flight

April 2, 2005

It is cold, twenty below, and there are no clouds. Flying north from Kotzebue, the Sound lies frozen and still beneath us. It will remain so for at least 2 more months. The days may be longer, but late February is still tightly bound by the long arctic winter. Sled dog and snowmachine trails are the only features on the icepack, another one of the seasonal highways in the Alaska bush. Something about the difference between tracks left by such different modes of travel, the old and the new, makes me wonder at the lifestyle of the folks that eke out a living here. The steady drum of the helicopter drones though my headphones and lulls me to sleep.
An hour later I jerk awake at the change in pitch from the rotors as the pilot circles a clearing, looking for the fuel that we had cached. He settles the Bell 206 down, down, and flares out gracefully next to six barrels of Chevron Jet A, painted bright blue to make them easy to spot agaist the snow. I drag the handpump out of the cargo box. The pilot, Arnie, wrestles a 55-gallon drum closer. After the hothouse inside the helicopter, the cold bites even as I work hard to pump the fuel. We have flown up into the moutains, and the temperature has dropped. The wind blows spindrift across the crusty snow. It scratches around the fuel drums, against my legs, hisses against the thin aluminum skin of the helicopter. It seeks a way in, probing for cracks and crevices in our defenses. The cold, the snow, the wind, all work together against us. We are fragile and puny, and we do not belong here in this wilderness.
Back in the air we bounce and weave through the passes and over the ridgelines of the Brooks Range We seek safe passage though the mountains to the northwestern coast, a plain without the flash and notoriety of its peer on the North Slope. Not yet anyway, but that is why we are here. This vast coast is the buffer between the pack ice of the Chuckchi Sea and the mountains guarding the interior. It is full of oil, coal, probably gold. The only thing guarding it is its remoteness. The pilot pulls us up over another ridge, and its trailing edge becomes a gentle slope stretching off into nothing. It is the last ridge off the mountains, but we hover just past its crest. Clouds cover the land from horizon to horizon. To the east and west, moutains poke through like nunataks on glacier, islands of stone amid the icy clouds. Intermittent passages open and close as the fog shifts, offering tantalizing and ephemeral pathways to our destination, but they close as soon as we try to fly through. The fog has joined the snow and the cold the wind in their work against us. Created when the relative warmth of the sea ice meets the bitter temperatures generated over the interior, the coastal fog cuts visibility down to yards and can last for weeks.
Our fuel situation is not critical, but we do not have the reserves to keep trying to find a path through the clouds. Arnie chooses the highest peak jutting from the mist and settles the helicopter onto its summit. We wait for the fog to perhaps blow away. Even though we are on the ground, the airspeed indicator registers 40 mph. The wind knows we are here, and wants us gone. I struggle into my parka, and pull the hood tight. It leaves a long tunnel in front of my face, to keep the wind from my skin, to help my exhalations heat the air I am about to inhale. The ruff is dense and soft, cut from the hide of a wolf. I once felt was guilt at buying a parka that had parts made of real fur (from a dog for chrissake s), but it keeps me warm like nothing else will. Why I feel weird about the fur ruff and not about the down fill is something for another day.
Forcing the door open, I miss the step and stumble down onto the peak. Here, the only thing to block the wind for a thousand miles is the Russian Peninsula, and the small amount of snow left on our mountain eyrie is packed like concrete. The skids of the helicopter do not sink into it. I wander a bit, reveling in the likelihood that I am the only person to ever walk here on this wild and unspoiled place. Even in Alaska, there are few places left untrod. I find a large rock and pee on it.
Back in the helicopter, we eat sandwiches, turkey that is somehow dry even slathered in mayonnaise and mustard. Apparently I have treated my can of Pringles poorly, and I tilt the can to my mouth to pour the the crumbs in. My chocolate bar is frozen. Arnie turns off the engine and we sit in silence, listening to the wind and snow scouring around us, still seeking a way in. The fog is reaching tendrils deeper into the valleys behind us, working with the cold to surround us. Full of food and the torpor of sitting in the aircraft for half of the day, it takes us awhile to notice that the clouds are filling the passes behind us, the ones we will need to thread to retrace our flight. The wind makes it easy to take off, almost throwing us from the peak, and we head back to the fuel dump, back to Kotzebue, back to a dinner we haven’t really earned.

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