Sunday, November 09, 2008

Part IV, Day 12: 080801

Today I did fly back to Resolute, but this was by no means clearly going to happen when I woke up this morning. At morning skid, we were informed that they were trying to figure out how to get the Belcher Glacier team moved as needed, and that we should monitor the radio for further instructions. Since I had approximately nothing better to do, I sat by the radio and wrote down everything I heard after all research teams had completed check-in. The Belcher lower camp reported a bear encounter late last night, which destroyed their tents and some other gear. Thus, they were a high-priority for airlift, though there were some suspicious irregularities with their call. As was asked over the radio by the PCSP, why didn’t they use their sat-phone and call in the bear encounter immediately when it happened? Did they not realize that ALL bear encounters are must-call items?

During my radio-watch, I recorded a few calls that were very unclear to me, but I got the gist that an aircraft, possibly a helicopter, was reporting its position and estimated time of arrival, somewhere, possibly on Devon Island. The pilot was speaking very quickly, in thick flight-jargon, such that I was mostly just guessing regarding times and places. I think all the times were reported based on Greenwich Meridian Time, and here on Devon we’re 5 hours behind.

Eventually, the only calls I heard were clearly coming from the helicopter, and then it arrived. Steve and I walked over to the helicopter while the pilot was refuelling from one of the barrels near the end of the runway. While we had been told nothing, Jim the pilot was able to fill us in on the details of today’s flight plans. He was going to be spending much of the day ferrying gear and people from the Belcher lower camp to Truelove, where they would be picked up by a Twin Otter some time in the afternoon. Belcher lower (and upper, from what I’ve gathered) has no runway suitable for a Twin Otter, but is rather far from Resolute, so Truelove is being used today as a staging and refuelling area for their operations.

Jim told us he had been told there were 9 full fuel barrels here at Truelove, and that he would likely need to use them all. We had no idea, so we stood around and did a quick count, coming up with 6 for sure, and 3 more that might or might not have fuel in them. Despite walking past them every day, no one in camp had ever actually tried to determine how full any of the newer-looking barrels were. Jim said he’d fly over to the pair together that were of unknown contents, and have a look. Steve and I were quite amazed – how can one see how full a barrel is from a helicopter? Jim just grinned and said he’d go have a look.

He took off and moved the 200 metres or so to the pair of barrels, and proceed to hover directly above them for a few seconds. I realized what he’d meant, earlier – a full fuel barrel will not respond to a hovering helicopter, but an empty one will be blown sideways and will roll into the nearest pond. These two barrels stayed rock-solid: they’re full.

Jim hovered over the fuel barrels for a couple of seconds, then took off rapidly to the East, climbing over the Dolomite Dome towards the Belcher lower camp. At this point I’d like to reiterate that Jim is an excellent pilot; he moved his helicopter in such a way that it was clear he knew exactly what he was doing, and could do it in the most efficient way.

With my radio-tending duties over, and nobody else in need of my help, I kicked around camp for a bit and packed up my bags. At this point, there are two possibilities: either I fly back to Resolute and sleep there tonight, or I stay here at least one more day. Under the first scenario, I’ll need to be packed up and ready to go at a moment’s notice. Under the second, I can always unpack what I need for another night. My borrowed sleeping bag was particularly difficult to get stuffed.

Periodically the helicopter returned, and I helped unload the belongings of total strangers. This was a particularly odd experience because these unknown people sent out their gear in almost the exact opposite order to what I would have done. Considering the ever-present possibility of bad weather or mechanical troubles cancelling flights, I would carry the first-aid kit and about 2 days worth of food as my carry-on luggage, on my lap. The medical supplies, food, camping gear, and kitchen stuff were on the first flight out; the people didn’t come until the fourth flight.

While I was wandering around, the weather continued to do interesting things. The blocky object in the foreground is a large boulder near camp.

After lunch I headed out with Eric to help him with some of his soil-roots-vegetation research. Marcus and Angela will be digging a few more big holes today and tomorrow, and Eric will estimate species composition of the undisturbed surfaces of these holes-to-be, and compare those data to estimates of species composition of just roots at different depths down the sides of those holes. A central theme of his research is studying how plants use their roots to access soil nutrients, and how this leads to competition and other interactions between individual plants and between species.

With the surface-measures completed, I helped Marcus and Angela dig the holes. I contributed to the first hole, digging the last few centimetres down to the permafrost layer, and I started the second hole, removing the surface material and creating a shallow pit. Fun fact: soil scientists name their big holes; around here, the holes seem to be getting avian names, and I think these two are named “skyhawk” and “thunderbird” or something like that. I forget the details.

The first hole, which I helped to enlarge. That’s the toe of my boot at the bottom of the image. The hole is about 1 metre deep.

A view of the camp from the vicinity of the two holes we were working on.

While I was working on the second hole, the Twin Otter showed up. They had to circle the runway three times before landing, I later found out this level of caution was warranted by the rapidly shifting wind conditions as the aircraft descended. The direction of wind shifted from North to South to East in the 30 seconds or so of final approach, and the (probably katabatic) winds coming off the granite cliffs to the South generated strong downdrafts.

The Twin Otter on the first of its passes over camp.

The Twin Otter had been sent to meet the helicopter, and take the Belcher Glacier team and their gear back to Resolute. They ended up waiting about an hour for the helicopter to arrive with the Belcher team. After we helped them load the gear onto the plane, the co-pilot, a younger man on his first tour of the Arctic, wandered around our camp and came out to our holes to talk with us. He seemed like an pleasant enough fellow, and he had some interesting stories to tell about getting into the industry, and the odd and unpleasant businesses that operate in “the South”, i.e. Saskatchewan and Alberta. In contrast, the pilot, a middle-aged man, was grumpy and highly unimpressed with his forced idleness at Truelove. He just lurked in our kitchen area, obviously impatient and annoyed. Seems they were dispatched from Resolute just ahead of dinner time, so he was hungry and grumpy, but did not accept our offers of food. Oh well.

Eventually the helicopter showed up with the four members of the Belcher team. They hopped onto the plane without so much as saying “hello” to us, then took off post-haste while the helicopter refuelled, yet again, and flew off back to the glacier lower camp for the final gear shipment. The pilot had to load their crap by himself, after having been flying without a break all frickin’ day (my ire, not his).

When the helicopter returned, Steve and I jogged over to where he was refuelling, and he helped us squeeze our baggage into the back of the chopper. We shook hands with everyone in camp, then took off back towards Resolute. Steve let me sit up front :)

The Western Edge of the Truelove Lowlands, a place where the coastline of today will become a beach crest of tomorrow. Some of these ponds are really tide pools, and others are intermediate in saltiness between the glacier-fed freshwater and the sea.

The North coast of Devon Island, a few kilometres to the West of Truelove. The granite island slopes gently directly into the sea, with no real beach interface. Sorry for the blurry picture, helicopters vibrate rather violently, especially at low altitude.

We flew past the entrance to Sverdrup Inlet, a branching fjord that extends perhaps 12 kilometres into Devon Island.

A small creek that drains a small portion of the headland to the West of Sverdrup Inlet, where it empties into the Arctic Ocean.

We flew very close to the terrain, and at one point dropped over some cliffs that fell nearly vertically into a small inlet. I couldn’t find a name for this inlet, but Toporama names the islands at its mouth, visible through the opposite window of the helicopter, as Nookap and Sukause. As we dropped over the edge, the helicopter seemed to fall in a downdraft. Sorry about the weird angle, I was trying to take this picture and hold on to something at the same time.

We saw a polar bear quite far inland as we travelled across Northern Devon Island, but my attempts at photography as we circled it were rather lame. All I’ve got are a handful of brown images with white streaks on them. Still, this is my preferred method of viewing polar bears: from a helicopter.

A largish river flowing Northwards on Devon Island. I found it easy to imagine this landscape transported to a temperate climate, and covered with forests. Apparently, during earlier geologic ages, that was indeed the case.

We stopped to refuel on Mars.

In all seriousness, we did indeed stop to refuel, at the Haughton Crater research station. This is the place on Earth that most closely resembles the terrain on Mars, and has been the site of ongoing experiments aimed at Mars missions for many years now.

The building in the distance here is a prototype Mars habitat for astronauts; were we* to travel to Mars today (we have the technology, we don’t have the political will), this is what the buildings the astronauts would live in would look like. Sorry about the blurry picture, I was tired and the wind blows very hard here.

The West coast of Devon Island, facing the Wellington Channel that separates it from Cornwallis Island. We saw a couple of belugas in the Wellington Channel, but I wasn’t able to take any pictures of them.

Sea-ice in the Wellington Channel.

The steep East coast of Cornwallis Island. We flew along this coast, below the altitude of the cliff-tops, for a few kilometres. As I was now sitting in the back seat of the helicopter, on the left side, I took this picture by holding my camera through a gap in the piles of gear in the approximate location of the right-side window. Turned out pretty well, in my opinion, for a totally blind shot. This picture was taken at a few minutes before midnight; I’ll remind you here that in summer, the sun does not set in the High Arctic.

A river and a couple of lakes on Southern Cornwallis Island, not far from Resolute.

We landed at five minutes past midnight on August 2nd, to be greeted by Tim and another PCSP person whose name I do not know. Jim, our pilot, had been flying or handling luggage without a break for the past 16 hours; I’m not certain that’s legal under Transport Canada regulations, but there wasn’t really an alternative in this case. He gets to sleep in a little tomorrow, which I think he abundantly deserves.

Steve and I were shown to our accommodations: our choice of cots in the two “weatherhaven” tents adjacent to the main PCSP building. They’re rather full right now, and don’t have room for us actually inside the building, but whatever, I was so tired I could have happily slept on the runway.

Tomorrow I’ll get out to more of the ponds and wetlands around Resolute, and hopefully move indoors. Steve will be trying to get on a plane as soon as he can, but said he’d be happy to take me out on ATVs to some local wet spots he knows about, and introduce me to some other people who are also hanging out here waiting for flights.

* Humans

1 comment:

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