Bombardiers and polar bears

Travels with a snowmobile in Canada's far north

by Andy Turnbull

TORONTO — The Bombardier died about 10 km out of Arviat, and that was a stroke of luck. It’s nearly 800 km from Churchill to Rankin Inlet as the snowmobile travels and there are only two settlements along the way. We broke down close to one of them.

And to more luck. With about 1,500 people, Arviat is not a big town, but someone there had a junked engine with the pulley we needed in good condition. But it was about time for some luck. From Rankin to Churchill and back to Arviat is about 1,200 km, and in that distance we had a couple of dozen minor breakdowns.

Rankin Inlet is a village of about 2,500 people on the western shore of Hudson Bay, about 400 km south of the Arctic Circle. It’s the second biggest town in Nunavut, which used to be the eastern part of Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Churchill, Manitoba, is the northern terminal of the Hudson Bay Railroad that connects central Canada to the north coast. Villages to the north of it can get freight by air any time, but it’s expensive. Most of their supplies come by barge from Churchill, in the few months of summer that Hudson Bay is open to navigation.

And there is another way. In winter a rim of ice, 10 to 20 km wide, forms around the bay. Light snowmobiles travel from village to village on the ice and, near the end of the winter, heavier machines can haul freight on sleds from Churchill to the north.

We were on a scouting trip to check the route for the heavy haulers that Yvo plans to send to Churchill in a couple of weeks. The ice is different every year and Yvo likes to look at it himself before he sends his men out.

Yvo is Yvo Airut, a 55-year-old businessman from Rankin Inlet. He has a garage and a construction company, but the business he loves is overland freighting with a couple of Delta3 off-road haulers and his Bombardier.

The Bombardier is a half-track R12 van, the grandfather of the Bombardier “Skidoo” and an icon of the Canadian north. The last R12 was built in 1981, but there is no replacement and the old ones are still in use. Yvo’s is a 1973 model that he got six years ago. He rebuilt the engine then, and it’s due for another rebuild now, but he hopes it will last one more trip.

That’s one way Yvo and I are different. If I were going to set out on a 1,600 km trip through an Arctic wilderness, I’d make sure the snowmobile was in good condition before I started. For me, a breakdown on the ice of Hudson Bay, a couple of hundred kilometers from help, with the temperature around 40 C below and the wind blowing maybe 50 km an hour would be a problem. For Yvo, it’s no more than a minor inconvenience.

He’s still an Inuit hunter at heart and he spends at least a month “on the land” in winter and another month in his boat in summer. He takes a couple of weeklong hunting trips in fall and spring, he scouts all the routes for his heavy haulers and he hauls some freight himself with the Bombardier. This trip, we will haul a new pickup truck from Churchill back to Rankin.

With no muffler on a V-8 engine, Yvo’s R12 sounds like a World War II bomber, but with skis and tracks it rides surprisingly smoothly, considering the terrain. It’s supposed to be able to carry 12 passengers, but with our sleeping bags, Yvo’s rifle, a portable Honda generator, Yvo’s satellite phone, tools, spare parts and the insulated picnic coolers the Inuit use to keep food from freezing, it’s crowded with four. On the roof we carry gas cans and a pile of caribou hides, and our “qamatik” sled carries a frozen caribou carcass and a dozen barrels of jet fuel we are taking to Arviat for a friend of Yvo’s.

Riding with Yvo are his employee Willie Adams and Johnny Eecherk of Rankin, who has hitched a ride to Arviat. I’m a journalist from Toronto, traveling for the story and, frankly, for the fun of it.

We’ll have company for most of the trip. Joe Kaludjak is Yvo’s cousin and hunting buddy and the owner/captain of a small freight boat. He has a 1979 R12 that he bought government surplus three years ago and he will haul a new van, for his brother’s taxi company, back from Churchill. Riding with him is Abraham Wiebe, who works for the taxi company.

Joe left early in the morning. We leave about noon, but less than 50 km out of Rankin our fuel filter plugs up and for the next two days we have to stop and clear it every hour or so. Besides that, the engine overheats and sometimes we have to stop to let it cool down.

The trail from Rankin Inlet to Whale Cove, about 100 km away, is well-worn, but few people travel the 150 km from Whale Cove to Arviat and the only tracks we see along the way are Joe’s. We follow them most of the way, but choose our own route at times.

We’re way north of the tree line here, but on land some grasses and low bushes poke through a thin layer of snow. At sea the ice is covered with snow that has been swept by the wind into low drifts and packed so hard that in many places I don’t leave footprints when I walk. The line of the drifts crosses our course and the Bombardier bounces like a motorboat running against waves. Sometimes we cross pressure ridges where drifting ice floes have collided and the ice has been broken up into a miniature mountain range.

In other areas we weave through clusters of hummocks of broken ice that Yvo calls “maniilaqs,” formed when the tide goes out and drops the ice on shoals or boulders. Both pressure ridges and maniilaqs are rough and one time, when we stop to clean the gas filter and cool the engine, Yvo notices that one runner of the qamatik is cracked. He takes it easy from then on, but it’s too late and, within sight of Arviat, the front end of the runner breaks off. We leave the sled and continue.

Yvo has a house in Arviat. He has called ahead to a friend so the heat is on and, as we unload the R12, visitors gather. Yvo makes coffee by dumping a couple of handfuls of ground coffee into a pan of water and setting it on to boil, and he sets a chunk of caribou on the table.

The meat is raw and frozen. Almost all Inuit live along Arctic coastlines where there are no trees for firewood; they used to eat frozen raw meat and fish out of necessity, but it’s now a preference. Sliced thin, it’s slightly crunchy, surprisingly easy to digest and about the best food you can find to pacify an upset stomach or cure a hangover. On this trip it’s also the main item in our daily diet.

It’s late when we reach Arviat and later still when we finish eating. While Yvo and his friends catch up with the news, I take my sleeping bag to one of the bedrooms. Next morning I meet Joe, who got to Arviat hours ahead of us and stayed the night with another cousin.

I wake to see a dark bearded face glaring at mine and to hear a loud voice talking in Inuktitut. When I answer in English, Joe pretends not to understand and he begins shouting in Inuktitut. Later I learn that when an Inuk (an individual Inuit) wants to make friends with someone he may start by playing practical jokes on him. By the end of this trip, Joe and I are good friends.

Yvo and Joe drain and filter the gas in Yvo’s R12 and about noon we start, with Joe in the lead. He has a global positioning satellite mounted on his dashboard, but I don’t think he ever looks at it. Yvo has one too, but he does not bother taking his out of the case. When I ask him how he knows where we are going he says he “knows the way.”

But how? We are traveling on the ice of the bay and on the tidal flats, which are eight to 13 km wide at this point, and most of the time the horizon is dead flat in all directions. When I press Yvo for an explanation, he says he “knows which way the snowdrifts lie.” That fits with explanations of the way some South Pacific Islanders navigate canoes, by the direction of the waves.

Yvo also has the sun, sometimes, and occasional physical clues. He notices tiny details and, time and again, he points out arctic hare, fox and other animals so far away they are just dots on the horizon. I can barely see them, but to Yvo and Willie they are obvious. One way or another, they all seem to be able to find their way anywhere, with very little help. Yvo has a compass and a map, but he uses them only to show me where we are going.

Joe and Yvo take turns leading. The first switch is at the delta of the Tha-anne River, about five km wide. Joe stops before the delta, they talk it over, and Yvo takes over the lead. He says it’s because he knows ice better than Joe. This is a tricky crossing because part of the river is still flowing, and the delta is a crazy mix of floods and weak ice. Yvo picks the route and a couple of times we break through thin ice, but always over dry channels.

Yvo leads us out to sea where most of the ice is a couple of meters thick, but at one crack he stops, gets out and walks ahead with a crowbar. This is new ice, he says, and he doesn’t trust it. He hammers the ice with the crowbar and, after a few blows, salt water wells up. We back off to the old ice, which is rougher but safe.

Near here we see a polar bear. It’s a female and Willie and Yvo see a cub, but I don’t. If it weren’t for the cub, Willie says, they might shoot her. Later he tells me that his brother-in-law disappeared while hunting polar bear in this area, about five years ago. Searchers found his sled and equipment, but no trace of the man.

Polar bear hunting is an interactive sport. The Inuit hunt bears, and bears eat people if they get the chance.

At some points on land, we pass through “rocky places” where stones stick up through a thin layer of snow, and once we pass a cluster of the piled-stone figures the Inuit call “inuksuks.” Yvo says they are part of a hunting trap. In summer there is a creek here, and the inuksuks guard a place where the caribou would cross if they could. Because the inuksuks look like hunters, the caribou cross at another point, where real hunters can hide.

Soon after we pass the inuksuks, our fuel clogs again. Yvo and Joe have checked the whole system a couple of times, and the only thing they have not cleaned is a brass tap in the fuel line. Now Joe takes a hacksaw and cuts it off. They take it apart and find that an inner seal is breaking up and getting into the gas.

Our fuel problem is solved, but less than an hour later a power-steering line bursts. Joe and Yvo wrap it with tape and refill the fluid, but now they notice that a ski on Joe’s R12 is loose. They replace a bolt that has broken, and we go on.

When we left Arviat, Yvo said we might make Churchill that evening but not with the breakdowns. Joe and Yvo agree to head for the place they call “Nunalla” where an outpost of the Hudson Bay Company was abandoned in the 1950s. One of the cabins has been fixed up for travelers to use, but the outer door is missing and the entry is full of snow. Yvo tells Willie and Abe where the inner door should be and they start digging while we unload the Bombardiers.

Bad news. The inner door is missing too. Beyond where it should have been is an insulated room containing the remains of some bunk beds that have been thrown about like toys. A bear got in, Yvo says. The floor inside is half covered with drifting snow and Willie and Abe start shoveling again while Joe lights his “tiger torch.” A tiger is standard equipment for people who use machines in the north. Fueled by an 11.5-kg propane bottle, it puts out a jet of blue flame about a meter long and 150 cm in diameter. Joe sweeps the floor with the flame, drying it and filling the cabin with steam.

Yvo rehangs the door, and the cabin is soon warm. Meanwhile, Joe has used a gas stove to cook a pot of prepared soup reinforced with fist-size chunks of frozen caribou. We spear chunks of meat with our knives, and dip cups into the broth.

Outside there’s a magnificent display of northern lights. Joe says they will come closer if he whistles and they seem to, but when he stops they drift away. I try whistling, but I guess they don’t like my tunes.

Both Yvo and Joe carry portable Honda generators, which are brought inside for the night. Early in the morning, Willie and Abe take them out, start them up and plug in the block heaters of the Bombardiers. Three hours later, the machines start easily and, except that it still overheats, ours now runs well.

Soon after noon, Willie points out a thin line of trees off to the right. Later, 20-year-old Abe tells me this is the second time in his life he has seen trees. The first was six years ago, when he went to the Arctic Winter Games in Whitehorse — and he didn’t like them. After a while, he says, he was “greensick.” “There was green all over the place,” he says. “It didn’t look right.”

It’s also warm here — about 15 F below (-26 C). In Toronto I would consider that cold, but here I am acclimatized. When Willie opens the top hatch of the R12, I enjoy the fresh air.

But now we run into a white-out. When the sky clouds over, the light turns flat and, with no shadows, it’s almost as though we are smothered in a dense fog. Not quite, because we can see a dark-colored object hundreds of meters away, but we literally can’t see the snow we stand on.

Driving blind, we have to pick our way between maniilaqs of ice and hummocks of snow, and if we guess wrong we could damage the Bombardier. The white-out catches us less than 65 km from Churchill but, in a machine with a top speed of 96 km an hour, it takes us more than seven hours to get there.

We spend this night in a motel. Next day, Yvo and Joe build a qamatik to replace the one we broke and left at Arviat. With tools borrowed from the local lumber yard, they cut the wooden parts and rope them together. A local welder makes the steel hitch and, in four and a half hours, we have a qamatik big enough to carry a pickup truck.

Thursday we load and leave, Joe with a van on one qamatik and Yvo with a pickup on another. It’s warm and bright as we leave town, but it soon whites out and, as we pass an empty cabin, Yvo and Joe decide to stop early. Next morning it’s still white. We feel our way across the ice, but it’s dangerous and Joe breaks the support arm for one ski hitting an invisible hummock. He makes a rope sling that will hold the ski and strut in place for more than 300 km.

Another hummock breaks four cleats on our left track. We have spares to replace them, but while Willie fixes the track it starts to snow. The white-out is now complete and Yvo says he would camp right here if he were alone. But there are five of us, and we’re only about 16 km from Nunalla. Yvo and Joe agree to go there and for a while Willie and Abe walk ahead, feeling for the trail with their feet. Later the light changes and they can ride, but it still takes three hours to cover less than 16 km. Saturday we start early and, except for the usual stops when our engine overheats, we make Arviat in good time.

Sunday is white again, but the weather report says there’s a three-day blizzard on the way. We don’t want to get hung up, and Yvo and Joe figure that if we can get to Whale Cove we can go on to Rankin. We cross the bay and stop on a headland overlooking the sea ice. We can’t see anything ahead and we wait — from before noon to about 5 p.m. to see if the weather will clear. Then we give up, leave the sleds on the headland and turn back to Arviat.

Monday we leave early and that’s when Yvo’s R12 really breaks down. When we get to the sleds the fan belt is gone and the engine is badly overheated. When we try to fit a new fan belt, the main pulley wobbles. We tighten it, but when Yvo restarts the engine it belches white smoke — a warning that we have antifreeze in the fuel system. The block may be cracked or the head gasket blown.

We can’t go and Joe can’t stay, because he has an appointment in Rankin. Willie is scheduled to fly to Yellowknife tomorrow, so he will go with Joe and Abe. Yvo and I head back to Arviat, and we make about two km.

Then the engine overheats again. This time Yvo takes the pulley off and we find the root of the problem. The pulley is cracked and up to now it has been wobbling back and forth — letting the fan belt slip so we got no cooling — and now it is gone completely. We are stuck, but Arviat is less than 10 km away, and Yvo uses his satellite phone to call for help. Another Bombardier tows us back to Yvo’s house and someone finds the pulley we need on a junked engine.

Yvo works against time to replace the broken part and, when he restarts the engine, we agree that there is not very much white smoke. The engine is not good but it should last to Rankin, and we just might make it before the three-day storm hits. If we don’t we will have to sit for at least a couple of days in the R12.

It’s getting dark now and Yvo doesn’t like traveling at night, but now he has no choice. With his foot to the floor he takes us north and we pull into Rankin about 10 a.m. Tuesday morning, just as the first snow of a serious blizzard begins. Now there will be no travel for anyone for a few days — but we are home.

The round trip took nine days. Without the breakdowns we could have done it in four or five, but we have no complaints.

The pulley was probably cracked when we left, and the engine could have died anywhere along the route. When you think of it that way, a final breakdown about 10 km out of Arviat, with a replacement pulley available in the village, was about the best option we could hope for.

A stroke of luck, in fact.