• Keeping a 37-year-old ship and all its systems running smoothly requires around-the-clock care, provided by an engineering crew, from oilers to electricians, which answers to Chief Engineer Ron Collier (at right, second from front). The crew stands between two of the ship’s five V-16 diesel engines. (Photo: Benoit Aquin)

  • Photo: Benoit Aquin

  • After approaching the Louis by air in icy Davis Strait, the ship’s twin-engined helicopter hovers over the flight deck on the stern (TOP). It can land and take off while the ship is moving or stationary, as long as the pitch on the landing pad is less than six degrees. (Photo: Benoit Aquin)

Day 1. Thursday, July 20. OFF TO SEA!

44°40’N, 63°33’W

With the confidence of a sentry in red serge, the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St-Laurent turns away from her dock on the Dartmouth side of Halifax Harbour and sets a course for the Northwest Passage. It is 17:30 hours, and following a bustle of last-minute loading, we’re under way. The Louis won’t be back to this port until mid-November.

The largest of five icebreakers dedicated to Arctic service each summer, the Louis’ mission is to aid shipping, perform search and rescue as required, support scientific research and resupply Northern communities and government sites. Perhaps most important, though, is her mission to fly the Maple Leaf and be a Canadian presence in the passage at a time when changing ice conditions have people thinking it won’t be long before Canada’s claim to this fabled gateway from Atlantic to Pacific will be actively challenged — by those nations whose commercial ships are eager to take the 7,000-kilometre shortcut from Europe to East Asia, or by those wishing to make territorial claims through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (unclos) or those wishing to make jurisdictional challenges through the International Court of Justice. Canadian lawyers will be busy for years to come defending our claims.

The ship is a little longer than a football field and less than half as wide, with six decks, not including the engine room. Within a few minutes of boarding, I manage to get lost until one of the logistics officers comes to the rescue, gives me a quick tour and shows me to my spartan cabin.

I try to head to the mess for a bite to eat but get all turned around and again have to ask directions. The ship’s corridors all look the same to me. My cabin is on the upper deck, which means I can walk to the bow of the ship and look down at the main and lower decks and engine room and above at the ship’s superstructure, starting with the flight deck and ending with the bridge deck, with a couple of levels in between.

The Louis has a stellar 37-year record. Soon after her launch from the Canadian Vickers shipyard in Montréal in 1969, the ship was tasked, along with the CCGS John A. Macdonald, with escorting the supertanker SS Manhattan on a trial run through the Northwest Passage to assess the feasibility of transporting oil from Alaska’s North Slope. This was the incident in which the United States famously and very publicly challenged our sovereignty by announcing, without so much as a by-your-leave to Canada, that the 136,000-tonne behemoth, owned by the Humble Oil and Refining Company, would transit the passage.

Another career highlight occurred on Aug. 22, 1994, when the Louis became the first Canadian surface vessel to reach the North Pole. But not mentioned in the glossy Coast Guard brochures is the fact that when she arrived at the pole, the Russians had already been there in their nuclear-powered ice-breaking brute Yamal, with dozens of rosy-cheeked kidniks dancing on the ice, making a film for Russian television about what fun it is to go to the North Pole.

Nor does it mention on the plaques outside the forward lounge honouring the Louis’ volunteered service to the Manhattan that the United States had conspicuously refused to ask permission (and still does) to enter Canadian territory.

Day 2. LEARNING THE ROUTINE

45°34’N, 60°10’W

Meals are served at 07:30, 11:30 and 16:30. The fancy visitors’ cabins have toilets and showers. The rest of us share washrooms and laundry facilities located throughout the ship.

We’re heading into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and up through the Strait of Belle Isle, and our time today is filled with intensive safety training and ship familiarization. Last time I was on one of these ships, I got stuck in my immersion wetsuit and couldn’t get out. This ship has dry suits, which are still a bit claustrophobic for some. Photographer Benoit Aquin and I have a good laugh, but this is serious training led by First Officer Stéphane Legault and Third Officer Catherine Lacombe. When all is said and done, including written and online tests, we have completed the "Ship specific familiarization checklist referred to in FSM-6C1 section 3.3," we have done "Mandatory Occupational Safety and Health Training," including a computer-based training program called "WHMIS and You," as per Coast Guard regulations, and we have received signed certificates to attest to our success.

Day 3. AHARRRR, MATEYS!

50°46’N, 57°41’W

Benoit and I have the run of the ship. We check out all the systems — propulsion, electrical power generation, water desalination, sewage, communication, security, fire, waste, food service ... we’re on a selfcontained world on the high seas. Everywhere we go, crew members are accommodating, within the limits of the work they’re doing at the time, friendly and anxious to help us understand what makes the Louis tick.

Sailing through the Strait of Belle Isle into Iceberg Alley, we clamber up to the crow’s nest, the highest point on the ship. We get there by climbing stairs up five storeys to the bridge, then proceed up a 20-metre ladder inside the main mast to a trap door. The view from there is unbelievable, especially at night when the watch officer fires up big searchlights to scan for icebergs.

My most profound geography lesson in a while happens as we turn the corner of Labrador, leaving the warm northeastward-flowing waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and entering the frigid southwardflowing waters of the Labrador Current, which brings down all the icebergs. The temperature drops from the balmy 20s to near-zero — on July 22! Since turning that corner, we’re on a course of zero degrees, due north, for 700 nautical miles. It will take us through the Labrador Sea and into Baffin Bay.

Day 4. THE CAPTAIN’S TABLE

55°26’N, 54°58’W

Every Sunday, the officers put on their dress uniforms, with black trousers and white shirts instead of navy trousers and light blue shirts. Work is the same as on any other day, except that the officers look spiffier.

Also in accordance with Coast Guard tradition, the captain invites a few members of the ship’s company to share a meal with him in the dining room, which is closed the rest of the week. Benoit and I are among the 10 or so invitees today. Before we are treated to a lovely dinner with linen, silver service and wine, Captain Anthony Potts welcomes us and speaks about each of the previous captains of the Louis, whose portraits are hung around the room and who have commanded the country’s sovereignty flagship in the Arctic.

Although this mission is primarily scientific, explains Captain Potts, the Louis could be requested at any time to change course, as per standing orders, to investigate and observe foreign navigation, to support other government agencies, or to investigate ships on exploratory or demonstration voyages. The Louis and her sister icebreakers are "the most visible and effective marine element supporting Canadian sovereignty in the North," he says.

Canada’s jurisdiction over the 19,000 islands of the Arctic Archipelago is, surprisingly perhaps, not at issue. There is a still an unsettled minor disagreement with Denmark over Hans Island at the border with Greenland, and we have an ongoing spat with the United States over a triangle of undersea territory off the Yukon-Alaska border. But ever since Great Britain ceded the Arctic islands to Canada in 1880, no one has disputed our ownership of those lands. It is on, in and under the sea where contention still brews.

Canada claims the passage as its internal waters, just like our half of the Great Lakes. To emphasize that claim, in 1986 the Canadian government declared a boundary surrounding the entire Canadian Arctic Archipelago, including the territorial sea (from the low-water-mark baseline on the coast out to 12 nautical miles) and the exclusive economic zone (200 nautical miles from the baseline). Denmark, as an extension of Greenland, and Russia have made similar claims under unclos. It remains to be seen whether or how these will settle out when challenged. Canada simultaneously instituted a voluntary registration system for ships in the passage.

Russia, which is in the same legal situation as Canada with the Northern Sea Route, demands registration and payment for passage through its internal waters. The United States and the European Union contend that these Northern passages are sea connections between the Atlantic and Pacific and, as such, are international straits through which they are free to send their ships.

After the passage of the Manhattan, Canada, in a move that was seen as shrewd under the circumstances, temporarily sidestepped the issue of conventional sovereignty and passed the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, which provides some measure of control over international shipping in the passage. Since then, the Louis and all her sister ships in the Coast Guard fleet have carried emergency pollutionabatement gear, such as sorbent booms and pads, floating boom buoys and anchors, hoses and suction pumps, to help mop up oil leaks.

The anti-pollution measures, although not statements of sovereignty, were further strengthened by unclos, the multilateral agreement which Canada ratified in 2003. The agreement confirms that fragile Arctic environments deserve more stringent protection under UN law and supports Canada’s move to define its territory in the Arctic Archipelago.

Day 5. SCIENCE OF SOVEREIGNTY

60°41’N, 55°00’W

As we sail into more northern waters, scientists who had been working away quietly since the ship left Dartmouth are now busily preparing their equipment to begin collecting data. Judging by the four oceanographic labs on board, GPS feeds, winches, fume hoods, freezers, cargo fridges, conference rooms, science berths, fibre optic computer network and use of deck space alone, the Louis’ science mission is vital.

Beginning in March, this scientific activity will gear up as International Polar Year (IPY), an intense period of interdisciplinary polar research, begins. The Canadian contribution to IPY 2007-2008 will involve a variety of projects, and the Coast Guard will provide the all-important platforms from which much of this science will be conducted.

In her sixth summer aboard the Louis, oceanographer Jane Eert of the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, B.C., is getting ready to launch a series of probes to measure the conductivity, temperature and depth of the ocean under the ship’s keel. Eert has a gunlike instrument at the ready that looks like some kind of ghost-busting blunderbuss. Attached to each baseball- sized probe are as much as a thousand metres of threadlike copper wire through which temperature and conductivity data are transmitted as the probe descends through the water column. Depth is determined on the basis of a well-calibrated fall rate of about 6.5 metres per second. When the thread runs out, the data gathering is done and the probe and its tether plummet to the bottom, with no expectation of retrieval.

Years of science conducted from the Louis and other Northern ships have resulted in incredible maps of the currents flowing under the Arctic ice and led to convincing evidence of climate change.

Money for Arctic science has declined over the past decade as other priorities dominate the government’s national agenda, but outside funding and scientists from other countries have contributed to the Louis’ science program. The work is important, says Eert, not only for understanding climate change but also for asserting sovereignty.

"Some sovereignty activities are done just to show we’re there," says Eert. "But when you do science in the North, not only are you showing that Canadians care about the land we own, but you’re doing work that benefits all of humanity."

Day 6. KING NEPTUNE’S INITIATION

65°13’N, 56°59’W

A couple of days ago, Captain Potts gathered all 14 newbies on the ship — new crew members, scientists and the Canadian Geographic team — to solemnly explain what a great privilege it is to cross 66.6°N, the Arctic Circle, particularly aboard a Coast Guard ship. It would be Neptune, King of the Sea, and his Queen, whose name he didn’t mention, who would ultimately decide whether we were fit for such a crossing. But in the meantime, the captain said, we would all have to undergo a series of tests to determine our readiness.

First among these involved a raw egg, which bore the ship’s stamp and the captain’s signature, to avoid illegal substitution in the event of breakage. Each of us would have to look after one egg until we were told not to. Knowing that the rest of the crew was out to test our resolve to take care of our eggs, we all found or made little protectors. Mine fit perfectly inside a waterproof camera case.

I laughed when one of the others had his egg cracked by a malicious crewmate (this was fixed with two Band-Aids). But he laughed when mine was stolen while I was in the gym. When we were piped over the ship’s intercom to report to the "monkey’s island," an open-air balcony above the bridge, I had to admit I’d lost my egg.

"Neptune will not be amused," was all Third Officer Lacombe would say. I can’t tell you exactly what happened, as we were sworn to secrecy, except to say that the tests got quite extreme and, for some, involved the loss of a substantial amount of hair. We were eventually dragged before Neptune and his Queen and sentenced to various punishments.

Later, we all were deemed fit to cross the Circle and received certificates — wall and wallet size — to present next time we cross the Arctic Circle on a Coast Guard ship, to avoid another initiation.

Day 7. ICEBERGS AHEAD!

69°13’N, 65°59’W

Just before crossing the Arctic Circle, the morning watch officer on the bridge seems more attentive than usual. Following his lead, I look and look again through binoculars to see the shimmer of warm air on cool water broken by a thin white line along the northern horizon — the first ice of our journey. In time, we’re surrounded by drifts of pack ice, which the ship pushes through with ease, though not without dramatic bashing and crashing along the sides of the thick ice belt around her hull. Then, almost as quickly as it came, the ice is gone, and we’re back in open water.

This water also carries lots of massive icebergs. Calved off the glaciers of Greenland, the icebergs first drifted north on ocean currents, then curved west and are now sailing, like great ships carrying the climatic history of the world in their multitudinous layers, south to Newfoundland and beyond.

There is no question that these massive islands of ice would be a threat to the Louis were they not visible in satellite images, on ice maps, on the ship’s all-seeing radar and within sight of an attentive watch officer.

Day 8. ENTER, THE PASSAGE

73°52’N, 73°58’W

We have sailed out of darkness, and the world unfolding before us in 24-hour daylight in Lancaster Sound is getting more spectacular by the minute. This is the gateway to the Northwest Passage. To the north is the rugged coast of Devon Island, with its many glaciers winding to the sea. To the south is Bylot Island and the north coast of Baffin Island. You can’t be here without thinking about the historic hunt for this fabled passage.

For a time in the 19th century, this entrance to the Northwest Passage was thought not to exist. When British Captain John Ross came to this point in 1818, the mouth of Lancaster Sound was obstructed by ice, but he looked west and thought he also saw a range of high hills blocking the route. He called them "Croker’s Mountains." These turned out to be a mirage, which made Ross the butt of Admiralty jokes for the rest of his life.

Today, though, there are no mountains or mirages in sight, at least on the western horizon. The sun is shining, the water is ice-free, and the waves and the Louis’ throbbing diesel engines are pushing us farther and farther into the vastness of her Northern realm.

Even with all the imaging and communications technology that is in use, the task of policing these Northern waters is daunting. Practically speaking, asserting sovereignty and assuring national security here is problematic. We have few military personnel with significant Arctic operational training or experience, and we have no Navy ships with icebreaking capability. Our military presence in the North consists of the Canadian Forces Northern Area headquarters in Yellowknife and two detachments in Whitehorse and Iqaluit.

The Coast Guard has long experience in the North, but the 15,139-tonne, 27,000-horsepower Louis, biggest of the fleet, is just not in the same league as, for example, the 20,735-tonne, 75,000-horsepower Yamal. Nor is it on a par with U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers or any number of Uncle Sam’s nuclear-powered submarines or military icebreakers, all of which can operate here year-round. The Louis and her smaller sister ships don’t have the strength to protect Canada’s interests in winter.

On land, Canada does have the RCMP and the Canadian Rangers. The Rangers’ sovereignty patrols on snow machines are something of legend, but for all their virtues, this willing band of some 4,000 parttime armed reservists in 163 communities across the North hasn’t the training or the equipment to consider any kind of interdiction, in winter or summer, on the open sea, where the only real tests to Canadian sovereignty will occur.

Use-it-or-lose-it wisdom has, from time to time, led various Canadian governments to propose proprietary measures in the Northwest Passage. In 1985, the Mulroney government promised then rescinded funds for a year-round icebreaker and undersea surveillance system. Others postulated about the purchase of nuclear submarines.

The Harper government has been talking about purchasing three new armed icebreakers, estimated to cost about $450 million each. This does not include the $105 million cost to build a deepwater port in Iqaluit to service them.

As the "pride of the fleet" nears the end of her expected working life, like all the other Coast Guard ships in Arctic operations, there is agreement in various quarters, including the Northern scientific community, on replacing the ships with vessels that could operate in the passage year-round. Having more Arctic-capable ships would send a strong message to the international community that Canada is serious about being master of its Arctic domain.

Whether or how these vessels should be armed is a whole other matter. It is one thing to spill oil across the deserts of the Middle East while sorting out an international conflict, but it would be quite another to consider bombing, torpedoing or firing upon oil-laden ships in one of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet. And staffing these new marine interdictors is another question — the Coast Guard has ample Arctic operating expertise, yet the Canadian Forces, with limited operational expertise on the ground in the Arctic, has been proposed to take on the task, with an Arctic-specific military training centre planned for Resolute or Cambridge Bay.

Last April, the Canadian Forces began referring to the region not as the Northwest Passage but as the Canadian Internal Waters. The declaration came after the successful completion of Operation Nunalivut (Inuktitut for "land that is ours"), an expedition into the area by five military patrols.

That said, Canada’s annual $2 billion transfer to territorial communities can also be seen as a worthy investment in sovereignty, among other things. On the basis of historical occupancy, these communities may well be just what Canada needs to bolster a potential future claim to the International Court of Justice that the passage indeed comprises internal waters.

Day 9. BEECHEY ISLAND

74°27’N, 92°10’W

No one else is visiting Beechey Island when a shore party from the Louis stops here this sunny July day. In his search for the passage, Sir John Franklin overwintered here in 1845-46 before disappearing into the wild blue. Three of Franklin’s crew died and were buried here.

It feels as though Franklin and his men left just yesterday. The crew members’ remains and the remains of those who came later to look for Franklin are relatively undisturbed by time. An incredible cairn stands at the top of the island, and replacement grave markers interrupt the pebble beach. The originals are gone (the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife has one). A small cairn not far from the gravesite protects a brass tube containing the names of thousands of Northphiles who have come to this site on the increasing number of cruise ships that ply the passage in summer.

Even in this general warming trend, the ice and weather in the passage remain unpredictable and formidable, which may deter the oil tankers and other commercial ships for longer than some have predicted. The melting can be expected to release large chunks of dense multi-year ice into the passage, making it even more dangerous for navigation.

One need look no further than the opening lines of any Arctic saga or the mute lonely cairns of stones dotted here and there to know that experience in this region teaches that only a fool rests easy on his predictions of what is to come tomorrow or next year.

Day 10. FLIGHT QUARTERS IN PEEL SOUND

74°14’N, 95°17’W

The Louis couldn’t really do what she does without her little dragonfly connecting her to anything and everything that is not on the ship. The chopper can carry, in addition to pilot Nelson Cornell, four passengers or a combination of fuel and cargo totalling 750 kilograms. It lifts people and gear on and off the Louis when she’s not in port. Today, it is serving as the icebreaker’s eyes over Peel Sound.

Captain Potts’ original plan was to sail down Prince Regent Inlet after stopping at Resolute, on Cornwallis Island, but that route is still icebound. Instead, we will head down Peel Sound, on the west side of Somerset Island.

To make route decisions, the captain uses satellite imagery and photos and observations from CANICE 3, Canada’s fixed-wing, ice-observation plane, all of which are synthesized into ice maps by the Canadian Ice Service. But he also has the chopper when he wants to get real-time details about ice conditions.

Day 11. BEARS!

71°58’N, 95°37’W

Now that we’re into the ice, we’re seeing seals and polar bears. We come upon a big male bear with a freshly killed ringed seal. Scared, he is not. As the ship bears down on him, he just picks up the seal like a rag doll and trots ahead of us with a proprietary purpose to his steps. It doesn’t matter how big or red or smelly or noisy is this approaching beast — it isn’t going to get his lunch.

He survives, but the possible fate of his magnificent species due to global warming is disturbing. Less ice means less time for bears to fatten up for the summer season, when hunting is much more energy-intensive.

"They have three choices," says Eddy Carmack, a senior scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, B.C. "They can move, they can adapt, or they can die — more or less because of us."

Day 12. "THE NATIONAL" GOES NORTH

71°58’N, 95°37’W

The Louis had taken on a few new visitors at Resolute, and among them were Peter Mansbridge and a crew from CBC’s "The National." The food, which was great, gets even better — two hot entrees instead of one and fish chowder to die for. The bar in the forward lounge, normally open for just two hours a night at the captain’s discretion, is suddenly open until it closes. And the chopper is flying around the clock, with the camera crew gathering stories and scenes that will be part of a four-day news package broadcast "live from the Louis."

Day 13. CITIZEN SCIENCE

71°58’N, 95°37’W

Carmack has been doing an intriguing little experiment with beer bottles over the past few years (CG July/Aug 2006). The idea is simple. You put notes in beer bottles that say "When you find this, let me know when and where." You seal the bottles and drop them into the ocean in various places. When they’re found, you get a portrait of how ocean currents move around the world. Carmack gets Mansbridge and his crew to toss a few bottles into Bellot Strait, and they seem grateful for the chance to assist polar science.

Day 14. AN AMERICAN ADVENTURER ON SOVEREIGNTY

69°02’N, 105°13’W

Today, we stop about 12 kilometres offshore from Cambridge Bay. "The National" crew flies in to mount the news from there, and some of the rest of us head in by boat to have a look around town.

At one point, one of the shore-party boats runs out of gas and drifts for a while before help arrives. Chief Mate Ken Brown, who is at the helm of the disabled landing craft, is encouraged by his fellow strandees to "call the Coast Guard" to describe his dilemma. He is not amused.

I stop in for a chat with Gary Ramos, whose boat, Arctic Wanderer, is tied up at the wharf. An American intent on sailing "around the North Pole," Ramos ran into trouble when his exhaust system failed and sucked seawater into his engine and fuel system. He spent the winter in Cambridge on his little sailboat.

When he crossed into Canadian waters, having sailed around Alaska, he stopped at Tuktoyaktuk and phoned Canada Customs to let agents know he was planning to sail through, in keeping with Canada’s voluntary registration for ships heading through the passage.

The customs officer said, "You’re calling from where?" When Ramos explained the location of Tuk, the officer laughed and said, "Have a nice trip."

Day 15. Thursday, Aug. 3. END OF THE LINE

68°26’N, 110°42’W

The big red ship grumbles to a stop in Coronation Gulf at the mouth of the Coppermine River, off the hamlet of Kugluktuk, Nunavut. The weather is beautiful this morning as we drop anchor for a crew change. It’s warmer in Kugluktuk than in Halifax, according to CBC Radio. Benoit and I are among the first to head into town.

Meanwhile, a chartered First Air Boeing 737 has arrived from Halifax with a new crew. As the two captains confer, our crew is ferried off the ship by chopper and the fresh crew and all the new scientists are flown out to the ship. They will populate the Louis for the next six weeks of her Arctic peregrinations.

My last image of the Louis is through the window of our Halifax-bound charter. She looks small, almost insignificant, in the vastness of the open water stretching north to Victoria Island across Coronation Gulf. We’ve come 5,820 kilometres on the Louis , and impressions are swirling of all that we have experienced, of all that I have come to know of this ship and her willing garrison of sailors and scientists.

But eclipsing any conventional notion of picket fences, determining who shall go here, who shall dwell and who shall benefit from the potential resource riches of the Northwest Passage — all that is subjugated this day by a pervasive sense that all is not well in our Arctic. No matter where we have turned on this voyage, it is the stories of shorter winters, melting ice, the words of the scientists, the images of skinny white bears that have struck the deepest chords. Sovereignty, if it is anything at all, is not so much about proprietary rights of ownership as it is about a set of responsibilities and commitments to look after this place that is our Northern home.