A Story Of Survival In A Northern Wilderness

Nicola Tims
November 30, 2019

There are few places left in the world like the Northwest Territories. Stretching up past the arctic circle, it’s a Canadian province with a small population of 42,800. Yet, it reaches out to an area of 532,643 square miles. It draws in those who want to go back in time, where you can venture out on expeditions with civilization hundreds of miles away. It’s a part of the world where the sun sometimes never sets and at other times, never rises. It is wild and untouched, and the aurora borealis shine often.

As Far Away as You Can Get

Dave Olesen, originally from Illinois, visited the Northwest Territories back in 1979 for dog sledding expeditions. With an alluring landscape riddled with rivers that carve and twist through high peaks, he was drawn back years later. In 1987, he made the Northwest Territories his home.

Before settling here, Dave received his pilot’s license, which is a good thing, as the landscape in the Northwest Territories lends itself to bush planes - whether on skis, tires, or floats - as a mode of transportation. The terrain is rugged with rivers that spread across its vast territory and into great lakes. Here, most of their communities are settlements rather than towns. These settlements collect together as municipalities, and there are only 24 of them. Taking up 0.2% of the territory’s landmass, they are home to 96% of the population. Most of the northern and eastern reaches are uninhabited. Yellowknife, lying near the south, is their largest city, with 19,569 people residing there.

Dave doesn’t live in any of the Northwest Territory’s populated areas. He lives 165 miles away from Yellowknife, closer to a native settlement called Lutselk’e, and even that is 55 miles away. Early in the 1990s, Dave had a little Piper Cub plane and worked as a guide while continuing to be involved in dog team expeditions. Over two decades later, he continues to transport and assist tourists and scientists alike with his charter plane business, Hoarfrost River Huskies. With two small piston engine bush planes, a 2-seater Aviat Husky and a 5-seater Found Bush Hawk, Dave takes people into the wilderness.

A Series of Events

It was a research mission that brought Dave and a technician, Stefan, up into the most remote eastern portion of the territory back in July 2017. It was a routine trip, one that they do annually, sometimes biannually. It was a round-robin type of job, where Dave would land and anchor the floatplane, after which Stefan would leave the plane to get a water sample. After the sample was collected, Stefan would climb back in, the plane would be unanchored, and off they’d go. On this particular trip, they had four geographically spaced out stops.

As Dave tells the story, it is clear that a floatplane capsizing is an event that takes a series of flawed decisions and perfect coincidences to line up. Although uncommon, it does happen. On this particular day, the tipping point was a mix of squally and steadily increasing wind and a motivation to push through it anyway to get the job done. Although they would soon find themselves upside down, it could have been much worse.

For one, Dave and Stefan were at the mouth of the Dubawnt River, where it flows into Dubawnt Lake. A capsizing story would have ended very differently if they had been in open water. Out of all the possibilities, at least the water was not flowing offshore, which would have pushed them farther out.

Secondly, it was the height of summer, with darkness just starting to seep back over the sky for about 1-2 hours every night. Although Dave flies year-round, this particular time of year had an abundance of light and warmer temperatures. During the winter, temperatures can dip as low as -40 degrees Celsius.

Most importantly, it was 2017. Before a tracking technology like Spidertracks, any small plane accident could leave a pilot and his crew stranded in the wilderness for at least a week. The length of this wait time has a lot to do with the challenge of pinning down where a plane had landed.

Pilots joke about the remoteness of the area Dave and Stefan found themselves in that day in July. Being so far up north, it is an area beyond the normal parameters of a GPS unit’s menu of “nearest airports”. Dubawnt is over 400 miles from Yellowknife and 200 miles from Baker Lake, so it is not an ideal place to have to wait indefinitely. Back in the day, a pilot would use their HF or VHF radio to call distant ground stations or jet airliners flying over. A quicker rescue would depend on the chance of reaching a plane taking an international trip.

The Capsizing

When Dave and Stefan found themselves upside down in the Found Bush Hawk after attempting to take-off, their training and survival impulses kicked in. While ice-cold water rushed into the cabin, the two undid their seatbelts, grabbed lifejackets, and unlatched the door. With the cabin underwater, Dave and Stefan climbed on top of the plane’s floats, and for about 1.5 hours, paddled with the current and swell slowly drifting them along.

About 150 yards from a rocky tundra shoreline, the plane stopped drifting. With a significant task ahead of them, Dave and Stefan opted out of any attempt to dive back into the cabin for supplies. Instead, they grabbed what they could manage to reach, including two jerry cans of aviation gasoline and a survival pail.

Then, it was time to swim.

It’s hard to imagine the drive we tap into when faced with difficult challenges related to our survival. Dave and Stefan would have done what they had to at that moment, but there was something else assisting in their resilience. When they arrived on solid ground, it wasn’t a question of ‘whether’ they would be rescued, but only ‘when’ and ‘by who’. In 2010, Dave had plugged Spidertracks into both of his planes. It was all he needed to do on the off chance that one day, he might find himself upside-down underwater. Minute by minute, day by day, his base would know precisely where the plane was.

Once on land, and with matches dry from a pocket match safe, Dave and Stefan were able to start a fire with the aviation gasoline. Although they were cold and wet, they were alive, and they were completely confident that help was on its way. Dave says that in the old days, he would have had to start thinking about snaring a rabbit or catching a fish. In the past, you didn’t know how long you’d be waiting.

When a 15 Hour Wait is ‘Phenomenal’

Back at base, once their overdue time of 9:00 PM came and went, Dave’s wife Kristen knew for sure that something had gone wrong. She immediately dispatched search and rescue to the last location reported by Spidertracks. Around a fire, Dave and Stefan waited for 15 hours, a ‘phenomenally short’ time to wait in this part of the world, according to Dave. The two survived the night, and at 4:00 AM, rescue came, finding them exactly where Spidertracks said they were.

Although Dave and Kristen had recovered and repaired the Found Bush Hawk, it has since been replaced with an updated model. Today, Dave continues to do general air taxi and tourist charters but finds himself working more and more with university groups, researchers, and geologists. His part of the world is ripe for exploration, and scientists arrive to gather samples and study areas frozen in time.

As Dave continues to guide people across this wild landscape he calls home, a simple technology remains onboard, offering an unprecedented level of comfort. People up here know how to survive, but at least with Spidertracks, they don’t have to wait too long to be rescued.

To read more about Dave’s experiences and musings on life as a pilot in the Northwest Territories, check out his blog.

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