On a remote island village at the northern rim of Hudson Bay, fuel is a prized commodity. So when Mark Schoening and Doug DeVries landed at Coral Harbour with two fuel-hungry de Havilland Beavers and 16 five-gallon jerry cans, they were in for some competition.
The two pilots arrived with cameramen and crew in 2008 on a trip they dubbed the Great Arctic Air Adventure—also the name of the resulting documentary that began airing on Washington state PBS stations this year. Fueling already was a challenge that often involved shuttling on one’s hands and knees out on a wing pitching up and down three feet on the icy water (watch a refueling video here). But for this stop, the pilots faced the additional effects of economics: It was the last day of the month, Schoening explained, and fuel prices were about to go up. They joined the queue at the filling station of people waiting to fill cars, snowmobiles, four wheelers, and other rugged vehicles. A routine fuel stop became an all-day affair. But if you’re going to embark on a Great Arctic Air Adventure, you have to be flexible.
It also helps to be prepared. The pilots had stashed fuel along their route—a circumnavigation of Canada that would trace the Northwest Passage and shoot for the Earth’s magnetic pole—the year before, shipping 16 drums as far as they could and coordinating with the Coast Guard to get them the rest of the way to hard-to-reach places like Eureka and Resolute, Nunavut. In six weeks and 120 hours of floatplane flying, they learned not to take routine matters like the sight of an avgas hose for granted and recorded breathtaking images of the “last imaginary place.”
Wind and the waves
When you’re flying in the arctic, you live a different life, DeVries said. Each day was consumed with flying, eating, sleeping, surviving—“In your day-to-day life you don’t think about those things,” he said in an interview. The Seattle-based pilots learned that sometimes you might only be able to fly one day in three—and sometimes you might fly and wish you hadn’t.
Schoening said one of the few experiences that gave him pause on the trip was the landing—or intended landing—at Nunavut’s Baker Lake. As the two aircraft approached the lake, the crosswind increased, the barometric pressure plummeted as visibility dropped, clouds lowered, and the rain came down. There would be no way to land on the lake.
They proceeded to Airplane Lake, a promising name but according to DeVries a deceptive one. With 30-some-knot winds gusting into the 40s, the two pilots said, they were faced with landing on a lake that stretched three quarters of a mile, with whitecaps.
“As Doug says, we stretched our skills to the limit,” Schoening said. They touched down safely, but then had to make it to dry land—no small feat as the aircraft weathervaned into a stiff wind. The pilots discussed the harrowing experience in this video.
The hard work of flying in the arctic’s harsh conditions paid rich dividends. DeVries and Schoening witnessed caribou, beluga whales, muskoxen, and even a polar bear. (Locals had advised them that the latter creatures tend to stay toward the coast, they said, so they had stopped their defenses—proximity warnings, bear spray, poppers—when they saw a large male polar bear several hundred miles inland.) They landed next to an iceberg near Eureka. And they witnessed the Smoking Hills, where deposits of lignite have been smoldering for centuries.
Though they live in the same neighborhood, the pilots said they didn’t know each other well when they hatched the idea to take on the tough flying of the Canadian north. Schoening said he kept hearing about the guy who was rebuilding a Beaver, but didn’t actually meet DeVries until the airplane pulled up to the dock in Ketchikan, Alaska, where he was also flying.
Schoening, formerly the chief pilot of his family seaplane charter service, had experience flying in the Alaskan climate; DeVries, a businessman with a mind for logistics, had flown the Australian outback in a trip documented by Oscar winning director of photography Eric Thiermann in The Great Circle Air Safari. Together, they would have the experience and skills to plan a trip around Alaska. But what if they flew to the mouth of the Mackenzie River and turned right instead?
From flying in the outback, DeVries knew rifts in leadership could hurt the experience, so they scheduled shakedown trips—to get a feel for the type of flying they’d do, to make arrangements in advance of the big journey, and to get to know the cameramen and each other. And they carefully chose the friends who would join them for a week at a time on the trip.
“What makes a trip enjoyable is having your mates along,” DeVries said. No one complained about the conditions, he said, and “when you’re hunkered down in your tent for two or three days and it’s raining and it’s wet, there’s plenty of opportunity to complain.” When they weren’t flying, the crew sometimes went on hikes or shot footage of wildlife for the documentary—but sometimes the weather had other ideas, and it was all they could to do keep the airplane secure, Schoening said.
Icy conditions foiled the pair’s plans to land at Eureka—at a latitude of 79° 59’ N on Ellesmere Island—but the cancellation didn’t dampen their enthusiasm for arctic flying. The fuel the two had shipped to the remote weather station remained; they’ve discussed returning to the arctic, whether to reach the orphaned fuel or to try something new altogether.
“We always have plans,” DeVries said.
December 22, 2011