18 hour workdays in Land of Midnight Sun

Windsor Star reporter Doug Schmidt joined a local group of historical aircraft buffs as they ventured into the Arctic to salvage what remained of a Second World War era bomber. Excerpts from his trip diary:

 
Day 1: July 9
Rankin Inlet to Pelly Lake, N.W.T.
 
About two km below the chartered Twin Otter's rumbling roar, the flat, almost featureless barrenland tundra stretches out before us into infinity.
Far north of the treeline, a million nameless small lakes glare in the late-evening sun directly ahead, giving the impression of a huge table surface covered with a wild, shiny scattering of countless jigsaw puzzle pieces. Muskeg and exposed patches of some of the oldest material in the world - two to three-billion-year-old Canadian Shield bedrock.
Pilot Mike Murphy - 15 years northern flying experience with Yellowknife's Air Tindy - struggles with his map of a million lakes, finally getting it into place over the cockpit window. A bit of minor adjusting, and he slumps back in his new-found bit of shade, eyes shut, snoring peacefully in rhythm with the twin propellers.
Not to worry - co-pilot Mark Fraser is still at the controls, but even his job is made simple with modern technology. Far removed from the open cockpit bushplane antics of such northern air legends as Wop May and Punch Dickens a mere generation ago, today's Arctic pilots can simply punch their destination co-ordinates into an on-board Geographic Location System and a satellite points the plane in the right direction.
It's a full day of flying from Windsor (four aircraft, five stops) before we reach Pelly Lake, a sandy airstrip built and then abandoned again in the 1950s atop a 40-metre-high delta outwash plane. This huge dune once formed the mouth of a mighty glacier river flowing from the last recorded ice age.
On the trip in we fly past pack ice along parts of the Hudson Bay shore, and we buzz over a 40 strong herd of musk-oxen. We share flight legs with southern goldseekers heading north to the exploration camps and northern residents returning from hospital stays in the south.
 

Pelly Lake, N.W.T.

 
Mosquitoes of a different kind are foremost on our mind as we disembark, slapping the buzzing air around us. Ignoring the blood-sucking welcome, we rush to the visible parts of our quarry, the remnants of a Mark 35 Mosquito bomber.
By midnight - still bright as daylight - tents are pitched and we've met our host, Paul Squires, a Yellowknifer and member of another historical aircraft group out of Edmonton. While the Windsor group has its sights set on two Rolls Royce Merlin engines, the Ventura memorial Flight Association has similar designs on a third engine left abandoned here to go with its bomber at Edmonton's airport.
Paul whips up a post-midnight dinner of salad and chops.
 

Day 2: July 10

Pelly Lake, N.W.T.
 
Throughout the night, a steady 50 to 70 km/h northern wind blows, with our tents forming the only ground resistance between here and as far as you can see in any direction - two of our four lodgings are not up to the challenge and are flattened by morning, turning half the crew homeless.
Whenever the strong chilly wind slackens, the buzzing cloud of mosquitoes resumes its feeding frenzy. After breakfast-for-six over two Coleman burners, we ride in style on Paul's 4WD all-terrain vehicle and trailer to the crash site about a mile away for a closer inspection of what remains.
Somebody notes that it was exactly 40 years ago to this day that pilot Al MacNutt brought in his disabled burning wreck of a survey plane, minus the two crew members who had bailed out earlier over the tundra with their parachutes. MacNutt, alive and well in Abbotsford, B.C. today, said he wasn't able to give up the controls of his Mosquito long enough to do likewise.
What remained of the largely wooden plane after it burned was bulldozed to the side of the airstrip, and our first job now is to see what might still be usable for Windsor group's own Mosquito rebuilding project.
But based on leader Tim Gillies's excited pacing around the mostly aluminium leftovers, we've stumbled on to something particularly exciting. Even the remains of the nearly one-tonne heavy Merlin engine that exploded in mid-air will eventually be lovingly picked up and placed in a Twin Otter, next to its healthier sidekick, for the first backhaul leg to Windsor.
Being in the Land of the Midnight Sun affords us the luxury of working nearly all the time, and we clock another 18-hour day before trooping back to resurrect the flattened half of camp.
Shortly before midnight, an arctic wolf, still dressed in winter white, scampers by the outskirts of our camp.
Our second day, filled with digging, measuring and pulling apart, is capped by a gorgeous sunset at about 12:30 a.m. Without any hint of darkness, it's hard to know when dusk is over and the next dawn begins.

 

Tuesday: Arctic liquids - horizontal rain, jet fuel, canned beer, body sweat and loads of WD-40.
 
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