Wednesday, August 16, 2006

I have a flight tomorrow to Cochrane, Ontario. I thought I was free from the north, but no such luck ;) We are going there because our company owns a facility in the area and the bosses want to take a look. The parent company I work for owns nearly 90 facilities all across Canada and the US, so that's the main reason for having our aircraft. Well, that and taking the bosses on vacation. I should read up on my uncontrolled airspace procedures as I really don't deal with that very much any more. I have been into Cochrane, it's not a bad little strip, but it is a little bit 'rustic'. Once we land I'll have to get myself and the other pilot a couple of hotel rooms as we'll be there for 8 hours and the last time I went into Cochrane, the terminal had a payphone, a couple of chairs and that was it. I would rather not spend the day huddled in the airplane, venturing out to pee on a nearby tree, and I figure a couple of hotel rooms is a smart part of the total cost of the trip. I hope the hotel restaurant is good :)

Speaking of food, let's go back to 1997 when I worked in Stony Rapids and flew the Navajo and B-55 Baron. Life was cheap, but food was expensive and I was paid nearly nothing. 2l of milk was like $6, and a small box of granola bars was the same. We had an arrangement with Air Sask (now part of Transwest Air) that if they had spare room on their daily scheduled flights from La Ronge, we could put our groceries in the hold and get them shipped from La Ronge, where the prices were a little lower, to Stony Rapids. However that hardly ever worked without a hitch - usually our food would get bumped for paying cargo, and when it arrived a few days late, the green stuff would be brown and the brown stuff would be green, etc. Lots of pilots would load up the airplanes with fast food if they had a trip returning north from 'down south', and there was a black-market economy in Stony for Kentucky Fried Chicken ($5/piece) and McDonalds ($5 for a basic burger) and Pizza Hut Pizzas ($25-50 for a pizza) but again I made almost no money, so that sort of stuff was beyond my reach most of the time. I didn't like being hungry much, so along with most of the other pilots, I learned how to supplement my diet with the pentiful (and delicious) fish caught from the local rivers, from Northern Pike to Pickerel to Arctic Greyling to Lake Trout to just about anything I could catch that had gills. The fishing there was truly amazing, and it was unusual if you didn't catcha fish with every single cast of the rod. I'm not kidding. A local electrician named Dean (we called him Sparky), taught me to fillet a northern pike in 2 easy steps so it was boneless and skinless, and I ate fish with just about every meal. One of our fellow pilots built a smoker out of an old refrigerator and when the trout ran in the fall, we'd put the fillets in the fridge and build a fire nearby, funneling the smoke into the fridge using some old furnace ducting. Smoked lake trout is a little chunk of heaven, and I'm guessing a single taste would turn the most hard-core PETA activist into a drooling, fanged carnivore.

We had a routine that after 5pm most of the pilots would go down to the waterbase in Stony Rapids where the Beavers, 185's, Otters etc were based, we'd take a company aluminum-hulled boat and putt out a few hundred yards to catch our suppers. That sounds idyllic, right? That's cause I haven't mentioned the bugs yet. I had never seen blackflies until I moved to Stony Rapids, and after the first summer I had a deep respect for their ferocity. You can't actually feel them bite you, I think they inject anaesthetic, but they take a big bite and you will actually see blood run down your face after a bite. They also head straight for your eyes and nose and ears, adding to the fun 'cause they would happily crawl directly into your brain and suck out the contents if you let them. Most insect repellents were completely ineffective, and they basically only served as a marinade.

Here's a guy after only a few bites. Keep in mind there are literally millions of blackflies per square km of space in the north.

Enter the bug jacket:

Wtf is a bug jacket? Well, it's a light shirt that has a fitted elastic waist, elastic cuffs and a mesh shroud over the entire head of the wearer. It also has mesh under your arms (for ventilation in summer). It's a lifesaver cause it prevents you from losing all your blood to the little beasties that would gladly suck you competely dry in a few minutes. To go with the jacket you'd usually want a pair of good gloves, for complete protection.

So we'd get on our bug jackets and go fishing. Now here's the freaky part: If we didn't catch a decent, sizeable fish within the first few minutes we'd generally come back to shore and go inside. Because the sheer amount of blackflies that landed on us while we were fishing would make us look like we were covered in mud, and the sound of their buzzing, even though we were protected, would eventually freak us out. After a few minutes of sitting in the boat, we'd have maybe a pound or so of blackflies on each of us, with each one weighing a fraction of a gram. Fortunately the first frost of the year would kill them all, and the first frost came early up north, but it was still an adventure every time we went out of doors. I can't imagine how the original inhabitants survived before the wonder of nylon mesh.

Anyway, it wasn't long before we were all quite sick of fish, and were constantly scheming ways to add new and tasty things to our diet. Caribou were very delicious, and if we flew the locals on caribou hunts they would usually give us a big chunk of meat, but that was only in spring and fall. So we focused on the way we could eat like rich people: the uranium mines. Most of the northern economy in Saskatchewan was/is uranium mines, and the company I worked for, Northern Dene Airways, had the contracts for most of the mines. They employed a lot of local workers, so a few times a week we would fire up the navajos and bring workers in and our for their 7 day rotations. It was a sweet setup for us - we'd bring the workers there in the mornings, stay a few hours, and bring the returning workers home in the afternoons. That meant we got to stay at the mines for lunch, and they were legend for the quality of food they presented us. Cigar Lake was my personal favorite, but MacArthur River and Cluff Lake were also fantastic. Sometimes we would even starve ourselves the night before so we could fit more in our bellies at the mines. They had chicken, roast beef, pork chops, lasagna, ice cream, chocolate milk - FROM A DISPENSER!, salad where the lettuce was the right color, potatoes, steak, carrots, fresh bread, cookies, cake, and more. I remember the first trip I did, sitting in the Cigar Lake cafeteria, 250 miles north of any road, and eating black forest cake after my meal of roast ham. I think I may have wept with joy just a little bit.

I'm not ashamed to say that I would bring a clear ziplock bag along with me and put some of the goodies in my pocket, for snacking on later that night. Before we left the mines we would also ask for a boxed lunch, which had great sandwiches, fresh fruit, veggies and dessert. That meant that a single trip to the mine would feed us for that day and most of the next day, and we fought viciously for the mine run trips. After a while at Northern Dene Airways I was put in charge of the scheduling, and the other pilots routinely tried to bribe/threaten me to get the mine trips, even though we were all on mileage and some of the trips down south would pay more, just for the opportunity to eat like normal people did.

More about actual flying coming up...

Click on the pic to make it bigger. We did regular runs from all the northern communities to all the mines in this map.

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