Although I’ve flown a bit in Arctic and sub-Arctic Alaska, far northern Canada was largely unknown to me. Most of what I knew came from The Call of the Wild, The Cremation of Sam McGee, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, and a few episodes of Ice Pilots. For this three-day trip, I proposed to start in Dawson, Yukon Territory, fly up to the Arctic Ocean, stopping in Inuvik, Northwest Territory, then southeast past the Great Bear Lake to Yellowknife. From there, I would fly across the Canadian Shield to Churchill, Manitoba located on the shore of Hudson Bay, and home to far more polar bears and belugas than people.
I fly a 1977 Piper Arrow. While this is not your prototypical bush plane, it has proved to be excellent for cross-country sightseeing, a solid VFR and IFR platform that carries enough fuel for 750 nm range (plus one hour reserve), which is important in this scarcely populated area. Almost all of the airstrips that I planned to use are paved, so the small wheels and retractable gear weren’t a concern.
Flying in Arctic Canada presents substantial challenges, even in the summer months. The area is extremely remote and nearly unpopulated. There are few weather stations, even fewer airstrips, and only some of the airstrips offer fuel service, particularly aviation gasoline. Your itinerary often depends as much on fuel availability as the desired route. In the event of a forced landing, you are likely to be hundreds of miles from help, separated by extremely inhospitable terrain. However, these challenges are offset by incredible scenery, fabulous wildlife, and the adventure of flying where few have been before.
I began this journey in the 1890s Klondike gold rush town of Dawson, which is a great place to visit. Over 14 million ounces of gold (over $25 billion at today’s gold price!) have been removed from the immediate area. It was known as the one-time residences of both Robert Service and Jack London.
Dawson lies at the confluence the Yukon and Klondike Rivers, at the far northern end of paved roadways connecting with the rest of Canada, Alaska, and the lower 48 US states.
Dawson is a small town (population 1400), and is now heavily oriented to the travel industry. Many of its buildings have been preserved, recreating the appearance of the gold rush days. Hotels, restaurants, shops, and other attractions are geared to visitors experiencing the magic of the Klondike. This makes for a fun experience—just wandering around the town.
If you visit, be sure to visit Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall, which offers bar, casino, and three nightly shows harkening back to the wild and wooly days of the 1890s.
From Dawson, the weather dawned clear, with only a high overcast, so I was able to file VFR to Inuvik, Northwest Territory. My route followed the gravel Dempster Highway across the Ogilvie Mountains and then along and across the Mackenzie River Delta. This is the only road north from Dawson, and the only road into Inuvik.
The Ogilvie Mountains, also known as the Tombstone Range, lie along the boundary between the Yukon and Northwest Territories. They are a barren, angular terrain that looks particularly bleak and forbidding. The peaks reach as high as 9000 feet, but the highway follows a much lower course, following rivers and valleys across the range.
After crossing the mountains, the terrain opens up into the delta of the Mackenzie River—an extensive area of sloughs, lakes, and pingos, which are small vegetation-covered hills of ice, unique to arctic deltas. The delta is very large, measuring roughly 40 X 80 miles.
Inuvik lies on the northeastern edge of the delta. It is a very new town, established in the late 1950s by the Canadian government to pioneer cold region engineering practices for infrastructure in permafrost and extremely cold temperatures. Permafrost is the condition where the ground never thaws, presenting unique challenges to installing and maintaining water and sewer systems to support a modern town. Inuvik is Canada’s largest settlement north of the Arctic Circle, with a population of 3200. The streetscape is surprisingly modern and clean, with largely paved streets. The town even offers the large Inuvik Community Greenhouse for year-round horticulture.
From Inuvik, I planned to fly to Yellowknife, a straight-line flight of roughly 600 NM. Since the weather was clear and sunny, at least at the beginning of the day, I decided to fly further north, to see the Arctic Ocean coastline, at the village of Tuktoyaktuk. In order to stay ahead of degrading weather forecast for later in the day, I only overflew the village, and didn’t take advantage of its gravel airstrip.
From Tuktoyaktuk, I flew southeast, upstream along the MacKenzie River. The MacKenzie is Canada’s largest river, with a length of over 2600 miles, and a watershed that covers approximately 20 percent of Canada’s land area. It flows in a northerly direction, with its largest stream issuing from the western end of the Great Slave Lake.
I flew to Norman Wells, an oil town on the banks of the MacKenzie River.
Norman Wells was my only available fuel stop between Inuvik and Yellowknife, and as is a good practice in this remote part of the world, I called ahead to be sure they had 100LL available. Fuel supplies here are dependent on the ability to get barge traffic down the MacKenzie River from Fort Simpson, located at the western end of the Great Slave Lake. There are no roads connecting to elsewhere in Canada, so if the shoals in the river are bad, the barges may not get through, and fuel may not be available.
My flight from Norman Wells to Yellowknife was VFR, but under a steadily lowering overcast layer. After an updated weather briefing, I was anxious to get going to Yellowknife as quickly as possible, and didn’t linger in Norman Wells beyond refueling.
Shortly after leaving Norman Wells, I detoured slightly east to pass the Great Bear Lake. This is the largest lake entirely in Canada (Lake Superior and Lake Huron, straddling the US-Canada border, are larger), and the fourth largest lake in North America. It lies in a very flat, glaciated area, so it frankly wasn’t terribly photogenic, but still worth the easy detour.
Canada is slightly larger than the United States, but has less than 10 percent of the US population. Given that the Canadian population is heavily concentrated in the southern part of the country, people in these northern areas are indeed very few and far between. This day of my trip really impacted me with the remoteness of the area. In the 700 nautical mile route, I passed within gliding distance of one gravel airstrip, crossed no roads, and passed near no village larger that the 778 people in Norman Wells. The average annual temperature in this area is 22 degrees F, and the record low is -66 degrees F. Even though I lived for seven years in Alaska, including three years in Fairbanks, it was hard for me to imagine living in this barren land.
However, there is a stark beauty in the immense terrain. One feature that was particularly eye-catching was the strong linearity of the lakes, which you can only notice from an aerial view. I crossed a roughly 50 X 100 mile area area of long, thin lakes, all oriented northwest-southeast. After some puzzling, I realized that these lakes were showing the path taken by continental glaciers in the last ice age.
Yellowknife boasts around 20,000 inhabitants. It is the capital and by far the largest community in the Northwest Territories. It feels like a real city, situated on the northern banks of the Great Slave Lake. It boasts a large airport (home of the Ice Pilots reality television series), modern streets, hotels, restaurants, and tall buildings. It was an abrupt change from the vast and remote areas I’d been flying over for the past two days.
My third day of this journey was from Yellowknife, following the northern shore of the Great Slave Lake, and out across the Canadian Shield to Stony Rapids, Saskatchewan to refuel, and then on to Churchill, Manitoba, on the western shore of Hudson Bay.
The shore of the Great Slave Lake is picturesque—the shorelines rocky and forbidding. My weather was spectacular, although it dawned clear, it got progressively cloudier as I flew eastward.
The Canadian Shield is an expansive area of extremely old rocks—the oldest in North America. It is a very large, mostly flat-lying area comprised essentially of rocks and lakes. There is hardly any soil cover, so very few plants grow there. This was the only time on my journey where I really dreaded having engine troubles. It was a distinctly uninviting place for a forced landing. I concluded my best bet would probably be to ditch, wheels up, in one of the lakes, as near a shoreline as possible, but that would be a poor best choice—even if I landed successfully, all my survival gear would probably end up at the bottom of an ice-cold lake, and I’d be struggling to climb up vertical rocks to get myself out of the water. Needless to say, I listened very carefully to the steady drone of my engine!
I have read that Canada has over two million lakes, and I think I may have flown over half of them on this trip. For someone used to flying mainly in the continental US, the Canadian “lakescape” is utterly amazing. It seems to never end.
Stony Rapids is a tiny village (240 residents) on the Fond du Lac River. It is reachable by unpaved highway, and offers 100LL fuel. It has a surprisingly smooth 5000 foot “treated” gravel runway. Again, I had called ahead to ensure that fuel was available, and I was quickly on my way to Churchill.
The weather, which had been so good to me until now, finally closed in with a low overcast layer, and fog at Churchill. So, I filed IFR, hoping that I’d be able to get into my destination. I really wanted to get there. I had good alternates available, with VFR weather predicted at both Gillam and Thompson, Manitoba, and after my stop at Stony Rapids I had plenty of fuel, so I was confident pressing on.
This area is very remote, and shortly after leaving Stony Rapids, ATC told me my next frequency and to try and check in in about two hours. I would be out of radio contact for well over 200 miles! On the air-to-air frequency that I monitored while out of range from ATC, I heard only occasional transmissions, all of them hundreds of miles away. I was largely in the sunshine above the clouds, and although very quiet, it was a pleasant journey.
When I was able to reach ATC again, about 40 miles out from Churchill, they were reporting a ceiling of 250 feet and 1 mile visibility—right at approach minimums. I requested and was cleared for the GPS approach into runway 33, and it was unlike any approach I’ve ever made. I was in the clear above the clouds until well past the final approach fix (at 1400 feet), then entered the clouds around 800 feet, and popped out just at minimums (my hand was already starting to push forward on the throttle to go missed, as I saw the numbers on runway). After landing, I needed to be careful, because the fog filled in while I was taxiing to the ramp, and it was tough to stay on the taxiway.
Fog is very common in Churchill, because it lies on Hudson Bay, which was about 40 percent ice-covered at this early July time. The juxtaposition of land, water, and ice create a lot of fog. I feel incredibly fortunate to have made it in while the conditions were just right.
Churchill was established to be a salt-water port for wheat farming on the lands to the south. As a result, a railroad was built to ship grain there, and a large grain elevator and pier was built. The elevator is no longer in use, but Churchill has seen new life as a destination for viewing two forms of wildlife–polar bears and beluga whales.
When I arrived in early July, 2019, the bears hadn’t yet come to town. The ice stayed on Hudson Bay later than usual in this year, so the bears were still out on the pack ice, where they can hunt and enjoy their favorite food, ringed seals. After the ice melts, they come ashore near Churchill and spend the summer in the vicinity. They actually are a hazard to people, and you see lots of signs cautioning visitors to not walk on the streets when the bears are around town.
The other major wildlife population seen in Churchill is Beluga whales. Over 60,000 Belugas spend the summer months in Hudson Bay, with over 3000 of them in the Churchill River estuary. Belugas are intelligent and very social animals. Several companies offer whale-watching in inflatable boats, using outboard motors with carefully shrouded propellers, to protect the Belugas crowding around the boats.
The belugas seem to really enjoy interacting with people. They will come right up to the boats, apparently curious about the people in them. They like swimming in the bubbles produced by the motors, and on some occasions, seemed to be talking to us in squeaks and bubbles.
As the boat trip was ending, the fog burned off, and the blue sky turned a gray blustery morning into a bright summer afternoon. We had a great view of Fort Price of Wales (built to protect the settlement in 1731) across blue water with white belugas surfacing and spouting. It was an extraordinary moment–all by itself, this experience justified the whole trip.
As I came to the end of my journey across the Canadian Arctic, I was struck by all the things I’d seen: gold rush history, wild and stark terrain, fabulous wildlife, tiny isolated villages, modern cities and towns, and endless miles of lakes, ponds, and emptiness. I’d flown 1700 nautical miles in the three days. It was a fabulous experience, definitely a trip to remember!