To Northern Labrador
Thursday, August 5
Montreal's PET airport
Thursday morning we are scheduled to leave montreal on a First Air flight to Kuujjuaq, Quebec. Kuujjuuaq is the largest community in the far north of Quebec, and is situated on Ungava Bay (well, very close to it, actually). From Kuujjuaq we've chartered three Twin Otter aircraft to fly us into the gravel landing strip on the Koroc river in the Torngat mountains.
We get to Dorval (sorry,
Pierre Eliot Trudeau) airport for our 9:45 flight only to
discover that it has been delayed by "mechanical issues",
and is now scheduled for departure at 12:45pm. All we get in recompense
are some breakfast vouchers, and we spend several hours just hanging
around, chatting, with Francois and Andy (the documentary folks)
getting interviews with some of us.
Jim and Katherine's Interview
We head through security and to the gate where the plane, a nice old shiny white Being 727-100C, is parked. As we get closer to 12:45, it is announced that our flight is further delay... now to 2pm. Sigh.... We are starting to get worried about how this might impact our flights into the Koroc - we can only land in daylight!
We are given more "delay" coupons and Luc and John Howie and I make our way to the bar for a few free drinks. We shouldn't have rushed, because we are delayed again to 3pm - but this time, it looks like things are a go, because they transfer us to a new gate and load us into one of those Mirabel-style gate-to-plane shuttle buses. At just before 3 we board the plane via the rear airstairs (such a cool thing about 727s....) and soon we are off - finally!
The bird that will fly us north
Finally... the terminal bus to the plane
In-flight to Kuujjuaq.
The FirstAir staff actually serve alcohol for free - at first I think this is a "sorry" for the mechanical delays (turned out to be that they had to replace the plane's Air Data Computer), but later I learn that this is normal on FirstAir Flights.
As we fly north, the weather below gets increasingly worse, and, as we descend into Kuujjuaq, the ceiling is about 500 feet above sea level and it is raining. And it is cold! As we get off the plane into a stiff wind and drizzle, it can't be more than 5 C! And this is August 5. Geez, wouldn't want to see what it's like in January. I see our three Twin Otters waiting for us and think that perhaps we'll be able to make it in, after all. It'll be a race with time and the weather, though.
Roland meets with Giovanna Taddeo of the Kativik Regional Police force in the airport. Roland discusses the group's plan with her and she wishes our expedition luck.
Chilly, rainy Kuujjuaq
Sylvain, the Twin Otter "manager", is at the airport waiting for us. He says we need to go as soon as possible to try and get into the landing site before dark. A flurry of frantic packing ensues. I quickly stuff what it is I don't want into a duffle bag to leave behind here in the hangar at the airport, and then pack the rest into my backpack and remaining duffle bag. We think we might be short on camp stove fuel, so Jack gets Sylvain to get someone to run into town to get some more before we're off.
In no time our stuff is being loaded onto pallets and into the Twin Otters. I climb into the second Twin Otter. Quite a little workhorse it is, and it looked well-used, too. When it is our time to take off, I hope silently that we'll have good weather for landing - after all, there really is no runway at all, just a short gravel bar, no lights, the weather is drizzly and not so good. This will be my first "wilderness" air flight.
Turmoil at Kuujjuaq airport
Double-checking with Sylvain
Loading up the Twin Otters
Upon takeoff our pilots push together on the throttle levers to achieve takeoff power - I wonder if that's a feature of the plane or if this is some band-aid way around a problem with them. We are airborne in no time. The pilots stay very low - just a thousand feet or so off the ground, in an effort to navigate visually to our destination.
The landscape below is foreign to me... I've never been this far north and this is the first time I'm seeing the wild a barren northern landscape. At first we are still in an area of trees and lowlands, but as we get further east, that gives way to treeless tundra, roaring rivers, and the beginnings of hilly topography, complete with patches of snow. At our low altitude, I can see all of it quite clearly.
About an hour and a bit after leaving Kuujjuaq, with dusk nearing, we reach the headwaters of the Koroc and our landing strip. The view consists of slate grey clouds, a very big and dark looking mountain Cliffside, and a tiny little patch of gravel studded with boulders. Not a very inviting looking landing spot. The Twin Otter comes in low and skims over the landing strip, and I notice that the other plane is not on the ground.... But didn't they leave ahead of us? The engines roar to full power as we go-around again for a second time, again, coming in low, slow, but not landing. The pilots are verifying the everything is ok on the landing strip before landing. We go around a third time, at which point Greg's stomach has had enough. On the third try we are down onto the gravelly tundra, and in an amazing display of STOL performance, we are land and stop in what seems like less than 100 feet. The plane crunches away to the side and we get out into the darkening twilight, with a gusty wind, low clouds, and drizzle. The other planes are nowhere in sight.
Two hands on the throttle
Soon we see the inverted triangle of three landing lights of the first Twin Otter - apparently they had circled in a neighbouring valley to let our plane, presumably with more experienced pilots, do the initial landing. The pilots run out onto the gravel patch and position themselves to help the next plane on the proper path. They too, make three passes, before landing in an amazingly short distance. These planes could practically land in your back yard!
Twin Otter in the wilderness.
I fish out a warm fleece and my Gortex shell, because it is quite windy, wet and cold. The third Twin Otter flies in and lands straight away (almost in the dark), disgorging Andy, Roland, and Luc. We decide that it is far too late now to start hiking today, so we agree to make camp right here at the end of the runway and make it an early start tomorrow. After some picture-taking by the pilots, the planes roar off into the night, and we are left alone in this vast wild-land (Andy was just along for the plane ride and goes back to Kuujjuaq with them).
Up goes the tent quickly - no point in staying out in the dark and wet. Since I've already had lots to eat today, I forgo a meal and just hunker down for the night, listening to the gusts of wind grab at the tent.
Busy landing area!