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Transarctic 99
"La voie des glaces"(On the Iceway)

  Since he was back from this trip, Olivier wrote a book about his journey:

"La Voie des Glaces"
Editions Transboréal
Collection "Sillages"

The Project


 I grew up dreaming of polar expeditions in the far north. The great open spaces, the Midnight Sun, polar bears, Inuits, ice packs. All these dreams made me view my journeys to Terra del Fuego, Patagonia and then to Alaska as practice for the real thing, a passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic through the waters of the north, the frozen Ocean, my Mount Everest.

It was in Prince William Sound in the Gulf of Alaska, a wonderful playground, rugged and beautiful, where the glaciers meet the sea, that I met Robert and Joan Coates, a Canadian couple. I was not to know then that they would become my second family.

  Their yacht, designed by Ian Nicholson and built in heavy aluminium, was designed to be taken into the North, and could with a few modifications become the perfect boat for my expedition.

When they heard of my project, they put their boat at my disposal, for two years , for the rent of one canadian dollar , so that I could pursue my dream.

Because of failing health Robert had come to realise that he could never sail into the Arctic. He took pride that his yacht could go without him. He has since died. I dedicate this journey to his memory.

  It took me two years to prepare for the expedition with the help of my family and numerous friends. The challenge being to get to France by sailiing through the Siberian North in the six weeks during which the ice pack relaxes its grip. If, at the end of that time, we should still be amongst the ice, we would have to overwinter and wait ten and a half months before we could continue on our way to France.


From British Columbia through the Pribilof Islands to Providenyia


Jean Michel and I left Sooke, B.C., on the Ist of June 1999 aboard Ocean Search. We travelled up the coast until Dixon Entrance, then west across the North Pacific to Dutch Harbour and north to Providenyia. We made good time, learning our boat, adjusting to the brisk weather. It was too cold to work with bare hands. The ice charts showed there were several ice bergs before we reached Providenyia.
We kept watch but had not seen even the smallest "Ice Bit" when on July 5th, we entered the fjord. To tell the truth we had not seen anything but puffins and other sea birds. For 48 hours we had travelled through such thick fog that we could not see 50 metres from the yacht.

  We found Providenyia, a small town, a desolate place, sad and decayed, lost in a shroud of mist, a sorry sight. A barge full of all sorts of uniformed officials came to meet us with a battery of administrative procedures.Two guards were left permanently on board. Interpreters came in relays to translate the forms that we had to fill in.
We soon found that things were not quite as tough as they looked. Our guards fished and smoked and accepted the plates of spaghetti that we offered them. The officials themselves joked about their system.
We shared inumerable cups of tea, our discussion sessions were long and we all got thirsty. The atmosphere got a lot more friendly. Soon we were allowed on shore.
We stayed nearly six weeks in Providenyia. The problems in Kosovo upset all the plans that I had made before I left Paris.
My Russian crew Andrei had by now joined us, so we could communicate more freely with the locals. Our Russian friends tried to help us in every way.
Frequent electricity failures did not help in the discussions between Moscow, Paris and Vancouver . At weekends we all adjourned to the hotel bar, pulled the curtains to, and danced .Vodka flowed freely. Everyone was happy, I champed at the bit.

  On July 24th, I realised that we were never going to get authorisation .The season is so short. We could no longer wait.
There was no question of going back. If we could not go west by Russia then we would go east by North America
Arrangements were quickly made by radio. Friends in Canada leapt to our help. There was no time to waste if we were to reach the Atlantic before the end of summer.


The Bering Strait


With the help of all our friends, canadian, american, french and russian, we were able to leave Providenyia on July 28th.
We had to leave Andrei behind because he did not have the required visas to leave Russia.
Jean Michel and I would have to go on alone. It was a sad parting. We made many promises to come back as soon as possible. We had learned a lot. Next time we will be successful.
From dawn to dusk the colours were magic. At times the mountains appeared as if they were on fire. we crossed over the international date line. For us July 28th lasted 48 hours.
We worked up the Bering Strait against contrary winds, tacking from Russia to America and back again. We crossed into the Arctic Circle which we should only leave again 6000 kms further east.

  At Point Barrow, the northern most point of the United States, we came on the pack ice. We could read our way throuh by the refractions and reflections of the ice on the sky. We cut through channels that got steadily more narrow.
The officials in charge of the Arctic Research Centre at Point Barrow were most helpful during the two days we stopped there. We were able to consult their documents and obtain invaluable information about ice conditions. I needed this because the study that I had done previously was mainly about Siberia.

  The Inuits were very interested in us. We told them about our journey. They told us about their fishing and their whale hunts which are permitted because they need the food. Their annual quota is 22 in the Point Barrow area.

Through the Pack Ice


 The next stage was difficult. We progressed slowly through the pack. Frequently we had to climb into the rigging to plot our way through the labrinth. We could not rest because we were both needed. Added stress was caused by the incessant noise of the ice against the aluminium hull. Frequently we were surrounded by fog. It was dangerous work.

  Sometimes to find a clear passage we had to go where the chart only showed 1.80m, Ocean Search needs 1.80m. We had no choice. We ran aground twice before we found a way through. We passed by heaps of ice that were themselves aground, stacked high beside us. Sometimes we were in such a narrow chanel that we almost touched on both sides. We were exhausted , We could not give up. We kept going.

  After 126 hours, almost without sleep, one and a half hour a day, we began to move slowly but surely into easier waters. Suddenly we could sea the reflection of the blue sky on the ice. Clear water at last.
A few hours later we were on almost ice free water. Even though conditions for sailing were not that good and there were contrary winds and currents and poor visibility, we felt satisfied. We had stood the test. We had found a passage. We were OK.

  We could see the sun. A pod of Belugas were leaping in the distance, as if to cheer us on our way.

The North West Territory
and the new Inuit province of Nunavut


We rapidly made our way to Tuktoyaktuk, the Inuit village at the mouth of the Mackenzie River. As usual we received a warm welcome. A crowd always surrounded our boat. Wherever we went we were escorted by a bunch of young people.
We had gone less than halfway, there was still far to go. It was already august 14th. We had to soon say "Good bye" to our friends in Tuk and point our nose towards Nunavut, the new Inuit Territory.
The hours of dusk became longer and we knew there would soon again be night. There was no way that we could travel faster as it was, we were travelling nonstop except for our very short landfalls.
We were more and more hampered by the layers of warm clothes that we had to climb in and out of every three hours as we changed watch.

  Two days short of Gjoa Haven, we ran into problems. Through several long hours our situation was extremely precarious as the ice pack, pushed by strong winds, ran aground and became compressed, we just managed to avoid it. We risked being crushed and strangled by this mighty giant.
  Our escape route was very narrow. If anything had gone wrong we would have been imprisoned for the duration of time.
Gjoa Haven is the port where Roald Amundsen and his companions spent two winters on his expedition of 1903-06 as he planned his route onwards.
When he first landed, it was uninhabited. The Inuits came there to meet the Explorers. We got acquainted with Amundsen's grandchildren. On their living room wall was a painting of their illustrious grandfather.

Lancaster Strait

It was already the end of August, there were frequent snow and hail storms. We still to had to travel north another 800 kilometres to Latitude 74 before we could reach Lancaster Strait and from there pass into the Baffin Sea.

  Bob and Paul, grandsons of Amundsen , with whom we spent much of our short stay in Gjoa Haven, gave us a supply of fish and smoked caribou to add to our supplies and to provide us with the strength and energy we would need for this, the final stretch.

  We took on board, for 100 kms, Jonathon Waterman, an American kayaker, who had been held up for two weeks by bad weather. We landed him the next day, on a deserted beach. As we left him behind, we could see his lonely figure getting smaller and smaller in the distance, lost in the enormous Arctic landscape. Good luck Jonathon and Take care. I invite you to discover Jon's fantastic book about this Arctic trip : Arctic Crossing, Jonathan Waterman, publisher Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2001, ISBN 0-375-40409-0.

   We passed close to the place where the Terror and the Erebus were lost on the Sir John Franklin's Expedition. There were enough spaces between the ice and we began to think ahead, but cautiously, so as not to attract bad luck. We would soon find out if we were going to reach our goal.
We stopped for a night at Fort Ross, a Hudson Bay Trading Post, abandoned since 1948. There we found a cairn erected by the MacClintock Expedition. It was one more point of contact with the 19th Century explorers. On the beach we found three polar bears. They seemed as surprised as we were by our meeting.

  On September Ist we passed out into Lancaster Strait. There were gale force wind blowing and cathedral sized icebergs travelling very close to each other as we approached the bay in which we hoped to find shelter.
We waited there for four days, hoping for better conditions. We were forced to keep watch, so we could not get the rest for which we longed . We were going to have to achieve our ambition of completing the North West Passage in one season, our "First for France" without any help from our friends, the giant seas.

Heading South


 The storm finally passed. We went ashore for five hours at Pond Inlet. This was our last stop before setting out for France. We were still nearly 1000 Km north of the Arctic Circle but now we could head south. to round the South Cape of Greenland and into the North Atlantic.
The Aurora Borealis lit up the northern skies and icebergs marked our triumphant path. We met our last iceberg suddenly , far beyond their limit as marked on our charts, on a dark night, 48 hours after we had turned off our radar.
This was the time of the equinox and depression after depression went by. We crossed the track of the great hurricane Floyd, luckily a bit quieter since crossing over Newfoundland.

  On October 3rd , only 12 days after seeing our last iceberg, we entered Brest Harbour after a rough passage. We had travelled 15000 Kms, of which 6000 were north of the Arctic Circle. Our family and friends were there to greet us.


We were tired but very happy. The moment I set foot on land,
I started dreaming once more of the North East Passage.

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