Status Report

Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal – 8 Jul 2002: Arrival

By SpaceRef Editor
July 8, 2002
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Click on Image for larger view. Images Copyright
NASA HMP-2002/SpaceRef

The Co-op’s older lodges. We stayed in the brown building (with whale jaw arches) on the right.

Keith in a Twin Otter with a ton of greenhouse parts less than half a meter behind

Sea ice offshore from Devon Island

Mars Society’s hab as we made our final approach to the Devon Island landing strip

Greenhouse material piled up next to the construction site

Victor Rundquist (L) and Marc Boucher (R) inside the Comm Tent

(L to R) Comm Tent, Mess Tent and Office Tent with ATVs parked in front

Inside the Mess Tent. Mars globes on the table, sponsor banners above.

I made it!

My arrival here, while expected – indeed eagerly anticipated – was quite a sudden event.

I arrived in Resolute, located on the southern coast of Cornwallis Island in the Queen Elizabeth Islands, on Sunday. Resolute was named after the ship H.M.S. Resolute which participated in the ill-fated 1845 expedition searching for information about the Franklin expedition which had disappeared years before. T-shirts sold in the Airport gift shop say “Resolute is not the end of the world, but you can see it from here.” This is not much of an exaggeration.

Upon arrival, Haughton Mars Project (HMP) Principal Investigator Pascal Lee (on his way south to work on a research proposal) made me the HMP coordinator in Resolute – until such time as I flew over to Devon Island. This task involved coordinating with First Air (the airline HMP uses for flights into Devon island); Polar Continental Shelf Project (the organization that helps HMP with much of its logistics), and HMP team members as they arrived in Resolute.

The weather, here in the arctic, as is always the case, was not cooperating. When it was acceptable in Resolute (on Cornwallis Island) it was not acceptable on Devon Island. Then, of course, the reverse happened. Other times, both locations were besieged with bad weather. The mantra here is “be flexible”. It was not unusual for our hopes to be raised and then dashed several times a day.

While in Resolute, HMP Team members stay at Qausuittuq Inns North – also known as the “Co-op” which is run by the Tudjaat Co-op. The accommodations are rather pleasant and are very much like those you’d find in a well-maintained college dorm. One of the prime revenue sources for the small hamlet of Resolute is people who stop here as they travel to and from points across the Canadian arctic.

One look at the walls of the Co-op (we stayed in one of the older buildings) and you can see that many expeditions, research teams, and adventure tourists have passed through here. Moreover, they were stuck here for long periods waiting to move on to other locations.

After sitting in the Co-op for several days preparing to send other members of our team ahead (Dave Herrera, our doctor, and Nesha Trenholm, an undergrad research assistant) the call came by satellite phone from Devon Island for ME to be on the next flight. Since greenhouse assembly now needed to get underway – and I was the chief architect – it was decided to bump me to the head of the line.

As the call came in, a flight was already inbound from Devon Island. The weather was touch and go. Since we had been in a constant state of readiness for several days, we were all packed and ready to go on a moment’s notice. I immediately got my butt up to the airport. Upon arrival I discovered that it was already time to load the plane. The weather looked awful and was getting worse. Everyone was itching to try and get this flight out of the way.

We managed to get most of the remaining greenhouse parts aboard (an earlier flight had already taken some of the lumber). When we had literally stuffed our plane (a Twin Otter) to the gills, it came time for my luggage and me. Our calculations showed that we had loaded a ton of materials. It was a tight fit. I had to crawl up into the cockpit, over the pilot’s seat down into a cramped jump seat at the front of the cabin. A foot or so in back of me was a wall of pink insulation and lumber that stretched all the way top the rear of the cabin. Although everything was tightly secured, I sure didn’t want to have to make a sudden landing.

We were airborne a few minutes later at 4:45 PM. The pilot told me to expect a 45-minute trip. Civilization, such as it was, disappeared immediately as we cleared the end of the runway. Below, the water was filled with sparse amounts of sea ice. The overcast clouds cast a grey pall over everything. After a few moments I couldn’t see much of anything.

After a while the sky cleared – just as we came back across land. Devon Island. The terrain looked much the same as Cornwallis Island. As we flew on the terrain began to take on a much more remote and undisturbed look. The was absolutely no vegetation of any kind. This was a terrain composed only of rock and snow. Now and then, evidence of melting water could be seen as the sun’s glint on small streams of snow melt hit my eye. Other than that, you got the impression that nothing had ever lived here. Very alien.

Just as I was starting to prepare myself for arrival (35 minutes out) we zoomed into a blizzard. A total white out. We exited a few minutes later. As we did, we started to descend a little. This afforded me a much more detailed look at the terrain below.

Then, all of a sudden, the plane made a sharp banking maneuver. This was accompanied by loud noises from the plane’s flaps and a revving of the engine. Suddenly, to my right, the Mars Society’s white cylindrical hab appeared in the window – 5 minutes before it should have. The engine noise increased further and there was some rushed activity in the cockpit. The plane banked again as we circled back to the landing strip. Moments later we dropped onto the runway. 5:25 PM CDT. I had arrived.

A flurry of activity soon erupted. Everyone from Base Camp was there. Some arrived by foot, others arrived on ATVs (All Terrain Vehicles). By now everyone had a lot of practice unloading planes. Lumber, aluminum parts, cases of tools – and my luggage – were removed from the plane in a matter of minutes by a human chain.

Then, almost as fast as we arrived, the plane gunned up its engines, turned, and jumped into the sky.

Here I was – more surprised than anything else – on Devon Island. As far as I was concerned I had just landed on Mars – for this place was like nothing I had ever seen.

After a series of reunions and hellos I was off on a short walk to Base Camp – my luggage already on its way aboard ATVs driven by local Inuit kids who work at the camp. After a quick orientation several folks headed up to the Hill we call “Tent City” to help me assemble my tent.

My SpaceRef business partner, Marc Boucher, had arrived here several days before. This was Marc’s second visit to Devon Island: he spent the entire Summer 2000 field season here performing a variety of tasks.

Once I was done setting up my tent, I had a chance to stop and drink in the surroundings. There is no visible life here except humans and the Inuit dogs hired to chase off polar bears. Little imagination is required to pretend that you are on Mars. Indeed, just a pair of red-tinted glasses is required to complete the illusion.

As is the case with all new arrivals, I was asked to introduce myself at dinner. Dinner is held in the Mess Tent – a large heated structure that can seat 20 or so people – 30 in closer quarters. Our benches are actually large coolers containing food and supplies.

This Mess Tent serves multiple purposes: eating area, movie theater, a place to warm up and dry clothes – and, at the end of the field season, an over-winter storage facility until the following year.

As I was to discover in the coming days, good food is a feature of Base Camp. One can endure lots of miserable conditions if there is good food – and good company to look forward to. Meals are the points during the day when people update one another as to the comings and goings of Base Camp.

The Mess Tent also serves as a visual representation of the teamwork that goes on here. Arrayed along either side are flags of the various sponsoring space agencies and organizations that participate in HMP activities. By the end of the day a large banner would join this collection.

There are a number of visual reminders of the peculiar nature of this place. A shotgun hangs by the door. Above it sits a two-way radio. The radio rests atop a shelf that contains a dozen motorcycle style helmets. A large propane heater surrounded by various pieces of drying clothing is on the left side of the tent. Next to it is a large white board with markers. At the far end of the tent is a kitchen with pots boiling on a gas stove. At the tent’s front door several dogs are whining, begging to be allowed in.

A collection of folding tables stretches down the center of the tent. Strewn across the tables are large fossils and some rocks that depict the after effects of the giant impact event that created nearby Haughton Crater. Several globes sit in the middle of the table depicting the surface of Mars. Several laptops sit on the table as well. At one end of the table several Inuit kids sit, both are wearing headphones while they play a game of chess.

Seeing all of this congers up several things. On one hand, you are reminded of the photos of the tents used by early arctic and Antarctic explorers. On the other hand, you get the feeling that you are in a typical NASA conference room.

Later, I sat down to a nice hearty meal and got to know some of the team members I had not yet met. All too soon it was time to sleep. I had already experienced the utterly odd phenomenon of constant sunlight in Resolute. Due to their location on the Earth’s surface, people in Resolute experience constant sunshine from 29 April to 13 August. We are only slightly further north here on Devon Island.

Luckily, the room I had in Resolute was had dark, thick window shades to block most of the sunlight. Not here. My tent now glowed a bright yellow-orange – and it would do so all night. Fortunately for me, I brought one of those blindfolds people often use on airplanes. They worked inside my tent – after a fashion.

But I did not really sleep well.

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