Second Canada - US Extended Continental Shelf Survey in the Arctic

Second Canada - US Extended Continental Shelf Survey in the Arctic written by writer Lawrence Taylor

August 6 & 7, 2009 – On the Road

The alarming panic created by my radio and travel clock at 4 AM this morning was soon soothed by the calming, warm, earthy summer breeze and gentle rainfall as I packed my bags and camera gear into one of the five buses that had arrived at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography's front gate to whisk us (about 80 ship's crew and scientists) to our FirstAir charter at Stanfield airport.

In bookend fashion, rain would start and close the day, but the landscape beneath our feet would change dramatically. We take for granted the sound of rustling leaves, brown earth tones under a canopy of green and the smell of summer in our more southerly latitudes. A four-hour car ride in any direction from Halifax won’t change that, but fly the same amount of time in a northwesterly direction as we did this morning, and your senses are treated to a very different landscape

A chance to snooze after a warm brunch, our flight touches down four hours later in Rankin Inlet to refuel, change airline crew and feed a few mosquitoes, while stretching our legs, before heading off to Kugluktuk. Here, sky-high greenery is reduced to, at best, calf-high grasses and small islands of purple flowers. Where the ground under your feet isn’t squishy, it’s rock: sporadic cobble, or expansive rolling flats. Pond after pond after pond, and the odd river, regularly dot the grey and green landscape.

Back in the air, we emerge out of the clouds about two hours later over very similar terrain,with the odd patch of snow, and land on a very dusty gravel runway.

Stretching our legs outside the airport, and feeding a few more mosquitoes, the community of Kugluktuk lies to our right, while CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent lies at anchor ahead of us offshore.

Like dragonflies with attitude, the Canadian Coast Guard helicopters have been zipping back and forth between the airport and ship’s flight deck all morning, ferrying crew and gear off the vessel to make space for our contingent. As the evening wears on, the ferrying of crew and scientists finishes, leaving only soggy luggage and groceries caught in an uncharacteristic Arctic summer rain to be slung in a cargo net under one of the helicopters.

People, packages and gear stowed away, CCGS Louis S. St- Laurent pulls anchor and heads for open water. For the next six weeks our feet will only tread on metal and linoleum. Warm summer breezes have been replaced by tempting odours from the mess hall and our horizon will soon lose all signs of those familiar browns, greens and grey. Only the rain the same. Wet! ... For now.

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August 8, 2009 – Life on Board

Approaching a massive ice floe I expected to abandon ship, see ice floes and polar bears and experience some rough weather, but I never expected to find the world's "Biggest Loser" or hear a live drum solo in the fitness room.

It's been a fascinating first two days at sea. The scientific crew has been busy setting up and tweaking gear, from computers to the air guns that'll be used for the upcoming seismic work.

They've also been put through their paces trying on bulky survival suits and life jackets always a good laugh and photo op when heading to their muster stations at the sound of the abandon-ship alarm.

Equally busy, the ship's crew has been running drills and helping the new members familiarize  themselves with the ship and its gear. There are protocols to learn for conducting helicopter operations and figuring out how to put the fire-engine red, sausage-shaped lifeboats into the water.

Of course everyone loves a good social, but you don't usually have people yelling, "Bear!" during a meet-and- greet. In the forward lounge, everyone not on duty nibbled on food and drank refreshments, getting to know each other. All of a sudden, the call of "Bear" had most of us out on the starboard deck watching a mother and her two cubs gently bob past the vessel, not more than 30 meters or so away. The second bear-spotting for the day!

With all the good food on board, a few, including the captain, have taken up the "Greatest Loser" challenge. During the weigh-in in the fitness room, we were serenaded by a live drum solo being performed in the loft above us. Earlier, the piano in the forward lounge was having its ivories tickled, and a jam session broke out after the meet-and-greet. Who knew there'd be so much entertainment on board?

What has been a surprise to everyone, and forced a quick survey by the helicopter, was a 16- km-wide ice floe. Living on an icebreaker, you expect to break some ice. But during the evening meeting of scientists and officers it was concluded that the ice more than one metre thick might have taken us a week to get through if we hadn't backtracked and gone around the floe. As a result of the ice movement this year, our course has had to dodge south, and it's expected that we may run into some very thick ice in key research areas.

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August 12, 2009 – A New Neighbor

Usually separated by an entire continent, two old friends leave their Pacific and Atlantic homes to reunite. At four knots, you can briskly walk bow to stern along the deck, and keep pace with the ice as the ship steams past it. Fine for entertainment and seismic work, but to go head-to-head with thicker, multiyear pack ice requires a lot more momentum than four knots, and that's exactly why we now have a new neighbour, the USCGC Healy.

At first, you might think you're staring at a foggy reflection or an odd hologram of the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent because of the Healy's colours, size, helicopter deck and overall shape. It has the familiar icebreaker outline, red hull and forward sloping white sash. On closer inspection, details like the white  sash's black pinstripe become apparent, as well as the bold white lettering U.S. COAST GUARD proudly displayed along the forward beam and 20 astern.

Not long after the two old neighbours reunite, the buzz of the helicopter rotors is heard overhead, whisking away the Louis' captain and chief scientist. Circling the Healy, the helicopter pilot gets the green light from the control tower to land, and two flight deck crewmen signal it in. On touchdown, the deck light goes yellow, and finally red when the rotors have come to a complete stop.

Canadian and American polar researchers and coast guard ships have had a long relationship in the Arctic. Reuniting on the flight deck after a year, the captains shake hands and retreat to the officers' lounge to exchange stories and gifts [picture 3]. Canada's Chief Scientist, David Mosher, is met by his former supervisor, Larry Mayer, and the two quickly retreat to the bowels of the ship with research gear in hand. Dave will spend the night aboard the Healy as they conduct a signature test of the Louis' seismic gear.

After a short briefing of all heads, the captain of the Louis requests a visit to the bridge. A call is made to the Louis, which is put on speakerphone. Unaware of the plans afoot, the face of the Healy's captain breaks into a sheepish grin as the lyrics of Reunited are heard from the speakerphone: a neighbourly touch, considering the only two residents on this icy block will spend most of the next five weeks  separated by about two kilometres of ice and water.

Before the adventure can commence, the Louis performs a sort of nuptial dance around the Healy a figure eight recording the seismic system's sound wave as it approaches and moves away from the Healy. From this, the geologists can determine exactly how fast the sound wave declines as it radiates from its source.

For the next couple of hours, the crew on both ships take photos of each other as the vessels pass within 100 metres of one another a very neighbourly thing to do before the start of a long adventure.

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August 14, 2009 – Ice Observer

An epiphany: Icebreaker, ice observer - It just makes sense. You won't find anyone more dedicated to understanding our icy situation than the CCGS Louis S. St- Laurent's Ice Observer Officer, Barbara Moyneaux.

Whether at her desk, on the bridge, at the ship's railing with her camera, or even performing quick on-ice inspections, Barb is completely fixated on her subject.

Unlike navigating paved and predictable highways, our ship's route is always in flux with the ice – a direct result of the effects of wind, currents, sea and air temperatures, ice thickness and elevation. So when Barb gives her evening report, or helps the Captain and Chief Scientist plot the next course, she has to consider many variables.

The ship is not always the same age or in the same state of decay during the summer. That is why Barb takes photos like they're going out of style and has thousands of images in her archive. Not everyone can translate imagery into words, but Barb is so passionate about her work and loves sharing her knowledge that it is not hard to see the bigger picture of the variables in play around us.

Barb has learned to read the subtle differences in her satellite radar images that often look more like black-and-white photos of clouds taken from space. Accurately reading the radar images is key to the success of this year's research. Interpreting the images means that Barb draws on weather, physical oceanography and previous  years' experience in interpreting old ice from new, breaking ice versus packed ice and what may lie ahead.

Foreshadowing is an old dramatic device that keeps audiences guessing. To the scientists' dismay, early satellite images did much the same as they had to plan this year's research months in advance. As it stands, recent satellite images would place us in some of the thickest ice going.

Barb's colourful ice thickness charts add to the drama: As the saying goes, “green go, yellow caution, red stop and purple – don't go there buoy!” And you guessed it, there's purple right over the starting point of the first transect line.

A rogue ice floe, about 15 km wide and 10 km long with multi-year ice, proved the point about the thicker stuff. Some chunks had well over a metre of ice below the waterline making headway very slow, despite the ship's best efforts reversing and running at the ice over and over again. If Barb hadn't gone up in the helicopter to help guide us out, it might have taken a week to break through.

Prior to this trip, I didn't know about the crucial role of scientists like Barb Moyneaux. But in order for the geologists to reach their planned 3,000 km mark, it makes complete sense having an ice observer on board an icebreaker.

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August 15, 2009 – Marine Mammal Observers

For those of you who can recall Canadian television's Friendly Giant -- “Look up, look waaaaaaaaaay up” -- it's the MMO. Three of the nicest guys you'd ever want to meet have the right stuff to work out of the MMO (Marine Mammal Observer) office perched high above the waterline, where the wind chill would cut most southerners to the quick in no time. Hardiness is not the only quality of this trio from Paulatuk, Northwest Territories: Their eyes are trained to spot marine animals in this difficult environment, staying sharp 24/7.

Tenants on the highest deck of the ship above the bridge, the sky above used to be the MMO office's ceiling. This year, their modest but highly functional “blind” has solid plywood walls and plywood walls and ceiling, a window, chair, hook to hang a clipboard and an extension cord for the GPS. “It's great; now we don't get our notes wet,” says Dale Ruben, who mans the post, on eight-hour shifts, with his relative John Ruben and Jonah Nakimayak.

Seals, whales, walruses and polar bears comprise the list of marine mammals living in this region, but in reality ringed seals and polar bears are our most frequent sightings. Unlike the polar bears of Churchill, Manitoba, Jonah says the bears here don't leave the area “as long as there is ice.” I ask if they take naps like huskies, with head curled to tail. But he says they typically lie down, often at the water's edge. More  easily spotted on overcast days, Jonah says “I'm looking for yellow” when watching for bears.

From what appears to be a barren landscape of ice and water, life-and- death drama does take place. Following four sea gull-like birds in the camera lens, they lead me to a blood-reddened snow patch with scraps of what likely had been a ring seal. After a quick survey for the culprit, the birds nervously steal scraps on a snatch-and-go basis.

When a marine mammal is spotted, the seismic's air pistons are immediately shut down until the animal is outside a one-km radius of the ship. The MMO team records the incident, taking details like GPS and weather data, which they also record on an hourly basis.

Ask Jonah what he likes best about his job, and he smiles, “I like being out here,” walking under his sky ceiling, eyes trained toward the horizon.

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August 19, 2009 – Seismic Adventures

Great experiences often are a measure of your achievements in the face of adversity. Or, less romantically said, taming an overachieving “mutt” of a system.

Without question, the top dog, equipment wise, on this Arctic cruise is the seismic system -- a robust tow sled and 300-metrelong streamer, or “EEL,” and its array of computers. Overseeing this hardware and the air compressor that breathes life into the system is Borden Chapman, the chief technician.  Considering the complexity of the entire system and the potential for things to go wrong, it’s a wonder Borden hasn’t jumped ship by now. However, two key factors have played a major role in reducing his stress levels when things haven’t gone according to plan -- four years of field testing and a great handpicked team.

“The only way to perfect something like this is to get it out into the field,” says Borden. “We’ve had every condition you can imagine.” Bringing on a second compressor last year meant work didn’t have to stop when one went down. But there’s been a serious learning curve. “We’ve basically rebuilt the darn things twice, but we’re getting to know their idiosyncrasies.”

To date, perseverance and ingenuity have been rewarded with excellent data and a record of 80 continuous hours of towing. Mechanical duties have been reduced to “housekeeping” and “babysitting”. What wasn’t expected was a pesky EEL on ice.

“Recovery is generally not the time that yo u expect to have problems with the EEL. It’s usually during the deployment,” says Borden. Unfortunately, the EEL bit them both ways when the ice found its way behind the stern. Hauling up the lumpy sled wasn’t an issue, but the EEL’s buoyancy kept getting it jammed between ice blocks or left high and dry all around the stern.”

“Fortunately, we have an extremely good crew here, and those guys were actually able to “con” (direct)  the ship from the stern, which allowed them to manoeuvre the vessel around with the props, pushing the ice away so that we were able to free the streamer and recover all of it.”

This great team has been extremely important in making the project’s top dog play nice. But how do you entice potential team members out of retirement for an expedition like this? Is it the allure of the  Arctic? “For most of us who’ve been to sea most of our lives, we’re doing something that some day is going to make a big difference for Canada,” says Borden. “To end our careers that way is pretty cool.” Secretly he admits, “I’d really like to run across the Pole, if we had the opportunity … but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

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August 20, 2009 – The Secrets of the Earth

The Second Scientist has to take the good with the bad, but it's been good so far. Quietly, hour after hour tapping away on his computer in his berth or staring at reams of data in the not-so-quiet confines of the seismic lab, Second Scientist John Shimeld is having a very rewarding trip. “It's very satisfying when the gear is working well and we're getting good quality data. I think everybody is absolutely thrilled,” he says. “It's quite exciting to be exploring an area that nobody has ever acquired data in before. We're learning small secrets of the Earth, actually seeing them unfolding in front of everybody.”

John is not a flashy, outspoken kind of guy. But listen to the words he chooses, and you know under that mild, calm manner is someone passionate about being part of this expedition, even though it's his third trip on the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent. “For me, it's an incredible opportunity to see an operation like this   in all its aspects and to be acquiring the data, processing and interpreting it, and trying to understand what it means in terms of the geological history of the Arctic Ocean.”

While I'm still trying to figure out if I'm looking at landscape or seascape, John's experience is different. “I think it's a bit perhaps like going to the moon. It's not quite the scale of trying to go to the moon, but it's still quite a voyage or expedition to get here. I often just feel completely blessed to stand up on the crow's nest on Monkey Island [the deck above the bridge] and just look out across at the ice and look for   any sign of life. For example, when you see a seal or a polar bear, it causes something like a kind of flutter in your heart -- there's life; it's incredible; it's unbelievable.”

John is still recovering from a long night with the seismic technicians trying to figure out what made their data go south the previous evening. But when asked how the trip has gone so far, he says, “very well. This is by far the smoothest year we've had on the Louis.” He credits the success to the project's entire team. “There is so much experience in the whole team of people that has put this together -- everything from the management of the project to the logistics and getting all the gear.”

He calculates a full year has been dedicated to this project, including five years of groundwork. Even though troubles crop up from time to time, as expected, there are many rewards. “The Earth has so many covered secrets, especially in the middle of the Arctic's Canada Basin. To find a volcano that's just sitting there, buried, dormant for so long, blanketed by ice and snow and water --three to four kilometres of water -- it's very satisfying to be able to peer down into the secrets of the Earth.”

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August 22, 2009 – Remembering Captain Bartlett

Cast into the water, making its own course and way, we can only imagine the voyage of a wreath to the land beneath our feet, 3.8 kilometres below. These days we get a pretty intimate peek into the lives of our modern day heroes, role models and icons with iPods, mobile phones, live webcasts, YouTube clips and MP3s. But what of those whose adventures took them to far-off exotic lands or seas of ice, during eras where modern technology didn't use silicon, but ink, pen and paper. On this day, August 22, a wreath, and a simple, but eloquent, speech by the captain of the Louis S. St.-Laurent brings a legendary mariner's past into the light of our trip.

In their sharp 'Number One' dress uniforms, the crew and passengers of the Louis gathered on the deck to commemorate the life of Brigus, Newfoundland's iconic Arctic explorer, Captain Robert A. “Bob” Bartlett. This mariner spent more than 50 years in the Arctic and logged more expeditions than any skipper before or after his time. A fisherman by trade, the influence of his work turned him toward science, mapping and surveying. Just last month, Canada also honored his memory with the release of a special postage stamp. One hundred years after his part in the “Dash to the Pole” with Robert Perry, Brigus residents and Newfoundlanders and Labradorians at large are remembering their local hero.

As Captain Rothwell, the commanding officer of the Louis, explains to the gathering: “No matter what era you live in, there are always issues that you have to overcome, problems you have to solve.” For all of our technological advances, Captain Rothwell's celebration of similarities reminds us that the Arctic's two most basic elements, ice and cold, still limit and frustrate best efforts. By “honouring their sense of adventure and daring,” says Captain Rothwell, we celebrate our own past and present adventures in these very waters that Captain Bartlett once sailed. Therefore, it’s fitting that this year the Louis is also celebrating its 15th anniversary of going to the North Pole with the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea.

At the end of the ceremony, Brigus native Bosun Derrick Walsh was given the honour of casting a wreath dedicated to Captain Bartlett and his crew into the sea below us. Hours after its passage through the veneer-thin realm of light, where colours are stripped away one by one until only blue remains, we can only imagine its impact onto the lonely bottom of the Canada Basin. Did the wreath kick up a puff of   sediment, radiating like a smoke-ring halo curling off a smoker's lips?

It's one thing to be in an auditorium celebrating the anniversary of an icon, but all of us on the Louis' foggy flight deck are sharing an experience through our senses, as did Captain Bartlett in these waters. As for our wreath cast into the abyss, it brings his personal experiences to life through our imaginations by the wreath's voyage to an unknown landscape.

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August 29, 2009 – King Neptune’s Territory

Be thee male or female that passe s into my world above the Arctic Circle -- Be aware! Be afraid!”…Your buddy in adventure, King Neptune. I wonder how many of Captain Bartlett’s crew felt the cold shiver and slimy touch of King Neptune’s wrath on their Arctic Circle crossings? It’s a time-honoured tradition at sea, like crossing the equator or the dateline that requires a bit of imagination and a whole lot of “prankster.” And I figured something was afoot when evidence started showing up on CCGS Louis S. St- Laurent.

The last time I saw wooden stocks, the ones you trap a prisoner’s neck and wrists into, was in “Mutiny on the Bounty.” So when I saw one tucked away on the Louis with a fresh coat of white paint, that oldSesame Street phrase “one of these things is not like the others” immediately popped into my head. Add to this a tin-foiled hard hat and a pair of freshly painted stylized wings drying in a ship’s lab, together with whisperings amongst the crew. Something was definitely afoot. It didn’t take long for King Neptune’s Sheriff and Deputies to arrest the culprits who had flown into his realm. Traditionally, this rite of passage is reserved for those who cross the Arctic Circle by vessel, not by jet. But these rascals had to pay some sort of price for their trespassing, even if it wasn’t the full-meal deal!

Within their jail cell, Neptune’s messenger announced the charges, and one by one the prisoners were led to their fate blindfolded or whatever you call wearing an old pair of those goofy safety glasses covered with duct tape (Red Green would be so proud).

Assisted to the wooden stock, each victim took off boots or shoes and stepped into the sea’s most vile, slimy concoction of eels, hagfish and rotting seaweed (OK, just old kitchen peelings, but they smelled a bit). Next, a raw egg shampoo and, if the Sheriff’s helpers really didn’t like your look, one or two down the back of your shirt. Last but not least, a cold shower delivered by Neptune’s worst plumbing job.

The moral being: Beware, mateys, of where you make your crossings and whom you’re crossing (and make sure you do it on a warm day).

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August 30, 2009 – Cutting Through the Ice

Two incredible forces collide; just remember to keep the backup light blinking. What a way to mark the expedition's halfway point, taking the lead and doing what CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent was designed for: breaking ice! With the seismic gear stowed, USCGC Healy is now being escorted as it carries on bathymetric work.

Unfortunately, Louis' work is not straightforward, and about as soon as she takes the lead, she's backing up. The water behind Louis gently boils as she comes to a stop, while thousands of fractured ice bits glide towards each other, like a sea of dancers approaching their partners, along her freshly broken path.

Then, from the Louis' bowels, the diesel electric engines engage the shafts with almost 29,000 horse power. Below the fantail deck, the trio of propellers take a bite out of the water with their 12 blades,  and the charge begins!

Think of the most violent rapids you've encountered, with their boiling, frothing and spitting kinetic energy in all directions. As the Louis' props grab, the sea behind the stern erupts so violently that the water level appears to drop. The floodgates have opened.

Retracing her path, the Louis bears down on the impression in the ice she left on her last attack by the “knife edge” of her bow. Driving harder and harder, she reaches best speed just as she rams the notch. There's a moment of anticipation -- Will the ice respond immediately? Or will there be a delay before the inevitable deep-throated p op of ice being snapped? As the tear screams out, shards of ice and spray explode almost 20 feet into the air.

Fractured ice slabs the size of whales stand up on end, almost reaching the Louis' deck as they “spy hop,” then slip back on their tails and gracefully submerge under the ship. Other slabs do slow death rolls, exposing their turquoise bellies along the ship's flanks.

Within the Louis, life has taken on a whole new sound and feel. Four of her five diesel engines kick and scream below us, while ice grinds, slaps and bangs in titanic proportions. Crew and unlashed objects are buffeted around like on a really rough train ride. It's only when the two giants have locked each other in their steely, cold embrace that all falls silent and still. Deadlocked, one must back down.

From the bridge, throttles are drawn back, the rudder is set amidships, and a red emergency light flashes astern to signal Louis' escort of her intentions. The Louis' diesel horses are silent, as though needing time to readjust their harnesses, then snort back to life.

As she slips back over her tracks once more, ice broken moments earlier is re-ingested into the props like a feeding frenzy, without any apparent indigestion, and the cycle of charge and retreat continues.

At 83 degrees North, 125 degrees West, this battle of giants will run 24-7 for the next few days.

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September 2, 2009 – Arctic Wildlife

Heading “southish” under a brilliant blue sky, the ice looks like a bunch of kids have scattered an infinite number of irregularly shaped toys all over the ice for as far as the eye can see. Amongst the cluttered playground, small leads reflect so much sunlight they should come with sunglasses, and old melt pools are now opaque with a heavy white frosting of ice crystals. With the air temperature somewhere around - 5°C, frost crystals up to two cm thick cover just about every starboard surface on the ship that hasn't been kissed by the sun. And if you gaze down at the ice in any direction, it twinkles, like thousands of tiny starbursts.

With all this raw, crispy beauty, you'd think signs of wildlife would be rare, but Arctic cod have been regulars throughout the trip. Who knows how many Arctic cod live per square kilometre in this region? You certainly couldn't scoop huge numbers of them from the sea with a basket, as John Cabot claimed to have done off Canada's east coast. But they've been spotted right up to the most northerly way-point. It's a little hard judging the size of objects at or below the waterline when you're hanging over the ship's railing, but the average Arctic cod we're seeing are finger-to-hand length, palm to fingertips.

Some, unfortunately, get tossed up onto the ice by the ship's wash or get sucked along for a topsy-turvy ride when a big piece of ice flips over. In the latter case, the lucky ones swim around in their new pools, and those with the deluxe version get a water slide, a slippery slope to avoid becoming a “fishsicle.”

Unless Arctic cod have found some way to live off an icy diet, their prey has been just too cryptic or small to spot. But, icky, snotty clumps of algae have been seen dancing in the eddies and gyres around the ship.

Moving from fin to flipper, ringed seals are the common seal in this part of the Arctic. But the cod don't have much to fear at our present latitude. Like our polar bear sightings, these marine mammals have been more frequent around the big open leads of water, versus the “splats” we've encountered of late.

As for birds, they'll often show up at the oddest times, even if there aren't polar bear table scraps or big leads to take advantage of. Sometimes they just appear to be lost. Last year, the Louis' crew was treated to nine snowy owls that plunked themselves down on the deck for a multi-day visit. The crew suspected that the owls had been blown out to sea and were taking refuge on the ship. The most common sightings for us have been Black-legged Kittiwakes and Red-necked Phalaropes, the first crew being “gullish” and the second “sandpiperish.”

So while the western Arctic is by no means flush with flora and fauna like a tropical rainforest, life persists in a very simple, eloquent manner. And you wonder: What are we missing under the waterline?

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September 5, 2009 – Healy Visit

Your place or mine?

Louis and Healy's crews meet, greet and share hands-on experiences. It's not a simple task rafting two large vessels together in an open sea of ice, but regular “commuter” flights by the helicopter have been the answer.

After a quick flight to the Healy, one quickly sees the differences between the U.S. Healy's naval influences versus the Louis' federal mariner's roots, the first being the age and number of crew. The very enthusiastic young crew of men and women are naval personnel, wearing a more traditional casual military-style outfit in navy blue (although I hear the red watch-caps they're wearing are a tradition in the Arctic).

On the flight deck, two flight ops personnel, wearing gear you'd expect to see on Air Force carriers,    guide the helicopter in and out with hand signals, while above, in the control tower, the flight deck status is relayed by a red, yellow or green flood light. The ship itself, which is highly functional in design, is stripped down to the bare necessities, exposing miles and miles of cables, pipes and other odds and ends overhead.

Long handles have to be manhandled to open the numerous weathertight doorways, making passage in the Healy far more cumbersome but giving you time to admire the consistency of the brown paint throughout the ship.

On the science side, the Healy's geologists have been carrying out multi-beam bathymetry that maps the ocean floor, hydrographic depth profiling and seismographic “chirping” while breaking ice for the Louis. The regular “thump” of an air piston rattling through the ship is missing but has been replaced by a chirp. (More detail on the Healy's science will be given in an upcoming log.)

You can share a meal with the birds in the mess hall: a bird-like “chirp” is used with the Chirp  seismic system, which can be heard while you're eating. Chirping, versus thumping, doesn't penetrate the ocean's sediments nearly as far, a matter of metres versus kilometers. But marry the bathymetry and Chirp data together with a Canadian-developed software program called Fledermaus and you get a spectacular 3-D visual of the ocean's surface and sediments combined.

As it's not all about the ocean's bottom, the Healy has a crew of ice observers and researchers aboard, and throughout the mission, the Louis' ice officer, Erin Clark, has been on loan. The “ice pick” group is made up of those getting their feet wet for the first time, studying ice movement and meteorology for ice forecasting, and those interested in polar ice floe science.

A very talented crew is aboard the Healy, whose ice-breaking services have been greatly appreciated. They've not only enabled the Louis to steam at a leisurely four-knot pace for the seismic work, but also, on a personal note, allowed for much more restful “sleeps.”

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September 7, 2009 – Healy Science

A USCGC Healy researcher, schoolteacher and graduate student continue to be surprised and excited by the nature of the Arctic seabed. The Researcher -- Andy Armstrong's background in hydrography and seafloor mapping has led him to five Arctic cruises. On a short visit to the main science lab, the tall, lanky researcher explains the relationship between the wall of computer monitors and the bathymetry and sub-bottom profiling being carried out on USCGC Healy.

To map the seafloor in 3-D, multiple sound-wave beams are sent from the ship's hull to the ocean  bottom. The swath of sound then bounces off the bottom and returns to the ship, creating a data  stream that, after being cleaned up, is converted into beautiful 3-D ribbons with colourful bumps wherever structures reach up off the bottom. To achieve these results, every detail of the process is monitored   online and in near-real time. Everything -- including the sonar beams, sub-bottom profiler (Chirp), depth, the Healy's course, the Louis' course, "watchkeeper's" logs and the multitude of surveillance cameras -- is online, each with its own monitor.

In addition to the wall of monitors, there are the chief scientist station and something called an online map server. The server takes data from any of the Healy's scientific sources and displays it in a  web browser approach that allows anyone on the ship with access to the network to create their own customized display of the project.

The Teacher -- As part of the United States' National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) Teachers at Sea program, Grade 7 teacher Christine Hedge, from Carmel Middle School,  Indiana, is having an experience of a lifetime, one that her principal warned could make her one of the  most popular civic speakers in central Indiana next year. One of two teachers aboard the Healy,  Christine set up weekly "Icebreaker" activities for her students before she left so that  they could connect with the ongoing research by studying topics like hydrography, bathymetry and how animals use echolocation. Christine also connects with her students by writing three to four blogs a week and answering students' e-mails.

When asked if there's anything about the science she hadn't expected on this expedition, her response is the sound waves that provide the geophysicists with "super vision." She had no idea that sound and its properties could be such a valuable research tool -- "super eyesight." In addition to communicating science in action to her students, her program also emphasizes possible marine careers. Even Christine finds that her own understanding of who works at sea on today's modern vessels has been broadened.  And it certainly has for her students. At first able to name only five common careers, they now have a handle on the various scientific disciplines and technical trades being performed by the Healy's scientists and crew.

The Student -- Kelly Brumley is a marine geology Ph.D. student from Stanford University who is, as she says, "going where no man has gone before." She's delving into an area of the Arctic Ocean, the Amerasian Basin, whose formation has been described in many ways, including by comparison to a windshield wiper. The conventional model for the opening of the Amerasian Basin is that a geological  vault, pivoting on the Mackenzie Delta area, allowed Alaska and Russia to pull away from Canada in a windshield wiper motion. When offered the chance to spend a summer on an icebreaker as a Master's student in 2006, Kelly thought this was her Star Trek quest. But from the bathymetric data and rock samples she and others have pulled from this region over the past few years, there appears to be a crack in the “windshield.” So for Kelly and fellow researchers, the new evidence has indeed become their collective Star Trek scientific adventure, where no one has boldly gone before.

As soon as ice conditions relieve the Healy of its ice-breaking duties, the crew, scientists and teachers will head off on their own. Then all eyes will be fixed on a burlap-lined dredge when it appears above   the waterline -- filled, hopefully, with more "groundbreaking" bedrock samples.

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September 9, 2009 – Bottle Drive

Message in a beer bottle meets up with paddle to the sea. The journey from a brewery to the Arctic Ocean in a cardboard beer case on CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent might not have the makings of a classic tale like that of the children's character "Paddle" in Paddle to the Sea. But what comes next in the lives of these beer bottles is anyone's guess.

Initiated in 2000 as part of the St. Roch anniversary -- the RCMP's voyage through the Northwest Passage -- a couple of hundred or so beer bottles have been tossed into the sea every year since.

Not some weird form of littering, the drift bottle program, associated with the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sydney, B.C., is a simple way to study large general wind and current patterns by knowing where the bottles start and end up.

This year, the program's focus is on the currents in the Baffin Bay area, with a Nova Scotia connection. Some of the bott les will have hand-written notes from a local school there, written by second, third and fourth graders. To ensure that the children's messages and the standard drift bottle contact information stay dry, each bottle is corked and the head and neck have been dipped in wax to make the bottles watertight. In charge of the bottle brigade at sea is oceanographer Jane Eert, who's been with the drift  bottle program from the beginning. During the Louis' first leg to Kugluktuk, Nunavut, one set of bottles was launched on the Labrador coast and another in Davis Strait. During the current, second, leg, Jane is very excited to be at the northeastern end of Canada Basin -- "We've never been up here before," she says -- and is interested to know if the bottles will show up in Iceland. For the crowd gathered on the Louis' helicopter flight deck, the sheer joy of whipping something into the sea is reward enough.

After bottles have been handed out to the crew, scientists and a guest from the Healy, a few excited individuals launch their bottles prematurely. But on the count of three, the remaining gaggle -- or flock? -- of bottles flies through the air, splashing into the sea in staccato, rapid-fire pops.

On the Louis' last leg, Jane will release three more sets of bottles, one of which will be at "the meeting spot." At Coronation Gulf, where the Atlantic and Pacific waters meet, the question is, which side will  any of them end up on?

The only "hangover" to this program is that only two to three percent of the bottles released find their way to someone. And, because these bottles go with the floe -- ice floes, that is -- they don't get too far too fast and, year after year, freeze into the ice. Still, Paddle's voyage to the sea -- or bobbing beer bottle data points from sea to sea -- are what dreams and storybooks are made of and, hopefully, inspire us to test life's waters.

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September 12, 2009 – Matt the Student

Giving up a summer, getting snowed on and freezing to death in August isn't likely how most of us would want to spend our short Maritime summer. But "exploration is definitely an intriguing path," says Dalhousie geology co-op student Matthew Vaughan.

"The idea of exploring the world while doing the work I love is great," says Matt. "That's one thing about geology I really like -- the opportunity to travel and see the world." And that's exactly what he's getting   to do for six weeks aboard CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent.

But exploration has its breaking-in period. "The first day we were breaking ice, I probably stood out on the deck for two hours freezing to death, staring at the ice as we smashed through it."

The first few evenings, however, were a lot less intriguing. "Definitely a few restless nights tossing and  turning and getting limited shut-eye. It can be pretty noisy at times; it was definitely louder than I expected and took some getting used to," says Matt. "The first couple of weeks were pretty restless, but eventually it faded into the background like the rest of the white noise on here."

The ice had some surprises for him. "I didn't expect the ice to have that deep blue colour that it has, especially the multi-year ice that's thicker and older," says Matt. "I was definitely impressed. On the surface the ice is white. And then, as soon as it's cracked open, on the inside you can see that deep-blue turquoise or aqua colour. It really is quite impressive and picturesque."

For the young research assistant, life certainly hasn't been dull on the job. Matt's work has focused on the seismic program, in particular, acquiring, processing and creating plots for initial interpretation of sonobuoy data.

Sonobuoys are a group of disposable electronic cylinders that are regularly deployed off the Louis' stern one at a time about every eight hours during seismic tows. Matt has also been exposed to maintenance  details on the seismic gear, from the air guns to the streamer and the tow sled; keeping watch in the seismic lab; and providing relief for the air compressor technicians. A huge positive for Matt is that he’s experiencing a far richer educational experience here at sea than what a conventional classroom could offer. "The Arctic is a place very few people ever get to go," says Matt. "The chance to work with  professional geologists in a remote setting with brand-new data is first-class."

The impact of this summer's work hasn't escaped Matt, either: "I think this is definitely a significant event for Canada as a country and especially for the people who get to take part in it -- definitely an experience I won't forget."

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September 13, 2009 – Super Eyesight

Have geologists stolen Superman's X-ray vision or his hearing?

What if instead of seeing yourself in a mirror, you turned your head, snapped your fingers and saw yourself with your ears? If you could snap your fingers just right, you got Superman's X-ray vision, and could see through walls?  Geologists on CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent are using sound, time, geometry and plenty of computer power to see kilometres into Canada Basin's sediments.

OK, so the wall of monitors in the Louis' seismic lab aren't as numerous as on the Healy, and there aren't the fancy 2-D and 3-D graphics. But the seismic team is definitely not as “shallow” as the Healy's. Their  “depth” comes from using low frequency sound waves to penetrate sub-ocean terrains kilometres thick -- using time instead of distance, a 1,000-foot “eel” with 16 ears, and a guy who really likes crunching numbers.

You've been introduced (in an earlier log), to “the dragon” (which has eaten several pipes and a universal joint to date. Bad dragon!): the air compressor that drives the air pistons, which creates the geologist's finger snap, or sound wave. To make sure the air piston array is in sync, maximizing energy and signal outputs, the seismic lab's shot-controller screen is used to perfectly time the release of the energy in the air compressor/piston array. To date on this trip, a record 85,300-plus discharges have  been pumped out of the dragon, about 5,000 per day.

Recording the amount of time it takes for the air piston's sound waves to travel to the bottom of the ocean and reflect back is the responsibility of 16 ears (hydrophones) in the eel. A watch-keeper keeps an eye on a monitor of wiggly black lines, traces from each piston discharge, that represent each hydrophone's echo series and power spectrum. Next to that is a monitor that's far more fun to watch-- where we see an image from the eel's ears.

It's a lot more fun in time lapse, but about every 20 seconds, a new echo jumps on the second screen,  building left to right, creating an image, or profile, of the ocean floor. You can actually separate water from ocean bottom and begin to see sediment layers and sea “basement” in the profile. But this is only a rough image, helping watch-keepers trouble-shoot problems within the eel. For the “big” picture, some serious data crunching must be carried out, removing background noises reflecting off the water's   surface, the hull, ice and the like.

More than 3,000 km of ocean bottom have been profiled to date, and counting, surpassing last year's total. And when you consider the resulting data set -- travelling at about four knots (a quick walk), firing pistons every 17 seconds, recording 16 traces per firing -- the numbers are staggering. Second scientist, John Shimeld, is “the picturenator”, who takes all that sound data and turns it into a running 2-D image of the ocean floor.

For us non-specialists, John's signal-to-noise massaging of the data could be construed as voodoo. But if you sit down and listen carefully, you realize that a bit of elegant geometric hydrophone/acoustic reflective overlapping at the front end and repetitive computer “stacking” of strong signals to logically discard less frequent, weak background signals and “ghosts” is giving geologists, and Canadians, a “sound” picture, of Canada's potential underwater extension into the Canada Basin.

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September 14, 2009 – Nelson

From Marine Mammal Observer to the belly of the beast “Monkey Island,” CCGS Louis S. St- Laurent’s exposed uppermost deck, is typically quiet, breezy and cold, but a great place from which to spot marine mammals. For a soft- spoken hunter like Nelson Ruben of Paulatuk, Northwest Territories, it seems the perfect place for a Marine Mammal Observer (MMO), versus the belly of the beast or the seismic air compressor, which he calls “a cursed animal.”

Three years ago, Nelson came aboard the Louis as a MMO, spending eight hours a day on watch for polar bears, seals and whales. “It was kind of quiet up there,” says Nelson. “The days were long.” His task as MMO was to notify the crew and scientists when an animal came within a one-kilometre radius of the ship.

All seismic work would cease until the animal moved out of the DMZ (demammaled zone). OK, I made that up, DMZ. But when you have time on your hands, that’s the sort of thing that happens, which is exactly the type of situation Nelson would find himself in when, in the past, the air compressor would more regularly break down, and seismic work stopped.

Back home in Paulatuk, Nelson runs his own small business welding and doing odd jobs. When a compressor would break down, he was just the guy to call. “I was a small guy who fit in between everything.” Crawling into the belly of the beast to make repairs resulted in Nelson becoming head mechanic Peter Vass’ right-hand man this year. It’s a job that Nelson really enjoys. “You never stop moving around here.”

Two quiet easygoing guys in a big blue box full of tools explains the humour and productivity of Nelson and Peter’s relationship as they spread their handiwork here and there. “It’s rewarding to see something done right,” says Nelson. ”And we never do the same thing twice -- we’re constantly doing different things.”

When asked exactly what sort of work Nelson does, Peter leans over and says in a teasing tone, “he talks   me out of my crazy ideas,” and they both laugh. But Peter really appreciates the ideas Nelson comes up with when they’re trying to solve a problem. And for Nelson, every day is a new day, particularly when dealing with the compressor.

It’s a real source of pride for everyone who has worked the past three years on taming the cursed animal. As Nelson explains, the compressors are “a lot less trouble; we’re getting the bugs out slowly.”  And part of the solution has been Peter and Nelson’s brackets, “brackets, and lots of brackets” says Nelson, which have reduced vibrations that can break hosing and loosen fittings. Along with his fix-it duties, Nelson helps deploy and retrieve the seismic streamer.

When I asked him what it was like to deal with the streamer all tangled up in the ice, he grins and giggles, “I just about said a funny word there.” That’s Nelson! Quiet, skilled, dedicated; with a sense of humour lying in wait just under the surface.

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September 14, 2009 - Healy Goodbye

Fair winds and safe sailing Under a "Homer Simpson sky" as chief scientist David Mosher described it -- because it seemed the sky couldn't quite figure out whether it wanted to shine or snow -- the mixed weather certainly matched our mixed feelings seeing USCGC Healy shift its course starboard  and start its way to the Chukchi Borderlands -- alone.

Since August 10, our friend Healy has been somewhere on the horizon, mostly in front taking the lion's share of icebreaking responsibilities, week after week. Experience one night breaking ice and you'll understand the huge contribution to sanity and sleep this function plays, let alone to the Louis' research effort this year. But now, friends will part and face the ice edge alone.

Sometimes reaching up to five metres, the swells clearly indicate we've met the edge of the ice, and it's only a matter of time before we're in open water. With the wind blowing so hard, big long irregular ice slabs look like whales sounding, blowing their last breath skyward at one end, and at the other, delivering one last explosive tail stroke. Big smooth slabs teeter, dunking one end, then the other underwater, causing two crests of water to collide in the middle as a standing wave. On those floes, large enough to support a melt-water pool, the contents slosh back and forth like a kid in a bathtub.

At times, the movement of the two ships looked like a nuptial dance, but the call to science is strong and it's time partners separated. The Louis' seismic work will continue in a westerly fashion, while the Healy heads off to dredge cliff faces for bedrock. The two ships may cross paths once more as the Healy heads south and the Louis north. But for now, the dance is over. At 76º 51' North, 139º 07' West, the captains  of the Louis and Healy reluctantly chat for the last time -- a conversation that will be a long goodbye for one of them.

Louis: "Well, I guess it's time for us to fend for ourselves, let you guys carry on."

Healy: "If we think we're there, I guess it's that time."

Louis: "We'll be in radio range for a while."

Healy: "We just want to wish you and your crew all the best; really a tremendous mission this summer. I know it's the high point for us; we really enjoyed working with you folks."

Louis: "That goes for us as well. We've all been looking forward to this trip through the year. I know you'll be moving on, but hopefully, we'll be able to carry this on for another year."

Healy: "I know they'll find a good man to take the ship."

Louis: "I have no doubt. Take care and all the best to you and your crew and we'll keep in touch."

Healy: "Excellent sir. If we do spot any trouble, some ice, we'll be sure to give you a call on the radio."

Louis: "OK then, have a very good trip. Take care, and fair winds."

Healy: "Fair winds, and safe sailing to you, sir."

Hanging up the phone, Captain Rothwell quietly says a last, goodbye and nods his head in the direction of the Healy -- a quiet moment of reflection for two kindred spirits -- friends.

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September 15, 2009 – Hydrography

Considering it’s almost spitting distance from the tow sled, it’s odd not to hear the regular thump of the air pistons resonating through the seismic lab. Instead, the unsteady percussive beat of the port propeller, slapping air against the hull, adds a jazzy beat to the lab as we steam to our next way point. Being underway, however, doesn’t stop Jon Bigga, chief hydrographer, and his crew, Fred Oliff and Gianni DiFranco, from doin g their work. A job made far easier with today’s technology, and it forms a significant part of this year’s expedition.

Imagine trying to survey Canada Basin, with depths exceeding 3.5 kilometres, with weighted ropes or lead lines and sextants, as hydrographers did over a century ago charting the world’s waterways, fresh and marine. As Jon says, it was hard physical work that produced sparse data versus the gigabytes on a modern-day survey. And he adds, today’s shipboard hydrographic technology has increased coverage a thousandfold; sounders have become so portable in the past 20 years; and, GPS has revolutionized the whole system.

The mandate of Jon’s department, the Canadian Hydrographic Service, is to create nautical charts for mariners. On this expedition, they’re collecting data for UNCLOS, specifically looking for the 2,500 m isobath and identifying where the continental shelf starts rising off Canada Basin. If “isobath” doesn’t ring a bell, it’s the underwater equivalent to the elevation contours found on a topographic map.  Wherever it occurs in Canada Basin, it could become a key point in defining the outer limit of Canada’s continental shelf.

By day, Jon regularly takes off in the Coast Guard helicopter with a portable 12 kHz transducer -- an echo-sounder system that’s dunked in the ocean on a long tether. This helps “infill” the area along the Louis’ route not covered by the ship’s onboard system. During the most northerly portion of this trip, the “heli” excursions helped to reduce the amount of data collection required during the upcoming winter ice-camp work.

For the last couple of years, Jon has coordinated 12 week-long ice camps along the western side of the eastern Arctic islands each February. Helicopters are used extensively for this work. “Cache drops” are required in order to push deep into the frozen offshore realm. Thing is, the ice does move, shifting caches, and you start pushing your luck stretching the capabilities of body and machine in these parts at that time of the year. So, what Jon can do now reduces the task for next year’s ice-camp program.

Back aboard the Louis, the ship’s 12 kHz transducer, sounder and GPS system need to be manned 24-7. Hydrographer Fred Oliff takes the 12-hour day shifts and Gianni DiFranco, the evening. Babysitting a couple of computer monitors and logging a note here and there might sound easy, but this is virgin territory and missing a sudden increase or decrease in bottom elevation can mean the loss of valuable data. Fred and Gianni are always on the edge of their seats in anticipation. One never knows where the next seamount lies in wait (drop propeller sound-FX, cue creepy soundtrack).

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September 16, 2009 – Personal Reflections

We are shaped by our past. On the 15th anniversary of the CCGS Louis S. St- Laurent’s conquest of the North Pole, Steward #2 Mark Lewis, still feels the energy of the crew he worked with on that voyage to the Pole. In the documentary that resulted from that trip, a younger Mark with short hair can be seen peeling potatoes. And he still recalls how special it was that day to reach the North Pole.

Considering the first humans reached the world’s deepest waters, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench (10,900 m), in 1960 and stepped on the moon in 1969, it’s surprising that the first vessel to reach the North Pole -- the Russian nuclear icebreaker NS Arktika --didn’t arrive until 1977. Who knows how many times submarines have slipped under the ice and over the Pole? But to arrive by vessel, nuclear or not, is still a big deal, and it’s only been achieved more frequently in the past decade due to lighter ice conditions.

Mark recalls: “At the Pole, I woke up that morning to go to work and the ship had stopped. So I asked a few people, ‘Where are we?’ And someone said, ‘We’re at the North Pole.’ I said, ‘No, we can’t be.’ But he said, ‘Yeah, the gangway is down, and everybody’s on the ice.’ So I went up on deck, with just this shirt on, and went down the gangway and, sure enough, walked there and said, ‘Oh my God.’ What a feeling, walking on the ice at the top of the world. It was unbelievable.”

Like this year’s expedition, the Louis headed to the Pole 15 years ago with a partner, USCGC Polar Sea. But meeting up at the Pole  with Russian nuclear icebreaker NS Yamal and its 100 Russian children passengers was very unexpected, and a special moment for Mark.

Always an emotional recollection for Mark, he recalls that “down in the crew’s mess in the ship, there was a young lady who sang and, three decks up, you could hear her through the ship. I can still hear her. There was just something about her voice that echoed through the ship. It was quite a thing.”

In 1994, the Louis made history by being the first Canadian vessel to reach the Pole, and Mark Lewis -- one of only two people on this  year’s cruise who shared that experience -- was there. “This ship did what most people said it couldn’t do. It went to the North Pole. It was unbelievable, like you’ve gone to the moon. And every August, it feels like a million dollars.”

As much as “we are what we eat,” past experiences shape us. And the chance to reach 84°N this year -- much of it in areas never explored before -- is not only a special privilege, but has also played a part in shaping who all of us are on the Louis this year.

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September 16, 2009 – Grand Manan

Perched four stories above the ice in a metal bucket over the side of CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent at the most northerly point of this year's expedition, Leading Seaman Stanley Fleet and Bo'sun Bob Taylor were about to plant a very special flag.

It all started back in the spring of 1996 when candidate Stan Fleet talked about the amalgamation of Grand Manan's communities and villages into the Village of Grand Manan at an all candidates meeting at a local gym. When the ballots were tallied, Stan was a new councillor and the “amalgam” had a handful of promotional pins that said, Grand Harbour.

So, what to do? Stan will be the first to admit that inspiration and support for this project has come from many directions, including centre court of the gym where the all-candidates meeting had been held. Incorporated into the new flag's design are the school's colours (gold and blue), a ship's wheel, and the outline of Grand Manan. The gold ship's wheel doesn't have its spokes anymore, but the addition of a fishing boat celebrates the island's rich fishing history.

With the very first flag in hand in 2006 and Stan about to head north for a crew change, it was suggested he take the flag and plant it as far north as possible. The best prospect, however, wouldn't present itself until this year at Latitude 84, 19 minutes, and 5 seconds. And come the first Monday this October, dressed in his number ones, Stan expects he'll be on Grand Manan council's agenda, where he'll present a picture of the flag, adorned with over 85 signatures, on the ice in front of the Louis.

Stan would have been happy enough launching the flag over the Louis' side, but that wouldn't do for welder Peter Vass, who has Grand Manan connections. With great care, a metal base, and staff able to tolerate just about any Arctic gale, was hand crafted and painted white to reflect sunlight, so as not to melt its way to the bottom of the ocean.

A long way from the shores of Grand Manan in the Bay of Fundy, in a place no one has ever been before, Stan and Bob climbed out of the bucket and set foot on the floe's coarse, grainy surface. Decks lined with spectators on one side and the ship's helicopter on the other, the island's first official flag and the Coast Guard Jack were unfurled for a brisk photo-op.

A dream over 20 years in the making, no one could have been prouder than Stan to wave goodbye and watch the flags flap as they faded from sight, into the sea of white. It was his day, his community's day, and a little bit of history.

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September 16, 2009 – Seamount

If you’ve been tracking the Louis’ and Healy’s progress, ya might question the driving. All the zigs and zags might have you think’n we’ve been using the compass from the Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

But one detour helped turn a contour line on an old Russian chart into something grand.

Going on a hunch that the single three-kilometre contour line was more of a mountain than a molehill on Canada Basin’s seafloor of flatness, roughly 3.8 km deep, USCGC Healy’s researchers got to run their multibeam bathymetry system and “map in” the bathymetric anomaly charted all those years ago.

Unlike a single beam sonar system that generates 2-D “cross sectional” seafloor profiles, multibeam   imaging can produce colourful 3-D maps of the ocean floor. The deeper the water, the wider the imaging swath. At the present depth, the Healy’s swath can range from seven to ten nautical miles in width. With a swipe up one side and back down the other, the six-hour wait is well worth it.

From atop of his desk, the laptop of the Louis’ chief scientist David Mosher frames the colorful 3-D feature that the Healy’s team has forwarded. David explains the deviation was well worth it, as the geological feature exceeds the 1,000-metre mark required to qualify it as a seamount. This means its highest point -- 2,650 m -- is more than a kilometre off the bottom, and considering its location, may  be a part of the Alpha Ridge, which lies to the north.

The Alpha Ridge is “a bit of an enigma,” says David. How it was created is still up for debate. Early ideas suggest that it was possibly an extinct spreading ridge, formed when the Arctic Ocean initially spread. Physical evidence, however, like the basaltic rock samples taken from this region, “don’t fit models of how geologists believed the Arctic formed,” says David. Future evidence may show, though, that the Alpha Ridge is an extension of the continental crust and forms part of Canada’s continental shelf.

For now, the newly mapped seamount, with its corrected coordinates (the Russian chart didn’t quite have it in the right place), is a feather in the cap for this year’s expedition --and it’s unnamed to boot!

Kind of nice that an old chart, a single unnamed contour line and whacky driving could lead to so much discovery at 81-31 North, 134-36 West.

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September 16, 2009 – Souvenirs

When does a Styrofoam cup act like a shot glass?

Want a unique souvenir from the Arctic Ocean? Well, I guess you could take a bit of the beautiful blue ice home. But how much fun would it be popping your head into the freezer every time you wanted to admire it with friends? And if your fridge freezer is like mine, it eats ice cubes through sublimation like there’s no tomorrow.

So how about a Styrofoam cup that’s been subjected to the titanic water pressure of Canada Basin? Scuba divers know that, while empty tanks are an issue, their biggest threat is water pressure. Because for every 10 metres down, another Atmosphere of pressure is added, which can be felt when wearing a wetsuit. The Michelin-Man feeling you get crawling into a thick Arctic-rated suit soon goes away when the neoprene is squished as you descend, making it easier to move about. Conversely, as the pressure is reduced, the neoprene bounces back. Not so for Styrofoam cups. In the middle of Canada Basin, roughly 3,800 metres deep, water pressure at the bottom is about 5,420 pounds per square inch, or 369 Atmospheres. For creatures like us with holes in our heads -- our sinuses -- there’s no way we’re going   to that depth without a solid, highly engineered sphere around us, such as the one used in manned  submersibles. Skulls and rib cages just couldn’t protect our sinuses and lungs from that sort of pressure, to say nothing of the really bad chemistry that would be going on in our bodies. And, like us, Styrofoam cups can’t take it, either.

In an old onion bag tied above the rosette slung over the side of the Louis, personalized Styrofoam cups fill out the bag. About three hours later, the bag emerges, but it’s no longer stuffed full. That’s because the cups, along with their shriveled artwork, have been reduced to the size of shot glasses. The inherent flexibility of the cups is gone; the smooth surface feels now like course sandpaper; and, unless the cups are filled with absorbent paper before the plunge, the shape isn’t well retained.  It’s incredibly expensive to reach our abyssal waters with manned submersibles and remotely operated vehicles, so a crushed cup is a great souvenir of a very inhospitable environment.

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September 17, 2009 – Signing Off

Go to sea young man. But don't forget to come back with a story. No matter what seas I sail on next, I  will truly miss the ice, its exquisitely contrasting geometry -- amoeboid, conical, serrate, angular -- and its textures -- smooth, crystalline, cobble, pocked, mush and wet. It never ceased to capture my attention and imagination: a creature unto itself; a raft for massive four-footed predators; and a submerged ceiling for finned miracles of antifreeze. It's not a landscape; it's not a seascape; it IS an icescape, whether salty mush millimetres-thick or pure freshwater slabs, metres-thick with white crystalline frosting.

As the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent steams towards Kugluktuk, the ping from the hydrographers' 12 hydrographers' 12 kHz transducer is the only scientific probe left operating. All other gear has been cleaned, wrapped or stowed away for another year.

Monkey Island is no longer populated by the marine mammal observers, who have been whisked away by helicopter to land. And across the Maritimes and Newfoundland and Labrador, the next crew is busying itself in preparation for departure.

Relative to where we've just been, the first evidence of land on our starboard bow means that help is no longer days or weeks away. The exploration phase of the trip is over. Data processing, stories of polar years and five-metre thick ice, family reunions and gift exchanges of Louis and Healy memorabilia lie ahead.

Bright and early on the last day, the new captain will be the first aboard the Louis. Then our manic dragonfly will madly ferry scientists and crew to Kugluktuk's airport. When members of the Louis' new crew touch down on the dirt runway, emerge and stretch their legs, the keys to the “heli” will trade hands. Last to leave his ship, Captain Rothwell will officially end the trip and cue our exit from the Arctic.

No doubt we'll all breathe a sigh of relief as the plane's engines roar to life and the wheels leave the ground. Chatter is likely to be brisk and short, with long durations of sleep or relaxation in between.

We are heading home, some to return next year and others to retire or start new occupations. The thing that will always unite us is our six weeks of exploration in uncharted waters, just as those before us were united by their work. And we thank our lucky stars it didn't come at the cost of great hardship or life .

We might have shown up on the public radar for a flash after last week's satellite news conference. But the research conducted this summer will have a huge impact in the future on how Canadians see their country to the north, from land to sea. It is an achievement for everyone on board the Louis, who put their southern lives on hold for six weeks. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Not a bad story for “what I did on my summer holidays,” eh? Till next time, fair winds and safe sailing.

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