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Place of great danger and great beauty

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/9/2013 (1440 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

From the deck of the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen, the southern edge of Banks Island offers a scene of almost unspeakable beauty.

During the winter, the sheer white expanse of the partly frozen Amundsen Gulf is broken by the stark grey cliffs of Nelson Head, which rise up 760 metres to the flat summit of Durham Heights, the highest point in the western Arctic archipelago.

Southern edge of Banks Island

Southern edge of Banks Island

Few Canadians are familiar with this place and even fewer will ever get a chance to see it. An even smaller proportion will have a chance to soar alongside these barren cliffs, race past the two-billion-year-old rock face and maybe catch a glimpse of a herd of musk ox on the ice below.

This aerial vantage point is a privilege afforded to the Canadian Coast Guard crew and scientists who work for weeks on end aboard the Amundsen, an icebreaker retrofitted as an environmental research vessel that has played an invaluable role in gathering data about the Arctic climate, atmosphere and ecosystem.

The Amundsen is essentially a 98-metre-long, 8,000-tonne chunk of steel that functions as a floating laboratory. It's run by a coast guard crew and houses dozens of scientists who spend six weeks to three months on-board at a time and devote every day of their time to measuring or sampling the air, ice, water and Arctic organisms.

As a medium-class icebreaker, propelled by a 14,000-horsepower engine, the Amundsen cannot plow through the thickest of the Arctic's dwindling masses of multi-year ice. It instead attempts to navigate open stretches of water known as polynyas, which are seams of open water that materialize between the floating ice pack and the "fast ice" hardened to the Arctic mainland.

The analogy often used is the Arctic basin is a bald guy, while the pack ice is a skullcap moving over his bare scalp; when the pack ice moves, it both exposes new patches of water and covers other places with ice.

Manoeuvring the Amundsen around this ever-changing environment requires advance reconnaissance fights in a helicopter housed on-board. These flights are used to spot the open water researchers require to conduct some experiments. Other experiments can only be conducted when the ship is effectively parked on a patch of ice.

High-ranking Amundsen scientists, who must balance the experimental objectives of all researchers aboard the vessel, assist the ship's commanding officer in making decisions about where to go, based on what they see during reconnaissance flights.

On Monday, Amundsen commanding officer Marc Thibault, helicopter pilot Daniel Dub© and University of Manitoba researcher Klaus Hochheim died engaging in one of these routine flights. According to the coast guard, their Messerschmitt B0-105 plunged into the McClure Strait, north of Banks Island, when they flew ahead of Amundsen.

Accidents are a constant fear in the Arctic, where the climate and remote locale demands all visitors exercise caution before engaging in any activity. Instruction regarding the use of cold-water survival suits is one of the first tasks confronting scientists who board the Amundsen. No member of the crew can step out onto the Arctic ice without a shotgun-toting spotter on the lookout for polar bears.

When the helicopter is ready to fly, it is slid from its hangar at the aft of the ship and freed from restraints.

The liftoff from the helipad is almost imperceptible. The view from the aircraft is awe-inspiring. The indescribable beauty of the Arctic -- and the importance of the research mission -- serve as trade-offs to the inherent danger of flying above this harsh and fragile place.


Bartley Kives spent two weeks aboard the CCGS Amundsen in 2008 and was a passenger on its helicopter.


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