Helicopters have been a wonderful part of my life. I have either been too dumb or too smart to do more than be a passenger in them. I am an ornithologist by training but the grace of avian flight has no relationship to the way a helicopter beats gravity into submission. They have been an indispensable tool in my research in four countries. When I was camping on the North Slope of the Yukon Territory for two summers and a winter, helicopters provided transport to my study area 200 miles from the nearest settlement and the ability to conduct detailed searches of cliffs and canyons along the Arctic ocean.
Inuvik, Northwest Territories is a small Inuit town that grew to about nearly 2,000 because of its becoming a government center and a jumping off place for oil and gas exploration in the Canadian Arctic. It is in the Mackenzie River Delta and was supplied by river transport from the Southern cities for about half the year. There was an airport for weekly flights to the southern cities and several helicopter companies. It also has a float plane base on a lake near town. By March the days had lengthened from their winter of no sunrise but March temperatures seldom reached above minus 20 degrees. Beginning in March, I used Inuvik as a base. I flew west, across the massive delta with its miles of twisted channels and small ice covered lakes towards the Richardson Mountain range that paralleled the coast all the way to Alaska. It was 200 miles to the heart of my study area where gyrfalcons nested along river canyons cut into the mountains as they flowed to the Arctic Ocean. During two summers I camped alone along rivers like the Firth, Babbage, and Blow. In the first six weeks everything was snow covered and frozen. Flying above the delta one could see the snowmobile tracks radiating out from the small settlement of Aklavic. Muskrat trappers zigzagged among the small frozen lakes and along channels. These were defined by low stands of dense willows. But once you cleared the flatlands of the delta, there were no signs of humans for 150 miles of tundra and barren mountains.
The Richardson and British mountain ranges are low and rounded. From their north faces, the ground runs flat to the sea. This tundra plain varies from two to fourteen miles wide and is laced with shallow broad running rivers and shallow lakes. The permafrost means all the melting snow and rivers from the high ground stay near the surface in lakes ponds and slow moving streams. There seems to be no bare ground on the tundra. When the snow clears by May everything is covered with moss, lichen, grasses or miniature shrubs. It is probably 150 miles south to the nearest upright tree. But rhododendrons run along the ground about 5 inches high with branches thinner than a pencil. Surviving the winter requires plants to be low enough to be covered by a protective layer of snow. Sometimes willows will grow several feet high in the gullies slicing down low hills. But these depressions fill with blown snow burying the plants. Trekking across the tundra in winter is usually like walking on hard packed sand. The snow is very dry and becomes like jumbled sheets of styrofom. Until Spring there is no thawing and freezing to make icy conditions. But these draws filled with willows are covered by blown snow several feet deep. They become impassible. Approaching such a draw they look like a hillside with tufts of vegetation sticking above the frozen snow. But as the ground drops away, I would find myself to my waist and even my armpits in dry powdery snow and a tangle of willows. I only tried to cross such a draw a few times. These sites were very important to wildlife. The deep snow protects the willows from the killing cold of minus 50 degrees. Their buds are an important food for the ptarmigan which overwinter on the tundra. A few moose remain on the tundra for the winter and they feed in these draws.
The purpose of my being on the North Slope of the Yukon was to study the courtship and breeding behavior of gyrfalcons, the largest falcon in the world. Because it only nests in the Arctic, it has been poorly studied. By surveying my nest sites in January and February, I was able to document that adult gyrfalcons remain on their breeding grounds during those months when the temperature was minus 50 degrees below zero. When they began nesting in March it is still well below zero with winds and fog. It was into that March weather that I began camping near nests across my study area. After two or three weeks at a nest, the helicopter would return to move me. Sometimes the weather would delay the pilot’s arrival. I had no communication. Being forgotten was always in the back of my mind. I didn’t know where my next camp would be until we inspected the nest and determined the pair were still using it. So the pilot dropping me off was the only person who knew where in my 7,700 square mile study area I was camped. There seemed to be instances of pilots forgetting about a client he dropped off on the tundra. These stories had to be shared with me when I was in Inuvik. But the pilots always found me. Sometimes I would break camp with good weather around me but 200 miles away Inuvik the pilots would be socked in. One day I had broken camp. It was still winter enough that I had the sheet metal stove for heating the tent with drift wood we hauled in from the beach. It looked like a small pot belly stove with sections of stove pipe that poked through an asbestos hole in the tent’s roof. I had struck the tent and piled the gear ready to load into a sling under the chopper. I needed to burn some garbage and started a fire in the body of the disassembled stove. It wasn’t drawing well so I decided to attach one section of pipe to the top of the stove. I was looking down the pipe into the smoldering fire working with mittens and not getting the battered sheet metal tube to fit into the hole. Finally, I moved from looking down the pipe to looking at it from the side. As the pipe slotted into the stove top, oxygen was sucked through the stove door and a blow torch of flame shot out the stove pipe and passed my bare head.
Another time I had broken camp ready to shift to one of the western nests I had visited earlier. As winter weather still gripped the Spring calendar, the tundra was very quiet. The thump of the helicopter came several minutes ahead of the machine. The Bell jet ranger was the vehicle of choice. Piston machines were unreliable in the arctic weather. Although they had a back bench big enough for my gear, it was easier to just pile it in a sling of netting that would hang below the chopper. For long flights back to Inuvik it was too much of a drag eating up valuable fuel. But to move be 30 or 50 miles the sling worked best. Our destination was the mouth of the Firth. The shortest route took us across about 20 miles of the Beaufort Sea as the coastal portion of the Arctic Ocean is known. The weather was calm and a bit above zero. The sea was a jumbled field of white and shadows of blue. Flat in some places elsewhere it was upheaved ridges of massive shards of ice. On this trip and on others there would be glimpses of polar bears moving or just sitting far offshore. To the east of my study area an oil exploration company had built a small island offshore to support a drill rig and a few buildings. During a storm that winter two workers walked together from one building to the next. When they got there, there was only one man. Later they found where the polar bear had waited between the buildings and killed the one and drug him off. My pilot flew the trackers in that found the bear. The stomach contents of the necropsy proved it was the killer.
Leaving the coast, with is tufts of cotton grass and stunted willows breaking up the snow, we moved onto the pallor of a frozen sea. The horizon was a blue band between the now grey sky as we flew about 100 feet above the featureless ice. We were several miles offshore as we cut across a bay. The bright blue horizon line began to dim and the occasional roughness detected in the ice blurred away. I felt the pilot throttle back as the roar and vibration of the helicopter shifted. Then came the words you don’t want to hear from a pilot when you are traveling at around a hundred miles an hour: “Can you see anything?” It was as if I had my head in a white pillow case. There was nothing up or down. The plexiglass bubble around us was perfectly opaque. After a pause that was too long, he said, “We’ll drop the net with your gear to the ice and that will show us how high we are and I can land.” Riding in a jet ranger is a lot like sitting in a Volkswagen Beetle. We were shoulder to shoulder, the pilot on my right, with a large handle on the floor between us that released the cargo net hanging below the machine. Holding the controls steady, the pilot grasped the handle and pulled. We both leaned forward looking through the front of the bubble for the falling bundle. To my left, out the side window, I saw the cargo net falling at a near right angle away from us and striking the ice too close and in the wrong direction. In our disorientation we had slowly tipped until were nearly flying on our side. With a sudden jerk, we righted ourselves and settled next to the yellow pile on the frozen sea. We sat there rocking as the blades churned. I soon realized that the pilot understood better than I how close we had coming to a crash miles from shore and a hundred miles from another soul. He explained, “You can fly a helicopter on its side, but not for long.” We sat there in a complete white out for over an hour. Slowly the fog lifted enough to show that band of blue on the horizon ahead. We hooked up the net and headed on, both of us focused on what we could see.