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Flight to Auyuittuq: Discovering the land that never melts

by Paul Nopper

The destination is not the reason, when you travel by small plane; the journey is the adventure. Preparation and planning can be almost as much fun as the doing, so in December of 1999 I began to think about flying to Nunavut (pronounced Noon-a -vut), Canada’s newest territory. Alaska, Yukon or the Northwest Territories have always been what we think of as the north, but on April 1, 1999 Nunavut was born when the Northwest Territories were divided. Nunavut is bounded on the west by a line, running north from the Saskatchewan/Manitoba border, then northwest to the Arctic coast, and finally north again along the 110 degree of longitude to the North Pole. Nunavut is one fifth the size of Canada yet has a population of 30,000 and less than 20 miles of roads. The destination, flying my 1998 Aviat Husky, would be Baffin Island on the eastern side of Nunavut. My wife says she wants "none of it."


Preparing for the trip I had read a story by Terry Jantzi, who had flown with his teenage daughter in an RV6 from
Ottawa to Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, in June of 1999 and in the process set a speed record. I called Terry and we began an e-mail correspondence, sharing ideas and contacts that would help me plan this adventure. Terry put me in touch with Bert Rose, a polar pilot who lives in Iqaluit, and someone who could answer my many questions about the north.


My decision to begin the trip in late June was based on getting favourable weather for the flight and my wish to experience the long hours of daylight. With a flight plan filed, I departed
Brantford at 06:00, June 29, in rain showers that were heavy at times, ceiling 5,000 feet and visibility of 10 nautical miles. The ride was smooth, the clouds began breaking up, and I arrived in Ottawa at 08:30. Mitch Gingras, a former resident of Baffin, and still a part owner of the Polar Pilots’ Cessna 172, was there to join me for breakfast and answer more of my never-ending questions. Back at the Ottawa Flying Club, I called 800-INFO FSS for a weather briefing, filed a flight plan to Wabush, Nfld., with a fuel stop at La Tuque, Que., and departed east across the beautiful mountains, lakes and forests of southern Quebec. Nearing La Tuque, with plenty of fuel, I called unicom and extended the leg to Bagotville, a military airport in south central Quebec. Landing between two arrester cables that lay across the runway 1,600 feet apart, I taxied to the terminal to top up the tanks and give my legs a stretch.


Ontario and Quebec boast almost half a million lakes, so having floats would increase your options for a forced landing, but being on wheels, my choices were fewer, except for logging roads that criss-crossed clear cut operations on the landscape below. I felt small, insignificant and vulnerable as I crossed the huge Manacouagan Crater (51°23'N, 68°42'W, original rim diameter: 65 miles, Age: 210 million years). On my way northeast to Wabush, Labrador I noticed a couple of abandoned mines with usable landing strips, which were not indicated on my sectional, but they became new way points in my
GPS, just in case! A little over three hours had passed and finally I could hear Wabush Radio advising that landings were on Runway19. From a distance you can see the open pit mines that scar the land surrounding the towns of Labrador City and Wabush, and a lake to the north, colored red from the waste runoff.


I refueled, had a visit with the friendly
FSS person and then found a couple of concrete tie downs to secure the Husky and setup my tent beneath the wing. I like meals that just need boiling water added, supper was "noodles in a cup." It was getting cool but there were plenty of mosquitoes, and it can be a real trick to eat when you are wearing a bug jacket with a full hood. It began to get dark around 22:00. I sprayed insect repellant onto the zipper of the tent, jumped inside quickly, and actually survived without getting bitten.

June 30, at 04:00; what is the sun doing up so early? Flight service tells me to expect VFR to the north with cloud cover and chance of showers. I file a flight plan, noting the type of clothing (winter) that I carried and that I do not wish to activate a search until 24 hours after my scheduled arrival at Kujjuaq. Que., (pronounced Koo-je-wack). On most trips I pack enough food and water to last a couple of weeks and always wear a bright orange, multi-pocket survival vest with a quick inflation bladder. My clothing and footwear would keep me warm well below freezing, and for communications there is one radio in the panel, a handheld and a fixed/portable ELT that allows for voice transmission on frequency 121.5. I listen on 126.7 when between airports. Besides sporadic calls when nearing a FSS, you will also hear occasional trans-atlantic flights giving their remaining fuel and position to Arctic Radio. If a sudden problem were to occur, I would activate the ELT remotely, and transmit an appropriate message to anybody that might hear on 126.7. The tone, volume and frequency of that message would of course depend on the seriousness of the problem.


Heading north I passed over Schefferville, Que., the strip was closed for repairs, but I reported my position and headed northeast, looking for the headwaters of the
George River. The way point, N55° 26’, W65° 30’, was just a spot on the map that marked where the De Pas River would soon empty into the much larger George.


For over 100 miles I followed this awesome wide river as it headed north to
Ungava Bay. The clouds were gone, the visibility was forever and the ride was smooth at 1,500 feet; so much for the forecast I had received this morning. Then I saw something in the water, crossing from west to east, trying to get to the other side. Caribou! I was amazed and excited and down lower I went with the video camera ready. The Husky can be flown with the window and door open, by setting the elevator trim so you fly with your feet (1,975 RPM, 15-16 inches of manifold pressure and maybe a notch or two of flaps). It requires that you dress warmly and have gloves with open fingertips to help run the cameras. Back and forth I went, from one side of the river to the other, taking pictures and video. I don’t remember how many of these small herds I saw, but the experience was special. Northern Quebec has one of the largest concentrations of caribou, nearly a million animals. Occasionally I would pass an abandoned camp on the riverbank that would be used by native hunters and fishermen.


After a couple of hours, I was looking for a geographic feature called Collins Wedge, where archeological digs have shown that Inuit have hunted caribou there for thousands of years. I was told there could be an abandoned strip in this area. Around a large bend in the river I found a sandy beach, but no strip. I made several low passes and landed, trying to avoid the rocky outcroppings. This was a first for me, landing on a beach, in the middle of nowhere, and I sat waiting for the adrenaline to subside. For an hour I walked and explored, the silence broken by the odd jet passing high above. At my feet were colorful patches of arctic flowers that desperately sought warmth by keeping close to the ground.


Visibility was over 100 miles and as I departed this rocky beach, I could see the
Torngat Mountains far to the east on the coast of Labrador. I headed northwest, looking for Rapid Lake Lodge, and it’s 900-foot, rather bumpy strip. Two brothers, Alain and Serge Lagacé built the lodge and each year they organize and lead several Ungava floatplane adventures from this camp and another further northeast called Benoit. Satellite phone usage is available for $6 a minute and my call home was timed at one minute, one second, at a cost of $12. The HF radio was not working which meant another call to Kujjuaq FSS to update my ETA. I had lunch with a new group of floatplane pilots who were anxious to go and explore those mountains of eastern Labrador. If needed, you can buy a 55-gallon drum of aviation fuel for $750.


Just to the northwest is La Moinerie Crater, another terrestrial blemish from the distant past. They stand out very distinctly in the north, above the tree line. A little further northwest is Kujjuaq, a busy port on
Ungava Bay, with an FSS and where 100LL could be had for $1.50 a litre. The 6,000-foot paved runway was being rebuilt but the 5,000 foot-gravel strip was used by prop and jet traffic. I watched the clouds of dust billow up as one jet departed. Two lonely looking Murphy Rebel homebuilts were tied down near the taxiway. Being this far north, flight service could not give a definite weather picture beyond a hundred nautical miles northwest, but I was planning on over-flying the communities of Aupaluk and Kangirsuk along the coast.


This region of
Quebec is called Nunavik and like the territory of Nunavut, they speak a language called Inuktitut (pronounced In-nuke-ti-tuck). Dan, a young Inuit fellow who was filling my tanks, gave me a short lesson on place names, their meaning and pronunciation. Some other men looking over my Husky spoke of a Muskox herd just to the north, so I departed towards the next community, looking along the coast of Ungava Bay, but I did not find any of them. Over Kangirsuk I took up a more westerly heading out over the barren land, in search of yet another astrobleme (meteor crater). The clouds rolled in from the northwest, but Mitch had told me that convective weather does not form this far north. There was no fear of thunderstorms, but the ceilings were dropping low to the ground and I found myself flying over the top at times. At 130 nm across rock and ice, no trees or any sign of habitation, the Chubb or Pinqualuit Crater (61°17'N, 73°40'W; rim diameter: 3.4 km, Age: 1.4 million years) is very distinctive. The raised walls enclose a circular lake with water that is alleged to be of the highest clarity found anywhere, probably because nothing drains into the crater. Unfortunately on June 30, the lake was still frozen so I circled awhile taking several dozen pictures and video, then headed north toward Hudson Strait.


The gravel strip at Kangiqsujuaq (pronounced Kang-ga-sue-je-wack) is on a plateau high above a town that sits along side
Wakeham Bay. It was windy but I could not find anywhere to tie down in the rock so I attached a rope from the tail of my Husky to the base of a post, keeping the wind at it’s tail. An Inuit woman and her husband drove up and said I could use the phone. The door latches on the terminal building had been taped over so they could not be locked so when they left, I decided to spend the night at the airstrip. I called Bert in Iqaluit and was informed that the weather was not good so I phoned FSS back at Kujjuaq to close my flight plan. I would not be crossing Hudson Strait today. Late afternoon turned to evening as I realized that it wouldn’t be getting totally dark tonight. Alone in the airport office building, I ate and then paced the small room back and forth, looking at the old photos on the wall and reading their stories. The wind outside was cold and the low clouds and fog rolled in from Hudson Strait just over the hills to the north. I confess that this was a low point of my trip, asking myself what the heck I was doing here so far away from home. But looking back, it will be a few hours that I’ll not forget. 

Finding a lunchroom with no windows, I rolled out my sleeping bag on the floor and tried to get some rest. At 02:30 I awoke to the sounds of doors opening and closing. In the north, in summer, when it never gets totally dark, the people are up at all hours, and someone needed to use the bathroom. I could not get back to sleep, the weather looked better, so I called FSS, and made a flight plan to Iqaluit. Lifting off at 03:30 July 1, I climbed north to cross 90 nm of very cold water, the temperature of Hudson Strait never goes about 2 C. There were large areas of sea ice below, but the engine just purred along as I climbed above the clouds to 10,500 feet. After what seemed a long time, my GPS told me I was finally crossing the south coast of Baffin Island. Dropping through a hole in the clouds, I found the strip at Kimmirut tucked beside some high rocky hills. I had planned on meeting a friend of Bert’s in Kimmirut, Sam Pitsiulak, but it was too early to be knocking on doors. Sam was a world famous Inuit carver who had also built his own ultralight.


Around
04:45 I rolled down the runway to climb out over the town, heading north and inland towards Frobisher Bay. Later I would learn that the sound of my plane would be mistaken for that of Sam’s Pelican Ultralight. I would also learn that he had departed with a friend the previous evening from Kimmirut to Iqaluit in order to attend a funeral of a friend, but they never arrived. They perished when their plane struck a mountain in the low clouds.


Baffin Island is a naked landscape, other than the small stunted forest in Katanilik Park near Kimmirut, most of the sparse vegetation must hug the ground. Caribou and smaller herbivores along with their predators roam this island of rock, ice and snow. I stayed low, 3,500 feet below the clouds until I got closer to Frobisher Bay and could reach Iqaluit radio. Reporting inbound from Kimmirut, the reply came back and he asked if I had seen a plane that was missing. I answered that flight service had not mentioned a missing plane, otherwise I would have been paying better attention. Low clouds with rain showers had moved up the bay, it was necessary to fly southeast and drop down to almost 200 feet over the ice filled sea in order to approach Runway 35 at Iqaluit. Taxiing past the distinctive yellow plastic terminal building, I found the open-ended hangar where the Polar Pilots keep their C-172 and parked between two buildings. In the hangar, out of the intermittent rain showers, I made some breakfast and waited for a couple of hours, then walked to the main terminal and called Bert.


Over the next couple of days, Bert and I attended meetings with several search and rescue organizations that were formulating plans to find Sam’s missing ultralight and it’s two occupants. It was a very interesting and educational experience to watch how such a large search effort is choreographed, unhappily, not everyone could hear the music or work with their partner to figure out the steps to this dance.

 

Unfortunately, Sam, his passenger, and the plane would not be found for almost 10 days, after I had returned home. For almost 20 days a large low-pressure system over Hudson Bay was causing this poor weather to funnel up Frobisher Bay from the southeast. The conditions would hamper the search effort and could possibly keep me from doing much exploring.


Bert is a retired teacher and I enjoyed listening to his stories of the history and make up of the people and places of this northern land. He showed me an ancient
Thule settlement near the Grinnel River, rusted remnants of equipment from the Second World War, the whaling and military background of Iqaluit, and spoke of his involvement with the celebrations when Nunavut was born. I want to thank Bert for making my stay one that I will never forget.


On Sunday the ceilings lifted so I flew across the bay and then headed south towards York Sound and an alluvial flood plain between two large glaciers. I had advised the military rescue coordinator of my route, and I circled into many of the dead end fiords on the southern coast, looking for Sam, but when I reached the beginning of the
Everett mountains, it was getting very windy. A huge lenticular cloud blocked my path, I turned around, headed back to cross the bay at an island chain called Frobishers’ Furthest, and then followed the north shore into Iqaluit.


Monday July 3, was looking better and I departed early for what would be the most memorable flight of my trip. Today’s destination was Qikiqtarjuaq or
Broughton Island, in Davis Strait on the northeast coast of Baffin. The skies were clearing, and now I could see a hundred miles across Cumberland Sound and the opening to Pangnirtung (pronounced Pang-ner-tung) Fiord "the place of the bull caribou." The temperature was near freezing but I had several layers of clothing on as I cruised along taking pictures with the window open over the sound, and then I descended from 9,500 feet to 1,500 feet coming into the mouth of the fiord.


The town, locally known as Pang, passed by slowly on my right as I entered the 75-mile long
Akshayuk Pass, which joins the north and south Pangnirtung fiords. Words do not do justice to this experience, it’s wonders satiate your emotions, as the pass narrows down to less than a mile wide with peaks that reach 7,000 feet and glacial swatches of ice painting their outlines. The fiord boasts one of the longest and highest vertical cliff faces in the world and a 6,000-foot mountain of rock that curves up beyond vertical to 105 degrees. I had to take care when loading my camera film, it becomes brittle in the cold and would break. I went through almost a dozen rolls and an hour of video as I continually made lazy circles on my way through the pass. For those who wish to hike the pass, the parks department has erected shelters every 10 km and installed HF radio transmitters. Landing is not permitted here, this was Auyuittuq (pronounced Ow-you-ee-tuk). Set aside in 1972 by the government of Canada, Auyuittuq National Park covers 7,600 square miles, it was the first national park north of the Arctic Circle, and is dominated by the Penny Ice Cap. With ice as thick as 1,000 feet in places, the ice cap provides an excellent record of past climates and has been the base for several major scientific studies into climatic change and global warming. The ice cap also has an uncanny effect on local weather conditions: winds passing over the glaciers become cooler and increase in velocity as they descend through nearby mountain passes.


Nearly two hours later I came out the north end of the pass and landed at the gravel strip on Qikiqtarjuaq (
Broughton Island), the iceberg capital of the world. Because this island’s northern cape protrudes into the currents flowing south down Davis Strait, it captures many of the mountains of ice that are calved from the coast of Greenland far to the northeast. The small terminal building had a satellite phone so I made a few calls to announce my success in crossing the Arctic Circle. On the gravel ramp I emptied 10 gallons of fuel into the Husky tanks from two jerry cans that I brought along, and then it was time for some hot soup. A Twin Otter owned by First Air landed and I shared some cookies with two pilots; then a helicopter stopped in to retrieve some fuel barrels for a survey crew and we had a cold drink together. Before I left, a naturalist with a huge but friendly husky dog came by to say hello. People often ask me what it is like to go on these adventures all by myself. My simple answer is; I’m only alone until I land somewhere.


I departed the rocky island and headed south looking for wildlife, the naturalist had told me the polar bears were still feeding far out on the sea ice of Davis Straight. I did not see any polar bears on my trip. I found some large bergs and then turned east and climbed back to 10,000 feet so I could cross the ice cap and finally descend back into the pass back to the town of
Pangnirtung. Bert had arranged for me to meet his friend Markus Wilckie, and I found him waiting by the Pangnirtung terminal building. We walked to his apartment and he shared a meal of caribou and gave me an Inuksuk pendant. Inuksuit (plural) are the Inuit rock cairns, shaped like humans that have been used for thousands of years to help people to find their way across the featureless landscape. Around 21:30 I walked back to the gravel strip.


I departed ahead of a small commercial aircraft that was going to Iqaluit and he passed me as I climbed and headed across Cumberland Sound. About an hour and a half later, that plane ahead relayed from Iqaluit that the weather was deteriorating. I did not have enough fuel to return to Pangnirtung and besides there is no avgas available other than in Iqaluit. Soon I was talking to flight service and they described the worsening weather of rain and fog. At 25 miles out they asked if I was IFR capable, I was not (well legally anyway). The search and rescue aircraft out looking for Sam were listening as Iqaluit radio now asked: "What are your intentions?" The airport closed, I was 15 miles north flying below the clouds at 300 feet over the rocks. There are nothing but drumlins and eskers of stone and ice, no towers or wires or anything else constructed by humans to worry about, so I slowed down and contemplated my choices. A voice from the Hercules searching farther to the south suggested a strip between Iqaluit and Kimmirut but I would have to climb through and above unknown layers of cloud, so this was not an option. "Remain clear of the zone and what are your intentions" was the last thing I remember hearing. There was a small rocky hill beside a ridge, with two frozen ponds on either side. I setup an approach and landed on the uphill slope, shut down the engine, turned off all the switches, and then realized I had better tell someone that I as OK. Master switch on, radio on, I was a little shaky as I told the guy I was safe and sound, powered up the
GPS and gave him my location at 7.31 nm north of the airport. Later I would learn that Bert, who happens to be the Director of CASARA for this area, was listening to these conversations while he sat at the Search Headquarters, wondering if another search would be mounted. To look for me!


I had touched down and stopped in 65 paces, avoiding the larger rocks. I thought about walking back to Iqaluit but then decided that I would only have to come back later to retrieve the plane. I kept busy clearing a 250-foot strip of the larger rocks, up one side of the hill and part way down the other. Using some stones I made my own little Inuksuit to mark the left edge of this makeshift strip. I pulled the Husky backward down to my start point. At times I could not see more that 50 feet, as successive waves of fog rolled in from over the ridges of the nearby bay. I chatted to flight service with the handheld radio and then climbed into the back seat for a rest. At 23:00 it was still twilight, at 01:30 I awoke from my nap to answer the call of nature and see the red reflection of the sunrise on the clouds. The wind had shifted and the fog was being blown back out. A quick call to flight service confirmed that the airport was VFR, so I stuffed everything into the back seat and lifted off as the mains started down the other side of my little hill. A Hercules was departing on another search mission to the south just before I landed and taxied back to my parking spot.


A taxi ride is $3.50 anywhere in town, we picked up another fare of two rather inebriated women, and I got out at Bert’s house. It was 03:00 but Bert got up to listen to my story and watch the video, then we both tried to get some sleep. The weather was improving on July 4 but I was exhausted from the excitement of the previous day and I was not about to go anywhere. I talked with North Bay radio to get a better weather picture. There was a high-pressure cell building over Hudson Bay. Bert took me to the museum and told me more of the history and culture of this land and it’s people. Back at the airport, we emptied the gas from the Husky into my jerry cans, then I taxied to the fueling station and put almost 53 gallons into the tanks. The Husky has 52 gallons of useable fuel. Fuel for 100LL was 74 cents a litre, they were still using 1999 prices, I guess because it was shipped the year before.
July 5, I said my good-byes, lifted off at 09:40, turning southwest to climb above the broken layers of clouds and on up to 10,500 feet. I could see the south shore of Hudson Strait as I went over Big Island south of Kimmirut. With a ground speed of 120 knots, I was soon passing
Wakem Bay and then took up a heading southeast, direct to Kujjuaq. Slowly descending to 1,500 feet, there was occasional wildlife to watch, and then I noticed the strong currents below. Ungava Bay has the second highest tides in the world and the tide was pushing water upstream from the sea. A couple of communities passed below, their garbage dumps standing out on the barren rock. After negotiating some stiff cross winds to land at a Kujjuaq, I poured my jerry cans into the tanks then topped off with fuel, which costs 100 per cent more than at Iqaluit. I met three adventurers doing a photo assignment for National Geographic from a helicopter, and showed them some video of the Pangnirtung fiord, just to get them thinking.


I waited for a 737 to take off, throwing up huge clouds of dust, then I departed for Wabush three hours to the south. It is too windy to be flying through fiords. I will have to come back on another adventure to explore the
Torngat Mountains. Nearing Wabush I saw a line of reddish dust blowing to the south of the runway, a SeaBee Amphib is forced to divert to a lake and land because of the 20-30 knot crosswinds. I should have landed on alpha taxiway but instead crab into Runway 01, touching the right main wheel first and slowly taxi to the ramp. The Husky is rocking in the wind while I sit on the horizontal stabilizer and the tanks are topped off. After tying down, I would spend the next day and a half here waiting for the ceilings to lift and the winds to calm down.


It is clear and calm on July 7 as I retrace my track from the previous week to the Manacouagan crater then south to Baie-Comeau and follow the
St. Lawrence River southwest. Down at 800ft it is raining hard as I pass the Plains of Abraham and Quebec City. A fuel and lunch stop at Trois Riviere, then one last leg to Brantford. I was away for nine days, 45.3 hours in the air, approximately 335 litres of fuel and I added one litre (US quart) of oil in Iqaluit.


Dream about living forever, live like there is no tomorrow.

Value time over money, only time cannot be replenished.

So much to experience, but so little time. 

Links: Terry & Lauren:
http://exn.ca/FlightDeck/Aviators/AviationCockpit.cfm?ID=19991021-52
Polar Pilots Web page: http://www.nunanet.com/~tbert/polar_pilots.html
Rapid Lake Lodge homepage: http://www.rapidlake.com/
Nunavut Handbook: http://www.arctictravel.com/index.html