Proficient Pilot

All-time high, part II

October 1, 2006

Barry Schiff flew as a TWA captain for 34 years. He retired in 1998.

Inuvik, which is Inuit for "the place of man," is almost as far north as the continent goes in this region. It is 1,200 nautical miles north of Edmonton, Canada's most northerly large city, the same distance as flying only halfway across the United States but seemingly a world away.

There are no trees in the tundra. Only the hardiest shrubs can survive the brutal Arctic winter. Christmas trees are flown to Inuvik.

One evening at midnight we took off in a Piper Comanche for a local flight over the Mackenzie river delta wearing sunglasses to counter the glaring midnight sun moving across the northern horizon. We flew above myriad small lakes and ponds that flashed sequentially as we flew through their beams of reflected sunlight. It was almost psychedelic.

Inuvik has 56 days of continuous sunlight in the summer. In the winter, when this area is known as the "Land of the Noon Moon," there is a month of continuous darkness.

After landing at 1 a.m. local time, I noticed that we had begun to lose our connection with time. How can you even think about going to sleep for the "night" with the sun above the horizon? The 3,500 residents (60 percent are Inuit) average five hours of sleep per night in the summer and "hibernate" for 10 or more hours in the winter.

Inuvik was built by the Canadian government during the 1950s to bring education, medical care, and opportunity to the residents of Canada's western Arctic. It also is an oil exploration center and regional headquarters of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The homes there are painted in a wild, bewildering array of colors, a kaleidoscopic display that helps to counter the psychological depression caused by the long, dark Arctic winter. They all perch on stilts driven deep into the permafrost, the perpetually frozen earth only inches beneath the surface. If a house was built here in the conventional manner, seasonal thawing and freezing of the surface would push it off its foundation.

The local church, which resembles an oversized igloo, is built on a slab and conforms to the theory by tilting one way and then the other with the changing seasons.

The following day we embarked on a 68-nm flight to Tuktoyaktuk, a world's-end outpost on the rim of the Arctic Ocean (the Beaufort Sea). Tuk, as the locals call it, is a frontier settlement. While we were en route, the isogonic lines began to crowd one another, and my chart warned that we were entering an area of compass unreliability. Almost as if on cue, the wet compass became noticeably sluggish and slightly askew. It becomes totally useless when approaching a magnetic pole, but special instruments (such as polar-path and astro-compasses) are available for navigating true directions.

An engine failure would be particularly unpleasant in this area. Muskeg, the smelly muck atop the permafrost, can be like quicksand and has been known to swallow roads, trucks, and animals.

Halfway to Tuk I could see the massive white radome, one of many distant early warning-line stations that used to maintain silent surveillance to detect incoming Soviet missiles or aircraft from over the North Pole. Farther along I could see the pingos standing as twin sentinels of Tuktoyaktuk. Found nowhere else in North America, these mysterious hills rise from the griddle-flat and treeless tundra like extinct volcanoes. Instead of flaming lava, they have cores of solid blue ice.

During our approach to Runway 31T (310 degrees True), we passed over a reindeer-grazing preserve. And moments later we stepped out of the Comanche and into a primitive, colorless world at 70 degrees north latitude. The settlement has a thousand residents (mostly Inuvialuit) and is built on a peninsula barely larger than a shingle bar. We see shacks seemingly incapable of providing shelter during the incomprehensibly harsh winter. There are teams of shackled huskies that are largely ignored in the summer and seem ferocious to all but their masters.

A ritual for visitors is to walk to the beach and stick a foot in the Arctic Ocean. Yes, it is very cold. On the northern horizon we could see a thin band of ice separating ocean from sky, the beginning of the polar ice pack. The North Pole is only 1,200 miles distant.

At the beach, we saw an Eskimo family applying centuries-old surgical procedures to a freshly caught beluga whale. Entrails are discarded into the bay, and steaming pots contain a brew of boiling muktuk, the whale's outer skin. We were offered a taste of the foul-smelling stuff but declined, thank you. The meat is stored underground in small rooms carved out of the icy permafrost.

Flying (wheels or floats) is the only way to get to Tuk unless you want to embark on an adventurous boat ride in the summer or drive along the frozen Mackenzie in frigid darkness during the winter. The adventurous also can arrange to spend a night in an igloo on an ice floe, but others can stay at the recently built Hotel Tuk Inn.

In the winter, curious atmospheric effects can send the senses reeling, but I have little desire to experience them. They explain, though, why Eskimo culture is replete with legends and superstitions even though their traditional ways are giving in to the influence of the white man, the kablunak, "men with bushy eyebrows."

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Topics Weather