ATV MISSION TO MARS
When picturing a NASA scientist, one might place them floating amongst the stars, or collecting moon rocks and blasting them into space by way of a nine iron. Never would one place them roosting berms on a desolate, meteor-stricken island in the Arctic Circle. By Brad Howe.
FIVE-DAY, 12-FLIGHT, 10,000-MILE VOYAGE
It was a typical Wednesday morning packed with a shower, hot cup of coffee and a 25-minute canyon drive to the Dirt Wheels office. Another cup of coffee and a quick crack of the fingers led to clicking of the keys. Deadline had arrived, and it was time to turn tests into text. “Ring! Ring!”
This out-of-the-blue call from Sean Alexander, a public relations coordinator for Kawasaki Motors Corp. USA, dropped an opportunity in my lap to test ATVs “up North” for a few days. “We leave the day after tomorrow,” said Sean. Thanks to the quick assistance of Klim and Dakine, I was outfitted for the environment and ready for a five-day, 12-flight, 10,000-mile voyage.
Friday morning I embarked for a Mars Institute base and NASA research facility where Kawasaki ATVs are a vital part of their life and a primary tool for their research.
“We parked mere feet from the water, and I had a smile from ear to ear. I was in the middle of the Arctic, hopping along from ice to ice.”
LOS ANGELES TO RESOLUTE BAY
After a jump to Edmonton in Alberta, Canada, a skip to Yellowknife above Alberta in the Northwest Territories, and a hop to Resolute Bay, we patiently awaited a charter flight to our final destination: Devon Island. Turns out, Devon Island, Nunavut, is not the most sought-after travel destination, and flights are hard to come by. Over the five-day trip, we spent the most time in Resolute Bay, or Resolute, which is a small Inuit village on Cornwallis Island in Nunavut, Canada, with a population of about 200.
The locals call Resolute “Qausuittuq,” which means “a place with no dawn.” In the middle of summer, the sun never went down, circling around 24 hours a day. At home I need my TV and laptop off, blinds shut and black electrical tape on the appliance lights to be able to sleep.
To pass the time before our charter flight arrived, photographer Justin Dawes, Sean Alexander and I took the four-seater Mule parked outside to see what we could find, which turned out to be the greatest UTV ride of my life. Sure, the Mule is a fun, safe and reliable machine; but it has never been one to give me goosebumps. As we came up and over a bend in the trail, my eyes lit up as I saw the Arctic Ocean. It was cloudy during most of the flights to Resolute, so this was my first glimpse of the icy waters. We parked mere feet from the water, and I had a smile from ear to ear. I was in the middle of the Arctic, hopping along from ice to ice. Yep, check that off my bucket list.
Resolute Bay is “a place with no dawn.” That means during the summer months, you could ride 24 hours a day.
In Canada’s High Arctic lies Devon Island, Canada’s sixth-largest island and the largest uninhabited island in the world. Devon is lonely, desolate land just over 21 miles in length, and supports only a small population of musk oxen, small birds and scientists.
Roughly 39 million years ago, an asteroid or comet smashed into Earth where Devon Island is today, blasting out an impact crater 23 kilometers in diameter. The dent created in the Earth’s crust is now Haughton Crater (named after the late geologist, Samuel Haughton). The crater is of such great interest to paleontologists because of its fossil-rich environment, as well as those from the California-based Mars Institute working on the Haughton Mars Project. It was chosen because it is considered to be a terrestrial analog for Mars. In laymen’s terms, it’s freaking cold and provides an ultra-tough, Mars-like environment to test cool stuff like rovers, space suits, greenhouses and Klim Cold Weather Gear (www.klim.com). Don’t mind the plug. If it weren’t for Klim, I’d still be thawing out from the trip.
Upon final approach to the island, I wiped the fog with my gloved hands, pressing my face against the window. The terrain below morphed from the icy Arctic Ocean to a flat and rocky terrain similar to my local Mojave Desert. As the 12-seat aircraft bounced along the short runway, my eyes focused on what awaited. Nevermind the desolate, uninhabited island surroundings or the Space Station housing I’d soon be living in; my focus and attention headed straight to the dozen or so Kawasaki ATVs off in the distance.
KAWASAKI BAYOU 220s/250s
Fourteen years ago, the Haughton-Mars Project (HMP) began research on Devon Island. At the same time, scientists and researchers from many worldwide organizations have been depending on ATVs. The weather is cold and the terrain is rough, which makes traveling by foot slow and dangerous. At the same time, larger vehicles are almost impossible to transport to the island. Back in the late ’90s, Kawasaki’s Bayou 220 (now 250) and its air-cooled, single-cylinder four-stroke mill was just what the doctor ordered. Its compact, low-weight chassis fits in different sizes of aircrafts. It also features an easy-to-use five-speed automatic with reverse that is near impossible to break. Lastly, the price tag was, and still is, very affordable.
Before being allowed to ride on the island, you are required to take part in an hour-long safety and training course for the Kawasaki Bayou, which consisted of how to start, how to brake, how to reverse and proper riding position. Good thing I paid attention to the last 100 or so Dirt Wheels “How-To” articles. I am now NASA-ATV certified.
Speeds were to remain slow and steady. Roosting was a no-no, but I couldn’t resist during a couple quick photo shoots with Justin Dawes. “Come on, Brad, give it some gas!” said Justin. Of course, Justin was all smiles, while Dr. Pascal Lee, the head of the HMP, was lecturing me. The photos were worth it.
Even at a strict NASA base on an uninhabited island, we were able to sneak away and blast some trails on Kawasaki’s Bayou 250.
Over the two-day stay on the island, I was permitted to attend three traverses. It doesn’t seem like much, but those three rides will forever be stored in my head. The Bayou 250s were not the big-bore 4x4s I’ve been riding back home, but they were a blast!
When focusing on riding, the terrain was similar to a few trails back home. There was a tight and windy loop that was covered with sharp rocks that reminded me of the Mojave Desert. There was a creek ride that took us clear across the island and overlooked the deep hole in the Earth caused by the comet so many years ago.
Another ride had us following Dr. Pascal. This alone was a sight to see. Pascal was leading a group of a half-dozen Bayous, with his dog, Ping Pong, sitting by his lap. If that wasn’t enough, the dog was dressed in a NASA spacesuit.