What Did Kevin Get Himself Into Now?

What Did Kevin Get Himself Into Now?

This summer I was lucky enough to get a job working with Environment Canada at the world’s most northern permanently inhabited location in the World! (no, not Santa’s Palace nor Superman’s Crib, but they live close by) This location is of course Canadian Forces Station Alert, Nunavut (aka CFS Alert). Alert started out as a joint weather station between the US and Canada, now it is a military station run by the Canadian Air Force and has approximatey 100 personnel, most of which are military. The position I have is with the GAW (Global Atmosphere Watch) lab which collects data on a variety of surface and atmospheric a variables as well as pollutants.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

A Hike Out To The Tragic Box-Top 22 Crash Site

Box-Top 22 was a CC-130 plane (AKA a Hercules) that crashed during a supply run in October 1991. Every year the station runs operation “Box-Top” where the station is refilled with many essential supplies, this operation usually lasts around a few weeks. These operations usually occur in the spring and fall, just after and just before the dark season (because Alert is well within the Arctic Circle it is completely dark for about 6 months).

During the 1991 operation Box-Top one of the planes got caught in a blizzard just before getting to Alert. Unfortunately, the plane crashed approximately 15 kilometres south of the station. Only four died upon impact, and the pilot lost his life while waiting for the rescue crew, leaving a total of 13 survivors. To the extent of my knowledge, it took approximately 48 hours for a rescue team to reach the crash site during the blizzard conditions.

This crash site is located at the very edge of the allowable travelling limits from station. Naturally, I wanted to try to hike to it. Very few people hike out to the crash site, for good reasons, I believe the last group to hike out to the crash site was quite a few years ago. In the way are rivers, marshes, and deceptive rolling hills of tundra. What makes it a really hard hike is that we could not find any GPS co-ordinates for the crash site, and to top that off most of the maps of the area are from the 80’s and not very reliable. We did have one advantage though, that was that one guy from our hiking group had worked in Alert for five years, knew the area very well, and is an experienced tracker/hiker. So myself, and four of my adventurous friends, took off one early morning for what would be about a 30 kilometre hike (roundtrip).

Our first bout of excitement came when we were crossing a marsh/valley (well during the spring it is marsh) about 7 kilometres from station. To our surprise three small peary caribou came trotting from one side of the valley towards us.

These little guys were a very curious bunch. It`s not very often that caribou are spotted, and luckily they were just as interested in us as we were in them. But we were short on time and had a very long hike ahead of us, so we snapped a few pictures and carried on. Surprisingly, they followed us for a while, but stayed back in the safety of the valley and left us to hike out towards the barren tundra ahead.

Past the valley was a very unforgiving wasteland, hardly any vegetation could be seen at all. After a couple of hours of hiking and crossing a couple of streams we reached our first big obstacle. A melt-water river more than 6 feet deep in some places. The timing of our hike was far from optimal because, well, we did it a couple of weeks after the rivers had peaked with melt-water. We had to do it at this time though because our most experienced member was leaving in a couple days, and this was his last weekend on station.

Luckily, we found a spot that was knee deep, unfortunately it was also about 80 feet wide. The picture above is the river I am writing about, on the left side you can see two of my hiking party. (The barren rocky-ness on the right side was characteristic of most of the terrain). We had anticipated such obstacles and we came prepared, mostly. Our strategy: Pants off (or rolled up if possible), slip on some old running shoes, and carry your boots as well as the rest of your kit across the icy stream. As soon as we arrive at the other side we planned on throwing on lots of warm clothing and waiting a few minutes to warm up.

We knew that the river was going to be very, very cold, but none of us, except Phillip (our most experienced hiker I keep talking of, he is also Inuit…) were really prepared for the cold. The intense feeling of cold was more than I had ever imagined possible. Yep, my skin went through the typical burning cold sensation, followed by the expected numbing (as if walking on a couple of blocks of ice). Then came the real pain which was a deep bone stinging/ache that directed all of your thoughts to one thing: Holy S**T my feet are cold. So, upon arriving at the other side we all did the same thing: collapsed and held our feet in a desperate attempt to warm them up and relieve the cold. Of course it really wasn`t that bad, that bone-aching feeling diminished after 5-10 minutes. And it was pretty funny to see the first few members of our group cross and then collapse, not so funny when I was crossing myself though. Soon enough we had our feet dried, fresh socks on and we were ready to continue our trek

It took us a few hours to get to the general location of the crash area, followed by another few hours hopelessly wandering the tundra looking for the actual plane. Don’t worry Ma’, we had GPS coordinates back to our truck, so we weren’t really lost, we knew precisely where we were. However, the ambiguity of our map left us wondering where the exact location of the plane was.

Eventually we saw a blue tip that was the plane’s tail and headed straight for it. After arriving at the wreckage it was hard to imagine anyone surviving this crash. Pieces of the plane were littered all over the place. In addition to that, the only major intact piece of the plane was the tail end. A few propellers and engines were identifiable, but not much else.

Unfortunately, a few minutes after we arrived at the Box-Top 22 crash site, fog started to roll in. We did have a GPS and the coordinates to get back to our truck, but we did not have the coordinates for where we crossed the main river. This posed a bit of a problem, especially after we learned how hard it was to find anything in this vast wasteland. So ten minutes after we arrived at our destination we took off, retracing our steps back to the river crossing we had taken earlier.

 As we hiked back the fog rolled in and out of our general area, allowing us to safely make it back to the river crossing. In the picture below you can kind of see what an endless wasteland the tundra around here is, nothing but rocks and mud for miles.

After crossing the river we had an easy hike back to our truck. We also had a visit from our three favourite caribou on the way back through the swampy valley between Mount Pullen and Crystal Mountain.

Turned out to be a great hike with a great bunch of guys, and I would gladly do it again. Above from left to right: Me, Cory, Cale, Marcus, Phillip.