It was the last day of float flying.
That is to say, it was the last day we intended to keep the Cessna 185 on floats up north before sending it south for the changeover to wheel skis. And a very nasty, messy, cold, wet, raw day it was. Also dark.
Marten had started off in the morning flying gas to bush camps. Naturally on the very last day he had a full slate of flying to do, people having left getting their bush orders till late, or finally mustered the money or credit for gas and groceries at the last moment.
All day long I heard him on the radio, going in and out, taking off from the lake, gone for an hour, sometimes less, then back for another load.
Meanwhile the ceiling was low and there was that autumnal fog that afflicts the Mackenzie Valley in September and October all around us.
There was no other flying and I was listening with only half an ear.
Charlotte was 10 months old and we were hanging around together all day. It was about 4:00 and beginning to get dark; we were listening to Schubert’s The Trout, thinking about what to eat for supper. Marten had not checked in for some time.
Father Posset dropped by with his old truck (which had previously belonged to a Pentecostal minister, someone we had known in 1971.) He was paying a bill, but he lingered for a chat; I think our place was looking kind of cosy on that miserable day. It was on this occasion that he told me about the Pope’s visit.
The Pope had promised George Erasmus that he would come and visit the Dene. 6000 people who had come by truck, car, boat and airplane had foregathered at Fort Simpson to greet him on his brief stopover. However, there was, as usual at the time of year, a dense Mackenzie River fog. The Pope’s plane circled, but could not land, then turned back for Yellowknife. The Pope ascended briefly in Yellowknife, where there were a few Dene people to greet him, then flew off to another stop on one of his grand round-the-world missions.
In the meantime, the people on the ground were bitterly disappointed. They had n all prepared with an eternal flame lit to mark the occasion, a tepee for the Pope to sit in while they all filed past for his blessing . . . Now there was to be no dance, no celebration. . .
That night, some people from the Sah Tu had the idea to invite Margaret Dick, our shaman from Ross River. They got together and passed the hat around, and raised enough money to charter a plane to get her from Ross River.
Although the Pope had not been able to land in Fort Simpson because of the fog, the old lady from Ross River, as a weather changer, had no trouble with that at all. Her plane arrived as the fog was clearing off, and she got right down to business, sitting, as Father Posset told me, not where the Pope would have sat, but a little way off, and shaking the hand of the 6000 people who solemnly filed past her.
“Her coming helped. It just helped to make up for it,” Father Posset said.
He was a tall old priest, white-haired, with a fairly strong French accent, and an ironic sense of humour, which gave him an air of sophistication.
At this point Edward Yakeleya came into the room.
People in Fort Norman did not knock. They appeared in the room.
Sometimes this could be a little alarming, as when my neighbour, Ethel, suddenly materialized in the house late one night wanting to borrow a screwdriver – to get into her house – because her house was locked – by her husband George, who was inside – who was bleeding – possibly bleeding to death — because she had stabbed him – in the heart.
After the police and the nurse got into the house, George was sent to the hospital in Inuvik on an emergency medevac, and lived. He and Ethel then went to detox, she got into a program in Fort Smith for interpreters, and the story has a happy ending. They now live down at the other end of town in a cosy little house with their son Keith’s Siamese cat.
On that night in October, Eddie appeared. He was there suddenly.
“Marten not back yet?” he asked me.
“I didn’t hear him come in.” I had been feeling a little uneasy about that. “Maybe I just didn’t hear him. He was taking your gas to Willow Lake, wasn’t he?”
Eddie looked perplexed. “Wrong lake,” he said.
“Well, that’s where I thought he was going. Let’s go see if he’s back. Can Eddie and I get a ride up there with you, Father Posset?”
We clambered into his truck with the baby and he drove us up the hill to the lake. Marten wasn’t back yet, and furthermore, it was by now, really dark.
“Maybe he stayed out there?” I said to Eddie.
“Wrong lake,” Eddie said again.
Half an hour later I had got Mary Rose Wright to call Willow Lake on the bush radio, and she ascertained that Marten was not there. At this point there was only one thing to do. I called the aeradio station in Norman Wells and reported the plane as missing.
This is something that has to be done as soon as possible, because if there has been a crash, the Emergency Locator Transmitter is supposed to go off on impact. There is an electronic signal that planes in the area with their radios tuned to the right frequency should be able to use to pinpoint the scene of the accident.
However, ELTs quite frequently failed to go off on impact – in my experience this was what usually happened. — How many times have I said this now? Maybe this is the whole story of my life in aviation!
Our pilot, Dawn, wanted to go out the next morning. Willow Lake was only 15 minutes away by air.
“Maybe I could just go out and find him.”
“The weather is too bad. We can’t have two accidents.”
By now it was completely clear that we had had one.
And the weather was terrible. It was the same dense fog that had prevented the Pope from coming in, that had been a contributing factor in the horrible Twin Otter crash of one of our competitors in Fort Franklin a few years earlier.
There was a ground search going on out at Willow Lake. People had gone up the river to have a look and see if he was on the water further up there. But there was no sign.
At noon the military search master contacted me to say he was moving the search headquarters from Edmonton to Norman Wells. That meant there had been no ELT signal picked up overnight from the electronic search. They were coming up with a Hercules to begin a grid search.
I said: “Can you stop in here? There are people here who have suggestions that could help the search.”
“Send them to Norman Wells.”
There was no way of getting anyone to Norman Wells.
There were many people in Fort Norman who had flown over this terrain with Marten. He was only about 15 minutes away by air. A group of Fort Norman people known as “the Willow Lakers,” customarily and from time immemorial, had used these lakes and waterways as their hunting and trapping area.
By this time I had gathered from Eddie that it was Kelly Lake – the Game cabin at the near end, and connected to Willow Lake by river – where Marten had gone to deposit the gas. I had been hoping he might be down on that lake, waiting out the weather. But the people at Willow Lake had already been there to look, going up the river by boat. And as the day passed there was no radio signal of any kind, an ELT signal or a distress call – that would indicate where he was.
People in Fort Norman were restive. I had many visitors. They had flown with him; they were desperate to get out there and look.
“Would you take spotters from Fort Norman?” I asked the Military Search Master.
The answer was the same: “Send them to Norman Wells.”
But we could not move an airplane. The ceiling was right down on the trees.
The search with the Hercules began, and through the broken overcast we could see it droning back and forth.
In the meantime, my domestic economy had been strangely interrupted. Elizabeth Yakeleya, at that time more than 80 years old, toiled up the hill from her house to my house.
“I came to sit with you,” she said
We sat, we had tea. I was very upset, naturally and was having a hard time entertaining an old woman, even though I did care for Elizabeth, a grandmotherly old person with hair in a bun, a spreading lap, not too many teeth; one of the real old elders in the settlement, and a tyrant to the female members of her family.
“Walking,” she remarked. “Before we had plane I walk all over the land.”
“Yes, I suppose you had to, back then,” I replied distractedly.
“From Willow Lake to Stone Lake, one day,” she said. “One day plus one night, with children.” She went on to detail some other walks, how to do them, where they went, how long they took, with children, without children
I was not really listening. But it became clear that Elizabeth intended to stay. She did the dishes, even though I didn’t want her to, and participated in a little house cleaning. Later on I managed to drive her home.
The RCMP in town, a corporal and a constable, had also heard from many, many people that they knew where Marten must be along that route, that if he had crashed it was most likely here or here . . . and etc. But we were all completely trapped by the weather, which was as low as the day before.
Elizabeth came toiling up the hill again the next day, first thing, while I was on the phone with the police.
“By afternoon, we may get the plane,” the corporal was saying in my ear as Elizabeth took up the broom again.
He meant the police Twin Otter, which came down the Mackenzie about once a week, re-supplied the detachments, and moved prisoners around. Flying on instruments, the pilot could make a landing at the airstrip in Fort Norman, even though it didn’t have all the lights and radio apparatus required for a legal instrument approach. No one was going to tell him not to.
Meanwhile that Hercules had again taken up its relentless grid search, and we could see it turning over the Mackenzie, intermittently in and out of fog and cloud, still quite far away from the flight path of the plane. Methodical, that was what it was. That was all it was. It made me want to scream every time I saw it coming back around.
And at home, I had Elizabeth. I had always wondered what would happen if I had to weather a storm like this. Would I get some help from people in the community? As it turned out, one of the community’s old wise women had come to my rescue, but I wasn’t a bit grateful. I was all alone in my bubble of undifferentiated anxiety; the only thing that kept my feet on the ground was the need to keep Charlotte happy.
By mid-morning, the police called me again:
“Okay, they said they’d let us have an hour with our plane. We’re taking up some of these guys from here who want to be spotters.”
“Thank God. Finally!”
Meanwhile, Elizabeth was still talking. I heard her sometimes, reminiscing about her life as a young woman, before planes. The walking they had to do in those days. She had walked to Willow Lake, carrying babies, carrying supplies and leading toddlers. Always walking and carrying.
Elizabeth had been born Elizabeth Blondin in about 1903. She and her brother John were orphaned as young children in one of the disease epidemics, and were sent off to school in Fort Providence, where they remained, without any holidays at home, until they were teen-agers. They were both very intelligent; at school they learned to read and write English, and to speak French, the language of the nuns.
Elizabeth was pious too, and could sing beautifully – I don’t know about the beliefs of her brother John, who had become another much esteemed elder. When I was the mayor of Fort Norman – this had not yet occurred – I went to a Christmas party at the school. Fred Andrew, who was sitting beside me, received a pink Christmas card, carefully crayoned by a little girl. He turned it upside down (as he could not read it), giggling delightedly – he thought it was funny he had been given the pink one. Then Elizabeth sang “Oh Holy Night” in French in her still lovely voice.
When she got back to Fort Norman she married Johnny Yakeleya and took up the traditional occupations of the people in those days: seasonal hunting and fishing, and trapping for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Their traditional ground was the land between Kelly and Willow Lakes and the Willow River, and it was about how she had walked all over that ground with children that Elizabeth kept on relentlessly telling me
Elizabeth had lived a life of tragedy, as had almost everyone in our village who had gone through the great disease epidemics that struck down the native people up north, scarlet fever, measles, influenza – it was probably one of these that had killed her parents — and then the TB epidemic that went on from the beginning of the century into the 50s and killed her children. She had given birth to 13 children, only 4 of whom had lived to grow up. (One was Eddie, whose gas Marten had been flying.)
Or was Marten still flying? I was in a kind of suspension. Either he was dead or he was alive. Whichever way, he must be on the ground somewhere. Logic dictated that he could no longer be in the air.
Elizabeth and the baby, Charlotte, and I were eating lunch when we heard the police Twin Otter come in. A short while later it took off again. I looked at my watch.
Then we heard the police plane calling:
“Fort Norman radio, Fort Norman radio, we are returning to the Fort Norman airstrip . . . Now on final approach into Fort Norman . . .”
“What?” I said to Elizabeth: “But they were only out for 12 minutes! What happened?”
Dawn, our pilot, called me from the airport. “He’s walking,” she said.
“What? He’s what?!”
They had found him. That is to say, they had seen him, walking home. He was walking in one of those long cut lines, created for seismic exploration, that crisscrossed the Mackenzie Valley.
In the meantime, the Hercules stopped droning around and went home, the ceiling lifted a little, enough for a helicopter to go out and pick Marten up, also enough for Dawn to take off in our Cessna 172 and go to Norman Wells for champagne.
What had been happening to Marten in the meantime was this. He had made a mistake, even though he had flown this way, good weather and bad for years on end, and very often on the last possible day of float flying. He was cutting across, intending to follow a path on the ground, used for time immemorial by the native people walking out here, and he had made his turn too soon, before he actually saw the path. The next thing he knew he was flying into a slope covered with trees. He increased the power, but it was hopeless. He went into the canopy of the trees.
Then he found himself still sitting inside the cockpit of the aircraft on the ground. The wings had been mangled, and he couldn’t get his door open. However, he kicked out the windshield, clambered out over the nose and then ran as fast as he could downhill. There were nine 10 gallon kegs of gas in the back of the plane.
After awhile, when it became apparent that there was not going to be an explosion, he went back and found the ELT which had not gone off. He tried, this way and that, to set it off manually, but it wasn’t working.
Taking stock of the situation, he decided to walk out. He got the rifle, some heavy clothing, the survival rations, axe, compass, etc. He was only about 20 miles from home.
The walking was rough; very rough in the dark. Eventually he tumbled into a seismic line and walked down it. But it began to lead him off in the wrong direction. He had to start through the woods again. He walked part of the night, and all the next day after he woke up again.
That evening he had a hallucination. He was sitting on a log in the woods, resting, and it seemed to him as though he was in the presence of his parents. Later on that night, he hallucinated about Charlotte, hearing her voice, and mine.
He walked that night as well, then slept and got up the following day to walk again. He never got the ELT to function.
So when Elizabeth was telling me about walking, why wasn’t I listening? When Marten went down, everyone in town but me had begun to think about walking. Walking out there was the way they had got their intimate knowledge of the terrain; it was why they were sure they would be able to find him. And furthermore, it was what they knew he was doing.
When they found him he had been on a seismic line again, and walking in the wrong direction They pointed that out to him and he said it was easier than walking through the bush. Nevertheless, after he got off the helicopter, he said to me:
“I would have been coming in the back door tomorrow.”
“You would have had to get over the Great Bear River.”
“I would have done that.”
There was a huge party going on at the airport, when Dawn came back with the champagne. I tried to pour 2 bottles of champagne into a hundred coffee cups, poked out the windows of pick-up trucks. The party continued in our house after that. Fort Norman people were pretty fond of Marten; they had a nickname for him, Eh t’se, the honorific that means Grandfather. They had all flown with him out there, over that very landscape, and they also felt – and it was true! – they had helped to save his life this time. In our living room was one of those scenes where just about everyone came by to shake hands, and many of the old people sat down and stayed, not saying much, just being there. Mary Rose . . . and Elizabeth . . . just sitting in chairs by the wall. Eddie beaming with joy.
After that, I thought we ought to give a party.
The usual thing in Fort Norman was to have a drum dance. They always had one at Christmas and New Year’s, when the old lady from Ross River was present or if there was a big meeting in town, or when a popular policeman had to move on. We couldn’t exactly give a drum dance ourselves, but we could hire the hall and provide the food.
Marten was being interviewed by the newspapers in southern Canada, by the scandal sheets in Britain and Germany. The day after his rescue, he devoted the whole day to the telephone. I said to him: “Just get it over with. This is something you have to do.”
It was a lesson we had learned from his earlier crash. Talk to them and by next day they will forget you. Don’t talk and you are like a deer in the headlights.
At that time, Marie Wilson was the anchor of a weekly TV show on northern issues, and she came in with a film crew to interview Marten about his accident, and about his survival and the triumphant way in which he was found. They then went to Fort Franklin to do another story, but came back in time to attend our party. At the time we were a little irritable about having a film crew present, because it seemed invasive; what we were trying to do was private, a way of thanking the community, not just for their support, which was absolute, apparently, but for more than ten years of good relations, good times and good feelings. As it turned out, the resulting TV video footage captured all of that.
I now realize that Fort Norman saved Marten’s sanity. It was a place where he did not feel the potential for scorn and moral disapproval that came after his very public exposure as a cannibal. And the people protected him. No one ever mentioned it. They all knew; but they kept their own counsel about it. Of course, it was something that had happened in their own clan histories from time to time, maybe even less than a generation ago. They also knew how he had been dragged through the newspapers, and branded with various names; and this was happening again right after the accident he had just had.
Jane Gaudet said: “That paper, the Sun, telling all kinds of lies about Marten!”
My favourite headline of the time was: “Cannibal Pilot Does It Again.” (from the Calgary Sun.)
It was Jane who also said, when we started trying to sell out and let Marten retire a few years later:
“You can’t take Marten down south, Susan. He won’t be happy there. There aren’t any trees, and the rivers are all polluted. And there are those murderers everywhere!”
After our party, Marten started flying again; in fact he was flying that film crew around on the day of our party. We just took up where we left off and went on going. The community knew that it had played a heroic role in the events of Marten’s rescue and it made them like him all the better. It isn’t often a pilot has an accident that makes him more popular than he was before.
P.S., of course there was an accident investigation. The investigators came to Fort Norman to talk to Marten. This was in the days when the M.O.T. still did investigations, before the Canadian Aviation Safety Board was created. They sat in our kitchen and the lead investigator held the ELT in his hand and tried to activate it, with our aviation radio tuned to the emergency frequency. It did not work. He looked at it, shook it, looked at Marten.
But in the accident report, it was recorded that the pilot had failed to activate the ELT. I wrote them to protest, and received a reply: they would look into it and do something to change the report if required. However, they didn’t change the report and there it is: the pilot failed to activate the ELT.
Should be the title of a book. Not one I would write!