Foggy Mountain Breakdown

Written by Walt Rhodes
Thursday, June 07, 2012

Walt RhodesThe loss of two music icons this year has left a huge void in the bluegrass world, and I couldn’t help but hum one of their songs as I watched the weather in the far north. Earl Scruggs, while paired with Lester Flatt, made the instrumental “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” famous with the banjo, but to hear Doc Watson pick it on the guitar was equally pleasing to the ear. The far north isn’t rugged in a Rockies sense, but the Mackenzie Delta is bounded by 5,500-foot peaks and the tundra outside of Inuvik, Northwest Territories, is rolling with as much as 1,000 feet of relief. Nearing the end of the survey with sea fog rolling overhead, mountains invisible across the Delta, and no reporting stations nearby, I could only surmise that the tundra bumps were shrouded as well. Since daylight isn’t an issue in the Land of the Midnight Sun, it was merely time to sit back and hope updated satellite shots and maybe a pilot report from a high-flying cargo hauler would reveal the fog was breaking down.

Two days later a wind shift pushed the fog just offshore and we were able to knock out the northern two transects that hugged the Arctic Ocean coast. Scaup and scoter pairs were scattered across the landscape and several incubating tundra swans were noted. We had time to finish the very last line and begin the trek south towards home, but a hastily-downed muskox burger and greasy fries before launching, combined with some bouncy flying conditions and Caleb having lost his legs after two days of sitting, left him feeling (and looking) green. Fortunately, the weather held into the next day and we completed the last transect.

Habitat conditions and waterfowl densities improved in a south-to-north direction through the crew area. On some of the lines in northern Alberta I think Caleb and I could have counted all of the birds we saw on both hands. Observations began to increase in the vicinity of Yellowknife and continued up through the Mackenzie Valley. Ice-out progressed nicely, no ice dams were seen on the river, and the Mackenzie Delta exhibited none of the flooding seen in 2011. It should be a pretty good production year from this crew area.

Faced with a 2,400-mile ferry flight back to the States, we had two long days of flying ahead. We climbed to 11,500 feet, set the autopilot for south, and caught a slight tailwind as we rode in a slot between two major weather systems pounding Canada. A fuel and overnight stop in my normal crew area allowed for a visit with old friends before we arrived in Minneapolis 15.5 flight hours later. The miles may have slipped by faster if some Scruggs and Watson had been piped into my headset.

The vast waterfowl habitat of the Mackenzie River delta marks the northern terminus of the NWT crew area.

The vast waterfowl habitat of the Mackenzie River delta marks the northern terminus of the NWT crew area. Photo by Walt Rhodes, USFWS

Over half of the continental breeding scaup population is recorded in the NWT crew area.

Over half of the continental breeding scaup population is recorded in the NWT crew area. Photo by Caleb Spiegel, USFWS

A rainbow perfectly touching down with the runway at South St. Paul, MN, greeted us at the end of the survey.

A rainbow perfectly touching down with the runway at South St. Paul, MN, greeted us at the end of the survey. Photo by Caleb Spiegel, USFWS