Dawson City, YT to Inuvik, NT
It was only day 6 of our 14 month around-the-world expedition, but it felt like we had been gone for a lot longer. Our plan for the day was to depart Dawson City, Yukon to head north towards Old Crow and then onwards to the arctic coastline and then over to Inuvik, NWT.
Overnight, low clouds had nestled up to the mountains along our route to the north and there was rain and potential thunderstorms forecast later in the morning. We called Flight Services for a weather briefing, and without directly saying “you shouldn't fly today” he suggested that tomorrow's forecast looked better for departing Dawson.
While this was indeed true, the following day's forecast for Old Crow, and other areas to the north where we were heading, was worse. We weren't about to do anything risky, however visibility under the cloud deck was fine and winds were light, and having flown a lot in the coastal mountains of BC, we weren't going to throw in the towel quite so easily.
After 20 more minutes of checking Windy.com and drinking coffee in the CYDA terminal, we stopped a local charter pilot after he shut down his 206 and asked for advice. He agreed the conditions were just fine to at least give it a try, and suggested a route north out of Dawson following the Chandindu River to Seela Pass having lots of valley width to turn around if required, and said if you could see through the Seela pass towards the Dempster then it would be safe to then go at least as far as the airstrip at Chapman.
Chapman (CEZ2) is a 2,500' gravel strip next to the Dempster Highway, the long gravel road, cutting through stunningly beautiful scenery, connecting Inuvik (and now Tuktoyaktuk) to the outside world. We were told the Chapman airstrip was in good shape, and once in the area, we would have the added security of the Dempster Highway as a landing strip if required - a rare luxury flying in the north.
We were off! Heading north up the Chandindu we made radio and visual contact with a Cessna 185 heading for Chapman, and followed them through the Seela pass and into the open plateau around Chapman. The 185 pilot guessed it was 50/50 if we could make it through the next range of mountains and up to Ogilvie (CFS4). Ogilvie was not a strip we would choose to land at except in an emergency, as it has larger rocks on the surface and tundra tires are recommended.
We pressed on and as we wound our way North, trying to keep the Dempster in sight, the cloud base began to rise and became broken. Within 30 minutes we were in brilliant blue skies, and we changed our heading direct to Old Crow. The flying became much more relaxed, knowing at the latitude we were now at the sun pretty much wouldn't be setting for weeks!! Ian had flown into Old Crow before and we knew it was a really great little airport - and that AvGas was available.
Old Crow (CYOC), Yukon is a small community situated on the Porcupine River in the northern part of the territory. Old Crow is the only Yukon community located north of the Arctic Circle and also the only one that can’t be reached by motor vehicle. Anyone trying to visit the community must fly in so it’s definitely remote. We walked around town and enjoyed some snacks and rest next to the river and chatted with some locals about the massive Caribou herds in the area. Due to the remoteness of Old Crow, most "imported" things in the store are on the expensive side, like this bag of chips:
From Old Crow we departed north, flying over Vuntut National Park to the Arctic coast and Herschel Island, a small island located just 5km off of the northern coast of the Yukon in the Beaufort Sea. The scenery north of Old Crow is incredible. The lakes and winding streams of Old Crow flats are dotted with moose, and the vast expanse beyond home to vast herds of Porcupine Caribou (we saw Moose and Musk Ox, no Caribou). Further north, in Ivvavik National Park, vast treeless plains are dissected by rivers and streams running northwards into the ocean.
We had contacted Yukon Parks about a landing permit for Herschel Island, but learned after a phone call with a local pilot that the airstrip had been partially washed away and was soft, wet sand: total length remaining of about 700'. It didn't take long to figure out 5intheSky wasn’t going to be landing there! No one lives on the island, although there are a few buildings, but unfortunately due to sea fog over the open water we weren't able to see much of it. We flew overhead, tagging the island then continued east towards Inuvik, where we had a hotel booked for a couple of nights. Following the coast line at the edge of the dense sea fog, what at first appeared to be an eerie apparition suddenly appeared out of the mist. It turned out to be an oil rig anchored just off shore, and it was a shock to our senses to see such a massive man-made structure after looking out over the wide-open expanses of almost untouched terrain.
Landing where we shouldn't...
We had been flying for more than 2 hours over wilderness terrain, and as we headed eastward along the coast of the Beaufort Sea our Foreflight charts showed there were no maintained airstrips until we reached Aklavik in the Mackenzie delta. To our surprise, we suddenly passed over what looked to be a long and decently maintained airstrip. Nobody had to say a word - we all knew what this meant - pee break!
Bringing the AirVan around for an inspection pass, it was clear this was an actively maintained strip, likely for what looked like a radar facility nearby. Ian was interested in seeing if he could get airborne with the paraglider along the sea cliffs next to the airstrip, and Chris was eager to get out the drone. We taxied to a stop and shut down the engine, suddenly becoming fully aware of how remote we really were. As we gathered some gear and started walking to the sea, we read a sign that basically let us know we were not welcome in the hood. While it would have taken someone hours (or days) to come and ask us to leave, we decided to play by the rules and get going before the military or the sea fog could roll in.
As it turns out, the Shingle Point airstrip was developed to support a Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line station. The DEW Line was a system of radar stations in the northern Arctic of Canada that was apparently shut down in the late 80s as the technology had changed so much that Canada and the U.S. realised they needed a new series of radar stations to replace the DEW Line. They replaced it with the ‘North Warning System’. We're not sure if the station at Shingle Point is still active in some way, but we're pretty sure someone is maintaining the airstrip! We departed Shingle Point and flew eastward toward Inuvik. As we approached the Mackenzie Delta the arctic coastline transitioned from a single low coastal cliff into a spectacular labyrinth of oxbow lakes, ponds and winding river channels.
We flew out over the 10km wide bay, shown as Shallow Bay on the charts, hoping to spot the brilliant white flash of Beluga the whales that frequent the area as they surface in the chocolate brown water of the Mackenzie. No luck this time.
The Mackenzie river flows north and drains a massive region into the Arctic Ocean, in the process creating the 2nd largest Arctic delta in the world, and the largest in North America.
Most land in and around the Mackenzie river delta is underlain by thick permafrost and the river drains an area of over 1.8 million square kilometres (697,000 sq. miles), exceeded only in North America by the Mississippi. Other than some isolated fish camps, the only major settlement in the delta is Aklavik.
We descended to a few hundred feet and flew south over the delta towards Aklavik, pointing out to each other remote fishing camps as we spotted them. Getting hungry and tired, we landed in Aklavik thinking we could get some food before continuing on to Inuvik. While there appeared to be some decent options in the town for food, we decided to get going to Inuvik, as even though the daylight wasn’t going to stop, we were getting tired after a long day of flying. By airplane it's a short 35nm "hop" over to Inuvik, without an airplane, it would take significantly longer….
Aklavik (a cool name with an even cooler meaning: "Place of the Barren Land Grizzly Bear") was the dominant community in the Mackenzie area until the 1950's, when serious flooding resulted in most facilities being relocated to Inuvik.
We landed at Inuvik under the brilliant midnight sun, and we were now far enough north that the sun would not be setting. It’s definitely hard to keep track of time, walking around town with shades on, in brilliant sunshine, ready to get a coffee, only to find the shop is closed because it’s 1am….
At Inuvik, NWT, only 6 days into the expedition, the 5intheSky team has flown a total of 1,850 nautical miles (3,400 km) and logged 18.4 hours of airtime, stopping at 12 different airports.