Arctic Flight

A journey to Northern Canada’s Barren Lands.

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Greg and Julia Arehart with their RV-9 (left). Survival gear fills the gray bag, which fits behind one of the seats (right). First aid supplies are in the red bag. There was also a list of everything in the bag and where it can be found.

I gazed through the canopy‭ ‬at the‭ ‬dark mountains‭, ‬range upon range‭ ‬marching into the distance‭. ‬Even‭ ‬though it was August 9‭, ‬fresh snow‭ ‬dusted several ragged peaks‭. ‬Our little RV-9‭ ‬purred along beneath a layer of scattered clouds while below us steep scree and rock slopes descended sharply into thick forest‭.‬

I met my husband‭, ‬Greg‭, ‬when we were both student pilots at Lake County Airport in Leadville‭, ‬Colorado‭, ‬in 1979‭. ‬He learned to fly out of a sense of adventure while I learned to fly to save myself‭. ‬At the time‭, ‬my father had corralled me into being his spotter on Civil Air Patrol missions‭. ‬One day during a search I realized that if something happened to Dad I wouldn’t know how to get the plane down‭, ‬so I started taking flying lessons‭. ‬During my training I became aware that I have no talent for piloting‭, ‬so when Greg and I started flying together I preferred that he be pilot in command‭. ‬He flies the plane and I‮—‬well‭, ‬we tell‭ ‬people I navigate‭, ‬but we share that task‭. ‬I secretly like to think of my job as the voice of caution in the cockpit‭.‬

“Are we doing something stupid‭?‬”‭ ‬I asked‭.‬

Greg and I looked at each other‭.‬

“Because‭,‬”‭ ‬Greg said‭, ‬“there are no‭ ‬decent emergency landing spots‭?‬”‭ ‬

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We both sighed‭. ‬All day we’d been flying over trackless wilderness‭. ‬

“And because we’re tired‭,‬”‭ ‬I replied‭. ‬We had been flying since early morning‭, ‬now adding tomorrow’s planned flight to the end of today‭, ‬due to an approaching storm‭. ‬“Are we pushing ourselves‭ ‬just to avoid paying for a hotel room for a few nights‭?‬”‭ ‬I asked‭. ‬

“We can still go back‭,‬”‭ ‬Greg offered‭.‬

Our RV-9 tied down for the night at Inuvik. The tie-downs are buckets of concrete, presumably for use in snow.

Meanwhile‭, ‬the RV kept plunging‭ ‬ahead at 165‭ ‬mph‭, ‬passing yet another craggy ridge‭. ‬Before us‭, ‬in the midst‭ ‬of the Mackenzie Mountains in the‭ ‬Northwest Territories of Canada‭, ‬rose a tall mountain with a glacier perched on it like a haphazard white collar‭.‬

We considered the facts‭: ‬our engine‭ ‬had worked perfectly for years‭, ‬so it seemed unlikely to quit‭. ‬But if it were‭ ‬to quit‭, ‬Greg pointed out‭, ‬our RV-9‭ ‬has a glide ratio of 11-to-1‭, ‬giving us time to find someplace to land‭. ‬The terrain‭ ‬below looked unforgiving‭, ‬forcing us‭ ‬to discuss landing in creeks or the tops of trees‭. ‬We reviewed the emergency‭ ‬checklist and our plan‭: ‬Greg would‭ ‬fly while I handled the radios‭, ‬PLB‭, ‬InReach messenger‭, ‬and the ELT‭. ‬

At that point it was less than two hours to our home base in Atlin‭, ‬British Columbia‭, ‬where we have a cabin‭.‬

“Okay‭,‬”‭ ‬I said‭, ‬“let’s keep going‭, ‬but put on your oxygen‭.‬”‭ ‬We were under minimum altitude‭, ‬but it would boost‭ ‬his mental clarity‭. ‬I already had my‭ ‬oxygen on‭.‬

Pre-Trip Planning

Our wild adventure to the Arctic coast had started in Atlin’s tiny library‭. ‬Atlin‭, ‬a town of 300‭ ‬residents‭, ‬sits on the edge of 80-mile-long Atlin Lake‭, ‬surrounded by mountains and glaciers‭. ‬In 2013‭ ‬we’d built a log cabin outside town where we now spend our summers‭, ‬enjoying cool‭ ‬temperatures and long days‭. ‬With no‭ ‬TV‭, ‬no phone service and only intermittent internet‭, ‬we read a lot‭.‬

Atlin’s library has a fine collection of books about northern Canada‭. ‬In 2018‭ ‬we read about explorers in the Barren‭ ‬Lands‮—‬the land beyond the northern tree line‮—‬where the tundra is dotted by innumerable lakes and cut by ancient rivers‭. ‬Intrigued‭, ‬we wanted to see this‭ ‬unusual place for ourselves‭, ‬and what‭ ‬better way to see it than by air‭? ‬We‭ ‬started planning for summer‭, ‬2019‭.‬

Julia ready to go in the RV-9 at Atlin Airport, Atlin, British Columbia, on August 8, 2019.

Greg liked a four‭- ‬or five-day loop route‭: ‬Atlin north to Dawson City‭, ‬northeast to Inuvik‭, ‬east to Paulatuk‭ ‬then Kugluktuk‭, ‬both on the Arctic coast‭, ‬then south to Yellowknife‭, ‬southwest to Watson Lake‭, ‬and finally‭ ‬west back to Atlin‭. ‬The prevailing‭ ‬winds would favor flying this clockwise loop‭, ‬but at times the winds shift‭, ‬making counterclockwise more favorable‭. ‬On this trip the wind would matter because there were not many‭ ‬alternate airports along our route and‭ ‬few offered fuel‭. ‬

For instance‭, ‬Paulatuk did not have‭ ‬any avgas‭, ‬and Kugluktuk was out of‭ ‬fuel for the year because the supply barge had been shut out by sea ice the previous fall‭. ‬Paying a charter to deliver a barrel‭ ‬of avgas was prohibitively expensive‭. ‬Eventually Greg got word on a spare barrel of avgas we could purchase in‭ ‬Kugluktuk‭. ‬This made the loop possible but left the leg between Inuvik and Kugluktuk still precarious‭, ‬with at most one hour of‭ ‬extra fuel‮—‬not much reserve in the emptiness of the Arctic‭. ‬We would have to carry extra fuel in gas cans‭.‬

Headed north out of Atlin and passing Atlin Mountain.

We were warned that accommodations on the coast fill up in advance for the summer‭, ‬so we should be prepared to camp‭. ‬Camping gear is part of our survival equipment‭, ‬as required by Canadian Aviation Regulations for flights‭ ‬over remote wilderness‭, ‬but we added to it‭. ‬Greg put our bigger tires on the RV‭. ‬For bear safety‭, ‬we decided against carrying a‭ ‬gun or bear spray‭, ‬instead opting for my pen-sized bear banger‭, ‬with four‭ ‬“scare cartridges”‭ (‬like loud firecrackers‭) ‬and four flares‭.‬

Our friend Mike planned to join us‭ ‬in his RV-6A‭. ‬Having two airplanes‭ ‬increased the safety factor‭, ‬and Mike‭ ‬could carry the extra avgas since he had no passenger‭. ‬He would have to fly from Nevada to Atlin first‭, ‬to join us there‭. ‬For that matter‭, ‬we would have to fly to Atlin too‭, ‬from our residence in Colorado‭. ‬Flying across the border and along‭ ‬the length of British Columbia is its‭ ‬own adventure‭, ‬but another story‭.‬

Approaching the city of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

Mike arrived in Atlin at the end of‭ ‬June‭. ‬Right away we started watching the weather‭. ‬Every day rain‭, ‬fog or high winds impinged on some section of our intended route‭, ‬and smoke from wildfires in Alaska and the Yukon obscured the sky over Dawson City‭, ‬sending haze eastward and as far south as Atlin‭.‬

Our plan morphed as we tried to fit it into the weather and smoke predictions‭. ‬We downsized the route to three days‭, ‬cutting out‭ ‬the western half by going north through Norman Wells‭. ‬Still‭, ‬day after day the weather and smoke would not allow even the shortened route‭, ‬and after ten days Mike had to go home‭. ‬It looked like our adventure was doomed‭.‬

But at the beginning of August the smoke cleared‭, ‬and Greg and I started‭ ‬watching the weather again‭. ‬Predictions looked promising for three days‭, ‬for a route to Dawson City‭, ‬Inuvik‭, ‬Paulatuk‭, ‬Norman Wells‭, ‬and back‭, ‬before a storm front would arrive from the west‭. ‬We packed quickly‭, ‬including two small empty gas cans‭, ‬drove to Atlin Airport and loaded all our gear into the RV-9‭.‬

fueling at Whitehorse Airport

Finally Flying

We took off the morning of August 8‭, ‬headed north to the Yukon Territory‭. ‬As we neared Dawson City‭, ‬we saw‭ ‬black hills and ridges smoldering from the recent fires‭. ‬Brash mining scars of the old Gold Rush days‭, ‬as well as new‭ ‬workings‭, ‬traced every waterway‭. ‬We‭ ‬landed and filled our tanks‭.‬

Heading northeast‭, ‬we flew beside the sharp spires of the Tombstone Range‭. ‬Our straight track paralleled the winding Dempster Highway‭, ‬the 460-mile‭-‬long gravel road to Inuvik‭. ‬As hours passed we crossed two more mountain‭ ‬ranges separated by flat plains‭, ‬watching the uninhabited country slip by‭ ‬below‭. ‬Our digital charts went black as‭ ‬we crossed into the Northwest Territories‭, ‬and I had to crack open an old-fashioned paper chart‭.‬

Near Inuvik‭, ‬the Mackenzie River invades a broad plain on its way to the Arctic Ocean‭, ‬creating a watery maze as far as the eye‭ ‬can see‭. ‬On the Canadian chart the area looked like a Swiss‭ ‬cheese of confusing channels‭, ‬pools‭, ‬and lakes‭, ‬inspiring appreciation for‭ ‬our GPS‭. ‬We landed at Inuvik and got fuel‭, ‬filling our gas cans and wrapping them in heavy trash bags to contain the fumes‭. ‬The‭ ‬tie-downs were buckets of concrete‭, ‬presumably for use in snow‭, ‬along a line of electric plug-ins for‭ ‬engine heaters in winter‭. ‬

Hills blackened by the recent fires, near Dawson City, Yukon Territory.

The population of Inuvik is 3500‭, ‬mostly native‭, ‬and although it is one of only two towns in the Canadian Arctic with road access‭, ‬most travel is still by air‭. ‬We‭ ‬found the terminal well equipped‮—‬a baggage carousel and multiple check-in desks‮—‬and decorated with a taxidermic polar bear on its hind legs and a circumpolar map painted on the floor‭.‬

After checking into a hotel and finding dinner‭, ‬we walked around the quiet town in the sunshine of a northern evening‭, ‬then checked the weather‭. ‬The‭ ‬storm front was going to catch up to us earlier than expected‭, ‬with IFR conditions predicted for Inuvik by late the next morning‭. ‬

Under gloomy clouds we departed‭ ‬the next day‭, ‬headed east toward a distant clear sky‭. ‬We flew over a level plain of lakes upon lakes for many miles‭; ‬the‭ ‬ground looked boggy‭, ‬forested with‭ ‬dark spruce‭. ‬The snaking valley of the‭ ‬Anderson River was filled with ominous fog when we crossed over it‭. ‬Soon sea fog spilled over the land from the north‭, ‬gradually‭ ‬moving toward our path‭. ‬

On approach at Dawson City Airport.

Pacific Radio‭, ‬the general remote-use frequency‭, ‬had been silent all morning‭, ‬but just as we discussed abandoning our planned stop in Paulatuk due to the fog‭, ‬we heard the pilot of a commercial flight state his position‭: ‬halfway from Inuvik to Paulatuk‭, ‬above us‭. ‬Greg asked him the conditions at Paulatuk‭, ‬and the pilot told us the airport was reporting a 1500-foot ceiling‭. ‬We looked again‭. ‬

“That’s not fog‭?‬”‭ ‬I asked‭.‬

“One way to find out‭,‬”‭ ‬Greg replied‭.‬

An ominous bank of clouds rolls in over the land (right). Is it fog?

Greg took the plane down along the edge and sure enough‭, ‬it was a thin cloud layer at 1500‭ ‬feet AGL with a bright band of clear‭ ‬air below‭. ‬Turning north‭, ‬the plane raced toward Paulatuk only‭ ‬800‭ ‬feet above the ground‭. ‬We were‭ ‬now definitely beyond the tree line‭: ‬Tundra and patterned ground surrounded shallow pools and stark rock‭, ‬with no track or sign of humans‭. ‬The‭ ‬Barren Lands‭.‬

Soon the Arctic Ocean‭, ‬slate gray‭ ‬and clear of ice‭, ‬came into view‭, ‬with the gravel runway of Paulatuk Airport lined up on a spit of land‭. ‬The tiny one-room terminal bustled with passengers leaving on the commercial flight‭, ‬with‭ ‬the pilot serving as baggage handler‭, ‬ticket-taker‭, ‬and flight attendant‭. ‬

Steep slopes in the Tombstone Range, Tombstone Provincial Park, Yukon Territory.

We walked the half mile to Paulatuk‭, ‬where prefab houses sat on jacks instead‭ ‬of footers because the permafrost‭ ‬ground sinks and rises‭. ‬Along two short muddy roads‭ (‬the only streets in town‭), ‬residents waved as they drove by us on quads‭. ‬A‭ ‬short crescent of sand served as marina for a few small boats‭. ‬Under the gray sky a cemetery of white crosses overlooked the gray sea‭.‬

Circumpolar map on the floor in the Inuvik Airport Terminal

After emptying our gas cans into the‭ ‬tanks‭, ‬we departed Paulatuk headed‭ ‬southeast‭, ‬escaping the low clouds‭. ‬We followed the canyon of the Hornaday River‭, ‬with snow banks dotting its rim‭, ‬to La Ronciere Falls‭, ‬a dramatic waterfall in remote Tuktut Nogait National‭ ‬Park‭. ‬After circling for photos we‭ ‬headed south‭, ‬over the hypnotic landscape of endless lakes and tundra‭. ‬At last we spotted the first trees along a river then‭, ‬a bit at a time‭, ‬more and more trees‭, ‬until all below was water or trees‭.‬

La Ronciere Falls (right) on the Hornaday River. Access is only by floatplane to a nearby lake or by foot from Paulatuk, 75 miles away.

The Approaching Storm

The “Igloo Church,” Inuvik.

At Norman Wells‭, ‬a small town on‭ ‬the Mackenzie River‭, ‬the surrounding landscape had transformed into a valley with mountains beyond‭. ‬It was here we planned to spend the night and fly home to Atlin the next day‭, ‬but the fuel operator mentioned the coming storm‭, ‬now‭ ‬expected to pack into the mountains‭ ‬by nightfall‭, ‬prompting us to check the‭ ‬weather once again‭. ‬It came down to‭ ‬this‭: ‬Go now‭, ‬straight across the Mackenzie Mountains‭, ‬or stay and get stuck‭ ‬for several days and probably have to‭ ‬divert due to lingering weather‭.‬

Day Two: east of Inuvik, lakes everywhere.

We thought for a moment‭, ‬staring‭ ‬across the river to the green foothills with sunlight and shadows darting across them‭. ‬

“I would prefer to see the mountains‭,‬”‭ ‬I confessed‭. ‬

“Let’s start‭,‬”‭ ‬Greg suggested‭. ‬“If we need to‭, ‬we can turn around and come back‭.‬”

With our oxygen on we crossed the‭ ‬rugged Mackenzie ranges without incident‭, ‬stopping for a break at lonely Ross River Airport on the other side‭. ‬After the last hour through familiar territory‭, ‬we landed on the gravel runway at Atlin‭. ‬It was the day after we had departed‭. ‬

The Barren Lands, under a low overcast.

“Were we really on the Arctic coast at noon‭?‬”‭ ‬I asked‭.‬

“Seems a lot closer than we thought‭,‬”‭ ‬Greg replied‭. ‬Then‭, ‬with a grin‭, ‬he said‭, ‬“We’ll have to go back‭.‬”

Driving to the cabin‭, ‬we started‭ ‬planning‭. ‬

Photos: Julia Arehart

Home again. Entering the pattern at Atlin Airport. Our cabin is 10 miles along the closer shore of Atlin Lake.

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