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When three journalists climbed into the four-seater aircraft before leaving Yellowknife in the sub-arctic Northwest Territories, they had no idea all expectations for an uneventful ‘hop’ would evaporate around the mid-point of the planned flight.
The destination was Hay River, an hour southwest by air across Great Slave Lake. The journalists were en route in the tired old plane to a meeting of the Northwest Territories Council. The governing body for the vast territories had decided to hold a day of meetings in Hay River, the NT’s second most populous community. Council staff had chartered a 50-seat aircraft to transport themselves and the councilors. Meeting room equipment and technicians had been sent ahead a few days earlier by truck over a rough unpaved road 300 miles around the lake. It would take them a full day.
The Council at the time had two assignments – to govern the territory and to begin the slow process of preparing the vast and sparcely populated region for eventual self-government. It was the early 1970s and the federal government at the time appointed the councilors. Not surprising, appointees were friendly to the party in power. And they got special treatment, including comfortable transportation and isolation from journalists during the trip there and back. The three journalists covering the council meetings for national news services were relegated to the aging Cessna.
The light plane had taken off into a bright sunlit morning. Even from the cruising altitude of 7,000 feet, massive Great Slave Lake looked more like ocean than a lake. The few visible distant shorelines of the 10,500-square-mile lake appeared from the windows of the Cessna to be shimmering mirages.
Looking down it was hard to believe the calendar had turned to June. Ice thick enough in winter to carry heavily loaded transport trucks was only now just beginning to break up. From above, the ice had become floes of various sizes surrounded by veins of water resembling an irregular honeycomb.
To pass the time the three journalists gossiped about council events. Their conversation was interrupted when the single engine aircraft carrying them and the pilot coughed and sputtered. The three apprehensive journalists watched as the burly, bleary-eyed bush pilot tinkered with the fuel mixture and other controls. The engine coughed few more times and then continued, as the three said later, with a less happy rhythm than at takeoff.
The journalists looked down, worried and wondering if any of the ice floes might be large enough and strong enough to land the wheel-equipped plane. The bearded pilot anticipated their question by assuring them they could not land on the ice. That prompted the next question, raised by the journalist sitting next to pilot, whose tense face did nothing to increase his passengers’ comfort.
“Do you mind me asking what kind of emergency supplies you have on board?” the front-seat journalist asked.
The pilot looked at him through blood-shot eyes. His face broke into a grin as he reached under the seat.
“Here you go,” he said, handing the journalist next to him a 40-ounce bottle of dark rum. It had been opened. The bottle was down about a third.
A half hour later the plane landed safely in Hay River. The bottle of rum was getting low.
Copyright Ó 2012 By James Osborne All Rights Reserved