Friday, August 1, 2008

A Sunday Drive - Nunavut-Style

A fog bank, lounging on the hills to the south of Kugluktuk, delayed my departure a little. The pilot of a Dash-7 airborne survey ‘plane had confirmed that zero visibility prevailed just 30-miles to the south – exactly where I wanted to spend the day.

But the delay lasted only two hours and then I was on my way, climbing my heavily-loaded Challenger south, across the Coppermine River and over the rising terrain.

The flight was a short one – just 30-minutes, but it took me into the hilly terrain just west of the broad river valley, where scattered patches of black spruce cluster together along the streams that empty into the Coppermine.

The lake I wanted to visit, one of few named lakes in the area, is called Tundra Lake on the topo map, a rather un-inspired name probably assigned by some 1960’s era diamond-drilling crew during the copper staking rush of that decade. It is a longish lake, separated by a narrow bog from another, similar but smaller lake to the north. At the head of the larger lake, at the leeward end, is a sandy beach. After a couple of passes to confirm the safety of landing here, I set C-INUK down and taxied to the beach.

The wind was already increasing when I landed, and I wondered if there might be anything but some scrubby willows to tie the ‘plane to. Fortunately, a large piece of lumber, weighing a hundred pounds or more, lay conveniently in the willows. I tied-up to this dead-man, reasoning it would take a mighty wind indeed to pull it sideways through the two-foot bushes.

I unloaded all the food from the aircraft and placed most of it some distance away. Better not to have a bear rip the ‘plane apart trying to find that beef jerky or Caramilk bar! Grabbing my back-pack with just the essentials, and of course the loaded 30-30, I hiked to a level spot just above the lake where the map said was located three cabins.

Like most of the old exploration camps from decades past, this one had been picked over by humans, chewed on by bears and the remnants blown away by the ferocious winds that must often funnel through this valley. Nothing of value remained, save an old farm wagon, the floor of one cabin, hundreds of rusty, bear-bitten tin cans and, of course, the territorial flower of Nunavut – the 45-gallon drum. Thirty of them lay scattered around willy-nilly, environmentally benign but certainly not very attractive to the eye.

With the ‘plane safely secured, I had a snack on the breezy hillside and then started off on a two-mile hike to a waterfall I had spotted just prior to my landing approach. It was slow-going. These sixty-year old legs are not quite what they used to be. I stopped every fifteen minutes or so for a five minute rest and did the two miles in a little over an hour.

The large, un-named creek falls steeply down it’s valley to the Coppermine. At its upper end it tumbles abruptly over a 50-foot ledge and into a 100-foot deep canyon. A rainbow rose up from the mist, and a pair of golden eagles screeched their annoyance at me as I approached. I sat quietly for a while, breathing in the sights and sounds of this wild place. Then, digging through my back-pack, I hauled out the digital camera to capture the moment for all eternity. Dead batteries! No problem, I have spares. Damn, they’re dead too! No pictures today.

In the “olden days” my little battery-less Olympus pocket 35-mm would have got the shot. Yes, I would not have been able to crop, re-size, compress, or e-mail it, but at least I’d have something!

On the hike back I crossed paths with a large bull musk-ox, the solitary wanderer of the summer tundra. He was prepared to mind his own business, as I was, so we parted company cordially. He seemed a little bored, anxious for the cold weather to arrive so he could join up with his new harem. For the time-being, he had food aplenty, no enemies other than the flies, and no rivals with whom to butt heads. Within a few months he would be grateful for that thick fur coat – and the thick skull!

Back at the ‘plane, I realized I had several hours to kill before the wind went down. My flight plan didn’t close until midnight, so I pulled out a paperback novel, found shelter from the wind behind a small rise and, face to the evening sun, I put in a few hours of reading, checking for approaching bears every half-hour.

By ten o’clock the wind, which should have gone down by then, was still howling. White-caps rolled across the lake as the gusts drew their hand over the water. I might as well go now, or be stuck here for the night. That wouldn’t be such a hardship as I had everything I needed for a prolonged stay, but tomorrow is a working day and I must admit that my old bones now prefer a proper mattress and a hot shower in the morning.

After the ‘plane was re-loaded I pushed away from the beach, climbed aboard the left float and squeezed myself into the cockpit. The wind was carrying me down the lake toward my take-off point so there was no rush to get the engine started, but when the time came she fired up enthusiastically and settled down to a smooth idle. I mentally ran through the check-list: doors latched, gear up and locked, trim set, water-rudder up, radio to the right frequency, altimeter at 29.92, temperature in the green. Good to go!

The take-off run was bumpy but short. The 'plane literally leaped off the last wave-top. Building up speed in ground-effect over the smaller lake to the north, I was soon climbing slowly toward a range of hills a couple of miles away. It occurred to me that there would be an unhealthy down-draft on the lee side of those hills, so I climbed another couple of hundred feet to allow a safety margin. Good thing too, as the down-draft, when it hit, was like a mighty paw pushing me toward the ground. Full throttle, but I was still losing altitude! The ‘plane cleared the top of the hill by a mere forty feet. "That’s how accidents happen", I reminded myself. "Put that in the experience bank and don’t let it happen again."

Against the strong north-east wind my ground speed was a mere 35 miles per hour. It took over an hour to get to the airport, with a slight detour to check on friends at their cabin on the Coppermine River. They were still there, not anxious to take on the heavy swells that had built through the day by the wind running against the current.

The cross-wind landing was un-eventful but required considerable concentration. The wind, 10-knots gusting to 15-knots at 90-degrees to the runway, was near the limit for a Challenger on wheels. On tundra tires it would have been fairly easy. On amphibious floats it was a little more interesting.

Cup of tea in -hand, it was almost midnight before I settled down in a comfy bed to watch The National. Sleep came easily that night.

Photo: My little, yellow tundra-bird at Dismal Lake, August 2007.

Link to my Challenger flying video on YouTube. (copy and paste to your browser).