Clouds and Paddling

Gail Ferris


There are clouds and there are clouds.The next question for me as a kayak paddler is what are they doing?




As you can see in the picture above some wind is blowing the fog over the iceberg just to the right of center.I am viewing this from my kayak as I am paddling out from the inlet.

You can see by the size of the waves that the wind is about ten knots.It is a bright summer day but that the clouds which are low and blowing from somewhere to my left which is actually south to my right on the north.This is not a storm coming in.

Then again what about if I am in someone elseís boat, a motor boat, what do I think about the clouds I can see.

So there I was out with my friends on a Sunday afternoon in their motorboat looking up at the clouds on top of the rocks.I wondered to myself is this going to turn into a dicey deal while we are out here spending the afternoon fishing, gathering mussels and picnicking.




If I were out here in my own kayak what would I be thinking?

We were in the Umiaq Mountain area which is an area notorious for having sudden winds swoop down and flip motorboats over John Kislov told me.

The dark brown stone walls were sheer rising 620 meters above the water.

I was surprised I never knew this before in all my years since 1992 of paddling in this area Upernavik the opening to Torssut Passage behind Umiaq Mountain.



So there I was gazing up at the clouds wondering what is going to happen.The clouds were not moving they were just resting.

We stopped the motor and dropped over the side our fishing lines with baited hooks.


Drifting gently soon enough we caught some Ulk / Sea Robins to roast and eat later.We upped our lines and were on our way through the passage Torssut away from this threatening mountain, Umiaq Mountain.

In past years when I have paddled through this passage in my kayak there were several times when I had experienced wind storms coming suddenly on me from the west across Baffin Bay with no warning.

Below is a photo of Sandersonís Hope with some orographic clouds to the west.



On our way back the conditions as forecast were as you see in the photo below quite benign. To the right is Sandersonís Hope a pyramid shaped 3,800 foot high peak.

Note that there are no clouds on the top of this mountain which are called a hat. Local people look at Sandersonís because clouds on top of this mountain indicated bad weather and that sort of weather, usually very windy, can be really bad.



Below is a photo of a ďhatĒ on Sandersonís in 1995 which I took because the forecast said Upernavik was to be hit by a very violent storm.

Knowing that I happened to be staying at the home of a friend in an area of Upernavik where I had a perfect view of Sandersonís, of the coastline and most of the skyline I recorded the cloud structures of this incoming storm as they developed.

I wanted to document what clouds from a violent storm coming into Upernavik look like because as a kayak paddler I wanted to know for sure what I might be looking at rather than find out later when I was the victim.

The storm lasted for three days with 30 to 40 knot winds my friend laughed at me as I so foolishly had assembled my kayak and set it on the rocks.

As the violent waves and wind set in some friends carried my kayak up to safer ground.The waves would have swept my kayak off the rocks or the wind would have blown it off somewhere.

As much as I wanted to just launch my kayak and go I did not have enough time to get away before this storm struck.I was stormbound at a friendís house for three days.

Looking at this photo you would never guess Sandersonís perfect pyramid peak is beneath this cloud cover.



In 1992 in Upernavik when I did not know what to look for when a storm is coming I started paddling west in Torssut passage.The day was a lovely summer day but I noticed that there seemed to be this strange sort of calm.The air seemed to feel stifling and It was so calm that the water looked like it had been oiled.

Just for curiosity I paused paddling checked my wristwatch barometer to see if there was any change.No there was absolutely no change since I had set out from Aappilattoq a few hours earlier.

Then as I was nearing the end of the passage a few miles westward I saw some puffy clouds filing down a valley hugging the ground blowing toward me.ďOh those puffy clouds are beautiful.I have never seen anything like this before.Clouds here in the arctic are so lovely and different than where I live in Connecticut.Ē I thought to myself.

I had no idea what those clouds in that defined array meant.

Sitting there in my kayak I felt safe as in there is nothing to worry about.I was still unaffected ††Wow was I naÔve.

I looked at my barometer again because I had been told that a change in barometric pressure indicates a storm is coming.I figured that of course my barometer would tell me a storm is coming and that I should just use my eyes to observe.

And still there was no barometric change.

Moments later I was hit by fierce gusts that nearly snatched the paddle from my hands.

In alarm I knew now is the time to tie my paddle to my bowline.Immediately I grab the long bowline I always carry at the ready on my deck just in front of my cockpit and tied my paddle to it. I knew just from practicality that resorting to only fighting to hold onto my paddle was absurdly unwise.Losing my paddle would have rendered me absolutely helpless.††

Luckily there was some time between the wind blasts because the wind was sporadic not continuous like a katabatic or gravity fed wind which is continuous.

I was able in those pauses to assess where I was and where I could land.I thought about reversing direction heading for my old campsite.



After first trying to head back east and around the point I realized that the wind was so powerful that it could pin me against those absolutely impossible to land anywhere on vertical rock cliffs.

I could feel the violent wind just shoving me over broadside to the cliffs. I just knew how precariously unstable I would be paddling down wind.

I could feel it in my body as I started paddling that the least risk would be for me to expend all effort and head slightly broadside to the wind for the closest shore north off to my right, where it was possible to land.This shore only a few hundred yards away.

I hunkered down and put all my strength into getting over there, my only safe refuge.Luckily there was a place to land and I jumped out immediately dragging my kayak up on the waves.

I opened the cockpit sprayskirt pulled out as much cargo as possible to lighten the kayak.Then I was able to heist it between my legs and drag it to a limited extent.At all cost I wanted it out of harms way above the storm waves surges but of great importance did not want to so as to not damage the frame or scratch the hull up above what I estimated would be above the storm waves.

I took my bow and stern lines out and tied them off to big boulders, the bigger the better!

When it is just you and your kayak and you are all alone you realize that you must do everything possible to not risk you kayak because you canít get there from here without your kayak.



I happened to have been very lucky because I could have been paddling just outside the opening of Torssut passage where there would have been no landing site for miles.

At that time I really do not know if I had the skill to paddle in such winds.Later in Arctic Bay I did find myself employing the learning and advice about presenting the smallest possible target to the wind by hunkering down as low as possible.

The photo below is a close up of the clouds blowing in.This was my first experience with such a storm.

The barometer did not register change until a hour after the storm had set in so I can tell you without the slightest doubt that you have to watch the clouds not your barometer when a storm of this type is coming in.

This was one of those.

The wind was blowing at something like 40 knots and I estimate this speed because when I left my tent to get some water I had trouble staying on my feet.

I was very lucky to make land before it was really impossible even paddling down wind to be in any control of my kayak.



In the photo below is what this storm looked like after I had set up my tent.

You can see the wind shadow on the water.



My first shot at about 1 am below is a photograph I took while peeking out from beneath my tent because did not dare open the vertical zipper doorway my tent for fear my tent be torn to shreds by the wind

I couldnít believe what the sky looked like looking straight up.

Below are the clouds driven overhead by the wind.It sure was windy!


Note that the clouds are torn apart which is probably the topographic effect on the cloud layer.

Typically the temperature climbs for the first four or six hours and then twelve hours later it drops to freezing.The climb in temperature is due to compression of the air the same principle for katabatic winds coming down mountains.



In 1995 another storm in this same area just a mile or so east took place.This time I had carefully chosen to camp where everyone else stopped to camp and picnic.Comparing notes and experiences I found out why, from this experience.This little spot which is on the eastern third of the north shore in Torssut passage happens to be sheltered as is indicated by the thick deposit of rich dirt and lush plant growth there.



The whole day was a bright summer day and I just kept an occasional eye on the ridge across the way because I had never seen this ridge covered with a shallow cloud all day like this before.I thought it was curious.

Then sure enough just as I was looking at that ridge across the way to the south something started happening to the cloud cover that had been clinging in the sense of slightly draped over the ridge all day.I could barely believe my eyes as I watched both ends of the cloud starting to twirl in opposite directions.



This was something I never imagined I might witness.I was glad I was on land, not in my kayak.

I actually captured the development of this storm on video and still camera because I happened to be standing just across the way on the north side of Torssut with a good view to the south and west.

Below is a photo of the western portion of this cloud.Note that this cloud, just to the center right, even though it is thin, is actually blowing down the rocks.



There I was watching as the end of the east end started whirling and the same on the west end only they were whirling in opposite directions Ė so much for the coriolis effect, I donít think that applies to this situation.


Well it certainly was a down draft. In fact my friend, John Kislov as well as plenty of others have warned me to stay away from that side, the south side, of Torssut because this area is notorious for downdrafts that will even flip motor boats right over.

As you can see below the cliffs are just straight up and down rocks 400 meters high.

The photo below is taken in 2008.



With rapt attention I watched across the way roughly a mile across.At first the water was plain navy blue but as I knew from previous experience the downdraft would hit the water turning it silver.

In the photo below I also noticed that there was a build up of clouds behind where I could see in the passage, Umiasugssup ilua, separating Umiak Mountain from the peak on Qaersorssuaq Island.†† I wondered what the weather was in Upernavik because these clouds looked nasty. I bet it was really blowing in Upernavik.I was somewhat better off here at this protected spot in Torssut.

You can see that the water is starting to show whitecaps and cats paws


Then I began to notice that low broken stratocumulus clouds were blowing up the passage from the outside having come around the seaward side of Sanderson's Hope the highest mountain at 1042 meters in this area.The front could not quite get past the outer mountain, Sanderson's Hope mountain on Qaersorssuaq island but it must have been hitting Upernavik.



Gradually something changed because nothing especially the weather can be taken for granted here except change.The moving clouds the falling air off the 780 meter peak changed it's direction from west to north and this began to do what katabatic winds do it hit the water at the base of the mountain making whitecaps.††

I grabbed my cameras because this was just the same type of event I had experienced in 1992.I recorded the evolution of the wind first hitting the water near the mountain then gradually the wind progressed across the one mile fetch of Torssut hitting this area in an hour.

My barometric readings of this storm I observed in 1995 which confirms the behavior of a barometer.I estimate that there was about an hour lag behind in the barometric measurements and the arrival of a fast moving storm.

I learned from this experience that the barometer does not foretell the arrival of this type of windstorm so I keep an eye on the clouds.

I noted that the barometer had been hovering all day at 1008 inches Hg.My initial reading at 20:30 it was at 1008 inches Hg but an hour later at 21:30 when the wind had actually made it the mile distance across the bay the barometer was at 1009 inches Hg.Then two hours later at 22:30 it was at 1010 inches Hg.Three hours later, at 23:30 the barometer was 1010 inches Hg.A couple of good blasts hit making the tent feel like it might blow the tent away.Barometer is rising - typical.††

The time I think the barometer reflects the windstorm situation more closely because when the barometer has been holding for several hours during a storm.Now when the barometer first starts to rise, the wind will increase.This again is the lag effect and probably the section of atmosphere low pressure area overhead has a steep or compressed gradient.

It is a relief to know that when the barometer starts to rise again for the second time the wind from the storm will start to slack off because the storm or low pressure system leaving.High pressure is replacing the low pressure system.

I took storm precautions by moving my kayak up higher up the slope and tying it off to larger boulders.

The photograph below of my tent was taken in 2008 even though it was not tied down for a storm you can what my tent is like.You can see it is a pyramid, floorless with a tie loop on the top and along the bottom only.I can reduce surface area exposure to the wind by simply lowering the center pole.No other tent offers this option.Even though the tent is urethane coated nylon which collects condensate I solved the condensation problem by making and suspending from the ceiling a 1.8mm ripstop nylon liner.My exhaled vapor passes through the liner condensing as liquid the tentís inner surface or freezes to the outer surface of the liner.

In Barrow Alaska where there are no rocks, the snow flaps, you see, on the bottom have to be modified to hold sod or anything to ballast the tent.I actually did use my kayak still in its bags when I arrived and the wind really did blow up to some serious speed, 50 mph, I estimate.Barrow is one of those wide open places.

To keep the tent warmer I had to add those snow flaps which I ballast down with rocks or whatever is available to keep the wind out.

Baffin Island Inuit say that the nice thing about a floorless tent is that ďwhen a polar bear comes in, it is nice to go outĒ any way you can.Luckily in Greenland where I paddle polar bears are rare in the summer, which is why I like Greenland rather than Canada at 72 degrees north.


To anchor my tent for heavy wind I devised a structure of rocks to tie the tent down to the ground as low as possible.I did this by tying a guy line from the loop at the peak in the direction of the oncoming wind.

To secure the guy-line from the peak I tied the line around a small rock on the ground weighted down as low as possible by placing a large boulder on the guy-line in front of the small rock so that the heavy rock functioned both as a weight and as guide to keep the guy-line as low to the ground as possible

I also tied off all the bottom points with extra lines from the corners and midsections of the bottom of the tent using this same big rock in front of small rock.

The sides were also staked into the ground with large rocks on top of the stake lines.I was careful to arrange the rocks on the surface of the tent fabric.I added extra tent stakes use more large rocks.

Then I decided to try to reduce some of the slatting problem wind creates with this tent so this time since I happened to have put in a second rescue rope 50 ft of 1/2 inch line for difficult mooring situations I decided to guy the tent off.What a difference so far, the tent is not slatting as much as it usually does when the wind comes up.The ropes go from a rock southwest to the peak tie loop to a rock west, which is where all the wind will most likely be coming from.

So that is what I do when I see nasty clouds upstairs.


Gail Ferris 2 15 2009