A truck that went through the ice outside of Taloyoak, Nunavut, has, five months later, been hauled out of the Arctic Ocean and flown to Gjoa Haven — putting an end to a story that Brandon Langan will be telling for the rest of his life.
The Inuk man from Cambridge Bay was hired as a bear monitor for the Transglobal Car Expedition's overland journey from Yellowknife to Resolute Bay, and had been aboard the modified Ford F-150 truck on the return journey when it started to sink among the Tasmania Islands, 240 kilometres northwest of Taloyoak, back in March.
He was hired again to be part of the truck's recovery.
"They needed bear monitors. But they also wanted me to be there to help pull the truck out and kind of put closure on the whole story, from start to a proper finish," said Langan. "Definitely feel a little easier, a little more at peace, knowing that it's done … we don't have to worry about environmental damages, like it was properly cleaned up."
Andrew Comrie-Picard, one of the Transglobal Car Expedition's principal members, told CBC News the truck was successfully hauled out of the water on Saturday — the team's "incredibly elaborate" plan, pulled off, "without a hitch."
The Transglobal Car Expedition claims it is the first-ever overland wheeled journey from the continental shelf of North America to the High Arctic. The expedition set out from Yellowknife this year — mired in controversy after violating airspace rules — for what was supposed to be a month-long pre-run for a global expedition in the future.
Four amphibious vehicles, called Yameleyas, and two modified trucks made it all the way to Resolute Bay equipped with a single ice thickness scanner. Expecting the ice on the return route to stay relatively the same, the team decided to leave the scanner with the amphibious vehicles in Resolute Bay while the trucks were driven back to Cambridge Bay — something Emil Grimsson, one of the members, has since referred to as a mistake.
Torfi Johnson, an Icelandic man who had been driving the truck with Langan as a passenger, previously told CBC News the ice was 50 centimetres thick at first crossing, but was only 15 centimetres thick five days later when the truck broke through.
A logistical undertaking
Retrieving the truck was no simple task.
Comrie-Picard said it required bringing a large team to the remote Arctic location, including a group of underwater recovery specialists from Iceland, two Inuit bear monitors and two Inuit underwater camera operators.
The size of the group — and a desire to lift the truck to Gjoa Haven — meant hiring an Airbus Super Puma helicopter from Coldstream Helicopters in B.C.
The day the team arrived, Comrie-Picard said they set up camp on one of the islands and scouted the truck's location with a pair of inflatable boats.
The following day, he said, brought heavy currents and moving ice floes. The truck had also moved a little bit, and ended up being a few metres deeper than the eight metres they'd expected. But the recovery effort pressed on.
A series of manoeuvres involving the careful placement of airbags allowed the team to lift the vehicle to the surface of the water and tow it to shore. From there, Comrie-Picard said they attached a harness to the vehicle. Then the helicopter flew it to Gjoa Haven, nearly maxing out its capacity with a weight of a little more than 8,000 pounds (about 3,600 kilograms), he said.
"I was in tears when we got the vehicle out. Several of us wept. It was a huge effort, but it was just great to clean it up," said Comrie-Picard. "The moment that the truck was picked up by the cable from the helicopter and taken away and the silence returned, we could hear the water dripping off the ice floes around us, and we could hear the birds. It was very powerful and extremely peaceful."
Comrie-Picard said the truck will be taken via sea barge to Montreal. Langan managed to retrieve many of the items that he lost when the vehicle went down, including a sentimental parka made by his girlfriend and his weapons — which he hopes to restore despite the time they spent underwater.
Hunters and trappers group happy
The Spence Bay Hunters and Trappers Association in Taloyoak raised concerns, back in April, about how the sunken truck was threatening to contaminate local wildlife. The area it went down in, the manager and chairperson said, was a prime hunting ground where belugas, narwhals, seals, walruses and Arctic char were known to migrate.
Comrie-Picard said a "small amount" of fluid may have leaked from the axle and the transfer case but after a visual inspection, the vehicle's fuel tank, the oil reserve canisters, the coolant tank and the battery had all remained completely sealed.
"Which is fantastic news," he said. "We always wanted to do the right thing by the land. It was important for us to leave it the way we found it."
Now that the truck has been recovered, Jimmy Oleekatalik, the association's manager, said he's happy.
"I feel a lot better knowing it's out of the water," he said. "We want our waters to be as clean as possible for narwhals and polar bears."
Langan said people have been trying to travel the Northwest Passage ever since it was discovered, and there's little that can be done to stop it.
"But it's nice knowing that this group, particularly, is willing to, you know, spend the money to do a proper clean up and remediation," he said. "They took the extra initiative and they [went] above and beyond and just really did a great job cleaning up the area."
Langan also noticed some things, out on the island, that suggested to him the local wildlife was doing all right.
"There were seals going by us all the time where we were working. And as we were actually landing, one of the other guys and I saw some whales. It didn't seem like anything was affected."