Arctic Journeys

Flying amid the raw wildness and delicate beauty of Alaska

June 1, 2001

It was early June. It may have been summer elsewhere, but up in the Arctic it was still late spring. It was about 35 degrees above zero, almost T-shirt weather for this region. It was early morning, and I was at the airport anticipating the day. The Cessna 185 stood on the ramp, trussed in its wheel-skis. It held a stance of readiness, as if it wanted to surge forward out of the tiedown ropes that bonded it to Earth. I walked over to inspect it for my flight. The low spring sun winked on beads of dew that dotted the windscreen. The airport ramp was quiet. The mute runway beckoned, its length stretched out along the flat tundra, as if it were waiting for me to fly. The windsock hung limp and forlorn, hoping for a breath of air to give it life. The VOR stood alone on the empty tundra, spreading its radio waves outward, silently and endlessly.

My preflight was meticulous and leisurely. As I walked around the 185, I felt that it understood my love of the art of flight. As I climbed into the familiar seat I already felt a part of the airplane. It hugged me into its snugness. My David Clark headset hung off of the yoke, silent, bereft of incoming radio waves. The instrument needles were poised, ready to point. I cranked the engine, which started immediately, as if eager to fly. As the engine ticked over, warming itself, I got the current weather report for the "North Slope." Clear everywhere, not a puff of wind. My airplane and I were ready for a journey.

As I taxied slowly to the runway, I savored the moment, letting the airplane feel the smooth tarmac. I lined up for takeoff. The runway stripes pointed the way to freedom. I added power and the 185 surged forward in its haste to be in the air. The ground fell away from me as I lifted the exuberant bird from its bond, the Earth. I turned to fly along the shore southwestward, able to see both tundra and Arctic waters. The air was smooth. I had a grandstand view of the stark grandeur below as my steed and I flew in the calm air.

Streamlets lined the sere tundra, some of which were occasionally dotted with tiny ponds, making them look like strings of pearls. Sunlight sparkled upon thousands of jeweled lakes and accented the bright blues, greens, and browns of the water. Plains of grasses, tundra mosses, and ever-so-tiny flowerets enriched the Arctic tundra. Across the lake-dotted land was an ancient trail, long used by caribou and pounded deep by so many footsteps. In the trail stood a lone caribou. It created the only shadow for miles on unrelieved tundra. There were 88,000 square miles of tundra. This was what lay north of Alaska's Brooks Range.

As I flew over the spring seas, the water was so smooth, untouched by wind, as if lacquered in so many coats above a clear blue stone. I saw the perfect shadow of my airplane all the way down to the shallow bottom. I saw the Arctic loons dive, and each one was shining under the glass of the sea. I saw seals diving under chunks of stark-white remnants of the pack ice. I watched the beluga whales, which disturbed the bottom mud in their search for fish as they circled the mouths of Arctic rivers, with baby beluga in tight formation. As I flew over the ocean, not a ripple of wind damaged the smooth surface of the sea. Fantastic ice formations framed my skies as they slowly melted into the bay. Hundreds of seals dotted the pans of spring ice and sunned themselves next to their holes, which they had kept open throughout the long winter. They were ready to dive in if any danger approached. I thought of the polar bears, which shuffled along the open leads and seal holes in their endless search for food, a constant task in the limitless Arctic.

At this time I was flying Cape Smythe Air's Cessna 185, which was equipped with hydraulic wheel-skis. For several years I was the designated "off airport" pilot. I flew the villagers to their fish camps, which were usually situated along river sand bars and beside Arctic ocean shores. I flew researchers out to barrier islands and landed on the beaches. I used the wheel-skis to land on the pack ice, using the hydraulic hand pump that brought the skis up and down. I also landed on the snow-covered tundra to pick up caribou hunters.

The ski wires hummed in tune with the engine as I cruised along the Arctic shores. I was exultant. My airplane was empty because I was flying to Wainwright, 86 miles southwest of Barrow, to celebrate. Members of my distant family had captured a whale, and I was flying over to be with my great uncle, Noah Phillips. The village of Wainwright, population then roughly 700 people, knew that I was en route to be a part of the festivities. That was evident when I flew over the village, which was customary, in order to alert the villagers that the mail plane had arrived. Trucks and ATVs streamed onto the ramp as I taxied up and shut down my engine. They were ready to drive me into the village for the celebration, already under way. Hugs were plentiful and smiles were infectious; the traditional hunt had been successful. I felt like I was a part of the community.

We rattled along the washboard-rutted road to the village center in a venerable rusted-out truck. As I chatted with the driver I looked back at the Cessna sitting on the ramp, already awaiting my return, nose into the wind, as if feeling the currents of the air. The truck trembled to a halt where the whale-hunting captain's family had set up an area of celebration and sharing. I got ushered into lines where food, both traditional and contemporary, was being heaped into buckets and bags provided to me. I knew that my arms would be full when I left Wainwright, with food enough to last a whole winter for myself and my relatives. I wished then that I had something to offer back to them.

I wandered around the celebration, feeling as if I really belonged. I found my great uncle and sat by him; his grin grew wider at my approach. We sat comfortably, talking little, enjoying each other's company. A little girl pranced before me, then suddenly stopped in her tracks to stare at me. She only stood about two and a half feet tall, and was maybe about 3 years old. Her coal-black eyes met mine. Her mother came up behind her, smiling indulgently. She told me that this girl's name was Kitty and that she remembered me flying her into Wainwright the year before. The little girl said, "Piiiilot?" I looked down at this little girl, who was now pointing at me. Suddenly, I knew why I was here. This is what flying up on the North Slope meant to me. This was what my people, the Inupiat Eskimos, meant to me. The people that I had the privilege to fly back and forth to their home villages; the warmth of my relatives; and the sharing of homes, coffee, and stories. I realized then that I shared a part of myself without even knowing it.

During the many magnificent seasons that I flew in the Arctic I journeyed the northern skies, back and forth to the Eskimo villages, many of which were sprung from ancient hunting and camping sites and are still in existence. There were still signs of even more prehistoric, long-abandoned village sites that I could see from the air. They were still crumbling away, a long process in the dry Arctic air.

Barrow, Alaska, is situated at the junction between the Chukchi and the Beaufort seas on the northernmost coast of the United States. Barrow, roughly at the center of the North Slope, has a population of about 4,000 people. The political and central hub of the North Slope Borough, it is the destination for people who travel back and forth for business, shopping, and visiting. I flew in Barrow for many years and relished the raw wildness and delicate beauty of the Arctic. I saw the permanent ice pack sneak stealthily into shore overnight from the North Pole, bringing the winter and the polar bears. I watched the snow buntings as they arrived to hail the Arctic spring. I watched as the fluffy white-headed cotton grass bobbed in the wind and the snowy owls that silently cruised overhead in search of lemmings. My journeys were many. I am glad that this was and is still my home.

Ellen Paneok is an aviation safety inspector for the FAA. She has been inducted into the Alaskan Aviation Heritage Museum.