Monday, August 24, 2009

All Flights Cancelled

"All flights cancelled" came the word at 3:10 PM on Saturday. I was lying in the tent and commenced to take a nap, there being nothing else to do under the circumstances. We had arrived back at park base camp the afternoon before, after the queasy ride on high rolling seas aboard the Robert Bradford. Thankfully, Greg had figured the weather into our departure plans, allowing for one full day to be holed up in inclement weather. The Saglek Bay airport was nothing more than a gravel runway. Being closer to the Labrador Sea by a mile or two, it was vulnerable to the weather and to fog banks coming in from the frigid ocean waters. Word had it that the Air Inuit pilots would not come in unless the cloud ceiling was higher than 1,000 ft.

But base camp was not a bad place to hang out in. It was like an old-fashioned frontier town, it's main street with tents on either side, with a fast-flowing stream just outside the perimeter of the electric bear fence to provide fresh water. Generators supplied electricity to a large shelter tent used for meetings and social gatherings as well as to the kitchen/dining tent. There were two outhouses within the bear fence to be used when the fence was turned on (between 10 PM and 5 AM) and one outside the perimeter to be used during the day. The base camp helicopter was parked outside the fence, rows of red and black striped jet fuel barrels lined up alongside. The red maple leaf Canadian flag on one side, and the white, blue, and green flag of Nunatsiavut--the self-governing Inuit region of Labrador--depicting an inuksuk--the traditional stone cairn of the Inuit--on the other, marked the entrance to the camp.

The human population of base camp consisted of the Inuit bear monitors, kitchen staff, and several support staff, as well as the Parks Canada Rangers, several research scientists and their students, and a handful of Inuit youth and their counselors there for two weeks of camp. Peter, the helicopter pilot, was there for a two-week stint as well, to be relieved by another pilot when his time was up. Weather permitting, he would make several flights everyday, transporting the researchers to various far-flung points in the park or, as I've already noted, to check-up on hikers in the back country. In my eyes, Peter was a real rock star, piloting that machine with incredible skill and grace, over mountaintops, down valleys, landing on rocky terrain with apparent ease. Onboard the long-liner Robert Bradford, it was a three hour passage from park base camp to our camp at the head of the North Arm. By helicopter, Peter could make it in twenty minutes.

There were presentations by researchers both evenings we were at base camp. Folks would cram into the meeting tent after dinner and watch power-point presentations, enjoying the warmth cast by the gas stove in the corner. The first evening we listened to a presentation on the state of PCB contamination at what was the site of the Royal Canadian Air Force radar base at the mouth of Saglek Bay above the airstrip, operated between 1953 and 1970, and staffed largely by US Air Force personnel. The site was targeted for PCB cleanup in the 1990's. Happily, due to the cleanup and the passage of time, PCB contaminants in the environment have decreased substantially. The second evening, we heard an entertaining presentation by an ethnobotanist on the traditional uses of native plants by the Inuit of Nunavut and Nunatsiavut. As background to the lecture, several of the bear monitors, including John, were out on the land firing their rifles and adjusting their telescopic sights.

One woman researcher, studying for her PhD, was investigating the effects of climate change on native species of berries. Several others were doing research on one aspect or another of climate change. The presence of so many intense, intelligent scientists focusing their energies on the natural world was exhilarating. There was a Canadian college professor present whose area of study is eco-tourism. A young man from Bhutan, a student of eco-tourism in his own country, was also in camp. Our own group was a source of interest and fascination to many, as we were American hikers from Maine (there were no other hikers in camp), and had acquired fame by virtue of our heroic encounter with the polar bear. (Actually, the only hero in our midst that day was John; the only heroine, the bear herself.)

Sunday morning it dawned partly cloudy with blue skies, the clearing wind having come in the night. We made our farewells on the beach and again boarded the Robert Bradford, which ferried us and our gear out the bay and around to the airstrip. Immediately above the runaway there were low-hanging clouds, but the approaches were clear. The Air Inuit Twin Otter was on its way from the George River.

Photo Credit: David S. Heald Dish Towels Hanging Out To Dry At Park Base Camp


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