Sunday, April 24, 2011

An Arctic Too Far?

Amid all the controversy about the new Nutrition North food subsidy in relation to the old Food Mail program, it’s interesting to speculate on the continuing rise in the price of all commodities, and the negative impact that those rising prices are having on Canada and, particularly, on the viability of the Canadian Arctic.

In 1970 (I’m showing my age by remembering this) a snowmobile at the Hudson’s Bay Company would set you back about $800. Today, a basic snowmobile (admittedly better than the 70’s version) will cost about $8,000, freight in, landed in Kugluktuk. The same for cars and trucks – you could buy a very nice muscle-car in 1970 for about $4,000, now it will cost you forty. While I don’t recall the prices of other essential goods in 1970, I’m guessing that a gallon of diesel fuel or a pound of margarine would follow the same trend when converted to litres and kilograms today.

I do recall my wages in 1970 though. As a junior radio operator with the Department of Transport I was earning about $23,000 - very good money for the day. A similar starting position with the government in 2011 will pay about three times that amount.

So, as my very non-academic study shows, wages have risen three times in forty years while the cost of living has risen by a factor of ten. Net result – people are far worse off today than they were forty years ago. If the trend continues, as I expect it will, the northern reaches of Canada may, in the next couple of decades, become unsustainable. It will simply cost the government too much money to maintain the services that people have come to expect and the majority of residents will be reduced to a level of poverty, already among the worst in Canada, similar to the poorest nations on earth.

What then? A mass evacuation of Nunavut? Probably not. Economic realities will, and are, driving people from Nunavut already. The adventure-seeking young people who want a challenge and a new perspective on Canada are being discouraged from coming north by the high cost of living, including high rents for government-owned housing units. The educated Inuit, relatively few in number, now have the skills that will allow them to live in southern Canada and escape the sky-high crime rate and poor educational prospects for their children.

The north could become the world’s largest ghetto, populated by un-educated people, with welfare their only option, and getting poorer every year.

Long gone are the days when a single person could come north and either enjoy a life-long standard of living well beyond what could be expected in the south or, in two or three years, leave the north with enough dough in the pocket to pay cash for a suburban home in the Scarborough wilderness. Nowadays, one had better come north with a mate who is also guaranteed of a full-time job, and even then the situation is not as attractive as it was to a 1970’s-vintage single person.

What would be the implications for Canadian sovereignty if there were nothing but a few scientific and military installations in the north? Ironically, Canada may be forced to establish a strong military presence in the arctic if all the people moved out. It seems that governments of all stripes have, historically, been more interested in protecting the land than the people who live on it.

How can this situation be turned around? The federal government will eventually have to increase subsidies to people who live in Nunavut or see the Canadian Arctic become an empty and un-used piece of real-estate that will undoubtedly attract the attention of other nations.
The tax-payer may baulk at the concept of paying people to reside in Nunavut and other remote areas of Canada but we’ve been doing it for decades already. It is, I believe, time that southern Canadians realize the value of having a strong human presence in the arctic and respond by providing the financial support that is essential for the long-term viability of Canada as an arctic nation.

Policies should move in the direction of providing all Canadians with similar prices for essential commodities. A litre of home heating oil or gasoline, a kilowatt-hour of electricity, a loaf of bread or litre of milk should cost all Canadians about the same amount. Even with that subsidy, most northerners will still be at a disadvantage in terms of energy costs, with our severe and lengthy winters resulting in much higher consumption.

The net cost to the millions of southern Canadian tax-payers for the support of a few tens of thousands of arctic residents will hardly be felt, and the subsidies will pay dividends in improved human health and productivity, aid in Canada’s claims to the arctic and improve our image on the international stage.


Saturday, July 31, 2010

Bringing AMW Home

Although I had first taken flying lessons in 1979 at the Victoria Flying Club, it wasn’t until 2001 that I finally had the time and resources to fulfill a long-time dream – to get a pilot license and own an airplane. So it was that I received a Recreational Pilot Permit from Okanagan Aviation in Vernon that year. A float endorsement was added in May of 2009.

In 2002 I made the decision to purchase an airplane, and after much research I settled on the Challenger ultralight – a most capable, safe and enjoyable aircraft. In 2005, in the company of friend and fellow-pilot Bruce Brown, I made a cross-country flight in this airplane, on wheels, from St. Lazare, Quebec to Edmonton Alberta. The following year, the journey to Kugluktuk was completed on wheel-skis during the month of April. I have kept this flying machine, despite the economic realities of my more-recent purchase, simply because it is so economical and so much fun to fly.

Challenger C-INUK at an Arctic Char infested river on the central arctic coast

However, by 2009 I had decided that I “needed” an airplane with greater range and carrying capacity. This decision was largely dictated by the environment in which I live – a small and tree-less arctic community 371-miles north of Yellowknife and 100-miles north of the Arctic Circle. The nearest other village is 240-miles away and the necessity to carry a considerable volume of fuel and survival gear on anything but the most-local of flights meant that my wife (who, incidentally, loves to fly) had to be left behind on many occasions – something she did not appreciate!

So, the decision was made to add another aircraft to "the fleet", and I settled on the purchase of an Amateur-Built PA-12 replica resident in Sudbury, Ontario. The price was right, and the 160-hp Lycoming had four brand-new cylinders. To make a long story a little shorter, I travelled to Sudbury, finalized the sale and took the airplane for a cross-country flight to Hawk Lake, Ontario, where a badly executed landing revealed some deficiencies in both the airplane and the pilot. Since the fabric and paint were a little shabby and the interior and instrument panel left much to be desired, the decision was made to leave the airplane in the south during the winter of 2009/2010 where the experts could bring her back to new condition.

Nick Smith, Jr. and John and Tammy Gordy from near London, Ontario took on the task of restoring AMW to like-new condition. The fabric was completely replaced, new paint applied, new doors and skylight fabricated and two additional fuel tanks were installed. The interior was completely replaced and a new instrument panel was designed and installed. Vortex generators were added to the wings and tail surfaces. In the end I had a more-capable and safer airplane, in better-than-new condition. The airplane had been re-born and my bank account was on life-support.

Since the now-ready-to-fly airplane was near London and my floats were in Sudbury we needed someone to fly the airplane, on wheels, to central Ontario. Bruce Leighfield stepped up to the plate and flew AMW from London to Espanola. At this point, Phil Chandler, the previous owner of AMW and a 4,000 hour commercial pilot, took AMW up to “wring her out”. The VG’s, it turned out, made a tremendous difference in the ‘plane’s stall characteristics, which are now extremely mild.

But we still had to get AMW to Akela Aircraft’s facility at Grassy Lake, west of Sudbury. Mark Makela has a 700-foot grass strip but conditions had to be just right to make a successful landing there. Phil, with me in the back for ballast, managed to get her down safely on the calm morning of July 9, 2010. The floats and airplane were now in the same locale!

Pilot shakes hands with ballast at Grassy Lake

After a few days, Mark and the boys at Akela Aircraft had the newly-painted floats installed. The aircraft was examined from spinner to tail to ensure it was fit for the voyage ahead. A couple of days of refresher-training with Phil Chandler followed, with the added bonus of the wonderful scenery in the McGregor Bay area of Georgian Bay and the beautiful lakes in the Sudbury area.

It was terribly hot throughout south and central Ontario during those first two weeks of July 2010, and Phil’s swimming pool was a god-send for this arctic exile un-used to such intense heat and humidity.

C-GAMW at Bear Lake, southwest of Sudbury, Ontario

Finally, on July 16, 2010 the ‘plane and pilot were ready and the weather forecast was reasonable to commence the 2,000-mile journey home to the arctic community of Kugluktuk. The trip would require seven fuel and rest stops and the necessary ‘phone calls were made to confirm the availability of 100LL, since the information contained in the Water Aerodrome Supplement cannot always be relied upon.

Tied to the dock at Air-Dale's base on Hawk Lake

The first stop was Hawk Junction, Ontario, where Air-Dale has a wonderful floatplane base at the east end of Hawk Lake, about 20-miles east of Wawa. The wind was high and the lake was full of whitecaps upon my arrival, but the airplane’s ground speed on touchdown was so slow that the impact of the waves was barely felt. With three refueling docks this neat-as-a-pin operation is indeed a great place for a fuel stop. Air-Dale has two Beavers based here, serving their remote fishing camps. AMW was tied to the dock and it was decided that an overnight stay was in order in the hopes that the head-winds would subside by the following morning. Steve Dale kindly drove me to The Beaver Motel in Wawa and, following a nice supper with Air-Dale’s Beaver pilot Maurice Dubreuil, a pleasant rest ensued.

Steve picked me up at 7:00 am the next morning for the drive back to Hawk Lake. The winds were down, so AMW was fully refueled (four tanks totaling 72 US gallons) and it was off to Armstrong, Ontario. Bad weather forced a detour well to the south and I had to follow the north shore of Lake Superior and then go north into Armstrong “by the back-door” in order to get behind the weather. AMW was refueled again at the Huron Air base, and then was off in the general direction of Red Lake. However, with plenty of gas in the tanks, this segment of the trip ended up by-passing Red Lake in favour of a direct flight to Bissett, Manitoba, where I arrived late in the afternoon and tied to the Blue Water Aviation dock on Rice Lake. John, the owner and turbine-Otter pilot, gave me the loan of his pick-up truck for the night and directed me to a nice Bed-and-Breakfast. Bissett is a gold-mining town with plenty of new exploration work going on in the area.

Blue Water Aviation's dock at Bissett, Manitoba, next door to a gold-mine

After a good breakfast at the B&B, I finally got away at 10:00 am with The Pas as the intended destination for the day. Initially, the weather was good, but after crossing Lake Winnipeg northwest-bound, a long line of ugly thunderstorms loomed directly in my path. There was no going around this system, so a decision was made to cross the big lake again from Grand Rapids to Poplar River. Mid-lake I decided to switch fuel tanks but inadvertently shut off the fuel completely. Never has a hand moved so quickly to the fuel selector knob!

I followed the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg north toward Norway House. Unfortunately, the thunderstorm cells were also headed in that direction and I was very lucky to squeak into Norway House in-between two heavy showers. Within an hour of making the aircraft secure at the Molson Air dock, the thunder and lightning arrived, accompanied by a torrential downpour and a two-hour power failure. But by this time Charlie had driven me into town and I was safely in my room at the York Boat Motel.

Charlie at Norway House

The next day dawned sunny and I again made my way toward the west and Grace Lake, just south of The Pas. The highlight of this segment was being able to text to my friend Darren
Stevenson, an RCMP officer in Hanley, Saskatchewan, while at 4,500 feet above northern Manitoba. For someone of my vintage, this was a minor technological miracle! A nice tailwind gave a 20 mph boost to the groundspeed.

Grace Lake is advertised as “a shallow lake filled with weeds”. This is certainly an accurate description – in places the weeds are so thick as to clog the water rudders and prevent the use of wind alone for maneuvering at the dock. A friendly old-timer at the local flying club directed me to the refueling dock, where Missinippi Airways’ high-speed pump, coupled with a leaking fuel drain while enroute, resulted in some wastage of fuel and a higher-than-normal bill.

From The Pas to Southend, Saskatchewan the clouds thinned but the smoke thickened. Upon arrival the smoke was so thick that I dispensed with the usual circuit procedure (sorry Phil!) as the visibility was dangerously poor and I knew the high hills might hide towers or power lines to snag a wayward Cub. So I put AMW down smartly on the water and taxied to the community dock. Following a short visit at the RCMP detachment I learned that the fuel dock was three miles distant in another bay of Reindeer Lake. There followed a long taxi and the discovery that there was no room at this dock for an overnight stay and I would have to tie to a mooring buoy. This was not conducive to a good night’s rest, but luckily there was a cabin for me at the nearby Nordic Lodge and they offered space at their dock, where I would easily be able to keep a close watch on my ‘plane. My cabin was basic but comfortable, and the lodge owner, Donna, scrounged up a box of Kraft Dinner and a left-over Smokie for my supper. I managed to contact my wife on the pay-phone and then, without TV or cell service, spent a restful night with nothing but the sound of a cool breeze through the black spruce and jack pines. The next morning I borrowed the lodge’s ATV to bring back three jerry cans of 100 LL from Lawrence Bay Airways.

Nordic Lodge, Southend, Saskatchewan

With the ‘plane fully re-fuelled I took off for Uranium City in heavy smoke, anticipating a possible return to Southend. Initially the visibility
worsened but eventually a slow improvement was noted, and after about 50-miles I was able to snap a few pictures of the isolated fires along the west side of Reindeer Lake.

My rustic cabin at Nordic Lodge

Uranium City has seen better days, and the remaining 90 die-hard souls are engaged in maintaining some semblance of infrastructure in the hope that the previous mining economy will one day return. In the meantime, the dilapidated buildings and lack of traffic on the roads give a ghost-town feel to the place. I had a one-mile hike to find someone to pump gas. Once that was done I was off to Yellowknife.

It was great to be heading into more familiar country once again, and I certainly appreciated the cooler and drier air since leaving The Pas.

Forest fires west of Reindeer Lake, Saskatchewan

The ‘plane was performing well and the engine running cool. Oil consumption was better than expected and, through experimentation, I learned that I could get about 250-miles out of a single tank of fuel (I had four tanks!). In the cooler air the airplane’s performance was enhanced, and take-off runs were quite respectable even with my 230 pounds in the pilot seat, 72-US gallons of fuel and 50 pounds of baggage onboard.

Arrival in Yellowknife is always a thrill, it being a bush-plane haven. I landed on Back Bay around 8:00 pm with the sun still well above the horizon. After tying up at the Plummer’s dock and arranging for fuel and a two night stay ($60 a night for dock space – ouch!), I hailed a taxi to the Yellowknife Inn, up the hill in the downtown area. I also managed to find the last rental car in town and contacted my three sons, who have lived in Yellowknife for most of their lives – and even farther north during their earlier years. A viewing of the ‘plane, followed by a sumptuous meal at Pizza Hut, topped off the evening.

My sons (and one girlfriend) at the Old Town Float Base in Yellowknife

After a couple of days of rest in Yellowknife I was ready for the last and longest leg of the trip – 371 miles from Yellowknife, directly north to Kugluktuk. The weather briefer had good news – a ridge was building in nicely and I could expect decent conditions for the entire trip. After a 7:30 am departure, Murphy tried to put the kibosh on that forecast, in the form of low cloud during the middle third of the flight, but once beyond the Arctic Circle and approaching the coast the weather steadily improved. Exactly four hours since my departure from Yellowknife I did a fly-past of our waterfront home and saw my wife
waving from the deck. The landing at the mouth of the Coppermine River was decent, despite my excitement at finally being home. I taxied to the community dock where I was helped by two RCMP friends to secure the ‘plane. My wife showed up and I greeted her with some freight from the right float compartment – a dozen red roses from Yellowknife!

Larry and Helen with AMW on the ramp in front of the house, Kugluktuk, Nunavut

So now C-GAMW is secure on the ramp in front of our home. In a few weeks time a custom-built trailer will arrive on our annual sea-lift and it will be used to remove AMW completely from the sometimes angry arctic waters between missions. The trailer will also be used to transport AMW to the airport and into my hangar during the off-season. One day, I hope to get a set of wheel-skis and thus extend the flying season from the current three months on floats to perhaps the nine-months of the year when the sun is high enough to cast a good shadow and the air is not
too cold for comfort and safety.

Much of this odyssey took place over very remote and sparsely populated country. Aside from basic survival items like a tent and summer sleeping bag, other essential items included an Iridium satellite telephone, a 406 MHz Personal Locator Beacon, the older 121.5 MHz portable ELT in the aircraft and a SPOT beacon. I also had a spare handheld GPS and a spare handheld VHF radio. My wife and other friends certainly enjoyed following my progress by receiving SPOT up-dates from each stop.

The 2,000 mile delivery of C-GAMW from her birthplace in Sudbury to her new home in Nunavut took six flying days and I encountered a variety of weather conditions and ground-based challenges. It was a great experience – once-in-a-lifetime for me I’m sure.


PS: Click on any photo for a larger view.

See also -

Friday, August 1, 2008

A Sunday Drive - Nunavut-Style

A fog bank, lounging on the hills to the south of Kugluktuk, delayed my departure a little. The pilot of a Dash-7 airborne survey ‘plane had confirmed that zero visibility prevailed just 30-miles to the south – exactly where I wanted to spend the day.

But the delay lasted only two hours and then I was on my way, climbing my heavily-loaded Challenger south, across the Coppermine River and over the rising terrain.

The flight was a short one – just 30-minutes, but it took me into the hilly terrain just west of the broad river valley, where scattered patches of black spruce cluster together along the streams that empty into the Coppermine.

The lake I wanted to visit, one of few named lakes in the area, is called Tundra Lake on the topo map, a rather un-inspired name probably assigned by some 1960’s era diamond-drilling crew during the copper staking rush of that decade. It is a longish lake, separated by a narrow bog from another, similar but smaller lake to the north. At the head of the larger lake, at the leeward end, is a sandy beach. After a couple of passes to confirm the safety of landing here, I set C-INUK down and taxied to the beach.

The wind was already increasing when I landed, and I wondered if there might be anything but some scrubby willows to tie the ‘plane to. Fortunately, a large piece of lumber, weighing a hundred pounds or more, lay conveniently in the willows. I tied-up to this dead-man, reasoning it would take a mighty wind indeed to pull it sideways through the two-foot bushes.

I unloaded all the food from the aircraft and placed most of it some distance away. Better not to have a bear rip the ‘plane apart trying to find that beef jerky or Caramilk bar! Grabbing my back-pack with just the essentials, and of course the loaded 30-30, I hiked to a level spot just above the lake where the map said was located three cabins.

Like most of the old exploration camps from decades past, this one had been picked over by humans, chewed on by bears and the remnants blown away by the ferocious winds that must often funnel through this valley. Nothing of value remained, save an old farm wagon, the floor of one cabin, hundreds of rusty, bear-bitten tin cans and, of course, the territorial flower of Nunavut – the 45-gallon drum. Thirty of them lay scattered around willy-nilly, environmentally benign but certainly not very attractive to the eye.

With the ‘plane safely secured, I had a snack on the breezy hillside and then started off on a two-mile hike to a waterfall I had spotted just prior to my landing approach. It was slow-going. These sixty-year old legs are not quite what they used to be. I stopped every fifteen minutes or so for a five minute rest and did the two miles in a little over an hour.

The large, un-named creek falls steeply down it’s valley to the Coppermine. At its upper end it tumbles abruptly over a 50-foot ledge and into a 100-foot deep canyon. A rainbow rose up from the mist, and a pair of golden eagles screeched their annoyance at me as I approached. I sat quietly for a while, breathing in the sights and sounds of this wild place. Then, digging through my back-pack, I hauled out the digital camera to capture the moment for all eternity. Dead batteries! No problem, I have spares. Damn, they’re dead too! No pictures today.

In the “olden days” my little battery-less Olympus pocket 35-mm would have got the shot. Yes, I would not have been able to crop, re-size, compress, or e-mail it, but at least I’d have something!

On the hike back I crossed paths with a large bull musk-ox, the solitary wanderer of the summer tundra. He was prepared to mind his own business, as I was, so we parted company cordially. He seemed a little bored, anxious for the cold weather to arrive so he could join up with his new harem. For the time-being, he had food aplenty, no enemies other than the flies, and no rivals with whom to butt heads. Within a few months he would be grateful for that thick fur coat – and the thick skull!

Back at the ‘plane, I realized I had several hours to kill before the wind went down. My flight plan didn’t close until midnight, so I pulled out a paperback novel, found shelter from the wind behind a small rise and, face to the evening sun, I put in a few hours of reading, checking for approaching bears every half-hour.

By ten o’clock the wind, which should have gone down by then, was still howling. White-caps rolled across the lake as the gusts drew their hand over the water. I might as well go now, or be stuck here for the night. That wouldn’t be such a hardship as I had everything I needed for a prolonged stay, but tomorrow is a working day and I must admit that my old bones now prefer a proper mattress and a hot shower in the morning.

After the ‘plane was re-loaded I pushed away from the beach, climbed aboard the left float and squeezed myself into the cockpit. The wind was carrying me down the lake toward my take-off point so there was no rush to get the engine started, but when the time came she fired up enthusiastically and settled down to a smooth idle. I mentally ran through the check-list: doors latched, gear up and locked, trim set, water-rudder up, radio to the right frequency, altimeter at 29.92, temperature in the green. Good to go!

The take-off run was bumpy but short. The 'plane literally leaped off the last wave-top. Building up speed in ground-effect over the smaller lake to the north, I was soon climbing slowly toward a range of hills a couple of miles away. It occurred to me that there would be an unhealthy down-draft on the lee side of those hills, so I climbed another couple of hundred feet to allow a safety margin. Good thing too, as the down-draft, when it hit, was like a mighty paw pushing me toward the ground. Full throttle, but I was still losing altitude! The ‘plane cleared the top of the hill by a mere forty feet. "That’s how accidents happen", I reminded myself. "Put that in the experience bank and don’t let it happen again."

Against the strong north-east wind my ground speed was a mere 35 miles per hour. It took over an hour to get to the airport, with a slight detour to check on friends at their cabin on the Coppermine River. They were still there, not anxious to take on the heavy swells that had built through the day by the wind running against the current.

The cross-wind landing was un-eventful but required considerable concentration. The wind, 10-knots gusting to 15-knots at 90-degrees to the runway, was near the limit for a Challenger on wheels. On tundra tires it would have been fairly easy. On amphibious floats it was a little more interesting.

Cup of tea in -hand, it was almost midnight before I settled down in a comfy bed to watch The National. Sleep came easily that night.

Photo: My little, yellow tundra-bird at Dismal Lake, August 2007.

Link to my Challenger flying video on YouTube. (copy and paste to your browser).

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Tiny Voyagers

Late in March each year they gather in large numbers on the telephone wires near the outskirts of Grover City, California, about a hundred miles north of Los Angeles. It’s a scenic spot, with the blue Pacific on the west and the Sierra Madre Mountains a little to the east. Excitedly, through vocalization and body language only understood by others of their kind, they encourage their companions for the great adventure ahead. Then, one morning, they’re gone.

Ten days later, after crossing the high desert and skirting the southern limit of the Sierra Nevada’s, they’re in Elko, Nevada, and a week after that they cross the Salmon River near the little town of Burgdorf, Idaho, under the light of a full moon.

By the first of May, the flock has crossed the Bitterroot Mountains in western Montana and is about to enter southern Alberta near the town of Cardston, but they are beaten back by a late spring snowstorm. They retreat southward a hundred miles to the shelter of one of many isolated river valleys where flying insects are abundant.

As the warm south winds return, the flock cruises high above the central Alberta countryside. Beneath their wings farmers are in their fields busy with the planting. Commuters on the highways and seismic crews on the cut-lines are oblivious to their passing. The tail winds are stronger at altitude, and they are spurred on by an instinctive urgency to find their summer range, but they still have a long way to go.

On the twelfth day of May they fly high across the Alberta border and into the Northwest Territories, spending several days in Hay River, resting for their journey across the big lake. The local residents, too busy with flood clean-up, don’t notice them. A few pairs stay behind, but the majority moves on, across the still-frozen, lifeless lake. Four hours after leaving Hay River the flock arrives in Yellowknife, where the micro-climate of the small city has spawned enough flying insects to satisfy their hunger.

Again, a few pairs stay behind to feed, build their nests and raise their young, but some go on. They are the pathfinders, legends among their kind, extending the range of their species beyond what the bird books proclaim as the limit.

Within a few days, they’re crossing the scraggly, black-spruce taiga country, following that sparse forest north along the Coppermine River. Tentatively, a few go even farther, finding their birthplace under the eaves of a hill-side, two-story house overlooking the Arctic Ocean. But it’s too early. The scouts return south to the main body of the flock near the arctic circle, and they all decide to remain in the shelter of the trees until warming temperatures on the coast bring out enough flying insects to allow simultaneous feeding and nest-building.

And so they arrive each year – the scouts around Victoria Day and the rest of the flock about the first of June. There follows a flurry of mud-finding, mud-carrying, nest-building and feeding.

Each year, when “my” swallows return to their birthplace, I feel a mix of awe and humility. Certainly, it is a great privilege to have these amazing birds nest on my house. Their adventurous and dangerous lives make those of mere humans seem pretty tame by comparison. They travel farther in a few weeks than I could walk in a couple of years. They fly with a degree of skill that the best fighter pilot would envy. A human-being with a multi-billion dollar GPS system at his disposal could navigate no better than my swallows, and no atmospheric scientist can predict the weather and winds as well as they can.

But their adventurous lives are short and often brutal. Starvation and hypothermia are constant companions. Sometimes they collide with cars or power lines or fall prey to a falcon. Sometimes their tiny hearts just capitulate, overcome by a life of constant activity with little time for rest.

When they arrive at their summer residence overlooking the mouth of the Coppermine River, their problems have only just begun. They must find and carry the mud for their nests, a tiny mouthful at a time, often from miles away. Hundred of trips may be necessary to repair a house, many more to build a new one from scratch. An early summer cold snap that lasts more than a few days can cause starvation and newly-laid eggs to be abandoned, wiping out an entire generation of young. A late-summer wind and rain storm can destroy nests, and the young contained there-in. Humans see the tragedy of it all, but the swallows simply get on with their lives – perhaps next year will be better.

But there are successes too. Most years, more swallows leave than had arrived a couple of months previously.

In late August, after waiting several days for the last of the fledglings to take wing, they will sit in rows on the cable-TV wire over our driveway, chattering excitedly and encouraging their young for the great adventure ahead.

Then, one morning, they’re gone.


Photo: Cliff Swallows winter in the southern United States, Mexico or Central America, and some spend their summers beyond the arctic circle.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Life's Little Mysteries

Those of us who come north and end up staying for more than a year or two often get involved in pastimes that suit our locale. Obviously, there’s hunting and fishing, riding snowmobiles and ATV’s, or more sedentary pursuits like collecting northern crafts and carvings. Of course, whether you’re a “southerner” or native-born, we all enjoy our television-watching, internet-surfing or other forms of couch-potato recreation designed to make our lives more pleasant – if shorter!

Gardening is not something that many of us get involved in. I suppose I may come about this particular interest quite honestly, coming as I do from a long line of dirt-farmers who eked out a living on some of the most unlikely agricultural land in the world, starting in the north of England and ending up in the rock, bog and impenetrable forest of the Canadian Shield country north of Montreal in the 1820’s.

It’s been over ten years now since we built our greenhouse and garden, labouriously finding, digging, hauling, sifting, spreading, spading, raking and “improving” many cubic metres of scarce soil. Now that “the land” has been worked for a decade, I must say that the soil is as good as anything you’d find on the fertile flat-lands of southern Manitoba.

As I grow older, the mysteries of life seem so much more ...well,…mysterious. How does a small seed manage to produce so much abundance? How that seed, without much fanfare, effortlessly converts the minerals and nutrients in the soil to a beet or a turnip is really quite a miracle, even if 21st century science tells us it’s only basic chemistry. Just as ten pounds of plutonium can create quite a bang, the fact that a tiny seed can create a three-pound turnip with only the addition of dirt, water, sunlight and warmth is quite beyond my comprehension.

One can import bales of organic material (read “cow-shit”) and peat moss, and bags of chemical fertilizer each year on the barge (sea-lift for you poor Eastern Arctic types), but one thing we don’t have much control over is the weather. The greenhouse certainly helps, and although it isn’t sealed as well as I would like, it will typically create an oasis that is 15 to 25 degrees Celsius above the outside air temperature. This, and an occasional bit of supplementary heat from the boiler in the house, allows planting of seeds around mid-May, and transplants to be set out around the end of that month.

(As I write this, it’s three degrees outside, overcast with a few snowflakes coming down, yet the greenhouse, with no auxiliary heat, is a toasty 19 degrees.)

Gardeners are optimists by design and by necessity, so I usually push my luck a little and set the transplants out a week or two early. Sometimes this pays off, but I often lose a few plants to a frosty night. So far, things are looking pretty good this year: I have peas, radishes, wax beans, beets, turnips, lettuce and onions coming up already. I’ve set out a dozen tomato plants, a few cucumbers, and one pepper. The carrots, always the last to sprout, should be up any day now.

Outside, I grow potatoes and cabbages, but it’s still too early to think about that. However, I shoveled the snow off the garden, fertilized and raked the soil and covered the whole works with clear plastic last weekend. Soil temperature, at a depth of six-inches, is increasing by about half-a-degree per day and will soon be up around the seven-degree point where it will be safe to get into the potato business. The Yukon Gold seed potatoes are eager to get into the ground, with sprouts coming through the holes in the boxes. I’m hoping for a year like 2006, when I got 165-pounds of perfect potatoes from my little 120 square-foot patch.

Gardening in the arctic is not an economically viable exercise. If I factor in wages at even ten dollars an hour, and add the cost of supplies, my tomatoes probably cost ten-times what the Northern Store charges. Nevertheless, it’s a very satisfying endeavour that gets me out in the fresh air and provides a badly-needed, low-impact workout.

Besides, those new potatoes, onions and carrots go so nicely with some fried caribou tenderloin or a nice filet of arctic char!

Late in September each year, as the first snowflakes fall and the potatoes are dug and stowed away in cardboard boxes, Helen and I enjoy several great meals consisting of caribou, musk-ox or arctic char, wonderful little baby potatoes and carrots, and a nice salad. It’s certainly a pleasure to ignore all the work and concentrate on the taste of that fresh, northern-grown meat, fish and produce, and gloat a little over the fact that very few people in Nunavut will ever eat a full-course meal with no imported southern ingredients.

And somehow, that makes it all worthwhile.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Ant and the Grasshopper

Many of you may have seen this already. I thought it was cute, and wish I had written it myself.

Think about this when you're doing your Income Tax return.


The ant works hard in the withering heat all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter. The grasshopper thinks he's a fool, and laughs and dances and plays the summer away. Come winter, the ant is warm and well fed. The shivering grasshopper has no food or shelter, so he dies out in the cold.



The ant works hard in the withering heat all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter. The grasshopper thinks he's a fool, and laughs and dances and plays the summer away. Come winter, the ant is warm and well fed. So far, so good, eh?

The shivering grasshopper calls a press conference and demands to know why the ant should be allowed to be warm and well fed while others less fortunate, like him, are cold and starving.

The CBC shows up to provide live coverage of the shivering grasshopper, with cuts to a video of the ant in his comfortable warm home with a table laden with food.

Canadians are stunned that in a country of such wealth, this poor grasshopper is allowed to suffer so while others have plenty. The NDP, the CAW and the Coalition Against Poverty demonstrate in front of the ant's house. The CBC, interrupting an Inuit cultural festival special from Nunavut with breaking news, broadcasts them singing 'We Shall Overcome.'

Jack Layton rants in an interview with Mike Duffy that the ant has gotten rich off the backs of grasshoppers and calls for an immediate tax hike on the ant to make him pay his 'fair share'.

In response to polls, the Conservative Government drafts the Economic Equity and Grasshopper Anti-Discrimination Act, retroactive to the beginning of the summer.

The ant's taxes are reassessed, and he is also fined for failing to hire grasshoppers as helpers.

Without enough money to pay both the fine and his newly imposed retroactive taxes, his home is confiscated by the government.

The ant moves to the US, and starts a successful agribiz company.

The CBC later shows the now fat grasshopper finishing up the last of the ant's food, though spring is still months away, while the government house he is in, which just happens to be the ant's old house, crumbles around him because he hasn't bothered to maintain it.

Inadequate government funding is blamed, Bob Rae is appointed to head a commission of enquiry that will cost $10,000,000.

The grasshopper is soon dead of a drug overdose, the Toronto Star blames it on the obvious failure of government to address the root causes of despair arising from social inequity.

The abandoned house is taken over by a gang of immigrant spiders, praised by the government for enriching Canada's multicultural diversity, who promptly set up a marijuana grow op and terrorize the community.


Saturday, February 23, 2008

The First Permanent Residents of Coppermine

For thousands of years before, and shortly after the “white-man” came to this land, the Inuit led a nomadic, hunter-
gatherer, stone-age
existence. They had no need of permanent settlements, and establishing fixed communities would have simply added to the hardships they already faced. Unless large areas were continually hunted, and unless a combination of luck and experience put them in the path of migrating animals, there was little chance of survival. It was the white-man, lacking the skills and knowledge to follow the Inuit around, who required the establishment of permanent outposts in an effort to initiate occasional interaction with the nomadic Inuit.

Although an American, Captain Joseph Bernard, in his small gasoline-powered schooner Teddy Bear was the first white-person to trade in the area from around 1910 to 1915, and a Dane named Charles Klengenberg set up a seasonal fishing hut at the mouth of the Coppermine River around 1916, the site of present-day Kugluktuk was not permanently inhabited until the Hudson’s Bay Company and Church of England arrived in 1928, followed by the Roman Catholic mission and the RCMP in 1929 and 1930 respectively. Around 1930, a rudimentary radio/weather station was set up, in 1932 the community’s first doctor arrived and in 1934 a Post Office was established. During the years of the Great Depression, the Government of Canada could not afford to add to this meager infrastructure, and the doctor was lost to government cut-backs, never to return. During and after the Second World War, investment by the government of Canada started anew, with the establishment of a Nursing Station in 1948 and a Federal Day-School in 1950. A new Nursing Station, improved government housing and a diesel power-plant were all established in 1967, and a proper air-strip was completed in 1969.

There were, of course, a few native people in the early years who acted as guides and interpreters for the RCMP, the missions and the Hudson’s Bay Company, fished for and tended the dogs and did other odd-jobs. Those people and their families, however, still did not live in the community year-round, preferring to spend much of their time hunting, fishing and trapping at traditional locations. It was not until the early 1950’s that people began to adapt to life in the permanent settlement of Coppermine, and that trend continued until the last outposts were gradually abandoned in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, despite government subsidies that attempted to maintain that traditional life-style.

It is important to note that the Hudson’s Bay Company actively discouraged Inuit people from moving into communities. The HBC was in the fur-trade business – they wanted people out on the land, engaged in trapping. When the government of Canada, through their agents (primarily the RCMP), started to provide welfare to those Inuit people who came to them in need, and when that policy became entrenched and morphed into what we now call social assistance, income-support, family allowance, child-tax credit, subsidized housing, etc., many people decided to give up their nomadic life in favour of a less precarious existence in the community, where schooling and medical care was available and where dependable wage-employment later became the norm.

So there was a time, from 1928 to about 1945, when the permanent residents of Coppermine (later Kugluktuk after 1996) consisted almost entirely of white people. Indeed, if white people and their institutions had never come to this land, there would be no community of Kugluktuk today, and the population of nomadic Inuit would have remained stable at a small fraction of the current numbers, which was about all that the land (and primitive hunting methods) could support. Whether contact has been a good thing or a bad thing is, nevertheless, certainly open to debate.

Somehow, there has developed an erroneous perception that Inuit people were forced off the land and into communities. There was never any such government policy or action. There was no advantage to white people in having Inuit confined to communities - quite the contrary. Inuit themselves saw the advantages, weighed the disadvantages, and (wisely, I think) chose to give up a lifestyle which, though fraught with immense hardship, could have otherwise continued to this day.

The history of practically every community in Nunavut follows a pattern similar to that of Kugluktuk. The heritage of white people in Nunavut is dominated by the creation of permanent communities. The heritage of Inuit people, for at least 4,940 of the last 5,000 years, has been a heritage dominated by seasonal movement from place to place.

In recent decades, many people have been led astray by the sanitized, politically-correct, revisionist version of Nunavut history that has been foisted on a younger generation by the schools and the media. The very significant contributions of bush-pilots, sea captains, traders, clergy, police, nurses, teachers and other non-Inuit has been pushed well into the background, where it does not deserve to be. We now are told that the Hudson’s Bay Company consisted of a bunch of mercenary carpet-baggers, when in fact both The Bay and the good, hard-working trapper prospered handsomely in the hey-day of the fur-trade and traders saved many people from starvation. Missionaries are sometimes seen as helping to destroy a culture, often by the same people who claim that their culture is now thriving - despite the continued presence of the churches. The fact is that the missionaries did far more good than harm. The police are accused of bringing north a “foreign” system of justice, when the undeniable fact is that the British common-law system, while flawed, is still the most enlightened form of justice that human kind has managed to come up with in the last 50,000 years. If there’s a better way, I’d be interested in hearing about it.

Not surprisingly, historical revisionists tend to spare the present-day “southern” teachers, nurses, police, administrators, government employees and business people from their wrath. They will leave that reprehensible chore to the next generation of revisionists, and our children and grandchildren will probably fall for their lies, distortions, omissions and half-truths as the current generation has seemed willing to do.


Photo (courtesy Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre photo database). The official caption reads "The residents of the town posing for a final picture with Joe Osborne. Left to right: Paddy Jackson, Johnny Jackson, Marguerite Webster, Dorothy Jackson, unidentified, behind her is Johnny Jackson [?], Joe Osborne is looking to the right, Wop May is wearing a check shirt, to his left his son, behind him Darcy Muro of the R.C.M.P. To Darcy's left is an unidentified operator who was Osborne's replacement. Girl holding baby is Lena, R.C.M.P. officer at back is R. "Dick" Connick. Girl in front of him is radiosonde operator's wife. Kneeling in front is H.B.C. apprentice [Syd] and to his left is Ernie Boffa. Chap on extreme right is Wop May's son. July 11, 1948."

I should add that bush-pilots Boffa and May were not residents of Coppermine. Wop May had retired from flying by the time this picture was taken, while Ernie Boffa was a frequent visitor and continued to fly into the 1960's. Missing from the photo are Reverend Webster and his wife Edie, HBC manager Leo Manning, his wife Mary and daughters Maureen and Rosemary, Fathers Lapointe and Delalande, Walt Taylor of DOT and Jack Scarlett of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals. 1948 was the year that the first nursing station was built, so the missionaries were still doing basic medical and dental work, mostly for Inuit people. The nurse, Anne Dufresne arrived a few months after this photo was taken.