Ultima Thule, Polar Bear, and Generator Repairs

Written by Chris Polashenski

The Farthest North. A goal of such explorers as Nansen and Perry. We certainly won’t be reaching the pole on this trip, but pretty far north just the same. Today was our last day driving that way and a magical day it was. We started the day by carefully re-calculating our fuel and two stroke oil budgets this morning and determined that a 100 mile day, as planned, would be pushing our fuel just a bit too close for comfort. Seventy five miles it would be.


80N, 50W A big convergence

(80N, 50W) A big convergence

Inspired by Matthew Sturm’s book “Finding the Arctic”, which was mandatory reading for all on this trip, we’ve hit a couple ‘convergences’ – places where whole degrees of latitude and longitude intersect. An entirely contrived game that only silly humans toting GPS’s would consider fun, the basic idea is to be the first person to have ever stood exactly at a particular convergence. At first we thought that by bagging a few that happened to lie very close to our route we were really accomplishing something unique – until we did the sobering math to figure out exactly how many convergences there are on earth. 360 degrees of longitude, intersecting 180 degrees of latitude. 360 X 180 = 64800. Ohh well – we still think it’s unique! Examining our intended bearing to the northeast along with our new range constraint this morning, I quickly realized that the intersection of 80N and 50W was 73.5 miles away, in almost exactly the correct bearing. A multiple of ten convergence –there’s only 648 of those! Nerd excitement rang out and off we went.


Evidence of an abrupt stop

Evidence of an abrupt stop

Driving along was rough going. We are driving across the prevailing wind, which appears to be catabatics running down the mighty Petermann Glacier toward the Northwest. The sastrugi are large and unpredictable with occasional 2-3 foot high ‘whalebacks’ that are rock hard and send you and your sled loads for a jangle. The terrain was beautiful though, and as we picked along at 35 km/hr we dropped in an out of small broad valleys that told us the ice was all feeding into Petermann, and probably grinding up some mountains thousands of feet below along the way.  Then, all of a sudden, there it was. Unmistakeable. In a maneuver carefully practiced from looking for animal tracks from any number of conveyances over the years, I slammed on the brakes on my machine – the first time I’ve touched them all trip – backing up my 3 sleds behind me and careened to a sliding sideways stop. One hundred forty five miles from the nearest water at the tongue of the Petermann Glacier in Nares Strait, I’d just crossed a polar bear track, followed closely by an arctic fox. Mike and Nate piled into the heap behind me cartoon-style, gawked, shouted disbelief, then wandered silently along the track in awe of the polar pair we’d intersected in this vast desert. We’ve all seen and spent time with polar bears before, and we even have a rifle along for bear protection as mandated by our permit from the Greenlandic government, but we never ever expected to see any sign of one up here.  The temptation to take off on the track was almost irresistible, but it was a day or two old and we haven’t any extra fuel. He was headed toward NEEM though, so maybe we’ll see him in the next couple days. Reluctantly we saddled back up and headed off without pursuit, spending the next 30 miles tricking ourselves into thinking every disturbed snow grain was another track, every shining sastrugi an arctic fox. Naturally none were to be found. You can’t force magic.

The Polar Pair...Polar Bear and Fox

Polar Bear and Fox, The Polar Pair

In camp the magic seemed to have worn off. The sleds had taken a serious beating during the day’s drive and, more than usual, opening boxes to get gear out meant repairs. 4 samples had hopped ship somewhere along the way too. Out of 1200, this isn’t a huge loss, but stinging just the same. The biggest problem, however, was that our generator had ceased up. Nothing we could do could spin it, and it’s a critical piece of the operation – within a couple days no generator would mean no drill, computer, sat phone, cameras, spectroradiometers, thawed dimethyl phthalate for snow preservation and more. We do have the ability to generate some power off the snow machine alternators, but losing the generator puts us in a very different mode. Unacceptable.

Cracking the crankcase

Cracking the crankcase

A ceased engine was more than we were expecting to have to deal with. Spark plugs sure. Adding oil, no problem. Even cleaning and rebuilding the carburetor, but not being able to turn the crankshaft – no that’s bad. Mike and I rolled up our sleeves though and dug in. Generally amazingly reliable, the Honda generator is not made to be taken apart – but something, and we were determined to find out what, was jammed in her piston, probably a valve. Odds were laid for the likelihood of success (35% from Chris, 0% from Mike) and work began. Two and a half hours later she was completely cracked open.  Some finagling with the valves and a few knocks on the crankshaft bearings and she miraculously came loose. Then the great puzzle of putting her back together. Another 2 hours.  Nate basically did our entire science station himself – but by gosh as I sit here and type this 600 miles from the North Pole and 715 miles (by our route) from Summit station, our generator is purring like a cat and we’re some pretty smug, tired, greasy campers.

Getting to the heart of the matter.

Getting to the heart of the matter.



3 thoughts on “Ultima Thule, Polar Bear, and Generator Repairs

  1. So you DID hit the convergence, right? Congrats on that! Sounds like fun to me! I had complete faith too that the gen would be fixed!! You guys are awesome! We think of you often… while whining about walking in the rain or something equally trivial!

  2. you had me laughing about the nerd excitement. and as usual, totally awed at your abilities to fix just about anything. not having my daily sage blog to read could have serious consequences.
    hurry home for first cut hay, ripe broccoli, swimming, summer! going to be in the 90’s end of this week! sister liz arriving for stem cell harvest with july 5 as transplant date. my love to yall. maggie

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