June 30, 2020 – Two Atlantic Towing coastal tugs – the Atlantic Elm and Atlantic Beech – recently set sail for Baker Lake, Nunavut, where they will spend several months ferrying critical supplies to the Canadian territory’s sole inland community.
A Decade Delivering Critical Supplies
Each summer, the ice-choked sea passages to Canada’s North clear for approximately four months. During this brief window, it becomes possible to resupply a number of First Nation and Inuit communities by ship. Yet, the community of Baker Lake faces a unique challenge: As Nunavut’s only inland community, Baker Lake is inaccessible to larger supply vessels.
For a decade, Quebec-based company Desgagnés Transarctik has partnered with Atlantic Towing to provide a solution. Desgagnés sails its cargo ships to Helicopter Island, a small landmass northwest of Hudson Bay. There, the Elm and Beech (each with a barge in-tow) rendezvous with the ships. Cranes mounted on the Desgagnés ships transfer cargo to the smaller Atlantic Towing vessels.
From there, the tugboats and barges make their way through narrow waterways to Baker Lake. The Elm and Beech sail between the cargo ships and community for months, ensuring supplies are delivered before ice begins to form in the fall.
|Atlantic Towing Tug and Barge Ferrying Supplies. Photographed by Joel Johnston, 2019 Season|
In addition to resupplying the community of Baker Lake, the cargo also supports two Agnico Eagle gold mines just north of the community. During their four-month tenure in Canada’s North, the vessels also support nearby communities, such as Rankin Inlet.
Ensuring the Safety and Wellbeing of Our Crews
The Baker Lake resupply mission is a high-stakes venture, and since the crews are in a remote region, they have to keep safety and wellbeing top-of-mind for the entirety of their time North of the 60-degree mark.
“The crews on this sail have to know the boats, and they have unique skill sets that allow them to assess and overcome challenges as they arise,” writes Atlantic Towing VP and General Manager, Gilles Gagnon. “Their health, safety and wellbeing over the course of the supply lift are critical. And that extends to mental health and wellbeing as well.”
|Baker Lake is Nunavut’s Sole Inland Community, with Stunning Scenery. Photographed by Kelsie MacLean, 2019 Season|
In past years, the crews have explored the village of Baker Lake, hiked, and fished in their spare time. With the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, they will be confined to the vessels for almost the entirety of their stay in Nunavut; a measure to prevent any crew members from contracting or spreading the virus.
“It’s going to be an interesting season to say the least,” writes Jared Ryall, Coastal Vessel and Barge Superintendent for Atlantic Towing. “There’s not going to be a whole lot to do up there: The crews can do work on the boats, and we’ll find things for them to do, but they are going to be isolated on the vessels this year due to COVID-19. In their off time, they can do some fishing onboard the vessels, and try to find ways to keep themselves busy. Both vessels have satellite TV and Wi-Fi, and the seafarers all have phones and computers. They can play boardgames and cards. Lots of options, just not a lot of places to go.”
|Chief Engineer Kelsie MacLean Relaxes On Deck. Photo provided by MacLean, 2019 Season|
Each tugboat is manned by a crew of seven, each of whom will be relieved by a second crew in August. The first crew will return in mid to late September to finish the mission and sail the vessels back to Saint John. All crewmembers will be tested for COVID-19 prior to departure.
A Home Away From Home
While COVID-19 remains a critical focus for the Beech and Elm crewmembers, there have been other improvements of a happier nature. This spring, the Beech underwent a major renovation project intended to create better accommodations and functionality aboard the 51-year-old vessel.
“We’re in the midst of a $2.5M improvement project with the Beech,” writes Ryall. “This spring alone, we put about $1.5M into her. This included brand new accommodations for the crew. We replaced a lot of steel on the boat, almost all the equipment on the bridge and put in all new firefighting equipment. There are new alarm panels and insulation. Everything’s new from the inside out. She’s really upgraded.”
|Atlantic Beech Undergoing Spring 2020 Renovations. Photographed by Alyssa Simon, 2020 Saint John|
So far, he notes, the response from the crews to the work has been immensely positive.
“I hope the crews have a good, safe season up there. Safety is critical, and our number one priority. I hope they enjoy the new accommodations on the Beech and all the work we did to the Elm as well.”
In the days leading up to the departure, the crews spent hours getting the vessels ready and stocked with groceries, supplies, luggage, and other necessities.
|Atlantic Beech Crew Loading Supplies, Prior to June 19 Departure. Photographed by Alyssa Simon, 2020 Saint John|
The Tides Are Calling
Why do seafarers volunteer to go to Baker Lake year after year? We sat down with one Justin Longmire, a six-time Baker Lake crewmember to learn more about the experience:
What stands out to you the most about your Baker Lake voyages?
That a group of mariners from across the fleet were tossed together for a season to make one of the best crews in Atlantic Towing, and that is still happening to this day.
What is your coolest memory from Baker Lake?
There is a lot. The ice. The town. The very large lake trout. And still, it’s being on the best crew on the Atlantic Beech.
What are some good ways to pass the time when you are so far north?
Working to keep the vessels running and in top form was always the major way to pass the time.
What are some of the biggest challenges sailing so far north?
When I first started going, having no communication home was tough, but it was what we did. That has changed a lot nowadays with cellphones and the Wi-Fi on the vessels. Also, it’s the long days of 6 hours on, 6 hours off after the long trip up North.