Many Died in the North
In fact, a
single Otter collided with an island not far from Resolute during my
assignment there. The pilot became nothing more than a scorch mark on the
side of a cliff and his death became a reminder that the work we did every
day came with its own distinctive hazards.
During my early days at
Resolute Bay, high-time pilots warned me that Ellesmere Island, the most
northerly in the Arctic Archipelago, was sometimes unapproachable due to
vicious weather. Polar winds funneled through Peary Channel and Massey
Sound, and smashed against upthrusting mountains and downsloping glaciers.
Steep-sided fjords and cliffs captured gales and twisted them into severe,
metal-bending turbulence. In summer, for formed rapidly. In spring and
winter, continual white-out conditions reigned. Pilots who knew the island
avoided Ellesmere when they could, but exploration camps and research
parties working there needed their support.
With grocery boxes crammed to
the ceiling, I left the comfort of Resolute in clear weather. Unlimited
skies and visibility lasted until Bear Bay, a small pocket of Devon Island
where it angled to form the Grinnell Peninsula. The Beaver did well until
8,000 feet, when thin air caused it to run out of throttle.
As North Kent Island slid under
my finger on the map, I did one last astrocompass calculation as the
clouds above mighty Ellesmere began forming an undercast to the island's
southern edges. Open water surrounding North Kent apparently remained
year-round because of perpetual winds and constant, low-level turbulence.
On this day, from my perch over a mile high, I saw only glassy water. In
the distance, I spotted a gigantic ice cap with a high point shown on the
chart as 7,700 feet. The geologists in Bauman Fjord radioed reports of
high wind and good visibility underneath the cloud.
Descending to stay in sight of
the surface for easier map reading, I cruised at 1,000 feet above
Norwegian Bay. Little snow remained in the valley. Further on, winds
created miniature dust storms. The terrain resembled a bizarre moonscape
under the ominous gray cloud cover as Hoved Island passed behind the
Beaver's tail. Farther inland, as I map read carefully toward Bauman
Fjord, whirling snow squalls whitened the braided streams. Two frantically
waving human figures stood on the crest of a hill.
Another pilot had dropped the
geologists in separate camps of two men each. A pre-positioned gas cache
on a level plain nearby lessened my worries about return fuel. Circling
the men became hazardous in the turbulence and gusts prevented anything
other than a marginal landing in a howling crosswind.
A half-mile away, a piece of
flat ground into wind seemed safer. Lack of sunlight and shadows made
aerial inspection difficult but the plants looked nicely spaced. Sandy
taught me well, I hoped.
With full flap and minimum
forward speed, the Beaver's soft balloon tires brushed the surface and
down again, sharply enough to jolt the astrocompass from its mount. The
nose plunged forward as I leveled off and collided with several hard
objects before stopping.
The aircraft tilted in a
frightening way with one wing tip less than three feet from masses of
large, brown lumps of solid ground. As I shut off the magneto switches and
retrieved my glasses from under the rudder pedals, I opened the door.
Beneath the Beaver's wheels, the entire area looked like a tray of
chocolate doughnuts turned side by side.
I had landed on "niggerheads,"
an unpleasant term applied to huge earth hummocks created by centuries of
alternate freezing and thawing. Some were two feet high and all showed
large, deep gaps between them, extending toward the banks of a nearby
braided stream. If the Doorknob [Dornier 208] had touched its smaller
wheels here, it would have been destroyed.
Because it was too rough to
taxi, I walked the mile and a half to where the geologists camped. A
rapidly flowing meltwater river the color of turquoise separated us as I
shouted against the wind and rushing water. They would have to wait until
the gale abated to allow a landing closer to their camp. With little else
to do, I walked back, climbed inside the Beaver and unloaded freight to
make room to sleep on the hard, bakelite floor. So far, Ellsemere Island
welcomed me with dangerous ground, low cloud and gusty winds.
Silence woke me. The wind had
died to only enough to ripple the ribbons on my wooden takeoff markers
beside the Beaver's wheels. Tendrils of feathery cirrus replaced the
gloom-laden clouds. I glanced outside and saw an array of flowering plants
for the first time since my hasty arrival. Afternoon warmth sent their
fragrances wafting peacefully into the airplane's oily cockpit. Listening
carefully, I heard flowing streams of glacial runoff sending rippling
sounds across the tundra.
The Pratt and Whitney engine started
smoothly. I smashed along the rutted ground and managed to get the Beaver
airborne. As the speed increased, I reduced flap to climb position and
pointed the nose above the level of the highest hill. The geology crew
waited anxiously only a few minutes away, but I intended to take some time
to absorb the beauty of Ellesmere Island.
On both sides of the airplane,
sheer-sided slopes rose up from the ocean. Beyond them to the east, a
gigantic white-topped glacier glimmered in the distance. Narrow valleys
running in strings from north to south were mosaics of multicolored
surfaces. Red, yellow and pink sandstone blended with gray, meandering
channels of water oozing from gaps in brightly polished rock walls.
I saw several shades of ice, as
black-edged blocks dropped from glaciers and aquamarine, snow-speckled ice
floes drifted in Bauman Fjord's dark waters. Shaded, bright ivory blobs of
ice protected from the bay, exposed their lacy edges shyly as swan-like
patches of mist formed and vanished quickly.
…Ellesmere, with fjords,
hills, and valleys, was the most breathtaking stretch of scenery I had
ever seen. Circling, it occurred to me that if anyone ever gazed at John
Gillespie Magee's "high untrespassed sanctity of space," I just
did. Fearsome Ellesmere Island offered me its gentle side.
My private showing ended, I
drifted down toward the impatient geologists. The landing taught me that
the niggerheads hadn't softened during my escape into the sky as the
Beaver crashed from one to the other.
While I shuttled people back
and forth from Bauman Fjord to another flat area west of Vendome Fjord, I
noticed two more geologists in a dried river bed. For touchdown space,
their location looked to be not much more than 600 feet in length and
surrounded by sloping terrain.
With the first group safely
relocated and already ripping the Arctic earth with their hammers and
picks, I flew up the river to finish with the remaining two men. As
expected, their spot proved to be one of the worst for landing. Having
been placed there by helicopter, no one looked far enough ahead to
consider that a fixed-wing airplane would do the pickup. The boulders were
massive and too numerous to move. Each run on the river bed required
several zigzags with every angle accented by hard braking. Once airborne,
the Beaver needed steep climbs followed by sharp left turns to clear the
The party didn't have much gear
but little as it was, I needed several trips with only 200 pounds each to
do the job. They grumbled about the extra time and meager loads. With
twenty-four hour daylight and a valuable airplane to consider, I didn't
have any reason to rush. Each landing turned into a hit-hard
slam-the-brakes-on stop-you-bugger ordeal.
Once I overran the end of my safe area into a cluster of boulders, but the
balloon tires prevented any damage. At the drop-off point, the geologists
threw their equipment outside while I held brakes and controls in a gale.
On takeoff with an empty cabin, the Beaver rolled about forty feet before
Safely in the air, I pointed the Beaver's round nose south, toward a fuel
cache. In a few minutes, a large, dark musk-ox appeared on a ridge above
me. I climbed a little and circled to watch him follow the airplane. I
glanced back and saw him pawing the surface, sending clouds of dust
swirling in the wind. Probably ostracized from his kind I felt sorry for
Moments later, I landed beside
a row of red fuel barrels. After gouging several fingers opening them
under the surveillance of a pair of white Arctic hares, I filled the belly
tanks. During my first few weeks working from Resolute Bay, no amount of
physical effort could enable me to stand these 400-pound fuel drums
upright. Now, after moving hundreds of them, my body had become
conditioned to the dangerous task.
With enough fuel for Resolute
Bay, I departed. I stopped briefly at a nearby Arco Oil exploration camp.
Someone in Resolute had asked me to drop off a small bag of mail after
completing the camp moves. Quickly, I handed it out the door and took off
southwest again. Looking ahead, I predicted that it wouldn't be long
before some drastic weather changes occurred. Hopefully, the Beaver could
take me home before storms swept in and forced me down.
Story by Robert S Grant
Top of this story.
Editor John S Goulet
modified on March 06, 2006
© Virtual Horizons, 1996.