Project Enduring Ice

Ellesmere Island is one of the most remote places on Earth. It’s about as North as you can get and still be standing on terra firma. The first time I visited here was as an adventure tourist on a kayaking trip in 2001. While in Alexandra Fjord, near the centre of the Island, I met a scientist who was studying something he referred to as global warming. I’d never heard that term before. Now, 17 years later, I’ve returned with documentary filmmaker Stephen Smith and his wife, Diana Kushner; Chris Horvat, a climate scientist; and my youngest son, Bryce, as part of an expedition called Project Enduring Ice. Our goal is to create a documentary about the impact of rapidly melting sea ice on our warming planet.

Unlike glaciers and icebergs, which are composed of fresh water frozen over many centuries, sea ice is the layer of frozen salt water that floats on the Arctic Ocean. It varies in size from 1 to 2 metres thick and its white colour reflects up to 85 per cent of incoming sunlight back into space. Scientists refer to this reflective measure as “albedo.” You can think of sea ice as our Earth’s sunscreen, protecting the northern hemisphere from summer solar radiation because of its high albedo. But when the ice declines or disappears, the albedo is low and the dark ocean waters absorb as much as 93 per cent of the sun’s rays.

Hauling gear laden kayaks through melt pools that dot the sea ice.

To reach the intended starting point for our expedition, the northern tip of Ellesmere at nearly 82 degrees in latitude, is a three-day journey requiring 10 flights in planes of progressively smaller size. In Resolute, we spend several days assembling our equipment and purchasing final supplies before loading everything into a de Havilland Twin Otter — the winged workhorse of the High Arctic. With five passengers, three kayaks, food, fuel and gear for five weeks all crowded in the fuselage, in-flight service for the long flight to Fort Conger consists of a pair of foam earplugs to dampen the roar of the turbo props. Looking out of the window on our takeoff from Resolute, I am struck by the absence of trees. This far North, the world is elemental – just water, ice, land and sky.

I think all of us are uneasy as we explore Fort Conger and think of the ill-fated Greely Expedition members who built the Fort in 1881. Those explorers and scientists were eventually forced to abandon it and make their way south along the island to seek rescue after three years alone in the Arctic. Tragically, only six of the 25-man crew survived. Walking through the remains of the Fort — stoves, cans, nails, animal bones, and bits of clothing — it’s eerie to think we will be following the same route in the days ahead.

Our journey from Fort Conger begins with a crossing of frozen Lady Franklin Bay. We had anticipated that the Bay would be covered in a layer of sea ice and prepared for this by carrying harnesses and ropes so we can haul our fully loaded kayaks across the ice. We make it only a few miles the first day before deciding to set up camp on the ice. No matter how prepared you are, there is something disconcerting about sleeping in a tent on sea ice. I sleep fitfully, imagining every sound to be a crack in the ice that would empty us into the freezing waters below.

After another day of hauling kayaks across the ice, we reach the northern most part of Nares Strait. Imagine for a moment an hour glass. The frozen Arctic Ocean is the upper portion. The bottom is Baffin Bay, the Labrador Sea and, eventually, the Atlantic Ocean. The neck of the hour glass is Nares Strait, but instead of sand, large islands or pans of sea ice breaking off from the frozen Arctic Ocean flow through it. Our plan is to study and film these pans as we paddle down the Strait over the course of the month.

At least, that’s what we expected. Instead, all we can see is a jumble of ice, like shards of broken glass jammed into the Strait and covering every inch of the distance to Greenland. It is then we realize our journey is going to be far different than we had thought. What has caused these conditions? Is it the warming of the air and water that reduces the thickness of the summer sea ice, causing it to lose its structural integrity and shatter into smaller pieces? We aren’t certain, but comparisons with past satellite imagery and century old photographs from past expeditions reveal that the depth and size of the sea ice is far different from what we are now witnessing. The conditions are also likely related to the 72 per cent decline in Arctic summer sea ice since 1980, as well as a portent of accelerated warming of the planet.

On a more immediate level, it means our expedition is going to change dramatically. Instead of paddling with the current for hours each day, we are forced to pull our kayaks along the ice foot — the portion of the shoreline consisting of frozen sea water, gravel, and sand. On some days, eight to 10 hours of effort results in only a bit more than two kilometres in distance. “Arduous” does not begin to describe the pain and exhaustion one experiences while harnessed to a 450-pound kayak wearing a dry suit all day. It’s a succession of slipping, tripping, falling, and pulling that you convince yourself constitutes progress. While the dry suit serves its intended purpose when you unexpectedly lurch into the water, it also traps the heat from your body, making you feel cooked sous-vide style. The beauty and desolation of this area touches one’s soul. Except for the other members of our team, there is no evidence of current humans. No trails, no footprints, no trash, no power lines, no ships, not even contrails from jets. Just nature at its purest — brown hills of the Canadian Shield, pockets of snow releasing rivulets of melt water streams and glimmers of cerulean blue waters covered in a chaotic expanse of sea ice.

Both land and sea are testament to the dynamic and sculpting nature of water.

Yet there are reminders of past inhabitants. Small communities of Dorset, Thule and Independence people lived in this area up to a thousand years ago. On many occasions, we find we have selected a campsite near where a previous culture had also chosen to camp, demonstrated by the remains of a tent ring, a fire pit, or, in one case, a broken soapstone seal oil lamp that had been abandoned by its owner millennia in the past. Our original plan is to conduct our filming and scientific study while paddling more than 500 kilometres through the Strait; however, the challenging conditions limit us to just slightly more than 100 kilometres in total distance. After weeks of sledging, and with little food remaining, we reach Carl Ritter Bay and locate the remains of a dirt runway strip, unused for several decades. We decide to use our emergency satellite phone and call to request pick up there two days later. Then, with our ice axe, paddles and duffle bags, we spend long hours digging and moving rocks and soil to repair the runway strip.

On the morning of our planned extraction, we awake to low clouds and a blanket of snow — conditions that make it dangerous for a plane to land. When we contact our pilots in Resolute with a weather report, they inform us that the plane is booked for many weeks ahead in support of other Arctic operations. If they are to get us, it must be that day. With our food running low and our spirits lower, we have no choice but to hope that the weather will improve in the five hours before the plane arrives.

The remainder of the day is spent battling anxiety and monitoring the weather for any positive sign. At last, we hear the plane’s engine, but by that time the clouds have dropped even lower. We listen as it flies repeatedly over our location looking for a break in the clouds as the conditions continue to worsen. Then, in a bit of piloting worthy of Chuck Yeager, we see the Twin Otter’s wing slice through the clouds as it drops onto the gravel runway and comes to an abrupt stop.

Tears blur my vision as I race to the plane with the others. But, to be honest, I’m not sure whether they reflect my happiness to finally be returning home, regret over leaving such a special place as Ellesmere Island, or relief that I no longer need to wear my dry suit!

To learn more about Project Enduring Ice, visit: enduringice.com.