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

2013 Flight of the Polar Pumpkin

Follow along on our 2013 Flight Map

Read about part one of the 2013 flight

Art, in his yellow down polar flying suit, preparing to put the Tanis engine cover on the Polar Pumpkin shortly after an early morning 2 AM arrival at Ice Station Barneo - April 7, 2013 - approximately 20 miles from the Geographic North Pole.
Art, in his yellow down polar flying suit, preparing to put the Tanis engine cover on the Polar Pumpkin shortly after an early morning 2 AM arrival at Ice Station Barneo - April 7, 2013 - approximately 20 miles from the Geographic North Pole.

Art (Right) being greeted by a member of the friendly Russian Ice Station Barneo staff (Left)
Art (Right) being greeted by a member of the friendly Russian Ice Station Barneo staff (Left) early morning just after landing Barneo. After the 7 and 1/2 hour flight, a hot meal and warm bed were waiting - and very much appreciated.

Even though so much of the treeless Arctic is a flat expanse of white, beautiful patters of wind erosion in the snow can be enjoyed.
Even though so much of the treeless Arctic is a flat expanse of white, beautiful patters of wind erosion in the snow can be enjoyed.

Rugged outcrops of stratified - and often fossilized - geology can be found on Axel Heiberg and Ellesmere Islands.
Rugged outcrops of stratified - and often fossilized - geology can be found on Axel Heiberg and Ellesmere Islands.

Refueling the Polar Pumpkin from steel barrels immediately adjacent to a Canadian Forces Hercules C-130J.
Refueling the Polar Pumpkin from steel barrels immediately adjacent to a Canadian Forces Hercules C-130J.

Snowmobiles and sleds (komatiks) with traveling gear used by the Canadian Army Rangers for cold weather patrols.
Snowmobiles and sleds (komatiks) with traveling gear used by the Canadian Army Rangers for cold weather patrols.

Ken Borek Air (Calgary) ski equipped Twin Otters are one of the work horses for Arctic Science.
Ken Borek Air (Calgary) ski equipped Twin Otters are one of the work horses for Arctic Science.

The larger Bell 212 helicopter
The larger Bell 212 helicopter hauls a good passenger load internally - and heavy sling loads externally, not likely at the same time.

The smaller Bell 206 Jet Ranger
The smaller Bell 206 Jet Ranger medium size helicopter - adjacent to a pallet of fuel drums - can access landing locations not available to Twin Otters.

APRIL 26, 2013

It was a "Delightful Day at Resolute Bay" - mostly clear and sunny with light and variable winds. The Twin Otter boys (and sometimes girls) were up early to get breakfast, prepare their airplanes, and "get on the road". The Resolute Bay airport is several miles from the hamlet - and South Camp Inn - so I hitched a ride with them in order to check on the Polar Pumpkin. All was well.

Unfortunately, Cambridge Bay weather was particularly poor - visibility down to a mile with snow and blowing snow. Cloud bases were forecast to be down to about 2,000 feet, with mechanical turbulence underneath. It's a no fly day for the Polar Pumpkin.

Although I didn't meet the gentleman, supposedly there was a Sheikh from the United Arab Emirates here recently to hunt polar bears. Rumor is that he came by his private jet to Iqaluit, chartered a plane to Resolute Bay, and successfully bagged a polar bear. Most business jets don't do so well landing on gravel runways, such as the runway here. Another couple - most delightful - are here from Cairns, Australia - to hunt both musk ox and polar bear. A local gentlemen yesterday quoted the price of $40,000 to hunt a polar bear. Bear tags are sought after - and well regulated - and this money is a significant part of the local economy. Polar bear populations in this area - including the Grise Fiord vicinity - are healthy. At times - especially in the Fall, before the sea ice freezes - it is not uncommon to see polar bears adjacent to or amid the houses of the hamlet.

After so many telephone consultations with flight weather briefers over the past few weeks, I've gotten accustomed to particular voices - sometimes knowing first names - and I am particularly grateful for their expertise, professionalism, and friendliness. After my briefing this evening - and the briefer's realization that I have very often been stuck by bad weather, for prolonged periods of time - I stated that I tonight have one additional important question, please:

What are the mechanics to application for Canadian citizenship . . . ?

APRIL 25, 2013

During the middle of the day, when the sun is the most intense - and the wind happened to be somewhat calm(er) - I decided it was time to do my refueling. Relative to taxiing up to a fuel dispenser, putting the nozzle in the tank, and filling up - my system takes ever so much longer. The belly pod (cargo) of the Polar Pumpkin is a good place to store the hoses; so all contents have to be dug out. Hoses and Honda pump have to be taken into a warm enclosure. The sweet little pump is great . . . but has a warm blooded personality. In the cold, camlock fitting gaskets don't "form fit" so well - and leak - so these too have to be warmed. All in all, it's quite a process. I don't have many (any?) alternatives when refueling from steel barrels. One important point is to lift the intake nozzle up off the bottom of the barrel a bit, to lessen chances of sucking up dirt, rust, and/or ice crystals. My second and third lines of defense - in order to insure top quality fuel - are two in line water block filters. My last "line of defense" is the introduction of a small amount of water absorbing isopropyl alcohol in the Polar Pumpkin's fuel tanks.

Today, getting access to the Polar Pumpkin's wing tip tanks was extra convenient. Parked next to me was a Canadian Forces Hercules C-130 (a newer "J" model); and the flight crew thereon was particularly friendly and helpful. On board, they had a step ladder that would adjust to nearly any configuration. This I borrowed to refuel the Pumpkin. I gave the Hercules crew such an opportunity - that was "too good to refuse". Yet, they refused. I was willing - only for a brief moment - to trade the Polar Pumpkin for the C-130 . . . even up. At last check, "J" model C-130s were going for $48 million. They missed an opportunity.

When I flew the Polar Pumpkin to the South Pole, I had a small propeller "issue" on a newly overhauled prop. Short of the story, is that a fabulous Canadian "engineer" - mechanic, in Alaska English - Mr. Mike Sutherland came to the South Pole work on the Pumpkin. Last night, as I sat in the lounge of South Camp Inn, Mike Sutherland walked into the room. He now flies for First Air (Airline of the North); and happened to see the Polar Pumpkin parked on the Resolute Bay ramp, as he taxied his ATR aircraft to parking after his flight from Iqaluit. Mike, his delightful flight attendant Michelle, and I had a wonderful visit. "It's such a small world" may get overused . . . but it is indeed true.

There are essentially two hotels in Resolute Bay - the South Camp Inn, where I am now staying, and the "Co-Op". Another friend, Mr. Jim Haffey - with whom I have worked in the Arctic and Antarctic - is staying at the Co-Op. So this evening, I wandered over there for another good visit. I reckon Jim was "born to fly". He is one of the world's most experienced "ice pilots" - both in the High Arctic and Antarctica - and commonly flies either the Twin Otter or the Basler BT-67 Turbine DC-3. The DC-3, which he was flying most recently, will soon be working in Kenya.


APRIL 24, 2013

It was very fortunate that the Pumpkin and I arrived Resolute Bay last night. Strong southeast winds, blowing snow, and poor visibility would have made it impossible this morning. Wind gusts were so strong on the tail and right wind of the aircraft - with the wing covers flapping - that I decided to turn the plane nose first to the wind, and "get er' tied down". Quebecois - or Quebecker (person from Quebec) - Gi, with the loader, brought over two pallets (4 drums each) which provided more than adequate tie down weight.

Lo and behold, yesterday, as I flew down the east side of Eureka Sound, my friend and colleague Dr. Dale Andersen - with Dr. Wayne Pollard, and graduate student Melissa - had landed via Twin Otter in the vicinity of Stoltz Diapir springs on Whitsunday Bay to take research samples, on the west side of Eureka Sound. I didn't see their group, as I flew by; but today I had the opportunity to visit with their team at the Polar Continental Shelf Project Resolute Bay headquarters. Associated facilities there also provided a logistical base for a contingent or Army Rangers doing field patrols by snowmobile.

Tonight, at South Camp Inn, there was a collection of pilots and "polar people", some with whom I had the pleasure to work over many years. Much good conversation and reminiscing. Some of these folks will be headed home on the flight tomorrow morning - for some "R and R" with their families - and some will be starting their tour of duty in the "High Arctic". Those just arriving here confirm that there is another color besides white . . . green, for example . . . but not within many hundreds of miles of here.

Beautiful weather in Resolute this evening. From time to time, local Husky sled dogs will serenade anyone interested in listening to their mournful howls. What a nice ending to another wonderful day. . .

APRIL 23, 2013

Weather at both Eureka and Resolute Bay was excellent - CAVU (clear and visibility unlimited - weather that one may describe as "severely clear". Was it "too good to be true", that I would have clear weather for my entire flight? Yes. Satellite photos showed a band of cloud extending northwest/southeast about mid way. The General Area Forecast (GFA) showed that this weather "may have" retreated and dissipated by the time I would arrive in the region. So . . . should I take off, or not? I decided that I would go. If, when I arrived at the south end of Axel Heiberg Island, the cloud shield had thickened - then I would just turn around and fly back to Eureka Weather Station.

John Huston - with his 3 partners (actually 7, counting their 4 dogs) - and the New Land 2013 Expedition had exited Trold Fiord; and were now traveling along the east side of Eureka Sound. Since their route coincided with my route - and since visibility was excellent today - I decided to fly to the coordinates of their last known location, look for their tracks, and fly over the group. In Alaska's deeper softer snow, we'd usually have no trouble spotting the tracks of skiers and several dogs - but here, on the wind blown hard packed snow of Eureka Sound, I was unable to see the tracks of the expedition - in spite of several circuits and low level passes. I later got word that I had flown over the group twice. The vastness of this region is so profound, that it's hard to describe with words.

Adequate fuel is always an issue with airplanes - especially small ones in remote regions of the world. So I could not spend additional time searching for John. I needed to continue on toward Resolute Bay. Down low I was experiencing a headwind of 10 to 20 knots; and since Arctic Radio reported a forecast of lighter winds at 6,000 feet, I climbed to that altitude. They were right. That altitude also got me above some of the lower thin cloud. At the south end of Axel Heiberg Island, I received a report that the threatening cloud shield had backed off to the west. It was a "go" to Resolute Bay.

Upon arrival, Gi was right handy with a van to take me to South Camp Inn for the night. After putting the "Pumpkin to bed", off we went. My long time friend Steve Pinfield from Penzance in Cornwall, England was also at South Camp. He had been guiding an expedition of clients to the Magnetic North Pole. Unfortunately, Steve had to be evacuated with frostbite to the hands. His wounds were treated by the local Resolute Bay clinic; and will receive further attention back in the United Kingdom.

APRIL 22, 2013 - EARTH DAY

Light snow, ice crystals, and variable visibilities all day. On satellite photos, Arctic Radio saw clouds and poor weather covering about the south 1/3 of my route to Resolute Bay. So no flying for me and the Pumpkin today. Two Twin Otters - flown by Henry Perk and Paul Rast - stopped for fuel at Eureka, enroute back to Resolute Bay. Henry and Paul had, for the past few weeks, been flying from Alert out into the Arctic Ocean, involved with NSF sponsored research. It was a particular pleasure to see Henry once again. He and I had worked on polar projects out of Greenland many years ago. The versatility of the Twin Otter - along with Henry's excellent piloting skills - have provided opportunities for him to fly and see many corners of the world. Henry and his wife have seen yet more of the world by developing a lifestyle of sailing and living aboard their private yacht S/V Something Special.

As of today, the Russian Ice Station Barneo is closed. All personnel and equipment are now in Longyearbyen, Svalbard. The MI-8 helicopters have been flown to the Russian mainland via Sredniy Island, a portion of the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago. It was time to leave. Shortly before the last Antonov 74 evacuation flight, a crack in the ice floe had been seen approximately 300 yards from the camp . . . an example of the amazing ice dynamics of the drifting pack. In addition, a vast system of bad weather - 600 miles in diameter - has moved over the North Pole and central Arctic Ocean basin.

The recent crack in the ice near Ice Station Barneo brought back memories . . . of a similar situation in one of our camps during the early 1990s. About 10 A.M. in the morning, our floe shuddered a bit . . . and suddenly splintered in pieces. Ten feet from my tent, I had waves on the water within a newly opened crack. We had tents floating this way and that. Fortunately we only had a small number of people in camp. Those individuals jumped opening cracks, collected next to our survival sleds . . . and we were ready to "relocate" to a new camp site with better ice. We informed our base in Greenland - about 400 miles distant - of the situation; and an evacuation Twin Otter was dispatched to pick us up. Cracks also occurred in our runway; but the Twin Otter skipped over these, left the engines running, and prepared for a speedy departure. As we dove into the aircraft - with our allowed single bag - the flight crew closed the doors and "gave er' full power". We were later told that the total time of the aircraft on the ice was between 3 and 5 minutes. As we circled camp, we could see the jumbled mess of broken ice. Fortunately, that ice refroze; and we were able to return, get the remainder of our equipment, and finish the project. No one was injured.

Art standing in front of the Canadian Forces yellow Twin Otter
Art standing in front of the Canadian Forces yellow Twin Otter, call sign "Vampire 4".

Sitting around the Eureka Weather Station dining room
Sitting around the Eureka Weather Station dining room table: (Left to Right) Terre Welsh, Ken Borek Air pilot - Dr. Dale Andersen, Carl Sagan Center for Study of Life in the Universe - Richard "Scruffy" Adams, Ken Borek Air pilot - Wayne Pollard, McGill University.

Dr. Dale Andersen and Art Mortvedt standing in front of the Polar Pumpkin at the Eureka Weather Station airport
Dr. Dale Andersen and Art Mortvedt standing in front of the Polar Pumpkin at the Eureka Weather Station airport.

The Polar Pumpkin getting a strong southeasterly wind
The Polar Pumpkin getting a strong southeasterly wind "on the nose" at Eureka Weather Station airport.

APRIL 21, 2013

A gorgeous day at Eureka; but not so nice at Resolute Bay. Early in the morning, I phoned Mike at Polar Shelf in Resolute. He reported very poor visibility. This evening, I was again on the phone with Arctic Radio to see what weather may be forecast for tomorrow. Depending on how the low and frontal band tracks, the weather could go either way. We'll see first thing in the morning.

So it was a day for "domestic chores".

APRIL 20, 2013

Light snow, ice crystals, and blowing snow caused poor visibility most of the day. The wind picked up to the extent that I went up to the airport to put tie down ropes back on the Polar Pumpkin. A low pressure system out to the west of us is expected to track southeasterly, and bring down the Resolute Bay weather.

I took a short drive this afternoon with John MacIver (Manager) out the road toward the atmospheric sciences (PEARL) building. On the way, we saw a few arctic hares "cavorting" - hopping, jumping straight up, spinning, and generally having a good time.

On our ride, John explained a few technical details about the operation of the station - and gave me a tour inside the generator building. Three 410 kw Cummins diesel generators keep the station powered. Water is collected in a small reservoir filled by summer run off and seepage when the permafrost thaws.

Since it's Saturday evening, it's once again "poker night". The winner from last week's event told me that "it's not about the money, it's about the power"!

Word came through today that John Huston with the New Land 2013 expedition has now crossed north over the pass from Trold Fiord to sea ice once again. They are on their way to Eureka Weather Station, where they will pick up a resupply - and then head to points further north on Ellesmere Island, commemorating the early explorations of Otto Sverdrup.

APRIL 19, 2013

Morning weather was good here - and reported to be good in Resolute Bay - so I proceeded to get the Polar Pumpkin ready to fly. Because the wind had been so strong lately, I had a bit extra to do at the airplane to get ready - take 4 tie down ropes off, shovel out in front of the skis, rearrange/reload my gear, and reinstall some of my electronics that I try to keep warm and from freezing.

During the time that I was getting the Pumpkin ready, Dale and team were carefully perusing satellite photos of the Expedition Fiord area - and along my route to Resolute Bay. These photos showed significant areas of low cloud - to the extent even though weather was good at departure and destination, there could be considerable problems enroute. In flying a single engine aircraft solo VFR around the Arctic, one is behooved to err on the side of caution. Therefore, I canceled plans to fly today. Ultimately Dale and team did "squeek" into Expedition Fiord late this afternoon, in marginal visibility. When Terre - who's been flying for 26 years - returned to Eureka for fuel, he commented that I had made the right decision to cancel for the day. He said that looking south from Axel Heiberg Island, visibility and contrast were very poor.

Even though we are in this isolated part of the world, news travels fast. All decent peace loving people are reeling today with news of the terrible bombing in Boston - and the most recent news that one of the perpetrators is now cornered in Watertown, Massachussetts.

Once again, the weather has come down here at Eureka - and forecast to do so in Resolute Bay.

APRIL 18, 2013

Each morning when I get up to check the weather - and it's still too bad to fly to Resolute Bay - I'm totally amazed. We get prolonged periods of bad weather back in Alaska too - but less so, I think - and when we do, there still is an option or two. In my case here, the ONLY option is to get into Resolute Bay. I can't find a lake - land at a trapper's cabin - and proceed on in a couple days. Here there are no trappers and no cabins. If I get to Resolute Bay - and the weather makes it impossible to land - I'm down to zero options.

I like it here at Eureka Weather Station; but obviously I've been here quite some time. Today, in jest, I told John MacIver (manager) that unless I get going soon, I would have to start looking for a stand of trees and build me a cabin. Of course the closest trees would be about 900 miles south of here. Actually that's not true. There is a grove of trees, about a hundred miles northwest of here, on the north end of Axel Heiberg Island . . . but they are fossilized . . . remnants of another era. Numerous other types of fossils can also be found in this region. What a different world it was here, millions of years ago!

Dr. Dale Andersen (Carl Sagan Center for Study of Life in the Universe) and Wayne Pollard (McGill University - Ph.D. also, I presume) arrived at Eureka Weather Station. Their intention was to fly from the Polar Continental Shelf Project (PCSP) scientific logistics complex in Resolute Bay directly to their field camp at Expedition Fiord on the west side of Axel Heiberg Island. Terre Welsh and Richard "Scruffy" Adams were flying the Ken Borek Twin Otter - and determined on overflying Expedition Fiord, that the weather was just too bad to try a landing. Upon arrival at Eureka, Terre looked at the Polar Pumpkin and said, "the last time I saw that airplane, it was sitting in a hangar at Patriot Hills Antarctica". Dale, Wayne, Terre, and Scruffy were here for the night. So that gave Dale and myself a chance to catch up. We had worked together on the 2008 Tawani International Antarctic Expedition - in which we were looking for "extremophiles" at Lake Untersee in Queen Maude Land. Dale also had returned back to Untersee during the past Austral Summer. Conical stromatolite cyanobacterial mats were discovered on the bottom of Lake Untersee - the likes of which were known nowhere else in the world . . . except . . . incredibly, fossilized forms were discovered in the Pilbara region of Western Australia - dated to 3.5 billion years old. Amazing. Climatological, cryospheric, and other research also is being done at Lake Untersee.

Three white arctic wolves came trotting by today - right through the center of the station complex - acting more like tame dogs than wild animals. Beautiful animals, preying mostly on musk ox and arctic hares in this part of the world.

APRIL 17, 2013

Woke up to poor weather - marginal visibility with light snow. As the day progressed, however, the weather did improve. But not good enough for the Polar Pumpkin and me - requiring VFR (Visual Flight Rule) conditions. One aircraft did come through from Resolute Bay - a Twin Otter, flown by Canadian Forces. Their mission today was to fly to Tanquary Fiord to take a sample of their fuel that's cached there. Very nice guys. One of the crew is assigned as a military photographer - and had at least 3 large camera bodies around his neck. Such a professional package makes my little "point and shoot" pocket cameras look a bit "skimpy".

APRIL 16, 2013

The "fickle" weather that I mentioned yesterday did not make a dramatic change for the better. Although the west wind was quite strong at Eureka this morning, the visibility was relatively good. Also the Resolute Bay weather was not so bad. Arctic Radio, however, with their interpretation of satellite photos indicated that there were bands of low cloud lurking just on the south end of Ellesmere Island. To top it off, the GFA forecast northerly winds gusting to 40 knots. In the surrounding rugged mountains, significant turbulence would be likely.

So the Polar Pumpkin stayed tied down another day. I did make a trip up to the airport to check on the tie down ropes, and the wind covers. Wind was on the tail of the airplane; so I decided to leave the wing covers on for now. As soon as the wind subsides - as it has this evening - frost on the wings will be an issue. With open water leads opening and widening along the west coast, low level moisture is common.

Dale Andersen reports that the weather has also been too bad to get into Expedition Fiord - so he waits in Resolute Bay.

APRIL 15, 2013

Bad weather all day. After breakfast, Bob and Curtis with a Ken Borek Twin Otter did manage an IFR flight to Resolute Bay. They had successfully delivered a resupply to John Huston and the New Land 2013 expedition in Told Fiord last night; and today had Vincente Munier on board for the trip back to Resolute. Another Twin Otter, trying to bring Dr. Andersen to Expedition Fiord, was holding in Resolute due to the low cloud and high winds. Hercules C-130s - Code named Boxtop, fuel resupply aircraft from Thule, Greenland - did manage a few IFR flights into Eureka today to drop of approximately 9,000 liters of fuel per load. George Stewart, a long time feature in the Arctic, was again directing the operation.

This evening I had another look at the most recent General Area Forecasts (GFAs). These indicate very slow movement of low pressure cells to the east - and the continued existence of strong northerly winds out to our west. Arctic Radio concurs that there is little liklihood that tomorrow will bring a VFR day for the Polar Pumpkin to fly for points south. But arctic weather is fickle, very changeable, and tomorrow we may be pleasantly surprised.

For now, however, the Polar Pumpkin must stay put.

People all around the world today are grieving for the victims of the terrible bombing in Boston, and their families. All of us here at Eureka Weather Station are no exception. Our thoughts and prayers are with these people in this tragic time of grief.

Winds in the High Arctic can be ferocious.  The more ropes to secure a small aircraft, the better.
Winds in the High Arctic can be ferocious. The more ropes to secure a small aircraft, the better.

Refueling the Polar Pumpkin from drums, using my small Honda pump and system of hoses takes time.
Refueling the Polar Pumpkin from drums, using my small Honda pump and system of hoses takes time.

It gets a bit tricky filling the tip tanks of the Polar Pumpkin when ladders are not available
It gets a bit tricky filling the tip tanks of the Polar Pumpkin when ladders are not available. One "treads lightly" on the slippery drums.

Art by the Polar Pumpkin at Eureka Weather Station.
Art by the Polar Pumpkin at Eureka Weather Station.

French professional photographer Vincente Munier tries his hand at launching a hydrogen filled weather balloon from Eureka Weather Station.
French professional photographer Vincente Munier tries his hand at launching a hydrogen filled weather balloon from Eureka Weather Station.

Art with the Chicago Adventurers Club hand made banner for Polar Flight 90.

Michael Farikh with Art by the Polar Pumpkin.  Michael had just flown the first R-44 helicopter from Moscow to the North Pole
Michael Farikh with Art by the Polar Pumpkin. Michael had just flown the first R-66 helicopter from Moscow to the North Pole.

North Pole Marathon runner
North Pole Marathon runner #47 prepared for action.

 Scientific instrument cache at Ice Station Barneo.
Scientific instrument cache at Ice Station Barneo.

Hercules C-130 (L-382) on final approach to landing at Eureka Weather Station
Hercules C-130 (L-382) on final approach to landing at Eureka Weather Station

Certain activities are suggested to occur in very specific places throughout Ice Station Barneo.
Certain activities are suggested to occur in very specific places throughout Ice Station Barneo.

long time flight crew for the Polar Pumpkin and Polar Flight 90
Art holding "Ted" and "Renee", long time flight crew for the Polar Pumpkin and Polar Flight 90.

Art with Explorers Club Flag 53 - the exact same flag carried by Col. Bernt Balchen to Antarctica in 1933 on the Ellsworth Transantarctic Expedition. Col. Balchen is the first person to have flown over both Poles of the world.
Art with Explorers Club Flag #53 - the exact same flag carried by Col. Bernt Balchen to Antarctica in 1933 on the Ellsworth Transantarctic Expedition. Col. Balchen is the first person to have flown over both Poles of the world.

My dear wife Damaris hand made this very special banner for the Polar Pumpkin and Polar Flight 90.
My dear wife Damaris hand made this very special banner for the Polar Pumpkin and Polar Flight 90.

Vincente Murien, well known French wildlife photographer, preparing to go to the field near Eureka Weather Station.
Vincente Murien, well known French wildlife photographer, preparing to go to the field near Eureka Weather Station.

MI-8 helicopter, dependable workhorse of the Arctic
MI-8 helicopter, dependable workhorse of the Arctic

North Pole skiing expeditions preparing their sleds at Ice Station Barneo.
North Pole skiing expeditions preparing their sleds at Ice Station Barneo.

Oil fired heaters keep Ice Station Barneo tents toasty warm.
Oil fired heaters keep Ice Station Barneo tents toasty warm.

Audun Tholfsen with taped cheeks in preparation for the cold Arctic wind.
Audun Tholfsen with taped cheeks in preparation for the cold Arctic wind.

Russian Antonov 74 high wing jet aircraft
Another "Arctic Workhorse" - the Russian Antonov 74 high wing jet aircraft.


APRIL 14, 2013

Visibility first thing this morning was about 1 mile - with cyclic improvement and deterioration throughout the day. The General Area Forecast (GFA) forecast areas of IFR - 600 to 1200 overcast with light snow, visibilities down to 2 miles - so it's been impossible for me to launch for Resolute Bay today.

Late this afternoon, there may be one or two Twin Otters headed this way from Resolute. One aircraft is scheduled to do a resupply of John Huston's expedition - now located in Toold Fiord - and then continue on here to Eureka to drop off the second half of his gear/supplies. Photographer Vincente Munier will go back to Resolute Bay on the back haul of that flight. If the flight crew finds conditions too bad to land by Huston, they will continue on to Eureka - spend the night - and then try for a resupply tomorrow.

The second Twin Otter is planning to go to Expedition Fiord to drop off Dr. Dale Andersen and science gear at the McGill Arctic Research Station on the west side of Axel Heiberg Island. Besides being a preeminent science in the search and study of extremophiles (extreme life living in extreme environments), Dr. Andersen is one of the world's most experienced under ice divers - both in the Arctic and the Antarctic. His associations include the SETI Institute, and the Carl Sagan Center for Study of Life in the Universe.

The big news at Eureka Weather Station today is that the first snow bunting of the Spring has arrived!

APRIL 13, 2013

Poor weather in Resolute Bay today - but nice weather here - so I took advantage of calm winds, and did my refueling of the Polar Pumpkin. No such luck in remote regions such as this . . . to just taxi up to a fuel dispenser, put the nozzle in the tank, and fill up. The fabulous staff of Eureka Weather Station had already dug my fuel drums out of the snowdrift; so that saved me a lot of time. But pulling my little Honda fuel pump, hoses, filters, and nozzle - and connecting all - does take awhile. In the cold, sometimes the "O" rings connecting the camlock fittings leak; so I had to make sure that wasn't happening as well. Once the system is in place - and not leaking - the process of fueling doesn't take so long.

During my routine check of the flying weather, I noticed that a satellite photo indicated a system of low cloud encroaching on the North Pole from the Russian side of the polar basin, fairly widespread down to 85N. Tonight Ice Camp Barneo reported that visibility was less than 1 kilometer; and that all flight operations for the day had been canceled. Since I took off from Barneo on April 9 - 4 days ago - there's been no other weather window that would have allowed me to fly from Barneo back to Eureka Weather Station. Tonight we have more light snow that has moved into the Eureka area, once again bringing visibilities and contrast down.

As I was refueling the Pumpkin, a Ken Borek Twin Otter (KBO) landed from the north. Gary and Darin stopped in to put on a few barrels of fuel for continuance of their IFR flight on to Resolute Bay. They had just dropped off a group of scientists on the Agassiz Ice Field, to the north of Eureka. It was nice to get caught up on which pilots were doing what in the neighborhood: Henry and Paul doing NSF work out of Alert, Troy to Barneo, Jim now in Resolute Bay later going to Inuvik and Sachs Harbor. The "neighborhood" would likely be comprised of 100,000 square miles . . . or so.

Since every drop of fuel is worth a premium in this part of the world, after lunch I went back up to the airport to consolidate left over fuel in the bottom of fuel drums, the "dregs" - through a strainer - into another drum.

It's "poker night" at the station. More than just the game, it's a way to bring station staff together in an ambience of good fun - and a little competition, perhaps. Folks suggest that it's particularly important during the winter when it's totally dark. In such conditions, it would seem that the body kicks into the "hibernation" instinct. Conversely, during summer, when there is light 24 hour per day, that's when "things happen" - primarily - around the station. Construction projects are in full swing, scientists are coming and going, freight/fuel barges are arriving, etc. I was asked to participate in the poker game. Firstly, I don't know how to play poker. Secondly, there may be a chance that I would lose my shirt - along with the Polar Pumpkin - and I'd end up having to walk back to Alaska.

With regard to light, it was particularly interesting at the North Pole. The sun never sets. Since the horizon of the Arctic Ocean is completely flat, the sun just transits in a 360 degree orbit around the North Pole. Some folks have trouble sleeping in 24 hour daylight; so tent windows are covered with dark material, eye shades are put on, or people keep their heads buried in sleeping bags.

APRIL 12, 2013

Twas a very windy inclement day all day. About 3 AM this morning, I got up to check the weather; and disovered that winds had been gusting to 44 knots. Just to make sure the Polar Pumpkin was still doing well, I went to the airport to check. One rope was a bit loose; but generally all was fine.

It was a day to take care of domestic chores; and try to get a handle on the weather forecast for the next few days. We are presently under the influence of a low pressure system. The next low offshore to the west is now deemed "Quasi Stationary". That low, however, if it decides to move east toward us, could provide another day or two of bad weather.

John Huston had expected his resupply by Twin Otter today. Vincente Murien was expecting a ride by Twin Otter back to Resolute Bay. Dr. Dale Andersen was expecting to fly by Twin Otter to Expedition Fiord on Axel Heiberg Island today. All these Ken Borek Twin Otter flights were canceled due to the bad weather.

It's a good day to keep the Eureka Weather Station motto in mind:

Start slow, and then taper off.

APRIL 11, 2013

Quite the windy day - from the south. Observers at the Station reported gusts to 44 knots. This evening I phoned Arctic Radio to confirm the movement of a low pressure system to our southwest, headed this way at 15 knots. By sometime tomorrow, the weather here is forecast to deteriorate. Even though it's been windy all day, skies have mostly been clear to partly cloudy.

The Polar Pumpkin handled the wind of last night pretty well. I have her tied down to two pallets of full fuel barrels. Even so, though, I went up today and put on a double set of ropes . . . just in case. While up at the airport, a First Air Hercules C-130 (actually an L-382, I think - the stretch version) came in with a load of cargo from Yellowknife. After the cargo was downloaded, other cargo was uploaded for the back haul. Geotech has been doing some drilling in the vicinity of the station lately - looking for good gravel, to be applied for an airport upgrade. Their gear was now being sent back.

Vincente Munier, French professional photographer, showed up back at Eureka Weather Station today. He had been "out on the land" for the past 10 days photographing wolves, musk ox, arctic fox, and hares. In one case, a wolf came running at him, ran around his tent, and played like a tame dog. Last night he was in his tent (a Hilleberg, Swedish tent) during a very strong wind storm. Vincente is staying here in Building 16 tonight. He's planning to return to Resolute Bay on the Twin Otter aircraft that is doing the resupply for John Huston's expedition that is now about 120 nautical miles south of here, headed this way.

Another Twin Otter from Resolute Bay will be headed to Expedition Fiord on the west side of Axel Heiberg Island - to the McGill Arctic Research Station. Dr. Dale Anderson, from the Carl Sagan Center for Study of Life in the Universe, has an ongoing research project for the study of extremophiles at this remote site.


APRIL 10, 2013

I awakened to light snow and poor visibility. The cloud bank to the south had indeed moved north and engulfed the Station vicinity. Since I was still a little on the Barneo time zone (Norwegian time), I got up in the middle of the night and toddled up to the station for a snack and a check of the weather on the computer. The GFA was forecasting wind - caused by a tight pressure gradient between a low out west and a high to the east - but the wind didn't show up until later in the day. This evening it's quite "blustery" outside. On the tops of the mountains in the area, one can see "wind clouds" of blowing snow. I stopped up at the airport to take wing covers off the Polar Pumpkin, check wheel chocks and parking brake, and tie er down for the night. While there, an Air Tindi King Air flew in from Resolute Bay. The crew will be overnight here; and then take some changeover personnel back to Resolute in the morning.

Once again, today I had the pleasure of a teleconference with students from Rickover Naval Academy in Chicago. It's heart warming to interact with smart progressive polite young students that are so interested in the world - and, in our case, polar regions of the world.

APRIL 9, 2013

Satellite photos indicated that a pending cloud bank south of Eureka Weather Station may move north to engulf the station in cloud. But for now it was remaining relatively stationary; and Eureka weather was good. Satellite photos also indicated that nearly the entire 600 n.m. route from the North Pole to Eureka Weather Station was in the clear - with possible intersecting bands of fairly thin low cloud. After having waited 10 continuous days in previous years at Eureka for such a weather window - that never came - it was timely and prudent to take this one, and go.

I had fueled up my Honda EU2000 generator - to run my Tanis engine pre-heating system - late last night. But the fuel supply lasted only so long. When I came to top off the fuel this morning, the engine had stopped - and was cold. Fortunately, I had light weight oil in the generator, and it again fired right up. Still I would need another few hours to get the engine, and oil, to a proper temperature to safely start. In addition, I put my 800 watt "Little Buddy" heater inside the cockpit under the instrument panel in order to lessen the cold trauma on instruments during initial start up.

Last night was not the best opportunity for a good sleep. Ear plugs or not, the sounds of marathon exuberance traveled through the thin tent walls. The pitter patter of marathon shoes could be heard as runners passed by. The excellent transfer of sound on dry snow and sea ice reminded me of the time years ago when 3 polar bears made this sound . . . and I encountered them at a distance of less than 20 feet.

As I was removing the wing covers from the Pumpkin, a bishop from the Russian Orthodox Church dropped by for a photo. He was a bishop for North Russia - more specifically the Sredniy Island vicinity. In retrospect, I wish I would have gotten a photo from him. He carried the classic pose of a Russian bishop - in my conception anyway. He was thin, tall, and had a long graying beard. I saw a man that looked much like him at the Russian Novolazarevskaya base in Antarctica. He was one of the "Father Christmas's" that had been dispatched from Moscow to Queen Maude Land for the festive season - robe, long staff, and all.

So . . . the Pumpkin was loaded, I collected my gear from Andy Heiberg and Jamie Morrison's science tent; and I was ready to roll. Jamie dropped by to get a picture of the Polar Pumpkin on take off from Ice Station Barneo. The cold air, at sea level, helped performance of the airplane; so the runway was plenty long. While speaking with air traffic controller Igor on 124.0 VHF, I was asked to "do a bonsai" over camp. I had never before had such a request. I thought that Igor must be requesting a "fly over" of the camp by the Polar Pumpkin. This I did . . . and waggled the wings, as I headed for points south.

In the vast expanse of the Arctic Ocean, pre-GPS navigation must have been a real challenge - especially on a cloudy when there was no access to a sextant sun shot. Lines of longitude converge so closely at the Poles, North and South, that even GPS units seem to have a mental break down at times. After take off, my Garmins (496 and 296) directed me back to the North Pole to intersect my way pointed route from the North Pole back to Eureka Weather Station. So on the screen, the displayed route was more of a curved track than a straight line. My third GPS unit on board was my faithful Garmin 90 that I used, with the Polar Pumpkin, to navigate to the South Pole. The Garmin 90 was one that I could pop into my pocket, in case I suddenly found myself in the survival mode "out camping" on the sea ice.

The weather was so good - and visibility so great - that I stayed low level (about 1500 feet above the ice). Of course, one always hopes to look out the window, and see a polar bear - but no such luck for me. As I headed south, and as bands of low whispy clouds became more prevalent, I climbed to 3,000 feet. When there were no clouds or fog patches, the air was so clean and pure that I felt I could see forever. When the airplane "was cleaned up" for cruise flight, I then had time to give Damaris a call on the satellite phone to get interpretation of the latest satellite photo and assurance that the weather was holding good at Eureka. I checked in with Herr Doctor Boyko to get the latest walleye fishing report - and a few others - to share this most amazing site of a vast drifting, cracked, and buckled ice sheet. Sensational media will sometimes lead one to believe that the Arctic Ocean ice "will be melted any minute now". I can not argue with hard scientific evidence with regard to climate change and global warming . . . but we still have a lot of ice in the Arctic Ocean.

As I flew farther south toward Canada, the sea ice became more active - newer ice, fresh refrozen leads, some very large leads extending 20, 30, 40 or more miles, and nearly no survivable place to land the Polar Pumpkin in an emergency. Satellite photos had shown a band of low cloud running east/west along the northern shore of Ellesmere Island. As I approached Ellesmere, I could see this band of cloud. I thought "now what, must I have to scud run low level around the northwest coast of the island, and enter the ocean end of Nansen Sound"? Doing so in poor contrast seemed far from an ideal situation. When going North to the Pole, I found that my 6,000 foot track was clear of the mountain tops. In order to give just a little added safety margin, I decided this time to climb to 7,000 feet. In doing so, I breathed a sigh of relief as the bands of low coastal cloud disappeared. I was once again in clear air over some of the most purely majestic mountains in the world.

As I approached Eureka Weather Station, I could see that the band of clouds "lurking" south of the station were now beginning to move north. Visibility was still quite good. But I was very happy to be arriving when I was . . . and not a great many hours later.

Naomi, on the Eureka Unicom frequency of 122.8 reported no other traffic in the area, light winds, and altimeter setting. As I entered a left down wind to runway 28, it seemed as though I was "coming home" - and especially assured by the amount of Terra Firma underneath me. Bill was awaiting my arrival in one of the Station trucks; and directed me to parking in front of the Eureka International Terminal - basically a Quonset shaped storage shed.

Thank the Good Lord, I was back to land safe and sound.

APRIL 8, 2013

Getting my return fuel 100LL AvGas positioned on the runway at Ice Station Barneo "took a little doing". Although AvGas is usually available in Tromso, Norway - and sent by ship from Tromso to Longyearbyen in Svalbard - the Antonov 74 flight crew and/or administrators would not transport the fuel in normal 200 liter drums (equivalent of our 55 gallon barrels). The requirement was to transport the AvGas only in 100 liter drums. But where to get these drums? The drums were available at a drum factory in Scandinavia; but production would begin only when an adequate number of orders had been placed. Thankfully, a company in Longyearbyen, Pole - Position, headed by Terje Aunevik - and a very professional staff - "knew the ropes" on how to get the drums and AvGas united. I was informed that my 6 - 100 liter drums of AvGas would be delivered to Barneo on one of the first "technical flights" of the season. That is exactly what happened; and my fuel was awaiting me as I parked the Polar Pumpkin. One slight potential problem, however, is the fact that the drums were filled to only 85% capacity to accommodate for expansion during flight at flight level altitudes. This meant that I would in fact have 60 to 90 liters less fuel than I had anticipated. The strong 20+ knot headwind that I encountered from Eureka to the North Pole and Barneo was a potent reminder that I must be extra conservative with my fuel on hand - such that I would have enough to make it "back home to terra firma" in Canada. Flying from Ice Station Barneo back up to the North Pole, making a few "low passes" over drifted and pressure ridged ice floes - looking for a landing site at exactly 90 North, or very close - was not a prudent option with the fuel that I had. Plus, if anything at all went wrong on landing in the hard drifted or ice pinnacled snow - e.g. a broken main gear ski, broken tail wheel assembly, or damaged landing gear leg - the situation would possibly, and likely, spell the total demise of the Polar Pumpkin. Demise of the Polar Pumpkin's pilot could also be an issue - with which I have a distinctly personal interest.

During one of my five seasons working at Patriot Hills, Antarctica - 80 degrees south latitude - a gentleman from Gallway, Ireland came through camp, with the idea of doing a marathon run at the South Pole. Richard Donovan's concept of doing marathon runs at the South Pole - and now the North Pole - has "taken off" all around the world. Today - on two Antonov 74 arrivals from Longyearbyen - 62 runners had arrived at Ice Station Barneo. Along with Richard was his brother Paul and photographer Michael. Paul and Richard identified and marked the race course of 26 miles; with the start planned for midnight tonight. One of the female racers - from Hong Kong - told me that "it is so cold for me up here".

My Russian language vocabulary is considerably limited; so today when I was summoned by the world standard of "sign language" to a tent of "unbeknownst content", I didn't know exactly what was going on. But I soon found out. There to greet me was Mr. Michael Farikh, a Russian gentleman, that had just flown an R-66 turbine helicopter from Moscow to the North Pole. As fellow aviators, we had a lot to talk about. One of his good friends - Quentin ("Q") Smith, back in the United Kingdom - was also an acquaintance of mine. Q, I reckon, is one of the best helicopter instructors in the world. In short order, in an R-44 helicopter, he had me hovering and doing basic maneuvers. Q, along with Steve Brooks, were attempting to fly an R-44 to the South Pole when - 36 miles short of Smith Island in the Antarctic Ocean - the engine failed, and both guys spent 11 hours in a water soaked life raft being blown about in the near freezing water. Alejo Contreras and I were in Punta Arenas, Chile taking their position reports. 14 minutes after their first failed report, the phone rang with Chilean Search and Rescue confirming the receipt of an emergency signal. To make a long story short, we did everything we could do to help summon every ship and/or SAR aircraft available. They survived - and eventually did make it to the South Pole - in a subsequent R-44 helicopter.

Today was a refueling day for the Pumpkin. A direct cross wind across the ice runway met me head on. So getting the hoses hooked up, my small Honda pump warmed up, locating a ladder to refill my tip tanks, etc . . . all took extra time. The Polar Pumpkin - being all orange - does have a tendency to catch one's attention. So as I refueled, I had the pleasure to visit with folks from many corners of the world.



APRIL 7, 2013

Since much of the logistic activities for Ice Station Barneo are based out of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, it only makes sense for the camp to operate on that time zone - which happens to be 7 hours later than the Central Time Zone at Eureka Weather Station. So . . . as I was about to slumber into a good rest, the ice camp started to buzz. Breakfast was at 0900; and as I walked into the dining tent, those there gave me a very gracious round of applause for finally getting the Polar Pumpkin to the North Pole . . . on my third try. There in the dining tent was my friend Andy Heiberg, who works at the Applied Physics Lab of the University of Washington, along with another friend Victor Boyarsky from St. Petersburg, Russia. One of the greatest aspects of "polar work" is the "small world syndrome" of relationships with people from around the world. I was informed that another friend, Alain Hubert from Belgium, was in the field guiding a group of skiers to the Pole. Unfortunately, one of Alain's team members had suffered frost bite to the hand; and a medivac helicopter was dispatched later in the evening to bring him in to the camp doctor.

Since I was a little bit "frazzled" today, after the long flight yesterday - and operating on an opposing time zone - I "got my bearings" around camp, made a synopsis of my fuel, and tried to relax a bit.

Barneo camp is an orderly well kept collection of tents, snowmobiles, a couple MI-8 helicopters (actually at their own location about mile away), caches of science gear, a collection of skier expedition pulks, a couple outhouses, a delineation of locations for men to take a pee, a place to brush the teeth, a smoking area, and a series of accommodation tents. These tents are heated with oil fired clean air heaters with ducting into the end of the various tents. Cots are equipped with comfortable mattresses and a warm sleeping bag. One can occasionally see one or two of the bulldozers collecting fuel from locations "afield" - fuel that was airdropped by Ilyushin 76 aircraft at the end of March. The bulldozers also were parachuted to the ice, followed by their drivers parachuting in. The bulldozers are used to move snow off the ice floe, cut down any hard ice pinnacles, and generally prepare the runway surface for the arrival of Antonov 74 aircraft.

The AN-74 is an amazing aircraft - for it's STOL (short landing and take off) capability, it's payload, speed, large tires, rear loading, robust landing gear, airfoil design, powerful engines, and shape. The jet engines are located in a rather conspicuous location on the top of the aircraft. If the airplane doesn't happen to arrive in a proper spot for parking, the crew simply reverses thrust of the engines, and backs it into parking. With permission of the Captain, I took the opportunity to go on board to have a look at the flight deck - seats for the pilot, co-pilot, and the navigator. Forward loading of the cabin contains seats for passengers, and the aft portion for cargo.

During the 22 day (or so) period of Ice Camp Borneo operation this season (April 1-April 22), a lot happens. Skiers, scientists, two Yemelya trucks (driving non resupplied across the Arctic Ocean from Russia to Canada via the North Pole), dog sled drivers, photographers, television media, and tourists utilize the logistic base to support their various programs. One of the exciting events scheduled is a meeting of the Arctic Council - an 8 nation forum concerned with a great variety of Arctic issues. In preparation for the arrival of the Council, appropriate flags have been positioned, ice carvers have prepared applicable sculptures, and ambience of the camp has been "tuned" to greet such prestigious guests. One of the long time Arctic specialists - traveling with the Arctic Council - is Artur Chilingarov, political activist relative to Russia's interests in both the Arctic and the Antarctic.

Today I had the pleasure of an interview with Russian television. I don't speak Russian; so I had to depend on my friend Andre (with whom I worked in Capetown, South Africa and Antarctica) to do the translation. I admire the adaptability - and tenacity - of film crews producing media cl