I mention this topic in the context of the HMS Investigator expedition as example of how to recover history properly - and ethically.  Throughout the project the Parks Canada underwater  archeologist have not only mapped the ship, but studied its every timber, deck beam, and diagnostic feature possible without excavation. They have identified several artifacts resting on the decks and exposed in the sediment. Each one was painstakingly drawn and mapped (with thick, three finger gloves I might add) while being recorded in place. Candidates for recovery were discussed amongst the team as to the significance of both this site and the context of polar exploration of the mid 1800's as a whole. Artifacts were selected based on site preservation and integrity (the possibility of artifact removal by others), contribution to the historical record of the period, and uniqueness to the ship itself. Once the artifacts were selected, a very detailed plan was put in place not only to lift them from the icy sea, but to transport via helicopter, bush plane and commercial airlines was also considered. In addition the conservation commitment, cost and facilities to properly preserve these pieces in perpetuity was also assessed. Lastly, and I believe most importantly, how can they be used to tell the Investigators story to the public and where?

With all these considerations responsibly addressed by the team, a few select pieces were recovered to be conserved and displayed in a maritime museum. Among the recovered artifacts were boots, copper sheeting with the British broad arrow stamp, felt lining used in the double hull of the polar expedition vessel, and several diagnostic features of period ship construction such as rigging blocks and bits. Perhaps the most impressive recovery was a musket riffle located partially buried in the sediment, lodged between deck debris. Not only was this riffle well preserved carrying both a British War Department serial number and date of manufacture (1848) but it has a story to tell. Its presence rewrites the historical record since it was documented that all armaments were removed upon abandonment of the ship. It also has the potential to be tracked via the serial number to an individual listed in the ships manifest it was issued to. Lastly, it plays a direct connection to the amazing story of survival that the Investigators were subjected to and no doubt was used to sustain the crew in the three years they spent trapped in the ice.

Once on display, this riffle and all the artifacts have stories that would be lost with out the recovery and conservation of these archeologist. Perhaps most importantly, their stories will be told to the public through interpretation and education giving us a rare window polar exploration of the mid nineteenth century. Very exciting.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Walking in the Footsteps of History

Every now and then you get a chance to walk down the path of history. It may be the Coliseum in Rome or the Freedom Trail in Boston. Perhaps it’s a visit to Pearl Harbor where you can stand over the USS Arizona or a trip to Arlington where the countless fallen have been laid to rest. On this particular expedition I have had the opportunity to not only dive on HMS Investigator, but also walk in the footsteps of many of its crew in the exact location where they spent years of hardship trapped in the Arctic. As if to squeeze every morsel of visceral stimulus out of the expedition, I downloaded The Ice Passage, A True Story of Ambition, Disaster, and Endurance in the Arctic Wilderness by Brian Payton to my iPad. It is the retelling of the HMS Investigator based on the journals of both the ships captain, Robert McClure and the ships surgeon, Johann Miertsching – and one of the most gripping tales of true life perseverance I have ever read. For my part, mere yards from the actual shipwreck as the arctic wind whistles through my tent history has a way of coming to life. Now, let me be the first to say as I blog wearing my Patagonia thermals, laying in my -20 degree goose down sleeping bag, on my therma rest in my high-end, project supplied tent that I am no way comparing my time spent in the Arctic with theirs. The crew of the Investigator had it tough, far tougher than I will ever experience in my lifetime and perhaps tougher than most in the history of exploration. I can hardly think of a location, with abysmal weather and dwindling food as they faced, worse than those during the four winters of 1850’s. Even with my modern equipment, the story has a bit of context when reading on the shores of Mercy Bay.

Aside from the shipboard life on Investigator, The Ice Passage retells the activities the crew undertook on the tundra as well. Hunting became the obsession of the withering crew. While reading the book, one passage stuck me a particularly gloomy. Payton writes “Each day, a man is dispatched to the sodden shore to hike atop an eight-hundred foot hill to take long, ponderous looks at the ice-covered sea. Each day, he returns to report that there has been no change, no sign of breakup or movement…The men mill about with empty stomachs, bereft of any sense of pleasure or – for some- even the will to live.” The “sodden shore” is most likely the exact location of our camp and up the “eight-hundred foot hill” is the climb to the north of camp in which these crewmen would hike to assess conditions. This being the last night on Mercy Bay, Marc Andre, Thierry and I decided to hike along the shoreline up to the carren, or marker, built by McClure and his crew at the highest point on this shoreline as a marker to any passing ships to indicate Investigators location trapped inside Mercy Bay.

We departed camp around 11pm, in the full glow of the sun filled “night” sky. As we walked along the shore in the Arctic heat wave of 40 degrees it struck me that this was such a different place than the Investigator crew encountered. With the lack of ice breakup for two solid years, the chances that these men ever saw warm, 40-50 degrees was slim, at least for any extended time. Only recently has climate change and the melting of the polar ice cap enabled ice free waters and warmer temperatures. We walked further, past muskoxen and wolf tracks - all hunted in the 1850’s by the investigator crew for survival. How do you hunt such animals in the tundra with no cover, no place to hide? We began our ascent up the rolling hills to McClure’s cairn at the highest point overlooking the now open ocean. From this vantage point you can look North to the solid white of polar ice shelf. To the East was Mercy Bay, site of the HMS Investigator and our campsite along the shoreline. To the South was the vast rolling hills of the wide open tundra of Banks Island, glowing in the eternal midnight sun. And to the West you could see the open ocean, the longing of those men trapped in the icy grip of fate and destiny. My summit was met with awe inspiring views on an harsh, yet beautiful landscape - but as a mere visitor. I had every confidence that a full meal would be available to me in the morning, that my helicopter would arrive to begin the journey home and that I would reach my home, and those I love, in a matter of days. Theirs was a much different view. The endless ice. The ever sinking feeling of never being able to escape. The distant memory of their home, last seen nearly three years prior, would only be accessible after months on a treacherous ocean…if the ice ever breaks up. Walking in the footsteps of history often time has a way of reminding us of just how fortunate in life we are. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

It Can’t Get Much Colder

Diving in cold water has really come a long way in the recent years. There are so many specialized materials and manufactures that cold water diving is not only bearable but enjoyable – for the right type of diver. To me its just an equation – warmth equals the right equipment. And when you work in such a diverse underwater environments as the National Park Service  you have to have the right gear. Drysuits provide the initial protection and if everything goes as planed underwater, they live up to their name and you stay dry. Some drysuits are designed to provide a certain level of thermal protection in addition to water tightness, some are just a water proof shell. Add to that a variety of options in dive under garments which offer varying degrees of warmth. My particular thermals are made by Fourth Element and pretty much look like my kids snow suits and for extremely cold water, are equally as thick. Full face masks prevent the dreaded numb lips one gets in cold water from holding the regulator in the mouth. Nothings worse than your breathing regulator falling out because you lips are too numb to feel its presences (yes it’s happened). Dry gloves with fleece liners keep the fingers toasty and dry (usually) and a thick semi-dry hood retains that top layer of heat escape just like mom always told about with a hat. For this trip I have even added heater vest which has an external battery pack and an adjustable heat source to warm up the vest and keep ones core nice and toasty. Even with all that very specialized equipment, let me just say the Arctic Ocean is cold. In fact its impossible to get much colder.

On our first dives on the HMS Investigator the temperature on my dive computer read 34F. Sure, that’s cold, but only 2 or 3 degrees colder than my last project at Isle Royale NP in Lake Superior. This is the Arctic. I had two specific ambitions for this trip. The first was to have my picture taken on a ice flow, the second was to dive in water below freezing. A few patches of ice drifted in last night, so check the first goal off the list. Bring on the cold water. I didn’t have to wait long.

Today’s dive felt different as soon as I hit the bottom at 30’. The visibility was very distorted, almost like a mixture of fresh and salt water (called a halocline) or a temperature gradient difference (called a thermocline). It also was cold. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to feel the difference in a couple degrees, I mean cold is cold, right? Wrong. Today my dive computer read 28.8F. It was the first time I have actually used the high setting on my heater vest (a source of envy amongst the Parks Canada divers). The low temperature occurred on or near the bottom where the visibility was oily. Although not an expert by any means, but what seemed to be occurring was the water was so cold it was attempting to freeze but both tide and salt content kept it in its liquid form. As I swam along the hull of the ship I had these comical visions of a hypothetical flash freeze event with an shipwreck ice cube complete with scuba diving photographer. 

The Dive Site

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Eternal Sunshine of the Arctic Mind

As the sunshine created a bright orange glow in my tent last “night” at 2:30AM my body was exhausted from a 17 ½ hour day, but my mind was struggling with the concept of 24hr sunshine. The sun is in constant rotation yet never seems to reach its apex above us nor set below the horizon. This creates the illusion of eternal afternoon sunlight from around 6pm to 10am the following day. As I said, its an illusion to the mind to keep working, however the body eventually fights back, takes over, and forces you to rest.

This low light is often referred to as the magic hour, as the sun is low on the horizon which creates soft and deeply shadowed lighting. Here in the arctic we have come to refer to its as the magic 8 hours. It’s a photographers dream. The colors are vivid and the textures are amplified. Even in this seemingly barren landscape, the low light adds drama to the images.
Underwater, the magic hour is not so flattering. With the light low in the horizon it does not have the angle to penetrate through the water as effectively and illuminate the shipwreck. It also limits the angles or options one has to shoot from. Wide angle images that are shot toward the sun appear washed out and flat. This causes the best images to be created with the sunlight behind the photographer which is fine on occasion but not very conducive to capturing underwater archeologist working on the ship. In my years of working with these underwater scientist, although accommodating, very rarely do they like to be prodded and asked to move positions to accomplish their measured drawings for the sake of better light.

Regardless, the sun still shines. The pace of work does not slow down as the team is suffering from the same mind verses body conflict as the hours tick by. Its has become the norm to work both day and night with dive operations running from before lunchtime through 2-3AM. Although the “night” may not be yielding the best underwater light, the bitter cold, North wind has been trending toward a calm this time of night which makes the diving operations somewhat more accommodating. All in all as much as the eternal sunshine plays tricks on ones mind and body, I believe it to be much better that the opposing seasons of eternal darkness and -30 temperatures. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

HMS Investigator Mosaic

While the Parks Canada archeologists were spending ten to twelve dive a day mapping Investigator, my responsibility was to image the wreck. One goal was to create a mosaic that would convey the current condition, size and layout of the site. This mosaic was stitched together manually over the course of several days (and "nights") using hundreds of images shot just feet of the deck. A normally difficult process made a bit more so in a bright tent (with terrible orange light for color correction), a desk made of Pelican shipping cases, and the chill of the arctic.

HMS Investigator, Mercy Bay

Investigating the Investigator - Part 3

On this site, as soon as I place my mask underwater visibility goes to zero. Its bright but I could not see my outstretched hand. It was like swimming in a oil and vinegars salad dressing. The melting ice flows created a fresh water/salt water lens on the top several feet of the bay. Knowing my buddy, UAS archeologist Therry Boyier was on the down line also there was nothing else to do but descend and wait for the massive halocline to pass. At about 10-15 feet the cloudy water dissipated and I could make out the silhouettes of the other Parks Canada divers. Apparently Marc-Andre had an issue with a regulator hose and had aborted the dive. Slowly we descended the line and landed on the baron, muddy bottom. The crackling of voices came over my headset. “This is Ryan on the bottom” “copy Ryan” was the response from topside. Each one of us checked in confirmed our depth, pressures and that we were on bottom. Just a short distance away, maybe 20-30ft I could make out a silhouette rising out of the mud. Investigator? As I swam over to the ship I could see the hull standing proud, perfectly level, resting on the bottom. Its blunt bow was thick with massive timbers and a huge shackle hung a couple feet down from the deck level. I signaled to Theirry that all was good and we could start investigating the Investigator. I leveled my camera and began dialing in the exposure. First frame – dark. Second shot, the same. I was getting proper exposure, but no light from my strobes was illuminating the image. They fired, but did were not registering in the photograph. Was there something inherently different about the Arctic waters that somehow “eats” light? My first impression of the site was that if someone took a bulldozer to a sailing ship and leveled everything above the main deck it would resemble this shipwreck. No masts, no railings, no rigging, no cabins. Nothing. Just a jumbled mess of wood scattered in every direction sitting on, and next to, a ships hull. The ice had taken its toll on the Investigator, and flattened everything in its path.

We continued to swim around the circumference of the hull by following its outline. I kept shooting, setting my ISO to 3200 and exposing for ambient light images without strobes. I shot a few images of my dive buddy, Thierry, on the video camera. Without the benefit of reviewing much of the ROV footage from last years discovery I had no idea of where I was. So far the only identifiable feature had been the blunt end of the bow where we started the dive. After swimming for 30 minutes, pausing frequently to shoot some pictures, imagine my surprise when I found myself back at the same blunt bow. One would naturally assume this would happen when swimming a circle around a shipwreck, however in this case it was quite perplexing because I didn’t notice every swimming past the stern! With the gradual curvature of the hull outline and the massive collection of overhanging timbers and wood I had just swam right past the stern without it registering my mind. No matter, hopefully there would be future dives to actually make sense of the shipwreck. The crackle of voices came from topside again. “Seymour, what is your pressure”? “”1200 psi, over” “Copy that, 1200 psi” was the reply. I shot a few more images around the bow of the ship, partially because that the only thing identifiable, and clicked the temperature setting up a couple notches on my heater vest as the 34degree water began to settle into my core. After a few minutes I transmitted to topside my intent to surface. “Topside this is Seymour, I’m coming off the bottom, max depth 32 ft”. “Copy Seymour” echoed in headset. Upon surfacing I kept the down-line loosely in my hands as I passed thought the zero visibility and was hit with sudden vertigo which often occurs to me when on ear releases pressure at a different time than the other. As I broke the surface of the water I was blinded by the bright sunlight. It was 1 o’clock in the morning and we had completed the first dive on the HMS Investigator, the dive of a lifetime!

Investigating the Investigator - Part 2

The dive rotation was based on both rank and need. It was determined that UAS Archeologist Ryan Harris, as both project director and member of the discovery team last year would jump first. His partner would be Marc-Andre Bernie, the Director of the Parks Canada’s Underwater Archeology Service. Next team in would be cameras, based on last years survey expedition, this be the first and only dive possible on the site due to ice and weather. I’m in. A boat was dispatched with a makeshift mooring and a marker buoy and placed based on the GPS location of last years discovery and survey. As we geared up for the dive there was certain lack of chatter or idle talk – an air of focused concentration and excitement was apparent. Safety briefings were reinforced again to ensure everyone know the plan should something go wrong. Help in this part of the world is not a quick process so you better understand your options on front end of these dives. We motored out to the buoy with incredible anticipation. Witnessing archeologist on the verge of diving a virgin, historically significant shipwreck is like harnessed sled dogs before a run or a gated race horse before the starting bell. Wide-eyed and amped up.

After securing our small inflatable to the mooring line we readied our gear. Having just completed a quick 6ft dive just off the beach with Phil Ronko, the UAS Dive Safety Officer to test my full face mask and perform some mask removal drills I knew my gear was good to go. Next I double checked the integrity of my Aquatica camera housing. As the team was geared up, I struggled into my equipment which was made difficult by the incredibly thick drysuit underwear and 40 pounds of lead weight in my BC. With great assistance I was made ready and sitting awkwardly on the side of the inflatable boat. Now all that was left was to fall overboard into the grip of the icy water.

When you first hit very cold water your mind races and takes inventory of your entire sensory system. The first “system control” that is checked is breathing. Is my regulator working and can I breath? Check. Next, its whether or not you are floating. You need some time at the surface to settle into the gear and insure all the hoses and gauges are in their proper locations. Check. Then there is always a focused concentration on any location that may be experiencing a trickle of cold water. This is often times difficult due to the cooling effect of the surrounding water overall and because the thermals often delay any feeling of cold water inside your drysuit. (side note – this is NOT the case when one jumps in with a drysuit zipper undone. In these situations there is an instantaneous sensation one experiences that is not difficult to detect – and yes I speak from experience). With all the diving gear in place and functional you establish your buddy teams and agree to descend. 

Investigating the Investigator - Part 1

Today, after a delay of three days the Investigator team is assembled on the beach at Mercy Bay. After much negotiation and speculation a helicopter was dispatched from a “nearby” camp (meaning several hours by air) to assist with the final sling loads and passengers necessary to begin the project. The final team members arrived at the Mercy Bay camp around 5pm. For the Parks Canada crew already at Mercy Bay, the late arrival of the stranded Polar Bear Cabin crew seemed like a chance to take a break from setting up tents, pumping tanks, building boats and unloading the cargo delivered by the helicopters. Possibly have some down time to lay out the operations and discuss project objectives. Shortly after the full team was assembled, I could tell this was not going to be a early day. Unseen by human eyes for 157 years, this team of underwater archeologist, who had first discovered the vessel almost a year ago and had spent so many weeks since planning this expedition, wanted to dive the Investigator.

In only a matter of an hour or so the underwater team members were dressed in drysuits and standing on beach next to the inflatable boats. One issue to be determined was who would dive the Investigator first. Who amongst this fortunate team would descend the shallow 30ft and be the first to hover over the decks of this virgin shipwreck. To many in the diving world this will always be a dreams. Virgin shipwrecks are but myths, the holy grail of the underwater world. As diving capabilities become more advanced, so do the limits of discovery. 400ft, 500ft and beyond are now possible. Here we are with a historically significant ship, the subject of such an amazing story of discovery and survival, just offshore in 30ft of water.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Does Anyone Have A Helicopter?

The next morning, after the first “night” of sun shining in my tent, we still had no word on a helicopter. Discussions were taking place as to repairing the compressor in our current ship which could take 2-3 days. In arctic time, that is code for a week plus with weather. There were also satellite phone calls to other helicopter companies to see if we could at least get the rest of our gear and team to camp. Around midday the distant thud-thud-thud was heard as our helicopter approached camp over the hills on the horizon. Fixed? After touching down we learned that dispatch has cleared the pilot to fly limited weight flights with no passengers. Apparently there was a manual in-flight fix to bleed off the compressor allowing flight, however no guarantee for how long or how well this could continue. When a pilot lands and says he heard some clunks in the engine, well that’s not a helicopter you want a ride in anyway.

Limited weight flights? The pilot opened up the cabin which was filled with the food coolers. That’s a move in the right direction. Gradually over the course of the day we had most of the camp supplies arrive by flights that could be contained inside the Bell helicopter cabin. Interestingly enough this also included our 19ft and 14ft Zodiac inflatable boats. Over the course of the next couple days we continued setting up camp, inflating boats, and setting up a filling station with our two compressors and filling SCUBA tanks. I built up the underwater cameras for project and documented the operations as much as possible. Still no word on a helicopter solution. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Always Prepared

As you can imagine the logistical infrastructure to field 14 people with shelter, food, boats and dive gear is no easy feat. The Parks Canada Western Arctic Field Unit in conjunction with the Underwater Archeological Services have done a fantastic job in planning. Standing on a gravel “airstrip” in the middle of the tundra is where the planning ends and the operations takes over.

We began the day with the third and fourth of our Twin Otter charter flights from Inuvik to Polar Bear Cabin with the underwater team aboard. Upon arrival into Polar Bear we discovered that the advanced archeology team tasked with the initial camp set up was still at the “cabin” – which is really a plywood shack. Apparently the helicopter was a day and half late showing up and not a single load of equipment had been slung to the beach. Setback. The crew quickly began prioritizing both equipment and personal to begin slinging the 40min hop to the shores of Mercy Bay. As the project photographer its always an awkward balance of capturing the process through photography verses actually assisting with the manual labor required for a project of this scale. I tried to stay out of the way and hoped the quality of images would somehow excuse my lack of muscle. The first of the “human” flights as the helicopter pilots say, was underway to retrieve water from the Mercy Falls, several miles from camp. Shortly thereafter I was sent over as part of the initial team to begin the camp setup. I tried to convince myself it was because they wanted aerial images of the camp prior to the full teams arrival, not that they were tired of seeing me wander around with nothing more than a camera in my hand.

One of the first rules of moving around the tundra by aircraft is always be prepared. That means you always travel with your tent, your sleeping bag and your personal bag. No exceptions. I grabbed my gear, loaded it into the chopper and called shotgun so I could shoot aerials through the nose bubble. As we lifted off I quickly remembered how much I have always enjoyed being in helicopters. The lift and the perception of moving in any direction at the whim of the pilot is quite exhilaration. It’s a certain feeling of weightlessness, similar to diving – perhaps that is my draw to it. In fact, the only job I would considering keeping our of the water for  has always been a helicopter pilot. As we flew a low altitude over the tundra toward Mercy Bay I began shooting the ice flows in the McClure Strait. They appeared to lurk at the edge of the Bay just waiting to drift in with the slightest change of the wind and scrub out the project.

 Our campsite is located just feet from the waterline at Mercy Bay, the most beautiful of locations. Not wanting to appear like a rookie, I consulted members of last years expedition regarding just how close to the shore I should pitch my tent. With a little help from veteran team (which kept me from embarrassing myself fumbling with the tent), I got it set up and my personal gear moved in. Then the word came in via the satellite pager – helicopters broken. No word yet on any options. Always prepared – I am beginning to understand the concept. We were at the edge of nowhere, inches from the arctic sea but at least we had shelter, personal gear and our sleeping bags. Food however had yet to make it over on the helicopter lifts. This is starting to feel like an expedition.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

McClure's Arctic Map

The Story of the Investigator - Part 3

As the figure closes in, the crew hears “I am Lieutenant Pim of the ship Resolute”. Rescue. A sledge with a small search expedition soon arrives. The lives of the 32 Investigators have been saved. Men, most carried by sleigh, were transported across the snowy landscape and taken aboard the ice-bound Resolute and its accompanying ship the HMS Intrepid. The HMS Investigator is abandoned. Winter slowly gives way to spring and the Investigators begin to regain their strength back on full rations. Plans are underway to finally leave the Arctic and transit back to England. In September of 1853 the ice was breaking up and the ships set sail for open water. Miles passed and visions of escaping the wretched Arctic grip was palpable. Days later, the crews awoke to a gruesome site. Ice was pressing in on the ships from all sides as far as the eye could see. The ship was put on 2/3 rations which was of no consequence to the Investigators. They had survived so much worse. What was nearly impossible to accept was the reality that they were overwintering in the Arctic yet again – their fourth.

In that fourth and final winter two more of Investigators crew would die of effects from starvation and scurvy. The crew would be forced to abandon ship one more time, this time from their savior, the Resolute which was hopeless trapped in the ice, to the North Star some 200 miles over the ice to the East. On August 26, 1854 the sails of the North Star are unfurled and the ship was underway toward England in the open sea. Four years after entering the Arctic in search of the lost Franklin expedition, 30 of the original 33 Investigators are finally free.

In the end the crew of Investigator were hailed as heroes upon return to England. Captain McClure was credited with the discovery of the Northwest Passage based on his overland excursions and his definitive geographical mapping which connected his westward expeditions with earlier eastward journeys by previous explorers. For his hardship and discovery he was knighted and awarded 10,000 British pounds - equivalent to more than $2million today. Half for himself, half to distribute among his officers and crew. In all, the story of the HMS Investigator ranks up there as one of the greatest stories of desperation, hardship, and survival of all time. For a more detailed account, as well as unforgettable read, check out The Ice Passage, A True Story of Ambition, Disaster, and Endurance by Brian Payton. Just make sure you have plenty to eat and a warm blanket handy.

The Story of the Investigator - Part 2

New Years Day, 1852 the temperature is recorded at -50 degrees. The ship is still buried in a snow drift piled over the decks by hurricane force winds a few weeks before – 35 feet high, 165 feet long. The long, dark winter persists followed by the light of another spring. In September of 1852 the ships crew gather on the deck of the Investigator bracing for Captain McClure’s address. Although they know what’s coming, not one is willing to embrace the inevitable. “After carful observations it is my conviction that the ice will not break up this summer. Therefore, we are compelled to pass a second winter here at Mercy Bay” McClure declares. Another winter is upon the Investigator without a single day under sail in open water all year long.

The third winter takes its toll on the Investigators. Their rations are again cut. Formal meals are discontinued and what little food remains is distributed each morning leaving each man to decide when to eat his share – for breakfast or dinner depending on the degree of his will power. The crew has difficulty sleeping due to hunger. The winter is no less forgiving. Temperatures reach -90 degrees, the coldest recorded on the expedition or any previous expedition to the Arctic. Its so cold that hunting excursions are all but impossible. On one such outing the stock of a sailors rifle cracks and shatters against his shoulder upon recoil due to the intolerable cold. On New Years Day, 1853 the ships doctor examines the crew. Scurvy is prevalent and life threatening. The men complain of dysentery and faint at the slightest exertion. One sailor awakens to find that several teeth have fallen out while he slept. By the end of January more than a third of the crew are incapacitated, most suffering from scurvy and starvation.

In early March, 1853 it has become apparent that to stay with the ship is to die. McClure announces his intentions and breaks the crew into to two groups. The first group, containing 26 sailors (most of them frail and barely coherent) will take a sledge, or man drawn sleigh, some 600 miles west over the ice. This epic journey will be followed by rowing a boat through the open sea, navigating ice bergs, with aspirations of being rescued by a whaling ship in Baffin Bay and eventually sailed back to England. Of the two officers in charge of this expedition, one is in sick bay and the other a raving madman. The second expedition, comprised of slightly healthier individuals, will travel by small boat down the McKenzie River to the Hudson Bay and (hopefully), with the help Native Americans, journey through the North America wilderness to Montreal, then New York where they will attempt to secure passage back to England. Although both missions are seen by most as suicide, desperation has set in and both parties will depart on April 15. Rrations are increased for the upcoming expeditions. Ten days prior to departure, the first death comes to the Investigators from the effects of dysentery. The flowing day as the crew is determining how to bury their shipmate, an approaching object is seen moving towards the Investigator.

The Story of the Investigator - Part 1

Its hard to image a time when some believed in the notion of an Open Polar Sea. I guess the same could be said for a flat earth. In the past many believed if one was able to simply sail far enough north, past the ice shelf, an open ocean could be reached. Robert Thourne first proposed the concept of an Open Polar Sea in 1527 in a letter to Henry VIII. His hypothesis – “there is no doubt, but sailing Northward and passing the Pole, descending to the Equinoctial line, we shall arrive at the Island of Cahay, and it should be much shorter way than any other.” The theory gained little momentum until 1817 when reports of an extraordinary breakup of sea ice occurred off the coast to Greenland. The great Arctic explorer Edward Perry believed in the Arctic Sea just passed the barrier of ice encountered in the North latitudes. In 1845 Perry sent Sir John Franklin in search of the Northwest Passage as well as open water leading to the Pole. Franklins expedition was ill fated, as were the lives of the 128 men on his ships, the HMS Erebus and Terror. His disappearance launched unprecedented rescue mission involving 23 ships between 1848 and 1853. It was believed among some that men of Franklin’s expedition could still be alive years after leaving England and existing among an unknown race of people in the North.

One of these vessels dispatched was the HMS Investigator captained by Robert McClure which sailed from Plymouth, England on January 20, 1850 with a crew of 33. The Investigator was a 422 ton, three-masted, copper bottomed barque measuring 118 feet long and 28 feet wide. It had recently been refurbished, rounded at both ends and double hulled with English oak, Canadian elm and African teak resulting in a reinforcement of some 29 inches in some locations to buffer against the ice. It was provisioned for three full years at sea. McClure’s plan was to sail around the tip of the Americas and enter the polar region from the West after resupplying in Hawaii. By the fall of 1850 the Investigator reaches the Western Arctic in search of both the Franklin expedition and a Northwest Passage. In a matter of days, the Investigator is bound by ice and the first year of overwintering in the arctic has begun. When ship is finally sealed, the hatches batten down and the tarps draped over the decks, the stoves are fired and an interior temperature of 50 degrees could be maintained. Meanwhile the average outside temperature is a chilling -30.

On January 1, 1851 the temperature drops to -40 degrees, the coldest to date. The lack of sun and 24hours of darkness take its toll on the crew. Winter marches on. Slowly daylight returns and hunting expeditions in search of fresh provisions are resumed. In early August of 1851, almost exactly one year since the Investigator first encountered the Arctic, the ice begins its retreat and the open ocean looms on the horizon. In late September change comes quickly. The ice breaks up rapidly and the Investigator is under sail and manages to navigate around the western shores of Banks Island moving North. The ship rounds the island and makes the turn to the East in search of the Passage. More Ice. The ship is once again encircled and the wind drives them, bound by the ice flows, south into Mercy Bay. All told, the ship managed just four days of open sailing all year. In early October the hatches are closed, the stoves lit and a second winter begins in the shallow waters of Mercy Bay. With so little progress in the previous year, the crews rations are cut yet again – 6oz. of bread, 6oz. of preserved salted meat, 4oz. peas, 2oz. suet, 1 oz. tinned vegetables, 1 ½ oz. sugar, 1 ½ oz. of rum, 1 oz. of lime juice, 1 oz. of pickles, 1 oz. of chocolate and ¼ oz. of tea. All told, approximately 1500 calories a day - about 1/3 required for an adult male to function normally.

The Search for Franklin

Over the Tundra

In Air over the Arctic