'This is considered as a very serious incident which may lead to penalties.'
Firm warned over helicopter landing in crater
No helicopters or aircraft may land in or around Nunavik's Pingualuit crater, known as "the crystal eye of Nunavik," to protect its exceptionally clear waters from any contamination.
So imagine the surprise felt by scientists and a Pingualuit park warden, toiling with hand winches to retrieve sediment cores from the crater's lake bottom, when they spotted a bright yellow helicopter touching down on the frozen lake to refuel last month.
A decree adopted by the Quebec cabinet on Jan. 1, 2004 under the provincial parks act granted the crater "extreme protection" to safeguard its ancient lake, which resulted from a meteorite blast more than 1.3 million years ago.
The waters of this lake, lying near the centre of le parc des Pingualuit, Nunavik's first provincial park, are considered to be among the purest on earth.
The government decree says the landing or use of helicopters or aircraft in or around the crater is strictly prohibited and must be authorized in advance by the park director. Breaking these regulations can lead to reprimands, fines or legal action, depending on the severity of the infraction.
The Kativik Regional Government, which manages Quebec parks in Nunavik, recently wrote a stern letter to Heli-Excel, a Sept-Iles helicopter company, about an unauthorized landing inside the crater on May 14.
"This is considered as a very serious incident, which may lead to penalties," the letter states.
An owner of Heli-Excel told Nunatsiaq News that the pilot had no idea the landing broke regulations, because Pingualuit park does not even appear on the most recent aviation maps.
In his company's defence, Jean Goyette said it's "good airmanship" in the North to land where other people are present.
"Usually if you're going to fly that far away, you want to shut down where there are people," Goyette said. "If something happens, at least you're with people."
The helicopter pilot also told Goyette he was worried the team inside the crater might be stranded, because there were no snowmobiles in sight.
Goyette says the pilot checked with Quebec's flight service station and filed a flight plan before flying that day, but no one mentioned any restrictions. A month after the landing, Quebec flight service station employees were still uninformed.
"They don't know there's a park there. Now we know that. We're going to put out a note that says not to land there. Now our company knows," Goyette said.
When approached by one of the park employees, the helicopter crew said they were traveling from Kuujjuaq to Iqaluit and did not know that they had landed in a park. However, one of the crew members reportedly mentioned he learned from a recent television show that a research team would be there.
After re-fueling, the helicopter lifted off and continued its journey.
All of the researchers' equipment was powered by electrical motors and hauled from the crater's edge with ropes and sledges to avoid polluting the lake.
Team leader Reinhart Pienitz of Université Laval says not using any fuel-powered machinery on the lake was no easy feat.
His hands are still sore, several weeks after the trip, from hauling sediment samples taken from the lake bottom up by hand, after an electric winch broke.
"We set an example for everyone on the protection of this place. We understand it and we did it," Pienitz said.
Robert Fréchette, the park director, said the helicopter's decision to land on the crater lake reflects a lack of judgment.
"We're trying to preserve the purest water in the world – or what's close to it. We need everyone's collaboration," Fréchette said. "That's just common sense. This water belongs to everyone. It's everyone's responsibility to protect it."