To go or not to go

Summer 2022
John Andrews
Thu 14 Aug 2014 22:32

Cuming Inlet: 74:41.446N 84:58.666W


It was a strange experience to get to the mouth of Admiralty Inlet and find that area was completely ice free. Where had it all gone? Had we imagined it? It just goes to show how quickly the ice conditions can change.

We had a delightful arrival in Arctic Bay on a cloudless sunny morning. The settlement of 800 inhabitants is located on a flat piece of land at the head of a large, round bay, surrounded by mountains. The location is stunning. You approach by turning West off Admiralty Inlet along Adams Sound before the bay starts opening up to the North. There are spectacular cliffs along the North side of Adams Sound, a rich red in colour. The Canadian sailing directions warn that the high iron ore content in the cliffs create a huge magnetic anomaly, this over and above the uselessness of a magnetic compass anyway. There was no question, the boat was definitely being pulled towards the cliffs as we passed.

Arctic Bay is a very small community. It is relatively new, set up to bring the local Inuit population together. There are three roads, more like dirt tracks, that run parallel to the shore, used by families on their quad bikes, water tankers,(there is no mains water), and large four by fours and trucks. It has an airport, and we noticed several flights a day landing and taking off. It also has the two promised stores which sold practically everything you could possibly need on a day to day basis, and the school, which was still closed for the school holidays. This meant that all the children were playing on the beach in the sunshine, and when we dinghied ashore, we were surrounded by enthusiastic young boys who wanted to ‘help’ pull the dinghy up, carry the fuel cans etc. Refuelling involved several dinghy trips with fuel cans, which were filled from a tanker that came down to the beach. The residents are almost all Inuit, and for preference speak their native language, Inuktitut. The age of the population is incredibly young, with two thirds of the population being under the age of 25. The school has some 200 pupils. The babies are carried on their mother’s backs in a specially designed long hood attached to their quilted jackets.  Despite living in an ‘urban’ environment, the people are still very much connected to their traditions. Hunting is still an important activity, and in the summer they go off and stay in summer camps where they hunt deer and musk ox and go fishing for seals, narwhal and arctic char as they used to in the past.

As this was our first port of entry, we had to clear into Canada. The first job was to find the RCMP officers, who had gone home for the afternoon. They came back to the office willingly enough, but it turned out that they were relief officers, in the area for a month, and more used to curbing crime on the streets of Quebec than acting as immigration officers and they were a bit unsure of what to do. The process took some hours, as they rummaged through drawers, trying to find the correct pieces of paper, and importantly, the Arctic Bay entry stamp. There had to be a satellite link to the immigration office in Iqualuit, which involved a long conversation over the phone while the necessary forms were completed. Gun licences had to be purchased, which was fine until Aventura started declaring their gun, a second hand Russian rifle bought in Nuuk.  The word Kalashnikov caused a flurry of excitement and then there was the problem with how to describe the serial number, written in cyrillic characters, over the phone  ‘Well, it’s a kind of X with  a line through the middle, and then a sort of upside down, backward L . . . .’.

We spent a couple of days in the settlement, topping up on fresh provisions, talking to locals and visiting the small but fascinating cultural centre, where we bought a few mementos of the area. We also went up to the hotel which had a wifi connection, in order to download latest news from home and to take a more detailed look at ice charts. There were some changes, ice had cleared from some places, but packed in to others and it was still not clear whether we should try and carry on, or call it a day and go back to Greenland. We decided to delay one more day and accompany Aventura back across Lancaster Sound to Cuming Inlet, on Devon Island.

We thought that Dundas Harbour was wild, but Cuming Inlet was even more dramatically wild and isolated, a 10 mile long inlet with high 2000 foot mountains on either side, wide u-shaped valleys and a glacier that comes right down to the water’s edge. There was abundant bird life, the usual fulmars and  gulls, but also a huge flock of little brown ducks that we think were scaups. Great ‘pods?’ of seals splashed around, but were too shy to come really near the boat. On our way in we spotted in the distance a small number of caribou wandering along the shore. The real highlight, however, on our last evening there was to see two musk oxen amble along the shore near us. I say amble, but for some reason, one of them broke into a brisk trot down to the water’s edge and started to hurl itself around in the water. It seemed in quite a frenzy, as if it was having difficulty in climbing back up the shingle bank. It made it in the end and then cantered away up onto a flat promontory of land that actually had a bit of grass. It is difficult to understand how such big animals can find enough to eat in this totally barren landscape.

We were very glad that we had decided to go over to Cuming Inlet, as this turned out to be our last port of call in Canada. We looked at another ice chart, which showed very little change, and emailed our contact, Peter Semotiuk, to ask for his judgement as to what was likely to happen. He was still saying that in his view it could be 7 to 10 days before the ice opened up through to Cambridge Bay, but he couldn’t be certain. We did our calculations again, and even seven days more wait would put us in Cambridge Bay very late with another 1700 miles to get to Nome in Alaska, the first place where it might be possible to leave the boat, and a further 900 miles on to Humboldt which had been recommended as a good place to overwinter. If we did back out, delaying by a week to 10 days would mean deteriorating conditions to get down to Newfoundland or Maine. So, finally, sadly, decision made, we would call it a day and sail back to Greenland.

Before going however, we motored down to the northernmost part of the inlet with Aventura. A river flows in here over a wide, shingle bank. We all met ashore and had a sad but convivial goodbye beach party, marking the occasion by opening a couple of bottles of fizz and finishing with a rousing rendition of the ,’Song of Arctic Bay’, sung to the tune of ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor?’, chorus line, ‘Push with a tuk till your arms are aching…..’ – you get the general picture.

We decided to set off that night. Strong head winds are forecast for three days time and we want to avoid as much of them as we can. We are currently at the eastern end of Devon Island and heading due West to Upernavik.