Wildlife Survey Work, in the Season of Twilight

Morning, Hay River.  Dark and windy.  A week until the earliest sunset of the year, fourteen days to the Winter Solstice, and a little over three weeks until the days truly begin to expand at both ends.  This is my 25th autumn at this latitude (we missed one when we wintered down at boatbuilding school in 2000-2001.)  The darkness at this season is less oppressive than it was many years ago, in the old shack at the Hoarfrost, with its hissing gas lantern and finicky kerosene Aladdins.  These days at home we enjoy the moonlight blue of LED’s, a wonder at only a few watts each, and the old standby propane mantles help warm the tone of the lighting. 

Here in Hay River where I am posted with the Bush Hawk on a 50-hour moose survey, there is electric lighting and plenty of it.   Bulbs and switches take the sting of long darkness away, until the moment at the start of each working day when I put on my headlamp and stride across the dark apron of the airport terminal, to the Bush Hawk parked out on the edge in the blackness.  I slip a hand under the thick insulation of the engine covers, and reassure myself that it is indeed warm in there.  Then I begin an hour or so of intermittent work.  First I plug in the cabin and cockpit heaters, so that the gyros and instruments can warm up.  I don’t leave those plugged in overnight simply because I don’t trust them.  The wing covers come off, the fuselage is swept, the tires and skis are scrutinized in the beam of my headlamp.  I go back into the warm terminal, now beginning to fill up with waiting passengers for the various scheduled departures on the airlines.  I phone Arctic Radio in North Bay Ontario and file a flight note for the day. 

I go out again, sweltering after fifteen minutes indoors wearing my thick clothes.  The frigid breeze is a stimulant and — lo and behold — there is some light in the southeastern sky.  I uncover the engine completely, check the oil sump with the dipstick, and climb into the cockpit.  Startup goes smoothly, and I warm the engine for about five minutes.  Shut down again, cover the engine again, leave the cabin heaters running inside the cockpit. 

Nearly light now.  The headlamp is stowed in my breast pocket.  I go inside and meet the survey crew — Sonny from Hay River, George from Kakisa, Karl from Fort Smith.  We look at the map and talk about the plan for the day.  We file out to the plane, stow all the covers and heaters, and taxi out.  For a few hours, wedged between dawn and dusk, we fly low and slow over the scrubby bog and forest west of Hay River, and south of the Mackenzie River.  We see some moose, and a few boreal caribou.  Mostly we see snow and trees and a very few outcrops of rock.  The day begins to wane.  It is becoming dusky again, and by the time we turn final for our landing the runway lights are blazing brightly.  It is not quite legally “dark” but it is getting closer by the minute.

Taxi to the fuel pump.  The crew jumps out and people groan and stretch a little.  They flee to the terminal and the truck.  “9 o’clock again tomorrow?”  Karl delivers them back to town, and in an hour or so, when I have finished fueling the plane and putting it to bed for the night, I call him for a ride.  In only sixteen hours it will start to get light again. 

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