In The Field

On board the Amundsen: The enigma of arrival

June 5, 2008

After an epic journey, on four planes and one helicopter, I have at last arrived on board the CCGS Amundsen.


The final leg of my trip, the short transfer from Inuvik to Cape Parry at the northern tip of Canada’s Northwest Territories, was easily the most spectacular flight of my whole life. The tiny aircraft flew at very low altitude, so that every barren hill and every glittering lake in the tundra below seemed almost seizable. Then we were out on the frozen Franklin Bay, an inlet of the Amundsen Gulf, and headed towards the edge of the fast ice. We went down on a gravel airstrip next to an abandoned cold-war early warning station. From there a helicopter took us on board the icebreaker which is currently staying put in the fast ice at only a few ship lengths distance to the ice edge.

I was not the only person to get on board today. It was in fact a full crew change for Leg 9 of the Circumpolar Flaw Lead Study, currently the largest project in the International Polar Year research programme. Some 80 crew members and scientists were replaced – a logistical masterpiece.

First thing we did upon arrival on the ship was carrying down from the landing platform to the main deck the immense amount of cargo – personal luggage, scientific equipment, food – which the helicopters had also delivered. What remained of the afternoon was dedicated to getting familiar with the ship and with life on board. After dinner the newcomers met in the small conference room for a first get-together with captain Lise Merchand and chief scientist Dave Barber.

Even so, many things are still a bit confusing to me (I’m a landlubber, really). About some of the exciting science that’s being done here I will report throughout the next seven days. But one thing I do already know: It is a great privilege to be guest here, and to be able to report from a spot most people, science reporters included, never get to see.

It was in Winnipeg in the very early morning today, when sitting around in a hangar and waiting for the charter plane to arrive that would take us to Inuvik, that I began to realize that I was embarked on a real adventure. The feeling of excitement lingers on as I’m now sitting in a cabin I share with a PhD student from India who just went to sleep. The ship engines gently roar, but we’re not moving. Looking through the porthole I see a seascape depicting grandiose white nothingness bathed in the mild light of the midnight sun. It is an eerie yet transcendent view, acknowledging as it does the silent glory of nature and the frailty of our wishes.

Quirin Schiermeier


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