Many Died in the North

DHC-3 Otter on Ice Field 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.

DHC-2 Beaver in the Arctic 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 slope.
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 flying…

Fueling a DC-3 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 him.
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 

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Editor John S Goulet


Last modified on March 06, 2006
© Virtual Horizons, 1996.