The Past
The unsettled weather I am travelling through has not been seen in this area in 75 years. To say that it is unusual understates its impact by a magnitude. I know this because my first daughter was born in these parts 26 years ago.

screen-shot-2017-01-25-at-5-46-23-amOn 21 January 1991 I saw her form for the first time. I inhaled her presence in the cabin that we rented on Pelican Lake in Sioux Lookout, Ontario. I smeared the thick cheesy vernix envelope that had painted itself over the pink oxygen of her skin.

When she arrived that day it was cold. I remember looking out the bedroom window at the Pine and Evening Grosbeaks gobbling seed. A thermometer fastened next to the feeder read -42C.

Friday, Saturday, Sunday
By way of comparison, I was in Kitchenuhmayooosib Inninuwug (KI) or  Big Trout Lake on January 21st this year. KI lies about 450km due north from Sioux Lookout. It was 2C in KI. The snow was melting away, baring roofs and spawning puddles on the hard clay roads.

The warm warm weather conspired with heaps of cold cold snow to create dense dense fog.  As the ceiling fell below 600 feet, flights were cancelled producing a classic case of weathered-in-ed-ness among the pocket populations of fly-in help.

About 20 hours after the cancellation of our Friday afternoon flight a dynamic emerged that in many ways resembled Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ five stages of grief. Positioned at various points in the tiny hotel’s common room I witnessed and, indeed, participated in the following:

  • Acceptance. Various visitors lazily lounge in front of endless inaugural commentaries. Occasionally a droll observation about northern travel emerges. Many casual expressions of fluidity, e.g., “I’m OK with staying over another night,” are offered;
  • Denial. Phone calls from Sioux Lookout paint an increasingly dire picture of the weather system’s scope. People who by now should have been in KI have yet to lift off. This information gives rise to multiple and unsolicited opinions about northern air service followed by unfounded, if not irrational, forecasts that “we’ll definitely get out today.”;
  • Anger. When a knowledgeable local enters the hotel and  unequivocally states that  planes do not fly on the sabbath, the “we’ll get out tomorrow” assumption is lost. Their revelation is viewed as vexatious, toxic even. Later it inspires poetikal verse:

    No Fly Zone

    How do you know that you cannot fly from KI on Sunday?
    How do you know that you cannot fly from KI on Sunday?
    You find out when you’re weathered-in
    Weathered-in on Friday
    You find out when the agent says:
    If you don’t get out today,
    You won’t get out tomorrow.
    You don’t get out today,
    You won’t get out tomorrow.
    Cause the church is State
    And you’ll have to wait
    The Sabbath means
    You don’t play ball
    You don’t haul wood
    You don’t exert, don’t run, don’t flirt
    Don’t shout, don’t cry
    And you DO NOT fly
    From KI
    On Sunday.

  • Within a half hour those short fuses have become long faces. Depression sets in and the many legitimate and fabricated reasons “why I HAVE TO get out today” start to tumble from the homunculus. Several people get off the couch and head for their bedrooms where the sound of frantic texting overcomes the incessant and delirium-inspiring ambiance of the forced air furnace.
  • Bargaining signals the end of Act One. Could we….
    • Split the cost of an air charter?
    • Engage the services of a local driver Sunday to travel the 50 or so kilometres to Wapekeka where a more enlightened parish permits planes to land on the holy day?
    • Re-arrange our massively important schedules to remove those immovable barriers that just moments earlier pre-supposed necessary, nay requisite, absolution from natural temperaments and known unknowns?

As we head to the KI airport – which we find emptied of staff and information – we realize we are exactly where we began: Will the plane fly? Will the fog lift? Will the freezing rain permit us to land should we get anywhere near Sioux Lookout? Answers are: yes, no, yes and no.

Our little group from the hotel is augmented by others. We chat, touch though do not grope, we find our commonness. Magically our frazzled selves and the pervasive uncertainty – of where we are to go, when, or how – resolve and high spirits, good humour, and occasional notions of contingency prevail.

It is 8:30 PM and having bypassed Kasabonika we find ourselves in the Pickle Lake airport waiting room. At 9:30 PM a big group boards a plane for Thunder Bay. Two beautiful young people decline to board after the pilot’s warning that should the plane fail to land in Thunder Bay they will be diverted to Regina, Saskatchewan.

We adopt them. We are ten, we are happy, we are shuttled to the best worst bar in the world. Water, beer, white wine, rye, and vodka supplement the menu’s only fare: potato wedges and chicken fingers. Long story short, we arrive back to the Sioux Lookout airport by noon Sunday.

The Sioux Lookout Airport
This place might reasonably be described as both art installation and train wreck. Its transfiguration of function into chaos is no easy feat. New construction and renovations introduce innumerable  ambiguities “How does one get in,” say, or “how does one get out?”

Similarly, its liminal state reconfigures important human dimensions of air travel. “How are so many bodies to fit in so little space?” Flight delays and cancellations redefine the temporary nature of waiting room. Children scream through a maze of travellers all the while fully expressing the low-level anxiety that an uncertain routing, arrival or departure suggests. Meanwhile one-year olds peg leg toward each other, hands waving, smiles spread widely as if compensating for the grim adult expressions everywhere else.

Passengers wear timely though inappropriate outer wear – parkas, boots, hats and scarves. Vestments hang loosely from bent skeletal forms: their bulk inspires perspiration and thankfully conceals the stink of foliation. Eyes bow to handheld devices. In this steam bath of otherness, data plans are abandoned, yearning brows lift to itch primal needs, and fleshy palms re-engage their social contract.

So, following an eventful return from KI over the weekend, I fly to Fort Hope and then back again the same day. Simply put, I witness the same passive, multi-layered cloud cover thwart the pilots and their flying machines. Closing in on our destination patches of ground appear with some clarity. Thirty or sixty seconds later that clarity is erased only to be re-introduced as a tawdry expressionist version of reality. And this cycle repeats.

Part way through the third or fourth such cycle, the happy sound of flaps turning down and wheels descending shine a light on our collective and unwarranted hope of landing at this fort. The utter degradation of the visible world unfortunately corresponds with lower altitude and proximity to our destination. We know – all eight of us – we know we will not land.

The now familiar – and impressive – acceleration of the engines signals a farewell and our collection of thoughts turn to Plan B. Heading west again my travelling companion recalls the creeping fog seen in Sioux Lookout as we taxied from the terminal. After almost two hours in the air we all fear that our time has passed. Might we safely land in Sioux Lookout?  As the protocol begins again: deceleration, nose down, scanning for lights, our hearts synchronize on a single instance of good luck.

Dense cloud provides no hint of the topography below us. The groan of hydraulics eases flaps and wheels out of their nests. Flying. We are flying, but in reverse. We are, in aviation terms, initiating a controlled crash. We’re lifting ourselves out of the ether and returning to earth.

Where exactly is the earth? There it is. The train tracks. The train tracks? These tracks are no more than a half kilometre from the airport! AND WHUMP. Our wheels find the sloppy seconds of runways bullied and bared by unwanted warmth. Pressed against glass I see the tower lights dimly welcome what certainly is the last plane to land in Sioux Lookout that day.