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The Fallout Diaries

The Fallout Diaries

by Frederick A. Lepine

Originally written and presented at the Banff Centre, January 2007

Day 13:

On CBC radio and on television and in the local weekly newspaper, they keep using the word “inevitable”.  They are telling us that unless something drastic is done, and very quickly, the Russian satellite will crash somewhere in the northern hemisphere.  They say that big chunk of metal is unable to hold its place in orbit any longer and it’s beginning to fall fast.  And stuck to the back end of the communications part is a nuclear reactor that has failed to disengage.   

Everyone here is making jokes about where it might land.  In Yellowknife, someone has cleared a landing pad in the snow in their backyard and spray painted the words “Cosmos 954” in the snow.  They have added a big red hammer and sickle.

In our grade eleven physics class, Mr. Weskowski has us drifting away from our usual studies to follow the satellite’s descent instead.  He is teaching us how to predict the probable crash location using a formula that includes the earth’s gravity and rotation speed, and the height, weight, speed, and direction of the satellite among other things.   

He says it’s a very simple formula – if we know where we have come from, and we know where we are, then we have a pretty good idea of where we are going to be at some future point in time.  He draws a spiral on the blackboard.

The spiral reminds me of the big staircase that starts on the second floor of our school and winds its way down to the main concourse floor, then once again lower to a private seating area below the staircase called the Conversation Pit.  The pit is carpeted and is pretty sound proof.  It is shaped like a half circle.  It is the lowest point of the whole school and kids and stories and things somehow always end up down there.

Our school is full of circles and curves and spirals.  It was designed a few years ago by a Blackfoot architect from the prairies who is becoming famous for the curves in all of his buildings.

When he officially opened the Alexander Mackenzie Secondary School, Douglas Cardinal would tell us students that our school was designed for us, not for the establishment – not for the teachers, not for the parents and not for the government.   When he makes that pledge to us on the main stage of the concourse that Monday afternoon in 1973, he is dressed in jeans, a deerskin jacket with fringes on the sleeves and he wears beaded moccasins on his feet.   His long, black hair is in braids and he looks like just about anyone from the north.   He has one hand in his jeans pocket and another on the podium.  He is a very proud man.  While he talks, he is backed by a long curve of white faces in light blue and plaid suits.

The slide presentation he gives shows the original sketches of the school – a bunch of circles, curves and spirals – and he tells us how the building follows the natural contours of the banks of the Hay River where it sits.  He talks about harmony and he uses words like freedom and openness and connectedness and joy.   

He says that the curves we follow in our journeys through the building are like the ones you find in nature and in life.   He says that by following curves, we will find no surprises around each corner because, well, there are no corners.  We will always see what is coming around the bend long before we bump into it.

He tells us about how the inside of the building should flow outside and how the outside should flow inside.  His head is full of new and radical ideas and I can see that not many of them make sense to most people in the audience.  Some of them clear their throats and shift in their seats while he talks.

He points to the Conversation Pit he has built for us below the staircase.  He declares this a Free Speech Zone.  He says that as far as he is concerned anything and everything that is said down there should be protected by the Canadian Bill of Rights.  When he says this, many of the people on stage in their light blue suits begin to clear their throats and shift in their seats, too.  I hear he makes all of his clients uneasy.

Mr. Cardinal calls himself an artist and he declares each of his buildings a work of art.  And he says you can’t deface a work of art.  So, to protect his works of art, he says he sometimes ends up fighting with his clients.

We would debate that idea in Miss Edwards’ art class a few days later.  I think he is right.  I think he is a brilliant man.  Most of the other kids don’t see it that way.  They think he is just being stubborn. One stubborn Indian, some say.

When Miss Edwards asks my best friend Whiskeyjack for his opinion, he doesn’t look up from what he is drawing.  He just slouches there in his seat at the back of the room and says quietly, “The guy’s got something there.”

Whiskeyjack keeps his thoughts to himself when he can.  Lately he has been doing a lot more of that.

But when all is said and done, the people who have to study and work in our school seem to be happy in this space.  The way the walls in the hallways curve and the way so much of the short winter daylight comes in from all directions – through the tall windows, the skylights and the glass classroom walls – I think they really do feel like they are connected to the outside world instead of being separated from it.

Now, after a few years of actually being in this school, we all find those places where we feel safest.  For me, it is in one of the small music practice rooms above the main stage area where it is dead quiet.  We don’t have much of a music program left so they are always empty.  I spend every spare moment I have there reading about superheroes and aliens and space ships and time travel.

For my little Metis friend, Whiskeyjack, his safe place is the Conversation Pit.   There he can hide below floor level during physics and math classes.  Sometimes he sneaks down there to sleep when he is hung over.  Sometimes to wait out being stoned on weed.   He has learned how to tell the footsteps of teachers in their high heels and Oxford shoes, so he never gets caught.

None of the other kids rat on him.  None of the cleaning staff really pay attention.  To be honest, few of the teachers really care.

The foot traffic and the space traffic just goes on and on in a big spiral overhead.  Down in the Conversation Pit, Whiskeyjack feels safe at the bottom of it all.

*******

Day 8:

While I am eating my Corn Flakes in Milko powdered milk this morning, the radio program The World at Eight is reporting that Cosmos Nine Five Four is continuing its uncontrolled descent toward the planet.  The American government is accusing the Russians of failing to take the proper measures to prevent such an accident and the Canadian government is saying that if the satellite crashes anywhere in Canada, someone is going to pay, and pay big.  The Swedes are preparing for possible nuclear fallout and have recalled their ambassador to Russia, and countries in Europe are debating whether or not the best way to deal with this crisis is through the U.N.

The Russians have yet to say anything about anything.  They just refuse to admit that they even own any satellite beyond Sputnik.  That one they are still proud of.

My father jokes when he says maybe he will find the wreckage somewhere out in the bush while he is out on his trap line today.  He wonders who will own it if he does.  He and my uncle Walter debate the issue over breakfast.  It’s still dark when they are out the door and heading off to the trap line on their skidoos.

The air is sharp this morning as I get on the bus at our stop not far from our house.  Over the next several stops I watch as other kids get on the bus.  Some of the younger ones get kisses and hugs from their mothers who are there to see them off. I watch and imagine how warm that must feel like at 40 below.

I think back to the time when I  was in grade four and the Indian eye doctor, Mrs. Case, came around for her yearly visit. During my first checkup, as she flicked through lenses and asked if each one was better or worse, she was so close to me that I could feel her breath on my face when she spoke. I wanted to close my eyes because I enjoyed that closeness between us. I wish I’d had that with my mother.

Instead, I looked Dr. Case straight in the eye and lied about which lens was better and which was worse. In the end, it forced her to spend more time trying to figure out what the problem was.  I just sat there and took it all in for as long as I could.

In physics class today, Mr. Weskowski says he has made a few phone calls to some friends at the University of Alberta and he brings in new information about where the satellite was positioned early this morning.  He thinks we will now be able to get a better picture where the satellite will begin to come apart.  Only then we will have a better idea of where the burning wreckage will fall.

Secretly, we all hope the final crash will happen somewhere really close.  And, secretly, I think Mr. Weskowski feels the same way.

He has a way of making things exciting and that’s why I think I like his physics class.  I like playing with numbers because for some reason, I can turn those numbers into something I can see in my head.  It’s just a visual thing for me.  Mr. Weskowski told me once I had a really good way of making things connect.

At some point while drawing a spiral on the blackboard, Mr. Weskowski stops and turns around and asks us if we have ever heard of a guy named Fibonacci.  We all look around and shake our heads, no.  So he starts to tell us the story of this Italian mathematician from the Middle Ages who was able to figure out the math behind the growth of seeds in the spiral of a sunflower and the grown size of compartments in snail shells.  He said you could even use this simple formula to predict the growth of a rabbit family tree.

That little formula he discovered is called the Fibonacci Series.

But by the time the bell rings at the end of class, we don’t get very far at figuring out the descent path of the satellite.  We will need a computer to make some of the calculations go faster.  But we don’t know of anyone who owns one.  So, for now, using only our heads, Mr. Weskowski shows us how to calculate the Fibonacci series just by adding in our heads until everyone in class is completely exhausted. Then he tells us about how lucky we are.  He tells us of kids he taught in Swaziland in South Africa, who had nothing but a small broken piece of slate to write on. When the little piece of slate is full, you have to remember what you have written, wipe it clean and start over again.  Mr.  Weskowski tells us stories like this all the time.  I think he wants us to understand that there is always a bigger picture to think about.

After physics class, I walk along the curved railing on the balcony overlooking the concourse when I see Mr. Harris the Vice Principal leading Whiskeyjack out of the Conversation Pit.  Whiskeyjack’s eyes are as red as the tips of his mohawk haircut.   He is looking thinner by the day.  He looks up at me and I smile and sling him an inverted  peace sign.  He does the same but he doesn’t smile back.  He is putting on his black leather jacket as he walks and he staggers a bit. On the back of his jacket his girlfriend Sarah has embroidered the words Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the name of a supposed upcoming album from The Clash.  I don’t know how he knows all this cool stuff, but he is so far ahead of the rest of us in new music and things.

Out of the smoking lounge, Sarah now runs up behind him and hands him a pair of fingerless woolen winter mitts from one of her friends.  He puts them in his pocket and walks on behind Mr. Harris.

In art class today, Miss Edwards brings in the big, old, dusty scale model of our purple school and puts it on a table in the middle of the room.  She tells us to select a small portion of the school and to explore each and every curve in our drawings.  She wants us to use big, exaggerated gestures.  She wants us to practice large, smooth, unplanned movement.  Some of the kids laugh and really overdo it.  I look at the back of the class and see that Whiskeyjack is not in his usual seat.

I find out later on the bus that he has been suspended for skipping class until he can return with a note from his parents saying they have dealt with him.  I know he will find a way to be back tomorrow.  Whiskeyjack needs a warm place to curl up during these cold January days.  More importantly, he needs to be away from home.  I am hoping Mr. Harris the Vice Principal understands that.  Surely someone has told him what’s going on.

Lying in bed that night, I can hear my parents arguing again, their muffled voices coming through the thin walls of our trailer. This has been going on for a long time.

*******

Day 5

On CBC television, the Americans are saying they have been tracking the falling piece of space junk from its first launch to its present wobbly position.  They are saying they are doing all they can and have offered to help the Russians attempt to separate the nuclear reactor part from the communications part. The Russians have to agree to let them in on their system first.

But the Russians have still not even owned up to the problem yet.  They are saying absolutely nothing.

The Canadian government complains to the U.N. that this is the reason no country in its right mind has ever used a nuclear powered satellite in the past.  It is just way too dangerous.  The Prime Minister uses words like “punishment” and “compensation” to bring attention to the looming disaster.  The opposition party leans heavily on the government forcing it to admit how much of the problem it was aware of long before today.  Everything just congregates into a big ball of accusations that spreads around the world.

On the road to school, we stop first to drop off the younger kids at the elementary school not far from my own school.  I watch as their teachers hug and pat the smallest ones in the freezing air.  It must feel good to get hugged every day like that. It must feel good to be told someone loves you.

In physics class this morning, Mr. Weskowski brings in a copy of the Edmonton Journal that his mother has sent to him from Sherwood Park in Alberta.  Inside the newspaper, he shows us printouts of the NASA projected orbits of Cosmos Nine Five Four.    But by the time it arrives in town by Greyhound bus, the paper is three days old and the information is useless.   

Mr. Weskowski says he thinks he has a line on a digital computer but it will not be available for days.  Instead, today we are only able to work out the ever-narrowing spiral for a few cycles.  But bit-by-bit some of us are beginning to truly understand the math behind the crisis.  Like everybody else, though, we just don’t see a solution.  When you lose control of something like that, sometimes it is already too late.

After physics class, I walk down the spiral staircase and into the Conversation Pit.  There I find Whiskeyjack dressed in his usual black in the corner in the dark.  He has his knees folded up underneath his chin.  He is shivering.  There are dark circles under his eyes a cut on his lip.  One of his many earrings has been pulled out. A bit of dried blood is left in its place.  He looks he hasn’t eaten in days and smells like he hasn’t showered in weeks.

I ask him how he’s doing and he just says, “I’m okay, Em.”  I open my lunch bag and toss him the caribou, cheese and bannock sandwich my mother has made for him every morning for the last several weeks.   He thanks me and devours it.

Sarah comes down into the Pit.  She’s got a look of sorrow on her face.  She squeezes past me and slips into Whiskeyjack’s arms.  He responds weakly to her sobbing.  A few of the kids on their way to other classes are beginning to stop and stare.  I give them the look of death and they are back on their way.

I tell Whiskeyjack that I am skidooing out to check my father’s trap line on Saturday.  I ask if he wants to come along.   He says sure.  I don’t like to call him at home because his father sometimes answers.  So I just tell him I’ll be heading out about ten in the morning and I leave the two of them alone there in the Conversation Pit.

In art class later that afternoon, it is getting hard to concentrate.  Miss Edwards is going on about the painter Vincent Van Gogh and his descent into madness.  She explores the relationship of brilliance, anger, despair and art.  I excuse myself for the bathroom and head straight for the Conversation Pit, but neither Whiskeyjack nor Sarah are there anymore.

I head over to the music department and lock the door once inside one of the tiny practice rooms.  I just sit there and stare straight ahead.  I stay that way for the rest of the day.  As school ends, I sneak out of one of the smaller exits and catch the bus home.

Tonight after supper, my father is talking about the falling satellite once again, this time while watching All in the Family on television.  During the commercials, he wonders if it will crash in a small or a wide area of the land.  He wonders if it might make a big change in the way the animals behave.  Will they be safe to eat?  Will their fur be too “hot” with that radiation stuff everybody is talking about?  Will he be able to hunt, fish and trap for much longer?

Later that night, I call Sarah’s house.   Her mother says Sarah hasn’t come home since she left for school that morning.  I go out to the garage and help my dad skin the mink and marten he and Uncle Walter have caught on the trap line today.  While I am scraping the small hides on their stretchers, I convince my dad and Uncle Walter to take Saturday off. I say Whiskeyjack and I will check the trap line for them.  That’s a good idea, he says.  He’s got business to take care of in town anyway.

Once again, before I fall asleep that night, the conversation in the next room erupts into an argument.  I wrap my pillow around my ears and roll over on my side.

*******

Day 3

It’s Saturday morning and the radio says the satellite is beyond hope.  Its orbit has become so unstable that it’s just a matter of time now.

The Americans say the Russians have turned down any help they have offered.  The Canadian government says they have a pretty good idea now where the satellite will fall.  They say it will be somewhere north of the sixtieth parallel, but they are not yet sure in which country.   And since a big chunk of the world’s land north of sixty is in Canada, they announce they are putting together a team of radiation search and cleanup specialists.  Surprisingly, the team is composed of mostly Americans.  Many people suspect the CIA is a part of the team.

The Russians finally speak.  They say there is nothing to worry about – the satellite will either burn up in the atmosphere or crash in the Siberian wilderness.  They downplay the seriousness of the whole matter.

I am not much in the mood for breakfast this morning.  I haven’t slept well during the last few nights.  I just sit at the kitchen table and drink coffee.

My mother is baking bannock in the kitchen when Whiskeyjack shows up.  My mother says he always shows up when she’s baking bannock, that’s why she gave him that nickname when he was a kid.  He is just like that little gray bird, she says.  He always swoops in as soon as you start to cook. She really loves this little guy so much.

She pushes back the toque on his head and asks him how he got the cut above his left eye.  He says he was on the back of somebody’s skidoo when he fell off and hit the trail hard.  I know she doesn’t buy it, but she doesn’t let on.  She makes Whiskeyjack put on my father’s snow pants and parka so he doesn’t freeze in his thin leather jacket.  She packs up some fresh bannock and caribou sandwiches and a big thermos of coffee for the road and tells us both to be more careful.   She packs enough food for a few days.

It is after ten in the morning when we are finally on the trail on our Ski-doos.  We head down the Hay River to the Great Slave Lake, then follow the west shore down the lake toward Three Islands.  We spend most the day checking the traps down an old cut line there on the mainland.   The day is cloudy and light is flat and it is hard to see bumps on the trail, so we travel slowly.

When we have finished checking the entire line, we head back toward the shoreline.  The sun is out again, so we unhook the sleds we are pulling at my father’s cabin and have some fun chasing each other through the deep snow, dodging willows and jumping the big snow drifts on our machines.  We do this for a half hour along the lakeshore.  When we go back to pick up the sleds again, we take a break and make a warm fire in the cabin and eat our caribou and bannock sandwiches and drink hot coffee. It’s good.

Whiskeyjack doesn’t say much, as usual, but he forces a weak smile when I mention the fun we had riding through the deep snow.  “Good sandwiches, Em,” is all he says.  We pack up, hook up the sleds again and head back home in the late afternoon darkness.

*******

Day 2

It’s Sunday.  The television has begun to blare announcements that people should not get within a thousand feet of any pieces of the satellite wreckage they might find.  They say the chances have been calculated to just one in ten thousand that debris might hit anyone, but they say that any radiation contamination can be deadly.

The special Canadian and American recovery teams have begun to arrive in Edmonton.  The television shows military men in green parkas and big white Kamik snow boots walking off a Hercules transport plane.

This afternoon, I call Sarah and ask if she has seen Whiskeyjack today.  She says no, but lately she hasn’t seen him as often as she would like.  She says he has been keeping to himself more and more.  She uses words like “withdrawn” and “distant”.  She says she is really worried about his drinking and drug use.  I tell her that he’ll be fine and we’ll see him back in school tomorrow.

I don’t tell her that I am just as worried as she is.

*******

Day 1

This morning before school, nearly all of the television stations are broadcasting news about the impending crash.  They say it looks like the crash will occur somewhere in northern Canada.  Some stations say they have their reporters on standby ready to go to the scene of the debris the moment it all comes down.

The Canadian government says the recovery bill will surely go into the millions if the satellite lands in this country.  The Prime Minister reassures everyone once more that there is no cause for alarm and he says they are doing everything humanly possible.   He promises updates as soon as more information becomes available.

I did not sleep well last night so I am groggy and once again I skip breakfast.  There is a flurry of activity at school this morning.  Some parents want the school to be closed until after the crash, but others doubt the logic in this idea.  Until we know where it’s going to land, there is little anyone can do, they say.

In physics, Mr. Weskowski is really excited.  He is talking about us being a part of the making of history now.  He says this is the first time anyone has experienced such an event in human history and that we should each write a journal recording the details of the last several days and our thoughts on the whole thing.  He says he wants to build a time capsule with these journals and bury it under the big school sign out in front of the school this summer.  Then maybe in 25 or 30 years, we can open it up and read them again for ourselves.

I like the idea.

So, during lunch I walk the short block to downtown and pick up a new red spiral-bound notebook.  And when I discover that there is a new release of The Fantastic Four comic book, I buy that, too.

This afternoon, I find Sarah in the Conversation Pit.  She is quietly sobbing.  She says no one has seen Whiskeyjack since he was with me on Saturday.   She says her mom has called the police, but they say to wait it out for another day.  He has probably stayed at someone’s house after a party or is just hiding out somewhere, they say.  They say they will begin searching tomorrow if he doesn’t turn up, but even they have to admit, right now their priority is Cosmos Nine Five Four.

Sarah and I put together a small search party and go through the school between periods asking if anyone has seen Whiskeyjack.  No luck.

After school, Sarah and I build up the courage to go to Whiskeyjack’s house.   Thankfully, it is his mother who comes to the door.  She is a short, thin woman.  Her eyes are red and her hair is a total mess.   She has her arms crossed and a cigarette burning between her yellow fingers.  She has tried to cover a swollen eye with makeup, but it is done poorly.  Quietly, she tells us she heard Whiskeyjack come home on Saturday night but that he must have left again on Sunday morning because he wasn’t in his room when she went to check on him.  She says she told the police this already.

I am just about to ask something when I hear a loud voice from another room.  Who the fuck is at the goddamn door!?” Whiskeyjack’s father snarls.  We apologize, and then leave quickly.  She closes the door quietly.   We can hear yelling from the house as we scramble down the street.

*******

Day Zero

(I can’t tell if it was a dream or if it was real, but I think I was awakened in the early hours of the morning by an extremely bright light that filled my whole room.  I lay there in bed not knowing if this was real or not.  It lasted a good twenty seconds but by the time I was out of bed had the curtains pulled back, it had faded away.  I still don’t know if I imagined it or not. I went back to sleep.)

Today, on Tuesday, January 24th, 1978, all of us, including Mr. Weskowski, get our wish.

The burning nuclear generator of the Cosmos Nine Five Four satellite finally comes to earth.

As we would find out later, the satellite crashed into the ice on Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, just 150 miles northeast of our small town.  Within hours, the radiation recovery teams arrive to begin their work.  The airport is clogged with military aircraft, soldiers, reporters and police.   Fearing radiation fallout over the town, dozens of people in white protective suits begin walking throughout the town with geiger counters.  Speculation is high and rumours fly everywhere.

A wide aerial search begins and small pieces of the satellite are also found spread out over northern Alberta and Saskatchewan.  But it is a caribou hunter on his Skidoo who finds the main part of the debris.  He is smart enough to recognize it for what it was and stays a good distance away.  The wreckage is picked up and sent south several hours later.  But only a small part of the entire satellite is ever recovered.  The rest of it probably melted through the eight feet of January ice and lies somewhere at the bottom of Great Slave Lake, leeching its deadly core for the next several thousand years.

This morning, while we are in physics class watching television coverage of the entire event live via Anik satellite,  Mr. Harris the Vice Principal walks in.  He gives the come here sign and whispers something to Mr. Weskowski.  Mr. Weskowski then nods and thanks him and slowly walks over to the front of the class and turns off the television.  He stares at the floor for a moment and, trying not to look directly at me, he quietly tells us what Mr. Harris has just told him and says we are all excused for the rest of the day.

I grab my books and scramble down the main staircase to the Conversation Pit before Mr. Weskowski can intercept me.  I find Sarah’s friends there, all holding each other and crying.   I ask for Sarah and they say the police had come to school to give her the news and have given her a ride home.  They say she was so overcome that the cops had to practically carry her out of the school.  Then they tell me everything they have heard so far.

Today, the police are really too busy managing the satellite recovery effort to begin a search for Whiskeyjack.  In fact, they have all but forgotten about him when they get a call from his mother early this morning.  She is screaming into the receiver that she has found her baby.  That’s all she can say – over and over.  I have found my baby.  I have found my baby.

When the police arrive, they find her curled up on the floor in Whiskeyjack’s bedroom.  They find Whiskeyjack in the far back of his closet.  He has an electric extension cord around his neck and he is half sitting, half dangling from the wooden hanger bar.  He is wearing his black leather jacket, the one with the words “Give ’em Enough Rope” embroidered on the back.  He had been there since Saturday night.

Whiskeyjack’s mother says she tried to lift him up to loosen the pull of the cord when she found him, still believing it was not too late. But as thin as he is, he is still too heavy for her.

I stand there in the Conversation Pit long after Sarah’s friends have left, completely stunned.  There are announcements about the crash of the satellite and now the school has been officially closed for the rest of the day.

Kids pour out of their classrooms everywhere.  The entire school is in a frenzy around me.  Overhead the foot traffic spirals down from the second floor.  The click of heels, the slam of lockers, the excited sounds of kids with an unexpected day off school seems to settle and build on my shoulders.  The entire concourse begins to spin around me.  I feel a great weight coming down.

Without thinking, I spring out from the Conversation Pit, run across the concourse, head straight for the music department and slip into one of the practice rooms, locking the door behind me.  The silence inside is deafening.  All I can hear is my breathing and my heart racing, ready to jump out of my chest.  I sit there for a while just trying to calm both.

But suddenly I begin to bawl like a baby.  I cry like I have never cried before.  I just want so much to be held for once like those little white kids at the bus stop.  I want to be told that this was all just some big mistake.  That everything is going to be all right again. But it’s just me there alone in that small sound-proof room. Me and this crashed world.

Through tears, I look up, out the big full-length window at the snow beginning to fall outside. I sit back in my chair, close my eyes and inhale deeply through my nose and exhale slowly through my mouth.  I do feel like I am outside when I am inside in this building.  I feel the snow flakes landing cool on my skin, the cold January air burning in my nostrils and bursting in my lungs.

After a few minutes, my breathing and my heart rate begin to slow.  I slowly look around through the glass wall  behind me at the blur of kids floating through the concourse, their paths crossing in circles and curves following the lines that have been drawn throughout the school.

I think about how Mr. Cardinal the architect uses those circles and curves and spirals in our school as symbols of life and growth and movement and freedom and openness and joy.  I agree with Whiskeyjack – I think the guy’s got something there.

I look down at the stack of books on the table in front of me.  I pick up the top two: the Spiral notebook and the Fantastic Four comic book. Then I notice the cover of my physics textbook for the first time. It has a photograph of atoms being smashed together in an accelerator. The sub-atomic particles spin off into hundreds of little inward spirals.

I look at them for a long time and think about all that has happened over the last two weeks.  I wonder why this is all happening and whether or not this is all supposed to mean something. So much of this stuff together has become so much bigger than me.  I will have to take a step back to see the larger picture. Mr. Weskowski always wants us to do that.

And then, when I do, it is as if the the sun had just come out and poured itself through that tall window onto me. I begin to think about things in a new and completely different way. I can see all of these spirals and curves and circles begin to connect and intersect.  The numbers and the meaning begin to flow and the big picture starts to develop in my mind.

I open my Spiral notebook and, feverishly, I begin to make notes. I will try to put them all together in a story later. Right now, I just need to remember all of these events.

I write about Mr. Fibonacci and how he was able to figure out the hidden math and physics behind life.  I think I finally really understand the meaning of his magic numbers, “Zero, One, One, Two, Three, Five, Eight, Thirteen…”, and so on.

Sure, it’s a simple formula.  You start with the first two numbers and just add them up, and it will give you the next number in the series.  Add these last two again and it will give you the next one.  And so on.

That’s what builds the beautiful spiral patterns in sunflowers seeds  and the shapes of snail shells and DNA strands and the curves of stairways. It shows how the spiral of life grows outward in a beautiful and often predictable pattern. It even gives you a way to plot your path through the stars.  And through life. A simple idea, but a really powerful one.

But in telling my story, I realize what can happen when those numbers are reversed – you get the opposite result.  The reality that things can come crashing down to earth.

I hope that now when you are reading this story some thirty years from now, in the year Twenty-O-Eight, maybe while sitting in your flying car and squeezing food into your mouth from a tube (how cool!), you will understand why I have written about the final days of both Whiskeyjack and Cosmos Nine Five Four – and about days thirteen, eight, five, three, one, one and zero in particular.

Mr. Weskowski is right when he says that if we know where we have come from, and we know where we are, then we have a good idea of where we are going.  It’s a simple formula for knowing what’s coming up around the curve.  Once again, I think the guy’s got something there.  It’s a rhythm for life: this is where you’ve been (1), this is where you are (2), so this is where you’re going (3). And now this is where you’ve been (2), and this is where you are (3), so this is where you’re going (5).  And so on.

But my father has always taught me that things come in fours for Cree people: the four dimensions of the human being (emotional, physical, mental and spiritual), the four directions, the four seasons, the four colours of the human race (red, white, black and yellow), the four stages of human life (infant, youth, adult, and elder), the four sacred plants, (Cedar, Sage(s), Sweetgrass, and Tobacco), and, of course, the four natural elements of air, fire, water and earth.

And over the years being in Mr. Weskowski’s class, I have learned a lot about the number four in science, too: the four dimensions that make up the universe, the four fundamental forces (weak nuclear force, strong nuclear force, electro-magnetism and gravity), the four kinds of matter (solid, liquid, gas and plasma), and the four chemicals in our DNA (Adenine, Guanine, Thymine and Cytosine) that are the basis of all life as we know it.

  

And as I look down at my Spiral notebook and my Fantastic Four comic book, it occurs to me that there is a fourth part to Mr. Weskowski’s formula.  It is the reason these four Superheroes all fight evil.

It is for something called Hope.

Like the science fiction stories I read, it’s somewhere way out there beyond what we are able to see at the moment. To be able to dream not just about where you are going, but to dream about where you want to be someday.  That is something I think Whiskeyjack was missing.  It is something I think we – his friends, his family, his fellow students, his teachers – could have all given him.

But we have all failed Whiskeyjack.  We have all failed him miserably. And now it’s all come crashing down.

In the end, this story is just as much about my friend Whiskeyjack as it is about a falling piece of space junk.  They both have so much in common.  I hope Mr. Weskowski is still around to read it in the year Twenty-O-Eight. I know I won’t be.

Since we were younger, Mr. Weskowski has taught us how to ask the right questions so that we can find what we are looking for.  And I do have a lot of questions.  Like, whose business is it to stand up and ask the really hard questions?  Is it yours?  Is it mine?  Is it anybody’s business?  Or isn’t it everybody’s?

And, if we stand there and watch it all start to fall and we don’t lift a finger to stop it, do we have the right to point that same finger at anybody else but ourselves?   

I am only sixteen right now and I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  I don’t even know how to begin talking about these kinds of things.  And I don’t know anyone I can talk to.  But I hope that when you read this in the next millennium, I will be old enough to have figured them out by then.  And I hope by then I might have already made a difference in someone’s life.

I hope.

I hope.

*******

For a while I have forgotten where I am and what I am doing.  I am lost in that world of Mr. Cardinal’s and Mr. Fibonacci’s and Mr. Weskowski’s simple yet fantastic ideas. Not wanting to leave the comfort and safety of that small music practice room where things are finally beginning to make sense.

None of the cleaning staff pay any attention to me there writing by the fading afternoon light of the big window in the music practice room.  I pack up my books and leave long after the school has closed and the lights have been turned off.

I walk the three long miles home along the river.  I follow a hard-packed skidoo trail in the late afternoon snowfall.  Kids fresh out of school chase each other on their snow machines through the deep powder along the riverbank.  Ravens chase each other overhead, too.  Airplanes and helicopters land at the airport putting Operation Morning Light into motion.  They all leave curves and circles and spirals behind them.

Finally, when I reach the last turn in the river before home, I stop for a minute. The curve reminds me what Mr. Weskowski said about all of nature finding the path of least resistance between two points.  Wind, lightning, rivers, clouds, animals and pretty much everything else will do this. It’s just built into the nature of all things.  We do it, too, even though we have a choice. Rather than take the difficult road through life, we choose that which has the least resistance. It avoids us having to confront many things.  Like the truth about who we are.

When I get home, I find my mother in the kitchen, crying.  She is rolling out bannock dough on the table, pausing now and then to wipe the tears from her eyes.  She has white flour on her cheeks.  She is alone.

She does not look up.  I take off my winter boots.  I go over and I put my arms around her.  It takes her a full minute before she realizes that I am really there. Slowly, ever so slowly, she raises her arms and limply, puts them around me.  Then, when she really begins to cry, her fingers claw at the back of my parka and she pulls me even closer to her. I can’t remember ever being hugged by her before and it is more than I imagined how it would feel to be held by someone who really loves you.

My mother is holding me.

My mother is holding me.

Over her shoulder, I see she has been baking all day.  She has freshly baked bannock everywhere.  They are stacked on the table, on the counter, on chairs, on the stove and even on the window sill.

We just stand there holding each other. Me covered in snow and her covered in flour.

Eventually, she slowly pulls away from me, picks up a paper towel and blows her nose. She plugs in the kettle on the stove, still sniffling.  I take off my big coat and sit down at the kitchen table.  She comes and sits down to my right and pushes the pile of bannock dough to make room for tea.  While she is doing that, she begins to tell me a story.

She tells me about the time she met my father in the mission school. And she says how handsome and smart and funny he was back then. She says that Uncle Walter and Whiskeyjack’s father, Raymond, were his best friends at the school. They were inseparable. They played jokes on everybody there. And on each other.

She tells me that many bad things went on at the school but she does not give me any details. But being kids and being so far from home, there was nothing they could do about it. They just endured it. They found ways to survive and even be happy at times.

One day, she says, when my father and his friends were just young teens, the priest came into the class, pointed to all three of them and told them he had a job for them.  He gave them shovels and told them they were to dig a grave for one of the young girls he said had died the night before of Tuberculosis. He told them to dig in the bushes behind the vegetable garden.

She said my father, Uncle Walter and Raymond were really bothered by the request since they knew this was not the way we are supposed to do things. Shouldn’t there have been a doctor or a cop there to witness someone’s death?  Shouldn’t there have been a funeral?  Shouldn’t she be buried in a cemetery?  This was just all wrong.

And when they carried the body out of the infirmary wrapped in an old gray blanket, they noticed something strange in the way her head was turned.  So, while the priest stood and watched from a distance, Raymond peeled back the blanket to find her neck had been broken and her head horribly twisted.

As they would later find out, someone had witnessed as one of the older nuns, in a fit of rage, strike the young girl and knock her to the floor.  Then she kicked her in the neck, snapping it right there on the spot. The girl  died later that night in her bed. They tried to blame it on Tuberculosis.  She was seven years old.  She was just a little girl.

She was just a little girl.

My mother tells me she can still see her little face.  She was so beautiful.  Her name was Celine. Celine Cuthand. She said she would never forget that name or that face as long as she lived.

She tells me that the priest at the school did not even tell the parents their little girl was dead until the end of the school year.

I am stunned as I listen to her story. And on one level, it hurts so deeply to have to listen to this, and I want to get up and go somewhere where I cannot hear.  I want to scream and cover my ears with my hands. But some bigger force makes me stay in my seat.   

My mother tells me how everything changed that day.  My father was never the same again.  Nor were the other two.

Through her tears, she tells me how my father began to close down more and more after the experience.  She tells me how he went through a bout of drinking for many years before they were married and before I was born.  And how now he escapes to his cabin on trap line every chance he gets just to get away from dealing with the memory of these things.  And these days it seems he is doing that more and more.  That’s why they argue.

She says everyone has their way of dealing with things.  My Uncle Walter, she says, needs to not feel the pain of those days, so he drinks.  And Raymond, who she tells me was one of the nicest young men in school, has been suppressing all of this pain for so long.

“Raymond has had no way of dealing with things other than to pass them on.  To continue the cycle.  And that’s what he did to Whiskeyjack”, she says. That poor little guy…”, she begins to cry again.

“And me”, she says, “I don’t even know how to touch my own kid. I treat you like I am your housekeeper more than I am your mother.  It’s like I was never given any instructions in that school how to be a girl, or how to prepare to be a woman or to be a wife or to have kids.  We just worked and prayed”, she says, “Every day.  All day long. That’s all we did.

“But we were just kids wanting to be kids. And those three boys were just young boys.  They should not have been forced to do what they did. To witness things like that at such a young age…”

The kettle begins to whistle.  She gets up and unplugs it on the stove top and pours hot water into the teapot.  Then she stops and takes off her apron. She tosses it angrily on to the counter behind her.

Her face changes from sorrow to anger.  “We all sit here and watch things go wrong. And we do nothing because we are afraid. Afraid of what it might mean.  Afraid that we might be called crazy.  Afraid that we might offend God.  Afraid that…that we might hurt the ones we love with the truth of our experience. And worst of all, afraid that the truth might hurt us beyond repair.

“But, no more”, she says.  “No more. We are not going to do things this way anymore. This has gone way too far. It all ends here. Now.

“Tomorrow morning, you are going to drive me out to your father’s cabin and leave me there.  Just drive away.  And he and I are going to talk.  God dammit, I don’t care how long it takes, or how bad it gets, we are going to talk. And we are going to come home when I am god damn good and ready.”

There is a long silence as she begins to pour tea into cups.  I now know the next while is going to be very difficult.  We have gone beyond a certain point and we can never go back again. But I also have to believe it will begin to get better at some point.  And I do. Because today, I have discovered that fourth place in my life for hope.  And it is what my mother is now offering to me.  I must take it and go with it.

She dries her eyes once more, and picks up the two cups of tea, crosses the kitchen and places them on the table. As she turns to get the teapot, she suddenly stops and slowly turns her head to look out the window. And she raises her hands to cover her mouth and starts to cry again.  I can see her shoulders shaking from behind. I get up and go to her. Before I can embrace her, she puts a hand on my chest and slowly points to the window behind me.

She whispers excitedly, “He’s here, Em! Look! He’s here!”  I turn slowly.

And there he is.  One small, lone Whiskeyjack sits on the outside windowsill. The little gray bird just huddles there in the cold, his eyes wide, mesmerized by the fresh bannock inside the window. Now and then he pecks at the glass and looks up at us.  And when he does, the feathers on the back of his tiny head stand up – just like a Mohawk.

Big, fat snowflakes spiral in all around him.

————————————-

Signed,

Emile Catches Lightning

Written January 30th, 1978

Sealed on June 21st, 1978

at Alexander Mackenzie Secondary School

Hay River, Northwest Territories

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Categories: Uncategorized

Taloyoak

This is typical of life in northern Canada. I was filming a documentary in 2005 in Taloyoak, Nunavut. It was November, cold and windy. I went to the local Northern Store to pick up a couple of extra pairs of warm socks.

I walked the short distance back to my hotel, recording scenes with my video camera as I went – dogs sitting on their houses, ravens trying to steal dog food. I got to the hotel and while I was going to my room, I heard the radio in the kitchen blaring local announcements. I stopped and listened.

The announcer was trying to get ahold of the parents of two kids who were playing on a frozen pond. He could see the kids from the radio studio and was concerned the ice might still be a little thin. I thought this was so typical of northern life and perhaps a recording of this program might add to the the documentary I was working on.

So, I took my video camera from around my neck, pointed the mic at the radio and began to record the announcements. The announcer continued on about dogs on the loose and the RCMP’s safety concerns about small kids driving quads and snowmobiles. Then he said, “And finally, a pair of men’s woolen socks has been found in front of the Northern Store. You can pick them up here at the station CBIQ-FM.”

I looked in my shopping bag and sure enough, a pair of my socks were missing.

Ah, the North. ♥

Categories: Uncategorized

How the Universe was Told into Existence

Before the First Beginning, 
Before Beginning itself, 
They could be found

One, Two, Three Dimensions
Each a Single Point
Frozen in Space 

The Third sitting to the right of the Second
Who sat to the right of the First

With no idea of From Where it was They had Come
Or Where They were Now
Where They were Going
Or Where They wanted to Be

The Three Dimensions just sat and waited 
In that cold Cubed Space

In that three-quarter Circle

And They did not know why
They were There 
Or for Whom or What it was They were waiting
If indeed They were

But 
They Waited
And Waited
And Waited

And while They Waited 
They tried to Tell their Stories 
to Each Other

First One 
Then Two 
Then Three

But no Matter how hard They tried
The Sounds would not come 
The Stories just could not be Told
So not a —- was Spoken 

They sat there, gawking at Each Other 
Like simple fools, caught with Their Mouths open, 
Tongueless, Wordless, Storyless

And there They would Stay 
These Three Tongueless Tellers of Tales
Perched upon this – the First Ever Point Before Tipping
Unable to Understand why Their Stories 
Would not
Could not 
Be Told

And there They would Stay
Until the Arrival of 
The One Who would Complete the Circle

The One called Time
The Fourth Dimension 
The One Who had Come to Listen
The Audience

And at that tiny Point in Time
At the Very Beginning of Beginning Itself
The GREAT CIRCLE was Complete

And All the Things that Were Part of that GREAT CIRCLE:

All Things Unique, Equal, Connected and One
All Forces Strong Nuclear, Weak Nuclear, Electromagnetic and Gravitational
All Directions East, South, West and North
All Elements Air, Fire, Water and Earth
All Life Cytosine, Guanine, Adenine, Thymine
All Human Emotion, Body, Mind and Spirit
All Cultures White, Black, Yellow and Red
All Stories Heard, Understood, Remembered, and reTold

And All Things That We Know… 
Were Told Into Existence!

And O, how 
That First Warm Breath 
That First Spoken Word
That First Coyote Howl 
That First Story…

…would come with a BANG!”

-FFL, 2003

Categories: Uncategorized

Butterflies

Merlyn Carter, Northern Bush Pilot. Photo, Dean Carter.

Born and raised in northern Canada, I felt a great deal of excitement last week upon reading that the Hay River (Northwest Territories) Airport has been renamed Merlyn Carter Airport. It was Merlyn (1934-2005), of Carter Air Services, a small float plane company in my hometown. who inspired my love of flying as well as an almost two-decade aviation career in the north.  This is our story.

———————–

I come from a commercial fishing family on Great Slave Lake and grew up watching Merlyn fly his float planes into the Moraine Point fishing station to drop off mail, groceries and people. Then he was off again with another passenger or a load of fish.  I always wondered at the freedom one must feel when they are up there away from everything down here. I was a quiet, shy kid and always longed for something like that.

My first time flying was with Merlyn when I was a young boy in the late sixties. Early one summer, a few members of my family and I flew out to Moraine Point for the summer.  I felt butterflies in my stomach sitting in the co-pilot seat during that flight and inhaling all the freedom, joy and wonder of flight. It was unforgettable seeing my beloved Great Slave Lake from way up high for the first time. But I had no idea how small my world at that time would become later.

It was on one of those flights home from Moraine Point in a Cessna 185 float plane when I was probably 9 or 10 years old that I fell in love with flying.  With Merlyn in control, and the back seat filled with boxes of fish, and me once again with butterflies in my stomach, we had just taken off from Moraine Point and leveled off at a couple thousand feet. When he had trimmed the controls so it required no hands, he took one of his headphones off, looked at me, smiled and shouted, “You wanna fly?”

Fire Tower Construction, 1980, north of Fort Providence, NT

Hooking a lanyard from the cupola to the belly of a helicopter before slinging it to the top of the fire tower.

When I turned 18, I became a helitack firefighter with forestry, based in Hay River. I learned how to fight fire with helicopters and airplanes. I remember getting those butterflies in my stomach again on my first helicopter flight. I was quite young and the older pilots took me under their wing, so to speak, and when no one was looking, they taught me how to fly helicopters. Four years later, I became an Air Attack Officer – the person in charge of directing air attack (water bombers and helicopters) on forest fires. Again, the pilots there taught me how to fly airplanes.  At 22, I was supervising pilots who were sometimes two and three times my age. But they knew I was eager to learn everything about flying so they were easy on me.

As part of the national air attack fleet, we would work from Ontario to Vancouver Island to the Arctic coast and from the US to Mexico. We fought fires high in the Rockies in British Columbia, on the tundra north of Inuvik, near the pyramids on the Yucatan Peninsula and even protected a radio tower from burning near downtown Acapulco. We fought to protect communities from fire all over this country. We fought to contain the spread of lightning-caused fires, tractor trailer fires, sawmill fires, house and cabin fires and campfires. We participated in air search and rescue and downed aircraft operations. And in all of my career, through the hundreds of flight operations we performed, I am happy to say that no one under my supervision has ever lost a life. At the end of the day, I can take that home with me.

And although I never became an actual pilot (I was always proud to be a forest firefighter who specialized in air attack), I have always loved flying in all of its various forms, challenges, environments and theaters. It was and is an exciting job for a younger person who wants to push the envelope of their physical, psychological and mental capabilities. It can build character at an amazing rate. But as I got older and the learning curve began  to drop off, I left the job and went into the fledgling computer multimedia design business. I am now involved in writing and filmmaking.

I still have a great deal of respect and admiration for those men and women who continue to fight fire from the air. Everyone should – no matter where you come

Supervising the 450th Squadron, Inuvik, NT, 1987

from. It can be very difficult and quite dangerous at times, probably a lot like bush flying in Merlyn’s day. But flying has also been such a big part of my personal growth. It has done wonders for my character, self-esteem and -confidence and has taught me how to assert myself and how to calculate risk when I am about to do something significant. It has taught me how to overcome loss and fear in their many forms. And it has provided me a sense of freedom, friendship and camaraderie that cannot be found anywhere else on earth. In fact, it is because flight is only accomplished in defiance of anything earthly that these relationships are forged in a special way. After many years, I think I finally know about what it is like to be up there away from everything down here. Few people in life get to be so fortunate and for that, I am thankful.

When I think about it now, I could have shook my head and said, “No, thanks!” to Merlyn back then. As I said, I was a small, shy, introverted kid at the time. But I think he may have sensed something else in me. Maybe he recognized that awe and wonder in those young eyes as his own. Or maybe a long time ago, someone else, someone much older had said to him, “You wanna fly?”

Directing Air Attack Operations from the bird dog airplane.

At any rate, sometime in the early 90s, in the waning years of my forestry career, we were on a long flight back to Hay River from Inuvik in the bird dog airplane. There was a shy, young aircraft dispatcher in the back seat who was along for the ride. No one said anything for the first half of the flight. Then, for some inexplicable reason, I turned her and said, “You wanna fly?”

After a fair bit of apprehension on her part, my pilot and I were finally able to convince her to switch seats with me.  Now, I can’t say we had anything to do with it, but shortly thereafter, I’d heard she became a commercial pilot in the north. These days, she is a First Officer on Air Canada’s Airbus 320 series. I am very proud of this brilliant young woman as I hope Merlyn would be of me. I would be honoured to know that she was in the Captain’s seat of any airplane I was on board.

So, thank you, Merlyn, for trusting a very young aboriginal kid to take control of something so much larger than himself and at a time when kids feel they have control of nothing in their lives. I can promise you that it has made all the difference these many years later. Because every now and then, I will turn to the smallest, youngest, shyest of my high school film students on the set and say, “You wanna direct?”

I hope they get butterflies in their stomach when they hear those words.

———————–

“Fearless” Frederick Lepine
(formerly Birddog 117, 450th Squadron)
Flying Colors Design
Vancouver Island

Last Flight

Ted Smith Aerostar bird dog. (Photo by BC AAO Ben Moerkoert)

Through the control column, I could almost feel the chill in the September boreal air as it whipped through the wings and over the fuselage of our small, twin-engined bird dog airplane. We had just crossed high over the Athabasca River in northeastern Alberta en route to Hay River in the Northwest Territories. It was 1991 and we had just finished a stint in northern Ontario. With two of our water bombers far behind in tow, we were finally going home after a long and difficult forest fire fighting season. All of my crew of seven were mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted.

I knew this was going to be the last flight of the season and began to recall the events of this past summer – the places we had been, the people we had met and worked with and the fires we had all fought together. It would all be put together in a final year end report when I was back in my office. Until then, I was going to enjoy this last flight.

I was not a licensed pilot but I did know how to fly. I was an Air Attack Officer – the forestry supervisor of contract helicopter and water bomber pilots.  I did receive flight training from the pilots I worked with and had flown many types of helicopters and airplanes over the years when I was given the opportunity. My actual training was in directing aircraft in forest fire attack and over the last fifteen years, that was what I had done.  I was fully-trained in forest fire behavior and firefighting attack strategy as well as aircraft flight characteristics, capabilities and limitations. This was all done from the right seat of my bird dog airplane. In the left seat was my bird dog pilot.

Keeping aircraft from bumping into one another over a forest fire while trying to drop water and fire retardant and not hurting any ground firefighters in the process can be extremely mentally and physically challenging even at the best of times. It can takes years and hundreds of thousands of training dollars before your trainer would allow you to solo as an Air Attack Officer. It is just that complex and difficult a job.

There are inherent dangers and risks in fighting forest fires and those increase exponentially when you add aircraft to the mix. But it all comes down to taking calculated risks. Since 1971, when several firefighting staff had been killed in various aircraft accidents in the north, the rules of engagement began to be defined in a way that saw the casualty rate begin to diminish to the point where it was now rare to experience an aircraft accident. But they did happen. Over the years, I have lost a number of friends and co-workers to these risks. You were always fighting the odds of something going wrong.

The Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for fighting fire were refined in the late 70s and 80s and were becoming standardized not only in Canada but in the United States as well. As a result, we could now easily share aircraft and personnel between the provinces and states as needed. So, although we were based in the north and worked for the territorial government, we could expect to work in other provinces, like Ontario, where we had been for the past two weeks.

I looked over at my pilot who was sleeping in the left seat. Al and I had worked together as a good team this summer. We had had each other’s backs and he was a good bird dog pilot. He could maneuver the airplane into position over the fire so that I could have the best view of any part of the operation. At times, we could get into trouble facing challenges such as flying near high flames and through heavy smoke, near power lines, in descending air, over steep terrain, around other aircraft and obstacles like birds and tall tree snags that seem to pop up out of nowhere. But Al was always a step ahead of the game with a backup plan. And a backup plan for his backup plan. He was a good pilot who reduced the odds of something going wrong.

This trip from Dryden, Ontario, to Hay River was long, dreary and monotonous . Along the way, through Manitoba and Saskatchewan, I had slept off part of my exhaustion. So, Al was now taking his turn. He had only asked me to take over flying while he had a ten minute snooze. But it was already past a half hour since he folded his arms and turned his lights out. I knew he needed the sleep so I didn’t wake him.

We were now crossing the south shore of Lake Athabasca at two hundred knots and at an altitude of four thousand feet above ground.  I could see numerous flocks of Canada Geese, Mallards, Black Ducks and Trumpeter Swans pass far below us, all heading south for the winter. They would stop to rest and feed at Lake Athabasca after passing through Great Slave Lake. Most of these birds flew at lower levels so there was little danger in hitting a bird with the airplane. But we did have to keep a watch for Grey and Snow Geese which flew at much higher altitudes and sometimes in flocks of hundreds and even thousands. They were the last to come out of the north because they summered in the high Arctic islands. The odds of running into a flock of geese at this altitude at this time of the year was extremely high so I was very wary.

This was also the flight path of the extremely rare and endangered Whooping Crane which nests in marshes on the Alberta/Northwest Territories border and winters in Texas. There were less than 15 of these birds left on the planet in the 1940s and now, through careful protection, preservation and nurturing, that number had slowly grown to almost 140. So rare are these birds, in fact, that very few human beings have ever seen them in their nesting grounds.  “Whoopers” are the tallest of all birds in North America. An adult male stands at 1.5 meters and weighs as much as 7.5 kilograms. It has a wingspan up to 2.5 meters. These cranes fly at about 45 kilometers per hour.

Their habitat in the north is so well-protected that I’d never even met anyone who has seen a Whooping Crane. I had only heard stories. So, seeing one in my regular work day was obviously impossible.

We had had a “bird strike” earlier that summer while fighting a fire south of Hay River. As  the airplane was in a sharp turn and I was describing our run on the radio to the water bomber pilot overhead, a Peregrine Falcon had strayed into our path and we took it on the windshield. It was such a loud bang for such a small bird but we were doing around a hundred and twenty knots just above the trees and the entire airplane shook wildly. The bird left its entrails and we now had the problem of not being able to see where we were going. We had to request a replacement bird dog team while we went back home to scrub down the airplane. But I will never forget the huge impact of that little bird on my airplane.

Bird strikes account for a number of aircraft crashes and deaths every year when aircraft are flying close to the ground, especially during take offs and landings. The closer you are to the ground the higher the risk of an accident.  When you are higher up, you have more time to react to an inflight emergency. That’s one of the reasons why, on long trips like this, we fly at a higher altitude.

Crossing over Lake Athabasca, I leaned forward and changed the radio frequencies to hear if anyone else was flying in the area. All was quiet on the Athabasca front. I had just turned to check up on my sleeping pilot when something caught my eye on the horizon ahead. It was difficult to see because it was directly on the horizon and it was not moving. My flight training immediately told me that if you see an unmoving object anywhere in your field of vision, you are likely on a collision course with that object. I kept my eye on that object until I could determine that it  not another aircraft.

It was a bird. It was a huge bird and it was heading directly at us!  I immediately pulled the airplane up and to the right slowly and steadily so as not to wake up my pilot.

The bird, too, rolled sharply to its right and swerved down at the last moment it saw us. It was a close call. Then, as it passed under the left wing, I saw the red crown on its forehead and the black wing tips. It was a Whooping Crane! My heart began to dance wildly because I was now one of that small group of humans who has ever seen one of these magnificent birds in its nesting ground.

I looked down again at my pilot who was now snoring heavily into his microphone. A cold wave of reality washed over me as I began to wonder: After all that we had gone through this past summer, what are the odds of getting killed in your sleep by a Whooping Crane during the last flight of the season?

—————————————–
November 2011, Cairnsmore.