It’s been a long week. On a trek to explore six universities in five days, my daughter and I enjoyed some long overdue one-on-one time. Starting and ending in Ottawa, I drove over 1,000 miles. We ate some good food, caught up with a one of our best friends in Boston and family in New York, stayed in some good hotels, and had our fill of campus tours and information sessions. We had an amazing time and made some good progress on the college search. After dropping her at JFK, I drove 8 hours back to Ottawa, unpacked and slept well.
On Sunday, I did some laundry, ran some errands, packed some heavier winter gear, and headed toward the North Pole. Really.
OK, so I didn’t make it all the way to the North Pole, but I did get within 500 miles. I still don’t know why I got so lucky, but a few weeks ago I received a very cryptic message that the Ambassador wanted to know if I could accompany him on a trip. Sure, no problem. I didn’t know where or why, but the dates fit in well right after the long-standing date with my daughter so I quickly agreed. I learned later that I’d be joining a small group on a trip to Alert, Nunavuk, the northernmost permanently inhabited place on the planet.
Here’s a map that shows roughly where we went (clicking on the image will blow it up big enough to actually see).
I’m not sure why, but it seems that most military flights leave at ridiculous times. I arrived at the Embassy at 2:30 am on Monday. In my distinctly non-military life, that counts as Sunday night, particularly since I never slept. We drove to a private terminal at the airport where the traveling party met. After some prep time, we walked the tarmac to a Canadian Air Force C-17. The flight plan was pretty simple. 6 hours non-stop to Alert, Nunavuk. Due North.
I’m told by those in the know that this flight made a little bit of history. This was the first ever direct flight from Ottawa to CFS Alert and most likely the first flight ever from a national capital direct to any point of landing above 82° latitude. Kinda cool.
Unlike passenger jets, there are not a lot of windows in the C-17. This thing is made to carry tanks, not passengers. We were afforded a lot more freedom to walk around, however, so I caught the sun rising.
The sun didn’t set again until we returned to Ottawa.
The C-17 is not the typical aircraft used for Arctic flights. In fact, this was the second time ever the C-17 had landed on the gravel and ice runway at Alert. The first time was last week just to make sure it would work. Aside from me, the passengers on board were VIPs and it would be bad form to make a completely experimental run with such an important passenger list. Here’s a shot of the plane just after we landed.
The landscape was unlike anything I’d ever seen. It’s not just the snow and ice. It’s the vastness of the land and the complete absence of any visible plants or trees. The closest I’ve come to anything like this is Death Valley, but that doesn’t really compare. It felt like what I’d imagine it’d be like to walk on the moon. It was a challenging environment for photography because everything is just so white. I had to underexpose significantly and struggle with the sun which was at a constant 45-degree angle. Instead of going up and down, it just rotated around the horizon.
The station has an incredible staff and they kept us moving, virtually non-stop, until about midnight. We visited the memorial for the 9 crew members of the RCAF Lancaster that crashed in 1950, and then headed to the base for a series of briefings.
After a quick lunch, we jumped in a Swedish SnowCat contraption — picture a minivan with tank treads instead of wheels — and rumbled into the Arctic for about a half an hour. We came upon two temporary campsites. One built by Canadian Rangers and one built by a Danish military sled dog team. The Rangers were mostly locals who participate as a sub-group of Canadian Forces Reserve. They do periodic Arctic surveillance missions and exchange survival techniques with members of the CSB Alert forces. The Rangers showed us how to build an igloo and a 20-minute survival shelter with nothing more than an ice knife and saw. They also treated us to an Arctic Char Stew — a whole new meaning to fresh, frozen.
As fascinated as I was with the Rangers and their techniques for living in such a harsh environment, my eyes get coming back to the dogs. I love dogs and, other than movies (my kids will gladly tell the tale of my crying my way through Eight Below), I’ve never seen a dog team up close. When we arrived, the team was having a good-natured argument.
The Danes travel over 5,000km each year with the team throughout Greenland and the High Arctic, often 10 hours a day. The dogs work hard and, apparently, play hard. The Danes described how they regularly have to stitch up the dogs when they get a little too rambunctious with each other. Although a little intimidated by the growling, howling, and snapping, I asked if I could get close.
It turns out that they absolutely love people. As I held out my hand, they each pulled at their chains to jump and play with me. Working my way up the line, I ended up wrestling with each dog in turn. They immediately transitioned from snarling wolves to wagging, flopping on their backs, domesticated puppies.
Time seems to have a lot less meaning when the sun doesn’t change elevation. I think we were out there (at 20 below) for about an hour and half or so. We headed back to the base, ate a quick dinner, and then headed back out in a different direction.
This time, we visited a tent pitched over the Arctic Ocean. Outside were huge triangles of ice. Inside, was a triangular hole in the ice with each side approx 10-15 feet long. They were not fishing. Instead, a team of divers were taking turns doing 150-ft. dives into the Arctic. For fun. The process of creating a diving hole was a modern engineering marvel involving a water saw (picture a copper tube drilled into the ice, connected to a pump, connected to a heater that boils the water, connected to another narrow copper pipe that turns the boiled water into a thin stream that “cuts” through the ice). It took over two hours to make the cuts, and a forklift to pull the tons of ice out.
The water was crystal clear like the Caribbean. Except with 5-1/2 feet of ice on top. The divers went in two at a time and could last about 15 minutes or so before the cold really started to penetrate their suits. A relatively small hole and thousands of miles of ice? Not in my lifetime, but it was fascinating talking to the divers while they worked.
We left the dive site around 9:15 or so and that was supposed to be it for the night. We were tired, but the 24-hour sun made it tough to call it a day. A couple of us were anxious to get a chance to explore on the ski-doo snowmobiles so this was the perfect time. We had to wait awhile for others to return to the base during which I realized that I was heading out with two very experienced fighter pilots for a little speedy fun in a wide open playground.
The fact that none of us had ever driven a snowmobile and the fact that the ground was filled with lots of moguls kept me in the game. One of the snowmobiles ended up rolling over, but I won’t identify the culprit. I will say that it wasn’t me, no blood hit the ice, and there were no casualties. Except for the rear view mirror that formerly adorned the left side of the ski-doo. The crew presented the mirror on an ornate polar bear-shaped plaque to the unnamed driver in a quiet ceremony.
We rode about a half-hour out to a glacier, parked the ski-doos, and made the short climb to the top for some photos.
We returned to the base unscathed, albeit a little chilly. I finally got to sleep at midnight, about 40 hours since I’d last slept. Because we had so little time in Alert, we didn’t waste much with sleep. My alarm went off at 5:30 and I was packed up, dressed in winter gear, and in line for breakfast at 6:30.
Although we were scheduled to head home, we had a morning of activity still on the Alert schedule. After breakfast, we immediately headed toward the airfield. No plane to board just yet, however. Instead, we climbed into a Sikorsky helicopter and took off for tiny Ward Hunt Island — further north into the Arctic Ocean. The scenery during that flight was simply breathtaking.
After landing on Ward Hunt, we did a whirlwind tour of a temporary Canadian Forces camp, attended a briefing by the team, and took in the vistas.
Ward Hunt serves as the final stop for adventurers trekking to the North Pole so there are a few monuments to those missions. We ended up giving a ride back to Ottawa to an Australian who came within a few hours of giving his life to his attempt.
It was an amazing story. Had it not been for a lucky coincidence, he would surely have perished on the ice. While heading toward the Pole on a solo cross-country skiing attempt, Mr. Smitheringale fell through the ice, spending 10 minutes up to his neck in the Arctic. Although he managed to pull himself onto the ice, his timely rescue occurred only because the Canadian Forces and Rangers happen to be doing their annual military exercise in the region at the same time.
Despite his severe frostbite, he insisted that this would not be his last attempt. Although I think they are all a little nuts, he makes the ice divers and dog sledders seem like pikers.
We piled back on to the helicopter and walked over to the C-17. It was certainly the most unique flight connection I’ve ever experienced. On the way home, we stopped at the US Air Force base in Thule, Greenland. While they refueled the C-17, we drove to the base and received a tour of the facility and a briefing on their mission. Sorry, no pictures from Thule.
We landed back in Ottawa around 7:00 pm and, despite our extraordinary mode of transport, the crew handed out customs declaration cards as we prepared to land. Nope, I didn’t bring back over $10,000 in cash and I didn’t visit any farms.