Helicopter Reconnaissance - Part Two

May 26, 2018

Result: Our Site is Ideal!

After refueling in Qaanaaq, we flew up to our camp area that we had selected from the satellite imagery and given the latitude and longitude to the pilots. Along the way we saw more glaciers pouring in slow motion onto the frozen sea in the shapes of gorgeous, aqua-blue ice chunks, a form of “serac”, that will become tiny icebergs (“bergy bits”) when the sea ice goes out. Writing this I am reminded of the saying that the Inuit “have 100 words for snow”. I have found that this misses the point and instead like to clarify that as “In polar regions, snow comes in 100 different forms, (each needing its own term)”.

Before committing to the landing site, the pilots bounced the helicopter a couple times on the snow to make sure that we weren’t about to land on a snow bridge over a hidden crevasse! Often bridges that are too weak to support a lot of weight will be visible on the surface, in good lighting, as a vague depression or subtle change in the characteristics of the snow. Erin and I were pleased to note the bouncing procedure, interpreting it as a sign of good, conservative judgement on the part of the pilots.

Our site is ideal: no crevasses anywhere in the area and flat. The snow is relatively smooth and firm enough that our boots only sunk in a few inches. The only aspect lacking was a view of anything other than white, white, white in all directions. I call this “the Great White Expanse” of polar ice caps.

With the eager assistance of the pilots, we unloaded our cargo, which mostly consisted of camp and emergency gear in case the weather closed in while we were on the ground, leaving us stuck until the flying conditions improved. The weather, however, was delightful, warm enough that we took off our jackets while we worked. The pilots don’t have many opportunities to land on the ice cap and support science projects, so it was nice that this was a change of pace for them. One took photos on both his and Erin’s cameras and posted a selfie of us in front of the cache on his Instagram feed!

 We strategically arranged the gear in the cache to minimize the damaging effects of wind in our absence. Erin and I both have more than enough experience digging snow out of caches (and digging caches out of snow) to take the time to secure this one as well as we could, using a tarp, ratchet straps and, in a few places, bungee cords to reduce flapping. There wasn’t much we could do to prepare to protect against a polar bear, but this time of year the chances of one happening across our cache is quite small.

With the cache secured, we all loaded back into the helicopter, soaking up the magnificent views while flying back to Qaanaaq and then back to Thule Air Base to meet up with our colleagues in the warehouse busy preparing helicopter load #2 and working on the huddle test.