Great Bear Lake Expedition Log – February 2005
Written by Harold
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While we have published a number expedition logs, or trip journals as we call them over the years, it’s not often that we come across one detailing a trip on the lake during the winter months.
Although we don’t have much in the way of detail regarding just who these hardy adventurers are, one thing we do know is that they hail from Great Britain, and are experienced Arctic travellers, having done something similar on Great Slave Lake a couple of years prior to this adventure. In fact, one or more of this group may have also travelled to Antarctica.
Over the course of 11 days, they walked and skied approximately 102.4 nautical miles – or approximately 118 statute miles (a nautical mile is equivalent to 1.1508 statute miles) – across the frozen surface of the lake from Cape MacDonnell, down the Keith Arm to Deline.
While in Deline they make reference to a local fellow named “John” who took some of the team “ice fishing:”
“A local man called John took some of the team ice fishing. Most interesting to watch; they drill two holes in the lake and then by drawing a net between the holes under the ice, they catch about 30 herring overnight.”
We wonder if the “John” they are referring to is in fact John Tutcho?
Enjoy the story!
Great Bear Lake (Canada) - 2005 Expedition Log
Saturday 19th February 2005
Michael and Fiona with six team members left Heathrow today for Calgary, where they will stay overnight.
Tomorrow they will fly to Yellowknife arriving approximately 09 42 local time. Here they will finalise their preparations for the trek across Great Bear Lake. We spoke to them at Heathrow as they were checking in their baggage.
Sunday 20th February 2005
All arrived safe and sound and in fine spirits - and most important no bags missing. - Always the big concern with trips like this!
It seems several people remember our Great Slave trip of 03, which is nice. We all walked into town to a restaurant called 'Bullocks.' Great fresh fish and a few team bonding beers - the girls all had empty legs.
We learned conditions are far from ideal this year. Apparently the Great Slave Lake is nothing like so well frozen this as normal - only two to three feet - last time it was eight feet thick! Yes global warming is here too. Anyway matters have been compounded by unusually deep snow - which has the effect of pushing the ice below the water level in places - causing big over flows of water running underneath the snow (but on top of the main underlying ice.)
This doesn't mean we are in any particular danger of falling completely through the ice or anything, but it does mean there are numerous hidden pools of water under the snow, which could seriously bog us down.
So, tomorrow we are going to make more enquiries about it and see how much of a challenge to our plans it all is and whether Great Bear Lake is likely to be in the same state. Apparently such conditions have not been seen quite like this in 15 years.
Polar trips are always a challenge... Lets' see what tomorrow brings...
Monday 21st February 2005
Weather cold and clear with a temperature of minus 29C.
All team members have been skiing on Great Slave Lake to test the ice conditions. This has been difficult because the snow covering is two metres deep, whereas before it was only 5cms.
Today they are going to spread out across the lake to get a better idea of conditions. Mike is going to contact the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to find out if the situation at Great Bear Lake is any different. Despite the unforeseen circumstances, everyone is happy and well.
Monday 21st February 2005
Having been fired from The Bramley newspaper, it's a privilege to relay a few words. Temperature touched - 30C, so training was serious. Took two sledges across Great Slave Lake for a couple of hours and the depth of snow was a big challenge adding much drag - although we found no signs of overflow water thankfully. The good news is, that spirits were high and everyone coped.
Saw a Perihelion with sundogs on the return journey - a rainbow halo around the sun created by tiny snow particles - awesome. The highlight of the day was Sirion P getting a golden-shower from Spot the B + B dog - from the overhead balcony. Final preparations tomorrow - then we're ready to rock and roll!
Tuesday 22nd February 2005
Tash says we are all rather excited now - the girls have sung many a song from Grease so sure sign we are in high spirits!
Busy day with packing sledges, sorting kit, counting out chocolate bars and salami rations, practising putting up the tents and Fi and I meeting the RCMP - Royal Canadian Mounted Police who assured us the Bears would all be in hibernation!
Dropped off the sledges at Air Tindi and saw the twin otter plane which will fly us to GBL tomorrow. We were also interviewed by Canadian TV in all our polar gear, so an eventful day and we haven't even left yet! Weather mild at minus 15 - hopefully will stay like that but doubtful.
Setting off very early tomorrow morning for flight to our starting point - last night in a comfy bed for a while...so Over and Out!
Wednesday 23rd February 2005
Team have just landed at Cape MacDonnell. It's very windy and they are starting the trek immediately. Call very brief. Hopefully, more news of conditions tomorrow.
Thursday 24th February 2005
Sat phone message from Janet...
This is it! All preparations complete.
We boarded the Otter and had a most amazing flight to our starting point at Cape MacDonnell. Nathan the newsman accompanied us to film the beginning of our trek.
Everyone was excited and eager to move. Conditions good, only a few inches of snow on the ice in comparison to two metres on Great Slave Lake. We managed to walk for five hours covering seven miles.
This morning it's relatively warm -7C. Position 66. 17 N. 120. 36W. Wind from the east blowing at eleven knots. All well and in good spirits.
Friday 25th February 2005
Sat phone message from Mark...
Beautiful sunrise! Walked 10.2 nautical miles in six and a half hours, a cracking pace and bang on schedule.
Position 66.09 120. 51.
All coping well with tent life and dehydrated meals, except one person who shall be nameless who managed to confuse Horlicks with Ready Brek. Scenery much like Antarctica, but obviously flat; after all we are walking on water!
This morning, 25.02.2005, it is whiteout, and there is an accumulation of about 10cms of snow, far from ideal, but we are about to move and see how we cope. Good spirits prevail. Love to everyone.
Saturday 26th February 2005
Sat phone message from Jo...
We walked for six and a half hours and covered 10.3 nautical miles in whiteout conditions, really good progress.
Part way through the morning there was quite an alarming incident; lots of noise as the ice cracked and moved around us; we were aware of gurgling sounds as water churned.
We managed to negotiate our way, but must admit it was an amazing experience.
Mark was listening to his Walkman and singing, completely unaware of what was happening! Temperature -14C but down to-22C with wind-chill.
This morning it's much colder, -30C (-40with wind-chill) but the sun is shining and we can actually see land about four miles away at Etacho Point. Our present position is 66.0 121. 05. The views in this clear weather are beautiful. It's 08.15 and we are ready to move.
Love to our families and friends.
Sunday 27th February 2005
Hello all you supporters,
Michael reports that yesterday, Saturday, 26th February was tough going. Wind was force 4 but fortunately behind them, however the temperature of -28C became -50 with the wind-chill. They were surprised to encounter a large pressure ridge at the northerly edge of the Keith Arm, but as Michael points out this lake is huge and the underlying currents must be strong.
There were lots of booms and cracks as they progressed which Janet found unnerving, but this movement within the ice itself is a natural phenomenon in Arctic conditions.
In spite of everything good progress was made and in six and a half hours another 10.9 nautical miles were chalked up. This morning, Sunday, position reads 65.51. 121.20. It's rather cloudy but once again our fabulous team are ready to rock and roll.
By to night if all goes according to plan, they will be more or less at the halfway point. Incredible when you think that four members of this team are totally new to this type of trek.
Mary and Roger
Monday 28th February 2005
To day much milder than yesterday, positively tropical at -10 (-18 with wind-chill). The snow was reasonably smooth and we skied a record 12 nautical miles. For those of you who are interested, 1 nautical mile = 1.151 statute miles. We are therefore ahead of schedule by 2 n. miles, which means that we have a reasonable chance of making camp at George Islands to-morrow night.
These two small islands are halfway down the Keith Arm. Visibility is good and Grizzly Bear Mountain can be seen to the south of us. Lots of love to family and friends.
Skiing up the Keith Arm makes us realise the size of this lake. It's about twice the width of the English Channel in places and this arm is only one of four! We are able to see the land as it is at an approximate height of 2000 feet. This morning, Monday 28th of February, our position is 65.42. -121.38. The wind is from the east.
Total mileage is 50.4 n. miles, (58 statute miles). Just about halfway.
Tuesday 1st March 2005
Report from Jo...
We have had fantastic skiing to day, but no views as once again it's a whiteout. The team is strong and we manage to keep together which really helps progress. After six and a half hours of travelling, we covered 11.5 nautical miles and reached the George Islands.
It was a bit like landing on Mars; we moved off the lake through pressure ridges and there we were on land, bits of twigs sticking up through the snow, a solitary radio mast and nothing else! We pulled our sledges up to the top of the hill and were treated to a wonderful sunset. Maybe we could plug in a television here now that we have an aerial.
Major event to night was Natasha burning her pants as she was drying out her clothes. Morale is excellent and in spite of one or two hiccups, we are enjoying our new experience.
Report from Michael...
Michael reports position as 126.96.36.199. 45 nautical miles to go. Temperature -24 with wind-chill relatively mild, but it is yet another whiteout.
Wednesday 2nd March 2005
We left George Islands and walked yet again in a whiteout for six and a half hours, covering 11.4 nautical miles. The weather cleared briefly to give us a glimpse of the Northern Lights, a pity that there was a thin layer of cloud, but at least it was something.
In spite of the good mileage, one or two had to dig really deep to maintain progress. It's hard going when you have to rely totally on compasses for direction, you can't see anything! We should complete our trek by Friday evening local time. Present position 65. 26N. 122.17W.
When everyone has arrived at the intended campsite, duvet coats go on immediately. Tent erection begins. The selected cook starts arranging the bags inside whilst the tent is being erected. Sledges are strapped down and I remain outside to check guy-ropes and that all is satisfactory. We then settle down to have soup. This is followed by dinner, and usually two hot drinks.
The whole process takes time, as snow has to be melted to provide us with water. After the meal we attend to any medical problems and check equipment. We have a natter, write journals and read. Bedrolls are brought out and then it's time for sleep.
It's surprising how long the whole procedure takes, but we have very little space for manoeuvre, and great care has to be taken around the stove. We are usually settled by 10pm, and we rise at 6.30am.
Thursday 3rd March 2005
Report from Mike...
Position 65.26.N 122.17 W. Yesterday, after pulling for seven hours, we covered 10.6 nautical miles, really hard going as we are nearer to land, and the snow at a foot thick, caused the sledges to drag in-spite of their lighter loads. Persistence was the order of the day in order to achieve our target. There was no wind and once again the landscape was featureless, which made navigation difficult without frequent references to the compass.
After two hours however, the horizon made an appearance and lifted our spirits. It felt cold at -35C with wind-chill.
We have now skied 83.9 nautical miles, and have 18.5 left. If all goes well, we should reach Fort Franklin at approximately 7pm Canadian time on Friday, 4th March. This morning we had a potentially dangerous situation.
We were burning our rubbish as usual when one of the bags exploded and burnt the lower legs of Mark's wind suit. He suffered no ill effects and his legs are now encased in duct-tape!
All's well, but it goes to show that you can never be too careful in this supremely hostile environment. Love to family and friends.
Friday 4th March 2005
Report from Mike...
Position 65.13 123.00 Yesterday, we covered 11.9 nautical miles in 7 hours.
The day started again as a 'white-out', so navigation by compass yet again! Conditions improved from time to time, so we saw the sun several times. It was tough going because the snow on the ice is soft and about a foot thick.
To facilitate progress, it was decided to walk in a line, rather like a chain gang. The leader had the task of flattening the snow to enable a smoother passage for those following. As this was hard work, every 15 minutes the leader went to the back of the line! This made a challenging schedule easier. (A.A.Milne describes an expedition as a " long line of everybody", which describes precisely what they were doing.) It also helps everyone keep together.
Fortunately, although it was windy, it was from behind. Even so, the wind-chill factor reduced the temperature to minus 42deg.C, making the stops for refreshment very chilling.
We are coming to the end of our trek - only 10.9 miles to Deline (Fort Franklin), and we are determined to finish today (Friday - about midnight UK time). Morale is as good as ever, - we have a fantastic team.
Watch this space for news of the final day's journey tomorrow.
Saturday 5th March 2005
The 'Grizzlies' have arrived at Deline (Fort Franklin). The call was even shorter to day as the cold is 'ferocious'. As yet I do not know the conditions of yesterday's travel or time of arrival. What I do know is that North Wright Airways are sending a plane to pick them up at 15.30.hrs. Canadian time to take them to Yellowknife.
They have done fantastically well, finishing a day ahead of schedule, but unfortunately it would seem that there is no accommodation for them until tomorrow night. Yellowknife is heaving! What can everybody be up to I wonder? Are we missing something?
Michael describes their arrival as follows: 'As we set foot in Deline, motorists stopped their cars and pedestrians walked up to us to find out what we had been doing. They were absolutely gobsmacked. We were immediately invited into their Community Centre, given sandwiches and hot drinks.
Raymond, one of the elders welcomed us into Deline and gave us the use of the school to dry out our gear. In the evening, we joined the locals in a get together and were officially welcomed into the community. Their hospitality was truly amazing!
The elders searched their records and could find no evidence of any one having crossed Great Bear Lake on foot before, confirming my own belief.”
Mary - More news as soon as I receive it.
WELL DONE YOU GRIZZLIES! WE ARE ALL VERY PROUD OF YOUR ACHIEVEMENT.
The GBL expedition is having difficulties locating accommodation in Yellowknife right now. Apparently the town is fully booked up with Japanese tourists hoping to glimpse the Northern Lights. (Good luck I say!
There seems to be a whole lot of white out and cloud around this year!) So, if we cannot resolve this, we will stay on in Deline another night and fly back tomorrow. Point of interest today: A local man called John took some of the team ice fishing. Most interesting to watch; they drill two holes in the lake and then by drawing a net between the holes under the ice, they catch about 30 herring overnight. It's a tough existence, but essential and effective.
We continually find the people of Deline some of the most hospitable people we have ever met. Everywhere they stop us in the stores or in the street to ask about our journey. It's great people care so much. The population is around 550 people - 150 are of school age - one close community. This morning - if it wasn't enough to give us use of their school - they even brought us bre
akfast! Another benefit of the school, is how we can dry all our kit...
Right now, some of the team are down at the medical centre, treating a few minor frost-nips etc. whilst others are being interviewed on CBC television for the main Canadian news. The TV networks seem to have gone a real bundle on the story, whilst I check out our next move.
All is well.
This has been a very safe, happy and successful expedition. Fiona and I are absolutely impressed with everyone's performance - a big well done to our team!!!
Sunday 6th March 2005
Well we really sorted it. Called my friends at the RCMP - who got on to the Air Force - and a kind man called Capt. Jack Simpson. He found two houses that are used by RCMP and the Air Force to lodge persons for short periods and said we could have them free. If you don't ask... So we called in the plane and met Warren our 'eager' pilot.
After explaining we'd be flying above the clouds - we expressed our disappointment. No problem I can fly below the cloud if you like - but it will be bumpy... Yes we said. We took off and in 10 seconds climbed to our cruising altitude of 100 feet. LOW LEVEL!!! What a flight - the sensation of flying 180 knots at this height is something else.
Warren then said: I do special requests too? Oh yes? said I - Well how about we follow the windy river valley over there? Yep said Warren - A 2G tight turn and in no time we had trees beyond and above the wing tips. This was flying. And when we ran out of river we'd swoop over the hill at the end like a wild roller coaster ride. It went on.
We circled Caribou and even a wolf. Awesome.
Another time we saw over 1000 caribou migrating across a lake. Amazing. We landed well after dark... To be presented with a 'welcome letter' from our RCMP/Air Force friends - a truck at our disposal (Jacks' personal vehicle) - a list of restaurants to visit - keys and map to our houses - WOW - and was the accommodation good?
Later we met Capt. Jack: Hey you guys, I looked for you on the radar. I never saw your plane approach Yellowknife. How'd you get here? Oh we came in low level - Low level, you must have been scraping the floor! We were.
Thank you Warren and Jack for making our last day so fantastic!
Now enjoying hot showers, beer and in no time we will be packing for home. Must dash for now.
Arriving midday at Heathrow on Tuesday.
Northern hospitality has re-kindled our faith and hope in human spirit - shown us how kind people can be - and the trust that can be given.
Would you lend your personal truck to help a bunch of strangers...?
Thanks for supporting the Great Bear Lake Challenge - everyone.