Sunday, July 10, 2011

Off To The Arctic

With a career underwater, I have not only had the privilege of photographing fascinating and historically significant shipwrecks around the world, but have also had the opportunity to work along side the very individuals responsible for their discovery. I have always maintained that there is something unique about those who pursue a career while submerged. A certain drive to explore, an “expedition gene” as I call it. In the past 15 years I have been both colleagues and friends with these genetically altered explorers. Passionate individuals who have discovered lost Civil War submarines or mystery German U-Boats; run expeditions on Titanic, Britannic or WWII Japanese midget submarines; shot IMAX documentaries or Hollywood feature films; or discovered historically significant shipwrecks with unimaginable stories of exploration and survival. My next series of entries is about the latter – an expedition with a team of incredibly talented underwater archeologists and their quest to both document and tell the unimaginably true story of the HMS Investigator through the archeological record lying in the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean. 

For the past several years the NPS Submerged Resources Center (SRC) has had professional (and personal) interaction with our sister agency to the north, Parks Canada. With a very similar missions, the two federal agencies both have the mandate to preserve, protect and interpret their underwater resources. In an effort to accomplish this Parks Canada has a dedicated underwater archeology team called Underwater Archeology Service (UAS). The two underwater archeological units have exchanged staff on a few large scale projects over the past few years and constantly keep in touch about methodology, theory and equipment. In short we have always looked to each others expertise as a shared resource when it comes to underwater archeology and stewardship. The Parks Canada team is robust in talented, passionate underwater archeologist, however, unlike the SRC they do not have a dedicated staff underwater photographer and that is where I, and the Arctic come together.

The ultimate destination is Mercy Bay, a relatively small arctic waterway, located on Banks Island, Canada’s fifth largest island at 27,000 square miles in the Northwest Territories of Canada. The bay is located in Aluvik National Park which protects nearly 5,000 square miles of Arctic lowlands at the north end of the island and is home to most of the worlds muskoxen population (68,000). This remote area lies deep inside the Arctic Circle at 74.4 degrees north latitude (the North Pole is 90) and is the site of the recently discovered HMS Investigator, the vessel credited with the discovery of the Northwest Passage which was abandoned in 1853 after wintering three years locked in the ice of the Arctic Ocean.

On the map, the distance between Denver, Colorado and Banks Island Northwest Territories of Canada doesn’t seem very far. Its even in the same time zone. So how does one get to Banks Island? I will give you the short version – A three hour flight from Denver to Edmonton, Canada with and overnight there. The next morning, Edmonton to Morgan Wells then to Inuvik, Northwest Territories. From there we part ways with commercial airlines and all resemblance to aviation security – no full body scans or in-flight beverages from here on out. With a day in Inuvik to sort gear and pack for the expedition we then charter two twin-engine Otter airplanes which are the lifeline of the high country. Our 3 hour flight from Inuvik touched down on Banks Island at the gravel runway in Sacks Harbor (population 130) for refueling then another two hours to Polar Bear Cabin (population zero) were the “runway” is simply tundra outlined with 55 gallon drums. From Polar Bear Cabin it’s a short 40 minute helicopter ride into our camp site on the shores of Mercy Bay. I have yet to leave the time zone, yet its taken longer to get here than Rwanda, Africa. 

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