Above & Beyond Deep im­pact

MEM­O­RABLE FLIGHTS AND OTHER AD­VEN­TURES

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - CHARLES O’ DALE

A LIT­TLE MORE THAN A MIL­LION years ago, a space rock wider than a foot­ball field struck north­ern Que­bec, blast­ing a hole 2.14 miles wide into Earth’s crust. In the sum­mer of 2008, I stood on that crater’s rim, gaz­ing down into the crys­tal-clear lake in­side and re­flect­ing on the good for­tune that had al­lowed me to ful­fill this life­long dream.

As a boy in On­tario in the 1950s, I had spent long hours star­ing through a tele­scope at the moon’s mys­te­ri­ous craters. One day I saw a TV documentary that said Earth had them too. In fact, there were craters in Canada, and one in nearby Que­bec. I was spell­bound. I vowed that some­day I would see that crater for my­self.

In the decades that fol­lowed, I joined the Cana­dian navy, had a fam­ily, pur­sued a ca­reer in elec­tronic en­gi­neer­ing, earned a pi­lot’s li­cense, and bought a Cessna Car­di­nal C177B. After I re­tired, I re­turned to my boy­hood av­o­ca­tion, sys­tem­at­i­cally ex­plor­ing many of North Amer­ica’s im­pact craters from the air and on foot: the Bar­ringer Crater in Ari­zona, Pi­lot Lake Crater in the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries, Mis­tastin Crater in Labrador. But more thrilling than any of them were my vis­its to Pin­gualuit (the name the New Que­bec Crater had been given in 1999), the sub­ject of my prom­ise to my­self all those years ago. “Pin­gualuit” is an Inuit word mean­ing, roughly, “where the land rises.” The Inuit knew of the crater’s ex­is­tence long be­fore any­one else.

Re­search­ing the lo­gis­tics of fly­ing there from the south, I dis­cov­ered my visit would en­tail con­sid­er­able plan­ning. My Cessna could re­main air­borne for only about six hours at a time, and in this re­gion air­ports with re­fu­el­ing fa­cil­i­ties are far apart. The dis­tance to the crater from the only re­li­able source of fuel de­manded ex­act cal­cu­la­tions of fuel burn and pay­load. Only by car­ry­ing ex­tra fuel on board would I be able to buy my­self a lux­u­ri­ous win­dow of ob­ser­va­tion time over the crater—at most 20 min­utes— be­fore I would have to fly to Sal­luit Air­port on the north­ern tip of Que­bec to re­fuel. A ma­jor weather change would force me to can­cel the flight. In 2001, I at­tempted the trip.

Orig­i­nat­ing at Rock­cliffe Air­port in Ottawa, On­tario, my flight plan in­cluded long hops over the Cana­dian Shield—a large re­gion of ex­posed Pre­cam­brian rock that en­cir­cles the Hud­son Bay—with re­fu­el­ing stops at re­mote air­ports through­out Que­bec. On the way, I passed over the Man­i­coua­gan Crater, one of Earth’s largest, and rec­og­niz­able on maps and from the air by a large cir­cu­lar lake sur­round­ing a moun­tain of im­pact-melted rock. (I would ex­plore Man­i­coua­gan in 2006.) Ar­riv­ing at

Sch­ef­ferville Air­port in Que­bec, I landed in a 90-de­gree cross­wind— my Car­di­nal’s spec­i­fied limit, and a re­minder that the wind in this re­gion can be treach­er­ous, chang­ing dras­ti­cally and with­out warn­ing.

The Ea­ton Canyon, north of Sch­ef­ferville, is a must for any ex­plorer in that vicin­ity. The flow of wa­ter through that rock-faulted slot is a hyp­notic sight, and one that can be ap­pre­ci­ated only from a small air­plane. I then fol­lowed the Ca­niapis­cau River north to Un­gava Bay. By the time I reached Ku­u­jjuaq Air­port, a heavy cloud layer was de­scend­ing, but I man­aged to land in Mar­ginal Vis­ual Flight Rules con­di­tions. The next day was to be my hop to the crater. I checked the weather re­port and loaded ex­tra fuel on board, just in case.

When I crossed the tree line north of Ku­u­jjuaq, I was over a veg­e­ta­tion­free moon­scape of canyons and plains. Be­neath a 1,500-foot cloud layer, I caught my first sight of the Pin­gualuit Crater. From a dis­tance it looked like a small hill slowly com­ing into fo­cus on the hori­zon. The steep­ness of the crater rim hid the lake within from my van­tage point at that low alti­tude. It only came into view when I crossed the rim. I mar­veled at the crater’s al­most per­fectly cir­cu­lar shape.

I had pre­pared most of my adult life for this mo­ment but I was still struck by the crater’s im­men­sity. It filled the air­craft win­dow. Due to its cir­cu­lar shape, Pin­gualuit was ini­tially sus­pected to be a kim­ber­lite pipe—a car­rot-shaped com­part­ment in Earth’s crust formed by vol­canic forces. Not un­til the late 1980s was it con­firmed to be the prod­uct of an as­ter­oid strike, when re­searchers found ma­te­rial that could only have been melted dur­ing an ex­plo­sion caused by the im­pact of a cos­mic rock.

I cir­cled the crater a cou­ple of times, tak­ing pho­to­graphs and video footage. Even from 1,000 feet the clar­ity of the wa­ter was im­pres­sive. It’s one of the clear­est lakes on Earth, and, at 876 feet, the deep­est in Que­bec. I climbed for a wider view; even though it was Au­gust, I hit freez­ing tem­per­a­tures. Fly­ing by my in­stru­ments only, I slowly de­scended to warmer air so I could clear my fogged-in win­dows.

After my short al­lot­ted time over the crater I pro­ceeded fur­ther north to Sal­luit Air­port on the Hud­son Strait coast, where I re­fu­eled from the con­tain­ers I’d car­ried. This vil­lage is sit­u­ated on a beau­ti­ful fjord just off the Hud­son Strait. While fly­ing north I buzzed an aban­doned sci­en­tific sta­tion, notic­ing the wind dam­age to the fa­cil­ity. My re­turn itin­er­ary in­cluded a side trip to ex­plore the Cou­ture Im­pact Crater, south­west of Pin­gualuit.

When an air­port was con­structed by Pin­gualuit Crater and the park was opened to vis­i­tors, I had an op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore the crater on foot. In 2008, I flew my air­plane to Ku­u­jjuaq to catch a Twin Ot­ter flight to the crater. (Only char­tered air­craft may land on the air­port’s small strip.) I spent four won­der­ful days hik­ing around the crater, bur­row­ing into an Arc­tic-grade sleep­ing bag each night. Cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ing the crater rim took a full day of walk­ing, with con­stant ma­neu­ver­ing over large boul­ders.

I climbed down the steep in­ner slope and dipped my foot in the freez­ing crys­tal-clear wa­ter. I saw bedrock frac­tured in the same way I’d ob­served around the Man­i­coua­gan and Sud­bury Craters. I mar­veled at an old Inuit camp­site pre­served as though it had been in­hab­ited only re­cently. I sat still for an hour as a small herd of cari­bou walked past me.

I tried to imag­ine the crater’s creation: A gi­ant rock en­ter­ing Earth’s at­mos­phere at 27,000 mph, caus­ing a blind­ing flash of light. Five bil­lion tons of gran­ite was va­por­ized in an in­stant. What re­mained was where I now sat, grate­ful to have ful­filled my boy­hood dream.

The Ea­ton Canyon is a must for any ex­plorer in that vicin­ity. The flow of wa­ter through that rock-faulted slot is a hyp­notic sight, and one that can only be ap­pre­ci­ated from a small air­plane.

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