B Baffin 1962 A
Ice Mining on the Barnes Ice Cap
Brian Sagar, with summer student assistants Uwe Embacher and Chris Bridge, reached Fox-2 via Fox-Main, the centre of eastern DEW Line operations at Hall Beach on the Melville Peninsula, by May 5, 1962. Here a DC-3 on ski-wheels awaited them, although it was not until May 15, after repeated attempts thwarted by fog, that they reached their chosen base camp site on the crest of the Barnes Ice Cap. By May 18, the camp was complete and, as Brian wrote in his field report,
A 15-knot wind and a temperature of –5°F [–20°C] effectively reduced any tendency to stand and stare. A double-walled pyramid tent was pitched and a hot brew soon ready. Although the sun was always above the horizon, the land was still in the grip of winter.
The work began immediately. The 1961–1962 accumulation season had produced about a metre of snow that lay directly on hard glacier ice of the previous summer, conditions very similar to those determined for the south dome of the ice cap by the 1950 AINA expedition. On May 21, Brian’s party was joined by the Dominion Observatory gravity survey team, led by Dr. Housi Weber.1 The gravimetrists brought in with them a period of clear and often calm weather that prevailed for ten days. A Parcoll hut—a transportable, easy-to-erect, five-metre-wide insulated shelter with an aluminum frame and a wood floor—was erected as the combined team now numbered ten.
Measuring energy balance on the ice cap
Snowmobiles of early vintage, skis, and helicopter transport were all employed in a gravity and snow survey across the waist of the ice cap, together with a snow survey along its entire north-northwest-to-south-southeast length of 145 kilometres. The snow survey was the first step in an attempt to determine whether the ice cap was gaining or losing mass. Housi later reported from his gravimetric data a maximum ice cap thickness of about 620 metres. Brian’s team extracted ice cores with a manual ice drill to depths of up to 20 metres. Stakes were drilled in across the length and breadth of the ice cap in order to establish a network for measurement of the progressive snow and ice melt during the 1962 ablation season and the accumulation of the 1962–1963 winter. Indeed, determination of the following winter’s accumulation would be one of the objectives for the 1963 “summer.”
The glaciologists paid special attention to the energy balance of the ice cap. The measurement of incoming solar and outgoing long-wave radiation required delicate calibration of an array of instruments. That, together with the results from the stake network, would aid in the construction of a preliminary mass balance of the entire ice cap.
As the season progressed, the camp area became a swamp of melting snow. During July, much of the wet snow gradually disappeared, leaving a surface of loose crystals of melting ice. The team enjoyed another period of still, clear weather—perfect for sunbathing. As Brian recalled, “For four whole days, boots were the only necessary article of clothing. By July 20 the margins of many of the remaining snow patches showed a brilliant red algal bloom [‘pink snow’].” The occasional caribou surprised them, having wandered more than thirty kilometres from the edge of the ice cap, and spectacular flights of ducks skimmed the surface, which was dissected by innumerable meltwater streams.
By late July, all the previous winter’s snow had disappeared, along with the refrozen meltwater, meaning that 1962 was a very unhealthy year for the ice cap. However, the onset of winter was rapid. A blizzard accompanied by heavy icing brought down the radio masts in early August. By mid-August, there was a surface of firm snow ideal for ski travel. It was time to head back to Ottawa. Equipment and surplus food were stored in the Parcoll hut for the next summer. Another fall of snow made snowmobile travel feasible, so evacuation was effected in comparative comfort, although deep meltwater canyons and poor visibility impeded progress. On August 24, the party reached a prearranged location on the northwestern edge of the ice cap where various meltstreams combine to form the upper course of the King River, a major tributary of the Isortoq that flows westward into Foxe Basin. This lay only a short distance upstream of the site on King River to which the main base of the 1962 “land party” had to be moved due to a sudden fall in the level of Flitaway Lake.
Geomorphological research from Flitaway Lake and the Isortoq River
The land party operated quite separately from Brian’s group on the ice cap until the final days of evacuation in late August. The majority of this group, under the supervision of John Andrews, now a full member of the branch staff, had been flown in to Flitaway Lake via Fox-2 in early June. John’s chief assistant was Bruce Smithson, a recent Carleton University graduate student. The Dominion Observatory’s chartered helicopter ferried John’s two-man kayak and sundry camping equipment to the Isotoq River, thereby saving him a heavy backpack. The main task was a detailed study of the till fabric of the cross-valley moraines in the Isortoq and Rimrock valleys and the complex of moraines and glacio-fluvial features between the terminus of the Lewis Glacier and the confluence of the Lewis and Isortoq rivers. This concentrated work led to a fairly complete understanding of the mode of formation of the cross-valley moraines and several significant publications (Andrews & Smithson, 1966). Later in the season the group was moved several times along Grant-Suttie Bay and Isortoq Lake, eventually being returned to King Lake when they assisted with Gunnar’s excavation of a large sample of ice from the margins of the Barnes Ice Cap farther south. During their traverse of the middle Isortoq valley, they discovered extensive sediment deposits rich in plant fossils. Laboratory examination and radiocarbon dating from beyond the limits of the method demonstrated that an unusually important find had been made: proof of the existence of a rich vegetation cover. (The significance of this discovery is discussed in more detail in chapter 11.)
George Falconer, with Mike Church as his student assistant, reached Flitaway Lake by the now standard route via Fox-2. This was very timely as they also could be assisted by the Dominion Observatory’s helicopter. They spent the summer on Pilik Lake, more than one hundred kilometres north of Rimrock Lake. Unbeknownst to George and Mike at the time, the fabled Arctic prospector Murray Watts was involved in preliminary mineral exploration in the general vicinity. On August 1, with his Cessna pilot, Ron Sheardown, Murray made a surprise “coffee-stop” visit. Again, nine days later, Murray and Ron dropped in on George and Mike as the latter were working out of a fly camp that was a good day’s hike from their base camp. This netted them a flight back to their base camp. George did not realize until later that Murray had surreptitiously “borrowed” from his collection of air photographs one that turned out to serve a rather important commercial purpose. Nevertheless, this Arctic wilderness acquaintance led to very useful assistance the following year.2
Scandinavian contacts and northern travels with Gunnar Østrem
My personal involvement in the Baffin Island research was delayed as I had been invited to attend an international symposium in Reykjavik, Iceland, in mid-July. The symposium was entitled “North Atlantic Biota and Their History” (Löve & Löve, 1963). I presented a paper on the early Baffin Island results (Ives, 1963), leading to valuable international exposure and constructive criticism. Many of the leading Scandinavian biologists, geographers, and geologists attended, including professors Gunnar Hoppe and Eilif Dahl, whose research had greatly influenced my own. A further advantage was that I persuaded Ross Mackay, who had been spending a sabbatical year from UBC with us at the branch, to make his first visit to Iceland with me.
The Iceland venture would significantly delay my departure from Ottawa for Baffin. However, this enabled me to travel north with Gunnar Østrem, whose appointment was completed, so that he would arrive in Ottawa within a few days of my return from Reykjavik. Although the field season was half over before we left Ottawa, the experience of travelling with Gunnar as our newest member of staff was worth it.
Gunnar and I took commercial flights on August 1 from Ottawa via Quebec City to Sept-Îles, on the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Here we met with the staff of the bush charter operator, Northern Wings, from whom we had arranged to charter a Beaver on pontoons to fly us all the way to Fox-2. We spent a comfortable night and the next morning had thorough discussions with the Northern Wings staff, regaling them with the horror stories of the Cessna charter of 1961. They took our point of view very seriously, assuring me that Spike Burnett, who was to be our pilot, was the company’s senior flyer and that we would also have a fully trained mechanic along with us. Spike, one of the ultimate “characters” of the northern bush pilot fraternity, became a central figure in this next phase of the Baffin Island project.
The flight to Fort Chimo was uneventful, though it refreshed my interest in the vast territory that I always refer to as Labrador-Ungava (Ives, 2010). The first leg of the journey involved an overnight at Schefferville, my former home from 1957 to 1960. Here we were guests of Joan, wife of Bill Mattox, who had succeeded me as field director of the McGill Lab in 1960. I had unexpectedly met Bill in Reykjavik a few weeks earlier, where he had been awaiting a flight to Greenland to pursue his main research objective, the Greenland Falcon. The flight in and out of Schefferville gave me the chance to point out to Gunnar many of the diagnostic glacial features, such as the glacial meltwater drainage channels, that had been studied in the 1950s.
We landed at Fort Chimo in the early evening of August 3. A pal of Spike’s met us and took us to the only restaurant for a good supper, and we slept in the Northern Wings camp. We were hoping to be away the next morning after an early breakfast, but were delayed by reports of poor weather in Hudson Strait. In fact, this was a matter more of uncertain weather than of any unreliable weather forecast. We were on the edge of the Arctic, and there were considerable stretches of possibly ice-choked water between Fort Chimo and Frobisher Bay. To make the crossing to Baffin Island in comparative safety, we would need the good weather of a pronounced high pressure system that extended all the way, a distance of more than six hundred kilometres.
The weather on the second morning was no better, so I proposed to Gunnar that we make an aerial reconnaissance around the south and east coast of Ungava Bay. Perhaps we could reach Abloviak Fiord, to the head of which Pauline and I had backpacked in 1956. Then I realized that Olav Løken would be halfway through his third field season in the Torngat Mountains. How magnificent it would be if we could make a surprise visit! Unfortunately, deteriorating weather caused us to turn back a short distance from the entrance to Abloviak Fiord, although we did manage to make landings on three small lakes not far from the coast.
These brief landings were worthwhile as we obtained some key field data relating to the history of Laurentide Ice Sheet recession at the close of the last ice age. Although the main flow of ice had been from Ungava Bay northeast through the Torngat Mountains and into the Labrador Sea, we found evidence for a late movement of ice from the land to the northwest into the bay. Gunnar’s presence was valuable as he provided an independent expert check on the ice movement determinations. This was important because of ambiguity about the late-glacial ice movements in relation to the drainage of the Naskaupi and McLean glacial lakes and the final disappearance of the ice sheet from Labrador-Ungava (Ives, 2010), factors related to our Baffin Island research.
Attracting unwanted international attention
After returning to Fort Chimo, we found that the weather remained uncertain. We resorted to a compromise whereby Gunnar and I would take the commercial Nordair flight to Frobisher the following day. This would allow Spike to have two 45-gallon drums of aviation fuel loaded into the Beaver’s cabin with a feeder hose and pump so that his mechanic could refuel. We would all meet up in Frobisher, although another four days would pass before Spike was able to make the long crossing. We enjoyed excellent food and sleeping quarters at the US Strategic Air Command (SAC) base in Frobisher while awaiting Spike’s arrival. But that otherwise welcome arrival produced a totally unexpected “snafu,” landing us in potentially serious trouble with the senior SAC officer.
Despite Spike’s successful completion of a challenging flight, this was his first encounter with the problems of landing a floatplane at Frobisher. The bay experiences a very large tidal range that exposes a wide rocky seashore at low tide. Spike certainly knew the problems associated with such landing conditions but was not aware that it was normal practice for Frobisher. Instead, spotting what appeared to be an eminently serviceable lake close to the SAC base, he effected a perfect landing—on the reservoir that was the base’s drinking water supply, unfortunately. He and the Beaver were immediately taken into custody by US military personnel, thereby causing a rather severe problem. This was classed as an international incident that I was not allowed to discuss with the SAC commanding officer, as DEW Line operations were still “secret.” All communications for the release of Spike and his Beaver had to be conducted between Ottawa and Washington, DC. It was remarkable that we were “released” and able to fly on to Fox-2 the following day.
Creating links between lab staff and scientists in the field
Rolf Kihl, our new geomorphology lab technician, had been flown in to Flitaway Lake with John Andrews and the group of “early birds” that included George Falconer, Mike Church, and Bruce Smithson. Rolf’s task was to set up a geomorphological field laboratory for processing the large number of soil samples that I expected the field parties would collect. This lab would allow Rolf to complete the bulk of the grain-size analyses and provide preliminary results for the field staff immediately. It also represented my first attempt to give branch support staff an opportunity for direct involvement with the field crews. In this way, I hoped that the experience would contribute to a fuller understanding of the critical link between field research and the more mundane desk and laboratory work in Ottawa.
Although Spike and the Beaver were available for only a limited time, we accomplished a great amount of fieldwork, including inspection of the progress of the entire expedition, logistical support, and valuable long-distance reconnaissance. I was able to visit George and Mike on Pilik Lake, and I moved them to Tay Sound on August 18. This enabled George to survey the upper limit of late-glacial marine activity and to make a critical collection of seashells that dated this at 8,350 years before present. Spike managed to retrieve the two of them five days later in marginal flying conditions and return them to join the main group at King River.
Having dropped off George with the King River party, Spike flew Mike Church and Bruce Smithson to Fox-2 that same day (August 23), thus beginning the end-of-season general evacuation process. Also, as part of this process, George went upriver to the margin of the Barnes Ice Cap to meet Brian Sagar and party. He then accompanied them to the King River base as the first step in their journey back to Ottawa.
Reconnaissance to the eastern fiords and the Cockburn Moraines
Amid all these logistics, I took the opportunity for a long day’s reconnaissance to the northeast coast. I had been unable to examine the Cockburn Moraines or to reach the coast in 1961 because of the mechanical problems with the chartered Cessna (see chapter 2). Now I had a first class opportunity. I asked Spike to fly Gunnar and me through the Bruce Mountains to the outer coast, close to Cape Adair. During the flight, we were impressed by the grandeur of the mountains and fiords, small ice caps, and valley glaciers. We made two brief landings and were able to walk out to the coast and record the height of the uppermost raised marine shore features. The maximum height, measured by altimeter, was close to 60 metres, much lower than the 375 metres accepted by Professor R. F. Flint and displayed on his 1945 Glacial Map of North America. Farther inland, we observed many instances where local glaciers had advanced down the valley sides to cut through the Cockburn Moraines after the main Cockburn outlet glaciers of the continental ice sheet had retreated onto the central plateau.
The reconnaissance to the northeast coast reassured me that it had been correct to plan for the eventual extension of the overall project to include a large section of the coastal mountains and the outer coastal lowland. In my early discussions with Dr. van Steenburgh, I had suggested the possibility of a ten-year operation. This second summer made me think, in some ways, that we were likely facing a lifetime of concerted effort.3
Moving the Barnes Ice Cap to Ottawa
A major objective of my journey north with Gunnar that summer was to examine the end moraines along the margin of the Barnes Ice Cap and to see if we could obtain a large sample of buried ice to take back to Ottawa. (Figs. 13 and 14) We had pre-selected a section of high moraine from air photographs before leaving Ottawa. The choice was influenced by access to a lake where the Beaver could land, so that the ice sample could be transported back to King River. The most suitable was a small lake (later named Umbilicaria Lake, from one of the lichen species found there during a survey by Pat Webber and John Andrews the following year) situated about fifty-five kilometres south of Flitaway Lake and thirty kilometres southeast of the King River camp. Gunnar was able to sample ice from the ice-cored moraine and make a microscopic comparison with a sample from the nearby ice cap. He had no doubt that the contrast between the two samples—large crystals from the ice cap and very small ones from the ice-cored moraine—followed the pattern of his results in Swedish Lappland. The moraine ice core was not glacier ice but had been derived from wind-accumulated snow subsequently buried and compressed by the ice cap’s discharge of morainic debris (Østrem, 1964).
Our next step was to set up an “ice mining” operation. We had brought with us a portable Swedish Atlas Copco pneumatic drill (“portable,” even though with rods it weighed more than sixty kilograms!) and a score of large plastic bottles. We assembled seven of the group available at the King River camp for hard labour: John, Rolf, Brian Thompson, Claude, Bruce, Gunnar, and me. With Gunnar acting as the “mine foreman,” we succeeded in digging out enough ice from deep within the moraine to fill eighteen of the large plastic bottles. (Fig. 15) We backpacked them, together with the portable drill, across more than a kilometre of wretchedly unstable boulders to Umbilicaria Lake. From there, Spike airlifted the bottles via King River to Flitaway Lake, where George assisted Gunnar in carefully labelling and sealing them to be ready for shipment to Fox-2 and Ottawa. Now I realized how accurate had been Britta Østrem’s prediction (see chapter 2, note 5). Gunnar was in the triumphant process of moving the Barnes Ice Cap to Ottawa. The first shipment weighed at least four hundred kilograms, in carefully sealed bottles, and it was not to be the last. Once unloaded, the melted ice would be fully filtered and evaporated so that any pollen spores could be extracted, together with any other carbonaceous material for radiocarbon dating. Spike grunted that he would be branded as the first crazy bush pilot to help transport ice, so very expensively, from the Arctic to Ottawa, when most sensible people would merely wait a few months for the Ottawa River to freeze over and then cut out all they needed.4 (Fig. 16)
Gunnar presented me with another logistical problem. He needed to get two samples of ice, one from the moraine and the other from the ice cap, for laboratory examination and crystal photography. While these samples were small (weighing less than a few grams each), they had to be prevented from melting and there was insufficient dry ice to achieve that during the long journey south. I was rapidly learning that Gunnar was one of the most persuasive characters I had ever met. Even then, I was amazed to see on the commercial flight from Fox-Main to Montreal the way he induced the chief flight attendant to allow him (and us) to eat the airplane’s entire supply of ice cream so that the precious ice samples could be stored in the plane’s small refrigerator. Repeating this tactic when we changed to a Canadian Airlines flight in Montreal, and again on his way back to Stockholm, he gained an “ice cream” reputation that stuck to him for the rest of his life.5
Following our return to Flitaway Lake, and because we were approaching the end of the field season, Spike began making the occasional flight (as the weather and local requirements permitted) between Flitaway and King lakes and Fox-2, as the first stage of transferring equipment and field samples due for shipment to Ottawa. I accompanied him on one of these flights and thereby joined him in a rather startling experience.
A tale of floatplane payloads and punctures
Spike Burnett and Northern Wings dominated our open-season logistics from 1962 to 1964, and there are many tales to tell. This one is fairly typical. Spike was, above all, a jovial fellow, but with a tendency to gruffness if provoked. He was well liked by students and staff. I quickly developed a cordial working relationship with him. I was party leader, as he liked to say, but he was commander of the “air force.” Understandably, I always wanted maximum Beaver payloads; appropriately, Spike insisted on caution. I well remember this occasion as we were in the early phase of evacuating the Flitaway and King River camps to Fox-2. As we inspected the load that I wanted taken from Flitaway Lake to Fox-2, Spike adamantly refused to take the last two pieces from the pile we had assembled. In his trademark gruff voice, speaking now decidedly from his position of superiority as the Northern Wings senior pilot, he muttered, “Jack, I have known many bold pilots, I have known many old pilots, but I have never known any old bold pilots!” So, of course, I demurred. (Fig. 17)
That early morning, a small part of the ice cliff that dammed the lake collapsed into the water and many pieces of ice floated out across the lake. Our cautious “old pilot” had been eyeing them dubiously all morning and well into the afternoon. After lunch, however, a light breeze sprung up and succeeded in marshalling them all into a tight corner beneath the ice cliffs. So, as was usual on Flitaway, we climbed on board and backed up the Beaver until the tailplane was almost over the lakeshore to give us maximum length of water for takeoff. This was necessary because the distance for takeoff was critically short.
Spike’s standard drill in this kind of situation was to make sure the engine was well warmed up and then open the throttle rapidly, rock the plane as soon as we had reached enough speed, and seemingly jerk it up off the lake surface. This time, just as he was in his final act of liftoff, we heavily clipped a stray piece of almost totally submerged ice that had gone undetected. The plane lurched abruptly and I was afraid that we would do a nosedive into the lake. Spike expertly rose to the challenge and kept us in the air. We circled very low across the gently sloping ground beyond the shore and slowly climbed, turning south toward Fox-2. Spike was silent for some minutes as the Lewis Glacier slipped away beneath us and we approached the King River. I could see that his face was glistening with perspiration. He turned to me and shouted above the roar of the engine, “If we had taken those last bloody boxes of yours, we would have been in the drink.”
We continued gaining altitude for several more minutes. There was something decidedly odd about our angle of flight; it was as if one wing was longer than the other and causing our alignment to be about twenty degrees off our line of flight. “So you have noticed it,” said Spike, more gruffly than usual. He explained that we must have torn a piece out of the port-side pontoon, resulting in air drag that made us fly in a crab-like manner. He added, “We’re in for trouble when we try to land at Longstaff [Fox-2] as I expect we will sink!” The prospect was an alarmingly chilly one, especially for a non-swimmer.
Spike explained that he would try to land as close to the shore as possible as there was a narrow stretch of shoal water along the edge of the lake. If we didn’t make it to the shallows [shoal water], real trouble would indeed ensue; if we were too “successful,” though, we might not have enough water left before crashing into the boulder barricade that fringes the lake. The landing would require a great deal of finesse with little or no margin for error. So Spike radioed ahead to Fox-2 to alert them to our predicament, requesting that “all possible emergency equipment” be at the lakeshore to meet us.
Some forty minutes later, as we were approaching the lake, Spike instructed me to make sure not only that my seat belt was tight, but that I could release it very quickly. “I assume you can swim?” he asked.
I replied, “No!”
He groaned. “We will have to risk hitting the boulders—damn you Brits, why didn’t you learn to swim?” Spike’s tirade went on a lot longer, with an unprintably colourful overtone, although I realized that he was simply relieving his own tension. There was really no answer, but I had always been more mindful of the prospect of cardiac arrest than of the possibility of drowning in cold Arctic water. Discretion prompted me to keep this thought to myself.
The sun was dipping toward the horizon as we came in very low along the lake, trailing the heels of our pontoons, with marvellous finesse, lightly in the water to reduce speed. This gave Spike the problem of trying to maintain a fairly straight course despite the punctured pontoon, although he appeared in absolute control. Then we plopped down on the full length of the pontoons and abruptly lost speed. I gasped, realizing that we were less than a few short plane-lengths from the line of boulders that bordered the lake. The Beaver began to tilt alarmingly as we both scrambled out onto the intact starboard pontoon. We sank in about a metre and a half of water, with the starboard side remaining on the surface. We waded ashore greeted by a cheering crowd of DEW Liners who had assembled in response to Spike’s radio SOS. We easily reached dry land, my cameras clear of the water. But Spike was furious. He detested getting his feet wet. He swore that after this he would have his mechanic fly with him at all times. This was the first of many bush plane stories that eventually, and regrettably, resulted in a change of charter company from 1965 onward (see chapter 5).
Our plight was attended to with a speed and efficiency that astonished me. The Beaver was hauled out of the water, repaired, and able to return us to Flitaway within twenty-four hours. It was indeed fortunate that Fox-2 had been our destination, with its availability of cranes, bulldozers, and mechanics. The only “penalty” we had to endure after the enthusiastic reception of the DEW Line crew was a very comfortable night’s sleep at the station, steaks for dinner, and an evening of billiards. With my cautious provision of a couple of large whiskies, Spike’s mood changed from one of an affronted self-image to one of derring-do, and he was back to acting the part of a remarkably skilful bush pilot—which he undoubtedly was.
By August 30, the entire field crew was back at Fox-2. Spike took off for Frobisher and Sept-Îles via Fort Chimo, and the next day the rest of us travelled by the so-called DEW Line lateral flights to Fox-Main and were soon safely back in Ottawa. Gunnar used the next few days to meet additional members of the branch staff and staff of the National Research Council. In Montreal, he met with Dr. Svenn Orvig and Dr. Fritz Müller, the latter newly returned from Axel Heiberg Island. Gunnar flew back to Stockholm on September 7, determined to return for another assault on the Barnes Ice Cap the following spring.