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Welcome to the Arctic: Day 7

(Mark Robinson)

(Mark Robinson)

By Mark Robinson
Tuesday, December 3, 2013, 9:33 AM

I didn’t wake up throwing up so I had that going for me.

George is notoriously bad for getting massively seasick on the most benign of waters. Even Lake Ontario in a sailboat caused him to reach for the Dramamine. I had bragged that I never got seasick and boats didn’t bother me in the least. What I didn’t tell him is that I actually had no idea if I would get sick or not. I sort of suspected that I might get it as bad or worse than him and the travel across Baffin Bay was a real test.

I had my fingers crossed that I’d be able to outlast him.

There were no expeditions planned for the day simply because we were crossing Baffin Bay and there was nothing to see. The entire area was ice free and even the icebergs were hugging the coasts of Canada and Greenland. The water was calm, even glassy. I could have gone waterskiing behind the ship with no problem at all. Of course, the captain likely would have frowned on that.

I was slightly disappointed. It looked like I wasn’t going get to film with George head down in a toilet. Still, it meant that he wasn’t going to get the opportunity to film me either.

Baffin Bay extends roughly from the western coast of Greenland to the western coast of Baffin Island. To the south the 70° North latitude line delimits it. We were passing through the narrowest part of the southern end of the Bay, known as Davis Strait. During the majority of the year, the Bay is so choked with ice that it’s not navigable, but in the summer months, there is enough melting to allow the passage of ship through the area.

The currents in the Bay sweep northward along the Greenland coast turn and then move back down along the eastern edge of Baffin Island and finally down and around Newfoundland. This may not seem significant, but many of the icebergs that sail past Newfoundland in the summer (bringing hordes of tourists at the same time) come from Greenland months or years before they reach the island. Glaciers calve off massive chunks into the waters around Greenland and those icebergs drift north with the current and then back down south to Canadian waters. That long journey turns them from massive ice islands into the surreal and wonderful shapes that are well known in Newfoundland.

(Mark Robinson)

(Mark Robinson)

Baffin Bay was the jumping off point for many polar explorers searching for the famous Northwest Passage. It was “discovered” in 1585 by European explorer John Davis, but the area had been inhabited since 500 BC by a number of different peoples, including the Dorset, Thule and Inuit. So, as with some many discoveries in history, the bay didn’t exist until the Europeans found it. And that’s not even strictly true. The Bay had actually been found by Europeans far before the 1500’s. Vikings!

In the 10th century, Viking explorers found Greenland and settled on the southern tip and part way up the western coast, just south of the entrance to the Bay. There’s even some evidence that Vikings also explored and may have settled Baffin Island around the same time. Settlements have been found in southern Greenland that looked well established and were likely long term and not truly permanent. There’s also been speculation that the Viking, Erik the Red coined the term “Greenland” as a 10th century marketing tool to get people to move to the island.

However, given the shifts in climate at the time, Greenland may just have been an apt description. Paleoclimate studies have shown that around the time that the Viking settlements were established on the island, the climate in the area was quite a bit warmer than even today. That meant that there was a lot more greenery and a far better chance at growing crops (rather than just fishing or hunting). Thus, Greenland might actually have been “green”.

As I looked out over the waters of Baffin Bay I reflected on the fact that were likely sailing on almost the same route that Viking longships had traveled. Over 1000 years before, men pushed their ships and themselves to their limits to find new homes, hunting grounds, or just push the lines of the map out a little bit more. These were people that had no real assurance that they’d even survive the trip to ends of their earth. And yet, they still went. They still got into their ships and set out across hostile waters to find new places and new homes.

These people were far braver than I could ever be. I was heading across Baffin Bay in a ship that had a hot tub, a library, a sauna, wireless internet, warmth, and more food than we knew what to do with. This made things easy beyond words. I knew that I’d get home in a few weeks, I could talk to my family from wherever we were, I had so much food that I needed to go to the gym. Drop a Viking on the ship and he would have thought he’d gone straight to Valhalla. Put me on a longship and I’d be dead in 40 – 50 seconds. Or maybe a slave. Either way, kinda different than what I was experiencing.

So, yeah, I chose to go jump into the hot tub.

There’s something incredible about sitting in a big tub of hot water and looking out over the Arctic. Despite the fact we were in the middle of the Bay, icebergs still drifted past us in majestic splendor and a slight wind stirred the surface of the waters. Then it hit me; I was in the Arctic getting to travel to areas that few people ever get to see and I was able to do it without the deprivations and hardship that my ancestors must have faced. I was the recipient of hundreds of years of exploration and science and the Arctic was no longer the terrifying land that it once was. Now, it was a place to experience and wonder at. And yet, a place that was still both beautiful and lonely in a way that few other places in the world could match.

For now though, the trip across the Bay would go on through the day and even through the night. By tomorrow, we’d be in Greenland at place called Disko Island. It was the last real settlement that many explorers before us had used to supply and prepare for their push into the unknown of the Canadian Arctic. For us, it would be a midpoint in the journey and a chance to step ashore in a country I never thought I’d make it to. I had thoughts and ideas of what Greenland must be like, but I didn’t exactly know what I was in for.

My assumptions and stereotypes were about to get challenged in a big way.

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