It is April third. I am 225 miles east of our home, and still flying east away from home. Below me the tundra is a solid, unbroken, unmarked sheet of white. Above and around me, as I sit in the little cockpit of the Husky, is the sky – blue, cloudless, cold, with an invisible headwind pushing more cold air out of the northeast at about 15 knots. The temperature gauge poking out through the windscreen reads -33 degrees Celsius, about 25 below zero Fahrenheit. I glance for the hundredth time at the engine gauges: oil pressure, manifold pressure, RPM, exhaust gas temperature, CHT… all is well, all the lights are green, all the needles are pointing at reasonable places on the dials.
Those are good, all those tiny green lights, because it is no exaggeration today to claim that I may be the most solitary human being on the mainland of North America, right now, 500 feet above the white, droning along through the blue, keeping a watchful, not to say nervous, eye on the greens.
32 years ago, April 1981, I was out here at ground level, not droning, but mushing, with one companion and ten dogs, grinding along at a few miles an hour in a quixotic quest to cross the barrens from Yellowknife to Baker Lake. In that we failed, I suppose you could say, because we finally turned tail and headed back toward Reliance, from Hornby Point on the Thelon. Discretion and judgement were the better part of valor, as they still are. With no radio, no satellite phone, no GPS or Spidertracks reporting, or any other damned widget remotely akin to any of those things, we were on our own out here in a way that today is almost hard to remember.
My task today is a caribou “recon” — a scouting mission for a more elaborate spring assessment of the population status of one of the remote herds of caribou in the world – the Beverley / Ahiak group. These caribou range across the north central barrens, from Artillery Lake on the west to Beverley Lake on the East, give or take, south to the treeline along the NWT border with Saskatchewan, and north to the coast of the Arctic Ocean.
There are no caribou in this part of the Finnie River drainage today. I saw some about a hundred miles back, just lying nonchalantly on a patch of tundra hilltop. But here, at 2 p.m. on April third, at 63° 49’ North by 102° 22’ West, it’s all just white and blue and cold out there. On the panel in front of me the little lights all green, and the magic-wizard screen of the GPS which somehow knows exactly where I am and how fast I am going and which way I should turn to find home.
Stuffed into the plane all around me are things I think I would like to have, were something to go awry out here. I have a satellite telephone, a little mountaineering tent, a 2-burner Coleman stove, three sleeping bags, a bucket of survival gear, about a jillion different stashes of matches and lighters; axe, saw, shovel, snowshoes, rifle, extra jugs of fuel for the plane, engine covers, wing covers, a pack of playing cards, parka, fur hat, spare mitts…
I don’t really talk to my plane very often, or to my engine, but in the back of my mind a voice is mumbling “Just keep tickin’ over baby, just keep tickin’ over. I want to be home by a hot woodstove tonight, easy in the easy chair, back in the spruce and birch trees on the north shore of McLeod Bay.”
(And of course, now I am.)