I’ve recently submitted several book reviews to Fiddlehead literary magazine.
- Susan Haley “Handsome, Clever and Trash-talking” vol 266, winter 2016, p109.
- Susan Haley “Review of Half blood blues” Fiddlehead blog, 2012.
I’ve recently submitted several book reviews to Fiddlehead literary magazine.
I was having a hard time realizing I had retired. After all, I was only 30.
It was late summer. Things had not gone particularly well so far. How could I be sure I had made a good decision? Of course, I already knew and loved Fort Norman, with its dusty main street, the Mackenzie beach, the cliff beside our house, the forest of dwarf spruce and the icy Great Bear River beyond. But the University of Winnipeg had offered me a job, and I had turned it down. Perhaps that had been unwise?
By this time Marten and I had invented a bookkeeping system that we continued to use all the rest of the time we were in business. Everything had to be written down 4 times so that when we had neglected to write it down in one place – as I almost always did — it would show up somewhere else. The only good, reliable element was our adding machine.
My father had told us: “Get an adding machine with a tape.”
Marten had come to visit me in my nice little house in Calgary and we had spotted an ad in the Calgary Herald: “antique business machine with tape.” Of course it didn’t say that, but that was what it was.
After negotiating on the phone – the adding machine cost $50, not a trivial amount for us — Marten went out by taxi to get it, neglecting at the same time to take the door key. Luckily, I had already shown him how he could get in the front windows if he ever got locked out – a contingency I myself always had to plan for.
Marten returned home, clutching the adding machine to his bosom and began negotiating the front window. First to remove the screen . . .
It was a nice little Italian district where I lived, and people really cared about the way the neighbourhood was going downhill. A woman across the way came out on her porch and shouted: “Stop thief!!”
“I’m calling the police!”
Marten put the screen back on and resignedly sat down on the doorstep, the adding machine cradled on his lap. A few minutes later 4 police cars with dogs in them screeched to a halt by the curb.
When I finally came home – knowing nothing of all this – I found Marten sitting beside my timid Polish landlord in his car. The landlord was obviously wondering: where did that delightful man from Nova Scotia go? Now I have this tenant – she says she is professor – but who is the guy then, with the antique business machine he is guarding?
Marten on that occasion had brought with him a large number of presents in the country food category to sustain me over the winter. Ptarmigans, 6 of them. A couple of black ducks. Some whitefish. A large piece of caribou meat.
At the time I still lacked a refrigerator, having recently moved in. The fish we could eat immediately. We kept the meat, thawing, in the cellarway of the house. Later we started washing it with brine daily. It was kind of an emergency, as there was no way that we could deal with 6 ptarmigans and a huge piece of caribou all at once ourselves.
There was only one thing for it. To give a party for my friends in the philosophy department.
It is funny what people travel with. My friend Mary Richardson always took a garlic press. With others it is perhaps a copy of The World As Will and Idea. With us it was the larding needle.
If you are cooking game you need a larding needle. A larding needle, a saw, a hatchet, a boning knife, a carving knife, a meat hammer, a good strong set of hooks, a crock, a sack of rock salt, a jorum of sour wine or vinegar . . .
Anyway, at least we had the larding needle, and so we set about making the large piece of caribou edible by lacing it with pork fat and marinating it for three days in wine. The ptarmigans had actually made themselves edible by turning green. Roasted, they were the best ptarmigans I ever ate, and I decorated them with grapes, as though they were a European dish of quail. Added to this was a huge salad and a set of cream puffs, which I knew how to make at that time.
The philosophers I liked arrived and ate; they lingered, lying on cushions or sitting in my sparse furniture, talking of The World As Will and Idea. Semi Chellas, aged 8, who came with her parents, licked the chocolate off her puff to the admiration of everyone present. Later, an argument broke out over freight rates, but was resolved before anyone actually had to go outside and resort to fisticuffs on the lawn.
Later that year a friend of mine from the early years of graduate school moved in with me. She had become an actress, performing in plays downtown, and her henna-dyed hair stuck out a foot on either side of her head. Every night she would come home and compose a diet food of parsley, canned spinach, yogurt, and brewers’ yeast in the blender to take to the theatre for lunch.
Once Brigid and I had enough money apiece to splurge and go to a French restaurant. We went and had something delicious. Then, considerably lit up on the bottle of wine we had expensively consumed as well, we returned to Bridgeland by bus. In the bus stop we met two young men, decently attired in nice white shirts, ties, grey flannel trousers.
Women of the night!
To add to it all, we were both smoking cigars.
Brigid introduced us.
“Well, I’m an actress actually.”
Actress. Ah, yes. They could well believe it.
“And my friend here, she’s a philosophy professor.”
I suppose it was on account of this kind of thing that, now, in Fort Norman, I was feeling melancholy. My career was over.
In June, Mary Richardson and I had gone on another canoe trip down the Mackenzie in our canoe, the Miz Mamzelle Hepzibah. Our ambition had been to make it to Tuktoyaktuk. Unfortunately, we had a stretch of bad weather. It took us nearly 10 days to reach Norman Wells. Marten flew overhead, back and forth. Then we were paddling fast to make it to Fort Good Hope. The Dene National Assembly was in Good Hope that summer and we were trying to get there in time for that.
It was an exciting time. The Berger Report had come out by then, recommending against the building of a Norman Wells Pipeline until there was a political and social infractructure of some kind in the Mackenzie Valley. That meant Land Claims. The Government of Canada was trying to get all the interested parties together into one negotiating body: the Metis, the three or four linguistic groups, the different regions . . . It wasn’t working. I had told Mary about how, attending the last summer meeting of the Dene National Assembly in Fort Norman, I had seen the whole process of consensus blown apart by Herb Norwegian. He got up in the slumbrous meeting under the tent roofs and galvanized the old women and the ancient chiefs, saying:
“If we give up our old traditions, our chief and council structure, and join the Metis, what will we have left?”
He was a beautiful and radical young man and he didn’t actually believe in the chief and council structure for one moment, but he had pressed the button. As a result of what he said the natives could come to no agreement with the Metis.
We weren’t getting to Fort Good Hope. We had had to stop again, by the mouth of the Mountain River and wait out the rain and wind. I sat by the campfire and reread The Pickwick Papers in the drizzle. Mary remained inside the tent. Later, a bear or wolverine showed up while both of us were asleep and deprived us of our food box.
Mary followed its trail into the bushes.
I followed reluctantly, wringing my hands. “Hey, Mary, maybe it’s a grizzly bear!”
“I’m going to get back the food, okay?”
She found the box, which still contained some spaghetti and a bulb of garlic.
In Good Hope we arrived too late for the Assembly. I called Marten and asked him to come and get us. We looked at the angelic church there, with the starry ceiling painted by the priest-explorer Emile Petitot. (I didn’t realize how much I was going to think about that later.) Then Mary went home from Norman Wells.
Now I had actually begun to live in Fort Norman.
All I had was the adding machine. Every night Marten would come home and in our anxiety we would find yet another deficiency in my bookkeeping.
The adding machine, I must add, was in no way electronic. It was one of those that used a mechanical principle only and had to be moved forward, with each logical operation, by the ratcheting of an arm on the side.
I began to write a novel at this point.
Things like that happen all the time nowadays. People sit down at the computer and hammer them out. But then, back in those grisly days, and in that place, it was a matter of a 1000 sheets of looseleaf paper and say, two dozen pens.
Winter arrived. The flying had to cease at 6:00, at 5:00, then at 4:00, because of the dark coming down. Our little house was there, above the cliff. Marten, having taken the plane off floats, was walking to and from the airport on the esker up the road. The neighbours had gone to Willow Lake to pick berries, shoot ducks, fish and hunt and trap till Christmas.
Oddly enough, the novel actually began to come along.
Marten would check in upon me now and then, once again happy in my work. He began doing the bookkeeping himself and his own deficiencies bothered him nearly as much as mine had (I couldn’t help noticing.)
It was December the 23rd. We had one of those huge windstorms that the Mackenzie always has at this time of year. Sometimes they are Chinooks, and possibly this was one of those. The barometer will drop several points within hours.
I meandered up to the airport and plugged in the lights, then hurried back to my novel. Marten landed as darkness was falling. It was already windy. He had a tie-down: two 45 gallon drums of gas, to which he anchored both wings of the plane. Les Roth’s Super Cub was standing there, anchored as well, to two wooden pallets with 10 gallon kegs on them. Marten noticed the kegs rocking in the wind as the wind tore at the pallets, but there was nothing he could do.
Time to walk home. He stumped down the hill. Caribou stew. Me deep in ink. A few hours in the toils of the adding machine.
Later we woke up and heard the wind howling, felt the house rocking. Marten was calm. The tie-downs secured the plane completely.
However, they didn’t secure Les’s plane. Which dumped the gas cans off the pallets, then took off all on its own, flew over our plane and crash-landed on the other side. Taking a few bits of our plane’s wing with it.
The following morning Les and Marten went up to look at the damage. Les’s plane had been totalled; ours was seriously damaged, but – in Marten’s view, it was still flyable. Then Marten returned home, and after packing a few essentials – his log book, of course, money, the book he was reading – Marten said,
“Bye. I’ll be back in a couple of days “
and took off for Yellowknife, regardless of the damage to the wing, while I watched, heart in mouth.
I returned to my novel. I had a Dietrich Fischer-Diskau recording of German lieder at that time and I listened to it over and over, while I was writing.
“I’ll be here over Christmas. No one is working.”
I wrote on, to the resounding refrain of Fischer-Diskau delivering Schubert and Goethe.
“I’m staying with Leo now. The parts haven’t arrived. I’ll be back by New Year.”
The heck with that. It was actually New Year’s Eve, and a big drum dance was being held in the Community Hall. Having missed Christmas completely, I decided to leave Dietrich playing by himself and attend the dance.
I arrived, as usual, hours too early. But by this time I knew about drum dances. It was just a matter of waiting for a certain old woman dressed in flowered skirt and buckskin leggings, Madeleine Karkajie or Georgina Yallee –sometimes it was another one – to start dancing. The drummers would rise, and then the whole hall, which had been sitting shyly on the sidelines, would get up and caper. We danced in a circle. The women danced demurely – but this was harder than you might think, as the action was entirely below the hips – while the men leapt around and hallooed. Sometimes a single dance would go on for half an hour. Fred Gaudet told me once that he had been in a dance circle in Fort Providence that went on for three days.
Meanwhile our little community hall got hotter and hotter, under the influence not only of the gas drum stove, but also of the three hundred bodies pressed into a spiral. We left off that dance at 6:00 a.m. and I staggered home with shin splints.
All the same, it had been a good dance.
Marten (on the phone): “I should be home in a couple of days.”
“Well, that’s good. Happy birthday!” His birthday was January 2.
Many days later I got up from the trance induced by Dietrich Fischer-Diskau and thought: there’s nothing to eat. I should make bread. I had a big bread bowl in which we used to make all the bread. In those days to make bread took most of a day, but it was well worth it, as it was usually the only bread you could get in the sub-arctic, and certainly the only bread you could afford.
Later in the afternoon, just as the bread dough was beginning to swell, I heard Marten coming in, bringing with him a plethora of rye bread and pumpernickel, turkey, mandarin oranges, vintage wines, a bottle of cognac, carrots, potatoes, even lettuce – for heaven’s sake! We made a pile in the kitchen of our house and began to eat our way through it to the other side. On the other side was the bread dough, as I occasionally uneasily remembered.
Finally we made it through all that food. I found the bread dough, sitting in a little pool of alcohol. I added a bit more flour, kneaded it briefly, baked it, and we ate the bread. By then we were back to caribou stew.
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!