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North to the Beaufort Sea

By Ralph Bullis

Everyone needs an adventure from time to time, and it was in that spirit four pilots, all members of the Edmonton, Alberta CASARA zone (Pat Fahy, Phil Pardo, Bill Dimmer and Ralph Bullis), decided to fly two aircraft (a Cessna 172 C-GQCL and a Maule M6 C-FJCD) up the Alaska Highway from Edmonton and on to Dawson City or Juneau or Fairbanks or ….

We were leaving our options open in the beginning! The trip was scheduled for mid-August - after several planning sessions, everyone was keen to get started.

As most good adventures go, this one had some interesting twists and turns in the plot.  The first twist was that our final destination turned out to be Tuktoyuktuk on the north coast, not Dawson City in the Yukon (or Fairbanks or, etc.) as originally planned. 

How did this happen? Well, while all our initial planning was directed at a sight-seeing trip up the Alaska Highway, for the two weeks prior to planned departure dense smoke along the route of flight caused visibilities that were often below VFR minima. 

On the planned day of departure the weather briefers were not hopeful the smoke would clear up during the time we expected to be en route. What to do? 

Fortunately, we had been working on a “Plan B” which was to proceed to Ft. St. John in north eastern B.C., make one last look at smoke conditions along the Alaska Highway, then head off up the Mackenzie River valley if conditions had not improved in the Yukon.

And so it was that on Aug. 16, the intrepid crews reached Ft. St. John to learn the way to the northwest was not accessible. Therefore, the next morning found us laying out plans for that day’s flight – north, to Ft. Nelson and beyond.

The weather on the leg from Ft. St. John to Ft. Nelson was grand with good visibilities and moderate winds. Following a refuelling stop at Ft. Nelson the next leg, up to Ft. Simpson was laid out. 

We noted that the famed Nahanni Park lay not far off our route, so an impromptu sight-seeing detour was planned - it turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.

Nahanni Park is a world-renowned area of great natural beauty and a site where, every year, a fortunate few take guided raft tours down the Nahanni River.

After having spent our allotted time flying up the Nahanni, we turned around and made our way to Ft. Simpson, only about 40 minutes’ flight east of Nahanni.

There are two airstrips at Ft. Simpson: the larger one lies south of the town and is used by larger commercial aircraft; the smaller one, a gravel strip, lies almost in the town itself, on the west bank of the mighty Mackenzie River. 

We had selected the smaller island strip, not to practice our soft-field techniques (although that was fun, too), but because no 100LL Av gas was available at the other airport. Fortunately, a very helpful fellow at the Shell refuelling office in Ft. Nelson had put us in touch with a small charter operator in Ft. Simpson, who agreed to provide us with the necessary gas.

It was while landing at Ft. Simpson we came to realize how far we were from home: a black bear came out onto the strip while QCL was backtracking after landing. The bear was duly reported to ATC and when the report was relayed to a local aircraft on final behind us, the laconic response was, “Yeah, I already spotted the bear.” 

It turns out that the bruin was well-known and a bit of a pest, as evidenced by the speed at which wild-life officers showed up to scare it off.  Another “tail” to tell!

The next day, after a stroll around the small town of Ft. Simpson and a visit with the friendly folks at Wolverine Air charters (who kindly provided access to WX on the Internet), we headed off towards Inuvik. 

A planned refuelling stop at Normal Wells was carried out along the way. There are no all-weather roads into “The Wells” (as the town is referred to locally) – the only way in during summer months are via air or by boat along the Mackenzie.

There truly are no words to adequately describe the vastness of the Mackenzie River valley and delta. When you spend one-and-a-half days steadily flying along side the river and know that there is still more that you haven’t seen, you begin to appreciate just how big the river, and the county, is. 

Our arrival at Inuvik was uneventful and we made our way to our hotel for the evening.  Inuvik is an interesting little city, indeed. It is built on permafrost and all buildings must be constructed on pilings. All utilities are contained in “utilidors” to prevent water and sewer lines from freezing.

The airport terminal is a new, modern building with good facilities for weather briefings and flight planning.

All along the way we found the briefers to be very friendly and helpful, a factor that weighed heavily when it came time to make our push out to Tuktoyuktuk north of Inuvik on the coast.

Initially on the morning of the attempt for Tuk, the weather was not promising – an on-shore flow was generating fog along the coast, with low ceilings and poor lateral visibility. 

We were discouraged, but after a lengthy discussion with the weather briefer (also a local pilot) we elected to take his advice. His local knowledge and evaluation of the weather data, together with a chat with a pilot who had just returned from the 60-mile trip, suggested that shortly after our take-off the fog conditions would weaken near Tuk and then disperse at our planned time of arrival there. 

He also suggested a route to Tuk that would allow an easy turn-around back to Inuvik via the river channel, if necessary. As things turned out he was correct in his forecast and a turn-back was not needed.

We quite enjoyed the views over the delta, including the “pingo” ice hills that were prevalent along the coast. 

After a “touch and go” at Tuk (elevation: 16 feet – and we didn’t stop to dip our toes into the salt chuck) it was back to Inuvik and overhead en route to Normal Wells again, where we spent the night at a very friendly hotel that served terrific meals.

It turned out that there was a problem with fuel at the Wells this time. The refuelling truck had broken down and wouldn’t be repaired until sometime the following day. To solve this problem, once again the weather briefer stepped in and located a commercial company at the strip that would sell us fuel to get us on our way to an early start the next day. It must be noted for the record that “early” in the context of this adventure was relative: the “earliest” we had wheels up was about 11:30am. Needless to say the pace was fairly relaxed and very enjoyable.

Plans for the day after Norman Wells (Day 5 if you’re keeping track) were to return to Nahanni Park, go up as far as Virginia Falls, refuel at Ft. Simpson, then either overnight at Ft. Simpson or continue on to Yellowknife if time allowed. 

However, for the first time during the trip, weather forced a change. Ceilings and visibilities at Ft. Simpson and west of there did not allow VFR (rain, low cloud and mist), so we restructured our flight plan “on the fly,” re-filed with the specialist at Ft. Good Hope and headed off over the boreal forests of the Shield, toward the capital of the Northwest Territories, Yellowknife.

There were occasions along the way when each of us came to have a better appreciation of the terms “wilderness” and “vast countryside.” The leg to Yellowknife was one of those occasions. 

It was also a time to appreciate the reliability of both aircraft. Both performed without a hitch.

At Yellowknife, the Shell FBO very hospitably provided a set of wheels for us to drive around in and we had an enjoyable tour around the town.

Following a convivial evening and an overnight stay in Yellowknife, it was time to make tracks for home. The weather, while treating us very gently during the trip, was now threatening to cause problems in the Edmonton area for our return. 

So, on Day 6 of the tour, it was wheels up out of Yellowknife, courses set for the east arm of Great Slave Lake, with legs to Ft. Smith, Ft. Chipewyan, Fort McMurray (for fuel) and home to Edmonton. 

Once south of the lake, we encountered large areas of burn and some forest fires still in progress. Smoke brought lateral visibilities down to 3 – 5 miles at times. 

Re-fuelling at Fort McMurray was done as planned and another check on weather indicated, there was going to be an opportunity to get into City Centre on the heels of a front that had caused non-VFR conditions to Edmonton during the day.

Sure enough, we arrived in the early evening behind the weather and made uneventful landings at our home fields. It is interesting to note, at the time, Edmonton International was still in the poor weather and conditions there were IFR.

So, on Day 6 of our trip and after about 28 hours of flying on the Hobbs and almost 2,800 nautical miles, we unpacked the aircraft and reflected on what truly had been a memorable experience. 

We had taken two small aircraft from Edmonton all the way up past the Arctic Circle and to the shores of the Beaufort Sea and had enjoyed every minute. 

We would like to acknowledge, with thanks, all the assistance along the way from friendly weather briefers, specialists, helpful FBO operators and local residents.

It sure helps when you’re far from home in strange territory to have that kind of support.  We’ve all had memorable times flying, and it’s unlikely that any of us will forget this one!