Thursday, March 27, 2008

Breaking Trail

Editor's Note: The following occurred on Wednesday, March 26, 2008.

One of our sampling goals while we are in Barrow is to collect sea ice, snow and open water from the Arctic Ocean. When we heard that the BASC station manager (Lewis Brower) was heading out to the ice to break trail as part of the ABC whaling crew, we asked if he would be so kind as to collect some samples for us. However, Lewis gave us an even greater opportunity - he asked if we wanted to come along out with him and get the samples ourselves. We of course jumped at the chance. The only condition was that we'd help break trail toward the open water. A fair exchange in our view!

Each of the whaling crews at Barrow must break their way through the rough ice that is present near the coastline to get out to the open water where whales will surface to breathe. It is imperative for a successful hunt that a passable trail is made from the coast all the way out to the open lead, as this is how the crew's supplies, boats, snowmachines, etc will be taken to the whaling camp. (The open water is about 5 - 5.5 snowmachine trail miles out). Each crew makes their own individual trail and it is not easy work. As you can see from the photo above, the surface is extremely rough and the large chunks of ice must be broken down enough to allow passage of snowmachines with sleds in tow. This labor is all done by hand with ice picks and the trails are smoothed out further by running snowmachines back and forth along the trail. We were warned that it is very easy to flip a snowmachine under these conditions and to be careful and take things slow and easy. We also had to keep an eye out for polar bears, although none came our way on this particular day.

After a slow trek to the farthest point of the ABC crew's trail, Lewis stopped to assess where we should go next. Lewis made a careful scan of the ice conditions ahead (this must be done by someone who knows how to read the ice and can predict where the best trail will be). He then instructed us on how to proceed, taking the time to explain to us "newbies" why he wanted to go a particular way - so it was a great learning experience for us.

We were out on the ice for just under an hour when Lewis' father, Arnold Brower, came out to the ice. At nearly 90 years old, he is the oldest whaling crew captain in Barrow. (ABC stands for "Arnold Brower's Crew"). We were amazed at how easily he made his way across the snow and ice - certainly moving faster than Ian, Glenn or I could. As we made our way farther out to the open water, Arnold and Lewis continued to climb to high points to scout out the best trail ...

We continued to make slow but steady progress ... but the open water is still about 3 miles out ... so there is a lot of work left before the crew will get to their final destination where they can set up camp near the open water.

However, it wasn't all work and no play. Often we were able to stop and talk with Lewis and Arnold about everything from whaling to their trips to the lower 48. We were thrilled to be able to hear Arnold's stories of whaling and hunting (he also has a hunting camp about 85 miles away that he regularly travels to), how one can ferment whale (it ferments "like berries" in Arnold's words) and how he makes reindeer jerky. It was also eye-opening to hear his first hand account of how he has lost portions of his food stores because the underground ice cellars are becoming too warm (due perhaps to the changing permafrost from warmer ground temperatures). Holes are dug into the permafrost which can then serve as natural freezers ... unfortunately, as the permafrost warms, it threatens the integrity of the stored food, as it can begin to grow bacteria and eventually will spoil all together.

After about three hours we stopped to enjoy the finer things in life - a hot cup of tea on the Arctic Ocean. Lewis graciously shared his thermos of tea with us and it certainly hit the spot. We then headed back to BASC, just in time to catch dinner ... and reflecting on the day's events, Ian, Glenn and I all agreed that our time on the ice was the most interesting, exciting, humbling, and awe-inspiring experience we have had.

No comments: