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Table of Contents "On the road to Kabul and other short stories of treks"

On the edge in Newfoundland, 1987.

Southern Longe Range Mountains, SW Newfoundland. Flying Hughes 500-D helicopter of Viking Helicopters across granite hills East of Grand Lake.

Helicopter and lighting, August 1987

In August 1987, during a warm summer day, we took a Hughes 500 D helicopter to do a field trip. There were 5 of us, Ken, Otto, Mark, Scotty (our pilot) and myself. The weather was warm and in the afternoon gray low hanging clouds developed and I was surprised it did not rain yet. We landed on a hill top south of Grand Lake among the low hanging gray clouds. This was an interesting granite hill and we looked around. Mark suddenly said that he felt his hair raising but no one paid attention. A minute later there was a light flash within a split second followed by a thundering noise just off the mountain in the cloud covered valley.


Scotty did not hesitate, he saw his 500000 US Dollar helicopter at risk and said: “Shall we go?” Mark repeated that he knew that there was thunder in the hair as his hair came up. Now we understood and we all quickly boarded the helicopter. It took Scotty only 1 minute to swarm up the helicopter and I never saw him taking off so quickly flying for safety.


This was the most dangerous part. Imagine being struck in full flight. The helicopter would become a lame duck instantly by the burning of  the electronic system. Scotty would have no choice but to hover down, using the trick of pitching the rotor blades such they would catch the wind which would speed them up until at low altitude switching them into lift position. He did ask me once to show this in full air claiming this was a standard emergency landing but I declined, just like when he asked me to do  hammer head in mid air.

The bear and three cubs, July 1987

End of July of 1989 we camped in the Southern Long Range, near the edge of the highlands on the West Coast. This is just before the blueberry season so I did not expect any bears yet. The caribous now migrated to the most southern and highest mountains to make use of abundant grass. Around our camp I counted some 2000 caribous, all spread out on the surrounding hills in groups of 5-20 keeping a watch full eye but they did not show any signs of disturbance by our presence.


I  said good bye to David, my summer student, in morning to do a day traverse on my own to the North-West of the camp close to the edge of the highlands. After walking between the caribous mostly standing on the small hills for one hour, I suddenly could see for a few kilometers towards the West Coast and the lowland woods. To my surprise I spotted a female bear with 3 cubs at a kilometer distance. In Newfoundland, bears normally have two cubs as they live of  big game like caribou and moose but three is exceptional. Mommy must be pretty well equipped to raise three by being a good hunter.


I increased my pace to and only briefly looked at the rocks for a while. Suddenly I heard a crashing noise on the left side of fast moving animals running  through low bush. I looked back at where I last saw the bears and now I could see mommy bear chasing a moose with a calf. They crashed at full speed through the dense bush with an amazing the strength. I would not be able to reach more than a fraction of their speed. Worse was that they came kind of in my direction, just a bit of too the left, so I started running to the right keeping the caribous that were watching the scene between myself and the bear figuring that as long as they wouldn’t move I would be save. I now realized that I would have felt a bit saver if I had carried the shotgun we had in the camp but this adds another 4 kg in weight. This is also why you normally walk-around with two persons but being on your own halves the work and the reward is an extra day off.


After another 5 minutes I dared to look on the left side, went up a hill and standing between a few caribous that did not move, I saw the bear returning to her cubs. The moose and her calf kept on running in the far distance. A failed chase. I kept on going fast to ensure I would not be the next one to be chased although highly unlikely as bears always stay away from people. They are afraid of us because of the guns and they stick to their normal diet.

The boat trip on Grand Lake, August 1987

For most of the summer of 1987 I studied the weather on Grand Lake in Western Newfoundland. This lake is 5 km wide and 40 km long with hills of 500 m on either side and really an old land-locked fiord. The regular southwesterly wind funnels through the lake and taking a boat on the lake was risky by the high waves and the cold water that never would raise above 10 degrees Celsius as the lake was deep. Only in August the wind goes down and the temperature reaches the mid twenties Celsius.


One day in August the weather was perfect, 25 degrees Celsius and no wind in Pasadena, our base camp North of Corner Brook. I hired the biggest boat I could find from a local outfitter, a 20 foot aluminum boat with a high bow and a 30 HP engine. All went well, we entered the lake from the North access road and followed the East shore going South-West for most of the day. At 4 PM we decide to return but in the mean time the wind picked up and came from a surprising North-East. Waves were a meter high and not prepared for this we got very wet and cold in the next half hour as we only wore the emergency fishermen  coats and not the insulated pants which were getting wet at the bottom of the boat.


Looking at the aerial photographs, in half an hour we only did 2 km and there were 38 km more to go or 10 hours with only two tanks of fuel. Impossible. There were two alternatives, land here and walk to the road for 6 hours or use the other exit at the Southern tip of then lake, walk to the road for an hour and hitch-hike back home. David, my summer student, wanted to carry on but I shouted to him that at this pace it would take us ten hours and we did not even have sufficient fuel.


The South-Western escape route was planned as a fall back option as Grand Lake only had two sides were the road would come close, to the South-West and North, the latter we used this morning. Also, Mark and Steve, the second team who camped in the area and studied part of this Lake, might be around and could give us a ride.


We headed back, now easily doing 25 km per hour going in the wind direction and on entering the Southern Arm of Grand Lake we spotted the zodiac of  Mark and Steve. Lucky us, we explained them our problem and they of course offered to take us the 60 km back to Pasadena right away as we were wet and cold. That night I kept on shivering till midnight, even a long, hot shower did not help and I must have had a mild form of hypothermia.

Helicopter safari and curious caribou, August 1987

Caroline joined me for two weeks in late August and I promised her a special trip to make up for the 3 month absence, a safari using the helicopter during one of my rock hopping days for collecting big samples for age dating. My boss left that day and as I managed the 200 hour helicopter contract, Scotty was keen to cover us for the insurance marking her down as a second party so all was arranged.


We took off from Pasadena and made a few stops for hammering big blocks of granulites and granites. Along the way we circled around a male moose that stayed remarkably calm. We flew slowly to a bear that was looking for blueberries on the high Annieopsquotch Mountain Range and the bear looked at us standing on two legs. My film ran out and while changing it the bear already made a dash for safety crashing through the dense bush at full speed and disappearing down a valley. Impressive power. I only got one picture.


More to the South on the flat open highlands, we followed a few small herds of caribou that also ran for the helicopter noise. We finally stopped on a hill and shut down the helicopter. After 10-15  minutes some caribous came up carefully, trying to check us out but unable to make out the smell as they are not very familiar to human being. A young caribou came right up to Caroline, looking at her with big eyes and she could almost touch it. A unique experience for her as she never came close to animals in the true wild yet.

Driving off the road, August 1986

Two of my students, Jeff and xxx, camped half way on the road to Burgeo at the Government of  Transportation Camp. The Burgeo Road is a 150 km long mostly gravel road with few cars, at most 4 per hour, and it serves the town of Burgeo with only two to three thousand inhabitants. There is no gas station and the only two points with people living with potential help is the lumber camp after 20 km and the Transport Camp halfway.


Getting bored they decided one night to drive to Burgeo to do some shopping, some 60 km South. Burgeo on the South Coast tends to be covered in fog formed by the cold ocean currents coming down from Greenland and when approaching the town you hit the fog already on the road close to Burgeo. This makes traveling tricky as the gravel road is unmarked and tends to be built on one meter high gravel dike dumped on the bogs with little shoulder.


Driving back at night the fog was dense and the darkness made driving even more difficult. The tiredness of 3 months of field work staying mostly in tents was another factor and after some kilometers they drove of the road and rolled over, Jeff and xxx hanging upside down in their seat belts. The truck was badly damaged but luckily they did not have any injuries. The project got a bill of 12000 Canadian dollars for towing and repairs but no one was hurt.


Helicopter droppings


15 km drops