NaNoWriMo Word Count: 2,389
The trouble with a rescue operation on Baffin Island, or really anywhere in the northern territories is that the area is vast and the resources are sparse. Even with knowing a plane’s final position after going down, the coordinates may not be easily accessible, as such with the downed Herc. One promising advantage was that the men who went down on the plane were all trained in arctic rescue, thus increasing their chance of survival exponentially. Air support was difficult to call in when storms seems to be queued endlessly. Not to mention that the downed C-130 was the result of calling in air support for a search.
Dagen and the volunteer rescuers from Clyde River hunkered down on the land during two storms. The first had been a blizzard. The snow pounded the tents and iglu in vertically flying white pellets. That was when the three Inuit hunters and their dogs joined the search. When the weather dulled to gray, overcast skies and a slight breeze, the Clyde River volunteers packed up the sleds hitched to skidoos and far-outpaced the three dog teams. But then they came to a boulder field, strewn with rocks the size of small cars. The skidoos had to skirt the field. Although it was tough going for the dogs and sleds, they actually made it through and held the lead until the skidoos caught up and overtook them once again. They set up camp on the edge of a lake of glare ice. Using ice screws, they volunteers secured their tents right on the edge of the ice.
That’s when the second storm hit. It was warmer, less snow, but windier. In the midst of a full gale, the winds blasted the cluster of tents at eighty miles per hour. When they hit, it was hours before dawn, pitch black. Some of the tents began to rip. Once a tent tore, even minor rents in the nylon, it resulted in complete failure. The volunteers lost three tents. Dagen’s dome with its lattice work of poles was designed to withstand winds at base camps for places like Mount Everest. The volunteers who found themselves tentless, grabbed what gear they could, parkas boots, sleeping bags—the essentials of survival—and holed up in Dagen’s orange dome.
Day dawned white, although it never turned into a blizzard. It wasn’t really snowing, just blowing snow. The sky was white as if a dust storm had hit. It blew like dirt and stung like salt. The colors of the tents were muted and the horizon completely disappeared. The sun never really made an appearance although the day lit up like the glow in a snow globe and a silver-looking ball skirted the southern horizon as if substituting for the sun.
The volunteers made sure the remaining tents were kept in repair as the winds tried to rip them to shreds. There would be no traveling that day and Conrado didn’t dare record anything for knowledge that it would sound like audio banshee screaming if he did. Tobie and another young man from Clyde River made a game of skimming across the glare ice, pushed by the winds. The first run had been an accident and Dagen was ready to charge after the Clyde River youth until he finally came to a stop, crawled to the edge and came back to camp, laughing. Now the two boys made a game of the wind and ice.
Later, as they all huddled in the dome tent, barely able to hear one another over snapping nylon and howling gusts, they played at cheek pulling. Now Dagen understood its appeal. They didn’t have enough space to leg wrestle. It wasn’t dark enough for shadow puppets. It was way too loud for throat singing or story-telling. But cheek pulling filled the space of time while they waited out the winds, allowing the men to expend their energy. Somehow they found it exceedingly funny, most of all Conrado. He had such an infectious giggle that once the Texas radio journalist got to laughing, everyone was laughing. All within the confines of the orange dome.
By nightfall the gale peaked and slowed down. They ate a shared meal of arctic char and refried beans. Dagen wondered what Miriam would make of the meal. Conrado thought it was great. “You’ve been holding out on me,” he said.
“Holding out,” asked Dagen as he blew on a spoonful of beans rehydrated with boiling water.
“Refried beans,” he said, settling down on a mat of hides that his Clyde River grandmother had sent with him. It not only provided comfortable bedding, but also insulated the tent from the cold pushing up from the ice it was screwed to.
“Easy protein to pack into the arctic,” said Dagen. He knew it would be a more complete protein had he also fixed the rice with it, but he figured they had plenty of protein with the fish. The beans he had really just wanted for warmth and flavor.
Conrado took another bite, savoring it as if it were something more than camp food. “It needs some sliced jalapenos,” he said.
“Not much into spicy,” said Dagen. “I opted for the mild version.”
“You are missing out my friend,” he said. Conrado even licked his metal camp bowl.
“Good thing we don’t have sled dogs with us,” said Dagen. “That would be their job.”
“Tonight, I’ll be the camp dog.” He looked as his empty bowl and sighed. “I don’t suppose you have any dark chocolate.”
“Ah, no.” Dagen sat in his camp chair. Tobie and two other Clyde River men were chatting in Inuktuk, leaving Dagen and Conrado a chance to talk without pulling at cheeks or yelling over the noise that had accompanied the wind like a brass section. “I’d enjoy a good pipe right about now, though.”
“Pipe? Just roll some good tobacco,” said Conrado. “Of course, I haven’t had a cigarette in ten years. But I think of them fondly, now and again.”
“And I abandoned my pipe a few years ago,” said Dagen. Actually. He had lost his pipe on location in Norway and just never replaced it. He felt like he lost himself, who he was and what he used to enjoy. His dad had smoked a pipe, not often, but enough for Dagen to think it somehow made him close to the man he still missed.
“Gave it up when you went Holloywood,” asked Conrado. Dagen stiffened at that word, but Conrado seemed not to notice. He continued. “I gave up cigarettes when I got serious about radio. Didn’t want to develop a husky sound. Not sure it matters, seems how the biggest story I’ve covered is the one I’m living right now.”
“Regrets,” asked Dagen.
“Not the cigarettes,” Conrado said with a laugh. “Some women, yes, missed meals, definitely. Career? Well, what’s there to regret? I could have been pushing cattle across scrub grass. Maybe I didn’t hit high points, but, hey, the name Conrado Elizonso has been in the media for ten years and not because it was a name mentioned in the police blotter.”
Dagen smiled. “I guess we can also start over, too.”
“Is that why you’re doing the sitcom role,” asked Conrado. “Getting serious about acting, not just a history spokesperson.”
Dagen felt as though those gale force winds just punch him in the gut. “What sitcom role,” he asked fully knowing who was behind such a sneaky turn of events in his career. Could she do that, he wondered with a chill that had nothing to do with his current environment.
“That new show on Thursday nights, coming out next fall. About country boy who inherits a winery in Napa Valley?” Conrado looked perplexed. Dagen had learned that this man readily wore all his emotions openly.
“That doesn’t even sound funny,” said Dagen. “What’s so funny about the wine country. I mean, it’s the country. Why wouldn’t a country boy know about growing things. Maybe not grapes, but I can’t even think what could possibly be funny.”
Conrado shrugged. “Making fun of wine snobs?”
“That’s why I don’t like sitcoms,” said Dagen. “Why make fun of anybody.”
“So, you don’t know about this,” said Conrado.
“No,” said Dagen. “I don’t know about this.”
“Huh,” he said, looking at his empty bowl. “That agent of yours seemed pretty adamant about getting it announced. I was supposed to ask you about it in the interview, but she said she had to be there and that she’d fill in the details.”
“Oh,” said Dagen. Of course, Vina would have to orchestrate her next loop in his noose herself.
“Sounds like you don’t know anything about the detail,” said Conrado.
“Nope,” said Dagen. He got up from his chair to clean up after dinner in their tent. He cleaned up in silence, listening to Tobie and the others. Soon, everyone was getting ready for sleep. If the weather held, they would leave as early as the sun made its presence.
The next day dawned with brilliant pink streaks across the sky that gave way to the bluest sky Dagen had seen since coming to Baffin Island. Once loaded up, they roared across the snow plains on skidoos. Stopping for a quick lunch of hot coffee or lemon water from thermoses and shared slices of arctic char, the volunteers studied the map, their GPS coordinates and figured that the location of the Herc was within reach. Today.
Since their conversation the night before, Conrado had hardly said a few words to Dagen. Not that Dagen noticed, being engrossed in his own thoughts. While drinking hot lemon water, though Conrado asked about the meaning of the arctic circle.
“I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking,” said Dagen. He downed the last of his water and screwed the thermos lid back in place.
“Well, it must mean something,” said Conrado. “What is the circle, exactly?”
“I see,” said Dagen, welcoming an opportunity to slip into scientist mode. “It’s a line of latitude that encircles the region of the north pole. The circle is the southern most point that experiences polar day and polar night.”
Conrado tilted his chin downward and raised both eyebrows. “Okay,” he said, “What’s a polar day or night?”
“That’s the twenty-four hours of daylight or darkness that the arctic experiences. It occurs as far south as the arctic circle,” explained Dagen. “Have you noticed how long the days are getting just since we arrived at Clyde River?”
“I suppose. When it isn’t cloudy, foggy or snowing,” said Conrado.
“Well,” said Dagen. “In nearly two weeks the sunset is already coming two hours later than when we arrived.”
Again, Conrado’s eyebrows shot up. “No, I hadn’t noticed. That’s gaining a lot of daylight.”
“We are speeding toward polar daylight now,” said Dagen. “Well, we should be speeding on our way, too.”
Everyone mounted back up on skidoos. Tobie and the other youth were excited that their journey was nearly at its destination. Dagen hoped they found the survivors in good shape. The journey back would then be before them. Maybe the Herc was able to get radio contact. Maybe another air rescue is on it’s way.
Just before sunset—at 4:40 p.m.—the Clyde River volunteers spotted the downed plane and smoke rising from the other side of it. The plane had cut a deep trough through the snow that even the two recent storms had not been able to obliterate. The plane seemed tilted with the right wing down and the left wing pointing toward a rocky ridge in the distance. The pilots did a good job of landing the crippled plane down a long relatively flat valley. The other direction might have ended with the Herc slamming into a rocky outcropping that formed the ridge that rimmed the valley.
As the skidoos neared, several men in parkas stepped out of tarp topped snow shelters built against the Herc. All were waving, a few shouted and whistled. Tobie gunned the engine of his skidoo, passing everyone else in the small group of volunteers. He pulled up to the plane, cut the engine and ran, shouting, “Mountie Brindeau!”
Sydney trudged through the snow with open arms and embraced Tobie. Soon all the volunteers were off their skidoos and were clasping gloved hands to gloved hands and patting shoulders. So many questions started and stopped at once, laughter, the kind that comes from sheer relief, filled the darkening night air. The Clyde River volunteers set up their tents near the survivors’ shelters. They all shared the communal fire that night and listened to Alex explain what went wrong, what went right in cool tones as if they had simply been learning how to build a house on their own.
All the men were clean shaven, and Dagen commented on that, not expecting plane crash survivors to be shaving. But Alex explained that they stuck to a routine and kept up survivalist procedures, including shaving.
“How is that part of surviving,” asked Dagen.
Alex said, “A frozen beard leads to a frozen face.”
“I always thought of a beard as being protective of the face,” said Dagen.
Despite the multiple conversations going on, the obvious excitement of the survivors and rescuers both, it was time to plane extraction. Alex had already created several plans, explaining that air support could occur further out if another plane, outfitted with skis could reach them at that point. But the snow had to be flat and hard packed, long enough for take-off, too. Alex also inventoried the survival gear that they had, including sleeping bags, rations and water. The volunteers could easily pack sleds with the extra gear and double up on the skidoos, except for Dagen who was already driving with Conrado.
The next day, the group, now numbering fifteen, set out on the packed skidoos. The sleds also carried the extra fuel that allowed for the skidoos to journey far from towns. Since no one was injured beyond minor scrapes or bruises, injuries were not a hindrance. As they left the valley, the group ran into the three Inuit hunters with their dog sled teams. They all agreed to rendezvous near the point where air rescue might reach them.
That’s when they saw the polar bear.