In the North, expect the unexpected
On my way to Toronto, I am shaking gently in a typical VIA Rail train, watching the familiar Eastern-Ontario landscape slide by. Real summer is here – day after day of hot, hazy weather, and a homogeneous green world. The green of grass, of corn, of trees. The annual layer of greenery, that grows up and around everything, appears to diminutize houses and roads and all other things that are not green. But the peak has already passed, hay is being cut and a growing legion of giant round bales of ochre on shorn fields is pushing back the growth of green. Soon the trees will start to thin and the first colored leaves will appear, soon the corn will yellow, soon we will pick apples, and then we will dig the fields. Summer always starts to wane, even before it completes its beginning.
In the mean time I am migrating northwards for a few weeks in the arctic to do my research there, to find solitude, and to prove that I can still do it. This rail journey through Ontario is the first leg of my northwards migration. It is lacking in excitement, nothing more than being pleasantly familiar, and as we are entering the industrialized area of Oshawa, Pickering and Ajax we are seeing pylons, factories, highways, shuttle yards, waste and wealth.
In Toronto, at the airport: I have made it across my first hurdle. I am traveling with a very large 'team bag' filled with all my own stuff as well as a heavy box containing all the bands for this year's banding operation. I was wondering how to get from the train, across Front Street to the bus stop by the Royal York Hotel with all this baggage. Fortunately I spotted a porter who for six bucks ported my portables. Now, an hour later, I patiently wait in the departure lounge for Pacific Western 655 to start boarding. The airline checked my luggage through to Churchill, so that tonight in Winnipeg I can simply relax at my friends', and not have to worry about those heavy pieces of luggage.
Just a minute ago I became a witness to a vignette of Canada's most shameful failure. When I arrived at the departure lounge, I noticed a young first-nations man slumped in a chair, asleep. After a while, two spiffy policemen arrived and addressed the sleeping man. He did not respond, until one of the officers prodded him. He finally woke up and looked scared and bewildered. The officers asked to see his ticket, which turned out to be for a flight which left over an hour ago. “Some men got me drinken” was his only explanation. He looked very sheepish as he departed with the policemen, who very kindly assured him they had a good place for him to spend the night before tomorrow's flight to Moosonee.
18 July 1986
Every time I fly this route from Winnipeg to Churchill, it strikes me that it is the perfect geography lesson. The first part of the flight is over the flat drained and dried-up bottom of Lake Agassis, an ancient, shallow lake that was here during the last ice age. The land is over 90% agricultural, and the three major crops, flax (blue), canola (yellow) and wheat (green or straw colored) are easily distinguishable from 30,000 feet. Then, slowly the land diversifies, as fan-shaped, forested moraines appear, left behind by the melting glaciers thousands of years ago. All along, Lake Winnipeg a (remnant of Lake Agassis) is visible to one side, first rimmed by muddy marshes, then sandy beaches, and as we fly over the ice-scarred granite and muskeg country of northern Manitoba, by rocky ridges and bogs. The lake itself is partly covered by a low fog blanket; not too surprising, as a recent cold front blew in after a long hot period. As we are flying further away from the lake, the morning sun is burning-off the fog. Underneath us all I see is typical muskeg country: rocky outcrops, areas of stunted black spruce, bogs, bogs and more bogs, and lakes, pools and puddles, creeks, streams ans rivers – and all those water courses and wetlands parceled up by beaver dams.
As we approached Gillam, we ran into some serious low hanging cloud, that is drifting in from Hudson Bay. And now we are circling through all that muck, after the pilot misjudged his first landing attempt and had to pull back up. At our lowest point, we briefly broke through the cloud and I could see a few trees and some buildings, but then again nothing but cloud. So, up we went. I imagine he will try once more, but the cloud base is less that 100 meter high, so he has to approach the runway blind (on instruments that is, I hope). Yes, we are going down again. Yes I see trees ….. no, we are going up again – now full speed, I think the captain has wisely decided to skip Gillam and proceed directly to Churchill. Indeed he just made the announcement, as we emerged out of the cloud back into brilliant sunshine.
Churchill. A mean north wind blew into our faces, as we loaded our packs and other cargo into the shabby, overused and under-maintained (?) twin otter. It stood like a sick bird on the edge of the runway. The low cloud ominously spitted drops of rain, that felt like mini injections of ice. All afternoon the weather had wavered between worsening and clearing; now it looked bad indeed, and the forecast, whatever its value up here, was anything but encouraging. It was hard to keep up our spirits as we climbed on board, nine biologists, strapped ourselves into the steel and canvas seats, wiped the fog off the diminutive windows and waited for the crew to get things rolling. Churchill airport looked desolate to say the least; unpainted hangars with broken windows, garbage strewn about, wisps of grass bending in the wind, everything wet and gray.
Life returned to the bird, as a whine deep in one of its engines grew and slowly the propeller began the circle around, faster, faster, an explosive roar. Engine number two comes alive, and we still wait, motionless, with nothing to see but Churchill's airport. Then, an apparent discontinuity, suddenly the otter moves, and with two surprisingly healthy sounding engines we taxi along a maze of gravely runways – shudder, roar and the surge of acceleration. Looking northwards from my strapped-in position I see Churchill phase rapidly, graying into nowhere, and beyond, the horizonless Hudson Bay with endless ice-flows and fog banks. Below, the tundra. Above, the flat, gray cloud. Familiar landmarks come and go: eskers, lakes, islands, Launch, the last road, then nature alone, forlorn – except for us, strapped in our seats, invaders in an alien machine.
I knew we had trouble when the familiar tundra landscape suddenly disappeared under what looked from above like smooth ethereal sand dunes: pale, gray fog. Within a minute, the world was transformed into nothing but amorphous gray, above, below, to all sides. Still, the airplane flew on eastwards. Our chance of finding Knight's Hill Esker under these conditions seemed minimal; our chance of a safe landing pretty well nil. But just as I was about to conclude that we might as well return to civilization, the 'sand dunes' opened up, and as clearly as a black hole in a white floor, we saw Knight's Hill and part of the esker. Fox Island and all surrounding land were still obscured, only Flicek and part of the landing strip were in the clear. For the next couple of minutes the pilot wheeled and figure-eighted the plane in an attempt to approach the strip without having to fly through fog or get too close to Knight's Hill. One moment we banked sharply to the right, then to the left. We slowed, lowered, then briefly climbed again. Finally, just as the fog started to drift further inland from the Bay, we rumbled to a halt in front of our anxiously waiting friends and colleagues. As I descended onto the esker, the wet, fresh, sea-smelly fog and the plaintive call of a curlew, signaled my arrival in the true north.
It was well after seven, cold, dark, foggy and with a raw, cheek-chewing wind, when we set off down the trail. The argo went ahead with most of the cargo; the rest was safely stowed in Flicek, or on the backs of us walkers. I was distinctly nervous about having to walk four kilometers through the worst conditions – willow shrubbery – deep sucky mud – sloppy sphagnum – knee deep water. Just the nervous anticipation made my leg hurt. Slowly and methodically we drudged along and slowly I started to regain confidence – yes, I could do it. My leg worked. I could keep up with the others; I started to feel great! About halfway to camp, we ran into the first bear of the season. He was upwind from us and very curious, but also hesitant. I thoroughly enjoyed watching him posture, stand on two legs and sniff the air in vain. He wanted to find out who or what we were but was too cautious to come closer. As we continued, he also went on his way. Just before dark we sloshed into camp, cold and tired, but to me it was a homecoming, a milestone and a victory. I fully relaxed and listened as old friends met, new introductions were made, dinner served, a grog shared and eventually bunks chosen. I snored off, for a long night's oblivion.