Saturday, January 23, 2010

A visit from the Canadian Coast Guard

Yesterday morning, before setting out on a long day-hike, we were unexpectedly visited by the Canadian Coast Guard, in the form of the helicopter from CCGS Henry Larson, an icebreaker currently conducting research on sea-ice and other marine matters in the High Arctic.

The helicopter shortly after touchdown. These CCG helicopters seem more powerful than the Bell 204L operated by PCSP; at least its downdraft was more disruptive.

I had to help Katherine with her injections, so rather than stick around to chat with the people from the Coast Guard, I headed out. They were loading some equipment and packages into the helicopter, a pile of gear dropped off here at Alex Fjord a couple of weeks ago.

When I returned about half an hour later I expected the helicopter to be gone, and I was lamenting the poor timing that stole my opportunity to schmooze some government employees. Nearly everybody I’ve met likes to talk about their jobs, and life on an icebreaker sounds interesting.

However, while I’d seen the chopper leave, it had left behind 3 people, and would be returning soon. I grasped the situation before I talked to these people, so I opened the conversation with some sympathy for their position – I know how utterly boring it is to wait for a helicopter.

One of the people waiting was Michelle, a scientist studying multi-year sea-ice in the eastern Arctic. She was happy talk about her job, and give me names and contact information for people in the Coast Guard or Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) who I could talk to about conducting research from such a ship. That would be highly cool. One positive little factoid she told me about was the busy season for scientific spaces on Canadian icebreakers. Not surprisingly, most scientists with projects that would benefit from the facilities of an icebreaker work in the summer; I do too. However, the ships generally return to their southern bases (St. John’s, in the case of CCGS Henry Larson) in late October, allowing several weeks of time in the High Arctic in the autumn. One avenue my upcoming PhD research might pursue is an examination of soil gas flux during freeze-up, which occurs between late August and the end of September at different latitudes in the Arctic. I can easily imagine a schedule of working full days or a few days in a row at a series of Arctic soil sites accessed by helicopter from an icebreaker. Perhaps a few weeks cruising down through the Archipelago? This is very appealing to me, not least because such ships have a number of other valuable resources besides the chopper – things like showers, lab space, a reliable electricity supply, and other scientists to discuss projects and experiments with.

After my wonderful conversation with Michelle, the helicopter returned to retrieve her and her shipmates. The ship itself was lurking out in the mouth of Buchanan bay, hidden from our view by the rocky headland to our east.

CCG Helicopter take off

My companions, except Katherine, and I quickly set out on our big day-hike shortly after Michelle’s departure. We crossed both rivers to the east of camp, and climbed up to the top of the lower hill that forms part of the barrier of the valley to the east. From the top we could see the ship maneuvering near the mouth of Buchanan bay.

Erin modelling some men’s-size-12 chest waders before crossing the larger and more distant river.

The view from part-way up, looking back towards camp.

The view to the east from the saddle at the top of the first slope. Greenland is barely visible as a shadow on the horizon when viewed through binoculars.

CCGS Henry Larson steaming into Buchanan bay. Skraeling island and Little Skraeling island are visible at the bottom of the frame.

A cropped photo taken through my binoculars. I was told by one of Michelle’s shipmates that CCGS Henry Larson is 337 feet long. I think the bridge is 4 stories above the forward deck, to give an idea of the size of this vessel.

CCGS Henry Larson steaming into Alexandra Fjord, viewed from the hilltop at about 250m altitude. I think they rammed through that isolated iceberg just because they could. I’d asked about the amount of ice breaking the icebreaker had been doing, and was told they had been crunching through quite a bit of ice already. The sound reached us clearly at our vantage point.

A view of the ship from a few hours later, after we’d ascended partway up the north face of the eastern ridge. They apparently decided to park in the fjord for a while.

We continued our hike and lost sight of the ship, and did not hear the helicopter flying around. When Michelle and her shipmates were picked up I briefly talked with the helicopter pilot, who asked me (jokingly, I thought) if there was anything we needed that he could bring us. I said something about not having had a banana in a while (this is true: the last banana I saw came from the BAS visit), but otherwise thought nothing of it – we really are in need of nothing at base camp.

When we returned from our long day hike, Katherine related a story to us. She’d seen the ship come into the fjord, of course, and watched the helicopter buzz around and a zodiac zip up and down the fjord. I think one of the scientists on board is studying tides, and there’s a buoy of some kind with a data logger, or something. Anyways, she was working inside the lab and heard the helicopter land, and waited for the engine to shut down, signalling the arrival of more visitors. The (very loud) engine kept running, so she went outside to investigate. The crew of the chopper waved her closer – they had landed very close to the buildings anyways – then pointed to some boxes they’d dropped off from the chopper, a gift for us.

The gift was about 50 pounds of various fresh fruits and vegetables. I was kind of expecting a handful of bananas, but we got much, much more than that.

One half-emptied box of food from the Canadian Coast Guard.

Another box of fruit.

They gave us bananas, apples, pears, plums, nectarines, raspberries, blackberries, honeydew melons, oranges, kiwis, tomatoes, and cucumbers, enough to feed the 6 of us on a strict frugivore diet for days, plus a litre of coffee cream, 2 big cardboard flats of single-serve yogurt, and some cheese. All of this was delivered by helicopter in a single-purpose trip from the ship.

Thank you!

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