The winch hums as the anchor chain comes noisily aboard and down into the chain locker. My three boys are asleep in the foc’s’l as it is still only 4:30 on a cool summer morning in 1997. We’re into the third day of a voyage from Kugluktuk to Bathurst Inlet aboard our 45-year old ex-RCMP patrol boat.
Our little ship was built in Upper Lahave, Nova Scotia in 1954. Old-time boat-builder William Robar did not work from plans – he had an "eye" for his craft and that’s all he needed. This would be the second of two sister vessels he built on instructions from his friend Henry Larsen, then Commissioner of the RCMP. After moving across the country by rail car to Waterways, Alberta (near the site of present-day Fort McMurray) and then by barge to Hay River, the RCMP took possession and sailed her down the MacKenzie to Aklavik.
First named Aklavik, she would later be called the Jennings, after an edict from Ottawa pronounced that all RCMP vessels would be named after Commissioners or ex-Commissioners of that force. From 1955 to 1965 the Jennings hauled freight, policemen and their families, school children, fish, fire-wood and groceries up and down the MacKenzie River.
In 1965 the Jennings was transferred to the Coppermine detachment, and the following year she was declared "surplus to requirements", sold through Crown Assets Disposal Corporation to the Coppermine Co-Op and renamed Amoulik. For the next few years she hauled fuel and soapstone around the Coronation Gulf, until she met her demise from lack of adequate maintenance and was hauled out on the beach and left to rot.
In 1982 I purchased the Amoulik. She was in a sorry state, with her "screamin’ Jimmy" engine a solid block of rust, her planking dried out and her "systems" (such as they were) either broken or missing. I spent the next six years putting her right, and in the end she was born again with a brand-new six-cylinder Volvo heart and all the latest in navigation and communications gear. For the next fourteen summers our Fort Hearne took us in wonderful comfort to places few others have ever seen.
As I hoist the anchor aboard with block and tackle, the Fort Hearne drifts slowly astern on the light breeze. The engine has been running for several minutes, the diesel clatter subsiding as she warms to the task ahead. Back in the wheelhouse now, I put the helm hard to port and the engine in gear. The Fort Hearne pivots nimbly and makes her way out of the secure harbour at Hepburn Island. Our next waypoint will be just off Cape Barrow, at the entrance to Bathurst Inlet, some thirty miles away.
At eight knots, there will be plenty of time to cook up a good breakfast. With our little ship steadied up on course, I engage the autopilot, then wait to see that the gadget is actually doing its job. Exiting the wheelhouse, I move forward over the dewy deck and down the companionway into the foc’s’l. The kids are still sleeping soundly, lulled by the gentle murmur of the engine and the slap of water against the stem.I turn off the diesel-fired heater. We can now get all the heat we need from the engine cooling system. I fire up the propane stove and fry some bacon, eggs and hash-browns. The smell of food soon has the boys mumbling and rubbing the sleep from their eyes. Soon we’re all having a good breakfast at the ridiculously tiny table. I duck out every ten minutes or so to check the horizon ahead for obstructions but, of course, there are none. We are alone on the arctic sea, with no other vessels in sight and no ice to block our progress.
The boys spend the rest of the morning playing cards in the foc’s’l while I sit watching our progress in the wheelhouse. The Volvo hums in the engine room below my feet while I listen to the ham radio and get the latest forecast from Inuvik. I read and watch the horizon as a system consisting of the GPS receiver, the autopilot, the magnetic compass and a gaggle of hydraulic pumps and hoses takes care of the tedium of steering.
Soon it’s lunch time. I cook up some Kraft Dinner and hot-dogs for the kids, and we lounge in the sunshine, amidships on the deck, using the tarp-covered hatch as a table. The miles slip by imperceptibly and the calm sea is broken only by the head of the occasional seal who surfaces to check out this strange-sounding contraption.
By early afternoon we are in the midst of the Barry Islands, half-way down the Inlet. At times we are very close to land as we navigate between the islands. Our beagle, Gypsy, looks longingly at the shore, anxious to chase a ground squirrel.
Late afternoon sees us on the eastern side of Bear Island, off the mouth of the Hiukitak River. We move into the mouth as far as we dare, then drop anchor. The weather is warm – too warm even for the bugs, and we are dressed in T-shirts and shorts. We bring the 14-foot Lund alongside, clamber aboard her, and roar off into the maze of channels and sandbars. We spend the next four hours exploring the river, and manage to get several miles up-stream before the water becomes too shallow for the outboard. Caribou appear on the sandbars, and we catch one meal-sized char for supper.
We will be away from our Kugluktuk home base for another ten days, but we have plenty of supplies, fuel and fresh water aboard. In fact, we have enough fuel to go another 1,000 miles, enough food to last a month, and we can always pick up more fresh water at any number of creeks along the coast.
There is little doubt in my mind that the very best way to see the arctic is from a vantage point on the deck of a large, slow moving vessel. Our Fort Hearne is not troubled by weight, and we regularly carry cases of pop and canned goods, drums of gas for the outboard and other items that would be impossible to haul in an aluminum runabout. We sleep aboard every night, in warm beds, and enjoy all the other comforts of home - other than live TV. A generator, belted to the engine, provides AC power for the freezer and microwave while underway. When at anchor, we have a wind generator to provide "juice" for lights and radios. Heat comes from diesel-fired heaters when at anchor, or the engine cooling system while steaming. We have fishing and hunting equipment on board, as well as camping gear for the few times when we feel like staying ashore.
Our Fort Hearne made a few bucks over the years that we owned her. She carried tourists, did work for the Coast Guard and hauled fuel to outpost camps. But the real pay-off was in the life-style she created for us. That alone was worth the six summers of hard work and the monetary investment that was never recovered.
I would not trade those years for anything.
Photo: My three sons, Steven, David and Thomas, Hiukitak River, August 1997