Thursday, March 20, 2014

northern travel

Canadian North

I'm reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road while I travel across the Arctic and I know this is an obscene exaggeration but sometimes I feel like I'm traveling in the book with the characters.

Yellowknife is an odd stop in the middle of the journey from Cambridge Bay to Iqaluit and back. It's warm. And there are trees. The flight attendant's hair is curled and she's wearing makeup like no woman in the north ever wears (we prefer the "permanently flushed and/or frostbitten" look).  Yellowknife. Sometimes it feels like emerging on to the last refuge after wandering through a post-apocalyptic landscape.  You stop for a drink at the Boston Pizza and peruse the aisles of the Shopper's Drug Mart. After months of shopping at the Northern and the Co-op, the Your Independent Grocer's seems surreal.

Then back on to the plane. Less than half an hour outside of Yellowknife and there are already no more trees. Just slopes of silver that make up the frozen tundra. Lots of stops along the way. Rankin Inlet. Kugluktuk. Nothing to do there while you wait.



I'm flying only a few days after that airplane from Malaysia mysteriously vanished into thin air. It worries me.  I'm not a nervous flyer, although some people here are. I don't how they survive in the north, since you have to fly in and out all the time. But planes aren't supposed to just disappear, like an episode of Lost.

Also, it's just a weird time to fly. People have been behaving oddly lately. Around the same time that I was traveling, a woman snuck alcohol on to a plane, got drunk in the bathroom, and accosted a flight attendant before getting dragged off the plane by the RCMP.  This, by the way, was on the Yellowknife-to-Cambridge Bay flight, the flight that we always take. 

Kugluktuk airport

The airports seem like a scene of hurried activity and confusion.  I listen to airport security staff argue about whether a little girl is supposed to be boarding a plane on her own or not. Eventually they decide to pull heroff, and I watch the female staffer hold the girl's tiny hand as they walk across the hall, leaving her with a man we all assume and hope is her relative.

One of the interesting things about northern travel is that the airports don't screen passengers through security before they board a plane, which is, I suppose, how some people manage to sneak on alcohol to drink in the bathroom. There's not much security of that sort at all in northern travel. People seem to wander as they please sometimes.  I watched a man walk across the tarmac on his own and board the airplane without showing a boarding pass - and without anyone stopping him.  When the flight attendant finally saw him sitting on the plane by himself, she freaked out.  "That's...that's...That's actually against the law," she said.  The man looked confused.

Getting on the plane

On our way home, they warn us that we'll only be landing in Cambridge Bay "subject to weather". Northerners punctuate their sentences with "weather permitting" almost in the way that some Muslim folks use "Inshallah".  On the airplane, I overhear the pilot telling the flight attendants that the weather is still pretty bad in Cambridge Bay, and that we're going to "try to land" twice, and if we keep missing the approach, we're just going to head back to Yellowknife. I'm always up for a surprise extended trip to Yellowknife, but it's a little unnerving to hear a pilot use the words "trying" and "missing". But that's part of northern travel.

If you google "plane" and "nunavut", all of the results on the first page are about crashes.

I think this is the real reason why I usually sleep through all the takeoffs and landings. My body automatically gets sleepy at these times as a bizarre defence mechanism against the anxiety of facing possible death and not being able to do anything about it.

So we try to land, in the midst of the bad weather.  What happens when you try to land in fog? You enter a cloud, and all of a sudden you can't see anything about you. Everything is white. There could be a spaceship twenty feet away from your airplane window and you wouldn't know it. Then when you descend below the fog, you see that you are hovering what looks like metres above a frozen ocean.  How strong is the ice on that ocean? Then you see the runway ahead, covered in snow and ice.  The same ice that I spend a normal part of the day slipping on.  That's what this giant metal plane is going to land on.

And despite all my fears, we always do.

Rankin Inlet airport

Iqaluit airport

Yellowknife airport (as seen on CBC's Arctic Air)

On the bright side, sometimes you get that sweet flight where there are only, like, three other people on the plane.  The flight attendant addresses you by name, and gives you a personal safety demonstration. Personal safety demonstration! You feel like a baller, riding around in your private jet.  Then she winks at you and says, "Imma sit over there, Gloria. You just holler if you need anything." And there are no screaming babies or drunk unruly passengers or mechanical problems or weather worries and you get a delicious hot dinner for your two hour flight. And then you sleep like a baby for the entire trip.