Due North: Sailing the Subarctic

Subarctic adventure comes with certain risks, as well as great rewards.

July 22, 2014
Orca Whales
The orcas, eight of them,­­­­­­ charged like attack submarines. Our Mason 44 Frances B had just passed the northern end of the east coast of North America. We had left ­Bowdoin Harbour on Killiniq Island after low tide, planning to catch the flood from the Atlantic Ocean into McGregor Strait. Get it wrong and the Hudson Bay will throw 5 to 7 knots of whirlpools against your bow. Even with the fair current, this channel felt overwhelmingly dramatic. On both sides, vertical cliffs, shining in the rain, shot up into low, leaden clouds. No wind marred the waters as we entered Gray’s Strait. Lucky us, I thought, since Sailing Directions promised “fierce squalls” here. That day the tidal rips over vortices at the mouth of Hudson Strait measured in inches. Birds and orcas were feeding in this conveyor of food. A conspicuous male orca with a 6-foot-high dorsal led his pod. I know because he came alongside, the bulk of his body under the turn of the bilge so close I could touch the tip of his fin. I had a long lens on my Nikon, so all I got was a close-up of his breathing hole. The orca’s visit was the high point of an already exceptional voyage to subarctic Canada. Tom Zydler
Orange Shore
Mostly benign weather lasted through the summer of 2012 in the far North. The great spirit, the Inuit people’s Torngarsuk, a giant mythical polar bear, snoozed. His territory, the Torngat Mountains (a national park since 2008), stretches for 160 miles from Saglek Fjord to Cape Chidley, not far south of the orcas’ hunting grounds. Up there the sailing season for small boats is short, only July and August, so after leaving South Carolina at the end of May we kept a good pace. In July we picked up a friend in Nain, the last town on the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. Two months and about 2,300 nautical miles from home, Frances B swung at anchor off the Torngat Mountains National Park base camp in Saglek Fjord. The fjord funnels into the massive mainland and eventually spreads in four arms. Mountainsides, 1,000 feet and higher, continue precipitously to great depths. Finding safe anchorage can be a challenge, but our detailed chart helped. At the very end of the North Arm, we dropped our hook on a shelf 40 feet below the surface. From there the mouth of the anchorage seemed shut down by a foreboding 3,000-foot-high wall. On one side a mass of loose orange shale and stone sloped into the sea; the other side emerged green and sheer from a blanket of cloud. A waterfall, its source invisible, roared over terraced rock steps. The gloom up high wavered, sharp ridges outlined on and off. To the north, round-top mounds flanked a wide valley, ending in the fjord. A fast, shallow river tinkled over an estuary of stones, large, small and slippery. An ancient river berm rose behind a beach of pebbles, which served as our dinghy landing. Two distinct stone food caches still stood there — a reminder of the Inuit population now gone. Two black bears fossicked on the grassy flats each morning and evening. Tom Zydler
Torngat Mountains National Park
On the second day, dozens of cascades appeared, running heavy red silt into the bay, but the wind didn’t stir. A strong northerly roughed up the water and the park boats had to move four miles to shelter at Big Island. The Torngat Mountains National Park shoreside camp is an oasis in the midst of wilderness. Insulated tents provide accommodations for visitors; a helicopter ensures a connection to the outside world; generators produce electricity for hot showers; and an electrical fence keeps out bears. The cafeteria was abuzz with reports of polar bear sightings, seven of them on nearby Big Island. Armed guides accompany all land-based treks. Tom Zydler
Polar Bears
“You’ll see a lot of bears north of here,” assured Maria Dicker, who tends the camp store in the summer. As an Inuk Labradorian, she has hunted and killed bears. (The Inuit may shoot one bear per family.) Polar bears come south with winter ice. Stranded on land during the summer melt, they work their way back north along the coast. A couple of days later, after anchoring in Nachvak Fjord, we spotted a large white bear in the water — they do swim, sometimes for miles. Forewarned, we knew not to leave our inflatable unattended. Apparently such boats make ideal punching bags for the toy-deprived bears. The one in Nachvak might have had more important matters on his mind. A river divided the shoreline. Morning mists began to rise when a giant black bear appeared on the green meadows at the left. The even larger white bear worked the low-tide line to the right. At some point the black bear reached the river bank, with his back to the shore, still unaware of the visitor from the far North. Minutes later the polar bear splashed across the river outlet into the sea. Tom Zydler
The black one looked back and sprang for the hills faster than you could guess his bulk would allow. The “master of Nachvak” sauntered up the meadow and rolled on his back, four massive legs up in the air. Satisfied, he slid on his belly down to the foreshore. Inuit myths aside, we now knew who ruled the North. Frances B had a full ship’s company on this trip. Two friends joined us when we promised creative voyaging. Stas Korzeniowski (English majors may recognize the name) would be writing — not surprising, since he is Joseph Conrad’s great-great- great nephew. Trish Baily would photograph. Besides running a charter boat in the British Virgin Islands, she was working on a photographic book of birds. Tom Zydler
We counted on the Torngat territory scenery to keep both of them busy. Here, well beyond the tree line, the earth rose high; raw, hard and dark mountains overlapped one another in bold profiles. Against such a backdrop, icebergs acquired a luminous inner life. Even in flat light they transformed into granite-hard crystal sculptures, sometimes green, other times blue or white with translucent stripes, their surfaces smooth or textured, their architecture that of cathedrals, castles, forts or domes. Nancy (my wife and the resident artist) hastily sketched them to later produce a series of iceberg paintings. Our writer could hardly wait until the end of his watch to dash down and pound his impressions into the computer. Off watch, he sat indifferent to the biting cold air so as not to miss the changing scene. Tom Zydler
Red Skies
The skies rarely cleared. We anchored at sunset in Eclipse Channel. During tidying of the deck for the short summer night, a sudden red glow on the folds of the mainsail startled us. Small clouds over the mountains to the west turned gaudy red, the glow resisting the encroaching night gloom. Some hours later the groan of the anchor chain over the rocky bottom brought me up on deck — the current had changed with the falling tide. Tom Zydler
Northern Lights
Over the sharp-ridge skyline to the south floated the moon, eye-burning bright in the clear Northern air. We always slept lightly, waiting for the unearthly shimmer of Northern Lights to undulate down the hatches. The first person who awoke to the eerie glow had to stir up the crew. Overcast skies relented only twice, allowing us to see auroras. Blue-sky days were elusive. Tom Zydler
Thanks to a cloudless sky, the dawn began early with a theatrical pink glow reflecting in the mirror of the sea. A solitary caribou with a great rack of horns trotted on the sandy beach. Baily had her glory days when Frances B went to Resolution Island, crossing the orcas’ feeding grounds in the approaches to Hudson Bay. Here the 5- to 6-foot Atlantic tides meet Hudson Bay’s 13- to 15-foot tidal ranges. The resulting commotion brings food to the surface, attracting birds on the wing and afloat; northern fulmars flew alongside, landed as we passed and then rose again to catch up with the boat. Tom Zydler
At the northern end of the channel, which cuts between the Button Islands at the cliffs of Lucy Island, a million fulmars and kittiwakes flitted against the black granite; from a distance the white birds resembled flakes of snow spinning in the wind. Dozens of seals drifted in swells bouncing off the hard shores. Polar bears, being such large carnivores, hunt seals to survive. And sure enough, as we followed the channel, a statuesque bear stood at the edge of the water motionless, his eyes on a row of seals whose heads bobbed in the current only yards away. The sound of our engine broke his concentration. After a brief look in our direction, he ran off. Tom Zydler
In August, Arctic char come inshore. As visitors we didn’t fish, but after returning to base camp in Saglek we finally tasted this exquisitely flavored pink-flesh fish. The Webb brothers from Nain bring their two boats, once longliners, and take park visitors through the fjords. They also know where to fish and generously share their catch. It was still August, but we saw signs of summer ending. Base camp would shut down by the middle of September, so I was able to top off our fuel tanks from its excess supply. The berries were ripening: partridge berries, blueberries and “bake apples.” Good as they were, they also signaled the approaching end of this sailing season and an amazing arctic adventure. Tom Zydler

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