NORTH POLE ADVENTURE
Well, we made it! Wow, what a trip!
On a cool second day of June, we lift off the runway at Bozeman, Montana, pointing the nose of our twin engine Cessna Chancelor northward. This is the beginning leg of a trip that we hope will eventually take us to the actual geographic North Pole of the planet Earth.
After a day of favoring tailwinds at 23,000 feet, we arrive early in Winnipeg, Canada. There we are briefed along with the pilots from nine other aircraft from around the world. All of us are headed to the Eureka Strip, a small landing strip on Elsmere Island at the edge of the polar ice cap. Our flights will celebrate the exploration outpostâs fiftieth anniversary. We have special permission from the Canadian government to land. The Eureka Strip, however, is not the end of the line for all the planes. For myself and three other pilots, that small exploration strip will be only the beginning of a much more dangerous venture. We plan to combine resources and try to fly to the North Pole with a specially outfitted Cessna 421 Golden Eagle. So much time has gone into planning the trip, I have not had time to get too excited. Now, however, I feel the apprehension beginning to grow. Even though we have modern equipment, reliable navigation, the fact still remains, we will be trying to flu a small and fragile aircraft across some of the most unforgiving and uninhabitable land on the planet. I find myself wondering if wjar we are doing is daring and adventurous or just plain dumb!
After resting a day in Winnipeg, Canada, we depart again. Because of nasty weather to the northeast, we change our route of flight. Instead of flying to Churchhill and then on to Bakerâs Lake, we fly instead to the northwest to Lynn Lake, then on to Yellowknife. We spend the night in Yellowknife and have a great supper at a small cafŽ called the Wildcat CafŽ. We eat Musk ox steaks.
During the morning briefing on our fourth day, we are told there is a group of school students adrift north of Baffin Island on an ice drift. Evidently the ice broke off during a field trip. Because of the same bad weather we had diverted around, rescuers are having trouble reaching the students.
We face our first real hard decision of the trip. The weather is deteriorating at Yellowknife. By mid-afternoon, we will probably be stuck. The weather north in Cambridge Bay is questionable, but we need to land there for a refueling. Early afternoon, with low clouds and winds setting in, we depart for Cambridge Bay. It is biting cold when we land, with high winds and low hanging clouds. We are forced to make an instrument approach onto a bumpy gravel strip.
Although it is the middle of June, we wear heavy parkas to try and ward off the bitter cold as we refuel the plane. As soon as we can, we depart again for Resolute Bay where we have barrels of gas waiting for us to refuel. Already it is daylight nearly 24 hours a day. We arrive in Resolute Bay at about 1:00 oâclock a.m.. We are greeted by bright daylight.
We are tired from a busy and nerve wracking day. The country has now become incredible desolate, and inside of us we know we are venturing into country very few pilots ever go with aircraft. The cost of everything up here in the north is very expensive. Fuel costs us nearly seven dollars per gallon.
After a good nights sleep, we depart with all the other aircraft for the Eureka strip. We are all excited to be headed for Eureka. The path of the flight takes us over country so remote it cannot be imagined. I notice the pilots are talking more to each other, subconsciously confirming they are not alone in this forsaken corner of nowhere.
When we land at 5:30 p.m. at the Eureka strip, we find a smooth and wide, 5,000-foot strip carved into the tundra in the middle of nowhere. It has been a long day and we are all ready for a good nights sleep. Nothing, however, even remotely resembles night. The sun stays high above our heads 24 hours a day.
We check with the weather station and find there is bad weather coming in the next day. Our only chance of making it to the North Pole is to refuel immediately and leave that evening. The decision is made. We grab a quick bite to eat. This far north a banana costs $5.00. Fuel costs $10.00 per gallon. Our lodging, no more than a little meal hut with dirty floors and leaking windows costs each of us $300.00 per night. None of this is important, because all of us have the North Pole on our mind. What price tag could possibly be put in country and an experience such as this?
Using fifty gallon barrels of gas, it takes us a couple of hours to hand pump all the tanks on the Golden Eagle full to the brim. We are pumping on about 300 gallons, enough for nearly eight hours of flight. This should be enough for our estimated six-hour flight. I laugh at myself for having brought along several emergency flashlights when I realize we wonât have anything that resembles darkness for months.
At about 8:45 p.m. we lumber down the runway, heavy with fuel and emergency gear for our overflight of the pole. We see all the other aircraft still parked safely t the Eureka Strip and we wonder if maybe they are the more intelligent ones.
The first hundred and fifty miles take us over spectacular frozen fjords, glaciers, and mountains that literally make us hold our breaths in awe. If we go down among these expanded of peaks, we will never ever survive. We accept this risk as we continue. Finally in the distance we see the flat nothingness of the polar ice cap drifting into view. Unlike the Antarctic, this is not a continent of ice. This is simply a frozen body of water, now breaking up because of seasonal thaw. Huge ridges, breaks and fissures make the icecap appear like some giant puzzle below us. I cannot imagine crossing this puzzle on foot.
Already the magnetic compass is acting bizarre, drifting about like some drunken sailor! We have no land based navigation to use, and the sun is so high in the sky it serves little purpose as reference. All we really have is our Global Positioning Satellite system that gives us our position relative to several satellites. This will be reliable, we tell ourselves. And for safety, we have four of these GPS units on board. How wrong this assumption is!
I am given the job of venting the auxiliary fuel tank. Each time I do, the big tank oil-cans with a loud (and unnerving) bang! Several times when the tanks are switched, we get sputtering from the engines. Being six hundred miles from the nearest living being on earth, flying over some of the most unforgiving landscape imaginable, this causes a sobering realization. I understand well now the statement of trapeze artists who speak of working without a net.
Before leaving home, I had prepared a time capsule to drop over the pole. In it I placed information about family and myself. I also put samples of our currency and some pictures along with a request to please contact me in the name of adventure and good will. As we approach the geographic pole, I prepare to drop the capsule. It is exactly midnight.
Suddenly, our GPS navigation goes haywire! With the horizon blending visually with the ice, and no other navigation, we have no way of knowing which way we are headed. All we can do is put the plane into a gentle turn and try to figure out what is going wrong. Something about the 90-degree latitude of the North Pole is causing a malfunction. Maybe the GPS thinks of this latitude as an infinite number.
Only after we fly out about fifteen miles from the pole do we require our signals. Needless to say, we are relieved to have the navigation back. We orient the internal gyro compass card on the plane to the GPS and head back in across the pole. On an instrument panel filled with dials gauges, all our eyes are glued to this one fragile indicator.
This time across we drop our time capsule. Because of the drifting ice, I know that in several weeks the capsule will be a hundred miles away. Most likely nobody will find it. But maybe just maybe, someone might. Each passing day on this planet, I understand more profoundly the need people have for hope. That time capsule gives me hope.
Our excitement of crossing the pole is short-lived. We discover that the winds have suddenly come up and we are fighting seventy to eighty knot headwinds. We continue, hoping the winds will let up. But they donât. Slowly our fuel situation worsens. It feels as if we are creeping over the ice cap. For two hours we watch our slow progress and keep calculating the fuel left. We donât like what we see. Hesitantly at first, then more deliberately we begin to consider our emergency options. If we go down up here, there is a good chance a will have to be attempted out of Russia. Still the wind howls. Each of us is quiet, living with our own thoughts.
Finally when it appears we may not make it, the winds drop off. We breathe a huge sigh of relief and hold our breaths, hoping the winds do not return. I go to the rear of the plane and sit alone looking out the window. I let the images of the arctic landscape engrain themselves in my mind. These memories must last me a lifetime. Next week I will be one of thousands of people back home fighting traffic and waiting in grocery store lines. But today I fell special. Here, alone, in a frail and small airplane, flying low on fuel back from the North Pole, I feel very small, very vulnerable, and very alive.
When we land, it is 4:00 oâclock a.m.. We give each other huge hugs. For all our differences, the moment is special for the four of us. We have shared something that can never be fully explained. We are numb with fatigue but we are happy. We have flown to the North Pole! It has taken much risk and has cost much money, but with time I will forget these factors. I will remember only that I have seen a desolation that is reserved for few humans.
A worker from the Eureka research station arrives to pick us up. Returning to the compound, we pass musk ox standing near the road. Already we are beginning to collapse mentally from the pressure we have been under for almost twenty-four hours straight. When we sleep, we will sleep hard.
About noon the following day, we rise. Because of the bad weather approaching, we decide to head south immediately. There will be no time now to reminisce about our accomplishment. The spectacular country we flew over heading north to the Eureka Strip now seems anti-climatic.
We stop at Resolute Bay for a party thrown for all the aircraft that had joined the rally. I present the fellow adventurers with a big box of chocolate covered Montana huckleberries. I am not a smoker or a drinker, but tonight somebody has brought a hundred dollar bottle of champagne and fifty dollar Cuban cigars. So tonight I toast with champagne and smoke a little of a cigar. I guess I would probably have chased a rabbit naked to celebrate what we had just done.
The trip home is beautiful and full of images, but our minds are still back at the top of the earth. We make stops at Cambridge Bay, Yellowknife, and Calgary. In Great Falls, Montana, we go through customs. The custom agent asks where we have been.
The North Pole, we answer.
Yeah, sure, he says.
And so we tell him the story of what we have just completed.
The next day we fly into home. Our families and friends are waiting for us. It is good to see all that is familiar, but we know that for weeks, months, maybe years, we will try but never fully communicate how truly alone we were for a few precious hours of our lives as we piloted a small airplane across the polar ice cap to the North Pole.
The greatest omission in life·is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing gets nothing, is nothing. He may avoid suffering, pain and sorrow, but he does not learn, grow, live or love. He is only a slave·chained by safety·locked away by fear. Only a person who is willing to risk·not knowing the results·is truly alive!!!