outdoors

It Might be Time for a Change

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A few months ago, on one of my little adventures in the bush, I had an experience that I just can’t forget. I had decided to go for a walk to explore the bush along the edge of a clearing. The clearing was roughly square-shaped, and I walked along one full edge, intent on checking out the corner, which had some vague interest for me. As I walked, I was pleased to find an abundance of wild strawberries growing in the clearing! I stopped to pick a few, savouring their intense flavour. Along the way, I came across a little pile of cut firewood; someone was obviously going to come back for that some day. The bush was pretty thick, but to be honest, I wasn’t looking into it much. I was distracted by the strawberries.

As I got close to the corner, I could see that there was a little opening in the trees where a couple of them that had fallen down in a wind. With one more step, a flurry of activity erupted from the bush. Grouse — local people call them “chickens” — flew every which way, as though with that one step into the bush I had tripped an invisible laser-alarm, and they could not sit still. I hadn’t seen any of them until they all moved — their camouflage is excellent — and after they flew away only one remained.

This one, lone bird did the strangest thing, this thing that I cannot shake the memory of. It was crouched on the ground, among the fallen leaves, again invisible against the background. It shuffled forward and I could see it again, and it made the strangest sound — exactly like a puppy whimpering. It did it again, a little shuffle and a distinctive whimper. I couldn’t believe how much it sounded like a puppy. It did it a third time, which allowed me to reassure myself that’s exactly what I was hearing.

How strange, I thought, and then realized that there must be a nest of young ones nearby, not yet able to fly away to safety. I was pretty sure I knew where it was — to my left, behind a log and near the point I had seen all the adults fly away from. I was very tempted to walk over and take a look, but the pitiful display of this lone grouse made me hesitate and ultimately change my mind. It had intentionally stayed behind when the others flew away to sacrifice itself to this strange, upright predator. It drew attention to itself with its cries and movement, making sure I could both see and hear it, the pathetic whimper as if to say “eat me, I’m weak and defenseless — an easy meal.” I just couldn’t satisfy my curiosity — to find the nest and see the little ones — after what this adult bird had done for its young.

But not just for its young; for all the young that were in nests nearby. I knew from the number of adults that there must be at least three nests, and this one stayed behind to save the young of them all. You know, all around the world we see incredible acts of sacrifice by people for their children, but not as often for others’ children. I, for one, had never seen such a display first hand, of an animal so willing to die that it would call out to the predator to ensure its strategy of misdirection and ultimately, its sacrifice, would be successful.

There is not much I can say. It was humbling. That grouse showed intelligence, compassion and courage. And it’s just a bird, with a brain no larger than half a walnut. I guess courage, compassion and intelligence don’t have anything to do with brain size, but it does make me wonder if I have been letting myself off easy, not demanding much of myself lately. My idea of an act of courage these days is to go into a crowded room where I don’t know anyone. Compassion consists of smiling respectfully at strangers, whatever state they are in (i.e. sober or not, poor or not), and my intelligence has been primarily engaged in knitting and dreaming up floor plans for tiny houses. I think it might be time for another challenge. I think it might be time for an extreme compassion adventure! It might even be time for a sacrifice, and damn it, I had better not complain, because I’m pretty sure I won’t be whimpering on the ground, hoping the predator will eat me instead of the children nearby. Wow.

I took this photo of a spruce grouse in winter as it crossed our front yard and driveway.
I took this photo of a spruce grouse in winter as it crossed our front yard and driveway.

First Impressions of Wrigley, NWT

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I arrived in Wrigley yesterday afternoon and loved it immediately! I don’t think it had anything to do with the last twenty minutes of the flight being turbulent and my boss and I being gently tossed like la salad-du-jour. We chartered at Cessna 172 to fly us from Fort Simpson to Wrigley, a total flight time of about an hour for a plane of that type, depending on the wind. Yesterday, it was a tail wind for us, but it still tossed us around plenty as we came over the ridge, very much as our pilot, Serge, predicted it would. He let me fly for a while in the middle of the flight, and I had a tiny bit of turbulence, which was fun! We had the plane loaded pretty heavily, although not at its capacity, Serge assured us. I told him as we started to taxi, “if you think we are overweight, say so now and we’ll stop!” But no, he assured me, we were alright. My boss and I are both pretty slim, plus I had packed light — heck, I didn’t even really take all that much to Fort Simpson in the first place — but as it was, I had overestimated the size of a Cessna 172. It had room for 2 in the front, 2 behind, and then a “trunk” space about the size of the foot-well in my car. Serge, however, was not new to this game and really knew how to get the most out of the plane’s overall volume. We had to leave a total of 5 items behind, one being my bag of knitting stuff and another being my cooler, filled with frozen meat.

There is no store in Wrigley. Well, that isn’t entirely true. There is a very small store with limited stock, open for limited hours in the middle of the day (while I am at work). It may or may not only take cash — leave your plastic at home. You can leave your cell at home too, because the nearest cell service is about 120 km away, as the crow flies. I had wondered if there might be a tiny pocket of cell service, from perhaps a single tower, but no. That is the case for Fort Simpson, a village of about 1200 people, so a mini-village of 170 or so doesn’t even have a chance. Cell towers aren’t cheap, so no cell company would put one up in a place where they’d never make that money back. But I digress.

Wrigley, NT (NWT) Terminal buildingI absolutely fell in love with the terminal building the moment I saw it. It is so cute, well-maintained, and the CARS station is raised above ground level. It’s like the world’s smallest air traffic control tower, and I love it! The station itself was neat, tidy, sunny and warm. It had a nice, cheerful feeling to it, and I took to the place like a fish to water. My boss and I only had about an hour to spend before our ride came to get us, so we went through some of the paperwork left out, exclaiming how great it was that the keys we had brought worked perfectly and everything was coming together so smoothly. I didn’t tell him that things always go smoothly for me (but I think he is starting to see that)! I started checking out the radio equipment, wind instruments and altimeter. I was so excited!

The main reason I was there, and indeed the reason we had to fly in, was because the ice road had closed due to spring break up. As I mentioned in my last post, this doesn’t mean the ice was dramatically moving, but simply unsafe for crossing. So, Wrigley became a strictly fly-in community, and as such, it was more important than usual to have someone working in the CARS station to provide current weather observations and information for pilots inbound. The next day, just after I sent my second weather observation out on the internet, the phone rang.

“Wrigley Airport Radio,” I answered the phone. Man, it’s going to take me awhile to get used to saying that.
“Awesome!”
“You saw my weather, did you?”
Yeah, it’s awesome!” It was a man at Simpson Air, clearly tickled pink.
“Well, I’m glad you appreciate it”
“Oh, Teresa you have no idea!”

That made me smile, on the inside and the outside. I’m not sure I can describe how happy I feel being here. I will be staffing a one-person station. I have full run of the place, can do my own thing, keep the place exactly as I want, and enjoy its cozy, sunny view. The station faces the Mackenzie River, which is down the bank from the flat the airport is on, only about a quarter of a mile away. The runway is really just along the river! The river itself isn’t visible, due to being down the bank, but one day I plan to walk to the edge and enjoy the view. Across the river there is a lovely mountain range, starting about 4 miles away with Table Mountain and stretching off to the southwest to a distance of about 35 miles. The hills are high enough to be bare rock (and snow) at the top, and their white tops make me smile too! I have always enjoyed topography, perhaps because I grew up on the prairies, so mountains and foothills still hold a romantic attraction for me. They speak to my adventurous spirit, and they are so beautiful, my heart can’t help but smile when I see them. So, I am in a lovely spot, pretty close to the middle of nowhere, at 63 degrees North, and I love it. There is a second mountain range to the east as well, and foothills that are only about a mile away. Around my home and the airport, there is a healthy mixed forest, with two types of spruce (from what I can tell) and poplar. Some of the evergreens are so windblown, they have a swoopy look to them at the top. I haven’t seen any birch, but maybe they are there somewhere.
Camsell Range, the edge of the Rocky Mountains, Wrigley, NT
My living quarters are about 3 km south of the airport, which is itself about 1 km south of the village. We flew over the village as we were on approach to land, and wow, it sure is small. Wrigley doesn’t look like many towns and villages where the early settlers cut down every tree to build their house or burn for firewood — they have lots of trees standing. No roads are paved up here, and Wrigley is actually the end of the all-season road that is the Mackenzie Highway. Farther on from Wrigley, winter roads are built to Tulita and Norman Wells, but these have been closed for several weeks. (From Fort Simpson on, the Mackenzie Highway is all gravel, I believe. From the Highway 3 turnoff (to Yellowknife) the road is mostly paved with gravel sections. I think. When I came up, it was basically compact snow, and from what others told me, I have no right complaining about it (remember 2 posts ago?) because it only got worse once it warmed up.) I know, it doesn’t seem like a gravel road should be called a highway, but it is! It’s wider than a typical country road, but yup, it’s gravel.

I have a house trailer all to myself to live in! It is not particularly new, but it’s in very good repair. The last people to stay here, apparently, were women, so when we walked in, it was spic and span! What a nice sight to see! There were only a few coffee cups left in the sink to wash. The kitchen is quite well-supplied — I was worried there wouldn’t be any frying pans or dishes — and I have everything I need. I bought a Brita to filter the water, which is, like so many northern places, stored in a tank in the porch. There is a pump to keep the line pressure up, and the tub faucet leaks a little, so the pump goes on for about a second about every 3 minutes or so. It’s easy to just turn it off at night, though, and then it’s very peaceful here. This morning, my boss ran out of water twice — once because the breaker for the pump kicked off, and once because the pump overheated. So, I skipped the shower. I had one tonight and had the pump kick off right as I was starting to rinse my hair! Gads! But, before I could get out, all soapy and naked and run to the breaker panel, the pump came back on so I knew it had only overheated. Yay! It cut out once more and I had to wait a minute or so, but I managed to rinse off and finish the shower. I think tomorrow, I will try closing opening the window near the pump to vent it better and hopefully it won’t overheat. The furnace and all appliances work good, and the fridge was even spotless! No sticky gross stuff in the bottom of the crisper drawers! I am so impressed.

I live in what the locals call “the highways camp.” It is a fenced-in area where the NWT government keeps the snowplow, grader, a shop and various other equipment. There are three house trailers in the yard, one of which is empty, and then I have one and Albert has one. He is the highway and airport maintainer — the man who runs the grader to keep the road in good shape. As far as I can tell, he does an excellent job! I met him yesterday and he seems very nice. The yard sort of reminds me of home, as it’s a bit like a farm yard with tractors, tires, piles of wood, etc, scattered about. Apparently, there are quite a few bears around, but when my boss and I went for a walk along the highway last night, we didn’t see any. I have bear spray which I will not go walking without. Albert has a dog, too, so I might ask if I can take it with me. :) It looks quite cute but a bit forlorn, so I think it would love to go on a walk. Not tonight, though. It is almost bed time and although I slept awesomely well — it is a talent to be able to sleep almost anywhere? — I am ready for bed. Maybe it’s the Micheal Logozar album I am listening to, getting me all relaxed! It could also be that I’ve been on day shifts for 5 days now, so I’m used to getting up early and going to bed early. Which brings me to my last point, and one thing that makes working in Wrigley so great. It is strictly day shifts, no nights, and it is a short 8 hours, compared to 12 in Fort Simpson. Can you believe it?!? I feel like I have won the lottery! A cozy, sunny place to work, with a great view, in the North, and I don’t even have to work shift work. Monday to Friday, 8 to 4. Wow, I am in heaven!

Oh geez. I thought it was mildly funny that I was going to be saying “Wrigley Airport Radio.” But man, what is someone from Wrigley called? A Wrigley-ite? A Wriglean? A Wrigler? LOL :)