Day 124: Where Hell Froze Over – Ellef Ringes Island

originally published May 3, 2012

Today’s challenge is to write a thousand words about an uninhabited slab of land that almost nobody wants to visit and even the gods seem to hate. For this task Ms. Wiki has deserted me upon Ellef Ringnes Island, located in the northwestern quadrant of that hideous near-dead tundra of the Canadian arctic.

With over 4300 square miles of grey desolation, Ellef Ringnes is the 69th largest island in the world, just a smidge larger than Jamaica. That said, it’s not the size of the island that counts, but rather what you can do with it. The answer here is “not much”.

The total confirmed flora on the island includes 49 species of moss and about 85 types of fungus. You’ll see the occasional muskox, caribou and polar bear living (somehow) among all this nothingness, but not much more. Ten species of mammals and fifteen types of birds have been spotted here. That’s it. One of those mammal species was – at one time – humans. More on that below.

A pair of Norwegian explorers were first to chart the island back in 1901. They named the island after Norwegian entrepreneur Ellef Ringnes, possibly because he financed their expedition, or maybe because he was a successful Norwegian brewer, and they thought they could score some free beer by naming an island after him.

Because this was a Norwegian discovery, that nation held a territorial claim on the deserted slab of rock until 1930, when it was passed over to Canada. When the second World War came to an end a High Arctic Weather Station was installed as a joint Canada-US venture on the west coast of the island.

This was a lucky break for eight science-y hermits who yearned to get away from civilization. The down-side was that they’d be stuck there together. It could have been a sitcom – like Gilligan’s Island, except with rotten weather, no goofy shenanigans, and everyone is the Professor.

Does this sound like hell? Have a look.

The ‘settlement’ was named Isachsen, which is probably some Inuit word for “fungussy turd”. The lucky eight inhabitants moved in and official weather observations began on May 3, 1948, sixty-four years ago today.

So how did these people pass the cold, empty days? The assigned crew consisted of four Americans (two weather observers, a cook and a mechanic) and four Canadians (two weather observers and two guys in charge of finding out hockey scores for the two weather observers).

In 1949 the island saw its first air disaster. Well, its only air disaster. And by ‘disaster’ I mean a US Air Force C-47 cargo plane had failed to de-ice its wings, then struggled to lift off and crashed just off the runway. No one was hurt. If the scientists thought that this would be the beginning of an intense stretch of wacky activity (or ‘wacktivity’) on Ellef Ringnes, they were mistaken. Nothing else happened.

Their work was not in vain though. Their observations provided information for weather forecasts for Greenland, Iceland, and the North Atlantic. Time well spent.

The Royal Canadian Air Force flew supplies and replacement workers to the station usually twice per year. Otherwise the Ellef Ringnes crew was left on their own. Depending on the time of year, they’d enjoy three months of daylight or darkness.

I’ve heard stories of people battling oil fires in Kuwait, or risking every part of their bodies and minds in heavy combat, but I can’t even begin to fathom the type of human being that could withstand complete isolation in a frigid hellhole with seven other men. No TV, no internet, nothing but books, cards, and maybe some elaborate urine-in-snow artwork to keep the mind busy outside of work. Even a walk is out of the question most of the time; on Environment Canada’s Climate Severity Index, which rates a place’s weather on a scale of 1 to 100, Isachsen rates a 99. It is literally the worst weather in Canada.

In 1956 the Canadian government scrapped a plan that would have relocated numerous Inuit people to Ellef Ringnes Island. I guess if you want an indigenous people as far out of your way as possible, it makes sense to dump them onto a treeless slab of hell to let them coexist with the snow. Fortunately the government never followed through with this blatant act of cruelty.

Oddly, there were no murders reported among the residents of Isachsen Station. I would think this place would make a great location for a horror film situation – someone, maybe the cook, maybe one of the weather guys, drops their last token of sanity into the coin-slot of fate then takes a wild log-flume ride into the frothy depths of crazy. Station residents drop one by one, until all that’s left are the killer, the hero (I’m thinking the mechanic would be the hero), and one of the radio operators who happens to be an attractive woman.

But no, the frigid anus of Canada kept humming along without incident. In October of 1971, America ran out of people willing to subject themselves to the frozen hell of Isachsen. In 1977, the Canadian government decided they should funnel a truckload of money up north to build some new snazzy buildings for the station. In true government foresight, they shut the station down the following year.

The last weather recordings were taken in July 1978. The Canadians departed (I assume amid a tizzy of gleeful giggles), and left most of the furniture and equipment behind. The place now exists as a ghost town, a monument of money spent to monitor stuff that hardly anyone really cared about.

In 1989 the Canadians installed an Automated Surface Observing System that relayed information via satellite to more rational locales.

Still, Santa spent some time on the island. Yes, Ellef Ringnes was the last piece of land to be occupied by the ever-shifting Magnetic North Pole. In 1994, a spot on the southwest tip of the island was determined to be the spot – since then the Pole has been drifting through the Arctic Ocean.

Even the North Pole wanted nothing to do with this place. Ouch.

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