An amazing day exploring

Saxon Blue's Blog
Harvey Jones and Andrea Stokes
Sun 15 Aug 2010 16:39
Sunday morning

I'm not sure where to start with yesterday - it was just the most incredible day of exploring in an amazing land. We ended up going to bed at 2:30 this morning after Kali and I had sat in the cockpit drinking a cup of tea and debriefing on what it all meant - which is why I'm writing this the next day.

After our breakfast yesterday, we all piled into the tender - taking the shotgun - and headed over to one of the beaches around our bay. We chose the first one inside the entrance to the harbour as I thought it was a good place for humans to live. There was a rocky reef just off the beach and a large white boulder onshore where we were headed. We got onshore, loaded the gun and looked around to see a ring of small rocks on the grass up the beach and then realised that the boulder we'd seen was actually the top of a whale skull. It was sat on the shoreline, right on the high-tide mark. There was a hole about a hand-span across right on the top of it which we think is the blowhole. The skull was completely bleached white in the sun and obviously very old. It had that fragile look that old bones get so I went up and lifted it up. Yeah, right. It was like trying to lift up a loaded skip. I finally found a place where I could get it to wobble a bit but I was astonished at how much it weighed.

The weight of the skull really changed my perception of the whales that we've seen. Trying to get an impression of a whale is hard - maybe impossible. When they're alive, you see only a tiny portion of them as they come up for breath. In museums, the way they display the skeletons hanging on wires makes it look as though they're weightless. But, just this one bone... If the top of the skull is so heavy, how much does the whole skeleton weigh? We found ribs which I could just about lift in one hand and half of the jaw which was way too heavy to lift. I've read about the old Inuit hunters going out after whales but, frankly, I don't believe a word of it. What would you do with it if (a big if) you'd actually managed to kill one? Trying to tow it shore with a kayak would be impossible. Say you managed that and it's now aground, how do you get to it to butcher it? I think the old Inuit would have made good use of any beached whales that they found but an organised hunt seems extremely unlikely to me.

Anyway, we carried on exploring along the shoreline and found dozens of house remains. They were of two types. One was just a simple ring of loaf-sized rocks, often with a gap where (presumably) the door would have been. I've seen these in books described as tent rings and they're the rocks that were placed on the bottom edge of the tent cover to keep the tent in place - the ground is far too hard to use pegs. The other type of dwelling was a built-up ring of rocks, like a drystone wall. At one end was a similar low entrance to the ones we'd seen in Greenland. Inside the door lintel (one of which was still in place with the crawl-passage beneath it) was a floor and, around that on three sides, a raised level. The design is similar to a snow-cave in that the cold air gathers in the lower level and flows out the passageway while it stays much warmer on the raised level. I assume these buildings had a roof constructed of something light, perhaps like a tent as there was no evidence of fallen turf roofs.

I think the two building styles are from two different periods of history, perhaps two waves of people. One thing they all had in common, though, was a serious appetite for seals. There were piles of bone everywhere. Often, we were just walking on dried, lichen-covered bone. There must have been loads of seals here at one time - there are a few now but they wouldn't last long with this lot eating them. We found a few other bones that we struggled to identify but, among them, two walrus skulls. We didn't recognise them at first as the tusks had been removed but Kali realised that we could see the massive roots where they had grown. One thing we couldn't find was any graves. If these people were as closely related to the Greenlanders as we're lead to believe, they must have treated their dead with similar reverence but we scoured the rocky hill above with no result. The only sign we saw was a skull that Kali spotted sticking out of the grass near the houses. It had a hole in the cranium so that you could look into it and look out through the eye sockets at the earth. Perhaps all the dead were buried in this lower area.

The whole place was undisturbed, like the people had just left one day and not come back. All the stuff was just left lying there, whether skulls from who knows how many years ago up to a rusted parafin stove that looked as though it was still being used in the twentieth century. By the time we'd had good look around, it was time for a cup of tea so we headed back over to Saxon Blue for a drink and some great flapjack that Magnus had made earlier. Then it was off for another expedition, this time a bit further out to the harbour entrance where we'd seen some wooden structures on our way in the day before. We thought they were fish-drying racks. When we got there, though, it was immediately obvious that they were the timber frames of buildings. The floorplan was the same as the houses we'd seen at the first site with the lower level and a raised platform on three sides but, instead of drystone walling, they'd just erected a wooden shed frame over the top and, presumably, covered the whole thing with tarpaulin or maybe sealskin. This site had been used much more recently, though, as there was a fair bit of plastic stuff lying around and hundreds of D-cell batteries rusting away.

Around the two modern(ish) buildings, there were dozens of the tent rings but none of the later(?) drystone buildings. There were plenty of bones but nowhere near the quantity that we'd found on the first site. I think this site must have been used until very recently as there was even a smashed skidoo on the beach nearby. We explored on the rocks nearby and I found a drystone bird-shooting hide that looked very new so perhaps people still come here hunting but bring their own shelters. We also found some skull fragments that must have come from Polar Bears, judging by the massive canine teeth. I think they were in the place where the bodies had been butchered, just up from the beach. In the old days, the Inuit used the bears skin for their trousers but maybe they didn't have a use for his skull.

OK, so one thing that characterised our whole visit to this site was the sound. The day was absolutely calm, not a breath of wind. The sea was glassy calm and there was no wave slap but there was a constant background noise - the sound of whales breathing. Really, it was so loud and constant. Explosive exhalations, one after the other. Initially, we didn't know what it was as we couldn't see the whales themselves. Then we realised how far away they were - in some cases perhaps a mile or even more. As usual, if you hear a whale breathe and look around, it's too late as he's already sunk down again but, in this silence, it was even more pronounced. The sounds were reaching us between five and ten seconds after the spout so you had to be looking right at the whale by luck, then hear the sound. Given that these Bowheads dive for so long, we realised that there were dozens of them out there, perhaps a hundred? Then another sound, this one like ice breaking or thunder but there were no icebergs and the sky was clear. Once again, it was a whale. This one was slapping the surface of the water with his tail flukes, time after time. The sound echoed off the mountains. We realised that we had to get out there among them and see what was going on.

By now, it was already past dinner time so we had to do a military operation. We got back onboard, Magnus and I got the boat underway and Kali got the dinner on so that we were steaming out of our harbour in about 10 minutes and dinner was ready by the time we were a couple of miles out into the fjord. We hadn't seen many whales on our way out so we turned the engine off and just drifted along while we ate dinner. That did the trick. They were now ignoring us and just swimming past singly or in groups of 4 or 5. After dinner, I got Magnus to hoist me up the mast so I was standing on the spreaders looking out at a sea of whales. One huge one came up just astern of us and I just happened to be looking at that spot when he appeared and breathed in. His first explosive spout was on the next breath, after he'd sunk just below the surface. He took about 10 breaths and then spouted for the last time as he dived down, the end of the spout bubbling slightly. This makes sense really as they need empty lungs to dive down otherwise the pressure would crush them. Then it was the sight of his flukes and he was gone for half an hour or so.

I could hear a whale making the explosive slapping sounds but it took me ages to spot him. He was a couple of miles away so there was almost no point listening for the sound and then looking. Finally, I spotted him. He was leaping out of the water and splashing down again sideways with an almighty explosion of foam. Sometimes, his whole body was visible, other times he didn't get it quite right and only about half. After breaching like this four or five times, he'd turn around and slap the surface with his tail, presumably while he got his breath back. At such a distance, it was hard to make a positive identification but I'm pretty sure he was a Bowhead. The contrast between the ones swimming near us at about 2 knots and this lunatic was startling. The whole thing was so unlikely. It looked as though some kid was holding an enormous aubergine under the water and letting it pop up. How fast did he have to swim to get his whole body out of the water - bearing in mind that his skull weighs as much as the one I'd tried to lift earlier. What did it feel like to splash down like that? Whale's skin is surprisingly thin and sensitive so surely it's got to hurt. Top bombing action, indeed.

I'd seen lots of whales swimming near a low rocky island near where we were drifting so I suggested that we go over there for a look before heading back into Arctic Harbour. Andrea pointed out that it was now about 10:30pm but she decided to come with us anyway. We motored over there in Saxon Blue and, on the way, ended up on collision course with two Bowheads. They didn't like it atall and just disappeared underwater without bothering to do a flukes up or anything. These guys really didn't like the sound of the engine. We anchored in about 20 meters and launched the tender. Andrea asked whether we intended taking the gun. I said that a bear would have no reason to hang out on such a low island but Kali brought it anyway. We landed and tied up the tender, loaded the gun and walked up onto the island. Within a minute, I'd spotted a large and gruesome looking pile of skin and gloop that could only have been a Polar Bear poo. Magnus gave it a thorough investigation and confirmed my identification. Hmmm.... Better stick together then.

We carried on walking along the island, getting dive-bombed by the Arctic Turns although they had fledged their young so weren't quite so aggressive as they can be. Most of the island was clearly washed by waves during a storm but we found an area in the middle that was just high enough to remain dry. It was covered in traces of human habitation. There were dozens of tent rings, some with two internal mini-rings. Among them, we found a U-shaped drystone wall about 20 meters long with the longest side lying North-South and the two short ends East-West. We puzzled about what it was for and the best I can come up with is a shelter kayaks to stop them getting blown away by the wind but I'm not sure about that explanation. Further on, there was a round drystone building with walls about 1 meter high and an open doorway to the West. Inside the wall was a row of stones the perfect height for sitting on. It reminded me of the Chapter House of a medieval monastery with the stone bench around the outside so everyone could sit there in comfort and have a really enjoyable argument. In the centre of the circle was a large flat stone - the location for a blubber-burning lamp, perhaps? We'd seen nothing like it in the other settlements or in any books. More questions for the Mounties when we reach Clyde.

We carried on around the island and found some bleached whale bones, similarly heavy to the earlier ones. One thing that wasn't there was seal bones. In fact, we saw no evidence of the human visitors eating anything atall. It was all very enigmatic. With the earlier settlements, it was clear what was going on but, out here, it was all puzzling. It was such an inhospitable spot that you'd only come for a specific purpose and that had to be hunting but where were the bones then? As we puzzled over that, we stood on the shore looking out to the North at the sunset. It was spectacular with the clouds illuminated in brilliant red. The sea between us and the sunset was full of whales. They were swimming along about 40 meters away, lazily spouting, with their bodies just black silhouettes in the red water. Their breaths like the wilderness breathing.

By now, it really was time to get going. The tender was slightly aground but we soon relaunched that, scrambled in and headed back towards Saxon Blue, patiently waiting for us at anchor. We were underway in a couple of minutes and Andrea was in bed even before that. By now, it was pretty well dark (which is quite a shock after our endless light) and we could even see Jupiter in the East. I followed my GPS track back to our anchoring spot with the radar and depth sounder giving confirmation. We had a look at the Canadian paper charts during the day and discovered that they use "no known GPS datum" so there is no way to use our electronic navigation system accurately as it uses the same reference point as the paper charts. Hey ho. Back to the old ways then.

We anchored within a few meters of our last spot and Kali and I spent a lovely half-hour in the cockpit just going over what we'd seen. It was an astonishing day, full of wonders and speculation in the very best of company. I'd still like to find out where the whalers had their base and we hope to explore the fjord a bit more but, frankly, if we don't see another thing in Canada, it's been worth the trip just for that one day.


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