Quad ride to Crooked Lake

Spectacular arched iceberg near Bandits Hut, April 2003.
Spectacular arched iceberg near Bandits Hut, April 2003. (Photo: M Foster)
John and Sean trying to warm a cold hut with candles and a small kerosene stove, May 2003.Paula negotiates the Ellis/Druzhby crossing, May 2003.Trouble with the trailer at the Druzhby/Crooked crossing, April 2003.The run home along Ellis Fjord at dusk, May 2003.

10 May 2003

There is a great sense of freedom here now that the sea-ice is thick enough for quads. Although a few well-known danger spots still need to be avoided, where the ice is notoriously thin in tidal channels, we can now get around all these remaining hazards and have access to our entire local coastline.

Not since the helicopters left on the last ship more than two months ago have we been able to reach some parts of our local domain. Walking is doubly difficult with the new winter snowdrifts, and in any case the days are getting too short to attempt long walks. Some of our scientists have been waiting for weeks to get back to their study sites, and all of us have been looking forward to the recreational opportunities that have now opened up.

There have already been several trips along the coast to the northeast. Chad and Nanette collect water samples each week from lakes in that direction, and two parties spent a night in different field huts two weeks ago.

One group spent a warm and cosy night at Platcha, but Gil, Sean and John had a different experience when they found the gas regulator broken at Bandits and had to huddle around a small kerosene stove and a few candles. But they all enjoyed the wonderful scenery on the return ride between the grounded icebergs offshore.

This week it was my turn. Malcolm and Paula had made a successful reconnaissance in the opposite direction confirming the ice finally to be thick enough at one critical spot. They could at last reache their study site at Crooked Lake, where sensors to monitor the lake environment were to be lowered through a hole drilled in the surface. Four of us took quads there, two of them towing trailers laden with electronic gear and batteries.

At first it was a familiar, quick run down to the fjord, but beyond we were the first there this season. With an air temperature around −22 degrees it was bitingly cold in the wind generated by the ride at a steady 30 km/h. Cold air seeped in to chill my neck until I adjusted the clothing, but worse was the breath frozen inside the visor of the crash helmet. It obscured vision to the extent that wherever particular care needed to be taken, the visor had to be raised letting in more of the icy wind.

The first obstacle was the crossing between Ellis Fjord and Lake Druzhby, a steep track of ice and rock connecting the two newly frozen water bodies. On one particularly steep bend we had a little trouble pulling the trailers up, but a tow by a second quad in front soon got us all through.

We then encountered an obstacle of a different kind. The freshwater ice of Lake Druzhby, unlike its salty equivalent in the fjord, was glassy smooth and extremely slippery. We had to be careful, especially when towing the trailers, to avoid spinning in circles or sliding towards snowdrifts or emergent rocks threatening catastrophe.

Soon we were at the next crossing, a longer one that runs up a streambed to Crooked Lake. It is a streambed in name, but water only flows for less than a month, in midsummer in January. After that it freezes, and we found that in doing so this year it had swept pieces of ice into frozen ramparts blocking our way. A single quad could get up, but not towing a trailer. There was no option but to dig the obstruction away, and fill in some holes, with ice axes. Then, using tow ropes again, and with the trailer-quads ridden by Curtis our most experienced rider, we finally managed to get beyond the obstruction. From there it was a short and relatively easy ride to our destination.

However there was no time to relax. After a quick snack and hot drink we set out on the return. Time was passing and the light was fading. It was easier riding back without the trailers, and we simply followed our previous tracks. One tyre was losing air, but a vigorous minute of manual pumping every hour kept it hard enough.

I seemed be getting rapidly acclimatised to the cold, because although we were travelling faster, and into the rising wind, even with the visor raised my face did not feel cold. It was only after our return that I discovered that during the afternoon the temperature had risen a remarkable ten degrees.

It is tiring being out in the cold all day, even if the temperature does rise to a balmy 13 degrees below freezing. After dinner, I joined in a few games of volleyball in the store, and then I had a chess appointment with Andrew, our chef. I took his queen early in the game but he still won, which I put down to my exhaustion. Revenge will be sweet at our next encounter!