Victor’s Insider Scoop on Part of My Previous Life Working in the High Arctic (Part 2) …
March 14th, 2010 | top of page

This is the second installment of an article and photos that were first published in the Summer 1981 Issue of North/Nord magazine under the title Another Day on the Arctic Seismic Line by Victor Allison.

As Jan and I constantly work the length of the chain apart there is little opportunity for casual conversation. It is not unusual for several taciturn miles to pass by with only our thoughts or the passing scenery to entertain us. Walking slowly across the arctic sea forces you to become familiar with the many nuances of the passing terrain.

Although my initial impression of the frozen seascape was that it is merely an endless white plain, the ice varies considerably from patch to patch in form, color, and texture. It goes from abstractly shaped sections of green glare ice, through rolling mogul–like blue tinted mounds and wind–sculptured ice blocks, to the jumbled white masses of pressure ice. Subtleties of sunlight play on the sastrugi patterns as we pass by. These wavelike erosion forms created in the hard snow by unimpeded prevailing winds are blends of sparkling white crystals and the blue shadows cast into their depressions by the low arctic sun.

Occasionally, in the distance, it was possible to discern the hazy outline of one of the islands of the archipelago with its barren promontories rising sharply above the seemingly flat sea. The sky consistently occupies an unnaturally large part of my field of vision.

On a sunny day, the subtle gradations of blue vary from the pale hues of the horizon to a rich azure zenith. If the wind is not blowing too fiercely, the pure, cold air is a delight to inhale and savor. Perhaps the most amazing characteristic of this frozen maritime desert is found on a calm day when, if one stands still for a moment, there is a total absence of sound—something I had never before experienced even on trips into remote mountain areas.

We chained 11 km, taking the better part of the morning to do it, when the frozen sea in front of us was broken by a white spine of ice that stretches away in random arcs to either side of horizon—a pressure ridge. Bill is waiting in the survey vehicle for us just before the pressure ridge. An aquamarine streak running along the base of the 6 m high mass of broken pressure ice indicates the presence of open sea water.

We will have to find a way around this water gap before we can attempt to cross the pressure ridge. Our search for a path through the ridge proves to be a short one this time as we find a break in the ice wall less than a kilometer off the seismic line. We disembark from the vehicle to make a walkthrough inspection of the proposed path. Drifted snow has filled the pockets around the ice blocks making a relatively flat crossing.

While Bill and I remain on the north side of the ridge, Jan walks back to the vehicle on the other side of the ridge and after a quick, uneventful crossing with the vehicle the three of us are on our way back to the line.

Bill Surveying from Atop a Pressure Ridge

While Bill struggles to set up his transit atop the pressure ridge in order to restart the line, Jan and I scramble back across the ridge to retrieve the chain and measure it. The jagged pressure ice with its pell–mell ice blocks and small crevasses reminds both of us of some of our previous adventures on glaciers when we were separated by a kernmantle rope rather than the surveyor’s chain.

Half an hour later the heading of the seismic line has been re–established and the remaining ten kilometers are chained without incident.

This was the final line of the Kristoffer Bay prospect. In the last part of the afternoon Jan and I set off to drive some 40 km across the ice to Malloch Dome where the trig–stations necessary to kick off the next prospect are located. Before Bill radios for the helicopter to fly him back to camp he establishes the direction to one of the trig stations by setting two large snow–filled garbage bags in a line several hundred meters apart. We borrow from Bill’s line–producing technique to keep our heading straight using binoculars and garbage bags in lieu of transit and lath.

Although we started our journey under a brilliantly shining sun and cyan sky the ensuing few hours found the high pressure weather system of the past week being encroached upon by a warm front.

In the high arctic warm is a relative term. The low angle arctic sun is slowly being hidden by ever–descending layers of clouds as we drive on. The bizarre, yet eerily translucent lighting of the partial whiteout that now surrounds us is a continuous source of fascination.

Features fade, strengthen and then fade again on the horizon. By this time our thoughts had turned away from the pleasant drive to contemplating the decreasing odds of a helicopter pick– up that day. The absence of contrast and the lack of definition between sky and ground during a whiteout makes flying a dangerous proposition. With the loss of visual cues the pilot’s ability to judge his position relative to the ground becomes dangerously hampered.

Although we were equipped with sufficient survival gear and food to last us several days we do not look forward to the prospect of spending the night in a tent on the ice. Whiteout or not, we were there to do a job so we continued towards Malloch Dome with the hope that the weather would not deteriorate any further. The whiteout conditions now greatly reduced our rate of progress as the severely limited visibility meant we had to place the garbage bag directional markers at ever–closer intervals.

Soon it became next to impossible to keep the vehicle on a straight course. As we could not make out any distinguishing features ahead we were forced to steer a straight path by constantly checking the alignment of the garbage bags through the rear window. The monotone grey blending of the ice and sky strained our minds as much as our eyes.

Once, while we stopped so I could set up a new marker, I noticed two large, nebulous shapes on what seemed to be the horizon. I brought this to Jan’s attention and as we gazed at the objects they both appeared to move in a definite left–to– right direction. I reached for the binoculars to take a closer look at what I guessed to be a mother polar bear and cub. After looking I quickly passed the binoculars to Jan. He peered through them for a moment and then turned to me and shook his head bemusedly. In the sensory confusion of the near–whiteout what we had believed to be objects moving across the horizon were in reality two blocks of ice!

Our trepidation was reinforced several times as we continue across the ice to Malloch Dome: the mirage of a landmass kept appearing ahead although Malloch Dome was still miles away and completely obscured by the whiteout

When we finally reached the shores of Malloch Dome, our sense of relief was overshadowed by a feeling of emptiness brought on by the barren, brown shale slopes rising into the mist in front of us. Although the island is named for its characteristic shape that rises 120 m above the sea, its impressive stature was hidden by the whiteout. A few lichens and spindly, dwarfed pieces of vegetation dolled the shale slopes. Here and there remnants of snow had drifted into depressions. Not really knowing where we were on the island we chose to remain close to the shoreline rather than search for the trig–station and, to increase our chances of being located by the helicopter, we stayed on a path which extended forward from our garbage bag line.

Neither of us had resigned ourselves to setting up the tent and crawling into the double weight sleeping bags when the familiar and ever–so–welcome sound of an approaching helicopter broke the stillness. Sprinting from the cab of the survey vehicle Jan and I quickly moved to set up a triangle with the vehicle as one apex and he and I as the other two so that the pilot would have some reference points from which he could establish a landing surface.

Within moments Jan and I are buckled into our seats inside the helicopter. Thoughts of a long overdue hot meal engulfed my tired brain as we bee–line our way back to the camp.

Twin Otter Supply Plane Landing on the Frozen Ocean Next to Camp

To a first–time arctic visitor six rust–colored, pre–fab huts parked on the frozen sea probably look extremely bleak and primitive, but to the eyes of a member of an arctic seismic crew who had just put in 14 long, cold hours on the line the camp is indeed a welcome sight. They meant food, warmth and relative comfort and at that moment there was nothing in the world that I desired more.

I don’t think a dinner was ever as appreciated by so weary a crew as ours that evening. The few hours following the meal were spent reading or in quiet conversation. Finally, the need for sleep overwhelmed the sheer good feeling of being back in camp that evening. I clambered up onto my bunk and promptly fell into a sound sleep. It seemed only a few minutes passed before I was cursing the rude suddenness of the next morning’s wake–up call. Another day on an arctic seismic line had begun.

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