A Winter Drive Deep In the Northwest Territories

There are moon dogs out.

The world is asleep under the stars and what diamond hard stars they are too. As I drive back into the city from a day in Fort Rae they seem to outshine the headlights.

The road back from Rae is a hundred miles of twisting and turning gravel that leaps up and down through low hills choked with spruce, aspen, tamarack and a few fir. In the dark it becomes a terribly hostile place made more intense by the absence of traffic. An accident here or a breakdown would mean a night in the minus twenty weather hoping, praying for a traveller. It’s because of that, that there is a survival kit in the back seat and an arctic sleeping bag. We don’t take chances in this country. There is nothing between Rae and Yellowknife except a few wolves.

As I drive east toward midnight the stars glint hard through the windshield. I turn down the instrument panel lights and let the stars beat through the headlights. There’s Orion directly in front of me and just to the left the Big Dipper is making its slow wheel about the sky, tied always to the north star and I can’t help thinking about Manitou and Black Bear playing cards on the other side, past the sky. It’s funny how a child’s story takes on real life in this country. Perhaps he really does exist.

The road is frozen gravel so there’s no need to worry about sliding but where it goes through a curve the traffic has carved just one track. When it turns to the right the lane stays where it is supposed to but on a left turn the bare gravel is far to the left and that means any vehicle coming the other way would be met head on. It’s a game of chance and anxiety. Whether to stay on the hard pack snow and let any traffic slip past or stay on the gravel and keep the speed up on the gravel.  Every curve is a guess. I pass one truck heading west from Yellowknife and see its headlights bounced off the trees well in advance so I relax. I know that I’ll have the warning to get back to my side of the road. The trees are coated in hoar frost and the headlights turn them into silver cutouts plastered against the stars. There’s magic here.

Halfway back now and there’s an odd light directly ahead.  It seems like the glow of a city but I’m too far from Yellowknife for that and the air is too clear to allow any city to light up the air anyway. You can be a mile from Yellowknife and not know it because the city lights aren’t reflected the way they are in the south.

The glow is troubling. There’s a hardness to it that doesn’t seem right. Thoughts of flying saucers are easy here, it’s so lonely. If I was an explorer from Alpha Centauri sent to earth to spy on the human race what better way to gather data than to drop down on a lonely highway in the arctic and pick up the one vehicle for fifty miles in either direction.

There’s nothing on the radio, too far out. The heater is noisy and I turn it off to concentrate on the light. It’s growing too quickly for it to be stationary and it must be moving.  Then darkness, as I slip down through a dark valley guarded by rock walls and up a long curve of the hill. No light. Then light.

The moon for God’s sake. It sits in the trees as it rises above the horizon. It’s huge. it seems to fill the width of the road and looms above the windshield of the car. The light is being refracted through the atmosphere I tell myself and the moon is being magnified but that doesn’t take anything away from the spectacle. Its light blasts down the highway at me and in a straight stretch I punch off the headlights. Hardly any difference. The moon has turned the highway to a twilight sliver. We rush on together, the car and me and the moon. The stars shine on still so bright I can see them when I look away from the moon. We’re a team the moon and me and we drive on and on under its light until the road curves into darkness and the headlights must come on because I never want to use the survival kit. Darkness envelopes the car and the loneliness is back but then the curve is finished and once more the moon is back.

Midnight is passing. I forget how far I have driven. I have no idea where Yellowknife might be and that troubles me. Must always know where you are in this country. The old habits built up in this very region from that silly little seaplane base down the road from the motel are coming back.

Know where you are all the time, goes the rule, then you will know where you are lost.

You get killed when you get lost in an unknown place.

Strange rule but it works. There’s a telephone in the car.  Now that I am closer to Yellowknife I could use it if the car breaks down. But that wouldn’t help me much. What am I going to say? “Hello, uh I need a truck to pull me out of a snowbank.  What’s that? Where am I? Uh, somewhere between Rae and Yellowknife. Just start driving and I’ll be on the road.”  Christ it could take the rest of my life to find me.

The moon has dogs. They’ve come up either side of the mother. Pale little children riding coat-tail as if they were afraid of getting lost. What does this mean? I think to myself.  Is this good luck, or bad, do they herald good weather or a snarling blizzard? God the weather knowledge I have lost over the years. Must relearn it.

A glint of light between the left dog and the moon. It’s the airport beacon sweeping away to the arctic sky. What nostalgia that brings back. It sweeps over me. The nights and nights I plowed my way back through some skag down the MacKenzie river overloaded with gear and fuel trying to land a 185 at the base, never really sure where the airport was and then suddenly seeing that white slash of light sweep across the sky and I knew I was home and the floats would be touching Back Bay in twenty minutes. Dangerous life and I don’t miss it but you always remember the good things about the past, never the bad, and that beacon is one of the good. The beacon is good to me too. I start to reenter the world. I start to see the moon and her dogs for what they are. The stars retreat to being stars and not silent watchers over the wilderness. The magic is leaking away and the car slips closer to Yellowknife.

I see some lights beaming from the top of the territorial government office tower and then the YK Tower and then the highrises. The airport and its snow wrapped bush planes waiting for break-up and the endless summer days goes past on the right and then I’m back. The city swallows me up and the north goes away.  There’s sadness as I take the car back. I am giving up the treasure of a sensation and a life few would ever experience. I live within myself content and with the secret knowledge that the moon and her two children put on that show just for me. Somewhere I hear Black Bear’s grumbling chuckle and I love the world.

Baked Chicken for Breakfast in Albania

 

As I was working today on the draft for The Disaster Tourist — How Journalists and Relief Workers Survive and Thrive in War Zones I came across a photo I had taken in Kukes Northern Albania during the Kosovo War when tens of thousands of refugees flooded into Albania.

I was working as a spokesperson for CARE Canada and the team had rented this house not far from the border. The family that owned it was more than happy to move out and live in an underground shelter in exchange for hard currency, and they provided the meals.

Well, getting food in War Zones and Disaster Areas can be a problem and in Kukes, unless you had a lot of money you had to make do with what you could get your hands on.

In this case, it was chickens. Our landlords had a lot of chickens in their back garden and that is what the team ate. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every day after day, for about a month, we ate baked chicken.

We could get other food but that would have meant buying off the black market, which was probably stolen relief food so that was out of the question. But we got lots of offers including many from a local hoodlum who was trying to move up in the ranks from sometime hitman to crime boss.

But beer was cheap and plentiful so all was good with life.