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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

Come Fly With Me……

February 15, 2004

Delmar made some adjustment at the controls and the long blades, which had been circling lazily above the canopy of the Bell Ranger, began a serious rotation that blended into a continuous halo over us.  Even through the padded head-phone that was wreaking havoc with my hastily devised hairdo, I could hear the scream of the jet engine trying to gain the power required to lift the big chopper and its burden of  bodies and equipment into the air. 

“Shoot,” I thought.  “Not gonna do it today, that extra pork chop I had at supper last night has tipped the balance the wrong way for sure.”  But suddenly, all thoughts of pork chops or, indeed, any other comestibles, were gone as the helicopter began a smooth vertical ascent, leaving my stomach lurching to catch up.  Delmar glanced over.  “Just take a few deep breaths, “ he said into the voice-activated microphone at his mouth.  “And don’t look down for a bit.”

Good advice, I decided as I automatically peered down between my feet at the world dropping swiftly away.  Squinching my eyes tightly shut, I leaned back in my seat and surreptitiously tested my lap and shoulder straps for slack.  Good Lord Harry, I wondered, what had I been thinking when I had agreed to… no, had not just agreed to,  but had enthusiastically embraced, a surprise invitation to go flying that morning.  What, I didn’t have enough stress in my life with a doggie-adoption looming, a woodpile that was not going to last if we got another prolonged cold snap, and a column that, ideally, should have gone in that very afternoon?  Sure, I really needed to be inserting my newly-retired, arthritic, raggy old body into a machine, apparently made of aluminum foil wrapped over balsa wood, and go kiting off into the back country with nothing more substantial than a thin sheet of plexiglass between said body and countryside. Heck, if this worked well, perhaps I could take up hang-gliding in the off-season.  No telling what kind of indelible impressions that could sear into my psyche to go along with the choppering,  kind of a matched set of traumas. 

I’d just been sitting there, minding my own business and enjoying good start on my

second cup of coffee, when the phone rang.  It was my friend, Pat Maltais.  “Hey, what are you  up to?”  Before I could enumerate my plans for a busy day, he went on.  “The reason I ask…I’m going out on a water survey at the Tutshi and Wheaton Rivers, and wondered if you’d like to come along?  We’d be flying with Delmar Washington…you know Delmar… and Capital Helicopters and there’s an extra seat and I thought you might like…”

Flying?  Me, in a helicopter?  An uneasy memory niggled.  Still…“Sure Pat, I’d love it.  Give me in twenty minutes,” I blurted and hung up on his admonition to “dress warm.” 

Thirty minutes later, I lumbered into the Capital Helicopters building in jeans over long johns, shirt, vest, fleece jacket, windbreaker, an old deer-stalker cap of Phil’s, leather mitts and my only winter boots, a rakish pair of old-lady cocktail boots with a stacked heel.  I sincerely hoped I wouldn’t have to hang around in a warm building or require the use of a bathroom any time soon. Within moments of my arrival, Pat and Delmar had welcomed me, appraised my attire, exchanged my elegant -if unsuitable- footwear for a pair of fat, thermal “bunny” boots reputed to be guaranteed to minus 120 or so, and shoehorned me into the shotgun seat of the fragile craft  perched lightly on the tarmac.

A friend of mine, an enthusiastic kayaker, had once invited me to try his kayak on the Teslin River.  As I stood looking down at the small craft snubbed up to a stake on the riverbank, my only thought was, “My God, I will never fit all this hip into that little hole!” Now, as I’d stood on the skid peering into the cockpit of the chopper, all I could think was, “Dear God, if I can’t get all of me into that small space, please let me die right on the spot!”

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried.  There was not much room to spare and the lap belt was pretty darn snug but once I got my eyes un-squinched, I realized that though the world was dropping away at a pretty good clip indeed, I was not going anywhere but onwards and upwards  with my two very calm, very cool companions. 

“So, is this your first time in a helicopter?”  I glanced in horror at Delmar, waiting for him to reply but then realized that Pat had been talking to me.  “Well, no…my brother took me up in a little Bell once, nearly 40 years ago.  I was terrified.”  I paused, remem-

bering that long-ago, white-knuckled trip, then added,  “I was worried I might be today too, but I’m not.”  And I really wasn’t, I realized with some surprise as I twisted this way and that, trying to see as much as I could of the mountains and lakes and valleys unspooling beneath us as we beat steadily toward a small patch of open water that signified the start of the Tutshi river.

After settling down lightly on an incredibly small wooden landing platform beside a small shack belonging to Water Survey of Canada, the men unloaded a pile of equipment and, working comfortably as do men who have shared chores for a long time, began taking precise readings of snow and ice.  Presently, burdened with bags and spools and satchels of delicate instruments, they headed out toward the patch of open water, inviting me to come or stay, just as I chose.  With a rueful look toward the relative comfort of the chopper cockpit, I stepped into knee deep snow, following their footsteps as they led to the river.

.  Huffing and puffing, I floundered along with my own burden, a thermos and a camera, not to mention the verdomme boots that had the displacement, if not the weight-bearing properties of snowshoes.  By the time I arrived, Pat had already changed out of insulated overalls and snow packs and into Neoprene waders and laced boots and was wading across the shallow, fast flowing stream to secure a measuring line on the far side.  Then he was back into the water for an interminable length of time, juggling a long gismo with a cluster of cup on the bottom, a small machine that emitted a shrill beep every few seconds, a note book and  pencil as  he recorded water velocity.  Cold work, I thought, even on a nice day like this, but Pat seemed impervious to the elements as he moved slowly across the river, braced against the pull of the current and making neat notations for the record while Delmar and I drank hot coffee and visited on the shore.

An hour and many, many calculations later, we were in the air again, on our way to a wide bend on the twisty Wheaton River and a whole ‘nother operation, this one requiring the use of an ice auger.  While Pat began drilling the first of  a dozen test holes in the river ice, Delmar grabbed a saw from the chopper and started gathering dry wood to build a fire to roast the smokies they had brought along for our lunch.

Pat looked over from his test site.  “Gonna show Ellen how to start a fire using Reindeer moss?” he asked.

Delmar laughed and shook his head.  “Nope, I want to use that old Indian trick my father taught me.”  He heaped a pile of dried twigs and small branches and arranged a few bigger pieces on top until the configuration suited him,   Then, with a grin, he pulled a small red gas can from the pile of equipment and poured a small amount over the wood, ensuring an instant fire.  Now it was my turn to laugh.  “Oh, THAT trick!  My husband used to tell me that it was an old farmer’s trick…”

There was still a lot of daylight left as we began our trip back to Whitehorse but blue shadows had begun to gather in the valleys below.  Delmar nudged me and pointed to the left and down.  A moose, browsing on willow tips at the edge of a frozen slough, lifted its head and glanced at us;  we might have been an unseasonable mosquito buzzing by for all it cared. Further on, we eased around a rocky mountain bluff, examining it’s jagged rocks and ledges for mountain goats but they’d taken the day off and we flew on without sighting any of the intrepid animals.  Soon scattered settlements began appearing in our view and less than an hour after wolfing down hot, blackened sausages laced with  ketchup and mustard, we were back on the tarmac outside the Capital hanger.

While the men unloaded the equipment, I changed back into my old leather boots that felt strangely small and dainty as I clip-clopped back outside to say goodbye to my good companions.  There was a flurry of hugs and thanks and promises of baked goods in their immediate future as I took my departure, turning back for one final wave before exiting through the building, back to my maybe-puppy, the incredible shrinking woodpile, and, yes, my life of quiet desperation.  I was chilly, tired, a bit achy and  whatever style I’d managed to comb into my hair all those hours ago, had long since yielded to wind and damp and Phil’s old cap.  I looked a wreck but there was a huge grin on my face and I swaggered just a bit as I strode toward my car in my old-lady boots: Indiana Davignon, adventurer.

Some days, I have to tell you, are just a whole bunch less-desperate than others.

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