Douglas & McIntyre
The Ice Pilots

Book details:

January 2012
ISBN 978-1-55365-939-6
Paperback - Trade
5 1/2" x 8 1/2"
272 pages
40 b&w photographs
Transportation / Aviation
$21.95 CAD

Douglas & McIntyre

The Ice Pilots

Flying with the Mavericks of the Great White North

Excerpt / Additional Content

Ice Pilots Introduction

At forty degrees below zero, the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales converge. Above and below that point they are strangers, relying upon a complex mathematical formula to bring them into unity with each other. It is only at that single spot that they share the same space, carry the same meaning.

At forty degrees below zero, human flesh that has the acute misfortune of not being covered with protective clothing begins to freeze in mere minutes. The cold air triggers a physiological response focusing on one lofty goal: survival. Capillaries and veins near the skin’s surface shrink violently. Blood moves to the body’s core in an attempt to protect vital organs.

Yet as valuable as this response may be to keeping us humans alive, it doesn’t do much to safeguard some important body parts from the ravages of the extreme cold. Indeed, reduced blood flow to the hands and feet can be dangerous, since blood is the body’s primary heating fuel. As blood flow decreases, the chances of frostbite increase.

As the temperature of the skin falls below the freezing point, ice crystals begin to form in its cells, killing them along the way. In its earliest stages, this is called “frostnip,” a relatively benign condition that may see a few layers of skin eventually die and slough off, later to regenerate. With continued exposure to the cold, however, the freezing deepens and the damage to fragile flesh increases. True frostbite ensues.

In second-degree frostbite, the skin freezes solid. Blisters may occur a couple of days later, eventually hardening to an unholy blue-purple or black colour. In less severe cases the blisters will eventually peel off (an extraordinarily painful process in its own right), revealing layers of new skin underneath.

Leave the flesh exposed to –40° temperatures for even longer, though, and the freezing becomes more extensive. Deep frostbite occurs as the muscles, tendons, blood vessels, and nerves freeze solid. The skin becomes hard and waxy; the ability to use the area is lost—perhaps forever. Nerve damage is commonplace.

In those severe cases, the only remedy is amputation, as gangrene sets into the now-dead flesh. Entire digits blacken and begin to shrivel, a process sometimes accompanied by a foul-smelling discharge. If the frostbite goes completely untreated, affected body parts may actually fall off.

That is the clinical view of frozen flesh, one established by scientists working comfortably in their laboratories and offices as they sipped warm mugs of tea or coffee. Yet it is certainly not the only view. Just ask the Ice Pilots.

The Ice Pilots. Since its premiere on November 18, 2009, the television documentary series Ice Pilots NWT (commonly shortened to Ice Pilots by its fans) has been giving the world an up-close and sometimes painfully personal view of what –40° feels like through the eyes, ears, hands, and feet of the men and women of family-run Buffalo Airways, a throwback airline based in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, one of the northernmost cities in one of the coldest countries on the planet.

Throwback airline? Indeed. Buffalo Airways operates from a frontier town perched on the edge of a wilderness so vast and remote that only a minute percentage of humankind ever gets to see it, let alone work in it. But what makes Buffalo Airways and Ice Pilots the international phenomena they have become are the birds the airline uses to deliver humans and cargo to the far-flung reaches of the North: World War II–era piston-pounding propeller planes that most airlines turned to scrap metal decades ago. These planes—classics like the Douglas dc-3 and dc-4 and the Curtiss-Wright c-46 Commando—once ferried troops and supplies over enemy lines. Now they operate in a different theatre, negotiating the battle lines of blizzards and dwindling fuel supplies in one of the most merciless regions on Earth.

For me, though, Buffalo Airways was a piece of nostalgia, a wisp of memory from a special time earlier in my life. A native New Yorker who came to Canada as an idealistic twenty-five-year-old in the early 1990s, I travelled across this great country to the far reaches of the Arctic, including Yellowknife. And it is impossible to live in the Canadian Arctic without having heard about Buffalo Airways and its crustily iconic leader, “Buffalo” Joe McBryan, who started the airline back in 1970.

Buffalo Joe was a presence in almost every northern community I called home in those years, whether in person or in legend. People said that if something needed to get from Point A to Point B, regardless of the weather or season, Buffalo Joe was the guy to do it. I knew that was true: legends are not easily built in a land so rugged it has been known to reduce the toughest of men to babbling fools.

Nevertheless, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t entertain the occasional sliver of doubt about the flightworthiness of Joe’s fleet of vintage aircraft. Those moments usually occurred in the bay window of my sixth-storey apartment in Yellowknife’s Anderson Thomson Tower, which faced the runway of the Yellowknife Airport, a few kilometres away. I would stand there in nervous anticipation, watching a dc-4 attempt to defy gravity and lumber its way over my building, one of the tallest in the Yellowknife “skyline.” On more than one occasion I was convinced this was the time the plane definitely, positively would not make it over. It always did.

So when presented with an opportunity to dedicate the better part of a year to bringing the inner workings of Buffalo Airways to life in the pages of this book, I leapt. Here was my chance to find out what really makes this quirky-yet-successful airline tick. Here was my chance to explore the rich history of the North and the critical role that aviation has played in weaving its cultural fabric. Here was my chance to get behind the scenes of the show and spend time with Buffalo’s characters. And here was my chance to see if I could crack the infamous shell of Buffalo Joe, a man whose temper and stubbornness was the stuff of legend across the North.

Chapter 1: Arrivals

Frostbite wasn’t the only thing going through my head as I boarded the Bombardier Dash 8 scheduled to take me from the relatively balmy climes of Calgary, Alberta, to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, one clear mid-January morning. Truth be told, though, it ranked high in the panoply of thoughts swirling through my mind: Will Buffalo Joe like me? Does a wind chill of –42° feel any different to a forty-six-year-old body than it does to a thirty-year-old one? Just how safe is a seventy-year-old plane, anyway?

Those questions, and a hundred others, were bound to be answered during the first of what would prove to be many trips to Yellowknife in the coming months. In the meantime, though, I settled into the modern—if not particularly spacious—comfort of the plane, one of the most popular regional turboprop airplanes in the world.

For good reason. The Dash 8 is a picture of efficiency: depending on the model, the plane will carry anywhere from thirty-seven to eighty passengers at speeds that can eclipse five hundred kilometres (three hundred miles) an hour with relatively little fuel consumption. The interior of the cabin also speaks to modern aviation’s obsession with function over comfort. Somehow we managed to park two humans on either side of an aisle large enough to accommodate the flight attendants’ snack tray in a fuselage that boasted a diameter of less than three metres (ten feet). In other words, if your seatmate feasted upon a three-bean burrito for breakfast, you’d know about it.

Nevertheless, the seat cushion into which my nether regions nestled was soft and inviting, and the overhead lighting cast a warm glow throughout the aircraft that mimicked the brightening sky to the east. The plane’s highly insulated plastic shell deadened the sound of its two turboprop engines. We may have been squeezed in like suitcases on a luggage cart, but we were warm, cozy, and about to cover more than 1,200 kilometres (745 miles) in about two hours.

As the plane lifted off, Calgary’s winter landscape began to fall away. The city faded into a prairie patchwork of golden brown and white, dissected into neat squares by the innumerable roads that keep people and commerce flowing along the southern edge of midwestern Canada. Soon we climbed through the ceiling of clouds, and the world below us melted away. All was calm in the upper reaches of the troposphere.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. As we begin our final descent into Yellowknife . . .”

I awoke with a start to the pilot’s message; the flight had lulled me into a deep sleep as it hurtled across northern skies. And as my eyes adjusted to the light around me and I gazed through the window, I could tell we weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.

The checkerboard of the prairie below had been replaced by something more primal. The golden landscape had given way to two colours that wrestled for dominance: charcoal grey and white. The grey occasionally won the battle, as masses of stunted, hardscrabble spruce trees huddled together, forming broad patches of forest in a great, untamed wilderness. It didn’t take a geographer to recognize that the leaden curves of the forest were mere accents on a backdrop of white.

There was a lot of snow down there. This came as no surprise to me, given that I had spent several years of my life criss-crossing the Arctic, from Fort McPherson in the west to Baffin Island in the east. Snow is a part of life in communities that pepper the subarctic and Arctic regions of the world, regardless of the season. What struck me on this flyover, though, was just how much water was sitting underneath all that snow. In every direction, as far as the eye could see, the landscape was peppered with white blots of varying size and shape, gleaming in the cold winter sun, each indicating yet another body of water, from long-forgotten ponds to vast lakes covering thousands of square kilometres.

It occurred to me that, other than the primal landscape of white and grey, there wasn’t much else going on down there: no herds of caribou loping gracefully across the frozen land, no eagles soaring over the rocky outcrops in search of prey. Hell, I couldn’t even spot a road.

It wasn’t until we were descending to within spitting distance of our destination that the trappings of “civilization” began to appear. Snowmobile trails snaked through the forest, bursting onto frozen lakes, where they broadened and braided, only to constrict again on the far side, where they once again plunged into the forest cover. We drew closer, and a road (singular: one road) appeared, though from that height it wasn’t much more than a grey stripe stretched across the land below.

If anything, the snow served as an acute reminder of my destination. With a population that fluctuates around twenty thousand, Yellowknife is the capital city of the Northwest Territories (it’s also the only city in the Northwest Territories), a place where old and new, traditional and cosmopolitan, blue collar and white collar, rough and refined, Native and non-Native, all coexist fairly peacefully.

The city is located some 512 kilometres (318 miles) south of the Arctic Circle, and bears the dubious distinction of being the coldest city in Canada. According to Natural Resources Canada, Yellowknife’s average nighttime temperature between December and February is a balmy –29.9°c (–21.8°f). Average. That means that for each day warmer than –29.9°c, there’s one colder too. Yellowknife’s mean annual temperature is –5.4°c (22.3°f), a figure even more astoundingly cold once you figure that the city also has the sunniest summers in Canada, with June, July, and August racking up a total of 1,037 hours (that’s forty-three complete days) of sun each year. It’s been estimated that an average Yellowknife winter comprises 191 days, or more than six months.

Yet by the grace of some omnipotent being who realized that my ability to withstand significant stretches of flesh-freezing temperatures had diminished in the years since I left the North, the immediate forecast was on the warmer side of things, relatively speaking. Overnight lows would touch –30°c (–22°f), but daytime highs might actually climb above –10°c (14°f) once or twice. I wasn’t breaking out the sunscreen just yet, but I was grateful nonetheless.

If that doesn’t seem tropical to you, consider the poor bastards who called Yellowknife home in the winter of 2008. At the end of that January, a cold weather system gripped the North like a vise, making people wonder if this might be the time to consider a move to Vostok, Antarctica, which holds the world record for coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth: –89.2°c (–128.6°f), in 1983. For nine straight days, Yellowknife recorded temperatures below –40°, with wind chills regularly exceeding –50°c (–58°f). The city operated in the hushed haze of a persistent ice fog, a phenomenon that occurs when the water molecules in the air freeze and hang suspended like a ghostly veil.

Entire neighbourhoods were obscured. Mail delivery came to a grinding halt. Schools closed to ensure the safety of students and staff.

It’s not like I haven’t seen my share of –40°, though. Like many who call this eclectic place home, I came to the North by a rather unconventional route. Back in the early 1990s, I was happily ensconced in what I then thought was the dream job: working on Park Avenue in New York City, in the Commissioner’s Office of Major League Baseball. Several years earlier, armed with a journalism degree from New York University, I had peppered nearly every sports team on the east coast of the United States with letters seeking employment in their public relations departments. Most chose not to reply at all; those that did all said the same thing: thanks but no thanks. All but one, that is.

Major League Baseball informed me that there were currently no jobs available at the office, but I might be interested in applying for their Executive Development Program, started a few years earlier by new commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who wanted to bring young, eager, and talented executives to the industry. One or two recent university graduates were selected every year from a pool of several hundred applicants. Should I be lucky enough to land the position, I would have the rare opportunity to work in almost every department of the Commissioner’s Office, from legal to broadcasting, licensing to player relations, learning everything there is to know about the business side of the game. After about a year, the “executive trainee” would have the opportunity to land a full-time position in the industry, either with a major league club, a minor league club, or one of the various departments in the Commissioner’s Office itself. Realizing my chances were exceedingly slim and with nothing to lose, I set to the application form with a vigor I hadn’t felt since writing my final term paper for a senior NYU course called “Human Sexual Love.”

I somehow made it through the initial set of interviews, and was shocked to learn I had been selected as one of the finalists. At that point, I realized I was no longer a dark horse in the proceedings and had a legitimate shot at actually getting the job. It was time to break out the big guns. Donning my finest brown wool suit, baby-blue shirt, pink tie, and burgundy wingtips, I headed to the Major League Baseball offices at 350 Park Avenue for my final interview.

The place reeked of tradition, of cool, of a yeah-we-know-we’re-badass-but-we-like-to-play-it-casual-nonetheless attitude. I desperately wanted to be a part of it. Black and white photographs of famous players lined the modest walls. I tried to identify each one in turn, just in case the interview included a quiz: Ty Cobb. Rogers Hornsby. The Christian Gentleman, Christy Mathewson. Babe Ruth. Yup, I was ready.

As I walked into the conference room—the first one I had ever seen in my life—I likely let out an audible gasp. I was confronted by a cohort of nine Major League Baseball executives sitting around a giant oak table.

Nerves notwithstanding, I must have done something right, because within a week I got the call: I was going to the majors! With tears of joy running down my face, I called my parents, Traude and Gus, who had immigrated to the United States from Germany and Greece after World War II in search of a better life. I clearly remember telling them that I had just gotten the job that I would have for the rest of my life. “In forty years,” I said, “they can give me a gold watch, pat me on the back, and show me the door. I’ll be the happiest guy who’s ever lived.”

How wrong I was.

Only a few years later, seeds of discontent began to sprout somewhere deep inside me. As thrilling as baseball was (how many other people do you know who were inside Candlestick Park when the earthquake struck before Game Three of the 1989 World Series?), I started to want something more out of life. The shallowness of my existence was becoming obvious.

I would stand in front of the mirror every morning, wrap my tie into a neat half-Windsor and wonder which client I would have to pretend to like that day. As I began to consider more deeply my place in the universe, I realized I was not cut from the Egyptian broadcloth of Park Avenue. If life held any more great secrets for me, I guessed they would not be found in the hallowed halls of Major League Baseball.

I ended up quitting Major League Baseball and signing on as a volunteer with a small Canadian organization called Frontiers Foundation, which works to this day to provide—among other things—affordable housing in Canada’s aboriginal communities. My responsibilities would be simple, yet profound: renovate and/or build houses for some of North America’s most disadvantaged people. As altruistic as I felt, I was encouraged by Frontiers’ out clause: the minimum commitment was only two months. If I arrived at my posting at some as-yet-unknown hamlet in the middle of Canadian nowhere and realized I had made the biggest mistake of my life, I could always go back to 350 Park Avenue on my hands and knees and beg for my job back.

I didn’t need to. For the first time in my life, I was in a completely foreign environment, living with a group of volunteers from around the globe, working outside at a job for which I had no training, no obvious skills. The learning curve—both on the social and professional scales—was high. Not a day went by that I didn’t learn something about myself, the world, home construction, or the Native people who called these places home. I loved it.

And so the two-month-minimum commitment window came and went, and I continued doing what felt like the most important work I had ever done. For six months, I bounced around several communities northwest of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. If the names Goulais River, Gros-Cap, and Batchawana Bay mean anything to you, you’re a better student of geography than I was at the time. And if I thought the challenges of working outside through the Canadian autumn and early winter were tough, I had a lot to learn.

After a brief trip back to New York for Christmas, I was sent out for my second volunteer posting, one that would test my ability to withstand the rigours of weather like I had never before imagined. I was off to Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, a community of some eight hundred people—primarily aboriginal Canadians, the Tetl’it Gwich’in—that sits about a hundred kilometers (sixty miles) north of the Arctic Circle.

In six months at Fort McPherson I learned more about life and love than I ever had in New York. Here were a people who by most modern-day measures had virtually nothing, but still knew how to appreciate the small treasures of their everyday existence like few people I had met before. If the Northern Lights appeared in the sky, people would stop you on the street to talk about it. When spring came, you would only need to bump into somebody at the grocery store and they would start regaling you with stories of the black ducks they had seen flying over the river earlier that morning. I was pulled into the methodical, comfortable flow of life north of 60, where drinking tea and eating bannock and dried caribou meat were enough to constitute a social event, and a damn good one at that.

Sure, there were problems in Fort McPherson, problems I would soon learn are common throughout aboriginal communities the world over. Alcohol abuse was rampant. There was nothing strange about encountering somebody fall-down drunk on the town’s hard-packed dirt roads at any time of the day or night, regardless of the season. Suicide, glue-sniffing, spousal abuse, child abuse, arson, and petty burglary wove a tragic thread through the fabric of life in Fort McPherson. One of my favourite people in town was Robert Zheh (not his real name), who quite literally bore the scars of his discontent as a youth. Half of Robert’s face was horribly disfigured, the result of a botched suicide attempt many years earlier. And yet, for all that, I fell in love with the place—and its often brutal weather.

And while the thought of working outside in temperatures that routinely sank below –30°c (–22°f) might have made for many sleepless nights back in my Greenwich Village apartment, I was amazed at how well my body became inured to the arctic environment. Maybe it had to do with the fact that my fellow volunteers and I were all in our early‑ to mid-twenties, but we threw ourselves into our pro bono work with nary a thought about our well-being. Hammering a nail at –30°c (–22°f) is a painfully drawn-out process (we didn’t have the luxury of air nailers), but the mere fact that we were out there, standing on ladders and dangling ourselves off rooftops in cold that most people would otherwise describe as ungodly, was a feat unto itself.

And as the days got longer and the weather began to warm ever so slightly, we appreciated every ray of sunlight that shone on our ghostly white bodies. I distinctly remember working outside in only a shirt and sweatshirt one brilliantly sunny spring afternoon. The temperature was –20°c (–4°f).