the North

Flying in the North

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As usual, I am having adventures faster than I can blog about them, and I can’t believe it’s the end of November! Time really does fly…

Peeking over the pilot's shoulder before take-off
Peeking over the pilot’s shoulder before take-off

I’ve been doing some traveling lately, and, since I live up north now, it’s always an adventure. I have to remind myself that most people never have the opportunity (some might say trial!) of flying on small planes with small airlines or charter companies in the North. In my lifetime, so far, I have flown from as far east as Moncton, NB to Victoria, BC in the west (with major airlines), and now I can say as far north as Norman Wells and Deline, NWT in aircraft ranging from Twin Otters, to Cessna 172’s.

Air travel in the North is unlike anywhere else in the world! The differences really struck me on the way home from Edmonton when I went down in October. In Edmonton, you check in at the airline of your flight, get your boarding pass and baggage tags, and proceed through security as usual. Everyone is familiar with this procedure — empty your pockets, put your bags in the bins and everything is x-rayed. In Canada, you have to show your boarding pass to go through security (so friends or family not traveling with you can’t continue on), although in the US, I understand that non-passengers can go right up to the gates. At least that’s how it used to be (pre-9-11). Everything is secure, all IDs are checked, and when it’s time, you walk down the passageway to the plane. You barely even see the plane as you step onto it.

Now for the Northern experience! Arriving in Yellowknife is straightforward enough, since the major air lines — First Air and Canadian North, for example — use the main terminal building. Connecting flights using air carriers other than the big players are in their own buildings on the airfield, but are quite far away. I was flying on Air Tindi (a Discovery Air company) to connect to Fort Simpson, so I caught a cab over to the Air Tindi building. I’ve been through Yellowknife four times now, and if I don’t have much luggage, I just walk. With just a back pack, it’s a nice walk! At least, I thought it was, but I realize I might be strange!

Waiting area at Air Tindi
Waiting area at Air Tindi

Once I got to Air Tindi, I just had to smile as “the Northern way” of doing things showed itself again! I had several hours before my flight, so I asked if I could leave my bags there while I go explore Yellowknife. The ticket agent (there was only one) said, “sure! Where you going? Just put the tag on it and leave it over there.” So, my stuff sat along the wall of the waiting area for the day and when I returned to check in, I just put it on the scale and we were done. No showing ID (she asked for my name), no security, no fancy-sticker-baggage-tag, no fuss!

...And there's our plane!
…And there’s our plane!

When it was time to board, the pilot, clipboard in hand, said “okay, everybody going to Fort Simpson, we’re ready.” No intercom announcements, no flight number, just the destination. :) We followed him out the door, walked to the plane, and climbed in. No numbered gates, no enclosed walkways, and I got a really good look at the plane before going up the stairs/ladder! The safety briefing consists of the pilot, sitting at the back, explaining where everything is: exits, fire extinguisher, first aid kit and survival gear. You’d better know how to put the seatbelt on, because he doesn’t go over that. In the Caravan, there is even a shoulder belt, although it’s not springy, so it can be a bit uncomfortable. As we approached Fort Simpson, I could see the runway and approach lights — by looking out the front windshield. (I couldn’t get a picture, because I didn’t want any light from my camera to disturb the pilot.) :)

Looking down at the land outside of Yellowknife, in early October
Looking down at the land outside of Yellowknife, in early October

I love flying with these small northern companies! Just last week, I made another trip, this one to Deline, a smaller community quite a bit farther North (65 12 40 N 123 26 11 W). This time, the flight out of Fort Simpson was on a Twin Otter, because there were lots of passengers. The lady checking people in for the flight is a friend of mine and after weighing all my bags (even my carry-on), she politely but point-blank asked me what I weigh! She said she had to know because they were near capacity. Awesome. I estimated.

I have never been on a flight where the pilot was standing at the door (near the ladder into the aircraft) handing out ear plugs! Oh man! I decided to take a pair and I wasn’t sorry I did. The flight itself was uneventful, although my right arm got pretty cold where it was touching the wall of the aircraft. I tried not to touch it, but the fold-down bench I was sharing with a broad-shouldered guy didn’t give me much room to work with. When we landed in YK, I transferred from Air Tindi to North Wright, a 5-minute walk, pulling luggage through a centimetre of snow along the airport’s access road. Again, I left my luggage while I went to visit a friend of mine, came back later and checked in, got a cab downtown where I found a drug store, grocery store and book store. It was a nice bit of shopping. :)

Beech 1900 (B190) at Deline (don't mind all the reflections)
Beech 1900 (B190) at Deline (don’t mind all the reflections)

At North Wright, they don’t ask what you weigh. They make you get right on up on the scale when the luggage is done. Turns out my estimate had been low by 15 lbs! It’s the skidoo boots, I’m sure. Getting on the plane was pretty similar to at Air Tindi — but this plane was bigger (a Beech 1900) and had two pilots. So, they led us out across the apron, and we climbed in, where everyone has the pleasure of both a window and an aisle seat. :)

On descent into Deline, we had all sorts of turbulence, which the pilots had warned us about. What a roller coaster ride! I’m sure even a Boeing 727 would have bounced around in that, although probably not quite as, er, suddenly. When we landed, the luggage was unloaded onto a cart that the pilots (with the help of a ground crew guy) just pulled out to the plane. When they had all the luggage, they just pulled the cart over near the airport’s chain-link fence where there was a gap for people to go through. At Air Tindi, when you arrive in Fort Simpson, they put all the bags into the back of their pick up truck and the ticket agent/ground crew/luggage handler (this is all one person) just drives it around to the parking lot where she takes them off and you just grab whatever’s yours. No fancy baggage system, no baggage carousels, minimal waiting!

This is how you get your luggage in YK (at North Wright).
This is how you get your luggage in YK (at North Wright).

So, that’s a taste of flying with small airlines in the North. You have to watch how things are unfolding and just follow along, because they assume you know how it’s going to go. There is complementary coffee, personal service, and your pilot will help you in and out of the plane. I’ll have to blog sometime about what it’s like to fly in even smaller planes with Simpson Air. :)

Related Articles:
Finally, Some Photos of Wrigley!
First Impressions of Wrigley

Seven Years in Tibet (or Six Weeks in Wrigley)

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I should start off by saying I haven’t seen the movie or read the book Seven Years in Tibet. It was just a joke my husband and I made the evening I got back from up North. Six weeks in Wrigley felt like six years in Tibet! In total, I have been away from home for nine weeks, and it felt so weird to be back.

My home felt like a hotel I visit once in a while — comfortable, but not familiar. It was amazing to see Darren again — I burst into tears when we first hugged! I’m not one to cry easily, so I was kind of surprised by that, but I just let it happen. I think I was just tired from the drive and had been “keeping it together” for several hours, including about an hour of bad driving, in snow and poor visibility. It was also amazing to see my sweet, fluffy cat again… but it seemed he didn’t remember me! That just added to my feelings of living in a hotel on my way to somewhere else.

The “somewhere else” I’m headed is home — to yet another one — for Christmas. How many homes do I have? I had been joking with people that I had three homes: one in High Level, one in Fort Simpson, and one in Wrigley. Now, the original home felt less like home and the least likely one, the most homey. Home-ish. Like a home. High Level just felt like a place, and when I was first driving the streets, a thought popped into my head: my heart just isn’t here any more. Strange thing to pop into one’s head minutes before arriving home after two months away.

So where is my heart, and is it true “home is where the heart is?” Or is that just a shallow cliché? I think for me, home is where I feel comfortable, safe, and where I stash my yarn. Home is where my sweet pet greets me and I can put my feet up and take a load off. Perhaps it’s no wonder then that this didn’t feel like home quite yet, again, whatever. I have been traveling, but in my wandering, I have found and made other homes… because they felt right. They felt peaceful. This place could be peaceful too, but the bustle and materialism of Christmas is trying to cut its way in.

Tiny crescent moon over the Camsell rangeLiving in Wrigley was so simple. Life had been distilled down to the basics: eat, sleep, talk with friends, work, go for walks. For a full four weeks, I was almost completely untouched and unconnected with the outside world. I knew there would be some adjustments when I came South, but I didn’t think that not feeling “at home” at home would be one of them. I thought that traffic, busyness, so many other people and errands would be most challenging, and they are. I survived a short shopping spree (an errand for a friend) but wasn’t very comfortable doing it. Having been away from stores for so long — somehow, the Northern Store doesn’t count — commercialism is like a sour taste in my mouth. I have connected with spruce trees, felt the energy of the pines… sales and gift-buying is like milk gone bad — nauseating and repugnant.

I feel like I vehemently don’t want to buy anything, yet the reality is, I need some things — new wooly socks, for example. I have decided that as much as possible, I’d like to get the things I need from second-hand stores, so most of my shopping will have to wait for Edmonton. I wonder how I will adjust to that particular craziness? I have already decided I will need to go for a long walk each day, preferably in the river valley… then I think I will be okay.

It’s been over 24 hours now, and I am feeling more at home. A nice long walk cleared my mind after the shopping trip. I plugged in my electric piano and played some songs, something I haven’t done in ages. I rummaged through some old boxes, looking for music, and came across some mementos. I drank hot lemon and watered the plants. Darren was out of the house all day, having been called away on a top-priority job; I had a long lunch with a friend and visited another friend after supper. Darren is home, and Eddie (my cat) seems to purr quicker when I pet him. Now that I am writing, I feel even better — I think my “seven years in Tibet” have shown me that I need to write (and walk) to feel like myself. Perhaps that’s another key to “where home is” for me. Life could be good here… That’s the next big decision I have to make, but not today.

Mackenzie Highway

Finally, Some Photos of Wrigley!

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Okay, it’s been a long time coming, I know, but I am finally able to post some pictures of Wrigley, NWT. :-) (click on pic for larger version)

About to take off in the Cessna 172 from the Fort Simpson Island airstrip
About to take off in the Cessna 172 from the Fort Simpson Island airstrip
Airborne! Check out the houses along the runway...
Airborne! Check out the houses along the runway…
No wonder the ferry was pulled out... quite a bit of ice on the Mackenzie (Nov 1)
No wonder the ferry was pulled out… quite a bit of ice on the Mackenzie (Nov 1)
Weather improving along the way!
Weather improving along the way!
Not sure which river this is... The Mackenzie is much farther to the left.
Not sure which river this is… The Mackenzie is much farther to the left.
The view out my main kitchen window. The river bank is right there!
The view out my main kitchen window. The river bank is right there!
View out the other kitchen window.
View out the other kitchen window.
Sun is settin' like molasses in the sky... over the Mackenzie River
Sun is settin’ like molasses in the sky… over the Mackenzie River
The view back towards my house
The view back towards my house
Steps going down to the river
Steps going down to the river
Sunrise at the airport
Sunrise at the airport
Hodgson Creek. It is unusual because it doesn't freeze all winter long. What a gorgeous day!
Hodgson Creek. It is unusual because it doesn’t freeze all winter long. What a gorgeous day!
Hodgson Creek looking NW. See the mountains?
Hodgson Creek looking NW. See the mountains?
Hodgson Creek as it gets closer to the Mackenzie
Hodgson Creek as it gets closer to the Mackenzie
Such lovely mountains!
Such lovely mountains!
A couple of planes at the airport
A couple of planes at the airport
One of my favourite dogs here, Pickle. Such a cutie!
One of my favourite dogs here, Pickle. Such a cutie!

Sorry the pictures are kinda small, but there are so many, I didn’t want the page to take forever to load. :)

Beyond Civilization

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Besides living in an unconnected house, I am also living in a community beyond civilization. We have no Starbucks or Tim Horton’s — the thought of it kind of makes me giggle. We are so far beyond franchises and entertainment, shopping and dining. Wrigley has the following amenities:
– band office (not the musical kind of band), which contains
– post office
– phone/fax service for those who need it
– gymnasium
– coordination centre for things like water delivery, sewage pumping, etc.
– various helpful people like the band manager who can help you get things you need
– school (two teachers, grade 1 – 9)
– band office store (which I haven’t visited lately, but has basic groceries)
– a privately-owned store (a tiny cabin which I haven’t visited yet)
– fuel pumps (not really a “gas station,” but you can get gas and diesel there. They are only open 11-12, 1-2 and 5-6 pm)
– nursing station (which includes the nurse’s residence)
– camp-style hotel (which occasionally has a restaurant open to the public — good “pub food!”)
– power generating station
– water treatment plant
– fire hall (but no active fire department)

As you may have noticed, there is no police station (there is a house for them when they are in town), doctor, bank, ATM or other things commonly considered “essential.” The health centre is only staffed three days a month, except during freeze-up and break-up, when it is staffed 24/7.

So how does one keep busy in a place with no “civilization?” It’s not too hard if you like the outdoors. There are skidoo and walking trails all over, and an awesome snowboarding hill (part of the river bank). Last year, my roommate, Jamie, taught a bunch of the kids how to snowboard and then they got to take a school trip to the mountains (Jasper, I think) to go snowboarding, and they were all very well-prepared for the slopes. I really enjoy going for a walk/slide down the river bank, walking along the river, climbing the bank elsewhere and then walking back home along a trail somewhere. One time, Jamie and I went scrambling along a creek bank, bush-whacking and wading through knee-deep snow. Two creeks around here don’t freeze over in winter — we suspect there are hot springs along them — so it’s kind of neat to see flowing, gurgling water when everything else is frozen solid. There are lots of rosehips to eat and I’ve also tried Labrador tea leaves and spruce gum.

At home, we sometimes watch TV series I have on my computer/DVD or movies, or just listen to music. I do a little knitting, but honestly, I do more of that on slow days at work. I have never been one to be bored, and if I think I might get bored, I just take up a new hobby. The other day, I cut a section off a tree that was on the ground, started de-limbing it, and I think I might take up wood carving next — with a hatchet! :) If I wanted to, I could also take up snowboarding (which I may do yet) or snowmobiling, and if I am here again in January, I will be bringing my snowshoes and cross-country skis. I think as long as you can entertain yourself, Wrigley is great!

Unconnected

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I have been living for a month with no home phone, internet or TV. Perhaps you think I am barely surviving, but in fact, it’s been enjoyable and I have learned a lot from the experience of being unconnected to the rest of the world.

I am still working, so I have use of the phone there and can make the calls I need to. The internet there is dial-up, and is set up for a specific sending procedure, so I can’t go online at work at all (I tried going to Google’s homepage and it wouldn’t load at all). Since I have no connectivity at home — I forgot to mention, there is no cell service either — when I leave work for the day, I am leaving a lot behind.

Off and on, I dealt with bouts of anger and frustration at not having my phone hooked up yet. The phone company that serves this area — there is only one — is appalling. With no competition, they have really let their maintenance department slide. Suffice it to say, the delays and excuses have been astounding. Yesterday, I decided that I wasn’t going to be mad about it any more. Everything else about my life is great; I don’t want to let that one thing mess up the rest. So, I am feeling happier and more at-ease about that.

The atmosphere at my unconnected place is interesting. Pleasant. Peaceful. There are no interruptions and no outside influences that my roommate and I don’t specifically invite in. We listen to the radio a fair bit; there are only two stations up here, and we usually listen to CBC North. We also listen to music, and enjoy introducing each other to our favourite artists and songs. We were both in bands of our own in the past, and it’s fun to relate our own experiences with music and performing. Last night, we sat for a couple of hours on the couch, relaxed, just chatting about music. There is no TV to invade our intentions, no internet to distract or phones to demand our attention. Sure, there are lots of times every day that I wish I could look up this or that online, or websites I miss visiting.

I thought I would miss connecting with my family and friends more, but I think that although we all need connection, but it doesn’t have to be with who we think. I am quite happy connecting with my roommie, and I have also made some new and unlikely friends here who I connect with, too. We make eye contact, we shake hands or hug, we have real conversations and a real connection. Having all the technology in the world doesn’t help us connect; it can help, but it can also be a huge distraction. Most tech is meant to help us connect over long distances, but we desperately need in-person connections, too. Without them, we wither and feel depressed.

Keep in mind, I am a natural introvert — I am not someone who “needs people,” yet I have found that I do. I am a thriving so much more this time in Wrigley than when I came in spring and didn’t have a roommate, neighbours or any after-work interactions. I didn’t have any tech connectivity then either, so I was completely alone after 4:30 pm each day. For safety reasons, I checked in using my SPOT device — one-way communication — with my boss and husband each night and morning. And I was fine, but I wasn’t exactly thriving. Luckily, I only lived that way for two weeks — I’m not sure what the long-term results of that experiment in isolation would have been. I blogged about my first impressions of Wrigley back in May here.

I wonder how different the world would be if everyone made one non-friend connection each day. Chatting with a stranger on the bus. Making eye contact with another person in line at the grocery store. Smiling at an acquaintance for no reason. Patting a coworker on the arm. I think that we might not be as dependent on our spouses and closest friends to provide our every need when it comes to connection. We must not fall into the trap of thinking that connecting with our loved ones makes us happy; we individually make ourselves happy. It’s not up to anyone else — or technology — to do it for us.

Food Mail

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Life is so different — simple — for me right now. It is partly because I have no phone or internet at home — oh dear, did some of you just faint? — so I work, eat, go for walks, talk with my roommate, listen to music or the radio (CBC North is it), or perhaps watch something on my computer. And write, of course! :) Oh, perhaps it goes without saying (or not), that I don’t have TV either. Uh oh, I just heard more people hit the floor!

When I flew up here to Wrigley a little over two weeks ago, I came with a few boxes of groceries so I’d have something to eat. Although there is a small store operated by the band (native government), there isn’t much there, so it’s understood that one has to bring groceries from Fort Simpson. I’m very lucky because the company I work for is paying for them, so I can shop and get whatever I need on its tab. I had a pile of produce, a few canned items and several frozen things, but when I arrived here, there was a problem.

The main freezer doesn’t work, so we have to store frozen food in the small above-fridge freezer. Since Mother Nature is a very effective freezer these days — I have often wondered why we northerners even use freezers in winter! — all we had to do was figure out how to store it. My roommate found a large pink plastic bin with a locking lid so we were in business! We put most of the frozen food in it, put the lid on and then had to figure out where to put it outside. We didn’t want it to attract the local dogs (there are many) or the local kids (who are quite curious). We decided to put it under our front steps, and cleverly concealed with a brown blanket, it was completely invisible. Woo hoo! Good to go.

Twenty-four hours went by with no incident, but on the second day, we noticed one of the locking handles looked a little ajar. We didn’t do anything about it just then, since we were on our way down to the Mackenzie River for a nice long walk. A few hours later we returned, and as we approached, we saw an abnormally large number of ravens in the front yard… oh no! The bin had been opened and mayhem had ensued, we could tell, as dogs and ravens fought for our precious frozen foods! We wandered around the front yard picking up garbage, and were surprised that there was anything left to salvage — there were 4 or 5 things that hadn’t been touched. We kicked ourselves repeatedly for not fixing the lid, dammit, but in the end, we decided to just be happy the bacon survived!

So, each week on Tuesday or Wednesday, I start a list of foods I need — I am slowly replacing the stuff I lost as well as ordering fresh produce — and I fax it in to the store so they can shop for me. The Northern Store has my order ready by 10 am on Thursday so that one of the pilots from Simpson Air can pick it up and fly it to Wrigley with the mail. Canada Post has an ongoing charter to fly the mail on Tuesdays and Thursdays and when it arrives, the band office takes it and people can get their mail there. What fun, eh? I get my food in the mail!

This week, I forgot to order more lemons (for hot lemon) and last week, I forgot to order lettuce. So, there you go…. slowly, I am making a list of foods I like, including the brand names and the sizes of the containers so that I can get what I want. Last week, I ordered “2 pieces of frozen haddock (or another white fish)” and I got Highliner pan fry fish, which was not the kind I wanted. So, next time, I will be more specific: “1 pkg of 2 pieces of plain haddock, or another white fish, in vacuum packaging.” That should get me what I want! :) I’m just glad I lived there long enough to know what foods they stock so I can order wisely. They have most things I like, so it works out quite well, and so far nothing has frozen enroute, so even better! The mail plane is a little old Cessna 172 with minimal interior heat (think of an old Chevette on wings).

I can’t seem to get maple syrup in Fort Simpson, so if you have any to send, just address it to “Wrigley CARS” and I’ll get it on the mail plane! :) Take care everybody!

Living in the North

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I’ve never been so happy to see green hose in my life. You see, I didn’t have any water running at the airport where I work, due to the sewage tank being full — as a sensible precaution, all power to the water pump is turned off when the sewer tank is full to prevent overflowing. So, sewage full, no water. Everyone in Wrigley, NWT, where I am living right now, has water and sewage tanks, which can cause some inconvenience at times. Yesterday, I ran out of water, because I left the toilet on, and it runs… which means, clean water runs directly into the sewage tank, performing a double-whammy — water tank empty, sewage tank full. This is my life!

I love living in the North. I really feel like I can say I’m “in the North now,” being north of 60. Northern Alberta, especially High Level, is pretty far north, but it still has essentially all the services and conveniences of a bigger city. Here, we wait for services and don’t even remember what conveniences are! Everything is more challenging because we can’t just run out and buy what we need from a store in 30 minutes or less and the buffer of distance separates us from the outside world.

People are closer here, in part because we need to rely on each other. The realities of living are harder here, and it is not uncommon to share things with and borrow things from your neighbour when you need to. Yes, it is cold, snowy and dark; but these facts are nothing to complain about — everyone simply adapts. We bundle up against the cold, play in the snow and manage without much sun.

I feel as though life is more precious here. People value each other more because we are scarce — there is so much wilderness between settlements, we appreciate seeing one another. In cities, I find everyone is frustrated with all the people around them (but perhaps this is only my impression). Life isn’t precious because there is so much of it — it’s everywhere. Just as with any other type of scarcity, when there’s less of something around, we value it more, and I see that in how quick people are to chat with total strangers, how interested they are in your life and how they make eye contact, shake hands and always nod “hello.”

My dad once said I had the unique gift to be able to talk to anybody. I guess he’s right; I can chat with a lawyer or professional as easily as a teenage kid or native elder. This gift is coming in handy here, as I often get visitors to the airport asking when the next plane will be in because they need to send something out or pick someone up off the plane. It’s nice to chat with them, and get to know them a little.

I really truly like it here, and if you’ve heard horror stories about Wrigley, think again. It is a nice place, and although it may have a rougher side, I haven’t really seen it. Maybe this is just more proof that you get what you think about, see what you go looking for, and manifest what you expect. My latest mantra/affirmation is “all my interactions with people are positive and uplifting,” so how can life be any other way? :)