The Ruggles – Observations by Ross Howard
Noted in a crowded, wind-whipped tent on a dead-ended river at Chandler Sound near the North Pole, 1992, waiting days for a helicopter:
Literally: Last month’s New York Review of Books (tattered), a recent copy of the Economist, a Tom Clancy collection, a Field Guide to Birds ( 64 species here, only 3 over-winter ) , The Somme, Report on Proceedings of the U.S. Expedition to Lady Franklin Bay, by U.S. Lieut. G.W.Greeley , 1888 (he was here); The Birth of the Modern Society, Night Flight by Antoine de Saint Euxpery;
Essentially: where to shit on the barren tundra (near the river); are rainpants over long underwear warmer than fleece at 3 C in 40-knot winds?; “Where’d it all go?( Tim’s lament). We came with 2 bags of charcoal, eight food packs or barrels including frozen burgers, steaks, bacon and sausage, five cases of stove fuel, two stoves, 18 paddles, 24 pair of rubber boots or hip-waders (Stollery’s had two left feet) and 10 litres of palatable imported wine. Plus duct tape, rivets, hammers and plastic bags but no ice-axes or ice-screws (whatever they are) ; “Did you know Ptolemy’s Atlas called it Terra Incognita and Mare Congelatum?”; Where do mosquitoes come from, up here?; “It’s 2 pm. I officially declare breakfast over”; Is it heart attack or indigestion?; (Ted’s scare ); How long will the duct tape hold? Again, when does the helicopter arrive?
Peter Stollery was tottering, one hip-wader-clad leg plunged into the 300-metre-deep waters of Lake Hazen, the other foot slipping on the crumbling shards of candled ice as the canoe, with John Godfrey in the stern, slid back into the open lead that had interrupted our slog. “I feel like a gondolier,” yelled John “Oh fuck, the tomatoes,” worried quartermaster–chef Tim Kotcheff. “Time for lunch,” pronounced Craig Oliver as Stollery threw himself forward onto the frozen surface across which we had dragged our laden canoes for several hours. We unharnessed from our lashed paddles and rope yokes and out came the plastic lawn chairs, the imported red wine and various gourmet victuals. Half-way between shorelines atop the frozen ten-kilometre-wide lake we were supposed to be paddling, we lunched and posed for photos under a blazing sun. So far, so…interesting, I thought on Day One of this quest to paddle the world’s northernmost flowing river, on Ellesmere Island 900 kilometres below the Pole.
In summer, one canoes. It is good for the soul. Summer didn’t come to high Arctic in 1992 but we did nonetheless, driven by Stollery’s intent on a record for northernmost paddling and by the solace and regalvanizing thrills sought by each member of the party in such far, far places in a canoe. “The objective of these trips is for Peter to get us in as deep as possible and for the rest of us to figure out how to get out. Every year, ” explained veteran tripper Ted Johnson, at a later point. That was later, after we had navigated the Ruggles between walls of blue ice watched by muskoxen on the desolate desert tundra; after we came to where the river ran under the frozen ice of Chandler Sound with no route to our scheduled plane rendezvous 50 kilometres away; after three days of screaming winds raised dust clouds thick as forest fire smoke and ripped our tent zippers and drained our spirits down to a few bottles, while awaiting a helicopter back to Hazen’s shores, where the bemused Inuit wardens wrote attestation to our record-setting little canoe trip. It was indeed good for the soul.
Normally you pull out at the head of tricky rapids and scout them, bush-crashing and rock-jumping down-stream to spy out the safest line to shoot. On the Ruggles we had to scout the next safe pull-out. While the open river flowed in a ravine through the tundra desert, both shorelines never thawed that year and became knee-high and then shoulder-high walls of blue ice. Increasingly, we’d scramble ashore wherever shoreline or crumbled walls allowed, and then trudge along the fractured ravine rim seeking safe pull-outs spots ahead of any rumoured deadly ice bridges where the river would round a bend and suddenly tunnel beneath a solid arch – and canoe-trapping infinity — of ice. “I’ll never walk so far to paddle so little. Never,” swore Craig Oliver, his hip waders stirring little dust clouds of tundra dust as our pull-outs multiplied and our scouting treks lengthened to hours. There was only one, penultimate ice-bridge, where the blue-walled Ruggles flowed under the unbroken multi-year ice of Chandler Fiord. We found a wind-swept strip of shoreline upstream from the frozen fiord 36 hours later. After two days of debating the inevitable we radioed for a ‘copter ride out.