Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 30, 2015
Washed my clothes at the ship’s Laundromat / sound booth.
$2.00 a load, and a quarter for every 2 minutes of dryer time. I knew ship time was expensive, but… maybe I’m exaggerating. Nothing much to report about the laundry room(s) on board (no, we don’t have to pay per load), except perhaps the washers, which (and Bern warned us about this at the outset of the cruise) once you select your type of wash, you’ve committed. No going back. No opening the door because you left a lens cap in a pocket. The thing commits like a downhill skier or an episode of your favorite TV show. Until its 34 minutes are up, you’re not going anywhere.
The laundry also doubles as Ann’s sound booth. Ann has made a few pre-printed signs. When we start crashing through ice of a hardness, she grabs the right one and goes to the laundry room where she has a good place to post it where she can record it as video as the ice in question crashes against the hull. “Listen! This is HARD ice.” Anything hitting the hull will completely drown out any dryers in use.
Another bright day on the ice. With the new snow, I find it slippery for the first time. Right off the gangway I have to regain my balance. I warn John that it’s slippery, only because it’s the first time it has been so. I wonder if we cleared this particular flat patch whether we could skate on it. I have a feeling it’d be too soft — but it’s a thought. Not that I skate, but I did notice someone’s hockey stick in the Baltic room. I take extra care as I seek out the safety of harder, older snow. I sprained an ankle my first winter in Alaska, on lake ice, trying to learn to skate, by myself. Had to hop back to the university my x-country skis over my shoulder, and using the poles as a crutch. Twenty years ago. I still remember big parts of that long slog back up to the Ridge. No pressure. Just have to get back before you get to cold, that’s all. Later that night, once a doctor saw it, he said I probably shouldn’t try to walk on it for (a few months? I remember the color of the light in his office better than what he said.) If I ever want to do competitive sport again, I’d let it heal. That’s the sort of warning that makes sense to me. You want to walk again. Listen up.
So, ice and dire warnings. The ankle’s never been the same since, but we adapt, and living in Fairbanks, you learn to walk on ice, you learn to take the right kind of steps, ones you can just about tell yourself you can pull back from when necessary.
I’m not against committing. Far from it, but it’s good to recognize that moment the next step is going to make a strange difference. I haven’t thought about that journey home in many years, needing to get somewhere, barely equipped to do it, knowing I was going to make it but cursing a lack of people on the trails, cursing that I hadn’t thought everything through. Maybe I’ve been a little more cautious ever since? No. Back to the ice. I take chances, just not with my ankles, if you ever see me hesitate to kick a ball before doing so.
A bright day, first day everyone felt hot inside their Mustang suits. First day I took off my gloves and left them in my pocket. Light flurries where we were, but by the look of every horizon, more snow was on the way. John recorded the sounds of the ice operations, the chatter, the “man, I’m boiling”’s while I tried to blindly capture Alice and Lorena’s measurements from the underside of the ice. We use a neat, little, brassy tool perfect for the job, Paddington’s buttons again, but these buttons know how to collapse like a utility knife when you want to get them back through a two inch hole six feet long.
The regular ice station was only the start of the hours we spent at that floe. We moved the boat a little farther into the flow from the station, and then using the basket to get back to the ice, Evan, Mike, Alice, and Perry set up a transect along the ship’s current axis, measuring ice thickness and hardness along a route the ship was going to take going forward. There were a couple ridges in the way of the ship, and hitting these known quantities at speed was going to provide data on ship performance. They painted a dotted, red line on the ice so the pilot could see it, ending 284.3 meters away in a X-marks the spot. Three football fields, not a quarter mile but felt like it with the toddler-toppled block-fort topography that needed crossing.
The reduced visibility. The intense silence. Out there we could hear the ship, three fields away, but it sounded very quiet and very distance. Somewhere along the line someone wrote ‘UAF’ in the snow, in paint, and off to the side, scraped letters less visible, ‘Nanooks.’
The ice along the line was anywhere from 10 to 20 inches thick and then 2 to 3 times that where the ice sheet was rafted. We could see this on the underwater camera earlier at the station, the chipped edges of ice sheet driven under others, welded together, thickening the floe. The ice sheet is relatively peaceful at the moment, but at some point earlier in the Spring there was a lot more energy running through here — wherever here was. Now there are significant built-up ridges, chucks of ice like eroded Saracens, places where the new snow has drifted to a couple feet deep, and one place where after drilling it’s clear that spot is below sea level.
My boot goes down like I’ve stepped in a hole and comes back out like it’s been half-caught in mud. I wait a moment for the sting, but either the slush is slow or the boots are tall enough. There was still ice, hard bits, blocks, down there, somewhere, and nothing got twisted or sprained. On one of the ridges Alice measured an ice thickness of 9 feet or more — with voids, or this would have been beyond the ship’s capability. Climbing over the ridges going out was overly cumbersome in the work suit with bag and tripod and four cameras. A sled might have made it easier.
At least we were going to leave three of the cameras and the tripod behind on the ice. Three cameras in two positions, aimed at recording our retreat to the ship, the basket carrying us back aboard, the swells running through the ice floe, the ship reversing so it could make a run at the line and the ridge and the cameras — at speed. On the video you can see a pulse of dark smoke leave the stacks as we get underway. As we reverse, the ice knife (below the waterline) leaves a mark in our path in the shape of an arrow. By the time we hit the ice, Juha has the ship up to 10 knots. There were no guarantees we would be able to keep the ship to the path. The ridges in the way were picked because they would test the ship’s performance and as such they could very easily change the ship’s course.
On the betting table, it was difficult to see the odds for the debates and binoculars, cameras and doubts and ‘how are we going to get them back’s and the Third Mate asking for all four engines to be brought online. All the people were back aboard. Not all the gear. Most of the predictions seemed to incline to at least one of the cameras being driven over by the ship. It’s quite possible were going to be okay with that. I shouldn’t say what happened. There’s a video after all…
But we got video back from two of three cameras. The third got cold feet and a bad memory but has since recovered and has been ordered to take it easy.
The nearest camera to our line, the one we thought would most likely get wet or get run-over was fitted with a waterproof case, a float, and a line pulled off (far?) to the side and staked into the ice. Even if the camera went in the water, even if it went under the ship, we had a chance to get someone on the ice to drag it out again. The biggest camera was on a tripod, a somewhat safer, drier distance away, but from the Bridge hitting one camera or the other seemed like a very minor adjustment in course, or a slight deviation decided by the thick pressure ridges.
A successful commitment, a calculated risk, the right kind of step. Which of course only means we’ll have to try it again, perhaps with a camera under the ice as well, closer to the line. We’d fly a drone, but sometimes there are more rules out here than in Washington. So if we don’t hit something with the ship and have to drag it back from out under the hull, we’re just not trying hard enough.
— Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits, Design, and Digital Media Production)