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Alvah Simon is an American-born explorer and adventurer who has undertaken various odysseys in different parts of the world, accompanied on some of them by New Zealander Diana White, who subsequently became his wife. But there was one further adventure he had a burning ambition to accomplish, which was to spend a winter on a boat embedded in the ice in the Arctic, above the Arctic Circle and as far from civilisation as possible.
Eventually he persuaded Diana to accompany him. They spent two years on finding a suitable boat, the 36-foot (about 12 metres) steel-hulled cutter Roger Henry, then meticulously planning every detail and acquiring everything they thought they would need, plus reserves. They finally set off sailing northwards from Maine in June 1994. Stopping in Halifax, Nova Scotia for supplies, they came across two kittens in the local market. One seemed placid and lovable, while the other was a wild little minx of a creature who hissed and scratched. They felt this latter one would be a fellow survivor, and so took her on as companion, bed warmer and possible polar-bear detector, naming her Halifax.
Although later the kitten became absolutely invaluable, to Alvah in particular, Halifax's first actions on board were to tear up their charts with her claws, and pee in their bunks. Several times she led them merry dances when they made landfall and she would run off, with them in pursuit.
One time she missed her jump to the shore and fell into icy water, from which she was fished out shivering with cold and shock. But gradually she settled down. As a bear detector she wasn't much use, though the first time a polar bear approached the boat she slept through the whole episode!
On 6 October, Diana's birthday, they received a radio message relayed from her father in New Zealand, saying that he had terminal cancer and only about three months to live. An agonising decision had to be made. They finally agreed Diana must get home to be with him: but Alvah remained doggedly determined and after much heart searching decided to continue with his plan. Apart from occasional radio contact with the outside world, he would have only Halifax for company, and he promoted her to First Mate. He had a last chance to change his mind about staying when Canadian coastguards arrived in a helicopter with extra supplies and tried to persuade him to leave with them, but he was adamant.
Life with Halifax
During the next few months, especially after 3 November when it became dark for 24 hours a day until early February when the sun rose again, there were all kinds of difficulties, adventures and problems, many of them potentially life-threatening. At times Alvah found himself becoming delirious, so he told the cat he would be talking to her constantly. He ran short of fuel, having used more than anticipated in reaching where they were; sometimes they spent days in the dark to save what fuel they had.
The cabin became icy, even inside. Halifax snuggled deep inside his sleeping bag until she heard her milk being thawed, when she would emerge, but after a while she became alarmingly thin, as she wouldn't eat the smoked meats he had thought they could share. Alvah found a new, improvised way to bake bread; when it was soaked in butter and tuna oil this was something the cat enjoyed, and she began to regain the lost weight. They had special feasts at Thanksgiving, and on Christmas and New Year's days. On one occasion Alvah went temporarily blind, from reading too much in very low light; on another he woke one day to find his legs totally frozen and encased in ice (inside the sleeping bag).
On a more positive side Halifax loved to accompany him for treks out on the ice, clambering on his shoulder or into his parka for a while when she became tired or her paws got too cold. But one day she stopped following him as she usually did and sat whining in the snow at 45 degrees below zero. He went on for a while, feeling annoyed with her, until he came to his senses and realised that if he left her much longer she would certainly freeze to death. In his haste to pick her up and warm her in his coat he heard a crack her frozen right ear had snapped in half. The icy wind had freeze-dried her ears. Recovery took time and was very painful, but eventually the ear healed, although with a permanent droop. Alvah was full of remorse, cursing himself for being so stupid and subjecting his companion to the ordeal.
In spite of everything, the pair of them survived through the long, dark winter. Alvah acknowledged that Halifax's presence had quite probably saved his life by keeping him sane; without her he might well not have lasted out.
One day in March two Inuit arrived on a snowmobile, bringing fresh meat and a letter from Diana saying that her father had died and she would be returning. After a journey of several weeks she arrived in mid-March; Halifax was first to hear the snowmobile, while it was still a long way off. Diana brought a huge can of diesel and 35 lb (about 15 kg) of cat food! Perhaps that was why, as they became a family of three again, the cat transferred her affections and preferred Diana's sleeping bag.
As the ice gradually melted, Halifax became more and more confident about going outside the boat. She saw off an Arctic fox by fluffing herself up, emitting an unearthly scream and chasing it away; she came back looking very pleased with herself and purring loudly. The boat was finally released from the grip of the ice that had held it captive but this meant that to relieve herself the cat could no longer just jump out onto the ice: she had to be taken to the beach in the dinghy. She got used to jumping into the dinghy and meowing loudly when she wanted to go; but if no one came she would jump on passing ice floes and go drifting off. Her humans would have to go looking for her, and when they arrived she would jump imperiously into the dinghy, for all the world as though she'd just ordered a taxi!
Finally, in August 1995, they decided it was time to leave, and turned Roger Henry southwards. Although everything had not gone according to plan, Alvah had achieved his goal, and both he and Diana had succeeded in experiencing the peace, the silence, the wildlife and the mystery of the high Arctic. On 20 October they anchored at the same dock in Maine from which they had set out nearly 17 months earlier.
Alvah has written a fascinating book about his Arctic experience (see below), although in it he does not mention what became of Halifax afterwards. However, from his internet blog I learned that in November 2007, the last time he mentions her, she was still on board with him and Diana and they were then in Vanuatu, in the Pacific a rather warmer clime. The boat Roger Henry remained home to the three of them, and they were still travelling.
We're very sad to report that Halifax passed away, after an unspecified illness, during June 2009. Alvah Simon, her 'captain', has written a moving tribute to her, from which we reproduce a few excerpts.
Of his time alone with her in the Arctic, he writes:
And of her life on board the Roger Henry, he says:
Readers might like to take a few minutes to read the whole tribute at Alvah's Cruising World blog (note that there are three pages).
Alvah Simon's book is North to the Night, published by International Marine (a division of McGraw Hill) in 1999, ISBN 0-07-058052-9. It is not, of course, a book about the cat Halifax; I have picked out parts relating to her. It is an extraordinary chronicle of his experiences, but much more than that: he describes the Arctic, its wonders, its beauty, its unforgiving nature, its wildlife and its indigenous inhabitants, among whom he had various contacts. Few non-indigenous people can ever have experienced this amazing region at the top of the world in the way he did, and I should think even fewer have written about it so graphically and so lovingly.
The last sentences in Alvah's acknowledgements at the end of his book read:
You may also like to read about Nigeraurak, who accompanied and survived an Arctic exploration expedition,
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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Socks, pictured in 2003 surveying his 'estate' in the early morning sunshine. Affectionately known as Soxy, he blossomed from a thin and hungry stray into a substantial and handsome cat who loved life and company, and his gentle ways endeared him to many friends. He is now no longer with us, but you can read more from his human companion here.
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