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Surveying the Arctic Ocean in the 1960's

Updated: Sep 19, 2019

My Dad who was a sailor, and worked for the Canadian Hydrographic Service in the 1960's, asked his surveyor friend Al Ages, if they could take a young lad of 19 years old on their Arctic survey vessel, CSS Richardson. Al said “Yes, if he can splice wire.” Quick as a flash my dad got out the marlin spike and the wire and showed me how to do this centuries old craft. Once I had got the knack, I was signed up as a deckhand on the RICHARDSON which in 1965 had overwintered in Tuktoyaktuk at the mouth of the Mackenzie River, and was frozen in the harbour with the other sea-lift ships of Northern Transportation Company.

We always flew up to Tuk, as it is known locally, by Pacific Western Airlines also known as “Please Wait A While airline.” We landed in Inuvik and had to find our way by bush plane from there up to the ocean. Some of those bush plane experiences made deep impressions on my memory, especially one where the pilot reached under his seat, pulled out a can of beer and said “Anybody for a beer?” Then he downed it himself.

The 1965 voyage took us to James Shoal at the mouth of the Mackenzie River and then to Coppermine in the Coronation Gulf. Part of our job was to take soundings (depths of the water) at the sites of the then operational DEW LINE radar installations that were pointed at Russia. The western nations were paranoid that ICBM's would be launched at North America and the DEW LINE was formed for that reason. Then with updated charts, the sea-lift ships of Northern Transportation company could approach the DEW LINE installations without fear of running into rocks or shoals. They could always run into ice floes that formed themselves into ridges but that was a result of the weather.

When I got on board the ship we were immediately put to work to make her ready for the survey season. We scraped paint, prepared the survey launch, learned how to take angles with a sextant, loaded food and supplies, and I was set to make lifting tackles for the aluminum boat, and the survey buoys by employing my newly acquired splicing skills. When the wind blew off the ice we dressed in parkas and boots. When the wind blew off the land from the south it became really hot, complete with black flies, mosquitoes and wandering reindeer. We got to know the Inuit (then called Eskimoes) who taught us how to read the ice and when it was safe to cross it. We visited the Baillie Islands where we witnessed the first of the effects of climate change. The Baillie Islands had beaches that were “melting” into the sea. What looked like a rocky beach was actually a shoreline of balls of soft mud that fell down from the permafrost.

One of our main jobs in 1965 was to travel to Coppermine in the Coronation Gulf and survey the river and harbour known as TREE RIVER. We reached the site of “Bloody Falls,” a waterfall where the Inuit and the First Nations had a violent confrontation over territory 50 years before. Then we turned the sounder on in the launch and were able to chart the depth of the river for the people of Coppermine. The information became part of the new hydrographic chart of that region. Fuel for the ship was provided by Northern Transportation company who ran an old US navy tanker up there. Water was sometimes to be found in a creek, and sometimes we would tie up to an icefloe and pump the big puddle on top of it into our ship's tanks.

I spent three seasons up in the Arctic and I will now focus on the last one (1967) where the RICHARDSON did a survey around Vancouver Island first and then made its way up the inside passage, across the Gulf of Alaska and then round Point Barrow and into the Beaufort Sea. It was north of Point Barrow where we ran into heavy sea ice that formed in ridges and we were pushed right out of the water onto our bilge. She was built like a west coast fishboat with very closely -set frames so that she could withstand ice pressure and be lifted up and out of the water. She did just that. We called “mayday” of course, but our coast guard ship, the CAMSELL was also trapped by the ice and could not move herself. The much larger USS NORTHWIND (icebreaker) was doing “snooping” on the Siberian coast, heard our mayday call and turned around to help us. After 72 hours of wondering whether we were going to sink or swim, the NORTHWIND showed up on the horizon and came crunching and heaving towards us. By this time CAMSELL had managed to move as well, so the NORTHWIND towed the CAMSELL who towed the RICHARDSON. We had to rig anchor chain around the deckhouse so that we could be towed as the ice was thick enough to make rope hawsers snap with the sound of a rifle shot. Our propellor had folded its blades and became useless. The ice had stove in the fuel tank and it was leaking. Fortunately we had a spare propellor on board and the CAMSELL put a strop around our stern area, lifted us out of the water and we replaced the damaged propellor. They towed us to open water and we made our way to the floating drydock in Tuktoyaktuk harbour where RICHARDSON was lifted out. Welders and fitters came aboard, cut and made new bow plates, welded the fuel tank and made a new anchor hawse.

After all this we did get some surveying done along the Mackenzie Delta area of the Beaufort Sea, and we used the new launches QUAIL and BELUGA. The latter had motor troubles and we had to tow it back to Tuk with the aluminum boat in a rising north wind that came off the ice. When we reached safety we were hypothermic and exhausted so the skipper (Capt. McCulloch) got us to pummel each other to get our blood moving again. 1967 was the adventurous year by a long stretch but it gave me seaman skills that could not have been taught in the classroom, and that was where I was headed, back to the University of Victoria which kindly let us boys register late as the ice conditions had delayed our journey back south. Dad of course wished he had been along for the adventure.

Written by D.Cox

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