Thursday, 5 September 2019

Visiting Pimm Island Greely Camp

During our muskox survey by helicopter in July, we had the opportunity to visit the Greely Camp on Pimm Island. While I was at Lake Hazen in 2013, I had read parts of Lt. Adolphus Greely’s diary of the 1881-84 Lady Franklin Bay Expedition describing the exploration around Lake Hazen and remembered thinking how similar his descriptions of the area were to what I observed over 130 years later. Since then I have read many books on this fateful expedition. The expedition, following military orders, left Fort Conger, Lady Franklin Bay at the end of summer 1883 when no resupply ship arrived. The disastrous and epic retreat south forced the expedition members to camp at Cape Sabine, Pimm Island in October 1883. By the time a rescue boat arrived in June 1884 only 7 of the 21 men were still alive, the rest having died of starvation and hypothermia.

Our helicopter first headed west from camp along Alexandra Fiord before heading east along the edge of Prince of Wales Icefield towards Pimm Island. We kept our eyes peeled for muskox and caribou but were wowed by the stunning aerial views of the fiord and glaciers. No muskox or caribou were seen on this survey but we did see muskox on subsequent helicopter surveys up Sverdrup pass and over Bache Peninsula, although in fewer numbers than last year’s muskox survey.

Views from the helicopter, clockwise from top left: The cliffs on Thorvald Peninsula dropping precipitously into Alexandra Fiord; 1953 RCMP buildings at our camp on Alexandra Fiord;
Glaciers along the Prince of Wales Icefield;
Glacier at the head of Alexandra Fiord

We landed on a desolate, rocky spit of land on Cape Sabine. Signs of the Greely Camp were still very clear, the cold, dry conditions preserve the site well. The stone wall of the building that expedition crew built to house the men was well intact. I was actually surprised how large the building was. Still with 21 men inside it must have been cramped and uncomfortable over the long dark, winter. There were shreds of canvas used to form the roof of the dwelling wedged between rocks. Rusty empty pemmican cans and metal hoops from salt pork barrels, the debris from the expedition food supply, were strewn everywhere. It was also interesting to see how much greener it was in and around the camp, a clear sign of extra nitrogen from the presence of human habitation.
Clockwise from top left: Cape Sabine, Pimm Island as we approached by helicopter with Greely’s Camp indicated by the orange arrow; Stone wall of the Greely Camp dwelling;
A shred of canvas that was used to form the roof of the dwelling wedged between rocks;
Rusty cans and barrel hoops, debris from the retreating Lady Franklin Expedition’s food supply

From my window looking north on our return journey over Pimm Island, I could see the aptly named Cocked Hat Island just off the coast of Pimm Island. On the Ellesmere Island side of the narrow channel between Pimm and Ellesmere Islands, I looked down on a glacier that not so long ago reached the ocean. Like many glaciers in the High Arctic, there is now a band of lighter rock showing the extent to which this glacier has retreated, in both length and height. The colour difference is due to the presence of lichen on the darker-coloured rock and no lichen on the light-coloured rock that has been recently exposed by the retreating glacier.

Left: Cocked Hat Island and Bache Peninsula seen as we flew over Pimm Island.
Right: retreating glacier in the channel between Ellesmere and Pimm Islands. The light coloured rock band beyond the terminus of the glacier indicates the absence of lichen on the rocks that have been recently exposed by the retreating glacier while the darker rock beyond is covered in lichen