The Northwest Passage Day 3
“Remember, no matter where you go – there you are.” An Irish Proverb
No one knows why an Arctic island was named after the Swedish opera star Jenny Lind. She toured North America from 1850 to 1852 but there is no evidence that she ever visited the Arctic. I assume a Swedish captain who was an opera fan chose the name. Today would be our first foray off the ship, and it would be to Jenny Lind island.
Jenny Lind is a migratory terrestrial bird site for such species as Canada goose, lesser snow goose, and Ross’s goose. It is also home to a number of mammals including musk oxen, fox, and caribou. Polar bears are a possibility, which is why the ship sent a scouting team to ensure we wouldn’t run into any. If the team sees polar bears, we can’t land. If they don’t see polar bears, then the bear monitors form an armed perimeter within which we humans can roam. Today, I signed on to the advanced hiking group, so we brought an armed bear monitor with us.
The Canadian arctic is essentially a desert. The land is flat. The plants are very tiny. It’s difficult to imagine that something as big as a musk ox could find anything to eat, but they do. We are traveling at the end of the summer, which is why we haven’t yet encountered any sea ice. Our ship is not an icebreaker, so the captain choses routes that minimize ice travel. I think he is being super cautious because this boat almost didn’t make it into the Northwest Passage and had to be escorted by a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker for part of the way.
Both the desert conditions and the lack of ice surprised me. Like many people, I thought the Arctic would be more like Antarctica, but with polar bears running all over. I learned to look for and appreciate the small things—Arctic willow, saxifrage, wintergreen, lichen, and Arctic mushrooms.
Someone spotted a few musk ox, so we spent most of our hike trying to get a closer look. Most of us started calling them musk dots because all we could ever see were some dark dots on the horizon. Even with magnification, it wasn’t possible to identify them definitively. We were definitely scraping to find mammals although we did encounter a few birds. Most of the migration was over. It seemed the animals had moved on as well.
I saw a number of dead things—birds, a fox head (below), vertebrae, and discarded antlers. There was also evidence of the goose migration—feathers and lots of poop. At this time of year, Jenny Lind was desolate.
At one point I looked back at the ship, which was situated such that it looked as if it was grounded and abandoned. It reminded me of the many explorers who overwintered in the Arctic. To make any progress looking for a northwest passage or other resources, expedition ships committed to several-year journeys. At this latitude long summer days turn to long winter nights and impassable icy oceans. The ships, beset with ice, and their crew would sit and wait.