A guest post by George Kourounis, storm chaser.
Extreme places are my specialty. I’ve somehow managed to make a career out of traveling to the most remote, dangerous and hostile place on Earth, then documenting them for the world to see. Hurricanes, volcanoes, deserts, polar regions, tornadoes… Places that most people try to avoid, I find myself drawn to, like the proverbial moth to a flame.
When the opportunity recently came up for me to partner up with The Weather Network and One Ocean Expeditions on a journey to Greenland and through the Canadian Northwest Passage, I was delighted, to say the least. The notorious Northwest Passage is a place where early polar explorers bravely attempted to find a clear channel through the sea ice, connecting the east and west coasts of North America. It is a forbidding place. Even today with modern technology, a steel hulled ship, daily ice coverage charts and GPS enabled RADAR, there is still no guarantee that a vessel will make it through, even during the height of summer. In a few years, as the Arctic continues to change and thaw, that may no longer be the case, but for now. The uncertainty of the trip was real. I liked that.
We started in Iqaluit and crossed the Davis Strait to Greenland, where glaciers calved off giant, blue icebergs into the fjords. The ice, some of it thousands of years old, would melt and flip, becoming floating sculptures with a surreal beauty. Like snowflakes, no two would ever be alike. The Jakobshavn glacier, near Ilulisat, is one of the most prolific iceberg producers in the world. It has receded about 40 km up the fjord, but the icebergs still choke the narrow passage. Some of the ones we saw were so huge, they looked more like mountains as the slowly drift by, heading out to sea. Soon to become shipping hazards and some eventually reaching Newfoundland.
The beauty of Greenland cannot be overstated, but the Northwest Passage still beckoned, so we returned to Canada, this time with a rather stormy crossing of the Davis Strait, with waves crashing over the bow of our 117 meter long Russian research ship. When we arrived at the start of the passage, in Pond Inlet, it started to become clear that it was not necessarily going to be a smooth journey. The ice charts were showing a buildup of sea ice in some of the narrow channels. Ice that was too thick and widespread for our hull to penetrate.
Over the next few days, as we got closer to the point where the ice was thickest, we spotted numerous polar bears, some were mothers with cubs, hunting on the sea ice. They look so adorable, until you remember that they are the world’s largest land carnivore. some of theme were quite curious, coming very close to the ship on the ice floes.
In the end, we had no choice, the ice was too thick. we could’ve tried to make it through on our own, but if the winds changed, the huge sheets of ice could have locked us in, damaging the ship, trapping us in an icy grip. Luckily for us, the Canadian Coast Guard happened to have an icebreaker close by. The CCGS Henry Larsen. They graciously agreed to help us out by giving us, and several other vessels in the area, an escort through the thickest ice. With their help, we made it through and reach our destination of Cambridge Bay. We had traversed the fabled Northwest Passage.
The natural beauty of the north is hard to describe, one must really go there and see it firsthand in order to grasp its vastness. It is life changing to witness the rugged terrain, feel the warmth of the few people who live there, and the experience the sense of being so remote and far away from the rest of the world.
Because we were filming this journey, we needed to keep in touch with the network back home in Toronto, and the folks over at Roadpost had given me a Delorme InReach device to try out. It was able to track our position the entire time and upload our coordinates and text messages to the web. Back in the TV studio, the on-air presenters could then share our journey with the viewers. That feature alone made it great to have, and the emergency beacon, email and social media features made sure that it was never too far from my reach.
Not everyone will be able to have the opportunity to visit such a remote and hostile environment, but at least we were able to bring a small piece of that experience to the viewers, in real time.