First tracks across Axel Heiberg Island - Arctic adventure, Part two

click to enlarge Heading for higher ground in the Artic.
  • Heading for higher ground in the Artic.

The twin engine Dakota came in low, dropped three bright orange cargo chutes, and dipped a wing to the guys on the ground before heading back to Resolute Bay. It was mail day at the Eureka weather station but spongy frost boils on the airstrip prevented the fixed-wing aircraft from landing. The parachutes had barely settled before their precious cargo of mail was distributed and each man was silently absorbed in news from friends and loved-ones in another world.

Zeke and I had arrived with our gear by helicopter a few days earlier. The weather station, located on the western side of Ellesmere Island only a short distance from Mokka Fiord, was an ideal staging site for our planned trek across Axel Heiberg Island. We spent several days there, organizing our gear, studying our route on air photos, and getting to know the fellows who lived on the base.

It takes a special kind of person to tolerate the isolation and boredom of a high Arctic weather station. In 1955, before satellites opened the north to reliable communication, Eureka was one of the most isolated spots on earth. A ham radio set provided a tenuous outside link but it frequently didn’t work. And when calls from “Victor Easy Number Eight Mexico America” drew nothing but static the guys went back to their high speed “bugs” and talked to other stations in Morse code. I was amazed at how they could take part in a three-way dialogue with other operators, chuckle at a joke hidden in the clicks and buzzes, and carry on a normal conversation all at the same time. I tried to imagine what it must be like in the perpetual darkness and bitter cold of winter and wondered why they kept coming back. Yet for the handful of men at Eureka it was a chosen way of life.

By the time our chopper returned Zeke and I were ready to go. The plan was to put in four caches and spend up to a month mapping a strip about eight miles wide across the centre of Axel Heiberg. Our route would take us from Mokka Fiord in the east to the tip of Kunguk Peninsula in the west, a distance of 75 miles.

I climbed into the cockpit of HHU, one of our two Sikorsky S55s, and pilot Deke Orr hit the starter. The engine coughed. The big helicopter rocked on its undercarriage as the massive rotor began to swing, and a few seconds later with a pop-pop-pop of the blades we were airborne and headed for Axel Heiberg. Behind me in the cargo hold Zeke was ready to set out our caches while I marked each location on the air photos in my lap.


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