Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, is seen from expedition ship the Ocean Endeavour during an Arctic cruise with Adventure Canada. (Marina McCready/Yukon News)

Erebus or bust: Sailing the Northwest Passage

Even today, weather still scrambles the best laid plans of mariners

  • Nov. 23, 2017 1:30 p.m.

Marina McCready | Special to the News

It’s a journey I dreamed of for a long time: In September I took an amazing 17-day trip through the Northwest Passage.

With the passage opening up, it has become possible. The Arctic ice is melting at an accelerating rate and I decided to go see it for myself while there is still some left. Still, I would prefer that global warming didn’t exist and my dream stayed unrealized.

I knew I would rather stick pins in my eyes than go on a huge cruise ship and I liked the idea of going through the Canadian Arctic with a homegrown company, so I chose Adventure Canada and its 200-passenger expedition ship, the Ocean Endeavour. I opted to take the trip from west to east because it involved a special collaboration with Parks Canada, featuring planned stops at the wreck of HMS Erebus and several other national parks including Nunavut’s newest on Bathurst Island.

The journey was to begin in Kugluktuk but that was changed last minute to Cambridge Bay because the Ocean Endeavour was delayed by pack ice on the trip from east to west. It was impressive how quickly Adventure Canada was able to react to this change and organize new charter flights from Edmonton to Cambridge Bay.

When we arrived in Cambridge Bay we were immediately loaded into zodiacs and taken out to the ship. There began an adventure with the most educated, eclectic and well-travelled group of people I have ever had the pleasure to be with.

That evening we were introduced to the staff who included experts in all things Arctic. I also discovered there were two Yukoners on staff as zodiac drivers and bear-guards. The passengers came from several countries and had wildly varying backgrounds and financial means. However, expedition travel is a great equalizer and soon enough we would all feel a bond gained through shared experience.

On day two, as we travelled east in Queen Maud Gulf, the seas seemed to be getting bumpier. Then in the afternoon the swells got bigger and bigger as the wind picked up strength. It got foggy and started to snow, coating the decks in wet slush that quickly turned to ice. We were in a storm with sustained winds of 40-45 knots (around 75 km/h) gusting occasionally to 60 knots (around 110 km/h).

Those of us not suffering from sea sickness heard a talk on Arctic exploration by historian Ken McGoogan. That was followed with a presentation by Marc-Andre Bernier, Parks Canada’s underwater archaeology manager, on how the wrecks of Sir John Franklin’s ships the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were found in 2014 and 2016, some 170 years after they set sail in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage. Passengers on board the Ocean Endeavour eagerly anticipated visiting the Erebus site the next day.

Alas, our dream was soon dashed as Mother Nature thwarted the carefully laid plans of Parks Canada with a wicked storm. The captain deemed it too dangerous to approach the Erebus because it’s located in an archipelago of little rocky islands.

On top of that, some of the Parks Canada tent camp that was going to host us on an island near the Erebus had blown down in the storm. The disappointment on the ship was palpable. Many of us passengers had chosen this trip because of the planned stop at the Erebus. Some Parks Canada employees on our ship had spent over six months planning for this first ever public visit to the Erebus and they were devastated.

We all sat morosely in the lounge nursing pre-dinner drinks and pondering the incredible bad timing of the storm. Inevitably, our thoughts turned to the explorers of old who had dreamed of finding the Northwest Passage only to be thwarted by the harsh environment which in many cases led to loss of ships and lives. These thoughts made our bad luck seem trivial as unlike those hapless explorers we would live to see another day and dream another dream.

That evening our ship finally found shelter from the storm in a protected cove near a defunct DEW Line station at the entrance of Simpson Strait. Next morning, Bernier gave detailed presentations on the current state of excavations of the Erebus and Terror as well as some plans for next year. Since we couldn’t visit the Erebus, it was a small consolation.

To maintain the integrity of the sites, Parks Canada has established a 100-square-km protection zone around each of the wrecks. Inuit from nearby Gjoa Haven watch over the wrecks and report unauthorized activity in the protection zones.

I was surprised to learn that the Erebus is located in shallow water, with the top deck just over three meters below the surface. Divers have spent around 250 hours searching the wreck and recovered many artifacts. The Terror is in deeper water and researchers have obtained more than 10 hours of video using a remote-operated vehicle. It is better preserved than the Erebus. Researchers have already learned that the Terror was not at anchor when it sank and that a complete life boat is sitting on the ocean bottom beside it.

The two wrecks still contain numerous secrets researchers hope they will be able to one day uncover.

Marina McCready is a Whitehorse based freelance writer and photographer. This piece is first in a five-part series.

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