A Trip Up North

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It was August, 2004.

I called my sister and said, "Do you want to go to Canada?"

She said "Sure. Where in Canada?"

I said, "Idunno. As far north as we can go."

A few days later, my middle child, his roommate, a couple of nephews, and my baby sister climbed into our PC12 and we headed north.

The northernmost airport on earth is Alert, Canada, in the province of Nunavut. I called Alert and asked if I could land there, since the Canada Flight Supplement said "PPR for civ acft," which means you have to ask before you land. The guy at Alert was very nice, but he said he couldn't let civilian planes land unless there was a direct benefit to the Canadian Defense Forces.

The second northernmost airport in Canada is the Eureka Weather Station at 80°N Latitude, just 600 nm from the North Pole. The guy at Alert suggested that I check with them, so I did. Rai LeCotey, Eureka station manager, was very helpful. He emailed a form that I filled out and faxed Winnipeg, and in a day or two I had Proper Prior Permission to land at Eureka. It's expensive to stay and eat at Eureka, but that's understandable considering it is a government installation, and that it costs a lot of money to transport food, housing, and etc. that far north.

A few days later we flew from Claremore, Oklahoma, where we're based, to Manhattan, Kansas to pick up my sister and her son. From there we went to Winnipeg to clear customs. From Winnipeg we intended to fly up the west side of Hudson Bay to Rankin Inlet and on to Resolute Bay for the night.

I had called Resolute Bay the day before to check on fuel availability. They said it shouldn't be a problem, but I should call back the next day to make sure. So I called them from Winnipeg and they said they only had enough fuel for scheduled flights and medevacs for the next few weeks. Then I called Rankin Inlet to check on fuel. Their fuel pump was broken.

After a few more calls I decided to go to Churchill, on the west side of Hudson Bay, to Pond Inlet on the north side of Baffin Island. I called the hotel at Baffin Island, but could only leave a message.

It is not a good idea to use the Garmin map for terrain clearance. Rowley Island, at 69°N 78°W, is 15 miles long and 450 feet high and has a closed airport. The island is completely missing from the Garmin database. I've seen other missing islands off the coast of Alaska. If you're ever tempted to descend through the clouds over the ocean to make a visual approach somewhere, it would be a good idea to check a map to make sure you're really over the ocean.

I noticed two things on the approach to Pond Inlet. First, the NDB approach (there is only one approach) was not in newly updated Garmin worldwide database. Even the AVIKU waypoint was missing from the Garmin. Second, I got some occasional heading errors. Despite that, I managed to find the runway under the 1500' ceiling. It was fairly loose gravel and sounded pretty rough, but didn't dent the prop or scratch the plane.

The instrument approaches for most of the airports north of Iqaluit use true headings instead of magnetic headings. This makes sense because of the large magnetic variances. Since some of the approaches are missing from the Garmin databases, you have to pay attention to true vs. magnetic headings in order to avoid a close encounter with a mountain. The Garmin 430/530 has settings for True or Auto headings.

We got to Pond Inlet about 11:00 pm, about 30 minutes before sunset. The airport was deserted. I was half expecting to sleep in the plane when a friendly guy in a van pulled up to take us to the hotel, about a quarter mile away. I didn't even mind the shared bathrooms.

At Pond Inlet the Canada Flight Supplement says they don't take credit cards. There aren't any banks at Pond Inlet. After battling the credit card company on the phone, I managed to extract enough money from the local ATM to pay for fuel. After I got fuel, I learned that I could pay for it with a credit card at the Co-op, which is a cross between Walmart and a general store. It was the same at Kuujjuarapik

The next day we flew to Eureka, about 450 miles north. Eureka had great weather, a little unusual this summer. Incidentally, the approach for Eureka is also missing from the Garmin database.

The farther north we went, the more heading errors showed up. We were relatively close to the magnetic north pole. In fact, we were north (geographically) of the magnetic north pole, with a magnetic variance of over 90°.

When the heading warning comes on, the autopilot goes into wing-leveling mode without the red or yellow annunciators flashing. Even if the heading error happens for half a second, the autopilot goes into wing leveling mode. If you miss the small flashing "nav" or "hdg" light on the autopilot, you'll gradually drift off course.

I called around to get descent clearance and couldn't find anybody, even on HF. When I got closer to Eureka, I contacted them. It turns out that airspace below 29,000 feet is uncontrolled in that area, so clearance is not necessary. You can announce your descent on 126.7 when you're out of range of Arctic (or other) Radio.

The Eureka Weather Station was teaming with activity, relatively speaking. In addition to the 10 or 15 regular summer crew, there were a couple dozen people building new housing and work facilities. Everyone there, without exception, was very friendly. Rai LeCotey gave us a briefing of the station, some rules and recommendations, and was nice enough to show us around.

I originally wasn't sure whether Eureka would be snow covered, but there is no snow on the ground this time of year. Eureka is in an arctic desert. Even in the winter there is only a few inches of snow on the ground, except for drifts.

The ocean did have some sea ice and some icebergs. We deduced that since the ice was melting, the water must be warm, so we took a quick swim. Very quick. We saw arctic wolves, arctic terns, arctic hares, and an arctic fox near the station. There are muskox in the area, and sometimes polar bears when there's more ice. The sun was up 24 hours at Eureka. It sets for the first time (about an hour and 20 minutes) on August 29, just about three weeks before the Autumnal Equinox.

After an enjoyable stay at Eureka, we headed south to Pond Inlet, Pangnirtung, Iqaluit, and Kuujjuarapik (a diversion from Sanikiluaq because of fog). The heading errors went away somewhere north of 70° Latitude. After a stop at Sault Ste Marie, we cleared U.S. Customs at Dayton and visited the Air Force Museum before arriving home a week after we left.

Here are some resources for trips "up north":

"Nunavut Handbook: Traveling in Canada's Arctic," by Marion Soubliee, ISBN 1550365878

Canada Weather: www.flightplanning.navcanada.ca

Flying to Canada: www.avweb.com/news/places/183648-1.html

Trip Photos: xpda.com/arctic04

More Trip Photos: stevenwebster.com/canada/canada.html