Let the wind take you where it may

It may be risky, but parasailing is a great way to experience the Arctic



A deep engine rattle fills the air near the Iqaluit beachfront by the Grind and Brew café as I arrive for my tour of the early-evening sky. The sound is coming from the hulking 1959 Bombardier Muskeg that, like me, is waiting for the adventure to begin.

In January, Iqaluit fishmonger Joe Hess revived the ancient DEW line tractor, outfitted it with a 1969 Chevy engine, and put it to work. The machine, which once hauled military personnel to Upper Base, would now carry tourists on photography expeditions.

Then last month, after a little Internet research, Hess invested in a parasail and began offering a one-of-a-kind Arctic experience.

“I figured it would work, you know,” he says nonchalantly during an interview at his White Row apartment.

All you really need for parasailing is a chute and something to tie it to. There’s no operator’s licence required, aside from the standard driver’s licence and outfitter’s licence, and there are no regulations aside from the instruction booklet that comes with the chute.

Parasailing in southern climates is commonly done over water, propelled by a powerboat. While the water method isn’t practical in the Arctic, the benefit of landing on sea ice is that you touch down with your feet. And the barren conditions provide miles and miles of clear, open space to travel.

But the season is short, lasting just a few months in the spring until the sea ice melts.

“It’s wild, it’s wild. And it’s very, very safe,” Hess says.

While it may be safe, parasailing is certainly not without its risks. Nathan Zukiwsky, the mechanic who got the Bombardier running and served as the test dummy on the first few flights, bears the scars of some rough landings on his forehead.

Helmets have since become standard issue.

Hess insists clients sign away their right to sue before they strap on the gear. Though he’s not insured, he says he’s just waiting for a broker to give him a quote.

On this Friday evening, I’m eager to fly but hesitant about landing. However, my two fellow adventurers, Jonathan and Jaymes Ellsworth of Iqaluit, have no fear of broken bones or bloody gashes.

My stress level rises as we climb into the Bombardier and lumber onto the pack ice, lurching and rolling over narrow ski-doo trails.

I bob up and down in the seat like a child on a school bus, hanging on to the open doorway to keep from falling out.

Hess grins from his seat in the centre cockpit, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. We stop a few times as he tests the wind, then turn to drive directly into it. After stopping to let us off and unload the gear, he ties one end of a 300-foot rope to the Bombardier and drives as far as it will take him.

Zukiwsky always makes the first flight of the day. He steps into the simple leg harness and hooks himself up to the parachute. After some back and forth with the walkie-talkies, he takes off, practising his running man moves as he soars through the air.

Iqaluit sherrif Jonathan Ellsworth is next. We race across the ice on ski-doos, trying to keep up with him as he is carried by the wind and the power of the Bombardier at about 50 or 60 kilometres and hour. He touches down and howls about the experience.

“Who says the sherrif can’t get high?” he quips.

The crew sets up the chute for the next takeoff, but a gust of wind picks it up and blows it a few feet over, right into a ski-doo. Everyone cringes at the sound of ripping canvas.

“We’re done for today,” Zukiwsky says defeatedly into his walkie-talkie. He and Hess briefly discuss hauling out the duct tape, but decide against it as the wind picks up.

We head back to town, tired and disappointed.

The next morning, Hess phones, saying he’s heading out again. He’s been out all night looking for canvas to fix the parachute, and had his friend Mary Nashook sew the patch in place at 6 a.m. He paid her in fish.

But the weather is stormy and after getting out on the ice, we decide to head back and try again the next day.

By Sunday, the storm has died down and Hess has brought Nashook along to see her work in action.

She’s not afraid, Nashook tells Hess. She’s used to trying new things, leading the way. “I got my drivers licence and all the women got their drivers licence. I cough in church and everyone coughs,” she laughs.

Out on the ice, however, as the crew unpacks the parachute, she begins to get anxious.

“I hope my mending holds,” she says as she gets harnessed up.

She stands stiff, feet together, as the parachute pulls her into the air, making her possibly the first Inuk woman to parasail in the Arctic.

After she touches the ground, Hess drives up to give her a congratulatory hug. She beams with sheer amazement.

When he returns to the Bombardier, the machine won’t start. It’s out of gas. We’re stuck on the ice about 10 kilometres out of town. Zukiwsky heads back on a ski-doo to pick up some gas, while the rest of us contemplate the reality of Arctic expeditions.

After about an hour and a half, it’s my turn and the fear is gone. I don’t remember being lifted in the air, but I vividly recall the sight of the gigantic Bombardier, which looks like a dot on the ice from my place in the sky.

I remember the feeling that time has stopped.

And when I land, it’s with great relief that I’m still alive.

Now I know what to expect the next time.

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