Friday, November 16, 2007

Flying and Fishing

It’s five am as I awake from a heavy sleep. The sun, already high in the arctic sky, is beating forcefully through the northeast window of the bedroom, and I can already feel that it will be a warm day.

Dressing quickly, I turn on the computer in the office and check the weather forecast on the Internet. Looks good! A call to Arctic Radio in North Bay gets the flight plan obligation out of the way. My trip will be entirely within the arctic ADIZ so this is not an option.

I fill my personal fuel tank with a couple of pieces of toast, washed down by orange juice. A few mid-day snacks and with luck, some fish, should give me sufficient "endurance" for the day. I check my cargo pants and fishing-vest-PFD pockets to ensure that all my small survival items are in place, then grab the day pack and fishing gear. Don’t forget the 30-30 and a few shells – bear protection!

A five-minute ATV ride gets me to the airport. The open, fabric hangar keeps the wind and sun off my all-yellow, amphibious Challenger. I remove the rear-seat cushions and put the "cargo-floor" in place, creating more space for gear, then load up with a tent, summer sleeping bag, mattress pad, and another small pack containing a stove, cooking pots and other gear. I’m not planning to stay overnight, but better to be prepared. I check to see that the satellite ‘phone, PLB, tools and survival kit are on board, and visually confirm that we have full fuel.

Following a thorough pre-flight, I roll the airplane out into the cool morning air. Not many mosquitoes today, but I do have repellent and a bug-jacket just in case. I climb into my seat and give two squirts of prime to the engine, which instantly fires up as if anxious to get airborne.

While the engine warms, I strap in, adjust my headset, turn the radio on and set it to 122.1. I call the CARS operator and inform him of my flight plan and intentions. He responds with the altimeter setting and runway conditions, and announces "no reported traffic".

With cylinder-head temperature "in the green", I add some power and taxi out, just as a helicopter calls "entering the zone from the south". No worries, we’ll be off long before he comes into view. I taxi to the intersection and turn right, with about 3,000 feet of the 5,500 foot gravel runway ahead of me. Adding power, C-INUK accelerates to take-off speed, the vibration of the suspension-less wheels on gravel clearly felt through the air-frame. After lift-off, and a brief period in ground-effect, we climb away toward the southwest, watching for the chopper, then come around on-course due east. The main wheels are un-locked and hauled up and then the nose wheel. We are now a sea-plane!

The Coppermine River passes beneath the floats, shimmering with the reflection of the sun, now high in the eastern sky. It is 6:15 am and our destination is a river about 50 miles away. We cross the eastern bank of the Coppermine at 800-feet, still in a gentle climb over rolling green tundra and basalt outcrops. A wolf watches the big yellow bird approach until it becomes obvious to him that we are too big and noisy to make a meal, but we’re already overhead and then past him before he catches on and starts a brief run. I call "clear of the zone to the east" and then re-set the altimeter to 29.92 (we’re in the Standard Pressure Area) and the radio to the enroute frequency 126.7 MHz.

We cross another, smaller river a few miles beyond, where eight caribou are grazing on a breezy knoll, getting some respite from the flies. I bank the ‘plane and snap a photo, then get back on course. The GPS counts down the miles. We have a head-wind and our ground speed is only 42 mph. No worries; we might have a tailwind coming home later in the day.

Sixty minutes after take-off our river finally comes into view. There’s still a lot of sea ice around, but it’s well broken and a few miles off-shore. After a circuit to check for shallow areas or rocks, I line up into the moderate easterly wind. Descending at 55 mph IAS, I note the ground speed is just 40 mph. The landing "roll" should be short!

Closer to the water now, I add a little power to slow the descent. The floats kiss the surface and we come to a quick and easy stop. Water-rudder down, I attempt to turn cross-wind to enter the river mouth, but the ‘plane wants to weather-cock into the wind. I end up adding a lot of power and step-taxiing through the channel. Inside the mouth, the river is clear, narrow and swift. The east bank is high and steep, indicating deep water close to shore. I taxi straight toward a sandy spot, shutting down the engine just before the floats touch the beach with enough inertia to hold the ‘plane in place while I dismount. I barely get the soles of my shoes wet as I step from the float bow to the beach, my footprints landing alongside those of a young grizzly bear.

I turn the ‘plane sideways to the beach and retrieve a 100-foot, quarter-inch nylon line from the aft port-side float compartment, then tie NUK to the willows high on the bank.

Arctic ground squirrels chatter their annoyance while the gear is removed from the ‘plane and set on a dry, level perch fifty feet back and 10-feet above the water. I quickly gather an armful of dry willow sticks from the beach in anticipation of a camp fire. A few "mossies" buzz about my ears, but not so many to justify an application of noxious DEET – the bug jacket will do. I attach the reel to my fishing rod and add a two-inch pink Pixie to the line. I cast into the cold blue water and, no more than sixty seconds later, have a silvery five-pound arctic char at my feet. Lunch! Three more casts and I have another, slightly larger than the first. This is too easy! I fillet the smaller fish and put the larger one in a plastic bag and into a cool float compartment. I decide to quit fishing for a while and examine my surroundings more closely.

Two-hundred feet from the river I find an ancient ring of stones, once used to anchor the circumference of a skin tent. Hundreds of years ago nomadic caribou hunters had camped here and then moved on, probably never returning, as they followed the summer herd. A fox den is further up the esker, with signs that she has been raising a family here. From the top of the esker the view of the river and ocean is magnificent, and I speculate what this piece of real estate would be worth if it were located a thousand miles to the south. The green hills roll away inland to the south, hiding valleys and lakes yet to be discovered by my Challenger and I.

I hike back to my picnic spot through knee-high grass and colourful wildflowers. Later, as a tiny camp fire crackles, I rub a little margarine on my char fillets and then wrap them in a piece of foil. Twenty minutes later I’m enjoying fresh fish and a piece of my wife’s tasty bannock, all washed down with hot, sugary tea from the Thermos, while I lounge in the sunshine and watch a pair of loons as they eye-ball my Challenger.

All too soon, the afternoon is over, but I’ll wait until evening to return home. The longer I wait the smoother the air will be and, since the sun won’t set for another six weeks, there’s no rush!

After a five-minute struggle I catch a nice 12-pound char and then lose another, much larger. That guy takes my lure and half of my line. With plenty of spare lures but no spare line, my fishing is over for the day. I would have at least liked to see that monster!

To save weight, I clean all the fish and (reluctantly) remove the heads and tails. At least I have some good pictures of my 12-pounder, who was much more impressive before de-capitation!
Back at the ‘plane, I have a snack and another cup of tea, pack up my gear and re-load.

Thankfully, the 30-30 remains un-fired - the bears must be happily gorging on ground squirrels and have no desire for my withered carcass. A lone caribou bull, distracted by the flies, is trotting along the river bank not 300-feet away. He’s safe from me, though, as our home freezer is already well stocked from a previous hunt and, at any rate, there's no room for him in the airplane! As he shakes the flies away from his head, I see that most of his scruffy winter fur has fallen out, leaving the short, chocolate brown summer pelt shining in the light reflected from the water’s surface.

The wind has risen steadily during the day. Taxiing downwind will be hopeless. I push off from the shore, quickly get into my seat and fire up the engine, but even at idle there is too much thrust and I end up moving forward toward my starting point. Plan "B"; I shut down the engine and let the wind and current blow me out through the channel, where I fire up once again. A couple of minutes of warm up and then it’s full throttle as the 50-hp Rotax 503 bounces us from wave-top to wave-top, then catapults us into the air. The ‘plane climbs steeply against the strong head-wind as I make a climbing left turn, feeling the speed increase as we head down wind. I climb just to 500-feet, then reduce power to 5,200 rpm – just enough to maintain altitude. We won’t use much gas going home as the wind is pushing our ground speed to 83 mph even at this reduced throttle setting. I check that the gear is still up and locked, then steady the ‘plane on course for home.

The air is a little bumpier than it was this morning. Still, I enjoy the 39-minute ride, my ball cap and sunglasses barely keeping the sun, now descending toward the north-western horizon, out of my eyes. I call "entering the zone" when we’re five miles to the east of the airport. The CARS operator reports a wind favouring runway 21T. (In this "area of compass un-reliability", our runway headings are in true degrees rather than magnetic).

Passing in front of the village, I intentionally fly fairly close to our water-front home, hoping that my wife sees that I’ve returned. As the airport comes into view and I join "downwind left for 21", I lower and lock the main gear, then the nose gear. We are now a land plane! Turning final, I reduce power and set up the approach at 55-mph, reminding myself to simply fly the airplane on to the runway – an aggressive flare might cause the tails of the floats to scrape in the gravel – not good! Over the threshold, I add a little power to slow the descent. With over a mile of runway in front of me there is no need for a short-field technique.

With light application of the brakes, my Challenger and I come to a near-stop well before the taxi-way intersection. I report "down and clear" and ask that my flight plan be closed. C-INUK makes a tight turn in front of her hangar and rolls to a stop. I disembark and roll the little airplane backwards into the shaded shelter. The gear is unloaded and stowed in the lock-box.

Home again with my wife, we lounge on our deck, overlooking the mouth of the Coppermine River and the blue water of the Arctic Ocean just beyond the sandbars. Our colony of cliff swallows, nesting under the eaves of the house, are busy this evening catching mosquitoes that would otherwise make a meal of Helen and I. I recount my little adventure to my wife who, unfortunately, had to work this day.

Since I first took possession of my Challenger two years ago, it has carried me across Canada and home to the arctic. There have been a few minor mishaps during our journeys together, but the good times have outweighed the bad – by a long shot! We are destined, I hope, to have many more little adventures ahead as we explore together this empty and un-touched land full of lakes never fished and beaches never walked upon.


Photo: C-INUK tied to the bank of the Kugaryuak River, with the Arctic Ocean in the background to the north.

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