Helicopters and Dog Sled Rides

Trip Start Nov 09, 2006
Trip End Nov 18, 2006

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Flag of Canada  , Manitoba,
Monday, November 13, 2006

We can't help but feel like schoolchildren here at CNSC. We're aren't allowed outside without supervision, we make bagged lunches, and we're always being ferried about from place to place in school busses.

Today, though, instead of being herded onto the bus, our planned event came to us: helicopters. They swooped in from the west and landed two at a time in the parking lot. It reminded me of M*A*S*H, and war--the whump, whump of the rotors slicing the air, the scream of the engines as the craft settled into the snow. I actually cried.

The snow billowed up around the copters like smoke, spreading up and out, obscuring the machines, which looked like giant insects, the windows impenetrable, bulbous eyes.

My chopper held six. Two of us were designated "co-pilots" and sat up front. I was right next to the pilot. He told me to buckle in, so I pulled the lap belt over me. Suddenly, he was reaching behind me, as if for my hood, and he grabbed the shoulder straps, one on each side, and buckled them for me. I felt like a kid all over again.

The flight was amazing. I've never been in a helicopter before, or even a small airplane. We floated up and up and the landscape unrolled beneath us. It was glorious.

We flew into the sun. The trees below were tiny. Actually, they were tiny to begin with--the trees here in the zone between the boreal forest and the tundra (the tiaga) are all spindly and stunted, barely six feet tall. They look unhealthy, but they aren't. Some are over seventy years old.

Another chopper pilot radioed that he'd spotted moose. We could see him hovering low over some trees, so we flew over to have a look.

I have to interject something here about my previous experiences with the elusive moose. Make that non-experiences. On a couple of occasions, Julie and I have gone up to the North Shore of Lake Superior with our friend Valinda, and onto the Gunflint Trail. Everyone there would say, "oh ja, there's lots of moose around, you betcha." We never saw one. They didn't cross the road in front of us at dusk. They couldn't be found on our hour long trek down the "moose viewing trail." None were evident when we drove miles and miles down unmarked dirt roads, looking for them.

I decided that moose didn't really exist. They were just cooked up by Minnesotan and Canadian Tourism boards (at great expense, what with the documentaries and all) to lure travelers to their otherwise inhospitable climes. Nothing as silly looking as a moose could actually exist.

Well, I was wrong, okay? We saw four moose from the helicopter. One ignored us, and the other three ran away. Two were a mother and her calf. It made me mad that we were frightening them like that just so I would have to admit they really existed.

After suffiently terrorizing the moose, we flew toward the Hudson Bay. Below us was just featureless ice and snow, dotted with patches of sedge and willow peeking through (the snow on the tundra never gets very deep--the wind just blows it away).

We spotted two bears walking together. Yesterday, in the tundra buggy, we got some sense of just how large these animals are. But from this new vantage point, where I could see miles and miles in every direction, these two bears seemed tiny and insignificant. Their world is harsh, stark, and lonely.

I don't think the bears appreciated our presence overhead, because they climbed into the shadow of a drift and lay down where they were hardly visible.

The Bay itself was a bright, clear, turquoise, what you'd expect to see in the tropics, not up here in the [sub]arctic. Chunks of snowy ice floated near the shore, pushed together like the tiles of a mosaic. The water itself was thick and slushy. Very close to freezing now.

We flew over a small ridge. The pilot told us that was the highest point in this flat landscape. People (hunters?) used to climb up there to get a look around. The ridge was only forty feet high or so. He said that one day a bear died on one side of the ridge. One of the local pilots noticed it there, and their company that day guaranteed that anyone taking a ride would see a bear. They'd fly over the dead bear and say it was sleeping. Having met their obligation, they'd then fly off in search of live bears.

The most amazing thing of all is that I wasn't the least bit frightened of the flight. I hate flying, but I felt no fear at any point (except when walking toward the copter and worrying about the rotors chopping my head off).

Our days at CNSC are filled with events. After the helicopter ride, we got a lecture on the research being done here at the Center. Then there was lunch. After that--dogsledding.

Right up front, I have to say the whole dogsledding thing didn't do much for me. We stood around in the cold (there was a little cabin we could go into, but I mostly didn't) and waited for our turn. Julie and I were fifth, so we had to wait awhile. When it was finally our turn, I got a good look at some dog butts while we sped, no not quite sped--the dogs were pretty tired by then--but moved along at a decent pace, along the road. It was pretty bumpy at times. The lead dog was having trouble obeying that day, and at one point on our ride headed left (ha) instead of right (gi) and the musher jumped off the back, grabbed the dog, turned him on his back, and bit his ear.

The lecture on bears that evening was very sobering. I'll recount the highlights later.
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