Wednesday, May 22, 2013

traveling in the north

Flying up North sometimes seems like a magical adventure, to people who have never done it.  But the reality is flying in the North isn't glamourous. It isn't fun. It's tedious at best and terrifying at its worst. But even the terrifying moments happen so often that you get used to it: when the pilot announces that there's a mechanical problem in the engine and we're going to have to "try" to land unexpectedly, or that the weather's really bad and we're going to have to "try" to go back, you get used to thinking, "So this is it. I might die.  But really, this is no excuse for the flight attendant to take so long to bring me my lemon-scented napkins."

Baffin Island from the air
We laugh when we read newspaper articles excitedly reporting about airplanes forced to make emergency landings. That's not news. That's just an average Monday afternoon.

In Nunavut, because most communities are so remote, you have to fly to get from one community to another.  Also, all of our stuff - mail, groceries, booze - are brought in by plane. That's a lot of flying. That's a lot of airlines, too.  You've probably heard of First Air. Have you heard of Canadian North? Buffalo Airways? Calm Air? Arctic Air? One of those airlines is a fictional one featured on CBC, and I bet you don't even know which one.  There are a bunch of Canadian airlines that most Canadians have never heard of, and they all fly in the north.

Let me take you through my Monday afternoon.  I was supposed to fly from Iqaluit to Cambridge Bay. There are no direct flights, despite the fact that these are two of the largest communities in Nunavut. Instead I've got to fly to Rankin Inlet, fly out of the territory into the Yellowknife inNorthwest Territories, and then back into Nunavut to Cambridge Bay. It's a two-day trip.  It's almost always a two-day trip, if not three.
The brightly coloured Iqaluit airport

I was flying either Canadian North or First Air. It's usually one of those two. I never remember which because honestly I can't tell the difference except that I think Canadian North doesn't serve V8 drinks. Both serve you meals, even if your flight is only an hour long, even if they already served you a meal an hour ago (much unlike Air Canada). Both give you free newspapers and breakfasts that I don't recognize but functionally taste like eggs and some sort of meat despite taking the shape of soft bread. By the way, you always eat the meal, because you don't know when your last meal will be. Not because you're poor, but because at any moment you might get stranded for hours in the middle of a freak snowstorm.

So there I was flying Canadian North (I think it was Canadian North).  We stopped in Rankin Inlet. It's just supposed to be a stop, one that will be "as brief as possible" the flight attendant assures me, as passengers get off and others get on. It's not brief at all. I'm chatting with people in the airport, because in the north, you always see someone you know at the airport, no matter where you are. Then I hear an announcement. There's a mechanical problem with our plane, so we can't get back on the plane.  In fact, my flight's been cancelled, just like that. My laptop is still on the plane.  I make a mad scramble to get it.

Back at the airport, all of the passengers on my flight are being rescheduled to travel with the other airline. First Air (I think it was First Air). We're told to stand in line at the desk, but they don't actually serve us in the order of the line. They seem to kind of randomly pick who they want to serve. All I care about is that I can see my luggage being transferred to the next plane. Also, I'm immensely thankful that the rowdy high school sports team that had been traveling on the plane had gotten off in Rankin Inlet.

We get on the plane. We don't go through security. We never, ever go through security when we fly up north, by the way. Nobody checks my ID. Nobody looks at my luggage.

I arrive in Yellowknife, only a half hour delayed, which is actually pretty good.  I have a drink. I sleep at the Explorer Hotel, which costs $200 a night.

The next morning, I go back to the airport.  Again, we don't go through security. I see that we are going to be getting into a propeller airplane. I hate propeller airplanes. It's not that I question the safety of the small aircraft. It's probably safe. Propeller planes can clearly fly. What I'm worried about - and I know this is silly, but it happens - is how easy it is for a stupid bird to fly into one of those propellers. And I'm not really all the concerned about the well-being of the bird, but that one bird is all it takes to bring this plane down.

look at those propellers, like a beckoning hand inviting birds to come close to check it out

In this case, I also had a front row seat to view the mechanical problems of the airplane. We've only been flying for about twenty minutes, when the pilot announces that we're dealing with mechanical problems and we're going to have to fly back to Yellowknife.  I feel like I'm experiencing a deja vu. I look out my window, and the passenger next to me points it out. There it is, the mechanical problem, right outside my window.  The landing gear won't retract properly.  I see a metal flap hanging out, and I can clearly read the warning on it. Something about how this flap should be closed when in flight.

So the plane turns around. I read my book. The airports here have this great system where they leave out paperbacks for travelers to pick up for free and leave as they wish.  Unfortunately, a lot of the novels are awful. I play a game of trying to pick the least awful novel.   This novel is about an elderly man who likes to play detective, with the help of his psychic cats.  Most of the book is spent describing what the cats like to eat, rather than on the mystery the protagonist is trying to solve. It's pretty awful.

We've been flying for a while now. The plane is still turning.  The pilot makes another announcement. We can't land.  The plane is too heavy to land. We're going to have to fly for a while longer to burn off fuel until we're light enough to land.

The pilot is actually speaking a kind of doublespeak. It's not that we're too heavy too land; it's that, with the problem we're having with our landing gear, if we don't land properly and our tank is full of fuel, he's kind of afraid that things will go all explodey and erupt full of flames. So we're going to use some a bunch of that fuel. In fact, we're going to fly around with the landing gear down to burn more fuel with the drag. So we circle around Yellowknife about fifty times, very, very slowly. I have memorized the landscape now.
the lake filled landscape of Yellowknife

Ice road
I am feeling this incredible feeling of being afraid of death and yet incredibly bored, all at the same time.
By the time the plane  has burn to land, the pilot gives us more cheerful news. Fire trucks Tthe are going to escort the plane to the gate once we land. But don't worry. This is all perfectly normal and part of the routine. Doublespeak.

With that said, death and boredom aside, the view is magnificent and cannot be rivaled with any other experience, not even on Blu-ray with David Attenborough calmly narrating the scenery.  I'm always surprised to see how different the landscapes look, from Baffin Island to Rankin Inlet to the Northwest Territories to the Kitikmeot region where Cambridge Bay is. It really is something, and once you look past the mechanical problems, the delays, and all the other frustrations that come with flying in the North, it's amazing to think that you are seeing a view that not many Canadians will ever get to see.