Nano WriMo Word Count: 2,013
The L382G Hercules, affectionately called the “Herc” and better known as a C-130, was a tundra workhorse. From pilots who fly them to airborne paratroopers who jump from them, it is arguably the best plane ever built. Its hulking frame can carry everything needed to supply an arctic island such as Baffin. Since the first C-130 in 1954 to be outfitted with skis, these planes have served scientists, communities and rescue operations at both poles. The Herc on loan from First Air was equipped with skis for landing on Baffin Island’s runways of ice and makeshift tundra landings. With a crash rate much lower than commercial airplanes, they are usually a safe plane to fly.
But this is the arctic.
RMCP Alex Kincaid had been leading search and rescue efforts—known as SAR–for nearly 15 years. While the Royal Air Force had its own fleets of SAR planes across the regions, and the RMCP had theirs, it was not unusual to organize missions in cooperation with other agencies and local volunteers. With the cooperation of First Air, Alex was able to get a team to Baffin Island quicker than if he had to rely on official transportation. The helicopter on board actually belonged to the mining company at Mary River, and they volunteered its use since it had not yet left Iqaluit.
The only thing not cooperating was the weather. First, the melting ice that led to the unseasonable break up and endangering two local hunters, followed by a series of back-to-back blizzards. And now, with the intermittent clearing in between storms, temperatures had plummeted.
Kincaid’s priority was to get to the proximity of the last known location of the two hunters to fly a low circle pattern to look for survivors, debris or any evidence of what had happened to the two men from Clyde River. All before the next blizzard hit, which could bring winds up to 60 knots per hour.
With a basic crew of five mounties trained in SAR and Arctic Survival, each was at a viewing station with all eyes on the sea ice. As per standard procedure, in an effort to conserve fuel, the pilots cut the two inboard engines as the Herc flew its circle pattern.
Syndney Brindeau, the RMCP stationed at Clyde River had already been on the initial volunteer SAR mission and he verified that they were over the area of sea ice break up.
“That’s Moe’s hut, against the cliffs,” said Sydney to Kincaid. It was barely discernible in the snow and the smokestack was inactive. No tracks in or out of the cabin could be seen in the pristine layer of snow and the skidoo tracks from Sydney’s last visit had filled in with blowing snow.
“I don’t see where the ice broke up,” said Kincaid. It looked flat, white and solid from the air.
“It was right as we turned the bend at this fjord,” said Sydney as they passed over the ice. It looked normal, like it should look this time of year. “If I hadn’t seen it myself, I might doubt the break up, but Alex, I tell you, it was like spring thaw and no way we could cross it even walking, let alone on skidoos.”
Alex nodded, keeping his eyes trained to the passing sea ice below. He glanced at his clipboard with a section map that had red circles around the locations of Moe’s cabin, the break up and the area that Green Global Petroleum had reported seeing a blue tarp and a red item like that of a plastic food cooler. Both were typical items of gear that hunter might have during spring sealing.
“Did you say that Elijah Ujarak was seal hunting in the traditional ways,” asked Alex.
“Yes,” answered Sydney. “He took out his team of dogs with a sled. I asked his wife if he had a rifle and she indicated that he left it at home, taking his spears.”
“Would he have had a tarp and cooler?” Alex asked the question that Sydney just now realized had been nagging at him. Elijah tied down his gear with hides, using braided seal rawhide. He remembered Elijah showing him how he cut the hard-as-drum-skin hide around and around to get long narrow strips that he then braided into stiff rope.
“Come to think of it, I don’t recall Elijah ever using coolers,” said Sydney. “And he used hides for covering his sled.”
“So what do you make of the debris that the GGP plane saw,” asked Alex, continuing to keep his eyes scanning the sea ice below.
“It could be Moe’s,” said Sydney. Unlike Elijah, Moe hunted with a sled pulled behind his skidoo. It would be more likely that Moe would have items like a tarp and cooler.
“We’re approaching the coordinates now.” Alex still could not discern any unusual attributes to the ice. Not that he doubted its unseasonable break-up. But the recent storms and current blast of cold had erased the evidence of an earlier melt. It looked like normal spans of sea ice.
“What now,” asked Sydney. He hadn’t realized how tense he’d been holding his shoulders until he let them sag in disappointment.
“We keep flying the pattern, low and ever-widening the circle,” said Kincaid. “We keep looking.”
While Sydney watched the endless expanse of white with ridges that intersected at wild angles like a crazy quilt, both men were silent. Sydney knew the statistics regarding the success of a search and rescue this late after men went missing, and the unspoken truth was that it had become a body recovery mission at this point. Yet, even that seemed implausible. The situation reminded him of the Inuit legend of the narwhal. It had been Elijah who told it to him over coffee and apple pie that Lucie always seemed to have in reserve.
A blind boy had saved his mother and sisters from a polar bear attack. The mother was not grateful and treated the boy poorly, withholding food from him that he could not see she had.
One day after his brave but unrewarded rescue, the boy went down to the bay with his sisters. A loon took him and dove deep into the waters. Three times the bird brought the blind boy up for air and upon the third rising the boy could see. Having regained his sight, he saw all that his mother had denied him.
So when the mother asked the boy to spear her a beluga, she asked for a small one that she could manage. Instead he speared the biggest one he saw. Unable to pull it in, his mother was taken beneath the sea with the beluga. As she was drawn deeper and deeper, her long hair twisted into the tusk of the narwhal. Today the narwhal are surrounded by beluga just as the blind boy’s mother had been.
Sydney reflect upon the knowledge contained in the story; that Inuit hunters were keenly aware of the habits and characteristics of the animals they hunted on land and sea. Yet, he also thought of another truth hidden within the story. The arctic sea did not give up its dead. If Elijah and Moe were not found above, they would not be found below. What kind of closure would he be able to give to Lucie?
After flying the entire pattern without seeing any color or movement other than two dark seals that rose out of their ice holes, Kincaid announced that the search had ended and they would discuss options back at Clyde River. The pilots fired up the two engines they had cut earlier with some noticeable sputtering.
“Nothing to be alarmed about,” said Kincaid when he noticed the worried frown beneath Sydney’s mustache.
Understanding how diesels and fuels coagulated easily in the extremes north of the arctic circle, Sydney was concerned. He was about to say so when one of the SAR crew shouted, “Fire!”
A fire aboard a C-130 flying above sea ice was a huge concern. Sydney scanned the area for an onboard extinguisher when someone else said it was an engine.
As if the verify the dilemma, one of the pilot’s announced over the intercom, “Everyone to their stations, strap in, we have to ditch two engines.”
Strapping in next to Kincaid, Sydney asked, “We can fly without them, right?” After all, the plan had circled for over two hours without two engines.
“Depends,” said Kincaid who seemed as calm as someone boarding a ferris wheel. He began flipping through maps clipped beneath the one of the search area.
Sydney tried to remain as calm, but his stomach felt like one tight knot that wouldn’t unclench. “Depends on what,” he asked.
Kincaid looked up from the maps. “One side or the other,” he said. “If we lose two engines on one side…” He looked up as the plane noticeably pitch downward to the right. “Yes, I think we may have lost two engines on the right wing.”
“Hang tight folks and keep strapped in,” said the pilot over the intercom. “We are going to make an emergency landing.”
Below the solid sea ice didn’t feel so solid to Sydney. He doubted this beast of a plane called Hercules could crash land on it without busting through. The other option looming before them was a black and white wall of cliffs and glaciers rising up out of the sea ice like ancient behemoths frozen in time. Only Clyde River and Pond Inlet had landing strips. Which was closest, wondered Sydney.
Kincaid unstrapped his buckles. “Going to discuss where this landing might take place with the men in the cockpit,” he said. Taking his clipboard of maps with him, Kincaid left Sydney who was extending a stiff right leg as if he could balance the listing plane with willpower. It wasn’t working.
Over the roar of the remaining engines, Sydney could hear murmuring from the other men. He wished he could be as calm. What had he learned about C-130s? He knew of their reliability. He tried to bring to mind previous arctic plane crashes. Those were frequent, especially among smaller aircraft. Inexperienced pilots, impatient pilots, foul weather, of course weather was mostly foul up here.
Kincaid strode back to his fold-down seat next to Sydney’s and handed him a water bottle. “That’s the stiffest drink on board,” he said. Sitting down, he twisted off the lid of his own bottle.
Sydney’s mouth did feel dry, but he merely clung to the bottle with both hands. “These planes don’t crash too often, do they?”
“Not often. We’re closer to Pond Inlet, but they don’t think we can make it. Pilots are going to try to clear the fjords and mountains to find something less craggy and more solid to land on.” Kincaid drank from his water bottle.
“At least they don’t break up, like smaller aircraft,” said Sydney.
“Oh, they do break up. Hercs aren’t impervious to impact, although it may just be a tail that breaks off or maybe we just bust out the skis or lose the nose, a wing or both,” said Kincaid.
“That’s not reassuring,” said Sydney.
“What’s reassuring is that we double-checked the Arctic Survival Kit on board before leaving Iqaluit and it’s everything we need to survive.” Kincaid motioned with his own water bottle to the one Sydney clung to. He said, “Drink up.”
Sydney just looked down at the bottle in his hands.
“Come on,” said Kincaid, “You don’t want to get dehydrated.”
Suddenly another story came to mind, this one of English origin, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. In his mind he recited, “Water, water every where and all the boards did shrink. Water, water every where and not a drop to drink.”
Sydney twisted the cap off his water bottle as he noticed the plane lowering, still listing to one side. At least they were no longer over the sea ice. But would they clear the mountains?