Polar Flight 90 - To The North Pole...
**Updated Alaska Reports, and other Polar Flight 90 dispatches, will be provided from time to time over the summer, fall, and winter - as preparations continue for an estimated Polar Pumpkin takeoff date, to the Geographic North Pole, of April 1, 2012
MORE 2011 EXPEDITION:
April 3, 2011
After many test flights, checking gear and equipment, and focusing on Polar Flight 90 expedition logistics, I was finally able to "Point the Polar Pumpkin" North - and departed Fairbanks International Airport at approximately 9 AM. The weather enroute was forecast to be good; but an intense low pressure system was approaching Interior Alaska from the Gulf of Alaska. These systems sometimes bring bad weather for days. By my request, my wife Damaris was the only one at the airport to see me off. With all due respect to the newspaper and radio reporters, I needed to stay focused on the flight at hand; and not be in any way distracted.
As you might imagine, the aircraft was on the heavy side - loaded with various camping gear, science gear, and fuel. Nonetheless, takeoff was fine; and the aircraft climbed to my cruising altitude of 6,000 feet very well. I had intended to take off yesterday; but 3 hours were spent dealing with a fairly new American Customs and Border Patrol concept called eAPIS. As a private aircraft leaving American airspace, I had to file all the appropriate details - online. Not being a computer guru, it was quite a laborious and time consuming task. In addition, I had to purchase a User Fee decal - for what purpose I will never understand - also online. The Canadian customs officers - offering a service called CANPASS - were their normal efficient, polite, and flexible selves. As I've said for many years, America is extremely lucky to have such a good neighbor as Canada.
As I climbed up over the White Mountains, I flew close to the road that connects Fairbanks to Circle, Alaska. It's always nice to have a road beneath an aircraft - as an emergency landing field - whenever possible. When I crossed over the Yukon River, however, I left the road system behind. Some of the country, over which I flew - such as the Black River, the Salmon Fork of the Black River, and numerous lakes - I was familiar with from past flying in the area, working as a hunting guide and pilot. I even recognized one small lake that a friend calls his "Honey Hole" - since there always seems to be big bull moose lurking in the vicinity.
Also, from other flights across Canada, I recognized some of the tributaries of the upper Porcupine River. On one flight several years ago - when the clouds were quite low - I had to fly up the Rat River, through a pass in the Richardson Mountains, to the Bell River - and then follow the Porcupine River to the delightful Athabascan Indian village of Old Crow. There is a fairly well known book called "The Mad Trapper of Rat River" that describes a historic manhunt by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in this vicinity. I had wanted to stop in Old Crow - to visit my friends the Stephen Frost family - but with approaching bad weather behind me, I had to keep going to Inuvik village at the mouth of the Mackenzie River. Today the weather was absolutely "severe clear" - CAVU - so I was able to stay at 6,000 feet and fly above the majestic peaks of the Ogilvie Mountains and Richardson Mountains. This route lead me by the headwaters of the Fishing Branch River where a friend and I - as Fisheries Biologists - did a project in the late 1970's. We were on this river for about 10 days - and nearly no time during that period did we not have at least one grizzly bear in sight. As it turns out, a grizzly tore up our boat; and were were collected by helicopter a bit prematurely!
Arrival in Inuvik was pleasant and uneventful. The Customs lady was typically polite and efficient; and formalities were taken care of in good time. Handguns are forbidden in Canada; so my survival firearm was a pump action Remington 870 12 gauge shotgun. A permit was required for this firearm. No problem.
Another aircraft - a Ken Borek BT-67 turbine DC-3 - called Polar 5, the scientific research aircraft based out of the Alfred Wegener Research Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, was also waiting for Customs Clearance. As the agent tended to their requirements, I proceeded to reorganize my gear in the Polar Pumpkin. After the DC-3 was cleared, one of their crew members - Mike Armstrong - came up to me and said, "didnt we meet at the Russian base of Novolazarevskaya in Antarctica this past winter"? Surely we had. What a pleasure to see Mike again, and also to meet his cockpit partner Keith Krueger, who has been a pilot for 42 years - a wealth of experience and knowledge. I had the pleasure to join them - and their scientific team - for dinner at the Mackenzie Inn later in the evening.
So . . . the Polar Pumpkin is headed North.
April 4, 2011
Since I happened to be in Inuvik, I took advantage of attending the last day of the 54th Muskrat Jamboree - dedicated to the "Past and Present Muskrat Jamboree Committee Members" - April 1 to April 4. Why a muskrat jamboree? You'll note in my update of April 3, that there are thousands of lakes in the delta of the Mackenzie River; and in these lakes live tens of thousands of muskrats. Traditionally, folks in this area - i.e. the Inuvialuit - utilized the resources of the land - and muskrat was one of those resources - for their fur, and their meat. Other land mammals in this area include the snowshoes hare, Canadian lynx, moose, and wolverine. Not far to the north of here - let's say in the vicinity of Tuktoyaktuk village - people would have more access to the resources of the sea; i.e. seals, whales, and polar bears.
Some of the events at the Jamboree - bringing people out in a carnival atmosphere - included a Community Feast, Inuvialuit Drum Dancing, Crowning the Muskrat jamboree 2011 King and Queen, a Dogsled Race, a Plank Walk, Log Sawing and Nail Driving Competitions, Harpoon Throw, Tea and Bannock Making Contest, and - of course - a Muskrat Skinning Competition. Along one of the event corridors, various wall tents were set up on frames to house food vendors. As I prepared to order a cheeseburger, someone behind me said, "Art, is that you"? I turned around, only to find a friend Bob Heath - someone that I had not seen for at least 10 years. We had worked together based out of Patriot Hills Antarctica. Bob has been a resident of Inuvik for a few decades; and is one of the most experienced polar pilots - flying both in the High Arctic and Antarctic. It was an added pleasure to meet his delightful wife Lucy. She and Bob met on a medivac flight; when she was the flight nurse, and Bob was the pilot.
Flight Weather Briefings in Canada seem to be exceptionally good - competent, friendly briefers, reachable on an 866 toll free number - and a Graphic Area Forecast (GFA) available on the internet. Upon checking the flight weather forecast for tomorrow, it's not looking so good. The low pressure system that was behind me has now overtaken me; and the high pressure system over the Canadian archipelago has moved off to the east. There's a good liklihood of low cloud, light snow, and poor visibility. Not far north from here is the northern "Tree Line" - i.e. the northern extremities of the boreal forest. While flying over the forest in bad weather - black spruce in this case - one has somewhat of a contrast and horizon. Flying out across the frozen sea ice and islands, however, everything looks white; and at times it's difficult to judge what's up and what's down - somewhat like flying inside a bottle or milk, or up against a bed sheet.
So we'll check the weather tomorrow . . . and see how much longer I must stay in the community of Inuvik.
Cessma 170 on a pedestal - acting as a weather vane - visible as one enters the city of Inuvik. Freddie Carmichael, an early bush pilot in this area flew the airplane in the 1950s; and started Reindeer Air Service.
April 5, 2011
The Inuvik Airport is approximately 5 miles - or so - out of town. But off I went this morning with Bob Heath - to get a better vantage point of the local weather, and to check with Flight Briefing. Shortly after arrival at the airport, the light snow began; so, for me, it was clearly a no fly day. Already winds were gusting to 20 knots at Ulukhaktok, with blowing snow. Cape Perry and Paulatuk are other reporting points with marginal to deteriorating weather. The low pressure system to the west is meeting the higher pressure system to the east; and the pressure gradient - equating to high winds - happened to be right on my planned course going northeast. Satellite photos confirmed the situation, with "cloud swirls" quite evident.
So . . . it was a day in Inuvik - seeing some of the sites, guided by Bob Heath, purchasing a couple additional extension cords at the local hardware store, and catching up on correspondence.
The weather picture for tomorrow isn't much better; but . . . we'll see . . . in the morning.
April 6, 2011
As I suspected, the weather was poor all day - light snow, poor visibility, and poor contrast. My DC-3 Ken Borek pilot friends - with their entourage of scientists - did take off for Resolute Bay. This twin engine aircraft can go IFR (instrument flight rules) and climb up to a 13,000 foot cruising altitude and be above most of the bad weather. In my case, I must fly much lower and go VFR (visual flight rules). The Polar Pumpkin is equipped as an IFR airplane; but to be safe about flying IFR, one must be current in training and practice. In my case, I've had IFR training; but to fly a heavily loaded single airplane into IMC (instrument meteorological conditions) - with a good liklihood of icing - is just a very bad idea. One of the scheduled "feeder flights" to Ulukhaktok was even canceled today, due to the bad weather.
This rock cairn is called an "Inukshuk"; and traditionally were built on rocky promontories - to look like standing men - in order to herd the traveling bands of caribou into areas where hunters would have a better chance for the harvest
Inuvik is a governmental hub for the Northwest Territories; so there are many bureaucratic offices represented here - Parcs Canada, etc. There is no industry per se; but there are oil and gas reserves in the coastal areas to the north. I'm told that there is at least one drilling ship frozen in the ice at present. Listening to conversations in a local restaurant, I get the impression that further mining development may be planned for the region. East of the village of Tuktoyaktuk - at the mouth of the Mackenzie River delta - there are the "Smoking Hills". I'm told that there is a magnesium compound in the earth there, that when this is exposed to the air, combustion occurs. I had hoped to get a photograph of this phenomenon when I fly by; but, unfortunately, all is yet frozen and covered with snow - so the smoking hills aren't smoking this time of year.
Earlier this evening I stopped by the North Mart shopping center to pick up a few items. I'm told that this store is now part of the Hudson Bay Company - a long time trading entity in the Far North. Of course, the farther North one goes, the more expensive any item becomes. I had planned to pop into the Anglican Church for services this evening; but apparently I was a bit too late. A sign in front of the church caught my attention, however. It stated that: "Courage is just fear that's said it's prayers".
Once again, the forecast for good flying weather tomorrow . . . is . . . quite poor. We'll see.
April 7, 2011
Marginal weather persists once again today. Back home in the Brooks Range of Alaska, I can better deal with such conditions. Being within the "treeline" of the boreal forest - most of the time - there, I have the contrast of the trees, with the mountains, with the rivers, and with the tundra - such that I can often find my way in marginal conditions - to an extent. Still . . . I try not to push my luck; and always try to have a plan B - or C - or D - or . . . Just in case. North of Inuvik, however, one is suddenly north of the treeline - and, of course, there are no trees - and to a great extent one loses contrast or definition in bad weather. The same is true for flying in most parts of Antarctica. Therefore, today the Polar Pumpkin stayed tied to its parking spot at the Inuvik airport.
The Polar Pumpkin tied down for approaching bad weather at the Inuvik, Northwest Territories airport.
Thanks to the Canadian agencies of NavCanada and Environment Canada, excellent flight briefing products are available on the internet. Also excellent "human" pilot weather briefers can be reached in North Bay, Ontario, utilizing the toll free number: 1-866-WX-BRIEF. The GFA (Graphic Area Forecast) for this evening shows - unfortunately for me - another strong weather system coming in from the west. The Mackenzie River delta this evening will be getting low cloud, light snow, and poor visibility. In addition some very strong gusty winds (35 - 45 knots) may be coming off the Richardson Mountains - located on the west side of the Delta. Therefore, while at the airport earlier in the day - with the help of more fabulous Ken Borek Air personnel - we positioned a heavy concrete block and a Herman Nelson preheating unit by the Polar Pumpkin as tie down weights.
A major news item came across today via the Explorers Web - potentially affecting various expedition plans and schedules. The Russians had recently established their annual drifting Ice Station Barneo at N89degrees 01minute/East 121degrees 34minutes. This camp was put in utilizing the Ilyushin 76 transport aircraft, MI-8 helicopters, paratroopers, and para cargo drops. Part of the para cargo drops included the parachuting of two small bulldozer tractors for flattening the ice floe for a runway. Russian airports utilized for this operation included Murmansk and Khatanga. After the runway is established, other flights with a two engine jet aircraft, the Antonov 74 - operating out of Longyearbyen, Svalbard - then transport personnel and other equipment to the ice floe. Yesterday, however, as the Antonov 74 was approaching Ice Station Barneo, the floe runway cracked and broke; so the Antonov had to return to Svalbard. Barneo personnel presently - using the two MI-8 helicopters - are searching for another location on which to build a runway; such that the Antonov can return to land. One of the more well known personalities now at Barneo - marooned, so to speak - is His Royal Highness Prince Harry. He is being guided by my friend Inge Solheim from Norway. Inge is a long time excellent Arctic and Antarctic guide. It now may be somewhat more of a challenge for Harry to get home in time for his brother's wedding - particularly since, in addition to the ice floe breaking, they are also experiencing a polar blizzard.
April 8, 2011
5/8 mile visibility, wind at 22 knots, blowing snow at Cape Parry and drifting snow at Ulukhaktok - so the Pumpkin stayed in the patch today.
Time to explore some of the amazing history and place names of the region.
Sir Alexander Mackenzie was one of the first non-natives to explore this region. Actually he was trying to find a large river that emptied into the Pacific Ocean at Cook Inlet - in now what is Alaska. The river that he explored did not go west - but north - and is now the Mackenzie River, named in his honor. You'll find many landmarks containing the name "Mackenzie" - including the Sir Alexander Mackenzie School in Inuvik. This school was built in 1959; and presently teaches approximately 350 students from kindergarten to 6th grade. Students are taught in 4 languages: Inuvialuktun (Inuit - Eskimo - dialect), Gwich'in (Athabascan - Indian - dialect), French, and English.
Inuvik itself has some interesting history. On the west bank of the Mackenzie River is the village of Aklavik. With governmental wisdom - since Aklavik would often flood - it was decided that the town should move - to the current site, up a little higher, of Inuvik. Well, many of the Aklavik citizens didn't want to necessarily move; so both towns now exist. This is somewhat like the case of the Alaskan village of New Minto. The new site is so far from the Tanana River and salmon fishing that both sites - New Minto and Old Minto - are currently utilized.
In whaling history, Herschel Island - just to the northeast of the Mackenzie River delta - plays a significant role. Some whale ships were frozen in the ice in this vicinity for the winter. There were many interactions with local folks; and the island was a stopping place for traffic and commerce between the Mackenzie country in Canada and the Barrow country in Alaska
9 April 2011
A "no fly" day. Not necessarily a bad weather day; but, instead, an "under the weather" day. What had been "going around Alaska" - in the line of flu and cold - I, unfortunately, took on board the Polar Pumpkin before takeoff for points North.
10 April 2011
After refueling, a preflight - and a fabulous bowl of turkey vegetable soup at the Inuvik Airport restaurant - I was nearly ready for take off. Meghan, at the restaurant, kindly filled my in flight thermos with hot water.
Crack through the runway at the Russian Drifting Ice Station Barneo, near the North Pole. They are now trying to make a new runway.
The terrain north of Inuvik is fairly flat - interrupted by the occasional river and/or low mountain range. The Anderson River and the Horton River were two of the more significant drainages. One thing that stuck me was the total desolation - lack of tracks - man, animal, or machine. The Horton River runs quite close to the "Smoking Hills". I flew right over these hills; but saw no smoking going on today. All covered with snow and ice. "Arctic Radio" has a remote communications outlet at Cape Parry; so I gave them a call to give a position and "ops normal" report. As I left Cape Parry, and headed out into the Amundsen Gulf, I was basically heading out to sea. I was pleasantly surprised to find the ice fairly intact, with very flew leads - or opening cracks in the ice. This gave me two advantages: first, there was little water open to the air that would make "sea smoke or fog - and, secondly, the more solid ice under the airplane the better I like it, in case I would have a mechanical malfunction. On the VHF frequency of 126.7, I was able to speak with Aklak 600 - a Twin Otter that had just been to Ulukhaktok - and who was now enroute back to Inuvik. The crew reported good weather at Ulukhaktok. Sure enough, on
my arrival there, the weather was fine; and two gentlemen from the Arctic Char Inn were waiting to pick me up.
Ulukhaktok is a village of approximately 500 folks - mostly Inuvialut. The hamlet has two stores "The Northern" and "The Coop" - both outfitted with a myriad of clothes and equipment required in a sometimes harsh northern climate. There are two church buildings, the community center, school, and a shop selling artisan wares. Ulukhaktok is famous for its art prints, and carvings made from muskox horn and other local materials. Most land transportation - this time of year - is by snowmobile. There are several dog teams that are tied to chains and/or posts on the beach. These hardy "huskies" handle the severe weather without houses or pampering; and simply hunker down in their own ball of fur when the weather turns bad.
The only hotel is the Arctic Char Inn - small, but very comfortable - administered by extra friendly and competent personnel. Don, the Chef, very kindly set me up with a late after hours dinner of local arctic char.
11 April 2011
Still not feeling very well, so it was a challenge to head out into the cold - and wind - this morning here in Ulukhaktok. One of the young fellas that came to the hotel restaurant had a cheek full of raw and scabbed wound, obviously from frostbite.
Two of the other gentlemen that came over for coffee, were Noah Akhiatak and Joseph Kitekudlak. Both were hunters of the "older" generation; and could describe many polar bear and seal hunts. Noahs description of seal hooks; and polar bears waiting at seal breathing holes - sometimes for many hours - was particularly interesting. When I mentioned the name of my Alaska friend Ken Born - that grew up in this village - their eyes lit up; and Noah tapped his chest saying, "Kens Dad has a special place in my heart". It was clear that the Born family - here in the 1960s - made a great positive impact on Ulukhaktok, when they were here as missionaries and teachers.
After getting a lift to the airport - approximately 3 miles away - I worked to organize some refueling gear; and tie the aircraft down better, in case the wind picked up. Still there is a north wind forecast. Im watching this one carefully . . . since Im headed North. No AvGas is available here; so I must make it all the way to Resolute with the fuel that I put on board in Inuvik.
The Arctic Char Inn is quite a cosmopolitan place Im discovering. There is a Canadian Ranger here, that is organizing a snowmobile expedition to a lake about 160 miles from here, there is a muskox hunter from Louisiana here, and others that Im curious to meet. Although I never met them, I heard about a group of guys that had just driven snowmobiles all the way from Yellowknife - a tremendous distance, and a tremendous accomplishment.
Im hoping that the antiobiotics and decongestants that I started taking this evening will take action overnight . . . that the wind will be calm, or on the Polar Pumpkins tail . . . and that the weather will be good.
Climate Change Food Security Workshop in the Ulukhaktok Community Center.
Warm mittens made from the skin of a wolf.
April 12, 2011
More strong northerly winds between Ulukhaktok and Resolute Bay - so no flying for me again today. Two problems: first, there are a series of low pressure systems off the west coast of Greenland, and a large high pressure system off the west coast of the Canadian Archipelago. Circulation around a high is clockwise; and circulation around a low is counter clockwise. The boundary where these pressure systems meet - called the "pressure gradient" - happens to be right across my course to Resolute Bay. Winds gusting to 35 knots, with turbulence, were forecast. The second problem is that I must burn 100LL AvGas - and no substitutes. There is little or no AvGas available here in Ulukhaktok; so I must make it to Resolute Bay with the fuel that I put on in Inuvik. Therefore, I must not encounter a significant headwind enroute; or Ill be out "camping in the hinterland", wondering just who might be so kind to bring me a few drops of AvGas.
Regardless, each morning I toddle out to the airport to check on the Pumpkin. I have one good tie down and one so-so tie down - i.e. an old loader battery that I borrowed from Fred, the airport maintenance chief. The only good parking spot happens to be crosswind from the prevailing winds.
Most mornings, there is only one person or so at the airport - Mr. Patrick Klengenberg, the CARS operator. CARS stands for the Canadian Airport Radio System - or equivalent. Patrick reports the weather; and gives airport advisory information for any landing and departing aircraft. Hes a local young lad, having grown up in Ulukhaktok; but went on to school at a "residential school", "down south". Most things are down south from here. One of his regrets, having gone away to school, is that he now does not speak the traditional language of his parents - the dilemna of many native folks across the Arctic.
Once Patrick "opened up" - and it didnt take long - he had the most amazing stories. Like the time that he and a friend were hunting during a very cold dark January day on the sea ice approximately 20 miles east of Ulukhaktok. Darkness had set in, the storm was raging, and they still were not to land - or to even a piece of good ice. So the only choice they had was to put up their tent and camp on ice that was so thin that it was "rubbery" - thin sea ice commonly is - and one could feel it undulate up and down. They were out hunting polar bears; so Patricks buddy wanted to put stinky seal blubber downwind from their camp to draw polar bears in close to their camp for a good shot during the night. All this was much to Patricks chagrin. Well, they survived the night - without falling through the ice - and, in the morning, found polar bear tracks circling their camp. Obviously Patrick made it home in one piece; and, very philosophically, considers this one of his "coming of age" experiences as a young Inuit hunter.
Or like the time that Patrick had shot and wounded a seal. He was sure that all he had to do was paddle his wooden dinghy out to collect the "near dead" (?) seal; so he left his rifle on shore. As he approached the seal, the animal came to life; and charged Patricks small craft. With seconds to respond, he thwarted the attack with his paddle. About the time he thought all was over, the seal did the same thing from the other side of the dinghy. So once again Patrick got lucky and poked the attacking seal with his paddle. Quite shaken, Patrick paddled back to shore, got his rifle, and finished the seal.
Patricks grandfather was an early day whaler in the Arctic. He was of Danish descent; and, for whatever reason, changed his name from Christian Jorgenson to Christian Klengenberg. Amazing stories of Christians life at sea can be read in "Klengenberg of the Arctic" by Christian Klengenberg.
At 3 PM today I was invited to the Ulukhaktok Community Hall to attend a workshop entitled "Ulukhaktok Food Security Adaptation - Climate Change Impacts on Inuit Food Security in the ISR (Inuvialuit Settlement Region)". The workshop is planned for 3 arctic communities in this region; and today was presented by Dr. Vasiliki Douglas, with the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George. Besides the workshop, a nice meal was served. I had hoped to try polar bear, musk ox, whale, or seal soup; but no such luck. Approximately 20 persons - including many elders - were in attendance.
Much of interest was discussed, including many issues of equal concern by folks in the "farther west" arctic where I live. Climate change/global warming are topics that will likely be hotly debated for the foreseeable future. Scientists, and others - across the world - are trying to get a handle on specific climate change data, which can be used to understand the change, and to make reasonable responses. It was mentioned that last April at this time, the bay in front of Ulukhaktok was nearly ice free. This year the bay is solid ice; and there is no evidence of melting whatsoever. So . . . whats really going on? I reckon time will tell. This year - with the bay fully frozen over - polar bear hunting was far better than usual. This year, so far, the community has harvested 18 polar bears. The general consensus among some hunters was that the polar bear population in the region is healthy, and/or growing.
In the corner of the community hall, was the mounted specimen of a rare - if not the only - hybrid polar bear/grizzly bear, that has been known to exist. One of the local hunters from Ulukhaktok had harvested the bear.
Workshop issues were too numerous to discuss here. However, I believe that there was one key issue that does merit a brief discussion here. Nearly all the Inuit elders in attendance were lamenting the fact that Inuit young people now dont know the ways of survival on the land - that they are not eating the same healthy traditional food as from the past - that some must be paid to do even the simplest of errands for the family, etc. etc. There is always a constant cultural change - world wide - wherever we live. Midwest farm culture, bayou Cajun culture, gaucho culture, Polynesian - on and on. Its the RATE of change that is concerning - internet and television promulgating this change to a great degree.
Hybrid grizzly bear/polar bear cross mounted in the Ulukhaktok Community Center.
April 13, 2011
Good weather in Ulukhaktok. But in Resolute Bay - my next destination - winds are from the north at 26 knots, and gusting to 31 knots. Incidentally, a knot or nautical mile per hour, is 1.15 miles per hour. Resolute Bay has 3/8 miles visibility with blowing snow. Unfortunately, the forecast for tomorrow is not much better.
So, today - while visiting the Pumpkin - I worked on organizing gear, refueling tasks, warming a quart of oil that I expect to add before the next flight, etc. First Air and Aklak Air both arrived with commercial flights while I was at the airport; so it was - for awhile - a busy hub of activity. In these colder temperatures - as I go north - its been a challenge to keep the Pumpkins oil temperature as warm as Id like it - approximately 180 degrees Fahrenheit. So also today - in quite a brutal wind chill - I shortened the cowl flap linkage on the airplane; such that I will hopefully keep more heat inside the cowling, and with the engine. Every so often I had to go inside the terminal building to warm the finger tips, and other appendages.
Rob Stevens, a Canadian Ranger, today took off with his team of about 20 souls - and numerous snowmobiles, with komatiks (sleds) - to rendezvous with a similar team that is coming from the village of Kugluktuk (formerly called Coppermine) - at the mouth of the Coppermine River. These teams will camp at a large lake famous for arctic char fishing through the ice. Presently lake ice in this area - without a deep snow cover - is approximately 5 feet thick. Snow is a good insulator; so snow covered ice is considerably thinner.
As I travel - and one can note this phenomena the world over, I believe - there are similarities in place names and terminology. Today I asked a local Inuit man what "Kugluktuk" meant. He replied that it meant - basically - "place of rapids, or frothing, water". Just west of where we live - in the Brooks Range - there a river called the "Kogoluktuk". Coincidentally, in the lower end of this river, there are many stretches of "rapids, or frothing, water".
Winds are calm in Ulukhaktok tonight, skies are clear, and the moon is about 2/3 full. Last night, about this time, the dogteams tied on the beach all decided to start howling at the same time. Quite a beautiful, lonely, commiserating, and maybe even eerie sound.
If theyre listening out beyond the village, I wonder what their cousins - the wolves - are thinking?
14 April 2011
Incessant seems to be the appropriate word - for the north winds that continue to blow along my route between Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories and Resolute Bay, Nunavut.
The latest forecast is for "extensive visibilities from mile to 2 miles with ice crystals and heavy blowing snow". Winds are forecast to be gusting from the north at 35 knots. With that would normally come mechanical turbulence as well. This morning I met an Inuit woman whose family is out hunting on the north side of Victoria Island. They have been "cabin bound", as well, due to the high winds.
So again today I checked the Pumpkin; and all was fine. I had put the wing covers on the airplane late last evening, in case there was any frost build up. First Air arrived with a load of passengers and freight from Yellowknife.
One of the passengers that came in is Mr. Steve West, who is here filming a production for the Outdoor Channel. One of the folks he interviewed was Mr. David Kuptana - the Inuit hunter that had harvested the second generation polar bear/grizzly bear hybrid. Steve, and his cameraman Craig, plan to document a musk ox hunt - and possibly a polar bear hunt as well.
Dr. Dale Andersen - of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe - very kindly provided me a couple satellite photos of the Arctic Ocean between Greenland and Alaska. Besides clearly showing the ice conditions - some broken quite dramatically - these photos also show the "whispy" clouds associated with the strong northerly winds that Ive been discussing the past couple of days.
So . . . tomorrow . . . we shall see what Mother Nature has in store.
April 15, 2011
A nice day in Ulukhaktok - and much better weather in Resolute Bay - although there was still a bit of north wind in Resolute. In between, however, winds at 6,000 feet were forecast to be northerly at 56 knots. Once again, the Polar Pumpkin had to stay tied down on the ground.
As usual, I went out to the airport to check the aircraft; and proceeded to work at organizing gear, checking science gear cable connections, etc. Aklak Air brought in a few folks from Inuvik.
Earlier in the day, I had visited with Noah Ahkiatak again - an Inuit hunter that had lived much of his life on the land. Noah invited me over to his house this evening. He had such amazing stories to tell - some of which I tried to document on film. On one occasion, he and a fellow hunter were camping for the night - had seal meat boiling for supper, and their bed rolls laid out . . . when, all of a sudden, their camp started to "sway". Noah went out to check; and discovered that an ice pressure ridge was then encroaching on their tent camp. He and his partner - as rapidly as possible, of course - threw all the gear they could muster into their komatik sled, and barely escaped the crushing ice. One of their rifles - a new one - was lost, however, under the pressure ridge.
If Im still stuck by weather tomorrow, Noah has invited me over for boiled polar bear meat - and, just maybe, a bit of a fiddle jam session with one of his friends. Part of our visit this evening centered around types of traditional Inuit cuisine - ranging from "pipsi", the dried arctic char, to fermented seal flipper, to paniqtuq - dried meat much like we make in Alaska. Actually, today I did get a chance to sample some dried musk ox meat.
There are very few piston engine aircraft - such as the Polar Pumpkin - in this part of the world. Perhaps for good reason; because weather conditions in the region make flying such aircraft - that are so weather dependent - quite difficult.
But persevere we shall - and with patience, we must. Tomorrow is another day.
16 April 2011
The Polar Pumpkin was ready to fly. All my gear was loaded, I had the airplane turned for taxi amid the snow drifts; and all I needed to do was get the latest weather update from Flight Service. This I did; and discovered that for approximately half of my planned route, I could expect north winds at 25 knots. Also, one of the Resolute Bay hourly weather reports noted lenticular clouds - symbolizing strong winds aloft.
So . . . unfortunately, I had no choice but to tie the Pumpkin down once again, put my "freezables" back in warm storage, and catch a ride back into Ulukhaktok. Shortly after I canceled for the day, winds locally here in Ulukhaktok picked up also - in the 20 knot to 30 knot range from the north.
Dan, the CARS radio operator - replacing Patrick, now on days off - very graciously talked about the connection with his native Inuit ancestors, as he travels around Victoria Island in the summer. He says that there are many tent rings - denoting ancient camp sites - and sometimes when he turns over a rock, or digs up a bit of sod, hell find spear points, sewing needles, and other tools. Dan also talked about an area where a series of ancient inukshuks have been built - presumably to funnel caribou in a choice killing ground to maximize the meat harvest. His ancestors, surviving in such a harsh land, had to be skilled, smart, and lucky in order to survive.
This evening, at 7 PM, I was able to attend a community event of traditional Eskimo dancing at the Ulukhaktok School. Many folks attended - young and old - and all of us - natives and non natives - were encouraged to participate. I enjoyed this very much; and once again appreciated the similiaries and differences in style of dancing and music between this area and home in Alaska. Costumes of many of the dancers were exquisite - hand made no doubt - with many utilizing the fur of wolverine and wolf.
As I walked down the hill from the school, I noted that the visibility here in Ulukhaktok has come down while I was inside - snow grains in the air, with drifting snow.
Ill be checking the weather again first thing tomorrow morning.
April 17, 2011
Good weather here in Ulukhaktok. But still marginal weather enroute.
Attended the small historic Anglican Church. The congregation consisted of approximately 20 folks, many of whom sat on the open benches in their parkas and kuspuks trimmed with wolverine, wolf, and polar bear fur. The Inuit lady that sat across the aisle from me also was wearing traditional kamiks or mukluks with canvas tops and moose hide soles. She carried a hand made moosehide purse; and a very well used prayer book or hymnal. The minister Morris and his wife Mabel officiated - a duty that they have taken on for many years. Morris is a multitalented individual - from being one of the best Inuit hunters in the area, to being quite musical, playing the guitar, fiddle, harmonica, and accordion, to his religious sermons in the Inuvialuit language. Morris played the guitar for the various traditional hymns that were sung during the service. Morris had recently harvested two polar bears - one a very large 11 foot male.
April 18, 2011
Good weather still in Ulukhaktok; but strong gusty winds in Resolute Bay. Phoned Azziz Kheraj, owner of the South Camp Inn - whos lived in Resolute for a long time, and is the airport manger. Azziz did a visual check of conditions; and recommended that I do not try to come to Resolute today - scattered low cloud, and fog in the vicinity. There is a large lead of open water to the southeast of Resolute; and the current winds are bringing the moist air and poor visibilities into the airport vicinity.
Relocated the Polar Pumpkin to a new parking spot at the Ulukhaktok airport - a spot prone to less drifting with the forecast increasing east wind. By later in the evening a low pressure system, with poor visibilities and light snow, had arrived Ulukhaktok.
Took an evening walk with friends up on one of the local hills. Along the way was the hamlet cemetery. I could imagine burial could be a challenge in this rocky terrain. From the cemetery there is a nice view of the village and adjacent bay. I wish I knew more of the local geology. It would appear that there are many prehistoric beaches evident - remains of a sea that was much deeper in prehistoric time. Somewhere near the area which were walking, there is supposedly a good deposit of special shale that was prized for the construction of "ulus" - the curved Inuit womans knife. On the way back to the village, we stopped by a newly constructed "igloo" - snow house - on the beach. Snow of a very special dense nature is selected for this wind resistant warm structure. Traditionally igloos were heated with "Eskimo lamps" - i.e. a flat stone structure which held a fire of rendered seal blubber through a "wick" of moss or similar material.
After living and working in the Arctic and Antarctic these many years, I realize how important is the virtue of patience. But . . . if I didnt admit a frustration with this continued inclement weather, that delays Polar Flight 90, I wouldnt be totally honest.
I hope that one day again soon Ill be able to be on my way.
April 19, 2011
Woke up to very poor visibility, high winds, and drifting snow. My nurse friend Jen - from the local health center - drove me out to the airport to check on the tie down security of the Pumpkin. All was fine. I also collected a few water containers from inside the cockpit that I wanted to keep from freezing and bursting.
Impossible to fly today.
April 20, 2011
Ulukhaktok to Resolute Bay
Weather was looking good all the way from Ulukhaktok to Resolute Bay - with some occasional lower cloud noted on the satellite picture. So nurse Jen gave me a lift to the airport to start getting the airplane ready. Quite a glorious sunny calm day in Ulukhaktok. It always takes a bit of time to get the tie down ropes folded up, wing covers taken off and folded, and equipment positioned inside the fairly crowded cockpit - such that the important items are easily accessible - e.g. the pee bottle, especially important on long flights. Since I would be flying over 469 nautical miles of uninhabited country, I thought it a good idea to see what cabins - if any - might be available, in case I had a problem. Polar bear hunters had recently returned to Ulukhaktok from Winniatt Bay - with a polar bear - so I phoned one of these hunters to get the location of their cabin. I explained that I would use the cabin only in an emergency. I was given the location of the cabin, at the south end of a particular lake. One thing that I realized, as I flew by that lake, is the importance of getting latitude/longitude coordinates as well; since the land and water blend into one complete blanket of whiteness with very little contrast between the two.
The first portion of the flight provided magnificent view of the landscape - rolling rocky hills, cut occasionally by steep gullies. This year was one of extra heavy snowfall; so the musk ox - I would think - would have an extra hard time finding food in this apparently barren land. I was straining to see their tracks - or those of a polar bear or caribou - but I was just a bit too high.
As I approached Winniatt Bay, I climbed up a bit higher to have extra clearance over the surrounding mountains. The ruggedness of the cliffs and gullies was awesome. Whenever Im flying an airplane on skis, Im always routinely looking for a flat spot - thats not badly drifted - in case I have to land. There were very few such places as I flew along.
Steffanson Island - duly noted on the flight charts - was a bit hard to depict; since topographical relief was so slight. The highest "mountain" on the island is 867 feet above sea level. As I noted in my audio report, the "hillocks" were rolling - and parallel to each other in mostly an east/west direction. Steffanson was one of the early arctic explorers; and as I flew by, I wondered about his personal connection to this spot. So I "Googled" Steffanson. Somehow it seems odd - and a bit disrespectful -to be "googling" a famous polar explorer, so connected to the land, and whose life was so far disconnected from technology. Steffanson was born in Gimi, Manitoba in 1879; and the family moved to North Dakota in 1880, where Vilhjalmur received a portion of his education - at the University of North Dakota. This uninhabited island in the Kitikmeot Region of Nunavut - Steffanson Island - was first sighted by Storker T. Storkerson in 1917 while traveling with Steffanson. Steffansons personal papers and archives now in storage at Dartmouth University. One of Steffansons quotes was that "Adventure is a Sign of Incompetence".
Although I was in the clouds a bit, it was generally a good flight. In the traffic pattern at Resolute Bay was a Lockheed Electra, delivering fuel from Hay River. The aircraft is owned by Buffalo Airways - based in Yellowknife - and is part of the popular television program "Ice Pilots" fleet.
Azziz Kheraj, owner of the South Camp Inn, met me at the airport; and it wasnt long before I was sitting down to a nice hot meal at his fine establishment. Azziz is a "can do" individual that is one of the "spark plugs" that keeps Resolute Bay going. South Camp Inn has been the support headquarters for many polar expeditions over the years.
April 21, 2011
Resolute Bay to Eureka Weather Station
Good weather reports for the route - with a few "cloud banks" in between. These I found; and at times I was in the clouds with nearly no ground contact. Im fine with this when I know that there arent any higher mountains in the area. But as I approached the southern end of Axel Heiberg island - and knowing that there were some 5,000 to 6,000 foot peaks not so far away - I climbed up higher. After checking with North Bay Radio - and getting a current weather report from Eureka (40 miles visibility and high clouds) - I proceeded on. As I flew up Eureka Sound, the views were awesome. Icebergs stuck in the sound, rugged cliffs, deep gullies, and all wind swept. Not so long ago, the region had winds in the 100 mph range.
Prior to leaving Resolute, I had sent Eureka an email with notification of my arrival. The manager, Rai LeCotey, had already directed some of his team to position my AvGas on the ramp. Another member of his fabulous team - Chef Dean - had prepared a supper meal; so all was extra fine. The new weather station facility is only a few years old; and is very comfortable. The station is located a mile or so from the airport. Tis a small world indeed. The Basler BT-67 DC-3 research aircraft - operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute of Bremerhaven, Germany - was here doing survey flights. The aircraft had been in Inuvik when I was there; so it was extra nice to see a few familiar faces.
April 22, 2011
Eureka Weather Station
Refueling from barrels - in the cold - can be a bit "problematical", and time consuming. My small Honda fuel pump works well; but sub zero temperatures make it a bit cantankerous. So, fortunately - with the blessings of station personnel - I was able to warm the pump in an airport garage. The Polar Pumpkin is now fueled for the trip North to the Pole.
Today I had the pleasure of meeting two of Dr. Dale Andersens colleagues that arrived by Twin Otter from Resolute - Miles Ecclestone and Chris Omelon. Miles is doing mass balance studies on the White Glacier in the vicinity of Expedition Fiord on Axel Heiberg. Dale and he utilize the same camp. In remote regions, aircraft space and availability are premium quantities. Therefore, a Eureka Weather Station employee with severe back pain, took the opportunity to go south with the returning Twin Otter for medical treatment in a more comprehensive medical facility.
The DC-3 Polar 5 was flying again today - testing the various scientific equipment on board. One interesting experiment is for the analysis of sea ice thickness. As the DC-3 flies low, it releases the "bird" - a torpedo shaped object - that flies tethered to the DC-3. By utilizing a laser and earth conductivity instruments, sea ice thickness can be determined.
Via Iridium satellite telephone, I was able to speak with my friend Victor Boyarsky at the Russian drifting Ice Station Barneo. Weather there was marginal to poor; so the Polar Pumpkin was not able to fly North today. Unfotunately, the forecast is equally poor.
April 23, 2011
Eureka Weather Station
Another gorgeous sunny day at Eureka. Shortly after breakfast, I telephoned Victor at Ice Station Barneo. Ken, a trained meteorologist here, had already shown me satellite photos of the Pole vicinity - indicating low ceilings, mist, freezing fog, and whiteout conditions. Victor confirmed this weather, with an added report of visibility down to about 500 yards. At least one of their Antonov 74 flights from Longyearbyen, Svalbard had been canceled.
Out of concern - and maybe a bit out of habit - I went up to the airport to check on the Polar Pumpkin. The aircraft was fine; but the wind had picked up a bit. So I positioned two fuel drums under the wings as tie downs in case the wind picked up even further.
NAVCANADA produces what are called the GFAs - or Graphic Area Forecasts. These are excellent overviews of pressure systems and weather forecasts. Unfortunately a low pressure system has formed over Northern Greenland; and is tracking to the southwest - to position bad weather along the northwest coast of Ellesmere Island. This, along with the poor weather at the Pole, make flying the Pumpkin North impossible at this time. A warm air mass has moved in behind the Pole - on the Russian side - bringing the bad visibilities and precipitation. On some GFAs, it was mentioned that I could expect visibilities down to mile with freezing fog. This is an extremely dangerous weather condition for the Pumpkin; since it has no de-icing capabilities. If the aircraft ices up - getting heavier - and descends in whiteout conditions into the rough pack ice, one can only expect a crashed airplane - and probably a dead pilot.
Well check the weather first thing tomorrow morning; and make a plan from there. In this part of the world - especially - Mother Nature is in supreme control.
Two arctic hares in a quiet pose near Eureka Weather Station.
April 24, 2011
HAPPY EASTER TO ALL
Got up early to again check the weather and forecast between Eureka Weather Station and the North Pole. Victor Boyarsky - at the Russian drifting Ice Station Barneo - reports very bad weather at the Pole. Once again, the weather is excellent here - -30C, light winds, and mostly clear skies. Just off the northwest coast of Ellesmere Island, however, it changes to a different story - very low ceilings, light snow, blowing snow, and poor visibilities. So it is a no fly day for the Polar Pumpkin. Weather forecasts indicate a one day good weather window for the route tomorrow; then, shortly thereafter, the weather is to come down again.
Time - for the Polar Pumpkin and myself - is a big issue under these circumstances. A direct route from Eureka to Ice Station Barneo is a distance of 626 nautical miles. The Polar Pumpkin has the fuel endurance for such a flight; but it requires a flight time of a bit under 7 hours depending on the winds. A certain amount of time is required to find my fuel - especially if the Russians leave the drifting ice station tomorrow - refuel, and then fly at least another 7 hours back. The