Polar Flight 90 - The Polar Pumpkin's Journey to the North Pole

2011 Alaska Reports

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DECEMBER 31, 2011
Manley Hot Springs, Alaska

Christmas lights on our frosty 72 inch moose antlers.

Christmas tree for 2011 in
Manley Hot Springs, Alaska

-48 degrees Fahrenheit in Manley Hot Springs. Darn nippy. Any colder, and the tough old Alaska Sourdoughs will have to put on a jacket . . . .

Seriously, it's a calm quiet night; and most of the 90 village residents are spending New Year's Eve close to the stove - many by the wood stove. Some years - when it's not so cold - community members meet by the scrap wood/brush pile up on the hill; and enjoy a massive bonfire, by which folks visit and commiserate about events of the past year. Tonight, no bonfire.

We expect guests in the next few days - driving from Fairbanks 164 miles - if it's not too cold. Most folks this time of year carry extra warm clothes, a sleeping bag, shovel, tow strap, extra gas, food, and water. On some winter trips, I've driven the distance, and have seen less than a dozen cars. One must be prepared. The Alaska Winter is serious business.

The special entr9e for our early 2012 guests will be King Salmon from the Yukon River. I got one out of the freezer this afternoon. Since it was about 4 feet long - and weighed perhaps 30 pounds - I laid it on the shop table, so we could use the meat saw, and cut it into pieces small enough to get in the oven. Other Alaska tidbits - while our guests are here - may include caribou, moose, and my special pickled fish. This year I tried pickling lake trout, salmon, pike, and grayling. Tasty - for a Norwegian - but next year I'll probably take it out of the salt brine a bit sooner.

The Polar Pumpkin is now back in Fairbanks. After having the aircraft on display at Oshkosh Airventure 2011 - and presenting 5 lectures - I flew the Pumpkin back to Macomb, Illinois to pick up my North Pole gear, and headed West. I flew through Iowa, Wyoming, Idaho, and on to a small airstrip new Portland, Oregon. Since I had clients waiting for me back in Alaska, I had to leave the aircraft there in Oregon. Later, in October - after the lodge and guiding season was over - I headed North with the Pumpkin from Oregon, through Western Canada, to Alaska. My first stop was in Washington, where I gave a lecture at the Pacific Northwest Chapter of The Explorers Club.

October/November weather in the Pacific Northwest is often that of low cloud, fog, mist, rain, snow, and icing. As soon as I could, I flew the Pumpkin from Arlington, Washington through the mountains to the much drier climate in the Wenatchee area. From there, I headed North through the Okanagan valley via Oroville - Kamloops - Prince George - Fort St. John - Fort Nelson - Watson Lake - Whitehorse - Dawson City - to Fairbanks. Once again, I enjoyed the privilege of meeting more wonderful Americans - and our greatest neighbors, the Canadians.

Normally this flight from Washington to Alaska with a C185 would take me 3 days. Due to the extremely bad weather it, instead, took me 14 days.

Several days ago, one of America's great artists - Leon Basler - sent me a calendar on which he has posted a painting of the Polar Pumpkin. As I cleared Customs in Minot, North Dakota last Spring - after having flown south from Eureka Weather Station - Leon happened to see the Pumpkin, and took a snap shot. From this snap shot, he did an exquisite painting. As fate would have it, I later met Leon this October at Executive Aviation in Bismarck, North Dakota. The painting is entitled "Art's Polar Pumpkin"; and can be seen at www.leonbasler.com

The Polar Pumpkin is now in a Fairbanks hangar for maintenance. In the next 3 months, further preparations and testing will be done with the aircraft for my flight to the North Pole during April 2012.

2011 has been another great year. Although Polar Flight 90 didn't quite yet make it to the Pole, the aircraft is in good shape - I'm healthy - and looking forward to a second attempt. We have so much for which to be thankful - plenty to eat, friends, family, and opportunities to make choices that many people in the world don't have.

So I wish all of you fine folks - Peace in your Soul, Good Health, Success, and Opportunities to Live Life as You Choose.

Sincerely - Art

June 11, 2011

Lyman Vincent, homesteader from the Cosna River, fabricates one good outboard motor from the parts of threeLyman Vincent, homesteader from the Cosna River, fabricates one good outboard motor from the parts of three.

Greenhouses, taking full advantage of the Land of the Midnight Sun, produce a multitude of vegetable crops.Greenhouses, taking full advantage of the Land of the Midnight Sun, produce a multitude of vegetable crops.

John Dart, owner of the greenhouse - and Damaris Mortvedt - peruse some of the strawberry and cucumber plants.John Dart, owner of the greenhouse - and Damaris Mortvedt - peruse some of the strawberry and cucumber plants.

John Dart - a farmer at heart - offers guests fresh home grown strawberries. John Dart - a farmer at heart - offers guests fresh home grown strawberries.

Thunderstorms are building in the north; but Selby Lake is still flat calm. Rugged mountains across the lake, with yet the occasional patch of unmelted snow, are reflecting on the mirror like surface. I'm the only person at Selby Lake today, having flown a couple loads of freight in for the preparation of our guest accommodation season.

On the first flight in with the floatplane - June 5 - I had expected to be able to land. Unfortunately, as I rounded a corner of the mountain, the northern third of the lake still was so iced in that landing was impossible. So, my Plan B that day was to fly over to an adjacent lake - Lake Minakokosa, which usually thaws out earlier - and drop my freight there. We had a couple canoes stashed on the beach; so I cached my load of freight under these canoes to at least partially protect it from marauding bears. Another trick - told to me by "oldtimers" many years ago - was to also sprinkle mothballs. That seems to be the one of the things that bears find distasteful. Another is electricity - from, for example - an electric fencing apparatus.

On the second freight flight in, the weather was great for most of the first half of the flight. Unfortunately, on the second half, the clouds got so low that I just had to land. Alaska is full of lakes and rivers; and, in this case, I picked a nice long straight deep stretch of the Koyukuk River - where I had landed in the past - also in bad weather. The only option was to wait. To pass the time, I took a short walk up the beach; and found a nice fresh set of wolf tracks in the mud.

Hopefully today's thunderstorms won't produce much lightning. It's the wild fire season in Alaska; and most of these are caused by lightning. There's a huge one still burning - the Hastings Fire - just north of Fairbanks. Several years ago, we had one burning only 4 miles northwest of our lodge - with wind blowing it towards us. Structure protection is high on the list for fire control personnel; so, in our case, a team of Smoke Jumpers parachuted in to assist us. What a fabulous group of strong professional hard working gentlemen. I did my best to keep them well fed . . . and the hot tub available for them; and, ultimately, our fire was called the "Good Deal Fire of the Year"!

Most creatures seem to exhibit some trait of territoriality. Grizzly bears are no exception. On inspecting our hot tub a couple days ago, I found that a grizzly had torn the steps loose, smashed a couple 5 gallon buckets, and scattered bits and pieces about. How did I know that it was a grizzly? Their normal routine is to bit or claw splinters out of an adjacent tree; and then use the tree for a nice back rub . . . or front rub. I located the tree, and as I suspected, there were large tufts of chocolate brown grizzly bear fur. As my Eskimo traveling companion Akpelik told me many years ago, "keep your rifle with you ala time". This I am doing; since I don't know where the grizzly will turn up next.

Of course, my thoughts are turning toward the Polar Pumpkin - as it sits safely tucked away in a hangar in Illinois. Next month the Pumpkin and I will meet up; and fly to the Oshkosh Airventure 2011. The airplane will be on display; and I will be giving a series of lectures during the event. Airventure, I reckon, is the premier event for anyone interested in general aviation - all sorts - from home builts to ultralights to helicopters to historical aircraft. Folks may turn up from any corner of the world. During this Airventure, Burt Rutan will be honored as one of the greatest aircraft designers America has ever produced.

Gold miners are gearing up this time of year, for a summer at the "crick". Although several large companies have massive gold prospects in Alaska, there are still many family operations that depend on this resource for a living. Mostly these are placer operations that depend on a stream of flowing water to wash to gold from the gravel. Regulations to insure proper stream quality and land reclamation are quite strict. In some cases, water quality is better after the mining operation, than before. Bureaucratic obstructionists, and others, should well realize that our lives - i.e. their lives also - depend on natural resources that are either grown or mined.

Several days ago, I stopped down at the Manley Hot Springs "Slough" - a side channel of the Tanana River. There on the beach was a homesteader friend from the Cosna River. Lyman had 3 Mercury outboard motors scattered about - in varying degrees of repair. He was in the process of fabricating one good one from the parts of three. This situation reminded me of the necessity for innovation and fabrication skills required by the sheer remoteness of the Alaska bush. One can't necessarily conveniently take a broken appliance to "one's dealer" - as is noted on most equipment manuals. One must fix it on site - in some manner or other. As they say "necessity is the mother of invention".

On the last flight from Selby Lake to Fairbanks, I landed at Iniakuk Lake to see how my friend Paul Shanahan had "wintered". He, and his dog Bug, were both fine. No grizzlies had broken into his house this past Spring, as they had done in previous years. Over a portion of the past winter, approximately 1,000 caribou had wintered right around Paul's cabin. He says that they had become his "pets". In March I had flown over Iniakuk Lake with the Polar Pumpkin; and, I reckon, I would have had some difficulty finding a straight landing route amid this many caribou. Along with caribou herds, come predatory wolves. In one case, Paul had seen a pack of 11 wolves attack and devour a lone caribou. A pack of wolves is a skilled, organized, and effective killing machine. When this pack had devoured the kill, there was but a few bone splinters and caribou hair remaining on the snowy surface. Paul reported that the coldest temperature he had experienced during the past winter was 72 degrees below zero Fahrenheit - calm air temperature, no wind chill.

Such is life in Alaska. Until the next Alaska Report, I wish you all the very best.

Fresh wolf tracks in the mud of the Koyukuk RiverFresh wolf tracks in the mud of the Koyukuk River
Pans of melting ice float near our lodge at the north end of Selby Lake
Pans of melting ice float near our lodge at the north end of Selby Lake. Sometimes it's possible to land in the open water between ice floes; but, with the potential for shifting winds to close the gap of open water, landing in such a location is extremely dangerous.
Refueling the Cessna 180 float plane at Lake Minakokosa
Refueling the Cessna 180 float plane at Lake Minakokosa, "out in the middle of nowhere".
Alaska fire fighters are intelligent skilled hard working protectors of life and property
Alaska fire fighters are intelligent skilled hard working protectors of life and property.

February 20, 2011

Support provided by Tanis Aircraft of Glenwood, Minnesota In the foreground is a Honda generator covered with an insulated cover. I designed the cover - to keep the generator warm enough to run, when it's extra cold. Melody, at Tanis Aircraft, then built the cover. It works exceptionally well. "Thank you", Art


Most of our bad weather in interior Alaska, it seems, originates from the southwestern Bering Sea - and points west. In the past week or so, we've had low pressure systems - one after the other - affecting much of the State. St. Lawrence Island was recently hit by winds up to 80 miles per hour. Today is another example. I had planned to fly the Polar Pumpkin from Manley Hot Springs to Fairbanks today, for the re-installation of the NASA hyperspectral imaging camera early next week. But with widespread snow and poor visibilities, there is no flying for me today. In the last storm, we received approximately 8 inches of new snow; and the present forecast is for an additional 3-6 inches. We are very fortunate in Alaska to have the excellent National Weather Service, providing weather data in varied formats. Some of the villages now have real time weather cameras. Most pilots - in the interest of helping other pilots - provide PIREPS (pilot reports) over the RCOs (remote communication outlets) via repeating stations on remote mountain tops. This technological weather support differs considerably to traditional Inupiat Eskimo weather forecasting. Elder Eskimos of the Kobuk valley would often say, "west winds . . . . good weather - east wind . . . . bad weather".

Over many years, in many parts of the world, I've been the recipient of wonderful kind and gracious hospitality. So, when given the opportunity, it's a great pleasure to reciprocate with good ol' Alaskan hospitality. A couple days ago, I was working in the yard when a beautiful team of 10 Greenland huskies arrived - driven by Jim Ryder, from Wisconsin - on their way to Nome, Alaska. They had departed 4 days earlier from the town of Nenana, Alaska. The "metropolitan district" of Manley Hot Springs is fairly wide open space; since only about 60 or so people live here. Therefore, I suggested that Jim park his dogs in the small park area nearby. The following morning, Jim joined us for a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs. It's always better to depart on the trail with a full belly. Such that Jim headed out on the correct trail to Tanana village, Damaris and I guided him out the "Tofty Road". Jim reckoned it would take him another two days to Tanana. With snow conditions the way they are, I reckon it will take him considerably longer than that. Jim's toboggan sled was extra heavy; so, I presume, he had ample spare dog food on board.

Days are getting significantly longer now - gaining 6 to 8 minutes of light per day. In the morning, it's light enough to take off with the airplane at 8 AM; and light enough to land yet by 6 PM. We have no lights on the Manley Hot Springs runway. Without sufficient light and visibility, one takes a chance on not being able to avoid the occasional moose that may be roaming about the airport. A couple days ago, the moon was full; and provided enough light reflected off the snow surface, that one could easily have taken off and landed an airplane by moon light alone. One of the great superlatives that polar residents - Arctic and Antarctic - enjoy are the Northern Lights or Southern Lights (Aurora Borealis in the Arctic/Aurora Australis in the Antarctic). Lately there has been a particularly active "solar storm"; so the Aurora has been quite vivid in the northern sky.

As March approaches - and the days get even longer - preparations for Polar Flight 90 will continue. With better weather, further tests of the aircraft and science gear will be possible.

February 14, 2011

Happy Valentines Day to all!

It's been a bit "nippy" the past few days. Yesterday, early in the morning, it was 50 degrees below zero in Manley Hot Springs. I had hoped to test fly the Polar Pumpkin; but at such temperatures, I canceled. Several years ago, when I was putting my snowshoes into my Citabria aircraft, I happened to bump the headliner of the airplane - and it shattered, due to the cold. Such cold is very hard on "man made objects", such as airplanes. I don't even like opening the doors or windows, lest the weather stripping or plexiglass break. Also, if anything at all goes wrong while in flight - and it's necessary to make an emergency landing - life can get very complicated while putting up a camp, especially if one is injured.

So Damaris and I drove to Fairbanks - a distance of 164 miles. It takes a few miles for the vehicle's tires - flat on the bottom, due to the cold - to "round" themselves. Traffic wasn't a problem. In the first 80 miles, we passed two snowplows and one Toyota. Several moose were eating the willows along the roadway; and occasionally we'd see signs that wolves had been traveling the road also. It's important - especially this time of year - to have plenty survival equipment on board: good sleeping bags, matches, a shovel, good boots, gloves, parkas, food, water, fire starter, etc. Our route yesterday was along an area that was burned by forest fires last summer. There was one spot that Damaris and I remembered, in particular. Even though the fire crews had put most of the forest fire out, there was a small "smoke" still smoldering. Doing our duty, we stopped to put this small fire out. All we had was our small water jugs, and a couple wooden sticks to "grub" out the fire. A full bladder helped - a little. This was the first time that I tried to extinguish a forest fire by peeing on it.

I write this report while overlooking the Fairbanks International Airport. My friend Earl Malpass has just landed his Piper Navajo after a flight to the Eskimo village of Selawik, in the northwestern part of the state. Earl operates Mission Air Care; and serves the needs of various missionaries living in the remote outlying "bush" areas. Selawik is in caribou country; so sometimes he arrives with fresh meat. On the very rare occasions, he'll return home with gifts of fresh seal oil or whale blubber.

It's a lovely day in Fairbanks; but still very cold. Damaris and I will take care of various errands here - many of them Polar Flight 90 related - and drive back to Manley Hot Springs tomorrow. The weather forecast is for warmer temperatures in a couple days time. So I hope that I can then continue my test flights with the Polar Pumpkin. But, for now, Damaris and I will have a wonderful Valentines evening here in "town" - by going out to dinner at a nice restaurant.


January 30, 2011

Art Mortvedt with Alaska's Governor and Lt. Governor
Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, Art Mortvedt
and Alaska's Governor Sean Parnell

Winter Solstice - whether it be the northern or southern hemispheres - is always an exciting time. Days are getting longer now here in Alaska - by about 6 or 7 minutes per day. We don't have a lot of snow on the ground in Manley Hot Springs. But the dogmushers have enough to train their teams. The Yukon Quest dogsled race, from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, is coming up in a few days - a sign that Spring is on its way. Although we had -55F recently, it has now warmed up to a balmy +2F.

One of the recent events in Fairbanks was the Inaugural Reception for our newly elected Governor Sean Parnell and Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell. Since I had known Mead through the Explorers Club - and since I reckon their administration represents outstanding leadership for Alaska - I made a point to attend.

As you'll note in my Flight Log, I've been busy test flying the Polar Pumpkin in preparation for the April flight to the North Pole. Due to the amount of equipment - camping and scientific - it is necessary for me to make this a solo flight. Or nearly so. In the cockpit with me, there will be a stuffed penguin and a stuffed polar bear - my "Flight Crew". The penguin will be my copilot, and is named Renee - after one of my Supporting Partners from Massachusetts. The stuffed polar bear, my navigator, is yet to be named.

Supporting partners continue to come on board. One more recently is the Concorde Battery Corporation - manufacturer of outstanding batteries for aircraft. The Polar Pumpkin will proudly be sporting a Concorde for the North Pole flight. Over the years, in various airplanes, I have come to recognize Concorde batteries as the best in the industry.

One of the objectives of Polar Flight 90 is education. In the past few days, I have been in touch with my Austrian colleague Dr. Birgit Sattler, who works with students in a program called Sparkling Science. I am now in the process of preparing a logo to put on the Polar Pumpkin - designed by one of the students called Dilek. Also, this week, there will be a teleconference with individuals that may be of assistance in helping me provide audio reports to the Polar Flight 90 website as I fly along.

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