July 31st, 2009 – Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories
by Herb McCormick
(July 31): At 4 a.m. this morning, we laid eyes upon our very first pingo. It wasn’t our last. We can now say unequivocally that the waters off the clean and orderly hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk, our first of many planned stops in the sprawling Canadian wilderness known as the Northwest Territories, are absolutely lousy with pingos. In fact, the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula is world-renowned for the 1,350 pingos scattered off its coastline; Canada’s biggest pingo, Ibyuk – the world’s second largest – is planted right here off the village everyone in the Arctic knows as “Tuk.”
For those tripping over the syllables in the long-form pronunciation of the town’s spelling, Arctic veteran David Thoreson offers a helpful memory aid long employed by tongue-tied visitors and outsiders: “Tuktoyotatruck.”
Also, since the crew of Ocean Watch was flummoxed by the notion of a pingo less than 72-hours ago, and have only recently become experts in the field, we’ll forgive those readers who have no clue about what we’re babbling about here. In form and even color, a pingo looks like a giant tortoise shell, and has been defined as “a hill made of solid ice covered with a thin insulating cover of plants on top of the soil.”
Once we’d actually charted a course through the pingos, dropped anchor off Tuk, and had a wander through town, we even spied a “Save the Pingos!” poster in the local supermarket. Rowdy youths, we suspect, are the culprits who enjoy driving their ATVs and snowmobiles atop the pingos, a reckless practice that may cause the surprisingly fragile mounds to collapse, and is thus extremely hazardous to the pingos’ long-term health and wellbeing.
So, yes: Save those pingos.
Of course, we didn’t learn most of this until we actually arrived in Tuk. Dave Logan, Bryan Reeves and I were on watch when we spotted our inaugural pingo, several miles from town, but that wasn’t the only unusual feature about piloting into the winding channel leading to the anchorage. First, the depth for just about as far as the eye could see averaged a mere 12-feet – Ocean Watch draws nearly nine, and at one point the depth sounder registered a puckering 11.2. And second, for the first time in many, many miles, there were actually range markers, buoys and other government aids-to-navigation to mark the route in.
Still, it all kept first mate and navigator Logan, bounding from the cockpit to the nav station, right on his toes. The other, shipboard navigation aid he employed was the excellent Nobeltec software and electronic charting package supplied by expedition sponsor Jeppesen Marine, which has performed flawlessly since we left Seattle.
Once into Tuk’s very protected inner harbor, we dropped the anchor in about fifteen feet of water and skipper
|Tuk’s protected inner harbor.|
Mark Schrader, Thoreson and I dinghied into shore to clear customs, a quick and easy procedure that the captain accomplished via fax in the convenience store right by the dock. As he did so, while I waited outside, a local fellow approached whose quiet, gentle speech and manner called to mind an Inuit version of the iconic children’s TV personality, the one-and-only Mr. Rogers.
Looking out at Ocean Watch, just a couple hundred yards away, he had questions: “Where did you come from? What kind of boat is that? Are you alone? It’s a nice boat. It’s nice to see something different!”
And he had insights: “You’ve come just in time for the storms: the August storms. See that water over there? When I was a kid, that whole place right there – it used to be a sandy beach. I loved to play there. Now it’s gone. The sea has risen. They say in forty more years those points (of land) will be gone. Underwater. But it won’t matter. I won’t be here.”
After the customs formalities were over, we went on a (fruitless) search for a wireless Internet connection. The schools were all closed. The chaps at the Royal Mounted Police station were pleasant, but they just shrugged. We even tried the local health center. As we walked in the door, a rather ancient fellow took one look at us and grasped matters quickly.
“Are you seasick?!” he croaked.
“It took him about 1.5 seconds to size us up,” said the skipper.
Tuk was very clean and very quiet. Later in the day, as we ferried fuel out to the boat (fuel docks, like Internet connections, don’t exist here), a friendly local with his two kids stopped by the boat for a chat, telling us about the beluga whale the townsfolk were busy carving, cooking and sharing after its capture early this week.
“Welcome to our community,” he said, as he left us with a smile.
Meanwhile, at the gas pump, another “Tuktonian” had some choice words for David Thoreson. “You guys from the south have done a fine job of wrecking the planet,” he said, before slipping behind the wheel of his mini-van.
To his credit, before speeding away, he rolled down the window and added, with a wry smile, “I’m doing my part, too.”
As far as our continuing adventures are concerned, now things get very interesting. There is still significant ice cover directly to the east, though Friday in Tuk was a relative scorcher of a day, and the crew broke out shorts for the first time in weeks. We’re keeping our fingers crossed for a string of weather just like today. At our last stop in Herschel Island, we met a fisherman who told us the ice was late receding this year, “perhaps later than the last five years.” We’ll be looking at ice reports with more than passing interest this weekend and early next week.
But that’s a story for another day. For now, in the land of the pingos, we’re safely parked at Tuk Toyota Truck, and we’re glad to be here.
- Herb McCormick with photographs by David Thoreson
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