Hudson Bay Helicopters:

Part One
Polar Bears in a Purple Patch

Steve Miller was late.

"That's not like Steve," says Doug Webber. "He's usually early."

As we waited I talked to a group of canoers who had just been flown in on Doug's Beaver after paddling the Seal River. They were unanimous in their appraisal of the trip they had just completed. They loved it and would do it again. That is strong praise from dirty hungry and sore paddlers who had just come in from the cold and bugs. The young men and women were still craving their first "Coffee Crisp" chocolate bar to be followed by a McDonald's hamburger. The burger was still a long way off considering that the nearest franchise was 600 miles south. Instead they settled for licking the powder contents of "instant blueberry muffins." I envied the young travellers as I could not remember when I had been so hungry or desperate.

Doug Webber's Beaver

Their comments were even more encouraging considering we were waiting for Steve to take us up to the Seal River Heritage Lodge. There was a big difference in our mode of travel and also the landscape of our journey. They came down the river slowly. Very slowly. And they stopped short of the coast. A good thing that as the polar bears don't often go far inland here. Most of the bears are up north now, but these are the summer bears. They mostly hang around the coast avoiding the worst of the bugs and generally not eating all summer. Still, the bears are a concern for canoers sleeping in tents. And I have my personal doubts about the "no eating in summer" theory. What bear could resist a canoer fattened on blueberry muffin powder?
Moreover, we will be flying up the coast in a helicopter. Much quicker than paddling, but still slow and low enough to enjoy the coastal scenery. Plus, we get to see the world from the advantage of height. In this flat but undulating landscape of the sub-arctic tundra you could possibly see a polar bear from miles away. From the perspective of the ground bound, however, the bear could be sleeping on the grass in a little meadow just over the next ridge and you would not see him until you were right there. From above you will find him before he finds you.
One of the young canoers, ears tuned from weeks of silence, says he hears a helicopter. The helicopter appears from the direction of Churchill town. I anticipate meeting Steve the pilot. He introduces himself with his flying. His approach is a well written poem or sea-fog flowing on wings. Steve circles in like an arctic tern and pounches like a robber fly. He makes the transition in the JetRanger from slow flight to the hover as graceful as a sandhill crane flapping his wings during a mating dance. Steve Miller can fly that machine.

Hudson Bay Helicopters

There is something I've noticed about helicopter pilots. Something in their environmental circumstances insures that the eldest take the best and most interesting jobs. While Doug Webber's Beaver pilot was a young guy with little actual flying experience, Steve Miller is the archetype of helicopter pilots. Steve, when he does show, flying in low over the horizon, is a white haired white bearded well tanned wind burnt grizzled pilot of local renown.
"Sorry, I'm late." He exclaims. "Busy day. Are you ready?" Steve is indeed busy. He has established himself and his two helicopters as the only full time year round operator in the Churchill area. You don't mind waiting a few minutes for him, mostly because during this time of the season the other operators are off somewhere else, and you couldn't get them if you wanted. Steve stays to take care of his people. He may not get as much contract work by staying in one area, but he hopes that his dedication and loyalty to his Churchill customers will pay off in the long run. We appreciate the fact that both him and his helicopter are available to take us North.

Steve Miller Packs!

His beautiful new forest green Bell 206 JetRanger 3 is equipped with two photographic windows and full intercom, to make the best of the guaranteed photo opportunities that will come our way. I sit up front to get to know Steve better, and let a film maker and a photographer have the two scenic windows. They are full of dumb questions which Steve answers good-naturedly. Steve has this santa-claus smile and a perpetual twinkle in his arctic weathered eyes that immediately puts you at ease with the upcoming flight whether you are scared of flying or not. You just know whatever happens he can handle it.
We finish loading and Steve fires up the Allison turbine with the soul lifting smell of burning Jet Fuel - my favorite smell next to fresh baked bread. (Only a turbine-spoiled bush pilot could understand that preference.) Within minutes we lift off Landing Lake waters like an arctic skimmer searching for herring with the bushes and reeds parting beneath us from the downward rotor wash. Slowly we gain altitude turning north bound to view the Churchill Port and the mouth of the Churchill River. Steve points out the pods of Beluga whales heading out of the river with the outgoing tide. "Not many here, compared to where we are going," he quips over the intercom. "Wait until we get to the Seal River, that is where we will see whales."
The JetRanger settles in to about 200 feet above seal level. The sky is blue and the visibility is virtually unlimited. Severe clear. I can distinctly see 360 degrees of horizon surrounding us. As we reach one horizon there is always another. Horizons. Not one but many. "Polar bear," Steve whispers over the intercom to me. I strain forward to see better. I see a huge white rock looking menacingly like a white bear. I wait for Steve. Maybe he sees something I don't.
Shortly after Steve acknowledges the bear-like rock. I know how he feels. I continuously point out large white cap waves as breaching whales to my passengers in West Africa. I don't get embarrassed, however, and neither did Steve. He knows it's his unbounded enthusiasm for wanting to see the bears that turns rocks to bears. He loves what he does. And besides, he also knows that the next rock could very well be alive. Steve knows we will see a bear.
Along the way to the lodge we cross the Seal River. Sure enough the river is full of beluga whales in pods of 10's and 20's. Steve slows down for the film crew to get off some good footage and I manage to snap a few pictures myself. The whales naturally gather in groups; some feeding along the bottom, some just drifting along noses touching in two's and three's. We do not linger long. Steve straightens out the helicopter from the 45 degree bank and we continue up the coast toward the Seal River Heritage Lodge. Along the way we view a sea of snow geese scouring the shoreline of the Hudson Bay. Steve says he has seen more geese recently than anytime in the past. The geese are everywhere. It has been a good breeding season.
Soon we reach the Seal River Heritage Lodge where we spot land inside the bear proof fence. We linger just long enough to pick-up Virginia Petch, an archeologist, Dan Good, a geologist by training who will be running the GPS for our site surveys, and Quinten the acting guide and polar bear warden. Our mission is to fly-hop over Hubbard Point up the coast from the lodge to carry out a special investigation. Hubbard Point is normally difficult to reach by boating and hiking, and we wanted to make the most of our sub-arctic time. Thus, the helicopter. The reward of the scenic flight in a helicopter has already proven itself over the beluga whale sighting, but there is more. Just after takeoff, Steve whispers "bear" into the intercom, and this time Steve's vision is not a rock.

Lean and Mean

It's a lean mean looking young male polar bear lazing around the coast line just up from the lodge. We circle to have a good look. It's been many years since I have been this close to a polar bear in the wild. I am ecstatic as we watch the bear continue his aimless prowl. Mike Reimer had told us that the bears will not feed this time of year. They are just waiting along the coast waiting for freeze up when they can head off shore to hunt seal. In the meantime the sea breezes can help keep the bugs at bay and the bears cool.
We cross the lowland flats littered with thousands of geese and the occasional caribou. Inland the clouds are blown into a line perspective that converges on the horizon. The skies between are clear and blue. Hubbard Point comes into view. Besides the blue of the water and the white of the wind blown wave tops, we see a river of purple running through the moraine and rock strewn coastline flats. Fireweed. A large flowing field of bright purple fireweed growing on the high ground. As we drive closer, Steve again whispers "bear" or this time "bears." We counted five bright white healthy polar bears making their way though the purple patch.

Polar Bears in a purple patch

Two of the big bruisers had just emerged from the cool bay waters striding slowly to the middle of the island spit. Steve circled low enough for us to get a good look, but not too low to bother the bears. They were not perturbed by our presence, but the feelings were not mutual. The archeologists pointed out that the bears were just 1-2 kms from where we were planning to land. It was a real treat to spot the bears, but we were on a mission and they were a threat. Steve and Quentin both assured the rest of us that there was enough distance between them and our landing zone. Even if they did decide to come our way we would have plenty of time to spool up and leave safely.

Touch down Hubbard Point
Imagesİ by John S Goulet

Article and Images by John S Goulet

Continue Here With Part Two. Blood on Stone

The attitude indicator will guide you to Aviation Friends.

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Last modified on April 21, 2013
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