Survivor: Great Slave Lake
Trip Start Apr 10, 2005
25Trip End Dec 20, 2005
We hung out in Yellowknife for a bit over a week in hopes that Chuck would be able to make arrangements for us to charter a Beaver float plane. We were thrilled to find out that a plane would be available for the weekend, and we would go for a Saturday night camp out in the bush. We were joined by Karen (Chuck's fiancee) and Hooman and Andrea (friends of theirs, Hooman also works with Chuck) and we flew out to Karen's boss's hunting cabin. Sammy was pretty afraid when the propeller started, and he quivered for the whole flight. Traicee was pretty scared too and became pretty nauseated as we went along. The scenery from the air was stunning - the landscape dotted with lakes, the aspens turning yellow and the rolling rocky surfaces. When we got to the lake with the cabin, we saw from overhead that people were already there, and Chuck radioed down and found out they hadn't left on their hunting trip yet, so we decided to head out to the East Arm of Great Slave Lake, the second destination that we'd gotten a quote for
Sunday morning was amazing as well, and we hiked up the cliffs to see the views from the top. The skies cleared a bit in the afternoon and the winds started picking up. I suppose it was around this time when things started turning downhill a bit. It wasn't long before the winds that had picked up also brought along some stronger waves into our beach, and those waves pushed the airplane to the side, yanking out one of the anchor stakes from the sand. Chuck ran to the plane to turn it on to try and align it again, perpendicular to the beach, but by the time he got there, the left float had beached itself and the prop wouldn't pull the plane off the sand. All of us tried to pull the 5000 lb plane to straighten it, but that was a futile effort too
The plane wasn't completely parallel with the shore, and we helped Chuck do everything possible to keep the plane from twisting any more. When the plane started to move around too much and the right float started bashing into unseen rocks below, Chuck decided to sink that float to anchor the boat and minimize damage.
While our situation wasn't great, we weren't really too concerned about hanging out an extra night. Thankfully we over-packed for our overnight trip and had enough food for the whole day. Our bigger concern was really for Chuck and Hooman, because not only was it bad for them work-wise that we were in this predicament (it isn't usual for pilots to charter planes from their company for fun and this would certainly put an end to that practice for others) but it was compounded because we had gone outside normal protocol and didn't let the airline dispatch know that we had changed destinations in a timely fashion. At this point we all realize that their jobs are on the line.
We each took 2 hour watch shifts through the night, as the waves worsened to 6 foot swells with large rollers and wicked curls and we needed to check the plane every 15 or 20 minutes. By this point we had moved our camp off the beach to shelter ourselves from the winds, and it was a good thing we did because by the middle of the night, our former tent sites and campfire circle were underwater. The sunken right float started to get pulled outward from the beach a little, which at first we were happy with, hoping it would bring the boat back out to water, but then it became a problem because the sunken float was falling off the sandy shelf and the plane was starting to tip slightly. The boys literally spent hours out in the cold waters, standing on the floats and hand pumping the water from them while waves up to their necks smashed the boat. In the meantime the girls worked to acquire enough firewood to keep a warm fire going so they could warm up and dry their clothes. By early morning Chuck knew that things weren't getting better, and with the food and chain oil depleted, things would get worse for all of us quite quickly. He called in on the Satellite phone to report back to work, the situation both with us, the passengers, and with the plane. He was extremely worried he was going to lose the plane - I don't think extremely is a sufficient word here. He was exceedingly stressed, but despite this he kept it together, kept his head on his shoulders and made good decisions in the wake of that first decision which had clearly turned out badly
It sounded like they might send a helicopter out to us, to rescue us. However, with it starting to rain and dwindling firewood, we decided to move our camp a third time. Half the battle was keeping warm, and moving camp was a good way to keep active. Besides that, we found a rock face where we could build a fire and reflect heat back into our MEC Mantis shelter. We left our tents where they were and setup a shelter where we could all crunch together and sleep like sardines if needed. We debated this site for 15 or 20 minutes, considering whether it was a safe location to build a fire, since the muskeg layer was very thick, perhaps feet of vegetation below our wet shoes. We might build a fire and unwittingly set fire underground that could spread out without us knowing. We decided to move to the spot and did our best to dig down through the layers, removing the vegetation near the rock face with an axe and our hands.
There was another hairy moment when we actually tried to start the fire
We saw that this episode really shook Chuck up. Lack of sleep and high stress was wearing on him, as it was on others, but none were as burdened as he was. We all learned real fast that the situation could go from bad to dire in a few short seconds.
The hours from 10am to 2pm, when the helicopter arrived were long hours
Chuck and Hooman's boss Larry, an airline mechanic and the helicopter pilot touched down on the beach and were witness to the treacherous waters roaring in at us. They were also witness to the relative security of the plane at this stage - hercules strapped to a large shrub on the beach and not rocking in the waves since the floats were sunk and beached. Chuck and Hooman indicated they would be staying with the plane, since there was nothing anyone could do with it until the lake calmed. The girls were rescued by helicopter, shuttled two at a time, to Plummer's lodge, just a short 10 min hop away on the east arm.
It was a tough goodbye to Hooman and my good friend Chuck. I dread for them what lies ahead - not just in enduring more of the wet and cold on the island, but mostly what the future will hold for them at this company. I regret to have been a part of a plan that turned out so badly for those guys - so many shouldda, couldda, woulddas go through our heads it's hard to shake them off. I know this misadventure will eat at them for some time to come, and I just hope and pray they find the fortitude to move on
Leaving the island and arriving at Plummers Lodge was a surreal experience. We were all worn out and frayed on the edges, and then we arrive as surprise guests at this wonderful lodge with the most amazing, gracious, generous hosts there could possibly be. Strangely enough, Karen knew the owners because she had spent a weekend there last September and they welcomed us with open arms. Immediately they offered us hot coffee and dry socks. They started a fire so we could start to dry our shoes. They took up a collection of wet clothes from us and threw them into the dryer. This lodge is a fishing lodge that hosts mostly American tourists for 8 or 9 weeks in the summer, at about $6000 a week per visitor. This is the kind of place where they have big-wig guests but they won't tell you they do (and we asked - knowing already that George Bush Sr has visited). They have their own air strip that lands 737 jets during the season. By this time of the year, there are no guests - or not supposed to be guests, but inevitably people get weathered in for various reasons and knock on their door. We weren't the only ones there - a group of 4 Dene natives had arrived the same day after hunting a moose earlier in the day. The summer pilot and one of the summer staff members was still around doing some fishing, plus their female guests. The pilot offered to fly us to Yellowknife gratis the following day, and the lodge hosts offered us beds for the night
We've been able to talk to some others who work at the same company as Chuck and Hooman, and we've gleaned from them that the atmosphere is pretty bad, and things aren't looking good for them right now. A lot will depend on the condition of the airplane when it returns, finally. As well Chuck called Karen here last night and reported that he's okay, that Grant from Plummers Lodge boated out to them later in the day with food for the two of them. (What complete sweethearts Grant and Brenda from Plummers are!)
So the story is unfinished - what will be the outcomes, we can only guess. What a way to end our travels. So as it's getting mighty cold up here at night, we'll be heading south soon and make our way home. See you all soon!