Inuvik, NT to Yellowknife, NT
We had enjoyed some spectacular weather across the northern Yukon and Northwest Territories, but change was imminent. We checked the weather for our intended route and it was a mixture of the good, the bad and the downright ugly.
Our plan for June 22 was to head south from Inuvik and generally follow the Mackenzie River south (or upstream) to Fort Simpson, and then see if we could find accommodation either in Ft. Simpson or Nahanni Butte to serve as a base for us to fly around Nahanni National Park Reserve and Virginia Falls, an impressive waterfall with a drop of 96m (315’) or about twice the height of Niagara Falls.
We had accommodation booked in Yellowknife, where it had been surprisingly hard to find a room, for the evenings of June 23 and 24th, so we had just one available night to spend close to the Nahanni.
As we departed the Inuvik area to the south, we crossed the open Tundra for the first 30 minutes or so before meeting the Mackenzie River again near an abandoned airstrip at Thunder River. From there we generally followed the river, taking the opportunity to land at Fort Good Hope (CYGH) and then Norman Wells (CYVQ), Tulita (CZFN) and Wrigley (CYWY). There are no year-round roads serving any of these communities, all of which developed due to their location on the mighty Mackenzie River, to this day a major transit route for the region.
Norman Wells has a large modern airport and oil terminals and drilling platforms on artificial islands in the Mackenzie River, for pumping and then shipping the oil from under the Mackenzie River. Norman Wells means, in the local Slavey language “where there is oil”, and is the administrative centre of the region with a population of just 673 people.
In the winter months (December to March) an ice road is constructed that connects Norman Wells to Wrigley which then connects onwards to Fort Simpson. The Northwest Territory creates nearly 2,000 kilometres of ice roads each winter to connect 12 towns, giving them temporary access to the outside world. These roads are ploughed over terrain that is impassable until it is frozen solid. Here is a link to an article on ‘The North’s Cool Highways”. As we flew south, the route for the winter ice road was clearly visible, as is the reality that making the route into a year-round road will be a daunting and costly undertaking.
It was around 5pm local time that we arrived in Wrigley the first time (major foreshadowing…). We ate some snacks and rested a while as we checked the weather to the south. There was rain and scattered storms across the region, but we had plenty of daylight so decided to head south for Ft. Simpson. Ian had called ahead for Prior Permission to land at the Fort Simpson Island airstrip, as it is walking distance to the village and a restaurant. Once 40 minutes or so south of Wrigley we could see the storm development around Ft. Simpson and contacted Ft. Simpson Radio for an update on the local conditions. The operator reported a large storm cell to the East of the town and another larger one to the west, both producing prolific lightning and heavy rain. The conditions to the West by Nahanni Butte looked similar, and we had no desire to fly into such a remote area in bad weather that also has no fuel available.
Lightning was visible in two quadrants of the sky, and it was Chris’ first time seeing lightning from a plane so he was glued to the window, waiting to see more. Our pilots were less eager to see more, so we decided to divert to Yellowknife as we had ample fuel and unlimited daylight, however the Yellowknife area was reporting significant overdevelopment and thunderstorm activity, so we turned tail and returned to Wrigley to camp for the night.
Put those dogs away!
There are different types of camping. Glamping means you take a portable generator, TV, blender and really live like you never left home. Flamping is flying and camping, some aircraft will allow you to take along enough gear to camp in style, but most won't. The 5intheSky Airvan has a decent load carrying capacity, but after allowing for 5 people, full fuel, survival and safety gear, tools, supplies and 20-25 lbs of personal clothing per person, there's not much left over for camping gear. As such, we decided to take ultra-lightweight camping gear (tents, sleeping pads and sleeping bags) for the 5 team members and no cooking, food preparation or storage supplies. So we weren't going to be Glamping!
It was sunny and warm when we landed back at Wrigley and we set up camp and had more trail mix and water for dinner. Thunderstorms were flashing lightning and dumping rain across the valley, but our location was warm, dry and comfortable. The temperature must have dropped precipitously after the sun went down as we all woke up cold around 2am, and decided to simply move into the airport terminal and sleep on the floor to stay warm. Our gear is set up for the many months we will be in warm and hot regions of the world - at least that’s our excuse. Chris mentioned that it’s days like that which are the most memorable!
We packed up and departed Wrigley for Fort Simpson about 8:00am and landed on the wet, muddy runway of Ft. Simpson Island (CET4) less than an hour later. From the puddles and pools of water, it was clear that the area had been drenched overnight. We walked into town to the restaurant and had a disappointing breakfast that filled the void but not the expectations. Walking back to the AirVan, slipping and sliding around puddles in the Ft. Simpson mud, a cheerful voice called over to say hello. He mentioned he was based at Pitt Meadows airport in BC, and then we realised we knew each other - it was Dale Floyd from Coast Dog Aviation. It was great to meet and catch up in such a random way, but it put is in a good mood for the next steps of the journey.
As we had lost time due to the weather delay, and the weather still was not very good around the Nahanni area, so we decided to head for Yellowknife, with a few stops along the way. First stop was the main airport at Ft. Simpson (CYFS) for fuel, and then Whati (CEM3) on the eastern shore of Lac la Martre and then Rae Edzo (CRE2) on the North Armn of Great Slave Lake.
Whati was a gorgeous area to fly around, as the lakes were crystal clear with a tropical shade of blue and Chris said it looked like we were in the Caribbean, somewhere we are excited to be planning to explore in the coming months.
On the final leg of the flight we followed the Yellowknife Highway the 50nm miles from rae Edzo to Yellowknife and got ATC clearance to join the right base for runway 16. One more minor mistake by the chief pilot, as back tracking runway 16 he got confused about the direction to continue to the itinerant parking. Stopping at the intersection of runway 16 and runway 10-28, ATC was on the radio to us before we could call them, with repeat taxi instructions that we would remember this time. All good and they were very accommodating. Reaching Yellowknife, NWT, the 5intheSky team has flown a total of 2,875 nautical miles (5,300km) and logged 28.3 hours of airtime, stopping at 22 different airports.