Friday, May 21, 2010

North of the Arctic Circle

So what would draw a happily retired person back to the grind. Well it is not really a grind, I have always loved my job and this seemed like a great opportunity to get to revisit some beautiful country and see a lot of old friends along the way.

I got a call from one of my old colleagues at Shell asking if I was available for a short tour into the Western Canadian Arctic to talk to three communities about our Alaskan drilling plans this summer. Now traveling with Kim Johnson and visiting these communities has always been one of my favourite parts of the old job so I thought what the heck, it is only four days, and off I went.

Now getting to the north has never been easy, and when the first European, Alexander Mackenzie, went down north on the river, that is now named for him, it took him all summer to get there and back. I was going to do it much faster but the odds are with a ticket price of nearly $3300.00 the budget was not a lot different.
This is the land of the mythical Midnight Sun and getting there is part of the process as I had to be up at 3:00 AM Monday morning to catch my plane. We left the Calgary airport at 6:00AM and arrived in Inuvik, Northwest Territories at 1:08PM in the afternoon after stops in Edmonton, Yellowknife and Norman Wells. The North is huge landscape but really a small place and I wasn’t even on the first plane before I ran into my first northern acquaintance. After that it was one familiar face after another for the entire 4 days.
The first official meeting was in Inuvik with the local Hunters and Trappers Committee and there were more old familiar faces there.

The shot below was taken at 12:30AM a couple of days ago, truly the land of the Midnight Sun
 Igloo Church taken at 12:30 AM
Maybe a little detail on what it is we are doing is needed here. Shell has a summer drilling program planned in the American Beaufort Sea and the Chucksi Sea later this year. What with the incident in the Gulf of Mexico with the Deepwater Horizon rig and BP, our senior folks thought it was a good time to enact a little belt and suspenders type of backup. Although the drill they are going to use to drill those holes has the ability to disconnect from a well quite quickly and is usually capable of doing its own relief well drilling, the image of the Deepwater Horizon burning up and sinking in the Gulf is pretty fresh in folks minds. Therefore we thought it would be worthwhile to reactivate another Ice Capable Drilling Unit we have in the Canadian Arctic as backup. That rig, the Kulluk, has successfully drilled wells in both the Canadian and Alaskan Arctic waters and is in a state of semi-readiness already so it will just take a month or two to bring it up to spec to move in, in the unlikely event something were to happen. Starting now will give us time to have it ready long before it will could possibly be needed. As a person who has developed a deep love for the North I like the idea of having a belt and a suspenders type of backup plan.

The picture of the Kulluk and her support vessels below was taken from

Tuesday we jumped on a little King Air 100 to hop over to Aklavik.
Mackenzie Delta in May
Although it is only a few miles from Inuvik, those miles are across the Mackenzie Delta, the 12th largest delta in the world, and right at the moment it is still in a mostly frozen state but the ice has thinned enough that the ice roads that normally access Aklavik are closed for the summer and it is still not accessible by water yet. We had a couple of meetings there first with the Hunter and Trappers and then with member of the community. We had meals along with both meetings, Reindeer Stew with the first and Caribou with the second. No red bits in the first stew so I guess Rudolph has survived for another Christmas flight. They were both excellent though and as always they had my favourite dessert, jello and whipped cream. Both of these meetings were populated with old friends and acquaintances. My first job in the Arctic some 40 years ago was just outside of Aklavik and some of the folks I met and worked with on that job were in attendance. Always great to see old friends again.

Now our third and final community was Tuktoyaktuk, the home of the famous “Tuk U”. After 40 years I am still not sure where the campus is but I have seen the T-shirts all over the world in my travels. We again flew up there for meetings with the Hunters and Trappers and their Community Corporation as well as a community feast. And a feast it was with a lot of families coming out to join us and listen to the presentation we were giving. Tuk is the closest community to the area where the Kulluk has been stored for the past number of years and they always have a lot of interest in anything that is going on in the offshore. They are the community that are most used for an operations base in the Canadian Arctic Offshore oil business as well as the fact that they depend on the ocean for many of their food products. While in town we saw some of the 15-30 pound Lake Trout that they are harvesting over in Husky Lakes as well as some of the Snow Geese that are going into their freezers for future feasts. Later in the summer they will be harvesting Beluga whales out of Kugmallit Bay. Once again a lot of old friends and acquaintances came to our meetings and the community gathering.

Below is a shot of our ride to Tuktoyaktuk, a Canadian built Twin Otter, as far as I am concerned the most reliable bush plane on the planet.
Twin Otter
Now the two shots below I thought I would include just to give you an idea of the price of things up here in Arctic. Yes that is really $12.89 for two litres of milk. And at $10 and something for apples you probably don’t eat a lot of fruit. Milk Prices Fruit Prices
This young lady helped my colleague Kim with his presentation and although he was quite entertaining I think she stole the show. I am sure that she is not commenting on his material…lol.
Now here are some of next winters sled dogs.
 Next Years Sled Dogs?
And for the birders in my readers, a snow goose that will supply some of these folks with sustenance this summer. Snow Goose Harvest Once our meetings were done we again chartered our way back to Inuvik for the night and on Thursday I had the great pleasure of visiting with my favourite politician, Nellie Cournoyea. In the north you just mention “Nellie” and everyone north of 60 degrees and anybody who has ever been to the North knows immediately who you are talking about. She is a former Premier of the Northwest Territories and one of those rare politicians who says exactly what she is thinking and leaves no doubt in your mind about it either. Unlike a lot of folks she also expects you to be just as open and forthright with her as she is with you and does not always need to be reassured that you see her point of view and agree with it. Over the years we have had some interesting conversations but I am honored to call her a friend. She has given most of her adult life to further her people and communities ambitions to join the mainstream of Canadian society. I definitely miss being able to bump into her on a regular basis and test some of my own odd ideas out on a constructively critical honest mind.

Now Nellie would never stand still to get a photo taken of her but her people have posted her photo on the bulkhead of the 737 that flew us back south. That is her in the lower right and the pilot in the upper left is another friend, Cec Hansen. Cec got his start flying bush planes in the Delta and graduated to 747’s around the world before coming back to work for his peoples airline, Canadian North.
Canadian North
Now one of the things that I heard constantly while visiting the community and asking about other friends who I missed seeing was “they are out on the land”, these are people who cherish the time they spend out on their land and I am glad to say that I have learned from them and today Brenda and I are going to head “out on the land” ourselves. First thing in the morning we are loading the horses and heading for the Yaha Tinda. No phones, no email, no crowds, just a beautiful landscape and peace and quiet.


  1. I can't believe the prices for groceries, but I'd still love to be there. Those puppies are so cute.

  2. Very interesting JB. I can see why you couldn't pass it up..
    You and Brenda have a great time away from it all!

  3. I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you for sharing. Maybe we'll meet "on the road" someday.
    We're in Michigan right now and heading back to Texas in the late fall. Heading out on the land with the horses sounds like a dream come true. Hope you're taking a camera!
    - Mary Ann

  4. some of the shots from this area (especially your last blog) remind me of my travels to Antarctica... beautiful country ...

  5. I agree with your comment on the Twin Otter. Many years ago we were flying into Port Simpson (north of Prince Rupert) in a float equipped Twin Otter. There was quite a gale blowing and as we neared the water surface to land I felt the pilot give it quite a bit of gas. It turned out that the wind was blowing faster than the landing speed of the aircraft and we were actually going backwards! Not a good way to land!