As a pilot I wind up walking in to many small towns from their small airports or floatplane docks. After hours of flying I prefer to be left alone and unhurried while I do my chores at the end of the day, whether they are the winter chores of wing covers and engine heaters or the summer chores of float pumping and dock ropes. So if it is not too far to town, I just tell my passengers or co-workers to go ahead into town without me. I will walk in when I am finished, and let the rush and noise of the day clear out of my head and the kinks of seven hours in the small plane unwind from my neck and back.
Tonight it is Fort Providence, a quiet town of 900 perched on the north bank of the Mackenzie River, just downstream from the outlet of Great Slave Lake. Here the water of the Mackenzie is first named as the Mackenzie, having made its way this far under several other names — Peace, Athabasca, and Slave. Taken together, without the name changes, this is the second largest river in North America — the dear old Missouri / Mississippi is bigger still. To the locals here, the Mackenzie is simply Deh Cho: Big River.
The road from the airport follows the river, which of course is frozen on this March evening. It is still winter here, make no mistake. 30 below each morning recently, but now the sun has strength and can be felt on the face in the afternoon. Today I saw beads of water on the black tires of the plane as it faced the sun while we re-fueled at mid-day.
The trail I walk tonight runs just off the little highway, and it is a beauty. It is the groomed trail prepared for the weekend dogsled races — six feet wide, smooth as a sidewalk, white and clean and firm. A pleasure underfoot. There is no traffic on the road, and none of the usual detritus of trash and unpleasantness as I near the outskirts of the village. The snow is deep and fluffy, four feet or more of it lining the pathway, perfectly clean and dry. The air is crisp.
The lights of town come on. The first star, or more likely a planet, twinkles up above. Faint orange glow in the west where the sun went down. Fans and fingers of alto-cumulus and cirrus spread across the southwest sky. I can hear the murmur of the river as it steams through a twisting open lead — a narrow black stripe winding for 200 yards through the three-quarter-mile-wide jumble of river ice. The open water slithers back beneath the ice, 600 or 700 miles still to go, down north to the Arctic Ocean.
It is easy to love the North on this night. Spring is not here yet, and I do not yearn for it.