Monday, September 17, 2007

West Ice survey 2002:III

Read the first part of this post here

The A team - now Nils Eric, Bjørn, Lotta and Ivan - made their first trips onto the ice. Tore, coffee in hand, coordinated activities from Lance's bridge.
Garry was the only one of the B team with ice-floe-hopping experience, so for the first few hours, Garry showed we novices how to get around.
Moving on the pans was all about avoiding falling in. With the water at –2C, the air at -10C, a dunk in the water would have meant calling for the helicopter to get us back to the ship to dry out. The biggest pans got to more than 50 metres diameter, the smallest, little ice cubes. With a big swell running, pans drift apart, tripling the jumping distance between them.

We had unusual tools to help us hold and steady smaller floes. Back in Tromsø, Nils Eric had collected birch poles to make a few hakapiks1, Norwegian seal clubs - a black steel head on a birch pole. The pole's a little over five feet long. On one side of the metal head is a short knob, used to smash in the skulls of baby seals. The other end of the head has a spike, about six inches long, used by sealers to drag carcasses along the ice. The spike is great for whacking into ice, dragging pans as needed. So we'd swing, lean and haul, everyone across, then whoever held the hakapik jumped. Mostly we just hopped, pan to pan. Timing was all, particularly when a small chunk had to be used for a stepping stone. Being stuck on a sinking chunk of oversized slushie, watching more solid ice move beyond jumping range could be a little disconcerting.

After a couple of excursions, Bjørn's decades on the ice started to tell and he spent most of the time in his cabin. The A team, morphed into Nils Eric, Lotta, and Ivan, were more aggressive with their icehopping and had a couple of drenchings. The legs of our floater suits were reasonably watertight, and the suits were made so that you needed to be immersed almost to your underarms before water could spill into the suit from the top. Even so, Nils Eric and Lotta occasionally needed a helicopter pickup after a particularly deep mishap. We novices were far more cautious.

Garry, Callan and I would wander off, tagging pups. Sofie and Ilse moved less, as their recordings required more time with each pup. They'd find one, a little away from where we were tagging, and record its calls. They needed several from each pup – the demands of statistics. So they'd lie out next to a pup, trying to look inconspicuous in their bright orange floater suits, and stick a microphone as close as they could to the pup, and hope the pup felt like calling. Tore christened them “the pup interviewers”.

Female harp seals spend some of their time in the water, so to find their pup - the ice keeps moving – they must listen for them. Once they've located their pup's general direction, they slip onto the appropriate floe, and check any pups there either by their scent, or by their feel. To do this, the mum goes up to a pup and rubs noses – either smelling up close, or using the bristles around their nose to feel for something distinctive about their particular pup. It looks just like mums greet their pup with a kiss.

Just in case the pups, by themselves, weren't cute enough.

Garry's experience meant that he led from the start. But as he was also the heaviest, physics provided our verb of the trip: Stensoning. To Stenson was to push hard off a small chunk of ice, leaving the next unfortunate dealing with a half-submerged iceblob, calling, “Oh No! I've been Stensoned!”. After a few days, Garry made a habit of bringing up the rear.

The days passed, and Garry needed to spend some time on the ship, sorting out the design of the helicopter surveys with Tore. Callan and I worked together. Callan was lighter and braver than I. He tended to lead the way when Ilse and Sofie were near us, finding the safest and easiest routes. He overdid it badly once – stepped onto a small chunk, maybe two feet square. Immediately half of it collapsed into the sea. Callan was waiting for the swell to bring the next large pan close to him. He turned, laughed, said, “Well, don’t stand on that bit”. As he did, the leftover that he was standing on (just big enough for his feet) disappeared into slush under him. He dropped, eyes widening as he went. I reached out, grabbed his arm, pulled. He was only wet to his knees. Sofie and Ilse took care of Callan, dragging his boots off, drying his feet, replacing his socks with dry ones, filling him with chocolate and coffee. We sat around until we knew he'd be dry enough to keep going, then found another path.

When it came to icehopping, I guess I was lucky. On one of our first days out, I had a sad moment on some slush. I'd gone last, and the stepping-stone piece of ice was looking a little Stensoned after Garry and Callan had traversed it. There was a big swell running, pans moving three or four yards away from each other. I jumped onto the stepping slush, and it started sinking. I'd timed it badly, the next pan was still moving away. Seconds passed, spent waiting for the swells to bring the next big pan towards me. Seconds can seem rather long. Water rose over the rubberised soles of my Sorrels, started seeping under the legs of my floater suit. Eventually I could jump. After that learning experience, I seem to manage to jump – fall, lurch, blob, roll - the right way. Hardly ever got my feet wet. It's amazing how important dry socks are.

Sofie and Ilse never had any serious problems. Perhaps I could pretend that this had something to do with chivalry from us men, but I'd be lying. They were light, sensible and athletic.

Read th next part of this post here.

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