Imagine it is the year 1924 and you are a member of the newly formed Royal Canadian Mounted Police. You've never seen the ocean because you come from of Saskatchewan, where Grassland covers vast plains in the south and the rugged rocks of the Canadian Shield plateau, coniferous forests, rivers and lakes make up the north. You are sent to the RCMP detachment at Dundas Harbour, a remote outpost on the largest uninhabited island on the planet, a thousand miles from where you grew up. Your job, with one other Mountie, is to assert Canadian Sovereignty -- over foreign nations like Denmark and Greenland who may be exploiting the abundant marine resources of Lancaster sound without permission. You are there to show the flag and collect customs duties or prevent access. Your commission will last two to three years and your survival will depend on your ability to adapt to this new world as you will have no contact with the outside world until the supply ship reaches you. The structures you will live in are wood, prefabricated and poorly suited for this environment. For three months you will have 24 hours of daylight; but for 6 months you will live and work in darkness. There will be musk ox to hunt and seal. But marauding polar bears are always a threat and so you will keep your stores well away from your cabins. You enlist the help of a local Inuit family; they will help you hunt and lead you on far-ranging patrols to the north and west, covering thousands of miles by dog-team. You survive until the spring of 1926 and you are due to depart that same summer. But you don't make it to the end of your commission because on June 16 you commit suicide. You are 26 years old. Your name is Victor Maisonneuve, Constable 7766. Less than a year later, your companion, Constable William Robert Stephens will also die, not from suicide but from a gunshot wound during a hunting expedition.
This is the picture our expedition leader, Ken Burton, paints for us as the Rosehearty team stood on the shores of Dundas Harbour, Devon Island. A white picket fence surrounds the grave site, which sits at the base of a steep cliff, a gentle slope of crumbling rock edging towards the graves. Like everything up here in the high Arctic, the bay is vast. The detachment buildings are dwarfed by the long rocky beach and sheer cliff walls. There is a small berg stuck on the beach. A receding glacier forms a backdrop in the adjacent bay.
In 2016 when Rosehearty was here last, the crew saw a Polar Bear. "It will take me about an hour to clear the area before we can send the group in," Ken explains at the morning briefing. "I'll start high and work my way down. I'll radio when to bring everyone in." He’ll carry his 12 gauge shotgun on his shoulder.
The blue ice forms a stark contrast against the red, rocky earth. Once again we feel like we are either on Mars or in the Grand Canyon, the similarities are so compelling. "It's funny you should say that," Ken chimes in. "NASA has established an ongoing research project here." Intrigued, I went to the NASA website:
NASA's Haughton Mars Project (HMP) is part of an international interdisciplinary field research facility located on the world's largest uninhabited island, Devon Island. This project uses the polar desert setting and harsh climate of the Canadian High Arctic to mimic the environmental conditions that crewmembers are likely to encounter on Mars and other planets. Devon Island's barren terrain, freezing temperatures, isolation, and remoteness offer NASA scientists and personnel a number of unique research opportunities. Other factors, such as the Arctic day and night cycle and restricted logistics and communications capabilities, offer fitting analogs for the challenges that crewmembers will likely face on long-duration space flights. In addition to ongoing studies that focus on variables such as communications, equipment testing, and vehicular and extra-vehicular operations, Devon Island is also the site of the Exploration program, which aims to develop new technologies, strategies, and operational protocols geared to support the future exploration of the Moon, Mars, and other planets.
In the Rosehearty crew mess, Renee chuckles at the comparison between yacht crew and space crew on long duration flights. “The last time we were here I couldn’t stop feeling like we were on Mars. Red rocks, numbing silence. That’s what I think of when I think of Mars.”
Everyone on board seems to be reflecting on the larger themes – stark beauty, sacrifice in the name of the flag, peaceful isolation or frightening silence.