2012 Flight Log Part II
POLAR FLIGHT 90 UPDATE - Follow along on our 2012 Flight Map
Once again, over the course of the summer, fall, and winter, I will be providing the occasional "Alaska Report" as I fly the remote Alaska wilderness.
After being away from home for the past month, a number of things now required attention. Clean up after the flood in Manley Hot Springs was high on the list. Although we only had a foot of water in one of our cabins, there was still a considerable mess. Getting firewood for next winter, flying summer supplies to our Peace of Selby Wilderness Lodge, and going through the mail were a few other errands.
But in the long term . . . will I try once again, during April of 2013, to get the Polar Pumpkin to the Top of the World - the Geographic North Pole?
Stephen Frost prides himself on being a good cook. He and I are both early risers; so, after listening to the local news and weather on the Whitehorse radio station, we sat down to more good conversation and a few cups of coffee. Afterwards came the pancakes, fried potatoes, and bacon - an excellent meal for any traveling man. Quite the fabulous cook, indeed. Stephen, along with a wonderful visiting teacher Pat, walked with me to the airport to have a look at the Polar Pumpkin.
It took awhile to get the wing covers off, a preflight done, a flight plan filed, and the weather checked. Generally conditions were forecast to be good all the way to Fairbanks - with the exception of a few scattered snow or rain showers. The forecast was correct. A small diversion to the west was required, due to clouds and snow showers over the top of the White Mountains.
Visibility today was generally excellent. I always marvel at the vast wilderness of the North - even though I've lived and flown through it for so many years. The spruce forests - black spruce and white spruce - go on for mile after mile, with a myriad of small creeks containing birch, willow, and aspen trees. Such productive country for the furbearing animals, moose, and caribou. It took many people - and many hours with chain saws - to cut the "straight-as-an-arrow" line of the Alaska/Canada border, so clearly evident today. I could be imaging things; but it felt as though I could feel a slight "bump" in the air as I crossed the border . . . eh?
As I flew across the Alaska/Canada border with relative ease, I recalled the frustration by some of the Old Crow residents. The American village of Fort Yukon, Alaska is not so far from Old Crow - just down the Porcupine River - at the mouth of the river. For many years, the Old Crow folks would dog sled or boat down to visit relatives at Fort Yukon. Nowadays, however, due to Customs and Border Protection rules and regulations, that is no longer possible. Old Crow folks now are faced with the expensive options of "going the long way around", via Dawson or Whitehorse to Fairbanks; and then to Fort Yukon to visit these family members.
Our society these days seems to be "technofluenced" to the point of absurdity. Our cell phones can text, make phone calls, take pictures, and - I would hope - fix us Sunday dinner. Regardless of the varied "technogadgets" in the Polar Pumpkin, I like to have the "map and finger" technique always available for navigation, in case some these gadgets lose their battery power - or crash, for whatever reason.
Therefore, I have this great opportunity to peruse topographical place names, water courses, mountain ranges, etc. - and be able to make notes on an actual piece of paper (the map) for future reference.
On course from Old Crow to Fairbanks, I once again flew by Frozen Calf Mountain. On the top of this mountain, there is an RCO - or Remote Communications Outlet - basically a repeater station, so pilots far out in the bush can have VHF contact with Flight Service in Fairbanks. Although I've flown by Fozen Calf many times, I still don't know the origin of the name. Others, however - Chalkyitsik village, for example - is a Gwich'in Athabascan Indian name for "fishing hook place". The current population is 83 + or - , right on the banks of the Black River, and with a nice 4,000 foot runway. The Gwich'in have occupied the region for about 10,000 years; and - up until schools, missionaries, and government programs arrived - these folks were nomadic. Typically, families would spend from Fall through Spring in the headwaters of the Black River; and then float farther downstream to fish for the summer.
The Salmon Fork is a tributary of the Black River; and, for me, brings back many fond memories. Over the years, I've flown and hunted in this "neck of the woods", so to speak - based out of a friend's cabin. Are there bears in the area? No doubt. So many that when my friend leaves his cabin, he doesn't bother to board up the windows. He just leaves the doors open; so the bears can roam inside at will. That way, the bears don't have to spend the time and effort of ripping the shutters and doors off to get in. The Salmon Fork can get to be a bit tricky for float plane operations. There are shallow "riffles"; and, in places, fairly fast water. One can not necessarily find a single stretch of water that is deep enough, straight enough, and without obstacles. So it's a good river on which to develop techniques such as landing on one float, going around the bend of the river with the plane tilted up on one float, etc.
The village of Fort Yukon was originally established in 1847 as a Hudson Bay Post. Nowadays, approximately 600 people live there - mostly Gwich'in Athabascan folks. The community has the distinction of having had the highest temperature ever recorded in Alaska - plus 100 degrees Fahrenheit; and, up until 1971, also the lowest recorded temperature - minus 78 degrees Fahrenheit. The Post was actually established in Russian America; and then with the Alaska Purchase in 1867, the Hudson Bay Company was expelled by American traders (1869) to Canada. The new location chosen for the Post was at Rampart House - also on the Porcupine River - but, lo and behold, the new location was still just barely in Alaska. After the expulsion of the Hudson Bay Company from Fort Yukon, the Alaska Commercial Company took over the fur trade and provisioning of many communities in the Alaska bush.
Circle City, another community noted on my map, lies off my left wing - and on the banks of the mighty Yukon River. The town was established in 1893 as an unloading point for supplies brought upstream from the Bering Sea. Those supplies were then taken overland to the local gold mines. Today the population is approximately 100 people; and most of these inhabitants are Athabascan natives. In 1896, however - prior to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 - the community claimed approximately 700 people, the largest community on the Yukon River at that time. Some thought that Circle City was right on the Arctic Circle; but in fact the Arctic Circle is another 50 miles to the north. Depending on where the Spring "break up" ice jams in the river, Circle City sometimes floods. Last year, the major flood occurred upstream in Eagle, Alaska. Several of the old historic buildings in town were lost or damaged in the flood.
My arrival back in Fairbanks was uneventful - landing on Runway 20R. My ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival) had been fairly accurate; and I was met on the tarmac by an agent with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It always does my heart good to see that these agents can actually conduct themselves politely and efficiently. The particular agent receiving my arrival was just that. I was quite pleased.
There's nothing quite like a stack of pancakes - hot cakes - flap jacks - or whatever you want to call them, to get a body going in the morning. One step better is to also have a side of fried bologna to go with the pancakes. This I had at the Yamouri Motel caf before heading out to the airport. The lone yellow taxi arrived on schedule; so I had ample time to get the Polar Pumpkin ready for my flight north to Old Crow. Actually, I had to delay departure due to low ceilings.
Flying with lower ceilings is considerably more comfortable over the boreal forest where there is more contrast - or at least much more so than the white featureless landscape north of the tree line. Also, along the Mackenzie River, I had alternate airports of Fort Good Hope and Fort McPherson at which to land if necessary. The Polar Pumpkin is equipped with skis; but to land in the deep soft wet snow would likely mean getting stuck and/or leaving some of my gear in order to once again take off.
A direct course from Norman Wells to Fairbanks would take me directly over some of the higher peaks of the Mackenzie Mountains. These mountains were named in honor of Canada's second Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie. The mountains contain 55% of the world's known reserves of Tungsten. The highest peak in the range is Keele Peak - at a height of 9,751 feet. Due to the clouds over the mountains - and the fact that there is no longer customs service at Eagle, Alaska - I decided to file a flight plan and visit one of my favorite villages in the Arctic, Old Crow, Yukon Territory. One of the first folks that I had met from Old Crow was Mr. Kenneth Nukon, at his fish camp on the Porcupine River. My partner and I had been doing a fish tag recovery project for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on the Fishing Branch River, and landed at Kenneth's camp with the helicopter to see if he had found any fish wearing our tags. Kenneth - now deceased - was a most amazing Gwichin native gentleman. He mentioned to us that grizzly bears were coming into his yard to steal the salmon and caribou that he had stockpiled; and that he had to shoot a grizzly coming through the doorway of his cabin - aiming the rifle with his one remaining arm.
As I flew along the eastern edge of the Mackenzie Mountains - and over the very rugged tributary carved foothills - the weather improved the farther north I went. I had planned to fly through the lower terrain of the Peel River valley, that more or less separates the Richardson Mountains from the Mackenzie Mountains. The Peel River is a tributary of the Mackenzie; and originates in the Ogilvie Mountains. Even though cloud heights raised considerably, I stayed low level to enjoy this most amazing wilderness scenery. One of the more notable canoe/kayak rivers for a floating expedition is the Bonnet Plume River that comes into the Peel from the south.
As I left the Peel - then flying into the headwaters of the Porcupine River - I flew across the Dempster Highway. The Dempster was built in 1958 along the route of an old dog sled trail from Dawson City to Inuvik - a distance of 417 miles. The highway was named after a Royal Canadian Mounted Police Inspector William Dempster. Besides the communities of Fort McPherson, Tsiigehtchic (formerly Arctic Red River) and Inuvik, the only other place for services along the road is Eagle Plains. I flew close to the Eagle Plains runway; but, realizing there is no winter maintenance, I was not particularly tempted to land - and continued on to Old Crow.
By this time, the weather had picked up to (more or less) CAVU - Clear And Visibility Unlimited - which some may describe as Severely Clear. Visual ground contact was excellent; so had there been any fresh caribou tracks and/or caribou herds, I should have seen them. Of course, when I arrived in Old Crow, that was one of the first questions the local folks had for me: Have you seen any caribou? Where are they? As it turns out, a portion of this "Pocupine Herd" was probably west of Old Crow. The Porcupine Herd is the second largest in the Alaska/Yukon vicinity - at 160,000 animals; with the Western Arctic Herd being the largest at 500,000 animals.
After getting the Polar Pumpkin "put to bed" for the night, the local refueler Scotty gave me a ride on his 4-Wheeler/Quad Honda to the home of my friend Stephen Frost. Stephen had first invited me to his house when I flew my Cessna 180 through the Canadian Arctic via Quebec, Baffin Island, and points west some years ago. After a cup of tea - and a snack of fresh caribou roast - with Stephen, we both walked to the Community Center for a community supper and talk by a visiting biologist that is planning to do an ecological study in the Old Crow Flats this coming summer.
Since both Stephen and I are hunters and trappers, we had much to discuss. Our conversation ranged from how to make bannock, how to best roast a muskrat, what is the best set for wolves - muskrats - wolverine, etc. Stephen likes to rise early in the morning, get the news from the radio station in Whitehorse at 6 AM, and stay connected with world events. Perhaps his progressive attitude, sound philosophical thinking, and common decency were some of the reasons that this humble gentleman in a remote Yukon community was honored with the prestigious Order of Canada Award. There appears to be the possibility of another award - from Queen Elizabeth - in the wind.
After the get together at the Community Hall, Stephen and some of his buddies sat down to a card game and socializing. It was such a nice evening, that I took the opportunity to walk along the Porcupine River, take a few pictures, and enjoy the atmosphere of this very special community.
Athabascan fiddling is another of the traditional activities in Old Crow. Some of the local fiddlers travel to Fairbanks for the Annual Athabascan Fiddling Festival - good music, good food, and a chance to catch up with friends and relatives.
Tonight a soft bed felt extra good.
Weather at Old Crow, Yukon Territory this morning was mile visibility, a 900 foot ceiling, and snowing. No flying for the Pumpkin today.
On one hand it's a bit frustrating to get stuck by bad weather with a small airplane. On the other hand, it's a great opportunity to meet more wonderful and interesting people. Today was no exception. Even though Norman Wells isn't "that big", it's fairly spread out along the banks of the Mackenzie River. So to go most places requires a vehicle - and, in my case, a taxi. There is one taxi in town - yellow - and a couple delightful ladies trade off driving it. Taxi service begins at 7 AM. At this stop, I didn't need to refuel the Polar Pumpkin from drums. Instead, I had Aircraft Refueling Services top off my tanks. Larry Bohiken is the Operations manager; and is the epitome of a "doer" - full of energy, looking for the next project. He very graciously came back to me, checking whether I needed anything else before I headed off for my next destination.
Fishing in the Mackenzie River is not particular good, due to its heavy silt content - although fishing in the clear side tributaries is just fine.
Hunting, however, up in the rugged remote Mackenzie Mountains is good - particularly for Dahl Sheep. A number of outfitters come to the region to hunt this species in the Fall. Moose can be found throughout the area; and many local residents fill their freezers with moose meat for the winter.
Well, let's see what weather tomorrow brings . . .
Weather this morning was great; so after making a few "traveling sandwiches" from the musk ox roast, we headed out to the airport.
Whenever fuel barrels are transported in the open environment - out in the weather - even sealed barrels, it's very difficult to keep water from infiltrating the inside of the barrel. Also, condensation of water vapor inside the barrel is an issue. So, this morning, I was happy to have the two filters in line on my Polar Pumpkin refueling hose. After I had completed refueling from one barrel, I found that there was a large chunk of ice still in the bottom.
Nonetheless, I got the Pumpkin fueled and ready for the long flight to Norman Wells, on the Mackenzie River.
Weather in Cambridge Bay at take off was great. The farther west I went, however, down Coronation Gulf, the worse it got. The "band of low level cloud" that flight service could see on the satellite photos was considerably more wide spread than expected. I was in touch with Damaris by satellite phone; and she could get me the latest Kugluktuk weather - and give me an idea of how much area was in the clear around the Kugluktuk airport. Fortunately, it was good enough that I didn't have to go back to Cambridge Bay.
Sometimes it's the little things that matter a great deal. I had not seen a tree for weeks . . . and when I crossed the treeline - perhaps 30 miles northeast of Great Bear Lake - it was an exciting event indeed. With all due respect to those folks that like the broad vistas of the open ocean, deserts, and the Midwestern prairies . . . I'm a tree person. It seems like the boreal forest ecosystem will always provide the "fixin's" for a campfire, and a comforting cup of tea.
My course across Great Bear Lake took me across the northeast corner of the lake, and down the Dease Arm. There, at the mouth of the Dease River, the Hudson Bay Company trading post of Fort Confidence was built in 1837 by Peter Warren Dease. Later, in 1848, this location was used as a base of operations by Sir John Richardson and Dr. John Rae in the search for the ill fated Sir John Franklin expedition. It's interesting to note that the Richardson Mountains are not far north of Great Bear Lake; and the Franklin Mountains are located just to the west of Great Bear Lake.
Great Bear Lake is the largest lake entirely within Canada, and the 7th largest in the world. It empties through Great Bear River into the Mackenzie River - and ultimately into the Arctic Ocean near Tuktoyaktuk. Deline is the only community on the lake - and consists of a relative small number of First Nations people. One of the primary economic activities on the lake is fishing. There are 5 fishing lodges located in the vicinity. Not surprising; since, in 1995, a 72.3 pound lake trout was caught - the largest ever caught with a rod and reel.
Norman Wells, my destination on this leg, has not so many people - only about 800 - but a lot of activity. This activity is associated primarily with oil development and production. The community has a beautiful paved runway; and receives Boeing 737s. Another activity for the town is the logistical support and supply of other communities - such as Deline - in the vicinity. North Wright Air is one of the air services that provides transportation for these outlying communities.
One exciting discovery, while in Norman Wells, was the fact that folks eat fried bologna with their pancakes . . . .one of my favorite meals!
Woke up to more blizzard conditions - snowing sideways with the high winds. In the afternoon, the weather cleared a bit; but set to snowing again, with poor visibilities, in the evening. But, never fear, there was plenty to do. My wonderful hosts - employees of Adlair - took me with them out to the airport to check on the Polar Pumpkin, and refuel the aircraft - when the wind died down a bit. So, as a start, Gordy and Willy used the Bobcat loader to position my two drums of fuel near the hangar door.
On the way back through Cambridge Bay, Zack and I made a few stops - at the Northern Store to do some grocery shopping (milk at $9.00 per gallon) and a local arts/crafts store where I was able to find an ulu (hand made in the community of Gjoa Haven) for Damaris' collection. An ulu is a traditional "woman's knife", with a curved blade and handle on the top, that is used for most anything - fleshing skins, cutting meat, etc. We also visited the local meat processing plant for the purchase of a nice musk ox roast. A harvest of these beautiful highly adapted arctic - and very tasty - creatures occurred in the Cambridge Bay vicinity during February.
Cambridge Bay has a wonderful "visitors bureau", that exemplifies various aspects of the traditional Inuit culture - a wolf skin, an udlik (Eskimo lamp), various types of knife handles and harpoon heads, a stuffed "okpik" (snowy owl), and a few exhibits relating to historical ships and shipping in the Coronation Gulf. So Zack and I stopped there for a quick look.
Canadians - as all of us - place great value on Motherhood and Apple Pie. But in Canada, there's a slight difference: It's Hockey, Motherhood, and Apple Pie. While visiting friends in Calgary - as the Canadians beat the Americans during Olympic hockey - the lady of the house nearly went through the roof. Hockey was again on the television menu tonight, while Zack, Monica, Adam, and I enjoyed a nice burger barbecue. I was able to add a little smoked salmon to the larder.
The tasty musk ox roast will be slowly cooking in the Crock Pot overnight.
One of the "bushy" sorts that I knew years ago, called such an appliance his "Crack Pot".
Let's see what the weather brings tomorrow . . .
The blizzard in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories rages, now for the second day. But the Polar Pumpkin and I are settled in; and it's not a problem.
The real problem lies in Manley Hot Springs. I've spoken with my wife Damaris numerous times today; and the flood is real. Water has flowed into one of our cabins - to about 1 foot deep so far. Freezers were floating about the porch. Local pilots taxied or pulled their airplanes to high ground. One of the neighbors is already pumping water out of his basement. It's one of those "curves" that Mother Nature throws at us from time to time.
Generally folks in Manley Hot Springs - and other remote locations around Alaska - take pride in the fact that they can do for themselves, and handle most situations that come up - independently. So, let's hope, bureaucrats such as the FEMA bunch will stay well enough away. I'm convinced that theirs is not a noble purpose in the first place. They show up primarily to promulgate the business of being a bureaucrat - and showing enough business - can hire other societal leech cronies to join the cancerous bureaucratic force. They're quite happy to spend tax payer's money - the more, the better - as long as their own pocket is padded with an over inflated salary. This phenomenon is one of America's most serious and debilitating problems - wasting money that America does not have.
Twas a quiet day in Cambridge Bay. Few people were outside their homes; and those hunters or trappers "out on the land" were likely cabin bound as well.
In checking the Graphic Area Forecasts and satellite photos for the North Pole and vicinity, it appears that there is a major storm brewing in the polar basin - with extensive bands of low cloud and winds forecast from the northwest at 45 knots. As I recall, during such a storm in 1986, our ice camp drifted 40 miles in 3 days - a combination of ocean currents and accelerated velocity due to the strong wind.
Tomorrow's forecast for Cambridge Bay - and points west toward Alaska - is not particularly good.
But, we'll see . . .
APRIL 28, 2012
CAMBRIDGE BAY, NUNAVUT
This time the weather forecasters were correct. I woke up to a morning of snow, very high winds, and nearly zero visibility. I was glad to know that the Polar Pumpkin was safe in the Adlair hangar.
Today has been a good day to rest a little, get partly caught up on correspondence, and enjoy the storm outside from a warm inside. Just now there is a rather vociferous black raven sitting on the roof of the house next door. The Inupiat Eskimo word for raven is "tuluaq". I can well remember this name; because that's the name given me by Eskimos many years ago.
As I sit here in a blizzard, my wife Damaris is busy with preparations for what appears to be a flood coming into the village of Manley Hot Springs, Alaska. Water is going over the river's banks, and across one of the roads, so far. Damaris has moved vehicles, put our more valuable items up on high ground, and is now getting out a couple small boats in case their needed. Flooding in this area of the Tanana River is caused primarily by ice jams; and that's exactly what the situation is at present.
Unfortunately, there's not a lot I can do to help from 1200 miles away - but to keep in contact; and offer a suggestion of two.
We'll see how all that transpires . . . and likely by tomorrow morning.
A nice morning in Resolute - clear, light winds, and good visibility. The husky that had been howling much of the night just outside my window seems to be happy with the weather also. At least he seems contented for the moment. After breakfast, Aziz loaned me his little blue car to go up to the airstrip to refuel and load the plane. Even though the refueling process went very well, it's a time consuming project with my little Honda pump and hose system - refueling from drums. Just to make doubly sure that the Polar Pumpkin doesn't ingest ice crystals (condensation) from the drums, I have installed two water block filters in the fuel hose. Also, to make triply sure, I add a little isopropyl alcohol to the fuel tanks.
In checking with flight service, I find that the whole route south to Cambridge Bay is in the clear; but that there is a very strong low pressure system to the west that is headed right for Cambridge Bay. After lunch, I called flight service back again - just to see how rapidly the system is moving. I was assured that there was an adequate time buffer for me to make the flight - and a gorgeous flight it was. Crystal clear skies - only one fairly narrow cloud bank - and smooth air. While approaching Cambridge Bay, however, I could see the leading edge of the approaching cloud shield out to the west. Since winds were forecast 30 to 40 knots, the wonderful crew at Adlair allowed me to put the Polar Pumpkin in their cozy hangar.
Since the approaching weather is a major system, it appears that I'll be hunkered down here in Cambridge Bay for the next few days.
There are about 1500 inhabitants in the community - a mixture of non native and Inuit. Musk ox populations are healthy, some of which are utilized in the local meat packing plant. As part of their traditional livlihood, folks hunt polar bears, grizzly bears, and seals. The "fish of choice" in the area is the most fabulous arctic char.
APRIL 26, 2012
RESOLUTE BAY, NUNAVUT
When I checked the weather at 3 AM, I thought "oh, no - I'm not going anywhere today". It was snowing lightly; and the visibility was poor with the clouds down over the top of Black Top - a mountain up near the Eureka airstrip. So back to bed for a few hours more sleep. Then, when I got up about 6 AM, it was a whole different world out there - sun shining, and good visibility.
After a hearty breakfast, prepared by Chefs Mandi and/or Dean, I headed up to the airstrip with my gear to prepare the Polar Pumpkin for departure. It was pretty well all set to go; but I had to take the wing covers off, do a good preflight, and pack away my gear. Actually, there had been enough snow during the night to slow me down a bit on takeoff - not to the dangerous point - but the Pumpkin was a bit sluggish with the heavier load. After takeoff, I reconsidered a direct course to Resolute Bay; because the visibility still wasn't so great - and a direct course took me through the higher mountains. I climbed up to about 5500 feet - and still had good ground contact most of the time - so I headed out across the mountains. Dr. Dale Andersen - researcher at the Carl Sagan Center for Study of Life in the Universe - has a couple research sites along the way; so I overflew these and took a couple snap shots.
As I proceeded south toward Resolute, I was speaking with my wife Damaris from time to time on the satellite phone - getting the latest Resolute weather update (since VHF in such remote areas isn't effective) - and her reports were getting me a bit concerned. A large low level cloud bank had moved into the Resolute area from the north. I was cruising at about 6,000 feet; and started getting worried that I would not be able to land at Resolute - my one and only option. Fortunately, thank the Good Lord - Resolute happened to be right on the edge of the cloud bank, and I was able to descend for landing without a problem. My final approach, however, was delayed; since a Hercules C-130 (Boxtop, from Thule Greenland) had just taken off, causing ice fog and/or exhaust that obscured the entire runway.
The Polar Pumpkin is now "put to bed" for the night. Aziz, proprietor of South Camp Inn, found a bed for me as well; and I'm going to check it out in short order.
Basically, a high pressure system predominates for the route from Resolute to Cambridge Bay tomorrow; so we'll see what weather actually develops.
In this part of the world, weather is tough to predict.
APRIL 25, 2012
EUREKA WEATHER STATION
Satellite images changed my daily plan. I had thought I'd fly up to Ward Hunt Island to check on a small fuel cache; but the island was surrounded in coastal cloud. Also, low cloud was creeping into the coastal fiords of western Ellesmere Island and Axel Heiberg Island. I had the plane fueled and ready to go.
So it was then Plan B on the table - i.e. to go south, instead of north. Weather in Resolute Bay, at times, had visibilities down to 2 miles, fog, and light snow, with clouds down to 500 feet. So then Plan C was on the table - that being to stay at Eureka Weather Station another night; and hope that the forecasters "Blocking High" pressure system would indeed take over, and I would be able to fly to Resolute Bay tomorrow.
Polar Flight 90 is not only a solo flight by a guy with a small airplane to the top of the world. It is the culmination of a tremendous amount of work by many people, supporting the concept in numerous ways. To these people, I have a responsibility to make decisions as wisely as possible.
Therefore, after a night's rest, and considerable contemplation of the matter, it was clear that the consequences of any small problem - alone with a small airplane in the middle of a very dynamic Arctic Ocean - could become a huge insurmountable problem. I must therefore make the difficult choice to postpone my attempt to fly the Polar Pumpkin to the North Pole this year.
Weather at Eureka Weather Station this morning was one aspect of the decision - more scattered areas of light snow, low ceilings, poor contrast, and freezing fog. Also, the low pressure system west of longitude 90 East - through the Pole - to 90 West is beginning to move easterly and over the Pole.
Tentatively, given a good weather day, I am now planning to further explore more of northern Ellesmere Island; and, if possible, make a flight to Ward Hunt Island just off the extreme northern tip of Ellesmere Island, in order to check on a fuel cache there. If I'm not so blessed for a good weather window for a flight north in the next few days, I have no choice but to begin my flight back south and home to Alaska.
For those of you that have followed Polar Flight 90, with interest and support in so many ways, I pass along my heartfelt thanks.
The little orange Cessna 185 - the Polar Pumpkin - still has a lot of "life in her"; and I will do my best to use the aircraft to make a positive contribution to the polar science in the coming months and years.
Including, perhaps, a third attempt - and successful - flight to the North Pole in 2013.
4/23/12 Special Note:
This is a quick message to let you know that Art has not updated his Flight Log for a few days because he has been totally occupied analyzing weather maps, satellite photos, talking to Canadian weather briefer, other Arctic weather experts and to his contact at Ice Station Barneo several times a day, searching for a feasible window to make it possible for him to fly to the Pole and safely back to Eureka Weather Station at the coast. The weather conditions have been poor in one location or the other continually. Since it is a 7 hour flight each way, there can be many weather patterns enroute - both going and coming back. That weather window also needs to include time to rest and refuel the airplane for the return trip.
The Russian Ice Station Barneo is shutting down two days earlier than first announced which has added to the pressure of getting to the pole. Once the station is vacated tomorrow, the safety net for any problem that might arise is gone. The "eyes on the ground" report on the condition of the landing strip and the weather there will be unknown. Any problem becomes a BIG problem.
APRIL 23, 2012
EUREKA WEATHER STATION
'Twas a short night last night - checking weather and satellite photos at midnight, and the same again at 3 AM. Ice Station Barneo operates on GMT + 2 hours; so they were using Moscow time, 7 hours ahead of Eureka Weather Station time. I had a hunch that the Ken Borek Twin Otter may be getting ready to depart Barneo and/or be enroute back; so I gave the aircraft a satphone call. Sure enough - they were only 26 minutes from landing at Eureka. Since I wanted to get as much information about Barneo as possible, I went the 1. 5 miles from the station up to the Eureka airstrip to meet the Otter. While the crew refueled the aircraft, Paul was very helpful in supplying details of the Barneo camp and runway - the length, the latitude/longitude coordinates, surface condition, orientation of runways 31/13 - and, most importantly, that the camp had been completely vacated. Even the Russian MI-8 helicopters were headed back to Russia.
Weather here at Eureka all day was fair to marginal, with ice crystals and poor visibility at times - not a good day to be flying the Pumpkin. Weather at Resolute wasn't very good either - actually worse - but Paul with the Twin Otter, and two engines, could make an IFR/ILS approach into Resolute.
So the primary option on the table today was whether to yet fly the Polar Pumpkin to the North Pole and Ice Station Barneo - or not.
We all live our lives based on calculated risk. Shall we be race car drivers, astronauts, lion tamers, mountaineers, deep sea divers - all of which give a "spice" to life, realizing that each has its own set of risks? In my case of flying the Polar Pumpkin to the North Pole and back, today - or tomorrow or the next day - I need to consider the fact that my exclusive fuel source for the return flight is located at Ice Station Barneo - now completely vacated. I also need to consider that there has been a major low pressure system to the west of longitudes 90 West and 90 East, just west of the pole, that has been threatening to cover the pole vicinity with low cloud. Since Barneo has been vacated, there are no "eyes on the ground" to report runway condition - whether there is a crack, pressure ridge, or wind blown snow drifted surface condition - and, quite importantly, the current GPS coordinate location of the drifting ice floe. If that GPS location is not precisely known, in conditions of low cloud/low contrast, it would be nearly impossible to locate the airstrip. At that point, I would have zero options.
In the previous few days, I've been researching every possible source of information regarding weather patterns, ice conditions, satellite photos, and direct reports from Ice Station Barneo.
I'm now at the decision point. Do I risk the Polar Pumpkin, the scientific gear on board, and a very problematical rescue? Do I accept the risk of being completely on my own if anything at all goes wrong? Or do I back off, take a breath, and make plans for a final third try next April?
I shall sleep on it tonight, and decide.
APRIL 22, 2012
EUREKA WEATHER STATION
Over the past 30 years, I have flown small aircraft across various parts of Canada numerous times. I can not recall one time the Canadian flight service briefers have been anything besides polite, professional, knowledgeable, and helpful. My briefings the past few days - in my quest to pick the proper safe weather window for a flight to the North Pole - has been exactly that. In one case, a briefer asked "may I have your name" - a very much personal approach - instead of only the registration tail number N90SN of the aircraft.
Weather briefings today included at least 4 sessions on the telephone, along with numerous perusals of satellite images and Graphic Area Forecasts. Since it is Sunday today, Alert weather was still unknown. But basically there was an "upper level trough" - or low pressure system - to the west of the west coast of Ellesmere Island, forecast to cause the weather to come down in Eureka. Clouds are forecast to be at 1500 feet to 2500 feet broken ceilings, with tops to 8,000 feet and patchy areas of clouds 500 feet AGL (above ground level). The forecast are for poor conditions tomorrow also.
Satellite photos show a "huge cloud mass" of alto stratus/stratocumulus cloud getting closer to the North Pole, and covering about 500 square miles. Considering this fact - and the low cloud 1/3 to of the way from Eureka to the Pole - along with worse conditions tomorrow, I could not take off.