Pen and paper at hand, to try to write something and post it here before the end of the month, I draw a blank.
Oh, there is plenty I could take up with. Look out the window or go for a walk, pick a topic, run with it for a few paragraphs, try to say something insightful or witty or profound, or aim to combine all three, and why not? A big bull muskox with a horn on only one side, the other one busted right off to a bloody stump, was four feet from the front deck of our guest cabin last evening. The lake trout are up in the shallows again, like tarpon down in the Florida Keys. I thought about writing a riff about mosquitoes as the salvation of solitude and wilderness in the far north. The landscape and our life here offer and offer, but sometimes there is the voice of Annie Dillard, in her book The Writing Life, whispering over my shoulder, “Why not shoot yourself, actually, rather than finish one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world?”
Don’t worry, friends, there won’t be any shooting here.
The water is high here. Record-setting high. Out in front of the homestead, “Windmill Island” is a small knob of smooth granite bulging up from our otherwise sandy shoreline. On it stands the yellow steel mast of our wind generator, guyed off by cables and rock-bolts. But Windmill Island is kind of a joke, too, because it has not truly been an island for over twenty years now. A broad isthmus of sand, festooned with tall beach grass, has allowed easy access to the “island” on foot, dry except during easterly gales when the swells pound in. Now, within the past two weeks, Windmill Island has regained its title. From my solitary perch here on the deck of our guest cabin (where I am currently sequestered each night at a slight remove from my wife and house – more on that in a moment), it looks like we could paddle a canoe or row the skiff right through that barricade of beach grass and on over to the water west of the island.
The ice is still lying close to shore and it stretches away for miles in a vast white plain. The air above it shimmers in the warmth of the morning sun, and the ice surface is mottled more and more each day with dark leads and open holes, but that ice will be a part of our lives for some days yet, maybe a week or more. Our two planes are now on floats and ready for the brief summer season, and they are heeled up side-by-side down at the river mouth. The current there will keep them clear of shifting floes on the lake. Some past Junes we have been locked in here by floating ice for long strings of calm sunny days, waiting for a north wind to puff up and open the front gate.
The high water here in Great Slave Lake, they say (that convenient catch-all pronoun and vague but unspecified authority, “they”), is the result of a springtime surge of snowmelt water rushing down all of the biggest rivers that flow into the lake. Biggest by far being the Slave, which accounts for something like 70 percent of the water feeding the lake basin. The Slave is a big but a very short river, because its waters keep changing their name. It is the merger of the Peace and the Athabasca, rivers both big and better-known, that spring from sources high up along the backbone of the northern Rockies. Confounding the river-naming confusion is the fact that the Slave flows into Great Slave Lake but does not flow out under the same name. The Mackenzie River leaves the lake from the southwest side and flows from there 600-some miles “down north” to the Arctic Ocean. (And, by the way, these names have nothing to do with slavery, but with the Slavey indigenous peoples at home all along the watershed.)
Set my ramblings aside (right now, go ahead), even if you live up here and think you have a good sense of this stuff, and find yourself a depiction of the entire watershed of the Mackenzie River, all the way upstream to the Peace, the Athabasca, and the Liard – not to mention dozens of smaller but still very big rivers like the Taltson, the Lockhart, the Nahanni, the Prophet, the Hay, the Clearwater, and on and on. It is Canada’s largest watershed, and second on the continent only to the Mississippi – Missouri.
Welcome back. The high water is real, but it is a handy metaphor too. As summer starts and the lake laps up onto stretches of beach and rock that it has not wetted in a quarter of a century, swelled by invisible forces far beyond the horizon, so too the far north, or at least its busy two-legged populace, is staggering and shifting under the high and still rising effects of a tiny germ from half a world away. A not very subtle reminder that nowadays there is no “away.”
The ripple effect is grim, and strange, and downright daunting. In the far North the virus itself is still just talk on the news, with not a single active case of this bug in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, or Yukon, but its effects are busy wreaking a different form of havoc on lives and livelihoods. Like the water rising right here, fed by snow melting almost a thousand miles away, this unseen force is right on my desk, staring me in the face. The booking-sheet calendar of our little flying business is usually, at this season, a hodge-podge of notes and names and dates and times: geologists, film crews, sampling jobs, canoe-trippers, visitors, fishing lodges, and survey flights. Today its sheets are almost completely blank and white, right through July, August, September, and beyond. Scary white, to be honest.
Dismal prospects, for a mom-and-pop flying business, because this scenario is not survivable over any sort of long haul. No amount of government largesse or no-interest loans can sustain an aviation industry for which people have decided there is no longer a need, or a desire, or the accustomed combination of both. As a pilot friend of mine said, “Pilots just got real cheap.” Our insurance man in Vancouver made another observation, and I paid attention to it because he is in the business of brokering coverage for airlines of every size and scope. He knows the aviation business from the inside. His prediction was that when, sometime, maybe, the airlines rise up and dust themselves off from this disaster and take a look at their books, we will see airline ticket prices about two to two-and-a-half times what they were way back when – long ago, like in January of this year. And he predicts that the low-cost flyers will be gone completely. The party, strange and misguided as it was, may be over.
It is a re-set, any way you cut it. And, they say (there “they” are again), what comes after all of this will be different from what went before. Kristen and I are in our early sixties, born 1957 and ’58. You can dial back through all those decades, as we did the other night over dinner, and there is nothing we have seen in our lives that comes close to these past three months. You have to go back farther, to our parents’ and grandparents’ time, to find analogues, in a world completely at war, or the sudden onset of the “great” depression. Taking that long view and perspective, I am not looking for pity, trust me on that. I find that I am mostly just fascinated, a little morbidly maybe, by the whole thing. The lessons and fallout and — yes — the far and wide benefits that might be ahead for humanity, and for the rest of the planet and the critters we share it with. A friend from Wisconsin wrote to me and said “I just hope I live through this, because I am so completely intrigued by how it will all play out.” Yep.
Today I am sitting alone, in sunshine, ruminating over this spiky fleck of germ and genetic code that has tapped humanity on the shoulder and whispered, “Oh, you think so? Well, stand back and watch this.”
As usual, as winter becomes summer, I have been down to our maintenance base at Fort Nelson B.C. in two back-to-back trips of a thousand miles each, starting on June fifteenth with a final takeoff from the lake ice here with one plane, and again on the twenty-first from the little patch of sand up the hill. It was an eye-opener for me to be Outside, as northerners sometimes call the world beyond their borders, because even by the time I got to Hay River and overnighted there on the first trip, waiting on weather, I could tell that something “out there” was very, very different. Up until then, and even on treks into Yellowknife over the spring, this had all been just news on the radio, really. We in the north were in a bubble, and we at the Hoarfrost River were in a bubble inside of a bubble.
In fact I had at first considered trying to come and go on those necessary trips out of the Territories without telling a soul in officialdom. The territorial borders remain closed, but I figured a couple of single-engine planes could come and go from the middle of nowhere, and that no one needed to be the wiser. The notion kind of appealed to me, to be honest. Luckily I had a little wake-up call back in late May, thanks to a friend who is an air traffic controller in the tower at Yellowknife. As I was taxiing in for fuel in the midst of a work flight, he asked – right on the radio – “So Dave, how are you gonna work those trips to Fort Nelson this spring for inspections and changeover?” I mumbled something about flight-crew exemptions, but a light bulb came on in my brain: there are never any secrets in the close-knit, far-flung community of northern aviation. As the saying goes: telephone, telegraph, tell-a-pilot. Sneaking down and back, 500 miles from Hoarfrost River to Ft. Nelson, twice in two weeks, was not an option.
Long story short, I went to the public health people, stated my case, got a file number and am now at home with both planes inspected and changed over to floats. I am sleeping separately from my dear wife and sorta kinda trying to go through some semblance of “self-isolation.” It’s weird, to tell the truth, and my effort is a little lame.
Because why? Because the northern territories of Canada are all doing their best to dodge this thing physically, although we will not dodge it economically, and I understand that. This virus, landing and spreading in a remote fly-in community with a half-dozen beds in the nursing station and no hospital, repeated three or four dozen times across the Arctic and sub-arctic, could be tragic. And I have been down to Fort Nelson, right on the Alaska Highway, which is still surprisingly busy as a corridor for overland travel by people from all over the U.S. People with permission to move themselves across Canada in a certain number of days, to reach their work or home in Alaska or the lower 48. And who knows where they have been, or who they have been with, or what their habits and health are.
Strange times. High water and hand sanitizer. A person cannot make such a story up. Maybe the lake will keep rising, maybe it will begin to ebb in mid-July. On several levels we are all waiting for whatever is next. Wondering whether in a few years we could possibly be back to “business as usual.” I have my doubts.
Only one thing is certain to me here this morning, and that is this: anyone who cannot relish some uncertainty in life, at least for a while, at least just a little, is not going to have a pleasant summer.