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Stormhunters Artic expedition, Day 1: Power outages and frigid rain

A massive iceberg that looks like it was once part of an ice shelf in northern Greenland (courtesy: Mark Robinson/Twitter)

A massive iceberg that looks like it was once part of an ice shelf in northern Greenland (courtesy: Mark Robinson/Twitter)


By Mark Robinson
Meteorologist
@StormhunterTWN
Monday, November 11, 2013, 9:56 PM

We made it out to the ship -- finally.

Nevermind the three-hour wait in the hotel (Actually, the stay was kind of nice. We met some really interesting people – including a girl who had taken two-and-a-half years to bicycle across Canada - and had a chance to update and put together some emails, etc., before we lost all internet connection).

Have you ever had that sinking feeling that you’ve just been dropped off to the wrong place by a taxi? You look around at an unfamiliar building thinking to yourself “Whoops, this can’t be right?” as you watch the taxi cab taillights fade into the distance?

Try that when it’s a outcropping of rock in the middle of nowhere on the edge of the Arctic ocean as it starts to rain.

In winds moving around 40 km/h and a windchill. 

In August. 

On Baffin Island.

As the cabbie drove away, George and I just looked at each other and said, “Uh oh, I hope this is the right place.” We had been dropped off on the breakwall just outside of Iqaluit and the zodiac from the ship was supposed to meet us there at exactly 5:30. Now that it was 5:30 and no zodiac was there made us just a little nervous. Still, we were pretty confident that someone from the ship would find us.

I just didn’t want to be found in the form of polar bear droppings. We stood shivering in the cold and rain for another ten minutes until suddenly, as if out of a TV show, a small black boat popped out of the fog that had obscured the surface of the sea. The buzzing drone of an outboard engine accompanied it and we knew that we really were in the right spot.

The One Oceans people had found us! A few minutes later, the zodiac pulled up to the rocky shore and two people clad in full survival suits greeted us. 

Eva and Aaron clambered out of the boat and greeted us warmly. Which was nice, considering how cold we were.

A wall of ice and rock along the front of the Greenland icecap glacier (courtesy: Mark Robinson/Twitter)

A wall of ice and rock along the front of the Greenland icecap glacier (courtesy: Mark Robinson/Twitter)

The rain wasn’t exactly pouring down, but it definitely was soaking into my jacket and felt like it was seeping in along with the cold. The mist over the water obscured the waves but given the strength of the wind and seeing them crash into the rocks near us, I knew that there must be some serious ones out there.

We didn’t waste a lot of time getting our gear packed into a big drybag and ourselves into some foul weather gear. We were going to get wet and maybe even seriously.

Still, I was totally excited; I was about to head out on an arctic voyage with an incredible potential.

This was going to be a trip of a lifetime.

I just had to make sure that I managed to document it in every way possible. And make sure it was compelling and incredible. 

Luckily I don’t stress easily (How many new grey hairs do I have now?) The zodiac was larger than I expected. I’d gotten used to my mom’s husband Ian’s little grey version, but this was the big one. And it was black. That automatically made it the cool version. 

Aaron and Eva helped us into the boat and we spun the nose around and headed for the open waters of the bay. And that’s when the first wave hit us. And then the next, and the next ad nauseum.

Seriously, I was getting a bit worried about being actually nauseous, but it hit me that I was way too excited to be sick. I was having too much fun playing roller coaster to think about my stomach. Aaron expertly guided the big zodiac into the waves, cutting the engine each time we crested a really monster wave and then gunning it to climb back up the next one. This carried on for a good twenty minutes as we headed out to the ship that was about to become our home for the next 24 days.

We chatted about the ship and the journey despite the waves and we got to know Eva and Aaron pretty well by the time the white bulk of the ship swam out of the mist. The heaving waves made it almost impossible to simply race right over to the ship. Given the size and orientation of the waves, the zodiac was heaving up one side of each wave and down the backside. Water was spraying up and over the sides and front of the zodiac and I was getting just slightly concerned that we were going to end up finding exactly how cold the water actually was.

The ship quickly loomed out of the haze and Aaron guided us in right along the steel cliff that loomed above us. In moments we're bobbing at the bottom of the ladder and I realized that I was going to have climb the thing. This looked less than fun, especially since I’d have to carry my camera gear with me. If I dropped anything it would be gone. Like, really gone. Bottom of the Arctic Ocean gone.

Aaron gave us a quick lesson on how to get up the gangway without falling in and depite the heaving ocean, I managed to stumble up the stairs without dropping myself into the ocean. As I stepped onto the ship itself, I suddenly was struck by the fact that this was really going to happen.

I was onboard a ship that was going to take me on a month-long journey into a land that I’d wanted to see since before university. I was staring around when a loud industrial-style whine started up and suddenly the zodiac that George and I had just arrived in swung up in to the air near the stern of the ship. I stared in shock and then realized that a gigantic crane attached to the stern deck had swung over and picked up the zodiac in a sling and riding along high in the air was Aaron.

This was getting better: I just had to figure out how to get on board the zodiac when it went up!

George and I grabbed our bags and gear and headed inside the ship accompanied by a couple of staff members. The first one to greet us as we made our way inside was Maria, the staff geographer. She was small, blond, and had a fiery little grin that lit up her face. I had a feeling that we were going to like her (spoiler, I was right).

I wasn’t exactly sure how the ship yet worked but Maria took us on a quick tour as we dragged our bags up the central stairs that led to various decks on the ship. 

It wasn’t quite what I expected.

Actually, I’m not even sure what I expected, but I figured it would be more like the inside of one of those ships you see on the WWII documentaries; all pipes and grey paint. This was nothing like that. In fact, it was more like a luxury liner than a research vessel.

There was carpet! And a dinning room (and what a room!), and big rooms, and a library! And, and… whew. Getting ahead of myself a little here.

We managed to get all of our gear humped up to our room and surprisingly, it was plenty big enough for the both of us. We had three beds, one of which we ended up using for all of our coats, winter stuff etc. I took the bunk under the window and George grabbed the one beside the bathroom (yeah, we actually had a bathroom for us alone). We packed away our clothes in the various drawers, closets etc. that were built into every nook and cranny in the room and then George plugged in his power bar.

Polar bear with her cubs coming to check us out (courtesy: Mark Robinson/Twitter)

Polar bear with her cubs coming to check us out (courtesy: Mark Robinson/Twitter)

Bam! 

And all the lights went out. 

This is generally not a good thing to start out with: having to call the ship’s electrician within an hour of getting on board.

One thing that you might not know; Russian and European electrical circuits run on 220 volts while Canadian and US run on 110. So, you can’t just plug things in. You need an adapter so that our plugs work. However, what we didn’t know was there was an extra little circuit in the power bar that George had plugged in. He’d done all the adapters right, but that little additional bit in the power bar overloaded and blew the fuses to the room. But I guess when you’re dealing with 220, it’s a loud bang when it goes off.

So, we didn’t set the room on fire, but it was a close thing. We called the crew and the electrician wandered up while we were finishing our unpacking.

The lights flickered back on and George plugged his now-modified power bar in. And this time the power stayed on. And then he plugged his other one in.

Bam! 

This was not going well.

Once we had one more time had our power turned back on, we grabbed the cameras and headed out into the ship.

The layout of the ship was surprisingly complex. In the centre of the ship, a large staircase led from the very top deck (seventh) right down the to the “basement”, a.k.a., Deck 1. Above the seventh deck was an upper observation area that you could see 360 degrees over the Arctic landscape. It was also the deck that had the hot tub. Yeah, we had a hot tub.

On the bottom deck, there was a gym with a few machines, a weight bench and a yoga area.

On Deck 2, there was an artist room/studio that was set up with computers, acrylic paints, watercolours, pens, pencil crayons etc. The third deck was where all the action was; a dining room, big kitchens, the office, and most importantly, the bar. Yeah, we also had a bar.

Going up in the ship, the fourth and fifth deck were mostly living quarters.

On the sixth deck there were a few cabins and most importantly, the bridge. Amazingly, anyone was allowed access to the bridge at any time as long as they didn’t interfere with any operations that were ongoing or got in front of any of the middle windows (getting in the way of the navigator is generally considered a bad thing).

The best part of the ship was the maze-like nature of the outer decks. Ladders and walkways connected mini-decks and parts of the bigger decks. Stairways led up into covered passageways and around covered equipment and up onto the steel expanses of the top decks. We had so many spots to shoot from and play around with that the ship was a filmmakers playground.

By the time we had finished shooting b-roll (industry term for episode filler) of the various parts of the ship, Aaron let us know that dinner was being served in the dining room. I had no idea what we were in for, but I was hungry so I headed down to Deck 3 to grab some food.

When I entered the dining room, there was a long table in the centre of it with a number of bowls on it. In each one was a different type of salad, from pasta to green. A half dozen salad dressings sparkled in the light that streamed through the portholes on the side of the room.

A couple of tables among the two dozen in the room were set and ready for us to sit down at. It was like walking into a full high-end restaurant, only I didn’t have to worry about the bill.

The rest of the One Ocean staff came rushing in and we were swept up in an avalanche of food, wine and chatter.

One of the first things I learned was that we among some of the most interesting people I’d ever had the pleasure of being with. Huw Lewis-Jones was a historian who was equal parts funny and knowledgeable. Added on to that was a healthy dose of good looks and I knew he was going to make a few women weak in the knees.

Boris was the expedition leader and his ability to get people listening and his unfailing optimism already had me completely pumped for the entire expedition.

Jacques was a bundle of French-Canadian energy, passionate about the Arctic and the wildlife in it. And that was only a few of them.

Then I promptly ate way, way too much. Seriously, the food was incredible. And ridiculously available. Which is one way to say that the food was damn good.

After dinner, all that left was to run around for a few more shots and a bit of exploration of the ship.

I wandered out onto the front deck and stared around at the land and sea around me. Rain and wind lashed across the deck making the steel slippery underfoot. The rain was cold and despite my hi-tech jacket, the cold seeped in and I could feel little cold spots blooming across my back and arms. Rain trickled down my neck and along the top of spine.

I could see the town of Iqaluit across the water as the rain began to let up a bit and it suddenly seemed so small. Just a collection of buildings clinging to the rocks of a lonely island far in the north of Canada. 

And yet there it was.

An outpost of our country alive and working in an area that would kill any normal person. The lights twinkled and I could see cars moving from one end of the town to the other. Small boats bobbed in the waves near the shore and birds wheeled above them. It almost looked like any town you might see along the shore anywhere in Canada, but there were no trees. Anywhere. Not a bush, not a tree.

Nothing but rock and the buildings of Iqaluit. I went back inside when the cold began to really bite and my jacket began to soak through in spots. I wandered down to the bar to see if I could get something warm and found that most of the staff had already gathered there.

Drinks were flowing and Gus, the bartender (more on Gus later), was running try to keep up.

Huw was behind the bar giving Gus a hand and I decided to make things more difficult for them and I ordered a simple rum and coke. After that, things got a bit blurry. I do remember getting back to my room and passing out in bed. It was still light out, and yet, it was well after 2 a.m.

Welcome to the Arctic.

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