Crossing the Northwest Passage by Bulldozer
Prior to 2006, guests typically flew by commercial carrier to Resolute Bay and from there flew a chartered Twin Otter to Arctic Watch. However, due to unforeseen circumstances, guests were often stranded in Resolute or Iqualuit as it was difficult to land on the short gravel airstrip at Arctic Watch. With increasingly stringent aviation rules, a new airstrip on the Cunningham River delta was necessary.
After purchasing a bulldozer in Ottawa in May 2006, we faced the challenge of transporting it back to Arctic Watch. Once it was delivered to Resolute, Vince McConnell and I prepared the dozer for the 80 km journey across the Northwest Passage to Arctic Watch. In order to safely cross the 16,000 lb bulldozer along the frozen waters, we needed a minimum of 36 inches of ice. After spending an entire day measuring the thickness of the ice, we were shocked to discover that there was only 24 inches of ice between Resolute and Arctic Watch.
On May 26, we began our journey west to Griffith Island seeking thicker ice. Vince drove the dozer, and Norman Idlout and I followed on snow machines for support. It was a challenging trip, as the soft snow caused the dozer to get stuck several times. We reached Griffith Island by late evening and returned to Resolute on snow machines.
The following morning, we returned to Griffith towing sleds with extra fuel for the dozer. The rough ice, which caused the dozer to get stuck, made finding a spot to cross exceedingly difficult. After finding a spot, we measured that the ice was only 30 inches thick and mushy. The air temperature was -10C, causing the water to melt the ice from underneath. Despite the 30 inches of ice beneath the dozer, I was wary of crossing. Defeated, Norman returned to Resolute, while Vince and I camped on the shore of Griffith Island.
Determined, we decided to try again the next day; this time driving toward Limestone Island, located on the northwest corner of Somerset and measuring the ice every 5 miles. We soon discovered that the ice was typically 36 inches thick once away from the shore. Having to spend yet another night on Griffith Island, we woke up the next day on a calm, sunny morning – a perfect day to cross the passage.
As I checked the ice thickness on the snow machine, polar bears came running after Vince on the dozer. The dozer seemed to get them excited, but they would then tire and lie down in the snow. Towards the end of the day, we arrived near the shore of Somerset, but were still separated by a band of rough ice and soft snow. It was particularly challenging, as the dozer continued to get caught. By using four 16 foot 2 × 12 boards, we managed to ‘float’ the dozer over the snow. Before long, Norman’s trail of ice became mushy, but at this point we had no option but to cross. Laying down the 2 × 12’s and some plywood from the sleds, we drove the dozer on the wood to add strength to the ice. As the dozer reached the end of the second boards, Norman and I pulled the first boards around to the front and laid them on the ice in front of the dozer. We would have all been sucked into the water had the dozer broken through the ice, but as luck would have it, we made it to shore.
In all, we had put 60 hours on the dozer, hand-drilled more than a hundred test holes, and put roughly 600 km on the snow machines. In 25 years of expeditions, this trek was by far one of the most daring.