2013 Flight of the Polar Pumpkin
No news at 6 o'clock this morning either - since it's Sunday. Normally, I would like to be gearing up for Church on Sunday - and take advantage of the single Anglican service here in Old Crow. But . . . the weather had improved - all the way to Fairbanks - and I was behooved to "get on the road". Breakfast, though, was the first priority - Stephen's bacon, eggs, and stack of hot cakes slathered with a nice layer of last Fall's wild cranberries.
Indeed, the light soft snow of the past 24 hours had not stuck to the Polar Pumpkin. So a broom, borrowed from the CARS station, was an adequate tool to get the tops of the wings swept clean and smooth. Still, it took considerable time to get the airplane reloaded, my flight plan filed, and EAPIS notification registered with American Customs and Border Protection. EAPIS must be filed ONLY online - and can get complicated, particularly if one happens to hit a "button" incorrectly - and is then sent off into the wilderness of digital "etherland". On weekends - with no commercial flights inbound or outbound - it's particularly quiet around the Old Crow airport terminal building - allowing me ample access to the weather computer/telephone, with permission of course. Visibility was good, binoculars were handy; and so there was considerable opportunity - in spare time - for the CARS operator to be perusing herds of caribou wandering mountain slopes near the village.
Takeoff, with a light breeze down Runway 03, was uneventful. Over the flats, air was fairly smooth; but over the hills, I found areas of light turbulence. Unfortunately, a headwind was forecast much of the way to Fairbanks. Considering that a possibility, I had extra and ample fuel on board. Over the years, I had flown over the Black River, the Little Black River, and the Salmon Fork of the Black River - so it was particularly a pleasure to be flying back over some of my old "stomping grounds". There were a few clouds over the White Mountains, causing a minor diversion, but generally the weather on in to Fairbanks was fine. After flight controllers gave me instructions to "do a right 360", to allow the landing of a Lear Jet in front of me, I was cleared to land "Number 2" on Runway 20R. Ground control gave me authorization for taxi to Gate 6 at the Fairbanks International Airport Terminal for Customs Clearance. The Polar Pumpkin and I were then cleared without incident back into the USA. All was well.
So it was now time to Park the Polar Pumpkin. I taxied across the Fairbanks International Airport to my parking spot - from whence I departed on March 20 - and completed the "North" portion of Polar Flight 90 - flying the Polar Pumpkin from Fairbanks to the North Pole and safe return. Thereby is the successful culmination of Polar Flight 90 - the flight of the same single engine "Polar Pumpkin" Cessna 185 to both the Geographic South Pole and the Geographic North Pole.
Words cannot describe my gratitude toward all those involved with Polar Flight 90 - directly and indirectly. Thank you one and all.
Polar Pumpkin Polar Flight 90 to the North Pole:
Flight hours, Fairbanks to the North Pole and return: 51.3 hours
Approximate distance flown, North Pole and return: 5,000 miles
Days En route: 47
Attempts to accomplish the goal: 3
Kind and gracious people met en route: MANY
Quotations of Note:
"Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity, but in doing it."
- Greg Anderson
"Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence." - Helen Keller
"It always seems impossible until it's done." - Nelson Mandela
**NOTE: Plans are pending to have the Polar Pumpkin on display at Oshkosh Airventure 2013 - Oshkosh, Wisconsin - July 29 to August 4.
**NOTE: Occasional "Alaska Reports" and updates of Polar Pumpkin activities may be found on www.polarflight90.com
Normal morning routine at Stephen's household is to be up about 5:30 AM, get the coffee going, and be ready to listen to the radio news at 6:00 AM. Today, however - being Saturday - there was no news at 6. So . . . it was another good opportunity for more interesting "bush craft" conversation with Stephen.
Since there was a low overcast cloud layer, with wind and light snow all day, flying was out of the question. Danielle at Arctic Radio confirmed the residual poor weather, as did a scan of GFAs and METAR/TAFs at the airport CARS office. Francois, the operator on duty, very graciously offered hospitality and access to the weather computer. Francois, and his wife Deb, have lived in Old Crow for the past two years. Deb is one of the local nurses. As in most northern communities, folks end up being a "jack of all trades". In Francois' case, besides being a CARS operator, he is also a photographer and fine furniture maker.
As an opportunity to contribute to the food larder, Stephen and I wandered up to the single local grocery store - the Northern. What to get? Stephen likes spaghetti; so we got some fixings for that. I suggested a dozen of eggs . . . but Stephen didn't think so . . . since he had a nice batch of fresh brown "home grown" eggs from his daughter's brood of 24 hens at Tagish, Yukon. Bread? No, Stephen had some. Strawberry jam? Yes, indeed. A bag of potatos? Oh, of course. After a little shopping - and lots of visiting with friends and neighbors at the store - we were set for a few nice meals back at the house. Expensive - as was the AvGas? Oh yes, a bit. A jar of jam at $12, and a plastic container of Folgers coffee at $28. A gallon of snowmobile injector oil could be had for a mere $24. The realities of life in the remote bush . . .
Before heading back to the house, we got word that chili was being served over at the Community Hall. Being two hungry males with good appetites, Stephen and I wandered over. We arrived a bit early; but still we were served. The homemade caribou chili came with a fresh homemade bun; and was absolutely fabulous. One could grab his/her own cup of tea. The other meal being served, besides the chili, was caribou soup. It also came with a bun. I just had to try some of that too. Within the soup - besides the boiled caribou meat - there were carrots, potatoes, noodles, and probably a few boiled down onions. A younger lad, Allan, ate with us, and had cut some firewood for Stephen; so the plan for the afternoon was to take a snowmobile and sled across the river to haul the wood back to the village. After lunch at the Hall, we really didn't need to eat the rest of the day.
The wind had been blowing all day. I made a couple visits to the airport to check on the Polar Pumpkin, confirming that all was well. Fortunately the wind was "on the nose". The airplane was flopping around a bit; but not so dramatically that a tie down was necessary. Ideally, it would have been nice to have wing covers on the plane; but getting them on with such a wind was a bit "problematical". The plan, then, would be to just use a broom to sweep snow off the Pumpkin when I got ready to fly to Fairbanks - IF the snow hadn't stuck. If the snow had stuck, then the plan was to use warm water poured over the wings to get rid of the ice.
In any small community - especially during the cold dark days of winter - it's important to schedule village activities that "bring people together". Sporting events at the school do this, dog sled or snowshoe races do this, as do events like "crib tournaments" (cribbage). Stephen, this evening, was headed up to the Hall to play crib.
Gary Forney once again graciously gave me a ride to the Inuvik Airport. While pre-flighting the Polar Pumpkin, I noticed a familiar face next to a Ken Borek Twin Otter. It was Brian Good, who I had last seen in Resolute Bay. He was getting ready for a flight to Sachs Harbor, on the southwest coast of Banks Island. Brian managed to find a few minutes for a cup of coffee, brief visit, and perusal of satellite photos along my route of flight. Conditions looked adequate, and improving. To supplement the cup of coffee with Brian, I popped into the Cloud 9 airport restaurant for a nice bowl of homemade clam chowder soup, with bacon and egg breakfast sandwich. It's much nicer - and safer - to head "off into the hinterland" with a full stomach.
Cloud ceilings over the Richardson Mountains - between Inuvik and Old Crow - were the issue. I thought I needed bases to be at 5,000 feet; but in actuality I needed bases to be more at 7,000 feet, on a direct course to Old Crow. As it turned out, skies were mostly clear - with such a fabulous view of these rugged mountains. A number of years ago, I flew my Cessna 180 between Inuvik and Old Crow when clouds were down over the Richardsons - up through the Summit Lake pass between the Rat River and the Bell River - but this time, with the Polar Pumpkin heavily laden, I didn't dare use that route. The pass is so narrow, that there is no way to safely turn around with a heavy Cessna 185, if necessary. My motivation of flying to Old Crow today was due to a low pressure system to the south - with a frontal wave or two - tracking north and east. If I could just get west of the Richardson Mountains, I would not expect to be stuck by bad weather forecast to affect Inuvik. Old Crow - being in the lower terrain along the Porcupine River - is positioned such that I would have the option of following the Porcupine downstream to the Yukon River; and then the Yukon River to the Tanana River upstream to Fairbanks.
Having checked the Old Crow weather early this morning, winds were reported to be light from the northeast. Several hours later, upon arrival, however, it was a different story. Winds were gusting from the northeast at 18 knots - providing a strong gusting cross wind. Later, when I was safely on the ground, I spoke with other pilots; and they then informed me just how terribly turbulent conditions at Old Crow airport can be with such a wind. On final approach, I could tell that this landing was going to be one of those "exciting memorable ones". The wind was "squirrely", blowing the Polar Pumpkin several different directions at once. There were no other options - short of finding a lake somewhere, and landing on skis in the deep soft snow - so I just had to "deal with" landing conditions at hand. When I was at last on the ground, with no dings or bent Pumpkin, I breathed a sigh of relief. The pilots I noted earlier, went on to mention even how dramatically such a wind affects their heavy transport planes. "All's well that ends well"!
The Old Crow airport conveniently offers the sale of 100LL AvGas from their bulk fuel dispenser. So, in order to get the Pumpkin refueled yet today - and put additional weight into the aircraft, in case the wind picks up even more - Vernon, the fueler, "topped her off". The fuel was sold at a bargain price of $3.50 per liter - which translates into approximately $14 per gallon. The price is considerably more than at some airports; but one must realize that everything transported to old crow must come by airplane. There are no roads; and there are no barges that bring freight up the Porcupine River to the village. When the Polar Pumpkin was flying out of Patriot Hills, Antarctica, we figured that the cost of one 55 gallon barrel of fuel would be worth approximately $7,000 - or close to $127 per gallon. Our cache of AvGas at the South Pole was valued much higher than that.
While walking from the Old Crow airport to the house of my long time friend Stephen Frost, I met him on the road while he was driving his Yamaha Bravo snowmobile. Stephen said "you know where I live, there's caribou meat with rice on the stove - I'll be back soon". Caribou . . . such a tasty treat. "Country food", "from the land" - that I appreciate so much, which I had not enjoyed for quite some time. Stephen is the epitome of hospitality. Since a driver had backed a truck into the side of the Air North Hawker out at the airport, Stephen informed me that he might have to make special arrangements for the flight crew to also stay overnight - but, for now, I was welcome to stay in the same room that I had stayed on other visits. Sadly, Stephen had lost his wife to cancer; and is now living alone.
It is such a pleasure to sit back with a cup of coffee and visit with - and learn from - Stephen's 81 year "life lesson" of living, to a great extent, "from the land". We discussed techniques for butchering caribou, making "dry meat", catching wolverine, driving dog teams using toboggans, making "flashlights" from coffee cans and candles, making whistles from caribou antler, building cabins, cutting firewood, fishing with nets, hunting and eating muskrats, the current price of fur, and so many other subjects relative to "life in the bush".
Stephen's expertise is focused not just toward living on the land - but also to being a respected elder leader in the village. Stephen stood up, walked to the china cabinet in the corner, and returned with a medal he recently received from the Queen's Jubilee honors program. Quite the distinguished award. His is a life spanning many years and many cultures.
A cache - or small storage shed - comes in all shapes and sizes. Log caches were more common prior to the availability of plywood.
Rugged mountain peaks of the Richardson Mountains, between Inuvik, Northwest Territories and Old Crow, Yukon Territory.
The modern airport terminal building at Old Crow,
Jerky - or "dry meat" in Gwichin' Indian terminology - is often caribou meat or moose meat, dried in the absence of refrigeration.
Gill nets are often used by subsistence users of the land to catch salmon, pike, and whitefish.
Sure enough. Visibility this morning was down to a couple miles, with low cloud and light snow. An opportunity to enjoy more of Inuvik, and the fine people that live here. Gary Forney, his colleague Steve Donnelly, and I met for breakfast at the Mackenzie Hotel - to visit, solve most of the world's problems, and generally have a good time.
There is no particular "weather front" between Inuvik and Fairbanks; but there is a persistent low pressure system - appearing somewhat stalled - that is bringing low cloud and light snow in the forecast, possibly for as long as the next few days.
So close to home . . . yet so far.
Never before did I have an opportunity to enjoy a "Newfie Breakfast". As I perused the menu at the Yamouri Inn, there it was - two pieces of nice thick fried bologna, 3 eggs scrambled, home fries, and toast - white, brown, or rye. After having worked with Newfoundlanders on a ship in Antarctica, I have the perception of Newfoundland cuisine to be very "down to earth"; e.g. Jiggs Dinner (boiled salt beef) with potatos and vegetables, boiled fish, etc. The Newfie Breakfast was indeed down to earth; and after such a filling breakfast, I was all set to head up to the airport to prepare the Polar Pumpkin for the flight down the Mackenzie River. Warren Wright, once again, picked me up. It was a pleasure to stop at his modern FBO flight headquarters, and meet his friendly staff.
A direct course from Norman Wells to Inuvik took me directly over the community of Fort Good Hope. This community, first established in 1805, is one of the first settlements in the Lower Mackenzie River valley. The people that originally lived in this vicinity were the "hareskin" people; and the Sahtu Dene now living there call themselves the "big arrowhead people". Hunting and trapping was the traditional livlihood.
As I cruised over the Mackenzie River, I could imagine how different it will look in a few weeks - when the vast amount of water, originating from a vast watershed, will lift and break the ice, flush into the ocean, and barge traffic will begin anew. It's a big river - somewhat like the Mississippi. In one of the main channels, I noticed a large gaping hole in the ice - caused, I presume, by rapid currents in shallow waters. I could see that during mid winter, the spot could be particularly dangerous for inattentive dog mushers and snowmobilers. There are stories of entire dog teams falling through such holes, and disappearing forever.
Shortly after arrival in Inuvik, I was met by my friend Gary Forney. After getting situated in my hotel for the night, Gary dropped by to pick me up for a delicious caribou meat dinner at his home, with his delightful wife Barbara. A special treat later in the evening was a visit with George, a native gentleman that grew up trapping on the Inuvik townsite, before the city ever existed.
Already this evening, winds were gusting at Old Crow in the Yukon Territory - with mechanical turbulence forecast over the Richardson Mounains - so the outlook for a flight home to Alaska tomorrow is not so "pretty good".
An early morning check of the weather, influenced by high pressure, showed clear sky conditions over much of the region. There was the choice of heading straight west to Inuvik - with Paulatuk as an alternate - or flying down Coronation Gulf to Kugluktuk, over the pass into the Great Bear Lake drainage, and on to Norman Wells. When a report from Paulatuk indicated mile visibility and mist - even though skies were clear - I decided for the latter plan. Coastal weather particularly - with fog and ice crystals coming out of nowhere - is hard to predict.
Kugluktuk radio reported reduced visibility with ice fog when I was 100 miles or so out; but by the time I got to the airport, weather had improved once again to CAVU. On landing, my friend Larry Whittaker was there to meet me; and off we went "uptown" to the local Co-Op store to get a sandwich. Larry is the local probation officer; and graciously brought me over to meet a couple of his Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Mounties) colleagues. Their posting in these "rural" communities is for an initial period of 2 years.
Weather continued to be excellent most of the way to Norman Wells. It was particularly a pleasure to be back in the boreal forest - where, if I wished, I could find some dry wood, make a nice toasty camp fire, and brew up a cup of tea. North of treeline, one best have the gas powered camp stove handy. Inuit natives of the High Arctic must have been some of the "toughest of the tough" in their harsh, treeless, unforgiving landscape.
Only when I was 20 or 30 miles east of Norman Wells did I encounter a bit of a problem - close to the vicinity of Kelly Lake. Altocumulus clouds, with snow showers, were forecast - and that's exactly what developed, right over the range of mountains between me and Norman Wells. For awhile I thought I'd have to lower the skis, find a sunny spot, land on Kelly Lake, and wait out the snow squalls. After a bit of zig zagging through the clouds, however, I found a hole with better visibility on to the Mackenzie River and Norman Wells.
Typically Canadian, I had no more than parked the Polar Pumpkin when a kind and generous gentleman - Mr. Warren Wright, President of North Wright Airways - came by to offer me a ride into town and to the Yamouri Inn. Realizing a change from the sardine supper last night, I decided to have a nice medium rare rib eye with Greek salad tonight. Mmmm, tasty.
After so commonly refueling the Pumpkin from drums - using my humble little Honda pump, hoses, filters, and nozzles - refueling from an actual fuel truck seemed quite the luxury. This we did yet this evening, in preparation for an early morning departure tomorrow.
The Polar Pumpkin was basically ready to go. But removing and folding wing covers, pulling tie down ropes, filing a flight plan, etc. all takes time. Arctic Radio reported that I would likely have some cloud for the first half of my flight - but that weather on the south half would be better. That's actually what transpired. Later, after I took off, I heard that the cloud ceiling had dropped to 800 feet in Resolute Bay. So I got away none too soon. Even though I was in cloud part of the way, there was no indication of icing.
Most of the terrain - especially this time of year, with a winter's snow accumulation - is white. The view is somewhat similar to looking at a bumpy white bed sheet. Occasionally, however, a wind blown esker or rocky outcrop will provide a bit of contrast - particularly if it's sunny. On one such esker, today, I noticed a herd of 16 musk ox. Every time I see these animals in this part of the world, I'm amazed that a mammal of such size can survive, and thrive, in an environment with little or no forage visibly obvious.
Since my arrival in Cambridge Bay, from the Central to Mountain Time Zone, was relatively early in the afternoon - and my fuel was handy - I decided to refuel the Pumpkin yet today, and sort some gear, to be ready for an early departure tomorrow. Arctic Radio reported a very intense low pressure system to the east, tracking to the north - that may or may not bring down the weather in Cambridge Bay. Once again, the kind and generous folks at Adlair - and particularly Gordy - helped push the Polar Pumpkin inside the protective hangar for the night.
Supper of sardines, cheese, sausage, and crackers never tasted so good.
A "mixed bag" of weather today - sunny, cloudy, snowy, with winds a bit lighter this evening - tempting, for awhile, until I discovered a strong headwind forecast between Resolute Bay and Cambridge Bay. There are no communities in between - and no landing alternatives - so one needs to be absolutely certain to have enough fuel. "Back in the day", there was a camp at Crooked Lake, on Prince of Wales Island; but no one is there presently.
There is one church in Resolute Bay - Anglican - and today, being Sunday, I walked over at 11 AM to attend services. The total congregation, including the pastor and his wife, amounted to 8 souls. No worries. What matters is not the grandiose atmosphere - as in some of the "mega-churches" in America - but the spirit of the place. In this little church, the spirit was good. All attendees were Inuit - except me, an American Norwegian. Actually, I'm 50/50 - Norwegian and Swede. A friend told me that I would then be a "Norwede" or a "Swegian". The service was conducted in the Inuktitut language - which, of course, I did not understand. Graciously, however, the pastor offered hymns out of the "big blue book" - which offered translations in Inuktitut, Inuvialuit, and English. The "little blue book" offered hymns only in Inuktitut. During the service, a young lady - perhaps 7 years old, or so - sitting behind her mother, found a tear in her mother's down parka. The little sweetheart found it quite amusing to pull feathers out of the parka, blow them from the palm of her hand into the air, watch them drift slowly down, and blow them back airborne once again - all unbeknownst to mother dear.
This evening, as the sun lowered on the western horizon, I took a short walk around the village. I found at least two polar bear skins stretched on drying racks, and another pure white bear skin folded next to its skull perched on a 4-wheeler "quad". The size of the skull was massive - rivaling, I reckon, the size of coastal brown bears in Alaska. There are stories of polar bears reaching through open holes in the sea ice, and yanking out beluga whales. One can only imagine the phenomenal strength required for such a deed. So many of us get our steaks and hamburger wrapped neatly in a cushioned cellophane/Styrofoam package at the supermarket. Few of us, however, experience collecting our meat "from the land" - and, if we wish to cook up a steak, need to go out to the komatik sled and whack off a frozen piece with an axe or saw.
Out of curiosity, I've been keeping track - through satellite images - of weather at the North Pole, and surrounding area. The sat pictures show thick widespread black cloud - symbolizing dense low stratus - indeed, not the place I would choose to be with the Polar Pumpkin right now.
Watching the weather all day didn't seem to help improve it any. In fact, conditions deteriorated to the point of snow tonight, blowing snow, and poor visibility. Dale Andersen sent satellite photos throughout the day, showing the position of cloud and weather systems. So it was a day to stay inside and tend to "domestic chores". A hot shower and fresh laundry needs to be a priority "once in awhile". I was reminded of the "good ol' days" - of working out on the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean for, let's say, 6 weeks without a shower. When we finally got back to land in Greenland, it felt ever so good to feel fresh beads of water dissolving some of the accumulated bodily sludge. When undressing - and parking one's pants in the corner - due attention was required, lest the pants run off on their own.
Tonight South Camp Inn still had a group of school students circulating through the hallways. This group had recently returned from a field trip to Ottawa; and were trying to get home to their village of Grise Fiord. The morning flight of the Ken Borek Twin Otter managed to get in to the community - which included a few bear hunters with their gear - but the afternoon flight had to turn around amid bad winds, and return to Resolute Bay. Generally, pilots will agree that if there is more than 10 knots of wind at Grise Fiord, it is not advisable to attempt a landing due to these squirrely winds and turbulence.
One of the hunters with whom I spoke - returning from Grise Fiord - was successful; and reported seeing 11 other polar bears. Indeed these animals are magnificent creatures. Thankfully their circumpolar populations remain healthy.