The edge of Earth

Part Two of Three

September 10, 2013

Detail view of an Arctic crash site of unknonwn age. Photo courtesy Dirk Paquette and Daisy Visperas

There is no disputing the spheroid shape of our planet, but if a sphere can have an edge, a place where a person can fall off and disappear, the Arctic is such a place. It is difficult to imagine flying here before the age of satellites, when dead reckoning might get you exactly that, a wet compass twirling uselessly as weather closes in out of nowhere with nowhere to land. Even with GPS, and satellite phones, and a radio network that covers much (though by no means all) of the Arctic region, there is a feeling that human presence is tenuous at best, reinforced by images such as the photo sent by Dirk Paquette, another journeying pilot, who spotted the wings and tail of an aircraft poking out of the snow not far from Resolute Bay.

Crossing the Beaufort Sea

The flight from Resolute Bay, where expeditions to the North Pole are staged, to Devon Island was delayed for hours—this time, due to weather, a low overcast with fog that is notorious in the Arctic summer. It cleared toward evening (with the sun not noticeably lower than at noon, just in a different spot), and passengers were briefed in detail on what will happen if there’s trouble crossing the 20-mile gap between Cornwallis Island and Devon Island: If Richard Spencer’s blue Kodiak is in trouble, Dr. Richard Sugden will circle overhead and Joseph E. Palaia IV, expedition leader for The Mars Society and the lone passenger in the rear, will open the door and drop Sugden’s raft. If Sugden’s aircraft is stricken, Spencer will circle above and everyone will hope Palaia can get the raft out because the airplane, Sugden noted, is likely to flip. GPS emergency beacons and satellite messengers would be activated at the first sign of trouble, on both aircraft. Satellite phones would be dialed. Even with all of that, much would be up to chance. Sugden and Spencer filed flight plans for every flight, another backup. Always best that someone knows where you are, where you’re going, and when to expect you there.

Palaia and two fellow volunteers—Adam Nehr and Justin Sumpter—prepared to spend the night in the FMARS habitat on July 11, most likely the only three humans on the giant island. A cold night, as it turned out, that would test their resolve and dedication to the cause.

First, there was the matter of finding a safe place to land in the midst of rolling, uneven terrain at the edge of an ancient crater.                                                                  

FMARS camouflaged.

Palaia had good maps of the site, but the most recent available photos of the intended destination were weeks old, and the conditions in the field were uncertain. Finding FMARS without GPS would have been next to impossible. The two-story fiberglass cylinder is toward the upper right corner of the photo at right, to give an idea of that particular challenge.

Sugden landed perfectly, easily stopping before the wet spot that would douse his airplane in a cascade of muddy water the following day (and leave a small ding in the prop that had to be dressed with a file back in Resolute Bay).

Spencer circled overhead and watched closely, then put his own airplane down nearly in Sugden’s tracks.

Everyone set to work, though there was much to celebrate: safe landings, and the absence of polar bears, for starters.

The Mars Society has had good luck in this regard. Since FMARs was established in 2000, no crew has seen a bear at the site, though not seeing a bear does not mean bears aren’t around, either, as Jason Brown would point out back in Yellowknife: Polar bears are known to hunker down on the snow, their chins pressed to the ground so they blend in as much as possible, and wait. They have a lot of patience.

The Mars Society returned in July to its Arctic station for the first time since 2009. The two-story cylinder is modeled after a Martian habitat design

In summer, at least, there is endless daylight to see them.

“It did appear that there had been a polar bear,” said Palaia, in a post-mission interview, describing the discovery of a piece of heavy plastic matting used under fuel drums to catch spills, that had been torn loose and marked with very large claws and teeth. He kept it, an “interesting souvenir.”

Palaia, Sumpter, and Nehr managed to get a five-kilowatt generator left by the 2009 crew up and running (the new one was stuck in the mud, having made it halfway to the habitat on that first night). Even with power and three people shivering inside (the outside air may have dipped below freezing), the habitat did not heat quickly.

“We were pretty cold that first night,” Palaia said.

The pilots and reporter endured no hardship: The Airport Hotel in Resolute Bay (referred to by one local as the “plywood palace”) is warm and comfortable and clean inside (no outside shoes allowed beyond the mud rooms), and utilitarian outside—think shoebox with wood paneling on the sides and satellite dishes on top.

Resolute Bay has a post office, a church, a community center, and an ice rink, but boredom remains a challenge.

Pilots head for a night’s rest in the Airport Hotel, operated by ATCO Structures and Logistics in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, Canada

Among roughly 230 permanent residents, Ipelee Patsauq, who was born here, confirms it is no garden spot in winter months.

“The dark season … it is long, it’s cold, but we survive,” Patsauq said, gesturing toward the Beaufort Sea, still covered in ice though it is nearly the middle of July. Except during blizzards, which force everyone into shelter, “You can still go out there, catch some seals.”

Patsauq, 50, said he lacks the means to return to his ancestral home in northern reaches of the province of Quebec, where he spent most of his life before returning to Resolute Bay eight years ago. “I feel like I’m kind of in limbo. I feel so isolated.”

The cold night on Devon Island prompted a change of plans. Messages of varying degrees of urgency were relayed from Devon Island to Resolute Bay via Yellowknife, Colorado, and points south, the satellite phones (or their users) unable to reliably connect the pilots on Cornwallis Island and crew on Devon Island directly. Hotel staff—Earle Clarke and Claudette Tapper, who have been rotating eight weeks on and four weeks off for six years—took messages. Satellite phones have their limits, including sight lines. The fixed dishes in Resolute Bay point nearly at the horizon. Reception fluctuated depending on where one was standing.

Palaia, when finally reached directly but briefly on the satellite phone, denied there was an emergency, though such was the impression conveyed through the grapevine by the time his request for food, blankets, fire extinguishers, smoke detectors, and batteries reached the pilots, who were busy preparing to return to Yellowknife. Instead, supplies were assembled and the Kodiaks returned to Devon Island, filling out their loads with drums of diesel fuel.

There was no sign of mutiny, though the expedition leader visited the landing strip alone to greet the aircraft, and left before the unloading began. He would later report that morale improved significantly after a “rough first night,” and the crew was looking forward to returning in 2014 to finish the job of setting up the camp for a yearlong occupation. They will be seasoned, he said, know what to expect.

“It seems like people generally fall into two categories: either able to roll with the punches, make the best of the situation, and re-plan on the fly when the Arctic doesn’t agree with your plans. Then there are those who can’t,” Palaia said. “Often times, you can’t figure out which of those categories a person falls into until they’re out there.”

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