Grounded on yet another gray and snowy November day in Yellowknife.  Trying to get an aerial survey contract finished, and dodging the season’s unsettled weather day by day.  Reciting that old bush-pilot mantra: “Better to be on the ground wishing we were flying, than to be flying around, wishing like hell we were on the ground…”

I’ll try to post something for November in the next few days but today I have an announcement here, and as Tom and Ray of Car Talk on NPR would say, “Welcome to the Shameless Commerce Division, folks…”

A new edition of my 1994 book North of Reliance is now available from the publisher, Raven Productions of Ely, Minnesota, or by inquiring through your local bookstore.  This is a happy resurrection for this collection of essays, after a period of about 15 years in “out of print” status.

Congratulations and Thanks to everyone who has made this happen!

Here is the link to book information from Raven:

http://www.ravenwords.com/books_for_adults/books_for_adults/north_of_reliance.html

Some comments from the back cover:

Olesen confronts the contradictions in using the tools of the modern world to touch the purity, serenity, and magnificence of wild nature in the far North. …This is a beautifully written, often moving, account of a couple’s quest to live a life together that touches what matters.

— Erik F. Storlie, author of Nothing on my Mind and Go Deep and Take Plenty of Root

Dave Olesen has captured a sweet spot in place-based writing where mystery, beauty, paradox, contradiction, and intimacy all gel together into an elegant truth.

— Bob Henderson, author of Every Trail has a Story: Heritage Travel in Canada and co-editor, Pike’s Portage, Stories of a Distinguished Place 

Dave Olesen is a writer/poet/observer of nature’s relationship with humanity like no other. He writes in the tradition (and standard) of Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, Eisley, Abbey, Dillard, Stegner, Berry and Snyder, but his perspective of the subject is as different from theirs as his lifestyle is from yours or mine.

— Dick Dorworth, author of Climbing to Freedom and The Perfect Turn

If you enjoy my monthly Hoarfrost River musings on this blog, you will find some good reading in North of Reliance. And if you have already read the book, you will enjoy the layout of this new version, including 40 photographs by Kristen Gilbertson Olesen. A link to her portfolios is http://www.kristenolesenphotography.ca/Portfolio/     It was a pleasure for me to work with the people at Raven, and with Kristen, on this new edition — at times a mixed pleasure upon which I reflect in my Preface:

A late-winter morning here at home, half a mile west of the Hoarfrost River.  White ice, blue sky, and the fathomless silence that is the essence of the Far North. Time to place some new words ahead of this book’s original Preface.

It was John Dos Passos who claimed that “If there is a special Hell for writers it would be in the forced contemplation of their own works.” (New York Times, October 1959.) Re-reading North of Reliance chapter by chapter over these past few months has not been a hellish experience. Far from it. The memories and images, clear and strong, have come back to me from those mostly-halcyon first seven years here: visions of caribou streaming the October hills and of June mornings alone, peeling logs for the sauna. As I have reviewed these chapters I have smiled often.

But Dos Passos was onto something with his comment, too, and there have been plenty of moments during my review when I have had to pause and consider not only my writing, but my thinking.  In the easy and straightforward instances I have just smoothed the grammar, corrected a typo, or changed punctuation.  (I thank Erin and Johnna at Raven, too, for their eyes and hands in this.)  In other places – places the readers might not suspect – I have had to take a deep breath, cringe, and resist a strong impulse to delete a phrase or to scrap an entire three-paragraph riff. In those soul-searching moments I have looked to other writers for wisdom. British author and World War One pilot Cecil Lewis, in his preamble to a third edition of Sagittarius Rising:

“They say that men grow wiser as they grow older, but I think they only get more gaga.  However, I am not so far gone as to tinker with what I wrote in those glorious years when life stretched before me like a landscape from ten thousand feet and there were no shadows in the day.  Certainly I can add nothing to what I said then.  A few passages, somewhat naïve or foolish, I might have suppressed; but since they are all part of the picture of extreme youth in action, let them stay.”

With that example in mind I have done only what I set out to do – that is, to let the gist of these quarter-century-ago impressions and conclusions stand as first written, stalwart in the face of my urges to qualify or alter them.  So I admonish readers of this second edition:  take these stories and essays for what they are, written when they were, and be thankful, as I am, that the passage of time does change us all – or at least we can hope it will.  (For who would want to live in a world steered by headstrong, footloose, starry-eyed thirty-year-olds? Seriously now.)

With Cecil Lewis and countless others nodding sagely at my side I say:  “Here is how it was for me, way out here, back in those days. Enjoy!”

D.O.

8 April 2016

Call me dimwitted, because even the most obvious facts sometimes take a while to sink into my thick skull.  It is late October, and although the days have been calm and mild lately, we have had a few autumn gales and we will almost certainly have a few more before deep winter.  After every hard blow we walk our trails and find our way blocked by fire-killed trees that have fallen.  All the trees here and for many miles around being dead and burnt – their blackened skeletal stems stark in ranks across slope and swale – one by one and sometimes two by two and sometimes in dramatic domino-effect jumbles, the charred remains of a mature taiga forest are falling down. Day by day, storm by storm, month after month, year after year, the trees will fall until they are – and this is what it took me a couple of years to fully grasp – all lying down.  One by one and ten by ten gravity will call them home.  Of course this is obvious, and a given, but it took me a few years to realize it.  They will all fall down.  Not some of them, not just the weak ones.  All of them.  My, what a mess.

And I have been surprised by this lately.  Not sure why.  After all, what had I thought a dead tree would do, if not fall down? Did I think the trees would stand upright for decades, slowly turning to an elegant silvery gray, and then somehow melt away at their butts and sink gradually and gracefully out of sight?  Nope. Some might hang on for a decade or two or even three, but the soil around the bases of most of these trees is gone, and the roots and trunks of many of them are deeply charred. They topple down. They crash, they lie in jumbles, they heap themselves into thick piles that will, my friend Mitch likes to say, “stymie a moose.” In some places now, two years after the burn, it looks as though a tipsy D-8 Cat skinner has been wandering randomly across the hillsides, pushing up slash piles, clearing ground for a new airstrip or pasture. 

There are no new seedlings of spruce pushing up just yet, and where the fire burned hottest there is still no new growth at all, but blonde rows of grasses and rich stripes of purple fireweed laced the less intense portions of the burn this past summer. (It is interesting that it took two years for the fireweed to appear. Pink Corydalis was the only prominent pioneer in the first summer.)  Every so often old daydreams of Icelandic horses have revived.  Maybe, just maybe, a horse really could make a living around here in these coming years.

When the most precarious burned trees began to topple down in the weeks and months right after the fire, I was seized by an urge true to my boyhood roots in small-town street-and-yard Illinois.  The CBD (Call Big Doug) Landscaping mentality of my high-school part-time job: “It’s autumn and the leaves are down. Time to get raking and make the yards clean and neat again, and impose our tidy order on this unruly cycle, at least here in town.”  Here by the Hoarfrost River my urge was not to grab a rake but to reach for hardhat and chainsaw, to get out there and buck and pile and clear.  A laughable reaction really, in the face of the day-to-day realities of time and work, and the vast scale of the place, but the instinct is there and after every new windfall it surges again.   

But no, one does not rake up the fallen leaves in an autumn forest, and after a wildfire one does not blithely set out to cut and clear and slash-burn the millions upon millions of trees that will now be tipping over and falling down.  (In my layman’s calculations I easily get an estimate into billions, for this big burn alone, but I will hold back and stick with millions.) My urge is just a deep desire to combat the chaos, to do my small bit to restore the beauty and wholeness that have been obliterated. Tilting at windmills has been a theme around here for thirty years.  “Cleaning up” after a forest fire falls squarely in that category. 

The soothing sitting-room wisdoms of “nature’s cleanup,” “let it burn,” and “the wonder of rejuvenation,” like so many sitting-room wisdoms about wild nature, are all valid, and at some remove yes, they can be soothing.  Reality is more chaotic, and at times it is horrific.  (The string of starving wolves we have watched die slow deaths here over the past two winters come to mind as examples of not-so-soothing wildness.  Likewise the charge of a senile half-blind grizzly bear on a November morning nine years ago — his hot sour breath and the look in his eyes and the sudden realization that it might be my day to die, or his.)

It has not been soothing, but instead more like jarring and jaw-dropping, to pause deliberately and squint across miles of rolling outcrop hills, and to try to imagine the scene before me going through the changes and successions that lie ahead.  It is like trying to imagine the country under the weight of the last – or the next – wave of glacial ice.  That is something I have tried to do from time to time, but I have never honestly conjured up a convincing image of the ice sheet, in my mind’s eye. This latest attempt to envision long change is easier, because the change is already well underway: the once-lovely green hills are black and jumbled, and the trees are toppling day by day.  As if the lip of the next Keewatin ice sheet was visible on the far horizon, and on a calm day audible, rumbling and grinding down the valley.

My stilted efforts to conjure the changes that are coming to the scene before me are accompanied by a surprisingly deep sadness.  This, like the falling trees, caught me off guard, even as it brought me close to tears the other day.  “Heartfelt” is a maudlin word, but here it has its place.  I can feel sometimes, right in my heart, that span of years, and with it comes the awareness that I will not be here to see this place return to any semblance of that mature, deep-rooted, spongy-lichened, taiga-forest integrity that we all recall from a long Sunday hike we took together as a family, just over two years ago.  I will never see it come back to that. None of us will. That is gone, and all four of us will be long gone before it comes back to what it was on that memorable afternoon just before the lightning struck and the fire began to prowl the hills.

Once down, these dense spruce and tamarack trunks will lie in heaps for decades far beyond a narrow human time-span.  Decay proceeds extremely slowly here in a country where our first old cabin – the one that was here from the late 1970’s – stood for nearly 40 years on unpeeled birch rounds laid crosswise right on the sand.  When we took that place down, in 2004, to erect on its site this workshop that we have called home since the fire, the wood of those birch logs was as solid as it was on the day the trees were felled.  Try that in a temperate latitude!  Hell, in the Pacific Northwest an unpeeled birch round laid on the ground beneath a building would soften to mush before lunchtime. Charred wood being highly resistant to decay, the bark-free trunks that now lie perched a foot above the ground will still be here, lying in jumbles, when my children are older than I am now, just starting lap 60 around the sun.  This is not sad, but it is not soothing Mother Nature Knows Best stuff either.  More like the cold hard facts of life and death, more like the hot breath of a bear about to kill you. It gives new meaning to the glib phrase “a 200-year burn,” and gives visible and visceral meaning to a span of two centuries. 

Again and again I turn from my reverie and stride down the hill toward home, rifle or chainsaw forever in hand, while a trio of four-month-old husky pups rockets around and leaps over and wriggles under the windfalls.  Another generation of that boundless young-dog energy enlivening our walks down these familiar trails into another freeze-up season.  Sad as it makes me some days, I feel fortunate to have been given this first-hand lesson in Time, and Nature, and the Real Deal.  Not given, so much as smacked-up-side-o’-the-head by it.      

“What emerges from the recent work on chaos and complexity is the final dismemberment of the metaphor of the world as machine, and the emergence of a new metaphor – a view of a world that is characterized by vitality and autonomy, one which is close to Thoreau’s sense of wildness, a view that, of course, goes well beyond him, but one he would no doubt find glorious.  Instead of a vast machine, much of nature turns out to be a collection of dynamic systems, rather like the mean eddy lines in Lava Falls… They are aperiodic, like the weather, they never repeat themselves but forever generate new changes, one of the most important of which is evolution.  Life evolves at the edge of chaos, the area of maximum vitality and change.”  — Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild.   Tucson:  University of Arizona Press, 1996.

The inspection done and the crew gone home,

I slept on a rough plank dock beneath the wing.

Bedroll laid out on a mattress of red life jackets,

A hasty tarp pulled on top at one a.m. when rain spit down for half an hour.

 

By three in the morning the sky was clear again.

It was still dark, and the wind had calmed.

I rolled over, faced east and — There you were!

For the first time since late March your three-star belt, your scabbard and shield.

 

“Hello old friend Orion,” I said aloud to the night.

I’ve missed you through these long bright months of spring and summer.

And now it is September, and you are back.

No frost yet, but at dusk the high peaks to the southwest were all white.

 

Orion, I greet you gladly, but I know what you bring.

Soon you and I will be out in the dark morning, my thick fur hat scrunched down tight,

Nose-hairs frosted, cheeks stinging, fumbling with headlamp and numb fingers,

To warm an icy lump of engine and wrestle with stiff wing-covers.

 

Orion!  A familiar sharpness surges in.  The season tilts.

Brother, Old Hunter, climbing into the sky.

May I say, my friend, on this mild night – that you’re looking pretty good?

Somehow softer, less stern?  Have you mellowed since I saw you last?

 

We all do, I guess.  And this is nice here, isn’t it?

This gentle warm night, this quiet brown-water pond,

This trusty red plane on its fat white floats,

All tucked up easy against the smooth flank of the mountains.

 

I smile, close my eyes and drift off again.

Deep growl of a truck, shifting and accelerating, heading for the Yukon.

At sunrise I will fly north to Yellowknife,

And from there northeast to home, and the start of autumn.

 

Orion is back.  Old friend, brother hunter, arm raised, belt cinched,

Good Sirius panting happy at his heels.

But hey – who would want Summer to last all year?

Not you, Winter Star Man, and not me either.

 

  • Parker Lake, outside Fort Nelson B.C. 7 September 2016

 

 

On Tuesday grasshoppers,

clicking yellow brown in hot sun.

Longest swim of the season that evening,

this shallow sandy rim of the continent’s deepest lake

cool silk on my skin.

Wednesday a 25 knot northerly with cold rain,

pounding take-offs and touchdowns,

long V’s of geese riding the cold front south,

that rare thin layer of warm water pushed offshore and gone.

Thursday a scouting flight northeast

to the upper Baillie River.

Caribou there, drifting down from the coast,

crossing the border from Nunavut.

As if a border, or a map,

means anything to them.

 

All that matters to them,

to the grasshoppers and the geese,

and to me, just now,

is that summer is ending.

On the night of 19 July each year we mark a change here, a subtle one not noticed by many, but significant to back country flyers who do not come and go from established airports. No runway lights and centreline markers here, just water and snow and tundra.  On the night of July 19th, for the first time since May 26th,  there starts to be some “legal darkness” in the middle of the night.  Flying in daylight has been a 24-hour option for nearly two months now.  Today summer has crested and that season is done.

We do not see the Midnight Sun here, being still a few hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle.  We do, however, have midnight sunlight for these halcyon nine weeks.  Centered on either side of local midnight, skewed an hour by the adjustment of Daylight Saving Time, this first hint of coming change delineates the period when the sun’s orb drops more than six degrees below the horizon.  When it does, not enough light spills up over the rim of the earth to let a pilot safely bring an airplane down to “land” (be it water, snow, or gravel) without the aid of some sort of artificial lighting. 

This little wedge of darkness in the middle of night grows rapidly longer over the next few weeks, widening to nearly four hours here, latitude 62° 51’ North, by the first of August.  We keep a chart of the times here on a clipboard, handy for reference. It is a binding rule of aviation, and unlike some other edicts passed down from on high (Ottawa, Washington, etc.) this one makes us all sit up and take notice.  Turning short final for landing in the final minute or two before “Civil Twilight” or “Legal Darkness,” on an overcast night over dark water can be – as any bush pilot’s curled toes and puckered sphincter muscles will attest – quite exciting. Reduce the visibility to a (legal) mile or two in forest-fire smoke, or coat the windshield with some light mist, make the water glassy smooth, and it becomes one of the operations professional pilots get paid for.  So we take heed of those numbers.

For a few weeks now some long-ago memorized lines from a poem by John Haines have been running through my mind.  I have been thinking about Haines, and his place in my life as literary hero and bush-life icon.  I was lucky enough to meet John Haines a few times, and I saw him last  in 2004 when I arrived un-announced at the office he kept that spring at the University of Alaska. I had flown a Husky from Hoarfrost River to Fairbanks, to deliver it to a new owner, and I was waiting for the buyer to fly down from Bettles. John had gone flying with me once, about 30 years earlier, over the south shore of Lake Superior in a little Cessna 140 I owned with a buddy.  He still remembered that flight, and told me he had always thought he might get his pilot’s license.  Not a surprising aspiration for an Alaskan woodsman, where pilots of small bush planes fill the skies from Skagway to Kotzebue.   

In 1979 or 1980, late in autumn, William Stafford came to read at Northland College.  My longtime friend Lee Merrill, himself a poet and in those years a professor of English at Northland, had asked Stafford to dinner.  Lee had asked me, former pupil and avid Stafford reader, to join them.  We had gone out to Lee and Melinda’s home deep in the woods and far from town, on a tiny lake south of Ashland.  Dumbstruck as I was in the presence of Stafford and Merrill, I rode along silently in the back seat as Lee steered his old sedan north through the dark, to the college on the coast of the big lake. Stafford in person was just as any reader of his poems would have expected: polite, soft-spoken, gracious and generous.  As the dark November miles ticked past, the conversation turned to poets.  Stafford told of a mountain picnic with Gary Snyder, and chuckled at how charmed his wife had been by the man, hinting that perhaps she had been a bit surprised by that.

“Haines? I remember this about my first meeting with John Haines. We were together in Oregon, and we had an apple we were going to share.  He passed me his knife so I could cut it in half.  ‘Careful,’ he said, ‘it’s very sharp.’ And it was! I think it was one of the sharpest knives I’ve ever handled.  And that seemed so right, you know?  That John would always have with him a sharp knife.”

Stafford and Haines.  Poet’s poets. What fine brief meetings those were, sprinkled across those years, and what steady inspiration the lines and the lives of those men have been, thrumming along in my mind day by day.  Thanks, Lee, for those introductions. 

Now maybe I’ll set this aside and touch up my belt knife.  It is not as sharp as it should be, and certainly not as sharp as John’s knife in Stafford’s anecdote.  Day after day, it is there in its leather scabbard, and out doing something: cutting a rope, trimming a frayed hose, tweaking the tiny screw on a headset… and slipped back into its sheath.  I reach for it without even thinking, which is as it should  be with some tools, and I literally feel only half-dressed if I do not have it.  No pre-flight security checks here!

Sitting here on this rainy cool morning, I can’t discern any connection between the lines from a Haines poem and my ramblings from sharp knives to the annual onset of summer twilight.  So be it — this blog is subtitled Musings from the Hoarfrost River, and this month you get “musings.”   I’ll paste the lines from Haines here below.  John would be pleased. 

Thanks for reading, have a good month, and watch those twilight times, comrades.

And there I too wanted to stay…

speak quietly to the trees,

tell in a notebook sewn from

their leaves my brief of passage:

long life without answering speech,

grief enforced in that absence;

much joy in the weather,

spilled blood on the snow.

 

With a few split boards,

a handful of straightened nails,

a rake and a broom;

my chair by the handmade window,

the stilled heart come home

through smoke and falling leaves.

 

  • Final two stanzas from a poem “There Are No Such Trees in Alpine, California” from the collection Cicada by John Meade Haines (1924 – 2011)

I have been reading Old Jules, by Mari Sandoz.   I have been swept up in it for weeks.  (My reading these days being mainly a brief late-evening interlude, tuckered out and often ending sound asleep with the book lost somewhere alongside the bed, or with Kristen setting it gently aside as I snore.) Published in 1935, the book is considered a classic of American literature, and rightly so.  A broad biography of the author’s father, Jules Sandoz: Swiss immigrant settler, curmudgeon, visionary, sharpshooter, horticulturalist and, in most regards, to be honest (which Mari Sandoz – his daughter, the author – certainly is) a damned poor excuse for a father and husband.  A saga set on the western Nebraska plains, spanning from the 1880’s to the late 1920’s, clear through from the waning days of the bison and the free Lakota, to the coming of telephone, automobile, and radio.  A tough book, not a light book, and especially difficult for its frank portrayal of a father who was so incorrigibly hard on those closest to him.  Starting my Sunday with Sandoz, and it being Father’s Day today, has been a time to think about fathers and the legacy of fathers, good ones and not so good ones.  (I was lucky.  I had a good one.  A great one, and never forgotten.)  Sandoz’ masterpiece is thought-provoking and timely, too, for its litany of hard times on the high plains:  prairie fire, blizzard, hail and flood, near-starvation, insanity, feuds, local and national politics, the ending of one era and the start of another.  Much food for thought.

For those who relish such concrete tidbits more than my various ramblings, some near-Solstice Hoarfrost stats:  3 degrees above zero here this morning, about 37 degrees American.  Made a fire in the big kitchen wood stove for the first time in nearly a month, and the heat feels good. Out the door it is all cold rain and gusty north wind, and a gray bay ice-free as of one week ago, June 12. As always the final floes of ice in the entire lake were those in the mid-section of McLeod Bay, just north of Shelter Bay, forty miles west of us.  This ranks as our second earliest ice-out in 29 years.  1998 still takes the cake, by about eight days. 

Two years ago today here, it was bone dry and “our” fire was already burning, and just beginning its stealthy advance toward us from the east.  Little did we know. Today one would be hard pressed to light a campfire out in those soggy burned-over acres. The lake is rising visibly by the day, still “low” by our paltry three-decade perspective on “normal,” but higher than it has been for some years. The Hoarfrost River is surging down off the barrens, brim-full and boisterous for the first time in many springs.

Kristen is away from home, down on the prairies of North Dakota, helping her own father.  Our two daughters and I walked north up the trail last evening, with six loose dogs happy to join us. Startled a lone muskox, a big one, on the slope above the river, and had a few tense moments as several of the dogs gave chase.  Wisdom (or what passes for wisdom in the mind of a rambunctious summer sled dog) prevailed, and they saw the better part of valor as coming back to our calls.  Mr. Ovibos, for his part, decided it was best to lumber off through the charred spruce and pockets of ash now festooned with tiny sprouts of green, lurching along under his enormous shaggy coat, looking for all the world like a mastodon or mammoth back from the dawn of time.

After my past three monthly jottings here, my dear sister asked if I was “down.”  That was alarming, because no one who takes the time to read this does so for updates on my personal hard times or down times, and certainly no one needs a monthly rant-and-whine missive. Her question did get me thinking about the state of my own mental ship:  was it floating on a solid mooring, sailing in high seas, or foundering, or worse?  Bear with me, and read forward, because what I have come to is this: No, I am not down. I am just trying my best to continue to become disillusioned.

Hold on, wait, stay and don’t hit that instant-departure key.  Viva Disillusionment!  Is dis-illusion-ment not a good thing, something to strive for as we live?  Should we not, all of us, be eager to be dis – illusioned as we make our way and learn our (sometimes very hard) lessons? 

I’ve had many illusions. Still have plenty.  About people, about the Far North, about heroes and causes. About how much a man can do in a day, for how long, and how well. Some of these illusions are the stuff of dreams, of romance, of boldness and assurance and inspiration.  Long may they inspire, and motivate.  But the fire of 2014 and its aftermath burned up a lot of illusions around here, “permanence” right up at the head of the list:  The Illusion of Permanence.  Think about that, as my hero Dick Dorworth likes to write. Permanence?  Out here?  (Or anywhere for that matter, but here right now is always a good start.)  I know I am not alone, as I come close to 60, in having seen some of my own dearest illusions marched out into the bright light of morning, grabbed by the shoulders and turned to face the sun. We clever modern idiot-savants are nowadays much too cocksure of ourselves, in my view.  We have such deep belief in our own illusions of competence and grandeur, to name just two varieties, that we have soiled our planetary nest and put at peril far too many of our fellow voyageurs.

So this morning I am glad to make it my day’s work to try and step clear and see past the illusions around here.  And to do so with a light heart, if I can.  Mari Sandoz had no illusions about her father or about immigrant life on the Nebraska plains, and from her steadfast dis-illusionment came her book, a timeless masterpiece of a book.

Thoreau weighs in on this topic with one whopper of a sentence,  and still comes through like a champ, summing up perfectly what I am trying to say:

”Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d’appui,  below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp-post safely, or perhaps a gauge, not a Nilometer, but a Realometer, that future ages might know how deep a freshet of shams and appearances had gathered from time to time. If you stand right fronting and face to face with a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter [scimitar], and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.”

  • Walden

 

Ah, the romance of the bush pilot life.  Floats rippling the smooth water of a pristine lake at dawn, the view of an Arctic watershed from a mile high, alone in a trusty fabric-and-tube wonder, propeller and pistons purring, and not another human soul for a hundred miles in any direction.  The chance to do for a living what most people dream of doing for adventure and recreation.  It is a good gig.  It is!

And its flip side. Because everything has a flip side, doesn’t it?  Motel room in Fort Nelson B.C., Mile 300 of the Alaska Highway. Day Three just beginning. The rain that has poured down all night is now forecast to change to snow. Low cloud and lively north winds. I am not scheduled to be in Yellowknife until Monday afternoon, for a charter to the ice strip at a tundra camp 200 miles north of there, and it is only Saturday. So I am long on time, and I am doing my best to be long on patience.

Patience is a virtue in this business.  Waiting on weather is a mental game, familiar to all who hang it out there at the whim and power and unpredictability of sky, water, and wide expanses of wild country. Over the ten years we have been having our airplanes maintained at Fort Nelson I have developed a healthy respect for the 360 miles of low ridges and blank terrain that lie in the northeastern-most corner of B.C. and the southern district of the Territories, a straight lonely line between Fort Nelson and Yellowknife.  I have spent some nerve-wracking moments aloft over that stretch, and I remember them on days like this.

One of the planes we operate is just emerging from a long saga of scheduled engine and prop overhaul, routine airframe inspections, all capped off by a very minor airframe repair that morphed into a 30-day delay. The common-sense-annihilating paper chase that is a bane of modern life is never so obvious and onerous as it is in aviation. No certified aircraft repair facility is going to weld a small patch on a minor tube of the secondary brace of the landing gear (appropriately enough the “drag brace”) without a document, a technical drawing, and a green light from every sub-clause of the Air Regs. At one point it seemed we were going to need a direct intervention from the Minister of Transportation in Ottawa to get the damned part fixed. ‘Nuff said on that.  The plane is ready, a month later than we and several frustrated customers had all planned for, and now the phone calls, e-mails, questions, and near-outbursts (by me, the patient one…) can cease.

Yesterday we rolled her out, the crew at the hangar happy to see her go, and the ground test was done by one of the AME’s.  Then I climbed in and strapped in and taxied out, a wary eye on gauges and dials.  It is pretty simple stuff, really – it’s just a bush plane, not the Space Shuttle.  Still, after any major overhaul or inspection it is always time for a careful test flight.  I lifted off and stayed close to the airport, watching the temperatures and pressures of oil and manifold and cylinder heads and exhaust gas, little orange bars all magically displayed on the Graphic Engine Monitor.  Orville and Wilbur would have been impressed.  Thirty minutes of circling, changing power settings and rpm’s, noting that number five cylinder was running consistently warmer than its five partners, but not at any temperature close to worrisome.  Circling just beneath the ceiling north of the airport in spitting rain and wisps of ragged cloud, the plane tossing around in gusty winds.

Back to the airport, land and taxi in, more paperwork to sign off, and a check of the weather map with an eye toward the Territories and Great Slave Lake.  Rain, low cloud, gusty winds, fog and snow over higher terrain on the east flank of the northern Rockies.  A truly massive low pressure centre squatting motionless over north-central Alberta.  The weather briefer I spoke with at Flight Service (a.k.a. “Fright Service”) was not optimistic, and by the time I hung up the phone, neither was I.

I finished my chores, swapped gear out of the other plane, the one I will leave here with the crew, and which they will now inspect and put onto floats.  When it is done and all the ice work up north on the tundra is done, I will come back to Fort Nelson again.  Then, with the ice beginning to melt away from the mouth of the Hoarfrost River, I can go home on floats.  Summer will begin.

Caught a ride back in to town and the Hideaway Motel, where I had checked out early in the morning in a fit of optimism.  The cheapest place in town, but it is clean and tidy and as I joke with the lady at the front desk I assure her that I will be back.  Patience, patience.  Library?  Swimming Pool?  Some paperwork? A blog post?  Here you go.