Adventure in a silent land comes to a cold, wet end

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. Here are the concluding excerpts from his trip diary:
 
Day 5: July 13
Pelly Lake, N.W.T.
 
"Tim! Tim! Wake up - it's CBC North!"
Half dazed by only a few hours of sleep, Tim Gillies stumbles out of a tent wet from the previous night's rain, wearing socks but no bug protection to stagger to the waiting telephone. Being the leader of any undertaking might have its privileges, but Gillies, Windsor's Mosquito Bomber Group president, definitely can't see any in this wind-swept early morning.
Thanks to the latest in Mitsubishi satellite technology, our camp, isolated in the barren land, is only a phone call away, and a Yellowknife radio morning show host is calling. With more than 20,000 parts needed to rebuild the Mosquito once it's back in Windsor, Gillies knows he has to get the word out whenever an opportunity comes along.
As Cohort Larry Leaney helps his leader with his boots and Marvin Fields sprays down the notoriously mosquito-shy bomber group president, Gillies swats wildly with his free hand at his buzzing nemeses as he mumbles monosyllabic answers to a radio reporter's questions.
With the Mosquito side of work completed, the scramble begins to wrap up the environmental cleanup and to try to get a third aircraft engine out of Pelly Lake. An Edmonton group, of which Paul Squires - in charge of the cleanup and our northern transportation - is a member, is hoping an abandoned Ventura bomber engine can be lifted out for its restoration project.
Last night's wind drove rain under the protective flies of the sagging tents and the water drip, drip, dripped on to sleeping bags, clothing and gear. In the morning, there are puddles in the tents.
At breakfast in our open-air kitchen, it's windy, drizzly, cold and gray. Perhaps to buoy spirits, Randy Cyr, the until-now calm and mild-mannered Windsor industrialist who says he's on this trip for the adventure, raises his arms and startles everyone with a couple of outbursts of manic "Hallelujahs!"
The effect, on me at least, is probably not what is hoped for - Cyr has a slightly wild, grizzled look after five days of working long hours and not shaving or showering. After a night of dripping water nearly driving me mad and the howling wind that never ceases, I wonder if some of my camp mates haven't hit the threshold a bit ahead of me.
The miracle gadget of this trip, the portable crane designed by Fields - a Windsor expert in materials handling and moving - is just powerful enough to get the R2800 Double Wasp Ventura engine, weighing more that a tonne, up a sandy incline. But there's a huge disappointment when the crew realise the massive engine will need a bigger aircraft in order to leave Pelly Lake. With much effort, the 18-cylinder, 2,200 HP radial engine is hoisted on to a makeshift block at the edge of the airstrip, in the hope that it can be picked up once the winter freezeup allows larger aircraft to land here.
In a final push to consolidate the fuel drums and finish the cleanup, which requires digging many of the barrels out of the sand dunes first, we work late into the night, arriving back at camp soaked.
 
Day 6: July 14
 
Arrggghh!!! Why did those (long string of expletives) editors ever approve my request to go on this trip? Like much of the rest of the camp, I woke up in a wet tent. The constant rain is driven by a powerful wind for the second day straight, and there is little by the way of protection or escape.
Our early morning flight hasn't arrived by late-morning, and a phone call on the satellite suitcase determines our Baker Lake pilots have yet to venture out of the airport; it's fogged in.
The mood gets downright gloomy when we realise we're about to miss our Rankin Inlet to Yellowknife connection and, as a consequence, our Yellowknife to Edmonton, then our booked and paid-for flights home from Edmonton.
With the Baker Lake Twin Otter looking like it plans to make a trip to a drill camp before picking us up, the weather progressively worsening, and our camp cold and wet, Squires calls in an emergency. He tells the flight dispatcher we have plenty of food and fuel, but his message ensures we'll be considered ahead of a working trip to a mineral exploration site.
The work is done and the tents can't be taken down until we are sure we are getting out (meaning the airplane must be on the airstrip), so we hunker down to wait. Meanwhile, the fog rolls in (like the mosquitoes, northern fog seems to be immune to driving winds). By early afternoon, we hear the twin propellers, and we see a faint outline of our Twin Otter through the fog, but it can't land. The crew turns around and makes the 90-minute flight back to Baker Lake empty.
By 6 p.m., our plane is overhead and slips through the layers of fog and cloud. Our camp is packed in a record few minutes, some of the tents still dripping from their jumbo garbage bag coverings when we get back to Windsor almost 24 hours later.
It's amazing how the worst of moments fades from thought as the Twin Otter banks off to the east over the lowland basin of the Back River, our feet still in wet boots.
In instant hindsight afforded by a warm plane cabin, it was just an excellent adventure with some spectacular memories. Like the day four musk oxen, large hairy hulks from the ice-age era, lumbered by our worksite. Or another time, sitting under the Midnight Sun at the edge of our 40-metre-high plateau and peering out over the immense lowlands in every direction - the silence and hugeness of this isolated wilderness was overwhelming.
Flying south over northern Manitoba after 1 a.m. Monday and seeing darkness for the first time in six days, our plane pierced through dancing curtains of the emerald-green Northern Lights.
 
This article copyright the Windsor Star 1996. I have tried to contact the Windsor Star in an effort to get permission to use this article in the web, but have not had any reply.
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