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Arctic comfort zone

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AMUNDSEN GULF, N.W.T. -- The meal started with an avocado salad, followed by medium-rare veal medallions and garlic-seasoned shrimp accompanied by steamed asparagus and linguini in tomato sauce.

Washed down with a decent Australian shiraz and completed with a slice of double-chocolate cake, it was a remarkable culinary feat -- not the least because it was served aboard an icebreaker in the Canadian Arctic.


The Coast Guard research vessel Amundsen, the only Canadian ship overwintering in the Arctic right now, is plying some of the most remote and treacherous waters in the world.

Yet the creature comforts on board the 98-metre ship are remarkable, considering this boat is all but on its own for months at a time and must sustain a crew of 38 Coast Guard personnel and 27 scientists.

Surf-and-turf dinners are not served nightly aboard the Amundsen, but the diversity and quality of the everyday food is just one example of the unusual lifestyle aboard this exceptional ship.

The culture on board combines the hard-working maritime ethos of a Quebec City-based Coast Guard crew with an international cadré of fleece-jacketed academics steeped in arcane subjects such as copepod life cycles and carbon dioxide fluxes.

The gear on the ship ranges from heavy-duty snow shovels and chainsaws to fickle lasers and microwave sensors. The languages spoken are French, English, Spanish and German, in that order.

And the characters on board range from well-seasoned Coast Guard greybeards to perky research technicians barely old enough to buy a beer in the U.S.

The mix of people -- never mind the juxtaposition of the comfort indoors to the harsh climate outside -- can be disorienting, if not outright bizarre.

The ship is equipped with showers, washers, dryers, DVD players, satellite TV, Internet access and even a bar open three times a week (shots and domestic beer sell for a loonie, while premium brews such as Guinness, Sleeman and Kilkenny go for $2).

If you didn't know that Coast Guard personnel routinely perform back-breaking labour in temperatures well below -30 C -- or that researchers frequently pull 12-hour shifts in claustrophobic little laboratories -- it would be tempting to call the Amundsen a hotel on ice.

"It's weird being able to take a hot shower when it's -45 outside, in the middle of nowhere," says Jeff Latonas, a masters student in environmental geochemistry at the University of Manitoba, who works in the ship's mercury lab. "It's like you never left home."

But the ship practically is a home, as it's staying in and around the Amundsen Gulf for 12 months as part of a $40 million project called the Circumpolar Flaw Lead System Study, a holistic look at the air, sea, ice and organisms, led by U of M and Laval University researchers.

The scientists and Coast Guard crew spend up to six weeks at a time on the ship, getting on and off by skiplane or helicopter. Some only stay for two weeks at a time, but many grow accustomed enough to the boat to begin calling it "home," in spite of its remote and potentially hostile location.


Science -- with shotguns!


IT'S 11 a.m. on a Monday, and eight Canadian scientists are standing on the sea ice examining a crucial piece of technology: a 12-gauge, pump-action shotgun.

It's target-practice time for members of the CFL System Study, who are not allowed on the ice to conduct any form of research without being escorted by a rifle or shotgun-toting polar-bear spotter.

The world's most dangerous carnivores, which hunt for seals throughout the Amundsen Gulf, are capable of sneaking up within 25 metres of a human being without being spotted, thanks to their natural furry camouflage as well as ridges that provide places to hide.

Bears rarely approach the ship, but are often spotted when the icebreaker is moving. So as a precaution, nobody is allowed down to the ice along a metal gangway -- fortified at the bottom by a bear-proof gateway -- without first notifying the bridge.

Coast Guard personnel are not always available to ride shotgun, hence the need for the scientists to take up arms. And some of them are not bad shots.

As a bonus, it's also tougher to argue climate change with academics who carry weapons.


The ship, she is thirsty


THE Amundsen's year-long Arctic mission means the ship must attempt to be as self-sufficient as possible, without needless impacts on the relatively pristine Arctic environment.

Fresh water is derived from seawater, using evaporators, filters and an ultraviolet-radiation purifier. All garbage except for recyclables and batteries is incinerated. Aerobic toilets use bacteria to convert human waste into a liquid supposedly safe enough to drink, says third engineer Geoff Hamilton, though he admits he hasn't sampled this particular beverage.

Food, meanwhile, is airlifted up to the ship several tonnes at a time, arriving via skiplane from Inuvik.

The only major resource headache involves fuel, which the diesel-electric Amundsen drinks like an 8,000-tonne, steel-reinforced fish.

When the ship is stationary, it consumes around 6,000 litres of diesel fue in a day. But a full day of ice-breaking can suck up 40,000 litres, as the 15,000-horsepower ship must employ all six of its 16-cylinder diesel engines, which power two electric motors.

"We can get by using two engines on open water, but we need all six when we're breaking ice," Hamilton says. "Needless to say, it's a lot less efficient when we're doing that."

When all of its tanks are full, the ship can hold 2.6 million litres of diesel fuel, and reserves are stored in a barge off the Northwest Territories mainland.

But the year-long nature of the mission still forces Capt. Stéphane Julien and chief scientist Gary Stern to make tough decisions about where to take the boat, balancing the need to place the ship in scientifically fruitful waters against the need to conserve fuel.

In the dead of winter, it often makes more sense to leave the vessel perched in a patch of ice.


There is only so much science you can do


EVERY evening after dinner, the scientists aboard the Amundsen gather in a conference room on the fifth deck to plan out the next day's research activities. On-ice activities are staggered throughout the day, while there is usually no problem scheduling research conducted out of the moon pool, a nine-square-metre hole in the belly of the ship.

But there can be occasions when some scientists need the ship to be moving to conduct their experiments, while others would prefer to remain in place so they can sample air, ice, snow, water or organisms from a stationary position.

Conflict can and does occur, though it has been minimal during the past week.

One Sunday night, two ozone researchers -- Phil Tackett from Purdue University and Environment Canada's Ralf Staebler -- wanted the ship to face a different direction so they could collect air samples. Their equipment sits near the bow of the ship, while the wind was blowing from the stern, creating the possibility of contamination from the icebreaker's smokestack.

Chief scientist Stern is forced to tell the duo it's too bad, because it will use up too much fuel to reorient the ship.

"There is only so much science you can do," Stern says. "Sometimes you win, sometimes you don't."

But the next day Tackett and Staebler are able to gather clean data in spite of the prevailing wind. This time, all of the scientists win.


One day bleeds to another


AS the week wears on and the Amundsen remains perched in the same place -- a thin plate of fractured sea ice at about 70.5 degrees north and 123.5 degrees west -- a routine begins to emerge for both the scientists and Coast Guard personnel aboard the ship.

Ice cores are drilled and plankton nets are dropped. Snowmobiles are warmed up to guard against the cold and decks are cleared of snow. One Arctic day bleeds into another, with nothing to distinguish one spectacular polar sunrise from the next.

To guard against fatigue, the Coast Guard have come up with a special ritual: Sunday dinners with the officers in formal dress.

This is the day when the veal and the shrimp are served. It's also a day for diversions, such as a soccer game planned between the scientists and crew, set to take place on a pitch cleared out on the ice.

The Coast Guard have a strength advantage, but the scientists have fresher legs. The last time the two sides met -- in a hockey game on Christmas Day -- the matchup ended in a 3-3 tie.

"It's important to keep the morale up when you're here for six months at a time," says Marie-Emanuelle Rail, an oceanographer at the University of Quebec's national scientific research institute. "Especially for the crew. It's the only vacation they have, even if it's only for two or three hours."

A few hours of downtime in a seven-day workweek isn't much on a ship located thousands of kilometres from home. Given the context, the food on board the Amundsen really is not that lavish.

Besides, we are talking about a crew from Quebec, where meals do not merely provide sustenance, but something to relish and savour.

Despite the many contrasts on the ship -- primarily English vs. French as well as Coast Guard vs. civilian -- everyone appears to agree on one thing: Life on board the Amundsen would certainly be a lot less enjoyable with an anglophone in the kitchen.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 2, 2008


Updated on Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 11:08 AM CDT: Adds photos

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