Adventures in War Zones and Disaster Areas for Journalists and Relief Workers

Notes From a Trip to the North Pole (Part One)

This is part of a section of what will become

“The Disaster Tourist – How Journalists and Relief Workers Seek Danger, Booze, and a Reason for Life”

Part One

Four hours north of Resolute and nine o’clock at night. 

For the past two hours I’ve been aware that the sun has been getting higher in the sky.  The day is reversing itself as we climb the latitudes. Reversing and climbing, going in and leaving behind, am I going back to something?  I don’t know yet, but there’s a metaphor for this trip that is hanging somewhere just out of sight of my spirit.

I suppose that the main feeling I have now is returning, returning to the High Arctic, to Ellesmere Island and those fabulous mountains, the cream white of its glaciers, the pure cleanliness of its vastness.  I’ve missed it.

Hawker Siddley 748. They were the natural successor to the venerable DC-3 Dakota and serve to this day in the Arctic

Hawker Siddley 748. They were the natural successor to the venerable DC-3 Dakota and serve to this day in the Arctic

The weather is clear and the H-S 748 is riding smoothly at 18 thousand feet.  Imagine.Fflying in a pressurized turboprop with two flight attendants, hot meals, cognac, Molson beer, Dewar’s Scotch, and shirt sleeve warmth.  The arctic has changed so much in the last few years.  The last time I was by this way was on the Uemuera trip in that bucket of fatigued aluminum of a DC-3. 

The DC-3 Dakota, designed in the 1930's flew for many decades in the Arctic. A few still work but it getting hard to find the fuel they use because most aircraft in the Arctic use a type of fuel better suited to jet turbine or turboprop engines

The DC-3 Dakota, designed in the 1930’s flew for many decades in the Arctic. A few still work but it getting hard to find the fuel they use because most aircraft in the Arctic use a type of fuel better suited to jet turbine or turboprop engines

 

No meals, no cabin heat, and a cruise speed of a limping caribou.  But instead of flying co-jo in the right hand seat and desperately trying to remember half forgotten flight procedures I’m a pampered passenger in a 30 seat Hawker

 

Siddley operated by First Air, and earning Aeroplan Points for the whole North Pole flight.

The power has been pulled back, descent started for Eureka.  There’s a hell of a ground wind blowing.  With these mountains we’re in for some big turbulence on the approach.  Some of these passengers who’ve been stupid enough to drink and party all the way are going to get pretty sick.  What a way to arrive on Ellesmere Island with your head in a white bag.

Jamie Biggs, the pilot is good, damned good.  He’s got this bird real tight and tamed down.  This guy has flown through a lot of crap weather I can tell.  He treats this thing like a two month old baby with gas pains, tender oh so tender.  You’d think he could see the turbulence the way he anticipates.

Here comes the approach.  The wind is dead down the airstrip, good.  Lots of high hills around, the sea ice is fading in an out under the blowing snow, lots of good cross light, power back to idle, little shaking from the flap buffet, going to be a smooth one….. can’t believe this, he practically greased it on in what has to be a thirty know wind, hardly felt the wheels hit at all, guy’s good for sure.

      * * *

80 Degrees North, Eureka

 

Eight men and one woman are stationed here for six months to run the weather and radio station.  They’d get on each other’s nerves except for the fact the buildings are so big.  There is enough accommodation for at least sixty people in half a dozen buildings and except for the summer months when Ellesmere fills up with ice scientists, muskox counters, caribou counters, and in the last two years, dinosaur hunters, this is a ghost town.   

The mummified forest isn’t too far from here on Axel Heiberg Island.  The Cretaceous crocodile fossils were found just a hour’s flight inland.  It’s hard to comprehend that the High Arctic was once tropical when the present temperature is minus fifty.

It’s three o’clock Tuesday morning and we’re supposed to have wheels up at five for the flight to NP-28, the Soviet ice island 60 kilometres from the pole.  I’m having doubts though.  The weather around Alert is poor and that’s our alternate.  Jamie is already worried about the fuel for the flight over the pack ice.  He needs Alert if NP-28 closes in, or the fuel runs short.

Ten a.m. and we’re still here.  The lack of sleep keeps creeping up on me.  Can’t sleep in this atmosphere.  Thirty people in the main room and the radio scratching every few minutes as the pilots talk first to Alert then the ice island.  Things are looking real bad for the flight.   

Noon. 

Joe Wormersley and the two vice presidents from McDonalds organized a pool to see when we would leave Alert.  For five dollars anyone could buy a ten minute time segment.  If the wheels leave the ground in your segment you get somewhere around 160 dollars.  There is also a ticket for a North Pole Run sweatshirt donated by Joe.  But the big prize is the Reichmann jet, a prize that Albert was most definitely not sure of at all.

Whomever it was that suggested we throw a tag into the hat for the jet meant it as a joke but Albert is not as comfortable with english as you’d think a billionaire who owns half of Manhattan should be.  I was looking at his face when the suggestion was made and you could see him trying to figure out whether this was serious or not.

Would be a nice jet to have.  23 million dollars worth of Gulfstream for your own private use.  It had been waiting for us at Iqaluit when we landed on the sched from Ottawa.  Reichmann and his son had flown up from Toronto to meet us and board the 748.  What a gorgeous plane, all flash and gleam.  It looked like it had just rolled off the assembly line.

Anyway, the jet got raffled.  Everyone drew a ticket out of the hat.  I got such a ridiculously early takeoff time that I threw the tag away, someone got the sweatshirt, and the jet….. Well, who would have believed that at odds of thirty-to-one the billionaire would draw his own jet.  I said something to the effect that luck like that is what makes billionaires and got a laugh out of the guy, first time I’ve seen him smile.

 

To Be Continued . . .

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