Bob Dengler flew his Bell 429 to the top of Baffin Island, and then completed a circumnavigation of Hudson Bay.
During my working career as a mining engineer, I had the opportunity to visit many operations in the Canadian Arctic. I always wanted to show my wife, Patricia, the incredible sights and unique way of life in Canada’s far north, and this summer I finally got the opportunity to do so in my Bell 429. With the support and calm guidance of experienced Arctic pilot Bruce Laurin, we completed a long-planned 4,400-nautical-mile circumnavigation of Hudson Bay, from Toronto, Ont., to the top of Baffin Island.
Although I planned to be at the aircraft’s controls for the duration of the seven-day trip, I wanted a pilot with Bruce’s expertise to help guide me through the unique challenges of flying in the Arctic. Bruce, who had recently taken early retirement after 25 years at Bell Helicopter (where he had served as a test pilot on the Bell 430 and Bell 429), has more than 10 years’ experience of flying helicopters in the Canadian Arctic, and had recently completed a Pole-to-Pole helicopter flight. He was the ideal companion for my trip.
From left: Bob Dengler; Dengler’s sister-in-law, Lorraine; and experienced Arctic pilot Bruce Laurin. Also on the trip was Dengler’s wife, Patricia.
We set out from National Heliport in Bolton, Ont., at 8 a.m. on Aug. 25, 2015. Our first leg, which took us to Wawa in Northern Ontario, was a precursor to what we would often experience during our Arctic adventure. We encountered low ceilings over Georgian Bay, forcing us to fly west over Lake Huron and add a fuel stop in Manitoulin. We faced the same problem as we left Wawa, but we were able to fly due west towards Thunder Bay, and ultimately to Sioux Lookout as the weather improved. One more stop in Red Lake enabled us to fly directly to Thompson, Man., completing our goal for the first day on a slightly more circuitous route than originally planned.
On day two, we flew to Churchill, Man., and Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut. We saw 15 polar bears and over 300 beluga whales north of Churchill — an incredible experience. We left the tree line behind us and began five days of flying over tundra.
The group saw 15 polar bears north of Churchill, Man., but took care not to disturb the wildlife.
We stayed overnight in Chesterfield Inlet, where Bruce’s wife, who happened to be looking after the health center in the remote town on a temporary basis, treated us to a delicious dinner of Arctic char followed by caribou stew.
We left early the next morning to fly to Naujaat (known as Repulse Bay until July this year), which is right on the Artic Circle. Our early departure was even earlier than expected, as there was no water at the hotel (water is delivered to all homes and businesses in the town by truck — which was running late that day). Travel in the Arctic reminds you not to take such conveniences for granted.
As a pilot, one of the major challenges of flying in the Arctic is the distance between airports — which can be hundreds of miles. This precludes instrument flight rules operation in the helicopter, as alternates are just too far apart. Therefore, visual flight rules is the only choice. But again, the distances between villages and airports that are reporting weather conditions are such that whatever lies between can present a challenge. Fortunately, with a helicopter, we can simply land and wait for the weather to improve. While we didn’t have to resort to landing on this particular leg, there were times when we had to pick our way through low clouds and reduced visibility. Nevertheless, we reached Pond Inlet, via Igloolik, on schedule.
Cloud creeps out towards the shoreline. Coping with inclement weather was a familiar theme during the seven-day journey.
Our accommodation at each stop was prearranged, and while certainly adequate, raised some issues unique to arriving by helicopter. We tried to make sure that the hotels were aware that we were doing so, but in a few cases, our rooms were given away when we did not arrive on the last scheduled flight of the day. Most of the hotels in the small villages were only four rooms in size, so there was not a lot of flexibility.
Our meals were good when we were on time; one night when we arrived a little late, the dining room was closed, so we had to buy frozen pizzas at the local store and use the hotel’s oven to cook them. We did not go hungry.
We spent two days at Pond Inlet as we wanted to fly over Nanisivik, which was a zinc mine that had produced for more than 20 years — and my company had been involved in its development. (The mine closed several years ago, and the site had been cleared up to extent that there was virtually no trace of it having ever existed.)
Icebergs dot the water between a sheer cliff and snow-capped mountains in Canada’s Arctic.
During our flights in the area, we saw hundreds of icebergs of various size and shape, herds of harp seals, and many flocks of birds. We took lots of photos of the dramatic landscape — the tundra, mountains, and glaciers — but it’s impossible to do justice to the vistas that we saw in our time there.
Day four was the beginning of the trip south. We flew to Clyde River, refueled, and set out for Pangnirtung, following the east coast of Baffin Island. Unfortunately, the weather forced us back, but on our return we could see higher ceilings in one of the fjords. We flew down the fjord, and saw even higher ceilings over the mountains. We returned to Clyde River to refuel, and went back to the fjord to clear the mountains. This allowed us to fly down the center of Baffin Island and directly into Pangnirtung. We made one last fuel stop, and then completed a short flight to Iqualuit, right on schedule.
Dengler was pilot-in-command for the duration of the trip, and used Laurin’s experience to help guide him through the challenges posed by the northern conditions.
While my wife and her sister, who had accompanied us on the trip, left the next day on a commercial flight to Ottawa and Toronto, Bruce and I continued our journey back to Bolton. We stopped for fuel in Salluit, Que., and stayed overnight in Sanikiluaq, in Hudson Bay’s Belcher Islands. I would be remiss if I said it was all smooth flying; we continued to battle weather from time to time.
Finally, our last day included fuel stops in Moosenee, Sudbury, and Bolton. Upon our return, the helicopter was very dirty and had developed a vibration that turned out to be failing main rotor blade restraints. We had covered 4,400 nautical miles, not including a few false starts, and logged over 38 hours of flying.
There were so many highlights, both in the human experiences along the journey, as well as the raw natural beauty of the Arctic. It was certainly more than worth the many hours of planning it had taken to make it happen. As my wife told me when I got home, “It was the trip of a lifetime.”
Puffs of cloud surround the mountainous peaks either side of this valley floor.
The stark tundra was interspersed with dramatic landscapes.
A glacier winds its way through the mountains.