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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

Follow along on the flight home

APRIL 6, 2013


The Polar Pumpkin in front of the Eureka Weather Station Garage, ready for the flight to the Geographic North Pole.


Microbial air filter cold weather modification, using a plastic butter dish.


Russian bulldozers are parachuted from Ilyushin 76 aircraft onto the Arctic Ocean ice to be used for clearing a runway and camp location for Ice Station Barneo.


Ice Station Barneo prepared for the arrival of Arctic Council officials.


Vast pristine fiords of northern Ellesmere Island.

EUREKA WEATHER STATION TO THE GEOGRAPHIC NORTH POLE - AND ON TO THE RUSSIAN ICE STATION BARNEO

"Getting ready to go" somewhere is often the most time consuming process.  I was up early.  On to the main Eureka Weather Station to check satellite photos with Arctic Radio, file a flight plan, and fill my 3 thermos bottles with hot water.  I also like to have a Nalgene bottle of cold water in the cockpit - in this case, a container that I had gotten at Palmer Station, Antarctica.  Whenever I "head out into the bush" for the day at home in Alaska, I like to have a good breakfast.  This is easy to do at Eureka Weather Station - fabulous food, prepared by master chef Dean.  But, by the same token, I don't want to eat TOO much - lest I start dozing off in the cockpit.  Since I'm the entire flight crew, it's not a good idea for me to fall asleep, "at the wheel".

Most of my traveling gear I had sorted last night.  So when John MacIver (Eureka Manager) came by to give me a lift to the airport, I was ready to go.  I had refueled the Polar Pumpkin earlier, and had pulled out items - particularly heavy, unnecessary ones - whose weight I would add as extra fuel for the long - 600 nautical mile - flight to the North Pole.  Off came the wing covers, in come the wheel chocks, and off comes the engine/cowling covers.  Even though the Polar Pumpkin has adopted a "personality" of its own, one must argue that it is indeed a machine.  Machines break, sometimes.  If the engine were to fail, for example, down I'd come - and quite quickly, considering the take off weight - so I need to be prepared if/when I end up going "camping" unexpectedly.  I wear "bunny boots" for foot gear, even though they're a bit bulky to get at the airplane rudder pedals comfortably.  Instead of wearing a "nomex" flight suit - through which the wind penetrates - I wear a heavy down flying suit made by an excellent company in Seattle.  I keep at least one or two pairs of gloves handy to my reach, and - absolutely - my new beaver skin/moose skin hat made by master skin sewer Sabie Jersvo in Manley Hot Springs, Alaska.

Just to the north of Eureka Weather Station, there are some medium high hills - Black Top being the highest.  So after take off on runway 28, I had to make a climbing turn out across Slidre Fiord in order to get adequate altitude to get over the hills.  These hills, geologically, are very interesting.  It would seem that ancient beach levels can be seen where the wind has blown the snow away.  Actually over on the north end of Axel Heiberg Island - to the west - there is an ancient petrified forest.  It's incredible to realize just how different this environment was thousands, tens and hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Visibility was great as I passed over Nansen Sound, Hare Fiord, Otto Fiord, and others.  Although the summer is so very short at this latitude, there is a "liquid water" season - during which some of the fiords open up, and ice bergs float in and around.  Some of these appear monolithic statues as one flies over.  The farther north I flew, the less wind blown barren ground was visible; and, instead, vast areas of pure white uninterrupted landscape.  The musk ox would stay more in the wind blown areas, accessible to the very sparse vegetation.  Arctic hares would do the same.  And the wolves would stick close to their prey of musk ox and hares.

Realizing that I had to reach a "minimum safe altitude" of at least 6,000 feet going over the mountains of northwest Ellesmere Island, I kept a steady climb after take off.  This climb, however, was interrupted with the occasional down draft.  On both sides of my route, slowly meandering glaciers flowed down the sides of mountains into the water courses below.  There, finally, was the north coast of Ellesmere Island.  Over the years, I had followed various ski expeditions to the North Pole; and some of these departed Ellesmere just to the east of my course - at Ward Hunt Island, and Cape Columbia.  Actually - as an emergency fuel supply - I had a bit of fuel cached at Ward Hunt.  One of the larger fiords, just to my right, was Yelverton Fiord.

As wind and currents push the drifting pack ice up against land, the ice crumbles, buckles, and breaks into millions big "ice cubes" that make traverse over the surface extremely difficult.  That's why, for a ski expedition north, the first part is most often the most difficult.  There are many cracks in the ice - or leads - and areas of open water.  Surface expeditions sometimes have to camp in wait of an open water lead to freeze adequately in order to cross with skis.  Several years ago, Dominic Arduin, tried to paddle across an open lead north of Khatanga, Russia - and was never seen or heard from again.

My course North to the Pole - from Eureka - was up the 86th longitude.  As waypoints, I selected the intersection of each ascending line of latitude with this 86th longitude - such as NP1 being at N81/W86, NP2 being at N82/W86, etc.  This system better allowed me to keep track of my location - and the location of possible refrozen leads for emergency landing possibilities.  Thus, my check points were NP1 through NP8, with NP9 being the Geographic North Pole.  The farther I got away from land, the less "ice rubble" I encountered - and the "tighter" the ice.  Throughout the Arctic Ocean, however, the ice is constantly on the move (drift), caused by wind and current.  The other important check point that I noted was the most recent coordinates of Ice Station Barneo - where my return fuel cache was located.  Unfortunately for me today, I had a strong 20+ knot head wind; and I was burning more fuel that I had expected to burn.  I said a few times - under my breath - "I must find Barneo".

Even though I was alone in the Polar Pumpkin cockpit, I felt as though my wonderful wife Damaris was "riding along with me".  A key feature in my aircraft communications system is an Iridium satellite telephone system that is connected through my head set.  One of the other key features is the Solaradata tracker unit that denotes my position at regular intervals.  So Damaris, actually at home on the computer, can see the tracker position location on a topographical map - and I can communicate directly with her for the latest weather and satellite photo summaries.

The weather en route was generally pretty good.  The closer I got to the North Pole, however, the more patches of low cloud and fog showed up - especially to my left, or out to the west.  There were enough of these that I became increasingly concerned that I would not actually be able to find and land at Ice Station Barneo.  As a precaution, I denoted the coordinates of a couple refrozen leads that were in the clear - to which I could retreat, and put up my camp, in case Barneo was actually socked in.  Vadim, the manager at Barneo, was fabulous.  Damaris made satphone calls to him periodically; and he confirmed that "yes, Barneo was still in the clear".

As I neared the Geographic North Pole, I made a call to Damaris - and we were in contact - as she, the Polar Pumpkin, and I flew over the Top of the World.  Her voice and spirit were there in the cockpit with me - for which I am very grateful.

I had been planning to make a couple circuits around the Pole - looking for possible landing sites - but visibility, with the lower fog/undercast, was not so good.  Plus, since Barneo was only 20 miles or so away, I could see that I must not dally - lest I not be able to land there.  Switching to the VHF frequency of 124.0, I raised Igor - air traffic manager at Barneo.  As I flew into the vicinity, I could see a feature contrasting a bit from the normal pressure ridged ocean ice - and, sure enough, there was the Barneo ice runway flanked by tents of the camp.  All this seen through what appeared to be a thickening haze.  So, after a quick circuit to lose a bit of altitude, I lined up on final for Ice Station Barneo.  Igor, Vadim, and team - who had stayed up late to greet me - marshaled the Polar Pumpkin to Parking - and I stepped out of the aircraft for this first time in about 7 hours.

After a quick call to Damaris, letting her know that I arrived safely - and putting the Polar Pumpkin "to bed", with its wing covers, etc. - I was escorted to the dining tent by Vadim to enjoy a nice hot dinner, followed by a good sleep in tent number "7".

Traveling shelter built on Komatik sled with gas jugs tied on the back.
Traveling shelter built on Komatik sled with gas jugs tied on the back.

Traditional dog sled - heavy duty.
Traditional dog sled - heavy duty.

Rear of dog sled with various ropes, tow lines, and harnesses.
Rear of dog sled with various ropes, tow lines, and harnesses.

Well furred dog curled up for the cold and wind. Dog houses are optional.
Well furred dog curled up for the cold and wind.  Dog houses are optional.

Huskies, each wearing their harnesses, are attached by their tow lines to a central point.
Huskies, each wearing their harnesses, are attached by their tow lines to a central point.

In many places above the tree line, the Arctic is a world of vast white.
In many places above the tree line, the Arctic is a world of "vast white".

Microbial air filters for Dr. Sattler mounted on wing strut of the Polar Pumpkin. A new version utilizes modified butter dish technology.
Microbial air filters for Dr. Sattler mounted on wing strut of the Polar Pumpkin.  A new version utilizes "modified butter dish" technology.

Stratified geology along the shore of Eureka Sound, east shore of Axel Heiberg Island.
Stratified geology along the shore of Eureka Sound, east shore of Axel Heiberg Island.

Vast expanses of Axel Heiberg Island on Eureka Sound
Vast expanses of Axel Heiberg Island on Eureka Sound

Church in Resolute Bay, Nunavut
Church in Resolute Bay, Nunavut

 Plank sled (komatiks cross pieces) are attached by using rope lashing - to give the sled flex over the rough drifted snow and sea ice.
Plank sled (komatiks cross pieces) are attached by using rope lashing - to give the sled flex over the rough drifted snow and sea ice.

APRIL 5, 2013
EUREKA WEATHER STATION

Weather at Eureka this morning was absolutely perfect - clear, sunny, calm.  When you look out the window, and see the smoke from the chimneys going straight up . . . it's going to be a good day!  So, of course, the first thing I did was walk up the hill from Building 16 to the main station, and immediately check the weather.  On a positive note, the band of low cloud that lurked off the northwest coast of Ellesmere Island yesterday had mostly dissipated - and Alert was reporting "Sky Clear".  On the "less than positive note", however, the Graphical Area Forecast and coinciding satellite photo showed a large (300 miles wide) of low cloud from the North Pole down to about 85North - right on my path.  The Canadian Weather Office was forecasting clouds from 600 to 1500 feet overcast, with 2-4 miles visibility, and snow/mist in that cloud band.  No departure North to the Pole today for me.

There was a bit of action at the Eureka Airport.  A Hercules C-130 flew in from Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert with a bit of cargo for Eureka Weather Station.  Jane, one of the weather observers and radio operator here, noted the considerable size difference between the C-130 and the Polar Pumpkin sitting up on the ramp.  Yes, indeed.  Had I 4 engines on the Pumpkin - and the range of the Hercules - perhaps the aforementioned band of low cloud would not be such a factor.

Word was received by satellite phone from a French photographer that's been "out on the land" in the vicinity of Eureka Weather Station for the past few days.  It will be fun, when he returns to the station, to find out what sort of wildlife he saw.  On the day that I arrived Eureka, there was a lone white wolf along the road from the runway.  Of course, my camera wasn't handy at the time.  Reports are that packs of up to 38 wolves have been sighted.  Since all the wolves here are white, when they tie into a muskox - or other red meated critter - they have quite the bloody stain on their muzzle for awhile.

Folks here say that the wolves attacking people in this area is "not an issue".  Being they're wild animals . . . and "meat's meat" . . . I'm not so sure.   

APRIL 4, 2013
EUREKA WEATHER STATION

There are probably dozens of Herman Nelson(s) that are living - and have lived - around the world.  In the Arctic - and Antarctic - the name Herman Nelson is synonymous with "warmth".  This practical, portable, high BTU heater is made in Winnipeg, Manitoba; and is a source of heat for preheating aircraft engines - outside work places - or a myriad of other applications.  I'd have one back home in Alaska were they not now so expensive.

This morning, after breakfast, the Air Tindi flight crew went straight for the "Herman" (short name).  In short order, they had their Beech 1900 warm enough for a start; and their passengers were not far behind.  Twas excellent weather for their flight south to Yellowknife, with a stop in Resolute Bay.  Sean Lutit is now president of Air Tindi.  When Sean was a Twin Otter pilot for Ken Borek Air, he became well known for his daring winter rescue of a doctor at the South Pole Amundsen-Scott Base.

With such excellent weather at Eureka Weather Station, I keep hoping for similar conditions on the route to the North Pole.  Today there was a band of low cloud lurking just off the northwest coast of Ellesmere Island.  Via Iridium satellite telephone, I spoke with Vadim - expedition manager at the drifting North Pole Ice Station Barneo.  Coincidentally, my friend Andy Heiberg, was standing right next to Vadim - and reported that although the weather had been "tickety boo", clouds were now encroaching on the ice station this evening.  Satellite pictures that I have been watching concur.

APRIL 3, 2013
EUREKA WEATHER STATION

Time is indeed the "essence".  With unlimited time - and no need to rest - just think what one could accomplish.  Again, here in Eureka, refueling the Pumpkin in the cold took time.  Fortunately, I had a warm space nearby where I could warm all pieces of the operation - including pieces of my body.  A little "glitch" came along when the linkage to the throttle control on my transfer fuel pump broke.  Honda engineering is fairly straightforward, and excellent; so that fix didn't take too long.

Later in the day, an Air Tindi Beechcraft 1900 aircraft arrived from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories to make a staff change - new people in, longer timers out.  Donald, one of the Air Tindi pilots, had flown Cessna 185s in Papua, New Guinea; so he took special notice of the Polar Pumpkin.  Along with personnel transfer, the Beech 1900 brought all sorts of fresh food - a real treat in such isolated locations.

Two scientists here helped me a great deal.  Emilly and Pierre had the equipment - namely a windows computer - and skill, to help me "re-energize" the aethylometer than I am carrying for the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, for the study of arctic "black carbon".  Since I have a Mac computer, downloading the accumulated data from the internal "flash drive" inside the aethylometer was not an option.  But, first of all, we had to figure out that was the problem for the malfunction.  This we did, they did the download, and now the instrument is once again healthy for my flight to the North Pole.

One scientific modification that I could handle myself involved the gelatine microbial air filters sent with me by Dr. Birgit Sattler at the University of Innsbruck in Austria.  On past flights - in extremely cold temperatures - I had difficulty with the filter cracking and disintegrating.  So at the recommendation of my wonderful wife and expedition partner Damaris, I brought along a small green plastic butter container - about the same diameter as the microbial filter housing.  After cutting a few cross slits in the end of the butter container (restricting most air flow, but allowing some) - and a few more slits to fit the microbial filter housing, exactly - I then attached this "unit" to the wing strut of the Polar Pumpkin.  After the next flight, I should know how well this modification worked.   

APRIL 2, 2013
RESOLUTE BAY, NUNAVUT TO EUREKA WEATHER STATION

Downstairs in the South Camp Inn this morning was a hubbub of activity.  Late last evening a team of expeditioners from Britain had arrived to do a skiing expedition from Resolute Bay to the Magnetic North Pole.  Sometimes "'tis a small world" is an understatement.  There in the dining hall was Steve Pinfield, a guy that I worked with at Patriot Hills Antarctica, and whom I hadn't seen for many years.  Steve is from Penzance in Cornwall, UK; and has either guided - or been on - expeditions to many parts of the world.  He seems to be happy in all environments - polar, tropical, and all in between.  One story that he told me - which I think I correctly recall - involved a young helper in the jungles of Borneo.  The helper failed to return to camp; so Steve went looking, and found half of the boy yet unswallowed by a giant python.

One of Steve's mates (friends, in Alaska English) was Jock - who, I'm told, sailed a rowboat across the North Atlantic.  Steve's other mate, Gavin - who also had been to Patriot Hills - recognized the Polar Pumpkin sitting at the Resolute Bay airport.

The flight to Eureka was great.  There were still a few remaining cloud patches; but visibility through them was generally quite good.  Some of the most stunning and majestic sights can be enjoyed on a flight through Eureka Sound.  All is so incredibly vast.  As Jerry Kobalenko described Ellesmere Island, "it is the horizontal Everest".  The cliffs are sheer - and tall.  The geology tilted and stratified.  Dr. Dale Andersen's research sites are inhabited by extremophile bacterial creatures living in perennial springs coming out of a mostly frozen environment.  An awesome land.

John MacIver, current manager at Eureka Weather Station - along with his professional team - had my fuel barrels already dug out, John directed me to to an excellent parking area, I put the Pumpkin away for the night, and then headed down to the Station to get settled in.  Since the population of the station was critically high at the moment, I was quartered in Building 16 - an older building, but comfortable, and closer to the beach.  Not a lot of activity on the beach this time of year.

Dean, a professional chef that I had met on previous visits to Eureka, was here again this year.  There's no "going hungry" when Dean is around.

APRIL 1, 2013
RESOLUTE BAY, NUNAVUT

It took awhile to get my drums of fuel dug out of a snow bank and delivered to the airplane.  Weather north to Eureka was generally good, but with a band of clouds covering the west half of Axel Heiberg Island.  If that cloud moved east and socked in Eureka Sound, that could be a problem.  

It also takes awhile to do my refueling - getting pump, hoses, filter, and nozzle dug out of the airplane - and find a ladder from which to fill the tip tanks.  All this takes extra long in the cold and wind, when the equipment has to be taken inside to warm up before I can start refueling.

So after all the above was said and done, it was just too late in the day to take off on a 4 hour flight into what could have turned into marginal to bad visibility.

Back to the South Camp Inn for the night.  It's always a pleasure to get extra time in Resolute Bay, because folks in this community spend a fair amount of time on the land hunting polar bears, seals, muskox, etc - and I learn a few new things about traveling adaptations with sleds (komatiks) and snowmobiles.  Yamasaki, Japanese dog sled driver, is here again this year; and his team of Huskies was tied down out on the ice within the view of my hotel window.  In the local environment here, dog teams are driven in the "fan" formation - i.e. each harnessed dog pulling from its individual tow lone.  In Alaska, however, there is a single tow line attached to the sled; and the dogs are attached to that central line, one dog on either side, with a single (or double) leader in front.  The fan formation is controlled by the driver using a long whip; and the Alaskan dogs are controlled with voice commands - "Gee" for right, and "Haw" for left.

Of course, there is some other language used in driving dogs . . . that may not appropriate for mixed company . . . and/or children.

MARCH 31, 2013
CAMBRIDGE BAY, NUNAVUT TO RESOLUTE BAY, NUNAVUT

All indications were for a good weather flying day.  Both Cambridge Bay and Resolute Bay were good.  In between, however, there was a band of cloud about 70 miles wide - with tops at 4,000 feet - but with freezing fog forecast underneath.  I put on extra fuel to get back to Cambridge Bay in case the tops were much higher than forecast.  A flight was worth a try.  So, with the very able assistance of the Adlair team - after a cup or two of coffee, of course - I loaded the Polar Pumpkin, and we pushed her out of the hangar.

With bright sun, contrast was good.  Without the sun, however, in this part of the world where all is white - no trees, no or few barren rocky outcrops - contrast and definition is very difficult.  Just as was forecast, the low band of cloud intersected my route.  Fortunately, I was able to climb above the cloud, and all was well.  The problem with "VFR on top" comes when one must descend through the cloud, and encounter the rough pack ice without good contrast.

Andrew, the new Resolute Bay radio operator, offered hospitality even before I was parked.  He suggested a good spot to plug in the Pumpkin, and proceeded to also phone Aziz at the South Camp Inn to let him know that I had arrived.  When the Pumpkin was "put to bed" for the night, Frances picked me up for transport to the hotel for a nice ham supper.  A shower and a soft bed felt good.

 

 

 

Snow covered church in Cambridge Bay

Snow covered church in Cambridge Bay

Cambridge Bay High School - built in the round configuration

Cambridge Bay High School - built in the round configuration

A burglar should get the message by reading this sign on a Cambridge Bay home.

A burglar should get the message by reading this sign on a Cambridge Bay home.

Many people have their traditional camps and cabins out away from the village.

Many people have their traditional camps and cabins out away from the village.

The Norwegian team, while diving under the ice this winter on Amundsen's ship the

The Norwegian team, while diving under the ice this winter on Amundsen's ship the "Maud", also built this igloo. An insert piece of ice was installed in the wall of the igloo to allow more light inside.

The first Catholic Church built in Cambridge Bay - from rocks and mortar.  The mortar was made with a mixture of clay and seal oil blubber.

The first Catholic Church built in Cambridge Bay - from rocks and mortar. The mortar was made with a mixture of clay and seal oil blubber.

Only a small portion of the ship

Only a small portion of the ship "Maud" can be seen sticking out from under the snow this time of year. It will be raised and barged back to its museum in Norway this summer.

The Norwegian

The Norwegian "Maud" team also built this rock cairn in commemoration of the ship that lay in the Cambridge Bay harbor from 1930 to the present.

The first Catholic priest brought the vessel

The first Catholic priest brought the vessel "Eagle" to Cambridge Bay, by towing it from Tuktoyaktuk.

 

MARCH 30, 2013

CAMBRIDGE BAY, NUNAVUT

Sometimes banks of low level cloud lurk in local areas for prolonged periods of time.  That's exactly the situation of the past few days; and for a good portion of the day, Resolute Bay still reported clouds down to a few hundred feet and visibility less than a mile.  Satellite photos clearly concurred with the report.

So . . . I had no other choice but to cancel flying for the day, and once again enjoy the ambience of Cambridge Bay.  My buddy Mike particularly enjoys Brunswick Seafood Snacks in lemon and cracked pepper.  When I saw some of these at the Co-Op store this afternoon, I picked up a few tins - along with other grocery items.  Quite a few people were out walking and snowmobiling on such a particularly nice sunny day.  Ken Borek Air were out flying their Twin Otter; and toward evening a Bell 212 helicopter flew back to the airport from the east.

Norwegian Roald Amundsen, besides being the first explorer to arrive at the South Pole - just prior to the ill fated British Robert Falcon Scott expedition - also made a variety of expeditions in the Arctic.  The remains of Amundsen's ship the "Maud" lies just across the bay from the main hamlet of Cambridge Bay.  So this afternoon, I had a stroll across the ice over to the wreck.  Near the wreck was a relatively new snow igloo, built by a team of Norwegians that were here this winter to dive under the ice on the Maud and ascertain the feasibility of raising the vessel for transport back to Norway on a barge next summer.  A special museum is being built in Norway to house the vessel.  Similarly, the Norwegians have a museum - at Bygdoy, near Oslo - presently housing the exploration vessels "Gjoa" and "Fram".  Amundsen used the Gjoa to make the first transit of the Northwest Passage (through the Canadian Archipelago) - news of which he reported by skiing 500 miles from the iced in Gjoa at Herschel Island to a telegraph station at Eagle, Alaska.  The Fram was used by Amundsen on his 1910-1912 South Pole Expedition.  Fram has been in its Norwegian Museum since 1935.  Amundsen used the "Maud" - named after Queen Maud of Norway - to transit the Northeast Passage (North of Russia) between 1918 and 1924.  The vessel was then sold to the Hudson Bay Company, and sank here at Cambridge Bay in 1930.

As more attention is being paid to the Arctic, and its amazing history, Canada is planning to build a new Arctic research center here at Cambridge Bay.

 

Traveling gear is towed on strong "plank sleds" or "komatiks", attached to snowmobiles by long ropes for safer travel over rough snow and thin ice. Puppy is well furred, with his house nearby for really severe weather.

MARCH 29, 2013

CAMBRIDGE BAY, NUNAVUT

Today the weather in Cambridge Bay could not have been finer - crystal clear skies, relatively calm winds, and a "crisp" atmosphere.  Adam, Monica, Mike, and I met up at the hangar for coffee - and Monica's carrot cake - at the normal 0930 hrs.  Arctic Radio is still reporting a large band of low cloud for much of the route between Cambridge Bay and Resolute Bay.  Satellite photos yet this evening show that the cloud band has moved very little if any.  It actually extends from the top of Baffin Island nearly all the way to Alaska.  Weather tonight in Resolute is still 900 overcast with light snow.

This evening the weather here was so incredibly nice that I geared up to explore more of the local neighborhood.  As I was leaving the house, George - from Cape Breton - came by and invited me to a wonderful arctic char supper.  There is a commercial fishery for this species here; and regular folks catch plenty with hook and line during the summer.  On an earlier flight, I noticed that many people on the west side of Hudson Bay head out to catch arctic char through holes in the ice this time of year.  Besides enjoying the fresh and frozen char, folks also dry the fillets and make seasoned "char jerky".  Incredibly tasty.

It's an entirely different world here in summer - especially now that there is less ice restricting the Northwest Passage and maritime navigation.  Resupply barges or ships come to Cambridge Bay via the Bering Straits, down the Mackenzie River, or from Montreal to the east.  These vessels carry fuel, lumber, mining equipment, and any bulk items that would be needed in a small community for the winter.  Cruise ships visit, and last summer a number of private sailing yachts.  Whales of various species are visible in the bay.  Migratory birds are back.  Every person and wild creature is busy making a living during the brief arctic summer.

Part of the afternoon was spent reorganizing some gear for a take off tomorrow morning.  But, after seeing the satellite photo with band of low cloud so stationary, I may not be quite so optimistic as I was earlier in the day.  Weather changes rapidly, though - especially in the polar regions - so we'll just have a look in the morning.  

"Stop" in English, and the local Inuinnaqtun native language. Although the arctic is a vast wilderness, towers such as these need to be a recognized potential hazard during bad weather - especially near airports.

 

A collection of caribou antlers on top of a Cambridge Bay home.A collection of caribou antlers on top of a Cambridge Bay home.

Putting the King Air to bed in the hanger.Putting the King Air to bed in the hanger.

A research support vessel frozen in the ice for the winter.A research support vessel frozen in the ice for the winter.

 

 

MARCH 28, 2013

CAMBRIDGE BAY, NUNAVUT

My first look out the window this morning didn't give me a great deal of encouragement for a flight today - snow, blowing snow, and poor visibility.  John Huston was up early in Resolute Bay, and reported "mostly overcast, horizontal visibility 1/2 mile or less".  The "icing on the cake" came from professional weather briefers at Arctic Radio, reporting satellite images indicating a broad band of cloud covering about 80% of my route from Cambridge Bay to Resolute Bay.  There is no one living or working in the 400 nautical miles between here and there - to give a weather report, or to assist in an emergency.  All things considered, I had no choice but to cancel the flight for today.

We had our normal group in for coffee this morning - at 0930 hrs., in the Adlair hangar.  Gordy had been working on a snowmobile.  It's amazing what he and others can do in remote locations, when new parts are not available or too expensive.  Gordy had cut, drilled, and otherwise modified a shock absorber for the snowmobile - using bits and pieces from a variety of other shocks.  "Necessity is the mother of invention", especially in these remote isolated parts of the world.

Besides the base here in Cambridge Bay, Adlair also has a hangar and base of operations in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.  This afternoon one of their King Air 200s was due in, being flown by Zack and Adam.  So the rest of the team went out to the airport to meet the arriving aircraft and "put it to bed".  Freight was unloaded, intake plugs installed, engine "tents" put over the cowlings, and the airplane tucked away in the hangar.

Weather by this evening in Cambridge Bay had improved considerably - a bit of sun, with much calmer winds - an opportunity to take a stroll around the village.  Since the long Easter weekend is upcoming, some families were preparing their snowmobiles and traveling gear to go "out on the land" - to have a change of scenery for a few days.  One hunter I spoke with realized that grizzly bears are now coming out of hibernation; and that he would need to keep his .308 rifle handy.  He also was expecting to get some nice fresh caribou meat.  Other animals harvested locally are muskox and seals.  The ice is still fairly tight in the bay; so seals aren't so readily available as yet.  Arctic hares - basically very large totally white rabbits - seem to be quite plentiful.

So . . . we shall see what weather Mother Nature has in store for us tomorrow.

I wish you all a most Blessed Easter.

Caribou skins
Caribou skins - traditionally used for Inuit clothing - are bleached white when hung in the Springtime sun.

Ice on chimneys can cause dangerous concentrations of carbon monoxide inside homes.

Plywood traveling shelters attached to sleds (or komatiks) can make the difference between life and death in a storm.
 

Caribou leg skins are air dried to be used for making mukluks or qamiks (winter boots).

Mining companies move equipment and personnel via "cat trains", with enclosed accommodation on skids.
   

 

MARCH 27, 2013

CAMBRIDGE BAY, NUNAVUT

Early this morning, I received an email from John Huston at Resolute Bay. John is there with his 3 colleagues - and 4 skijoring Husky dogs - in preparation for a major expedition from the southeast corner to the northwest corner of Ellesmere Island. The team will commemorate - and make a film - with regard to the amazing activities of Otto Sverdrup, an early explorer of this region. John reported that the contrast in Resolute Bay was "low, flat, and variable".

John's reports - plus a couple weather briefings from the friendly folks at Arctic Radio - convinced me that today was not a good day to be flying to Resolute. Besides the cloud cover, with poor visibility, on both ends of the route, the "pressure gradient" was very tight in the vicinity of the north end of Prince of Wales Island. Such a tight gradient would today indicate moderate to severe turbulence. This evening, here in Cambridge Bay, we have a good ol' fashioned blizzard in progress. I wonder if the wind will be strong enough to "blow the hair off the local dogs" . . . as one old Alaskan Sourdough had described.

Gordy usually has the coffee ready in the Adlair hangar by the time all the "Crew" - i.e. pilots, friends, neighbors, traveling Alaskans, or whomever - show up. Besides the good visiting and "hangar flying", Rene is then able to convey tasks to his team for the day. A Medevac King Air had just landed, and a fuel caching Ken Borek Twin Otter was parked across the parking ramp. High on the wall above the shop work bench is a map of the Canadian Archipelago. Ian had visited many of those islands, on a variety of charters, and shared some of the amazing history of exploration with which he was familiar - particularly in relation to the ill fated Sir John Franklin expedition of the 1840s. The Norwegian ship "Maude" lies here on the bottom of the bay; and a team of experts from Norway is planning to raise and preserve this historic vessel in the coming summer.

As always, Mother Nature is in control. So we shall enjoy a good supper, get a good night's rest, and check the weather in the morning for the flight to Resolute Bay.

Let it be known that I very much appreciate all you folks that are "riding along with me" this year enroute to the North Pole. Your emails, phone calls, letters, etc. mean a great deal. Thank you.
 

MARCH 26, 2013

CAMBRIDGE BAY, NUNAVUT

I got my first flight briefing from Arctic Radio early this morning - the Canadian equivalent of the American Flight Service Station - and a flight to Resolute Bay appeared to be a real possibility today.

So I got my gear together, drove out to the airport with Mike, had coffee with the Adlair boys, and discovered that the weather was actually too marginal. Clouds were down to elevations ranging between 400 broken and 700 broken. In the case of flying the 400 n.m. from Cambridge to Resolute - and the weather was to poor to get in VFR - I would be down to zero options. The next closest airport would be Arctic Bay, with unknown conditions, and unknown availability of Aviation Gas.

I had no choice, therefore, but to cancel for the day.

Tonight Mike fixed the most amazing curry for supper; and I did a little grocery shopping myself at the local Co-Op food store. I didn't "think" that I was shopping in such an extravagant manner; but when I got away from the check out stand with two bags of groceries, the bill came to $105. Resupply of communities in the Far North is so terribly expensive, that it should come as no surprise. We deal with these same issues in the remote corners of Alaska.

With huge gratitude to Adlair - for looking after both the Polar Pumpkin and myself - the Pumpkin is safely stored in the hangar for the night. We'll see what tomorrow will bring. The forecast tonight for Resolute Bay is not particularly good; but a lot could change overnight.

A beautiful moon - which appears mostly full - is moving lazily over the Arctic tundra. I wonder if muskox and tundra wolves enjoy the sight as much as I do?
 

MARCH 25, 2013

CAMBRIDGE BAY, NUNAVUT

The cliché "it's such a small world" is really true. Today Rene, manager of Adlair, was speaking with a local aircraft engineer (mechanic, in American terms) here at the Cambridge Bay airport; and the individual - Luke Certwil - said, "oh yes, I know the Polar Pumpkin. I installed a new engine in the aircraft in Oshawa, Ontario." So what a pleasure it was to meet up again with Luke - get updated on the whereabouts of his brother Gerald - and reminisce about the Polar Pumpkin in Oshawa just prior to David Dilley and myself flying the aircraft from Canada to the southern tip of Chile at Punta Arenas.

Today it was also a pleasure to meet Rene's wife Corrine, who is a secondary educator here at the Cambridge Bay school. Since I was a teacher of Inupiat kids in the Shungnak, Alaska school - and since my wife Damaris worked as a teacher in many villages of rural Alaska - it was particularly interested to compare educational issues of Northern Canada and Alaska.

This morning, the Polar Pumpkin had considerable frost on top of the wings. It's amazing what little frost will cause an airplane to stall. So after we got the Pumpkin refueled - from drums, using my small Honda gasoline pump with camlocked hoses and filters - I used a broom to sweep most of the frost off the top of the wings. The sun and wind took care of the rest of the frost. After all that we pushed the Polar Pumpkin inside the safe haven of the Adlair hangar.
 

River canyon wilderness between Kugluktuk and InuvikRiver canyon wilderness between Kugluktuk and Inuvik.

Copper Inuit poster
Copper Inuit poster in the flight terminal of Kugluktuk airport.

Traditional Copper Inuit
Traditional Copper Inuit were incredibly adapted to a sometimes very harsh land.

 The village of Kugluktuk
The village of Kugluktuk, situated on a rocky outcrop along the shores of Coronation Gulf, with the airport in the foreground.

 A sled dog, after a long day of racing
A sled dog, after a long day of racing, is ready to head home to a nice meal and soft bed of straw.

MARCH 24, 2013

KUGLUKTUK, NUNAVUT TO CAMBRIDGE BAY, NUNAVUT

Weather was again forecast to be good for the flight to Cambridge Bay. I had hoped to attend Sunday church services at the Anglican Church; but grabbing good weather for flying had to be the priority.

Preflighting the Pumpkin this morning was a special pleasure in the nice warm sun, and calm wind. I was interrupted just slightly by the arrival of a helicopter -perhaps from a local mine - and a Canadian North passenger jet. Since the thrust of the taxiing jet had blown some light snow into one fuel tank, I paid special attention to the "sumping" process - i.e. draining any water or ice crystals out of the lowest portion of the fuel tank.

It was nice to have about a 10 knot wind on my tail; but when I stayed low level (about 1500 feet, looking for polar bears) I found a bit of turbulence. Climbing up to about 3,000 feet solved that problem. I'm told that there are several frame cabins along the sea coast of Coronation Gulf - and I looked for them - but saw none, likely because this time of the year the drifting snow has covered them up, or mostly so. Folks in Cambridge Bay told me about a Japanese guy that had attempted to walk from Cambridge Bay to Kugluktuk last winter - in November, supposedly, during some of the coldest darkest parts of the winter. Unfortunately, he experienced considerable frostbite, and had to turn around to go back to Cambridge Bay. The wind blown Arctic is beautiful; but, by the same token, harsh and unforgiving.

About 55 miles back from Cambridge Bay, my good weather turned into a "whiteout". I had no contrast upward, downward, frontward, or backward. A bit like being in a bottle of milk. Damaris, bless her heart, was standing by the weather computer in Manley Hot Springs; and reported a "Special" weather report from Cambridge Bay - 2 and 1/2 miles visibility. Oooh, I thought - I would have to do an IFR approach, whether I liked it or not. As I cruised along, I thought, "well, why not phone my friend Rene Laserich, manager of Adlair, and get an update from his perspective"? This I did, and Rene reported the weather as being "not too too bad". I think I breathed a sigh of relief, or two, or three, or . . . and proceeded to land. The cross wind with which I had to deal didn't even seem so bad, considering the possibilities that could have been.

Rene, and his able experienced team, helped me put the Pumpkin to bed for the night - and very graciously got me set up in very comfortable accommodation for the night.
 

MARCH 23, 2013

INUVIK, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES TO KUGLUKTUK, NUNAVUT

Weather to the east was reported to be good - mostly CAVU. Flight Service suggested that I take a route more inland - i.e. stay south of the village of Paulatuk, and away from the coast - to avoid mechanical turbulence caused by the coastal hills. After a bowl of cereal and a piece of toast at the hotel, I summoned a taxi to the airport - always $25 one way. Since it was Saturday, there wasn't a lot happening at the airport. After getting the wing covers off the Pumpkin, and a good preflight, I headed out. One of my favorite areas east of Inuvik is the Andersen River. It's good sized - lots of sand bars, islands, and feeding tributaries - with many trees still inside the "treeline". On a couple adjacent lakes, I could see the tracks of a small caribou herd. These caught my eye quite quickly, since they're a common sight from the air back home in the Alaskan Brooks Range.

As long as I stayed over the relative flat terrain - interspersed with hundreds of small lakes - the air was smooth. As I approached the rising terrain, however, with the Horton and Hornaday Rivers running through, I then started experiencing light to moderate turbulence. From whisps of blowing snow over the hills, I could see that the surface winds must be fairly strong. Tributary streams that enter the sea to the west of Kugluktuk showed gravel bars with willows. I thought that moose just might be in the area; and this fact was confirmed later by folks in the village. We say "village" in Alaska; but the more common term in Canada is "hamlet" or "community". I was quite surprised to find out that there is quite a variety of land mammals in this area, including wolf and wolverine.

A couple of the local Kugluktuk nurses had noticed the Polar Pumpkin sitting on the parking ramp, so they came over to get a picture. Jennifer, and her colleague, then graciously gave me a ride to the Coppermine Inn for the night. The proprietress of the hotel, Irene, had lived in the North with her husband since the 1970's. A number of years ago, I landed my Cessna 180 in Kugluktuk on my way from the Midwestern States via Quebec and Baffin Island through the Canadian Archipelago back to Alaska. In a few short years, the population of the hamlet had nearly doubled. Leo, a "budding artist", came by to see a few of his local hand crafted wares. Later, Mr. Larry Whitaker, fellow pilot and aircraft owner, came by the Coppermine Inn to give me a ride back to the airport in order to put wing covers on the Pumpkin for the night. Larry also had lived in Kugluktuk for a considerable time, and works as the local probation officer. In his hangar on the parking ramp, he stores his PA-12 floatplane, and an ultralight.

For supper, I popped down to the local Northern store to get a few bits of snack food. Thank the Good Lord for an enjoyable day of good weather flying, and the kind and gracious folks that offered hospitality on my arrival in Kugluktuk.
 

MARCH 22, 2013

INUVIK, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES

Another bad weather day in Inuvik. The villages of Paulatuk and Kugluktuk are my next potential stops. Distances are vast in the Canadian Archipelago, with huge variability and changeability of weather. Paulatuk is my next closest option; but since the village is right on the northern coast, fog and ice crystals with wind are aspects to consider. Then Kugluktuk is a good 400 nautical miles distant, with a range of wind blown hills in between; so these are other aspects that deserve consideration in planning.

Earlier on the Polar Flight 90 web site, I mentioned my good pilot friend Bob Heath - a resident of Inuvik, and one of the best polar pilots in the world (both Arctic and Antarctic). Very sadly, this past Antarctic season, Bob perished at the 13,000 foot level of Mount Elizabeth in the Queen Alexandra Mountains, as he and his two crew members were enroute from the South Pole to use their Twin Otter aircraft at the Italian Base of Terra Nova Bay. Mountaineers accessed the crash site, and determined that the crash was "not survivable". The "Black Box" recorder was recovered from the tail of the aircraft; but, also very sadly, the recorder was not functioning. So, perhaps we will never know the real cause of this terrible tragedy. It was with great respect and mutual grief that I was able to personally extend my condolences to Bob's widow Lucy over dinner in Inuvik. Bob was loved and respected by so many people around the world.

Furry spectator at the Open North American Sled Dog Race in Fairbanks
Furry spectator at the Open North American Sled Dog Race in Fairbanks

Loading the Pumpkin for the flight North
Loading the Pumpkin for the flight North

MARCH 21, 2013

INUVIK, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES

The weather was too poor to fly today. So I took the opportunity to see some of the sites in Inuvik that I may have missed in the past. One of the big activities in the region is the construction of an all weather road from Inuvik to the northern coastal village of Tuktoyaktuk - to the tune of about $270 million. Presently there is an ice road; but once the Spring melt occurs, that is no longer usable.

My friend Gary Forney has lived in the region for many years, so was a valuable asset in explaining local history and culture, as we traveled about Shell Lake (the float plane base), the Forward Operating Base of Forces Canada, and other locations. Gary had been a pilot and aircraft owner using these skills to travel to various mission locations in the Mackenzie River Delta. Gary's colleague Steve Donely has been off to Whitehorse - about a 15 hour drive - to collect a load of treated lumber for the revamping of the church foundation in "Tuk".
 

 

MARCH 20, 2013

FAIRBANKS, ALASKA TO INUVIK, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES

The Polar Pumpkin was loaded, poised to head North, and once again in the shelter of a hangar owned by Everts Air Fuel. The Everts family, and employees, have been particularly supportive of Polar Flight 90.

Weather, in the form of snow squalls and poor visibility, was forecast to come in from the west. So I decided this morning was the time to take off. Flight plan filed, Customs and Border Protection EAPIS filed on line, and the Polar Pumpkin fueled . . . I headed out. Visibility in the "Fairbanks Bowl" was pretty good; but when I flew over the White Mountains, an undercast obscured ground contact in places. It was helpful, however, to have flown the route before.

As I headed east, I crossed the Yukon River; and the closer I got to the Canadian villages of Old Crow - and those on the Mackenzie River - the better the weather became.

Customs service at Inuvik this time of year for arriving aircraft is limited to non existent. So - true to form for our wonderful Canadian neighbors - Customs was cleared by telephone, I purchased a permit for my survival shot gun, and was wished a pleasant stay in Canada.

Gary Forney with the Points North Bible Mission came out to the airport as I was putting the engine cover on the Pumpkin. He was in a hurry to get back to the Wednesday service at the church; so I hopped in with him, and soon had the opportunity to meet the great folks of his congregation. After a quick supper at the Mackenzie Inn, I took a taxi (all within Inuvik are $5) back to the Nova Inn to a nice soft bed.

High tech dog sled on top of a
High tech dog sled on top of a "dog box" for transporting dogs to and from races
Loading the Pumpkin for the flight North
Loading the Pumpkin for the flight North