Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Flying Story - Part Three - Yellowknife to Kugluktuk

Here's the final installment in the 3,600 mile oddysey of Challenger ultralight C-INUK.

The next morning Rob is at the airport to see me depart. The take-off is brisk in the cold, clear air and I’m soon winging my way toward a fuel stop at Wekweti, a small Dene community about
120-miles north of Yellowknife. I’m flying in the standard-pressure area now, so the altimeter is set to 29.92 and the radio to the en route frequency of 126.7 MHz. Million-dollar bush ‘planes chatter on the radio, going in and out of small communities and mining camps. It occurs to me that there’s probably not another ultralight flying at this very moment within 1,000 miles!

Rob has agreed to call ahead for someone to meet me at the strip with gas and, sure enough, two young ladies are there with 10-gallons of mogas. After mixing in some oil, I fill the tank and give them back five-gallons! I pay them for all ten gallons and give them 40 bucks for their trouble. We’re in the north now where a dollar is only worth about 50-cents! Expensive, but it sure beats a long walk into town and a lengthy delay. I call home on the sat-phone to let my wife know my location, have a snack and then I’m off again from the gravel strip, north-bound once more.

The country north of Wekweti quickly goes from scrubby, scattered black spruce to wide open tundra. Small herds of caribou are resting on some of the lakes. A pilot can get a rough idea of direction from the sun but the magnetic compass is not reliable and the lakes are of no use for visual navigation beyond the tree-line at this time of the year. There is no vegetation to outline their shorelines so their shape and size are difficult or impossible to determine. To the modern arctic pilot, a GPS receiver is a necessity. Sitting in the comfort of the cockpit, I feel the landscape engulf me and my little aeroplane. I marvel at how the old bush pilots found their way around this country with just a crude map, a compass and a timepiece. They flew aeroplanes no more reliable than my Challenger and still made it to their destinations - usually!

To save fuel, and to make possible Search and Rescue easier, I stick closely to my flight-planned GPS track.

About 120-miles north of Wekweti is a fairly large, un-named lake that I had chosen months previously as a good fuel stop. By the time I arrive over the spot, we are in an area not far from the Coppermine River, where the stunted forest has returned for a while. There will be some shelter and firewood here if I have to withstand an extended stay.

The wind is still from the south, and after a careful once-over, the landing on skis is smooth as silk. I get out of the ‘plane into blinding sunshine, a south wind and a temperature barely below freezing. I take my time with the re-fuelling and do a thorough inspection of the ‘plane. The Rotax engine has run like a top all the way from Montreal last year and from Edmonton this year, but why take chances? I spread a tarp on the snow, have some hot coffee from the thermos and more beef jerky. Life is good!

I snooze in the warm sunshine a little longer than planned and awake to see some clouds moving in. The wind has turned around from the north and the temperature has fallen. By the time I have the aeroplane re-packed, a few snowflakes are falling and 15-minutes later the visibility is down to one mile. Not wanting to fly into even worse conditions, I decide to stay put for the night. I dig a ten-by-ten foot hole in the two-foot deep snow down to lake ice and pitch my tent in that relative shelter. I soon have a comfortable camp set up and my gas-stove boiling up some melted snow for tea.

The wind is very light from the north, but the weather is definitely not VFR. The snow is falling heavily now and the trees on the far shore, a half-mile away, are barely visible. I get through to the Kugluktuk RCMP on the sat-'phone to let them know my situation, call the CARS station to close my flight plan, then crawl into my warm arctic sleeping bag to wait out the weather.

At about two am I awake to the violent flapping of the tent, which seems about to become airborne with me in it! I am out of the sleeping bag in a jiffy, partly open the zippered door and look out. The outline of C-INUK is barely visible through the blowing snow, and she is in trouble! I un-zip the door, bending low to exit the tent. In that instant a huge gust picks up the ‘plane, turns it 180-degrees and she comes down hard on her nose gear, facing in the opposite direction. It all happens in a heartbeat! I quickly tie a rope to the tail wheel and the other end to my buried snow shovel as an anchor. The ‘plane is now tail to the wind and safer than before as long as she doesn’t go sliding down the lake. I hold on as long as possible. When it looks like she’s not going to move I retreat to the shelter of the tent. Only then am I able to put on my parka and try to warm up. The wind seems to be going down already and within 20-minutes it ‘s back to a light breeze.

What I’ve experienced is some kind of localized katabatic wind, caused by pockets of heavy, cold air sliding downhill. They are usually brief, as this one was, but they can be violent. I chastise myself for not properly tying down the ‘plane. Too late now! A quick inspection reveals a severely bent nose gear and a rip in the fabric about amidships. The fabric can be jury-rigged, but the bent nose gear will end my journey here, right on the arctic circle but still 100-miles short of home.

What now? I have a cup of tea and get thoroughly warmed up. Might as well tie her down in case the wind comes up again and does even more damage. That done, I have a bite to eat. I won’t activate my PLB unless the situation becomes critical and it’s nowhere near that point yet.

I wait until 9:00 am before calling the Kugluktuk RCMP on the sat-‘phone. Cpl. Keatley is already at work and I explain my predicament to her. Eventually, I will need to be picked up as the ‘plane is going nowhere. She calls 440 Squadron in Yellowknife and they suggest she check the local area for a ‘plane or helicopter. She locates a Canadian Helicopters A-Star at an exploration camp about 50-miles to the northeast of my position and within a few hours I hear the re-assuring thump of rotor blades homing-in on my GPS position.

Darrel Holubowich is a young but experienced pilot. He sympathises with my plight, and although I’m resigned to perhaps never seeing my little aeroplane again, I can see that Darrel has other ideas. First things first, however. We pack my gear into the A-Star and Darrel gives me a good briefing, the most important part being "don’t slam the door!". The weather is sunny again, but there’s a brisk north wind and the air is much colder than yesterday. In about a half-hour the Mouse Lake camp comes into view and we set down near the fuel cache. I walk with Darrel to meet the camp manager, Dave, who offers me a fine meal in the cook-shack, which I greedily accept. Some young Inuit fellows from Kugluktuk, whom I’ve known for many years, are working here as camp helpers and driller’s assistants.

Shortly, the Cessna Caravan that is hauling fuel from Kugluktuk arrives. They’re making a trip about every hour-and-a-half, hauling eight drums at a time. The pilot comes up to the cook shack for his meal while the second pilot does the next load. We have a lot of expertise here; Darrel and his engineer Phil Heggie seem keen to rescue my bird from an eventual total loss and much banter and advice flows from the Caravan pilot and his engineer. Darrel and Phil soon formulate a plan, and they tell me that they actually have a few days without work around the camp to put that plan into action. It looks like C-INUK might live to fly another day!

It’s about 7:00 pm by the time I drag myself away from the conversation, good food and coziness of the cook-shack. A ride is arranged for me in the right seat of the Caravan and an hour later I’m back in Kugluktuk, tired and needing a shower, but encouraged at the prospect of seeing my Challenger again.

The following day, back in Kugluktuk, I do what I can to expedite the rescue. I inform my insurance company of our intentions. It will be expensive, but far cheaper than a total loss. The ‘plane may be only slightly damaged, but she’s sitting on a lake a hundred miles into the wilderness. In another month that lake will begin to melt and a month after that my Challenger will become a submarine. A quick rescue is in order to avoid further damage by wind and wild animals.

Darrel and Phil return to the site that day. They are both experts in the mechanics of aeroplanes, though neither has "slung" an aeroplane before. The Cessna pilot had suggested wrapping the wings in cargo nets to break the lift and this is done. Phil attaches the sling to strong points on the airframe and immobilizes the control stick and rudder pedals. At the end of the day they lift off with NUK at the end of a 100-foot sling line. Progress is slow as there is still a headwind and the drag of the ultralight, "flying" in a slightly nose-down attitude, is huge. Darrel later reports that no matter how much power he cranked up, the A-Star could only make 40-knots. "It was like towing a big kite!", he said.

After an overnight stop at Mouse Lake, Darrel and Phil chug into Kugluktuk that Saturday morning with INUK dangling beneath the A-Star. The sked is in, so the passengers waiting for their luggage are treated to the sight of my little aeroplane hanging beneath a helicopter - something not often seen, and hopefully not to be repeated by the same players anytime soon!

It is an inglorious end to my adventure, but I am very lucky to have had such generous co-operation from this young pilot and engineer. My rescue cost the tax-payer nothing, thanks to UNOR Incorporated, who also provided the A-Star at their discounted rate and donated all the fuel for the helicopter. Their camp manager and VP of Explorations, Dave Bent, could not have been more helpful. Darrel Holubowich and Phil Heggie of Canadian Helicopters went out of their way to help. I’ll not forget you guys!


1) Be well-equipped for a survival situation, including proper clothing and adequate communications. Some kind of satellite ‘phone and a personal locator beacon (preferably GPS-enabled) are de rigueur in more remote areas - which means just about everywhere in Canada!

2) Tie down the aeroplane (!) even for a short stay and even when there is no wind. That can change!

3) Limit off-airport landings in remote locations to reduce your exposure to a potential survival situation.

My experience shows that a satellite telephone can save a lot of time, trouble and expense for all the players involved. Without that ‘phone, my flight plan would see me overdue and I might eventually have had to activate my PLB. Either of those events would have put the entire Search and Rescue organization into motion, which can be very costly. The telephone enabled a quicker, more efficient and less costly rescue long before my situation became life-threatening.

My mis-adventure happened to take place in the arctic, but imagine a similar situation happening on a sunny January day in the Quebec Laurentians:

You’ve just landed on a quiet lake, only to find your skis thoroughly stuck in slushy overflow. You’re probably only a few miles from the nearest house, but you’re not well dressed, your feet are already wet, the snow is four feet deep in the bush, you have no snowshoes and your cell phone battery is dead. Darkness is coming on quick, it’s getting very cold and you have no food or survival gear. You didn’t tell anyone about this little diversion from your planned route, did you? Now what?


Within a few weeks, the nose gear of my Challenger was replaced with new parts at very little cost. Mechanical repairs were simple. The fabric took a little longer to fix, but she flew quite well for most of the summer with a couple of pounds of duct tape around her mid-section. I flew about 60-hours during the summer of 2006 after re-installing the tundra tires, and have given rides to quite a number of my friends, who have been surprisingly forgiving of my previous lapse in judgement.

Despite the somewhat ignominious end to my trip, it was a great adventure as well as a learning experience. In the scheme of things, it was but a few hours of despair in exchange for a hundred hours of intense enjoyment. My Challenger is now in her new arctic home, ready to take me on further adventures.

The wonderful thing about living in the far north of Canada is the incredible degree of freedom one has to travel, camp, hunt or fish almost anywhere, without the private-property or airspace restrictions one takes for granted in the south. My Challenger has opened a new chapter in my life and I’m now looking forward to exploring this particular part of Canada that is practically inaccessible, during the summer months at least, to anyone but a pilot with an aircraft.

We pilots know that it is the journey, rather than the destination, that gives us joy. If we did not understand that, we would be in the back of the aeroplane with someone else at the controls.

For those of you who have always dreamed of making a major cross-country trip in your ultralight but thought it impossible, just remember that a long trip is just a series of short hops strung together. A trip across Canada is just a couple of dozen hops from Ottawa to Pembroke, or Oshawa to Belleville, and you probably wouldn’t think twice about that. Of course, one must have a capable and comfortable ultralight that has been well-maintained and is in tip-top shape.

No time? Make the time! You will run out of time before you know it.


Monday, November 26, 2007

A Flying Story - Part Two - Edmonton to Yellowknife

Last month, you heard about the 2005 leg of C-INUK’s trip home. That 2,500-mile jaunt by the author and his intrepid co-pilot Bruce Brown took them from St. Lazare (near Montreal) to St. Albert (near Edmonton).

The following chronicles the first part of the final 1,200 mile leg to bring Larry Whittaker’s Challenger II home to Kugluktuk in Nunavut, April 2006.

After putting my Challenger II safely to bed in early October of 2005 in a cozy hangar at St. Albert, northwest of Edmonton, I have been in regular e-mail contact with Bob Robertson. Bob is well-known across Canada and the US as a top Rotax engine expert. During the winter he removes my "tundra" tires, installs a nifty set of Turbulence retractable wheel-skis and his new oil-injection kit. The ‘plane is tuned-up, test-flown and generally placed in tip-top shape for the up-coming trip to the arctic.

Of course, while Bob is busy in Edmonton I have a lot of planning to do. The route is chosen - a no-brainer; follow highway 43 west to Fox Creek, then turn north to Peace River and follow the Mackenzie Highway to High Level and on to Hay River, then jump straight across Great Slave Lake to Yellowknife. Kugluktuk is due north of Yellowknife at a distance of about 375-miles. The total distance, including a 100-mile allowance for following major bends in the highway, is about 1,200-miles.

I arrange three-weeks of vacation leave from my job with (censored). A one-way Aeroplan ticket to Edmonton is ordered, a rental car and a hotel bed are reserved. I spend the last few days at home frantically tidying up loose ends at work and monitoring the construction of my hangar at the Kugluktuk airport.

Edmonton in early April of 2006 is pretty much snow-free, in stark contrast to the whiteness and long days that I’ve left behind in Kugluktuk. The first week is spent getting the dust blown off the aeroplane and deciding what has to be shipped home. I will be flying north into winter-survival conditions and that requires a lot of bulky equipment and clothing. The back seat will hold two jerry cans of gas, an arctic sleeping bag, a couple of small back-packs with gear and some winter clothing. More winter clothing, a tent and sleeping pad will be stowed in the belly bag. My newly-acquired 406 MHz PLB and a sat-phone could be life-savers.

The Challenger is now on wheel-skis, so the tundra tires are shipped home, along with the rear seat cushions and certain items of clothing and equipment deemed "non-essential" because of lack of space onboard.

On April 13 the weather forecast looks great and everything is ready. Tomorrow we’ll be heading north... and home!

Anxious to get away, I’m at the St. Albert airport early - much too early. I wander around, trying to keep warm, waiting for the first glimmer of light. When it comes, C-INUK is fired up and taxied to the runway over the short, brown grass and the lumpy, frozen ground. A quick traffic call on the radio, an instrument scan to verify all is in order, and we’re off. A right turn-out takes us to the highway in a few minutes and then we’re heading west toward our first fuel stop at Fox Creek.

The runway at Fox Creek, alongside the highway, is more than a short walk from town. This being a holiday weekend, I don’t even try to get a cab. Instead, I just fill the tank from the jerry cans and I’m off again in short order, heading for Valleyview.

The weather is cloudy and cool but good VFR without any turbulence and almost no wind. I enjoy a distant view of the Rockies, but this is as close as I will get to them, for now the heading is north, and will remain so for the next 1,000 miles.

At Valleyview I have no choice but to ‘phone a taxi and get some gas. The first trip tops-up the tank, the second trip returns me to the airport with both jerry cans filled.

The next leg is to Peace River over rolling farmland interspersed with forest. The weather is holding, but approaching the Peace River valley the wind starts to increase. My cross-wind landings still leave much to be desired, but I manage a rather sloppy one and taxi to the parking area. I re-fuel the ‘plane and sit on the dry grass in the sunshine, digging into my stash of on-board snacks. The wind is increasing, and it soon becomes obvious that if it gets any stronger it will be prudent to stay put. I eventually decide to do just that. The ‘plane is well tied-down and a taxi is called.

Security at the Peace River airport seems a little excessive. Since this is a Sunday and there are no scheduled flights, the entire terminal building is locked up tighter than a drum. No place for an itinerant pilot to get out of the cold prairie wind. After a long wait, the taxi finally arrives and
I’m soon ensconced in a cozy downtown hotel.

The next morning I’m at the airport early, lugging a back pack and jerry cans of fuel, but without any way to get through the security fence. The gates don’t respond to the usual combinations of various air-ground frequencies. An hour goes by and I finally have to enlist the aid of an air-ambulance crew to get me onto the airport grounds. The ‘plane is fired up, taxied out and we’re off to High Level.

The first stop is at Manning for a quick top-up. Manning to High Level is quite a stretch, so I decide to check out the abandoned strip at Keg River. A low pass confirms that it hasn’t been used by aeroplanes for a long time. The dry grass, later found to be almost two-feet tall, is marred only by the tracks of ATV’s. Still, this clearing in the trees looks smooth and is certainly large enough. The landing is uneventful and the tank is filled from one of the jerry cans. The take-off run is surprisingly short considering the long grass.

I had planned to stay at least one night in High Level with an RCMP friend and his wife. A leaky oil tank and deteriorating weather further north forces an extension of the visit, but so what? I’m on vacation and enjoying cozy digs with good friends.

Three days later I’m airborne again, following the nearly deserted Mackenzie highway in the general direction of Hay River. The weather is perfect. A fuel stop at a forestry strip beside the highway at Steen River is in order. The approach is executed with perfection, but the landing roll on the sandy strip is very short. I had put the skis down when the all the lakes below me became ice-covered, and that’s what happens when you land with skis on sand! Note to self - follow the check-list!

None the worse for wear, we’re off again for Hay River. In less than an hour my little yellow Challenger and I cross the 60th parallel into the Northwest Territories. The weather is great, with a nice tail wind. At Hay River the tank is filled but there’s no need to top-up the jerry cans - Yellowknife is just 120-miles directly across Great Slave Lake and in the event of a forced landing on the rough lake ice that extra weight will be a detriment.

I’m now doing some real bush flying, and it’s great fun! There will be no more of this "I Follow Roads" business from now on! I climb out of Hay River, intending to cruise at about 2,500 feet but decide to keep climbing to take advantage of the tail wind. I level off at 5,500 with a ground speed of 110 mph. The outside air temperature is minus 5C, but with the sun shining brightly and the heater doing its thing, the cockpit is very comfortable. I trim the ‘plane for hands-off flying, then munch on more snacks and hot coffee while the lake unrolls toward Yellowknife.

Coming into Yellowknife is a thrill! With helicopters and bush-planes in the area and much chatter on the radio, I’m cleared for a landing on 09. My friends at Adlair Aviation provide a tie-down for the night and co-owner Paul Laserich gives me a ride to the main terminal building where I rent a car. Then it’s back to the ‘plane, load up my gear and gas cans and spend the rest of the afternoon getting fuel and replenishing my supply of survival rations.

Since leaving St. Lazare in September of 2005, Yellowknife is the first and only controlled airport that C-INUK has ever used. It will also be the last for a long time.

That night, I enjoy the northern hospitality of Yellowknifer and ex-patriot Australian Rob Baker. Rob is building a Challenger so is much interested in looking over mine to clarify his own building concerns.

Tomorrow we head north over the barren-lands, across the arctic circle to the northern coast and Kugluktuk.


Stayed tuned for Part 3!

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Salteens and the Pepperonis

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, two planets were separated by ten million miles of dark and frozen space.

The planet Salt was sparsely populated by the Salteens, a strong and happy people. They lived in simple cardboard dwellings and subsisted on a special kind of pebble, of which there was an abundant supply.

On the planet Pepper lived a progressive people, the Pepperonis. Unfortunately, they suffered from tyrants who oppressed the Pepperoni people, controlling their thoughts. The Pepperonis were numerous and prolific, and eventually occupied all the space on Pepper.

Some brave Pepperonis decided to escape the tyranny and over-crowding on Pepper and embark on the long and dangerous space voyage to Salt, where there was rumoured to be more room and fewer tyrants.

The Pepperonis, being somewhat advanced, had many trinkets. They were used to having their trinkets with them at all times, and so they filled their space-ship with a multitude of trinkets, hoping to befriend and appease the Salteens.

After many failed attempts, a few Pepperonis finally arrived on Salt. For the most part, the Salteens welcomed the Pepperonis. The Salteens coveted the trinkets of the Pepperonis, and agreed to allow the Pepperonis to occupy some of the space on Salt.

The Pepperonis made good use of the space they were given in exchange for the trinkets. Being a prolific people, they soon outnumbered the Salteens. The Salteens enjoyed the trinkets, and since they had an ample supply of pebbles, they stayed in their cardboard dwellings, playing with the trinkets and eating the pebbles.

After a time, the Salteens grew un-happy. The Pepperonis were taking up too much space, and playing with the trinkets was making the Salteens weak. They tried to send the Pepperonis home, but they were just too numerous. Besides, the Salteens had not learned how to make the trinkets which they so coveted, and therefore had to tolerate the Pepperonis. The once strong and happy Salteens tired of their diet of pebbles and became weaker and more un-happy, while the Pepperonis kept making better use of the space and so they prospered.

Soon, the Pepperonis needed more space. The Salteens did not want to give up any more space to the Pepperonis, but they could not live without the trinkets. The Pepperonis took the space from the Salteens, giving them more and more trinkets in return, which made the Pepperonis stronger and the Salteens weaker and more un-happy.

The Salteens felt resentment toward the Pepperonis who had taken their space. The Pepperonis felt resentment toward the Salteens, who were using more and more of the trinkets, forcing the Pepperonis to work long hours making the trinkets while the Salteens relaxed in their cardboard dwellings eating the pebbles.

One day, a space ship arrived from Pepper with bad news. Pepper had suffered a cataclysmic earthquake that had destroyed almost all the trinkets on the planet. Feeling some allegiance to their ancestral home, the Pepperonis began sending all the trinkets back to Pepper. As the trinkets of the Salteens wore out, they could not be replaced, and the Salteens became more and more un-happy and resentful.

Eventually, life became too difficult for the Pepperonis who had emmigrated to Salt. They worried about their homeland, and they grew tired of the shortage of trinkets and the resentment of the Salteens. Tyrants had begun to control the thoughts of the Pepperonis, so they built many space-ships, loaded all the trinkets aboard, and returned to Pepper, leaving the neo-tyrants behind. They re-built the planet Pepper, marinated the Pepper-tyrants in soya sauce, discovered birth-control and lived happily ever after.

The Salteens, left behind on their barren but spacious planet, had to go back to eating pebbles. They were weak and un-happy at first, and were furious at the Pepperoni tyrants left behind, who were of no use to the Salteens as the sum total of their knowledge was thought-control, not trinket-making. They piled pebbles on the tyrants until they occupied no space at all.

Gradually, the Salteens got used to not having any trinkets. Over time, the trinkets and the Pepperonis were but a faint memory. The Salteens became a strong and happy people once again. Each morning the Salteens would rise and admire their space, then spend the rest of the day in their cardboard dwellings, eating pebbles while the Salteen elders told strange legends of Pepperonis and trinkets.

(The writer of this piece has been warned by his employer, The Big Kahuna Pepperoni Company, that his writings are "offensive and culturally insensitive". Therefore, I have chosen, at his request, to keep his identity confidential - Larry)

Photo: A typical Salteen dwelling. Note the trinket in the front yard. A Salteen is demonstrating a traditional greeting. On the left we see a stockpile of pebbles.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A Flying Story - Part One - Montreal to Edmonton

In September of 2005 I flew with a friend from Montreal to Edmonton in my Challenger ultralight. What follows is an abridged version of that little adventure.

While Bruce Brown was busy putting the finishing touches on C-INUK in St. Lazare, I was sitting at home in Kugluktuk, having not seen my aeroplane since it was a collection of fabric and aluminum tubing sitting in Dave Griffith’s shop in North Hatley.

How to get my beauty home, from St. Lazare to Kugluktuk? I toyed with the idea of trucking it, but at ten thousand dollars just to get it to Yellowknife and probably another five-thousand to air-freight it the last 375 miles, this was just too rich for my blood. I could truck it myself, but that was almost as costly....and I already knew how to drive! Besides, there was no telling in what condition my pride and joy would arrive.

Bruce suggested flying it home. Flying it home? That’s 2,500 miles just to Edmonton and another 1,100 miles north from there to Kugluktuk! Could it be done? In an ultralight? "This is no ordinary ultralight", Bruce countered. "This is a Challenger!

"So it was that in September of 2005 I was at the St. Lazare airport watching Bruce take C-INUK for her maiden flight. We spent the next week getting the Transport Canada paperwork in order, gathering supplies and doing some flight planning. We packed and re-packed. Bruce found nooks and crannies in the aeroplane to store small items, but it was obvious that the belly bag would be indispensable.

Our route would take us up the Ottawa River, across central Ontario, north and west around Lake Superior to Fort Frances, north around Lake of the Woods and then west and northwest through Manitoba and Saskatchewan to St. Albert, just northwest of Edmonton where a cozy hangar awaited. This would be the 2005 leg of the trip home.

The morning of our anticipated departure is much too windy. Mission delayed for 24-hours. The next day it’s bright and sunny, but still very windy. Bruce’s weather intuition says that, despite the wind, we’re in for some good flying weather. "Maybe a little bumpy", he says.

Up the Ottawa River we fly, zooming past the parliament buildings at ....( "This GPS can’t be right!") 38-mph ground speed. Arnprior for fuel then quickly off again. The mechanical turbulence really peaks as the terrain gets more rugged, giving us some minor concern as we are heavily loaded. We land at a beautiful grass strip at Deep River. The owner is not at home, so we walk down the highway to a restaurant, have lunch, then hitch a ride back with some gasoline in a borrowed jerry can.

Off again to Mattawa, where we meet a kindly doctor/pilot at his private airstrip. He gives us a ride to the local gas station for some premium unleaded, then back to his strip, where we discover, and fix, a problem with our radio.We by-pass North Bay since I have visions of getting lost on their 10,000 foot concrete Space Shuttle-sized runway. Instead, we opt to fly on to Sudbury. However, by the time we get to Sturgeon Falls the daylight is already fading and we need a break..., and some fuel. Trouble is, the airstrip at Sturgeon Falls is officially "abandoned". We locate it and look it over. Not so hot! Wait a minute... there’s a gas station at the end of the strip... and a motel! Right there! Bruce is keen to check this out. Around again for another inspection, and it looks a little better this time. Bruce puts her down in the foot long grass.

We push the ‘plane under some large trees and secure her for the night. A local comes along, all excited, saying that ours is the first wheeled aeroplane to visit for about a decade. More hospitality - he gives us a ride to a little fishing lodge two minutes away, where we bunk down for our first night "on the road", exhausted.

The cold morning sees calm winds, fair skies and much dew all over the aeroplane. We spend an hour drying off the ‘plane, getting our shoes soaked in the process. The runway is marginal at best, with tall trees at one end and power lines at the other. We don’t need the extra drag from that wet grass. Suddenly a puff of wind comes up off Lake Nipissing and we rush to take advantage of it. A little finesse gets us airborne in short order and we are again on our way west, with yours truly doing the easy, (almost) straight and (nearly) level flying from the front seat. Briefly, we have a tail wind; 94-mph ground speed - that’s better! It lasts all of twenty minutes.

Elliot Lake is our next stop. A great little town full of friendly people. The airport manager helps find us a couple of jerry cans (one even had a cap!), and a pair of old-boys drive us around and show us the sights. It reminds me of Yellowknife - hills and lakes, stunted trees and friendly people.

After a fine lunch at the local diner, we're off again to our destination for the day, Sault Ste. Marie, where we land on a grass strip and are met by a group of friendly folks, mostly fellow Challenger owners, who make sure the ‘plane is safely parked. Their ring-leader, Don Primeau, drives us to the hotel and generally makes us feel at home. He agrees to be our flight-follower for the next portion of the trip, taking over from Bruce’s good wife Johanne.

The following morning we awake to wind and rain. No flying today. But there’s this great Bush Plane Heritage Museum in The Soo. It’s their 10th anniversary and therefore the obvious place to spend an afternoon with Don. Then ... where else? To the Legion for a little ale and much conversation - or was it much ale and a little conversation - I can’t remember!

Now for the tricky bit. Flying around Lake Superior, especially on wheels, is an exercise not to be taken lightly. Airports are some distance apart and the terrain is not exactly ideal for a forced landing. We follow the highway, which is mercifully free of heavy traffic in September, so we have a less-than-perfect emergency runway nearby at all times. From time-to-time the thermals and mechanical lift from the hills push us up at over 1,000 feet per minute. The scenery is as spectacular as the weather, with white beaches and emerald-green water like something out of a Caribbean vacation brochure. So much beauty right in our own country!

At Wawa I manage to make one of the worst landings in the history of aviation. I can blame it on the cross-winds, or watching too many "Three Stooges" movies, but it really boils down to being unfamiliar with my aeroplane. An ultralight is a lot less forgiving than a Cessna 150 in some respects. The pilot has to respond much more quickly than one would have to in a heavier aeroplane. At any rate, we manage to get safely on the ground and the Wawa airport still has the same number of runway lights when we taxi to the tie down as it did before we arrived.

For this 2005 leg of the journey, my Challenger is on "tundra" tires. It also has fibreglass landing gear legs, and this combination turns a bad landing into a non-event. Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

Marathon is the next stop, just long enough to find a jerry can, a taxi, a gas station and the little boys room, not necessarily in that order.

Terrace Bay is our haven for the night. The headwinds finally take a break and I manage a half-decent landing. We can’t figure out the big black skid-marks on the runway. It looks like 747's make regular use of the 5,000-foot strip. Then someone tells us that since there is so little air traffic the locals use the runway for drag racing! A friendly lady taxi driver finds us a jerry can, takes us to the gas station, shows us some bargain-basement real-estate deals and delivers us to the hotel. At three o’clock in the morning we are awakened by some loud drunks, partying on the balcony a few feet from our room. Desperate for a good nights sleep, I call the OPP, who very politely get them on their way.

It’s a long haul from Terrace Bay to Thunder Bay, for an ultra-light anyway. But, with 15-US gallons in the tank, we make it past Thunder Bay to Kakabeka Falls. Jerry can, taxi, lunch, gas up and on our way again, west to Atikokan, where we are met by a friendly young fellow who has followed us in his pick-up all the way from Thunder Bay. Turns out he owns an ultra-light himself and is intrigued about our cross-country adventure. He agrees to meet us in Fort Frances and he does. He follows us (or we follow him) along the highway. The headwinds are back again, but he politely drives within the speed limit so we will not be too embarrassed.

The weather is fine, except for the winds, but they are dying down now so we decide to press on north to Kenora. The flight over the eastern side of Lake of the Woods is breathtaking. What a beautiful part of the country! Made me wish that I had floats on my Challenger. One day!

At Kenora we get about eight gallons of gas from a massive Shell tanker truck. Not much money to be made from us! We have to pay landing fees, though. A nice town, but services here are a bit more expensive than what we have so far encountered.

The following morning brings even stronger westerly winds. I would have stayed on the ground, but Bruce’s attitude is "we may not get far, but we won’t get anywhere at all if we stay put". He’s right again. The flying may be slow but the turbulence settles down once the flat land of the great Canadian prairie comes into view. Steinbach for fuel, then on to Portage La Prairie, flying low - very low - for miles across the totally empty prairie. Zooming over the power lines, then back down to within ten feet of the ground, giving my feet some rudder-training by staying directly over the "centre-line" of the deserted gravel section roads. We accidentally spook a deer who is lazily grazing in the ditch and in his surprise he almost jumps through our left wing!

Portage has an impressive airport for a small town. An ex-British Commonwealth Air Training Plan base, it is very well maintained and the massive wartime hangar is home to a helicopter training school. A friendly technician lends us his diesel pick-up to go into town, have lunch and buy gas.

This is where we finally break with tradition. Up until now we have made use of borrowed gas cans. But it is taking valuable time to track them down, and we often end up with an ancient jug with the wrong caps, missing spouts and/or looking like something had died inside a very long time ago. We spring for a brand new jerry can at the local Ace hardware. Bruce resolves to carry it on his knee all the way to Alberta.

Somewhere west of Brandon, Bruce starts bitching about the gas being "too heavy". Our last fuel stop has not consumed the entire jug, and he wants to get rid of the last couple of gallons in the can. We are in the middle of nowhere (and that’s coming from someone who lives in Nunavut!) so we figure we’ll just put down on one of these totally empty back roads, Bruce will jump out, empty the jug into the tank, hop back in and we’ll be on our way. Sounds like a plan! That looks like a good spot ...touchdown, on the brakes, Bruce jumps out, starts filling the tank. Within seconds, a pick-up comes charging up to us, out of nowhere, dust flying. Out jumps a cowboy-type, all excited at seeing our little aeroplane land on the road. Wants to know all about the ‘plane, where we’re from, where we’re going. We have no time to chat. Gotta mosey along before the Queen’s horsemen show up!

We spend the night in Russel, Manitoba, a few miles from the Saskatchewan border. Five days it took us to cross Ontario and we’ve made it virtually across all of Manitoba in a single day. More hospitality from the local aircraft mechanic, who drives us to a motel, then meets us at the A&W next morning to take us, our gear and our gas to the airport.

From Russel, our next stop is Yorkton, Saskatchewan, where we are privileged to see Fokker Super Universal CF-AAM on its final flight from Calgary to the Western Canada Aviation Museum in Winnipeg. Bruce and I get a tour inside this fine old aeroplane, but for all its size, I think my little Challenger looks more comfortable.

On to Quill Lake, where we can’t find the airstrip. We land in a rough field behind the only gas station and the owner tells us the airstrip is just a quarter-mile away. However, it is dis-used and blends into the surrounding fields. Bruce takes the ‘plane over and I catch a ride with the station owner after throwing the jug of gas in his pick-up. There is no wind-sock at the strip, just a rusty old gas pump (sans gas) and a falling-down hangar which is home to fifty pigeons and one very dejected-looking Cessna 172, covered in pigeon doo-doo.

Next, a long-haul to North Battleford, where we arrive late in the day, tired, hungry and grumpy. Another ex-BCATP base, but this one is falling into disrepair. The massive hangar is open and contains a couple of dozen light aircraft. We push NUK inside and into an empty stall. The terminal building is locked up tight as a drum. The telephone, of course, is inside the building. No sign advertises a local taxi company. Our cell ‘phones are finally working again, but we don’t know a ‘phone number to call. Now it’s getting dark. I’m starving! Bruce, ever the fitness nut, says "there’s the city .... see? Over there .... all those lights. We can walk it". "Yea, right! Bruce, that’s gotta be five miles. I ain’t walkin’ five miles!"

A guy comes along, alone in a four-door sedan. We flag him down, but he "doesn’t have room" to take us. My sermons to Bruce about the friendliness of westerners are called into question. My credibility is on the line. Another car... this guys got lots of room. That’s more like it! Off to the motel, clean sheets and a good nights rest.

From North Battleford, it’s an uneventful jaunt to Lloydminster, right on the Alberta border. From the air, you see the scope of the land in more detail and perspective than you would ever see from the highway. Hundreds of oil-wells stretch to the horizon. At the airport we fuel up with 100 LL and waste no time pushing on to Vegreville, where Bruce insists on trying out the local perogies. A good lunch at a rather seedy-looking downtown hotel with an overly-friendly young waitress, then buy some gas and head back to the airport with the same chain-smoking, 60's-something female cab-driver that suggested the perogy dive.

I call Bob Robertson from the Vegreville airport. He is surprised we have made it so far so soon. I had told him not to expect us until at least October 1. No worries, he is in the process of "cleaning out" the hangar and it will be ready for us when we arrive.

So it is that we make an approach over the trees and land at St. Albert later that afternoon. The wind and mechanical turbulence are back, but C-INUK is safely at her destination. She has brought the two of us some 2,500 miles in seven flying days totalling 44.5 hours. She has not a scratch on her, nor do we. Her Rotax 503 has not skipped a beat right across the country, we have been comfortable and have enjoyed the trip of a lifetime. Now it’s time to put my baby to bed.

Bruce spends a day with his brother’s family in Leduc before heading home to Montreal. Meanwhile yours truly does the chores. The engine is fogged, the entire aeroplane cleaned inside and out, the covers are put on and the fuel tank drained. During the coming winter, Bob Robertson will ensure that the ‘plane is in tip-top shape for the 2006 season. The tundra tires will come off and the Turbulence electric-retractable wheel-skis will be installed, ready for the next leg in April of 2006 when I will embark on one of the biggest adventures of my life. Alone this time, I will fly my little yellow ultra-light north, beyond the arctic circle where the sun shines 24-hours a day, to my home on the Coppermine River overlooking the Arctic Ocean at a little place called Kugluktuk.


Photo: Bruce and I congratulate each other after a safe arrival at the St. Albert airport, northeast of Edmonton, September 29, 2005.

Stay tuned for part two!

At The Going Down of the Sun

It was dark and very cold in the cramped rear turret of the Halifax bomber. Dressed in his sheepskin-lined, electrically-heated flight suit, 18,000 feet above the blacked-out French countryside, sat an 18-year old Canadian boy, breathing heavily through his oxygen mask. His feet were freezing, despite the bulky flight boots. He wondered if his frozen fingers could work the triggers of the .303 calibre Browning machine guns if a German night-fighter were to come into view. He had not been told that his guns would be no match for their 20-mm cannon.

Fourteen months previously, this Montreal native, graduate of Verdun High School, and King Scout had left his worried parents standing on the platform of CPR’s Windsor Station. His father shook his hand with both pride and regret and his mother shed an apprehensive tear as their son boarded a train to Halifax to meet the troop-ship heading across the Atlantic. In the months following his enlistment at Number 5 Manning Depot in Lachine he had been sent to the Bombing and Gunnery School at Mont Joli, Quebec. Of course, every young man wanted to be a pilot, but it was gunners that the air force needed in the worst way, and the heavy losses suffered by the RAF meant that many Canadian boys were diverted from the personnel-rich but hardware-poor Royal Canadian Air Force. He was assigned to 578 Squadron, RAF Bomber Command in April of 1943.

For the next year-and-a-half, this young lad would climb into the big bomber with the rest of his all-Canadian crew, and listen on the intercom while the pilot and flight engineer warmed up the four 14-cylinder Bristol Hercules radial engines. As the sun dropped below the horizon on this misty evening the crews waited in their rumbling ‘planes for the three flashes of green light from the Aldis Lamp that signalled the start of another "ops". The twenty or so bombers that were flying this night from their base on the Yorkshire Dales would meet up with hundreds of others, taking off at nearly the same time from airfields all over England.

The target this night in early June of 1944: rail yards in northern France. Unlike the last mission, a raid over the German city of Essen, the usual combination of incendiary and conventional bombs had been replaced by a cluster of sixteen high-explosive 500-pounders.
It would be only a few more hours before the crew of Halifax "C for Charlie" would appreciate the significance of this night’s work.

As usual, clouds obscured much of the rail yards near Chateaudun, but the Pathfinders in their fast plywood Mosquito fighter-bombers had marked the target well with bright red and green flares. The bomb-aimer did his best and at the call of "bombs gone!" the much-relieved crew turned anxiously for home, having remained just 13 minutes over the target. They were thankful that the flak had been light and they had seen no enemy aircraft on this dark night, though they avoided the truth – that the Focke-Wulf 190 night fighter could destroy a bomber and her crew in the blink of an eye, without ever being seen. Despite the light opposition, two Halifax bombers and 11 crew members were lost that night.
In the tail turret, our 18-year old was getting hungry, his pre-mission meal of bacon-and-eggs only a faint memory.

The sun was just coming up as they flew north over the coast of France, the cliffs of Dover barely visible on the far horizon. Soon they would be sleeping soundly on warm cots in the Simpson hut, or grouped around the pot-bellied coal stove warming their frozen feet. The conversation immediately after the raid would be full of bravado, but very quickly their private thoughts would turn to the next mission, and speculation about how much longer their luck would hold. Every time they went out, their odds of returning grew longer – and they all knew it even if their fears were never spoken.

At 30-years of age the pilot and southern Ontario native was the "old man" in the crew. The skipper saw it first and immediately called to the others over the intercom, "Take a gander at that!" The grey English Channel, now 10,000 feet below their bomber, was full of ships from horizon to horizon. Though none of the boys would know for sure until they landed at their base in another ninety minutes, they guessed correctly that the invasion of France was underway. It was the morning of June 6, 1944 and the lads of 578 Squadron had a bird’s-eye view of D-Day. By the time the bomber crews had de-briefed and were sitting down to breakfast, thousands of American, Canadian, British and other Allied soldiers would lie dying on the beaches of Normandy, but the invasion would be a success and in less than a year the war in Europe would be over.

Against all odds, the entire crew of "LK-C for Charlie" survived the war. Ten-thousand Canadians in Bomber Command, volunteers all, would never come home.

"Skipper" returned to Ontario, hoping to stay in flying, but there were too many pilots chasing too few jobs. Instead, he drove a Toronto Transit bus until he retired in 1976. He had married and raised two children, lived well into his eighties and died peacefully at his home on Harding Boulevard in Scarborough in 2002.

The navigator, bomb-aimer, flight engineer, mid-upper gunner and wireless operator scattered back to their homes all over Canada, never to see each other again.

Our rear-gunner, the boy from 712 Riverview Avenue in Verdun, had become a Warrant Officer and a man in the time he had been overseas. He returned to Montreal, went to work for the Foundation Company of Canada, married in 1947 and eventually raised six children. A long career in the construction industry took the family from Quebec to Ontario, then to Alberta and BC. After post-retirement stints in Rankin Inlet and Baker Lake, he and my mother quietly settled in a modest bungalow in Winnipeg. There, on February 5, 2001, at the age of 74, he died suddenly of a heart attack while shovelling snow.

Like so many of his generation, my father was an ordinary Canadian who did extraordinary things. He was tested by war, just as his father before him had been tested by the Great Depression. It is both a blessing and a curse that my generation, and those that followed, have not been tested as they were.

I fear there is now a younger generation who believe that Remembrance Day glorifies war, and has therefore lost its relevance. It does not glorify war. It does, however, glorify and honour the sacrifice and bravery of the soldiers who kept Canada free from the treachery of an evil regime, and the courage of those on the home front who worked long, hard hours in the war effort, endured shortages and lost loved ones to the conflict.

Mere words cannot express the debt that we owe to our World War II veterans, who are dying at the rate of about a hundred a day. The last survivors, both the soldiers and the ones who battled on the home-front, can now be found mostly in nursing homes and hospitals, their great deeds nearly forgotten by a generation far removed from the horrors and hardships of those times.

"Lest We Forget", we can only hope that the great tradition of Remembrance Day will continue for all time.


Photo: Leading Aircraftsman Herbert Laurence Whittaker, aged 18-years, air-gunner, 578 Squadron, 4 Group, RAF Bomber Command (right), standing on a wing of his Halifax Mark III, October 1943, Burn airbase, Yorkshire, England.

The young man on the left, identified only as "Stoney" on the back of my father's photo, was probably the mid-upper gunner. I wish I could tell you more about him and the rest of the crew. No doubt they all continued to contribute to this country in peace-time as they did during the war.

"A million-dollar experience that you wouldn't pay a nickel to do again."

Thoughts of Thanksgiving

Though I’m "only" 59 years of age, I seem to have collected a lot of reasons to be thankful. So many reasons, in fact, that it is difficult to choose which are the most significant to my continued existence as a multi-celled organism. Here are just a few reminiscences, in no particular order of importance.

Smallpox and diphtheria were pretty much wiped out by the time that I was born, but I still have that "badge" on my right upper arm proclaiming that those two diseases were still fresh in the minds of public health officials and parents of the early nineteen-fifties.

Apart from being nuked by the big, bad Russians, polio was the major scare when I was a kid. Although nobody was quite sure where the dreaded bug lay in wait for its next victim, we were not allowed to swim in the filthy Richelieu River or go to the public swimming pools for fear of contracting the disease. The swimming pool was out anyway, since we kids had been banned for life for tossing a three-foot garter snake in the water on a busy Sunday afternoon. Luckily, our extended family included a childless aunt and uncle who had a lakeside cottage in the Laurentians north of Montreal where my cousins and I spent glorious summers learning to swim in a pristine (and presumably polio-free) spring-fed lake. I remember getting the polio booster on a sugar-cube at school, and I escaped the dreaded iron lung that so terrified all parents of that time.

When I was eight years old I broke my arm badly at school and spent over a month in traction at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. As a reminder of my own stupidity, I still get a twinge in that elbow to this day, but I escaped none the worse for wear and managed in the process to con my parents into a very expensive ($49) three-speed bike from Eaton’s. The thing I remember most about that hospital stay, aside from the food-fights, wheel-chair races and learning to write thank-you letters with my left hand, was the Jewish kid in the bed opposite mine. A school window had fallen on his head and he had lost an eye. I think that was the first time in my life I understood the concept of thankfulness, and I realized that my shattered arm wasn’t a big deal by comparison.

I recall one summer day playing by the lakeside at the cottage with my brother who, at eight, was a year younger than I. Rick fell in the water and couldn’t swim. Figuring that as a mere trainee-adult, saving my brother’s life wasn’t in my job description, I shouted to my father, who was drinking beer and playing crib with my uncle in the cottage. My father, who was a strong swimmer, ran to the water’s edge, dove from the retaining wall and rescued my water-logged brother. In the process of this heroism, my chain-smoking father soaked his last pack of Sweet Caps and, this being a Sunday in 1957 Quebec, could not score another nicotine hit for 24-hours. My brother’s life was saved that day but he probably wished he had drowned!

My father was a good but fast driver. He also had hay fever, and in those days there were no effective medications to combat that ailment. I recall sitting in the front seat, going 80 miles per hour, inches from on-coming traffic, in a car with no seat belts or air bags, with big radio knobs sticking out of the solid steel dashboard of the ’55 Pontiac and my watery-eyed father deep in the throes of a sneezing fit. And we were worried about the atomic bomb?

A friend and I were always looking for new and exciting ways to inflict serious bodily harm on ourselves. We once built a "diving helmet" out of a five-gallon varnish can. With the bottom cut out, straps installed under our arms and a plexiglass window in the front, the theory was that we would wear this contraption over our head while an accomplice pumped air into the can from the surface using a bicycle pump. We soon learned that five-gallons of air has a lot of buoyancy and you needed to have about 18 bricks roped around your waist in order to submerge. Although testing of the prototype never got to the fatal stage, it’s a good guess that the varnish can would have slipped off a lot more easily than the bricks!

A later and more sophisticated attempt at underwater suicide involved the construction of a scuba tank made of two soldered-together coffee cans painted yellow. A tire valve was installed in the top, along with a hose and mouth piece from a dime-store snorkel. We hadn’t heard of a device called a "regulator". Luckily, the gas station air pump only got 10-pounds of air into the "tank" before the solder let go, thus saving at least one of us from exploded lungs.

I recall getting electrified a few times during my early ham radio career. In those days we built our own equipment using discarded TV parts. Typically, the transmitter power supply produced about 600-volts which, under the "right" conditions could give one a nasty jolt – or worse. I demanded so much power from the relatively tiny transformer that it got hot enough to require that it be immersed in a bucket of oil outside my bedroom window and the high-voltage wiring run indoors from there. I think a few neighbourhood cats got toasted but, to my knowledge, no small children.

We learned to ski on old wooden contraptions someone found in an attic. It’s probably fortunate that we couldn’t find any poles upon which to skewer ourselves. The bear-trap bindings on the skis were designed in such a way that the leg would release from the torso, thus saving the remainder of the corpse intact for the ride to the morgue. We’d take the rope-tow to the top of Mont St. Hilaire and then, since we had not yet learned the fine art of turning, would come straight down. The toque would depart our heads at about the point where we reached the speed of sound. And yet we survived!

The major expense incurred in those early years was for fireworks, available at any corner store in Quebec. We built "zip-guns" that fired a lethal glass marble or ball-bearing, propelled by a five-cent "block-buster". One of those babies, inserted in one end of a bicycle handlebar, would fire a marble rolled down the other handlebar half-way across the river. I recall vividly the effect of a big fire cracker shoved into the back pocket of my jeans by a "friend". He had a good laugh and I didn’t sit down for a week – but we lived!

We used to toboggan in the damnedest places! The best spot was at the local train station, where a long stairway led from the top of the embankment and emptied out onto a busy street. Timing was everything! Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried tobboganing down an ice-covered wooden stairway, but I’ll bet the speeds we reached would have scared the crap out of Chuck Yeager.

When one thinks of all the things that can "get" you, and the chances that we take as ignorant children, it’s amazing that any of us lived past the age of eleven. I’m sure that the life expectancy figure of 74-years for a male does not apply to idiots like me or my friends. In our case, I think they got the decimal point in the wrong place.

At any rate, as Elton John says, "I’m still standing", even if I don’t deserve to be. And that’s good enough for me!


Photo: Lunch Time! How’s that for a drumstick?

Travelling on the Fort Hearne

The winch hums as the anchor chain comes noisily aboard and down into the chain locker. My three boys are asleep in the foc’s’l as it is still only 4:30 on a cool summer morning in 1997. We’re into the third day of a voyage from Kugluktuk to Bathurst Inlet aboard our 45-year old ex-RCMP patrol boat.

Our little ship was built in Upper Lahave, Nova Scotia in 1954. Old-time boat-builder William Robar did not work from plans – he had an "eye" for his craft and that’s all he needed. This would be the second of two sister vessels he built on instructions from his friend Henry Larsen, then Commissioner of the RCMP. After moving across the country by rail car to Waterways, Alberta (near the site of present-day Fort McMurray) and then by barge to Hay River, the RCMP took possession and sailed her down the MacKenzie to Aklavik.

First named Aklavik, she would later be called the Jennings, after an edict from Ottawa pronounced that all RCMP vessels would be named after Commissioners or ex-Commissioners of that force. From 1955 to 1965 the Jennings hauled freight, policemen and their families, school children, fish, fire-wood and groceries up and down the MacKenzie River.

In 1965 the Jennings was transferred to the Coppermine detachment, and the following year she was declared "surplus to requirements", sold through Crown Assets Disposal Corporation to the Coppermine Co-Op and renamed Amoulik. For the next few years she hauled fuel and soapstone around the Coronation Gulf, until she met her demise from lack of adequate maintenance and was hauled out on the beach and left to rot.

In 1982 I purchased the Amoulik. She was in a sorry state, with her "screamin’ Jimmy" engine a solid block of rust, her planking dried out and her "systems" (such as they were) either broken or missing. I spent the next six years putting her right, and in the end she was born again with a brand-new six-cylinder Volvo heart and all the latest in navigation and communications gear. For the next fourteen summers our Fort Hearne took us in wonderful comfort to places few others have ever seen.

As I hoist the anchor aboard with block and tackle, the Fort Hearne drifts slowly astern on the light breeze. The engine has been running for several minutes, the diesel clatter subsiding as she warms to the task ahead. Back in the wheelhouse now, I put the helm hard to port and the engine in gear. The Fort Hearne pivots nimbly and makes her way out of the secure harbour at Hepburn Island. Our next waypoint will be just off Cape Barrow, at the entrance to Bathurst Inlet, some thirty miles away.

At eight knots, there will be plenty of time to cook up a good breakfast. With our little ship steadied up on course, I engage the autopilot, then wait to see that the gadget is actually doing its job. Exiting the wheelhouse, I move forward over the dewy deck and down the companionway into the foc’s’l. The kids are still sleeping soundly, lulled by the gentle murmur of the engine and the slap of water against the stem.I turn off the diesel-fired heater. We can now get all the heat we need from the engine cooling system. I fire up the propane stove and fry some bacon, eggs and hash-browns. The smell of food soon has the boys mumbling and rubbing the sleep from their eyes. Soon we’re all having a good breakfast at the ridiculously tiny table. I duck out every ten minutes or so to check the horizon ahead for obstructions but, of course, there are none. We are alone on the arctic sea, with no other vessels in sight and no ice to block our progress.

The boys spend the rest of the morning playing cards in the foc’s’l while I sit watching our progress in the wheelhouse. The Volvo hums in the engine room below my feet while I listen to the ham radio and get the latest forecast from Inuvik. I read and watch the horizon as a system consisting of the GPS receiver, the autopilot, the magnetic compass and a gaggle of hydraulic pumps and hoses takes care of the tedium of steering.

Soon it’s lunch time. I cook up some Kraft Dinner and hot-dogs for the kids, and we lounge in the sunshine, amidships on the deck, using the tarp-covered hatch as a table. The miles slip by imperceptibly and the calm sea is broken only by the head of the occasional seal who surfaces to check out this strange-sounding contraption.

By early afternoon we are in the midst of the Barry Islands, half-way down the Inlet. At times we are very close to land as we navigate between the islands. Our beagle, Gypsy, looks longingly at the shore, anxious to chase a ground squirrel.

Late afternoon sees us on the eastern side of Bear Island, off the mouth of the Hiukitak River. We move into the mouth as far as we dare, then drop anchor. The weather is warm – too warm even for the bugs, and we are dressed in T-shirts and shorts. We bring the 14-foot Lund alongside, clamber aboard her, and roar off into the maze of channels and sandbars. We spend the next four hours exploring the river, and manage to get several miles up-stream before the water becomes too shallow for the outboard. Caribou appear on the sandbars, and we catch one meal-sized char for supper.

We will be away from our Kugluktuk home base for another ten days, but we have plenty of supplies, fuel and fresh water aboard. In fact, we have enough fuel to go another 1,000 miles, enough food to last a month, and we can always pick up more fresh water at any number of creeks along the coast.

There is little doubt in my mind that the very best way to see the arctic is from a vantage point on the deck of a large, slow moving vessel. Our Fort Hearne is not troubled by weight, and we regularly carry cases of pop and canned goods, drums of gas for the outboard and other items that would be impossible to haul in an aluminum runabout. We sleep aboard every night, in warm beds, and enjoy all the other comforts of home - other than live TV. A generator, belted to the engine, provides AC power for the freezer and microwave while underway. When at anchor, we have a wind generator to provide "juice" for lights and radios. Heat comes from diesel-fired heaters when at anchor, or the engine cooling system while steaming. We have fishing and hunting equipment on board, as well as camping gear for the few times when we feel like staying ashore.

Our Fort Hearne made a few bucks over the years that we owned her. She carried tourists, did work for the Coast Guard and hauled fuel to outpost camps. But the real pay-off was in the life-style she created for us. That alone was worth the six summers of hard work and the monetary investment that was never recovered.

I would not trade those years for anything.


Photo: My three sons, Steven, David and Thomas, Hiukitak River, August 1997

Friday, November 16, 2007


Back in the days when I owned the local hotel, the Igloo Inn, we tried our best to promote tourism. It was a lost cause, of course, but we gave it a shot. We had two rates; the "tourist rate" was about sixty percent of the "government rate". Whenever the government would make a booking they would, of course, ask for the government rate.

"You got it!" was always the cheerful response.

* * * * * * * *

In August of 1989 I was guiding a couple of newly-weds from Chicago on a fishing excursion aboard the Fort Hearne. This day we were hiking up the Tree River to the big falls, fishing along the way. It was a hot afternoon and the hike was a long one.

By mid-afternoon we were within sight of the falls when my sport asked, "Is the water in this here river fit to drink?" I assured him that the water of the Tree River, like the water in all the other rivers in the arctic, is pure and tasty. He dipped several cups of ice-cold water out of the river and drank them down.

We continued to walk upstream along the grassy bank, and had not taken a dozen paces when we both spotted … a big and very dead moose, covered in slimy green algae. I’m sure we would have smelled the critter had it not been fully immersed in the water not twenty feet from where my Chicago dentist had filled up on the "pure, clean" water of the Tree River.

He didn’t ask for my advice for the rest of the trip.

* * * * * * * *

In 1971, the Hudson’s Bay Company had a contract with the Meteorological Service of the Department of Transport to provide weather observations from the small and more isolated settlements where the federal government had no presence. Twice a day, we would call one of these posts on the HF radio and the post manager would transmit his observation to us. We would then send the observation, using Morse code, on a low-frequency link to Cambridge Bay. They would then put the observation on "the network" via radio-teletype. It was a convoluted system, but it seemed to work reasonably well.

Friday’s and Saturday’s observations were always a little problematic. The post manager and his wife were fond of their rum, and if a slightly incoherent voice proclaimed the sky to be clear, the wind calm and the visibility unlimited, we could pretty much deduce that a "party" was in full swing and nobody had even bothered to look out the window, let alone go out into the cold to check the sky and the thermometers.

The post manager, a Scot of course, was well-known around the north. He had joined the Bay in the thirties and had developed a number of clever and innovative strategies to cope with the isolation of those early years. After one look at his new surroundings, he immediately wired home for a set of golf clubs. They arrived a year later. On the ice in front of the settlement he would bat around a red-painted golf ball, keeping track of the fairway strokes until within a prescribed distance of the hole, and then retire to the living room of his house. There, over glasses of HBC over-proof rum, the putting would take place.

Every year the annual re-supply ship would off-load a few hundred copies of the Glasgow Times. These our intrepid Scot would arrange, in chronological order, in a corner of the kitchen. Every morning, over his coffee and porridge, he would read the paper. Situated as he was in the wild Canadian arctic, it mattered little that the paper was precisely one year old.

* * * * * * * *

Nowadays, especially in the north, we often hear that kids "have nothing to do", and that is why they get into so much mischief.

When I was a kid, growing up in Montreal, we had no organized activities, other than Cubs and Scouts. If we wanted to play baseball, somebody would always find a bat or a piece of two-by-two and a ball of some kind. Usually, there was a vacant lot nearby, or the street that had served as a hockey rink a few months earlier would become our baseball diamond. No adults were involved, it cost nothing and the games went on non-stop starting when school was out until it got too dark to play.

Baseball and road hockey were the primary pastimes, but a nearby long-abandoned gravel pit was also a playground, and there we built rafts and caught bull-frogs to our heart’s content.

I don’t recall ever being bored. We never saw a policeman in our neighbourhood. The worst "vandalism" might consist of TP-ing someone’s yard or raiding a fruit tree, though I must admit that I don’t recall even that ever happening.

Our days were fully occupied by school, homework, household chores, un-organized sporting activities and hobbies. On weekends we had part-time jobs. If we sat around for more than five minutes my father would find some unpleasant (and un-paid) job for us! Six days a week I delivered 50 copies of the Montreal Gazette, a morning newspaper. Most days I was out of bed by 5:00 am and exhausted by our bed-time of 9:00 pm. On Sundays we worked at the local bicycle shop or hunted the golf course for balls that we could clean up and sell for a quarter apiece.

When you hear a northerner say that kids ‘have nothing to do", they are referring to the kids who are always in trouble with the police. These are the kids who have proven that they don’t want to do anything. They don’t go to school, aren’t expected to help out around the house, don’t make an effort to get a job, and have no constructive hobbies. Maybe if they had parents who were good role models and had some expectations for their kids, they wouldn’t get into the trouble they do.

"The kid’s have nothing to do" really means "I wish my kids would stay out of trouble. Someone should see that they do. Someone should teach them some values. Someone should help my kids to behave. Someone should set an example for my kids and see that they succeed. Why isn’t someone doing something about this?"


Photo: The author, my mother and youngest brother, Lake Hughes, Quebec c. 1958. Obviously, kids in those days did not demand designer clothes and running shoes!

"Our" Northwest Passage?

To many Canadians, our ownership of the Northwest Passage seems a slam-dunk. Who could deny that the passage is ours?

There is certainly an impression that the United States, and that country alone, is a threat to our sovereignty in the arctic. In fact, there is no evidence that the US, or any other country for that matter, is even remotely interested in taking over the basket-case that is Canada’s north. But there is certainly a dispute over our claim to exclusive use of the waterways between the islands of the arctic archipelago.

There is one country, and one country alone, who claims that the Northwest Passage is Canadian water. That country is … Canada! The United States, and all the member countries of the European Union, including Great Britain, considers the waterway to be international. The United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has made the same pronouncement.

Should this issue eventually end up before the World Court, Canada’s claim would probably not stand up to close scrutiny. Did we explore the arctic? No, the British did that. Did we ever put a lot of federal dollars into the north? The Dew Line project, fifty-years ago, financed entirely by the US Department of Defense, remains the biggest development project the north has ever seen. Can we provide adequate surveillance of our arctic? To their credit, the Harper government has increased aerial reconnaissance and summer Coast Guard activity, but we still have antiquated and inadequate ice-breakers, no suitably ice-strengthened naval vessels, no submarines capable of operating under the ice-cap, limited sovereignty patrols by the air force and a tiny, poorly trained and ill-equipped, rag-tag ground force of Canadian Rangers. Essentially, our efforts to show the flag are curtailed each year by the threat of having to endure (heaven forbid!) "arctic conditions". The navy and Coast Guard make sure they are out of Dodge around the same time as the geese fly south for the winter.

We have only one dirt road that barely pokes beyond the arctic circle, no roads inter-connecting the isolated settlements of Nunavut and no economic rationale for any of our communities.The Inuit have been here for a few thousand years, but have only become self-aware of their Canadian citizenship for less than a hundred of those years. To claim that the simple act of having a resident native population supports Canada’s claim to sovereignty is just a little far-fetched.

The federal government largely ignored our arctic until the Second World War rolled around, and has given us only the bare minimum of infrastructure since then.

A couple of decades ago, the US icebreaker Polar Sea traversed the Northwest Passage. Naturally, since the US considers the passage to be an international waterway, they did not ask for Canada's blessing. This ommission sparked a mild diplomatic incident, our immediate response being to drop little Canadian flags on their heads. In the end, the two countries came to a rather infantile agreement: The US agreed to "inform" Canada when one of their ships entered the passage, and Canada agreed that "permission" would not be withheld.

When the Russians dropped their flag on the sea bottom at the North Pole a few months ago, many Canadians were taken aback. The dropping of the Russian flag at the North Pole in 2007 means no more than the planting of the US flag on the moon in 1969. The Americans have not claimed that the moon is theirs and, as far as I’m aware, the Russians don’t claim the Pole as their own. They had the technology to do what they did, and they did it. We would have done the same – if we’d had the technical ability to do so, which we don’t. Anyway, since when does Canada have any claim to the North Pole? It’s 400-miles from the nearest piece of Canadian real-estate for God’s sake!

As Canadians, we have to get off our high-horse and realize that the world does indeed have a legitimate claim to the Northwest Passage. Sabre-rattling and making proclamations of ownership does not make it a reality. Assuming our claim has any chance at all of succeeding, our government had better start building a credible case for ownership rather than considering it a fait accompli.


Photo: A dewline "radician", watching for "the Rooskies", c. 1972

A Farewell to Summer

Thomas Simpson, wandering this country on behalf of the Hudson's Bay Company in the early part of the nineteenth century, must have been having a bad day when he came across a string of lakes lying half-way between the arctic circle and the coast. He called them the Dismal Lakes.

Like any other place on the planet, the lakes probably can look a little "dismal" at times, but on a sunny late-summer day, after the mosquitos are spent, it’s a pretty place. The scrubby trees are scattered over the south-facing slopes, creating a park-like landscape. Small creeks enter the lake every half-mile or so over waterfalls and through small canyons. And, they say, there are big lake trout here!

I’ve taken a day of leave and left Kugluktuk bright and early. The first leg of the flight takes me to Hope Lake, once a large mining exploration camp. In the late 1960's, political upheaval in what was then the Belgian Congo threatened to cut off the world’s major source of copper and drove prices to new highs. Every square inch of land for a hundred miles around the lower Coppermine River was staked, and one can still find old two-by-two claim stakes from that era, complete with their little brass tags and claim numbers. Hope Lake is now just one of many messes left behind from the time, with little "hope" that the abandoned oil drums, bulk fuel tanks, remnants of buildings and contaminated soil will ever be cleaned up. With the help of lax securities laws and the Vancouver Stock Exchange, a few dozen people made a killing and a few thousand lost their shirts. So ended the largest staking rush in Canadian history to that time, without an ounce of copper ever being mined.

There’s still an airstrip at Hope Lake. I last visited the place in the eighties by DC-3, and we landed and took off again without difficulty. Now the strip is almost unrecognizable - the willows and "chuck-holes" would make for an interesting landing that would certainly focus the mind.

The very first time I visited Hope Lake was on a January weekend in the early seventies. The camp was still in use during the summer and a watchman, a grizzled french-Canadian, lived there alone all winter. The previous night, David Klengenberg and I had slept (or tried to) in a tent after a day of caribou hunting. The watchman later told us that it had been -54F that night. The second night we slept on the floor of the watchman’s trailer - luxury!

After a 13-mile hop over a range of hills, it’s a down-hill glide to a landing on Dismal Lake. Sometimes the best place to beach a float plane is not the most ideal fishing spot, and that’s how it is today. I half-heartedly try a few casts, but spend most of the next three hours admiring a landscape that I’ve seldom seen during the summer months. My aeroplane has now changed that!

I turn on my new Iridium satellite ‘phone and notice a text message from my wife. "I’m up", it says, meaning that I can now place a call without disturbing her slumber. The technology of today, particularly GPS for navigation and satellite ‘phones for communications, means that lost and missing pilots are now pretty much a thing of the past - as long as the batteries don’t die!

With the wind coming up on the big lake, it’s time to leave. The next leg takes me down the short but scenic Kendall River to it’s meeting with the Coppermine. I had planned a landing here, but it will have to be cross-wind and into the strong current. Besides, the beach doesn’t look too friendly for fibreglass floats. I pass on the stop-over, probably missing the chance for an arctic char.

Now it’s up and over the September Mountains to the Mouse Lake exploration camp, just a 20-mile hop. The well-maintained camp is beside a large lake, and a sandy beach in front of the camp makes an ideal place to moor the ‘plane. I’m welcomed by the camp manager and others that I had met in the spring of 2006, and they graciously invite me to stay for lunch. The pilots and prospecting crews are all out in the field for the day. There are a few caribou here, and they don’t seem the least annoyed by these humans with their noisy helicopters and diesel generators. The camp is comfortable, with good food, satellite telephone and TV.

After re-fuelling the ‘plane, I’m off again for home. The next ten miles are over the mountains, a rugged sedimentary basin that the geologists tell me was once located near the equator. It’s a hot-bed of geological investigation, and these days the quarry is uranium or diamonds, or whatever the stock-market flavour-of-the-day might be.

The Coppermine River soon comes into view, and I begin following it in the general direction of Kugluktuk, still about 40-miles away. Following a river is usually a pretty safe thing for a float-equipped aircraft, but the lower stretches of the Coppermine have fast water with many rapids. If one were forced to make a landing on the river there would be a very real danger of being swept through rapids. It occurs to me that a safer course of action would be to make a wheels-up landing on the flattest piece of available tundra. At least one could avoid drowning!

I soon approach the Musk Ox Rapids, named by Samuel Hearne in 1771. Sure enough, the musk-ox are still here! Two herds, of about thirty animals each, graze peacefully on the eastern slopes overlooking the rapids. Just above the rapids I pass a beached canoe but see no humans. No doubt they are out photographing the musk-oxen. Mid-way through the rapids a 100-foot waterfall tumbles over the cliff-top and into the river.

Bloody Falls comes into view, again named by Hearne for the massacre of Inuit on this spot by his Chipweyan guides in 1771. From the hill overlooking the falls, Hearne was the first European to see this part of the Arctic Ocean. Quite unlike the more "civilized" parts of this country, the scene one sees today remains almost unchanged in the intervening 250-years.

The days are getting shorter now, and this will be the last major trip of the season for my Challenger and I. In another two weeks there could be snow on the ground. Then I’ll make the change-over back to tundra tires for the winter, then to wheel-skis in March. I’ll soon have to set my net in the Coppermine River and spend a week or so at the cabin, commuting daily with the winter’s supply of fish. After that, the cabin will have to be winterized, water tanks drained, docks hauled to high ground, and a hundred other small jobs. Soon the cold, dark days of winter will be upon us again - and I can relax a little!


Photo: Some of the things that makes Kugluktuk unique among Nunavut communities are the variety of landscapes and geology and our proximity to the tree-line. This is part of Dismal Lake, just seventy miles south of the community.

A Life Poorly Lived

Kenny’s mother was 36-years old when she gave birth. She had been through a series of short-term relationships and, with her current boyfriend, she drank heavily for the first few months of her pregnancy.

Kenny was born under-weight and a few weeks premature. In his early years he suffered a variety of health problems, partly due to his birth condition but also because of poor diet and living conditions. This was not something that Kenny’s mother had to worry about, though. Since she already had four children, Kenny was adopted-out to his grandparents. They had spent their early lives on the land, but in recent decades had turned to a life of social assistance and alcoholism. They were both nearing 60, and by the time Kenny was ten years old they were collecting their old-age pensions.

Kenny went to school enthusiastically for the first three grades. Then he started sleeping in. His grandparents were not particularly concerned, and made no real attempt to get him up in the morning. Besides, with the all-night drinking and card games in that house, Kenny could never get enough sleep and was allowed to wander the streets at all hours of the night. Social services became involved on several occasions, but simply returned him to his grandparents' home without further intervention.

His grandparents taught him nothing of his culture. They were too busy drinking, gambling and sleeping the day away. They never went out on the land, partly because of a lack of interest, but also because they had gambled away their snowmobile and camping equipment.

By age ten Kenny was not going to school at all. With great difficulty, he could print his own name, but he could neither read nor write, nor do simple arithmetic. He told his grandparents that kids at school "picked on" him so, without further ado, they allowed him to stay home. The friends he hung out with were similarly impaired and the mischief and vandalism that occupied their nights did not require much of an education. By age 12, Kenny had come into contact with the police over fifty times, but no charges were ever laid as he was too young. His victims simply had to put up with the shop-lifting, broken windows and stolen snowmobiles.

Kenny had his first taste of alcohol at age nine, when he stole a half bottle of rum from his grandparents after they passed out. He and his buddies polished it off in twenty minutes. He woke up in an RCMP cell later that morning and was turned over to social services, who promptly returned him to his grandparents while they were still recovering from their own hang-overs.

Marijuana was readily available in his home community and Kenny shop-lifted or broke into local stores to steal items he could sell to buy grass. He also smoked cigarettes by age 12, which his mother and grandparents cheerfully bought for him with their welfare money.

Kenny often saw his mother around town, frequently drunk and in the company of a variety of male companions. He sometimes wondered why she had given him to his grandparents, but he wrote that off as being "normal" - after all, many of his friends had also been given away to relatives.

Kenny served his first term of custody when he was 14, after a long string of property offences over the preceding two years. At age 19, he beat up his girlfriend while they were both drunk, and then tried to set fire to the house. He went to jail for eight months.

When Kenny was released from jail, the alcoholism and drug abuse continued. He went through a series of failed relationships and by the age of 22 he had three children from two different women. He continued to get into trouble with the police and was soon back in court, charged with assaulting his grandmother in an attempt to get her to sign over her pension cheque. She was hospitalized for a week and Kenny spent the next year in jail.

Upon his release, Kenny was to abstain from alcohol for a year. He was also to seek employment, but with a criminal record, a drug and alcohol habit, no work ethic and nothing in the way of training or education, getting any kind of steady work was impossible.

One evening, Kenny won $300 in a card game. Elated, he went directly to the local boot-legger, who took all the cash in exchange for a bottle of vodka. By 1:00 am Kenny had polished off the bottle and become highly depressed and suicidal.The following day his body was discovered hanging in a closet of his mother’s house.

Kenny was 23-years of age.


"Kenny", of course, is a fictitious character. However, this sad description is played out all too often in Nunavut.

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.