The six seated airplane, the smallest I had flown in, slipped through a treacherous pass in the Coastal Mountains of British Columbia. The tiny plane dodged clouds amid jagged mountain peaks that seemed close to brushing our wingtips. The engine’s constant drone caused my head to vibrate as we gratefully descended abruptly towards a promised runway. The clouds were molasses thick. Nothing resembling a runway was discernible as I peered through the round porthole. Trying my best to relax, I relinquished my faith to the pilot`s, hopefully, capable hands.
I had been recruited to become the Probation Officer for British Columbia’s northwest corner. The City of Terrace would be my headquarters. This small town of about 1300 people was located two latitudes north of my previous most northerly venture. I knew nothing of the community and only that my new manager would be greeting me for a guided tour.
The pilot miraculously located the runway, bouncing twice before sliding to its perilous climax close to some rather ominous snow banks. It was an incredible landing considering the copious concentration of clouds floating only meters above the ground.
With wobbly knees, I disembarked the pesky aircraft to see a wiry, and shabbily dressed, little man striding purposely towards me. It seemed apparent that homeless people were permitted on the airport tarmac. Before I could sidestep him, he thrust a hand in mine, shook it vigorously then snatched up my luggage. Beside the runway I noticed a decrepit Ford Maverick with roof so indented small children could use it as a wading pool come summer. The seemingly homeless man, with luggage in hand, strode resolutely towards the relic. Refusing to relinquish my gear, he left me no alternative but to follow. The Maverick boot popped open and the entirety of my earthly possessions was tossed casually within. I noticed the artefact’s back seat was inhabited by a rusty muffler. Inviting me to follow, the dishevelled one climbed into the driver`s seat. With the Maverick engine roaring vociferously, there was no capacity for conversation or explanation. It became apparent the muffler would have been much more functional in a location other than the back seat and this little man was very likely my new boss. The Maverick, I would learn, would become my work vehicle.
We rumbled through Terrace with my companion pointing out the town’s highlights, of which there were few. Terrace consisted of one main street and a few ancillary tentacles emanating from the centre. These streets appeared as forsaken as the vehicle in which we journeyed. The backdrop was magnificent, however, as mountain peaks grandly ascended skyward on all sides, at least when the clouds allowed visibility.
We drove tunnel-like streets as snow lined their borders in billowous mounds. We swerved onto one of the side streets and parked before a quaint bungalow that was to be my home for the next few months. Similar to the streets, there was a narrow path of shoulder height snow leading to my front door. I would discover a vehicle parked in my front yard that became visible only upon spring’s thaw. The house was adequate, but my furniture remained absent for several weeks, leaving me to camp on the living room carpet. Disregarding this inconvenience, I reported for work the following morning to discover my boss immersed in client files stacked at a similar height as the snow outside. It seems a second Probation Officer could not be enticed to venture north for some time….until now! What had I done??
As an initial assignment, my supervisor, apparently sought to test my competence. As an initial task I was sent out to locate a client named “Bob” who had failed to attend several appointments. With only an address and no information about Bob, I deafeningly set out in the dented Maverick to find our wayward client. Locating the address, I knocked on the door several times. I could hear noises that appeared to be emanating from within but the occupants did not appear to be greeting me with open arms. Eventually a very intoxicated elderly gentleman hurled the door aside and roared, “What in hell do you want?”
Identifying myself, the apparent Bob, invited me into a wreckage of a foyer and began to expound on his wartime contributions and questioned why the government persisted in his persecution. There was absolutely no furniture in his home, somewhat similar to mine, but an array of empty bottles made walking further into the depths of his dwelling impossible. As Bob’s wrath escalated, along with the volume of his discord, I gave him my card with an appointment to report the next day…sober. Apparently not ingratiating myself to the disorderly Bob, he slammed the door behind me, seemingly in protest for his disregarded wartime contributions.
Returning to the office, my employer, thinking some further real-life experience was needed, informed me I would accompany him on the northern Court circuit that I would eventually inherit. We would travel through such exotically named conurbations as: Aiyansh, Kispiox, Iskut, Kitwanga, and Telegraph Creek. I was excited. I would partake in some real corrections work while experiencing the wilds of northern British Columbia.
My leader retrieved me from my slumbers early one morning in a deluxe 4X4 GMC. Considering the hierarchical implications of this vehicle in contrast to my Maverick, we set off for dominions more northerly.
Our first stop was a cabin near Kitwanga. Apparently the band chief had overstepped his authority with the local maidens and found himself exorcised from his community. He would be my second client after Bob who, by the way, never did report. We interviewed my new client, Francis, in his living room while he industriously skinned a moose on his living room carpet. My mentor, seemingly regarding this as standard practice, took notes as if he were sitting at his office desk.
The Great White North is called thus, I believed, because of its immense expanse. It is also amazingly empty. We drove for hour upon hour, seldom passing another vehicle or viewing a man-made structure. There were certainly no Starbucks. After many hours of endless gravel roads we stopped on a small rise where my companion pointed to a valley between two hills. “If you can find this valley,” he said, “You will locate your third client,” whom he described as, “a bit of a recluse”.
Setting out on a little path not quite as wide as our 4X4, our wheels churned through a sea of mud while branches scraped paint from our doors. I would be required to visit this client in mid-summer or dead of winter because the path was impassable otherwise.
We ground our way along the trail, eventually encountering a cabin in the woods. Arthur, it seems, only ventured to town about once a year when he tended to imbibe large quantities of intoxicants. He, consequently, would find himself behind bars. Arthur, wisely, seldom left his cabin. He proved an affable and welcoming host, however, providing us a nice lunch of venison and cornbread, shot and baked respectively by his own hands.
We left Arthur, making our way back to the road, and arrived in Stewart by dusk. Stewart, like Terrace, is surrounded by a dramatic spectacle of mountains that soar heavenward regardless of one’s bearing. The King Edward Hotel would be our residence while in Stewart. We retired to our respective rooms with my guide promising to alert me of the dinner hour. I showered and changed, expecting to attend a local diner and retire early, in anticipation of the long day to follow. About 7 PM there was a resounding clamor at my door. The wiry one appeared, wearing the same clothes he had worn daily since my arrival.
Following my mentor, we boarded our trusty 4X4. Before leaving, however, he looked me in the eyes and declared, “I never want to hear about you doing what we are about to do. “ I swallowed hard in affirmation, visualizing my young career terminated before its launch.
Driving Stewart`s main street, we came upon a border crossing. We were entering the United States of America at Alaska in a Canadian government vehicle. While I considered the implications of such an act, my boss waved to the attendant who smiled in recognition. No passport was needed in the wilds of my boss’s world. We drove about 20 meters into America before stopping at a ramshackle building that was identified as the Last Chance Saloon. This, it seems, would be our dining venue for the evening.
The little saloon contained few patrons leaving us to choose a table near the bar. We were immediately approached by the bartender who held one small glass of a clear elixir. It was explained that any new arrivals to Hyder, Alaska must be “Hyderized”. The bartender thrust the glass in my face and clarified that I was to consume the totality of its contents in one guzzle or be responsible for the entire establishment`s drinking pleasure for that evening. Fortunately, I downed the potion in one go and, with hardy meals consumed, many laughs, and a return to my country of birth by dawn, I had been fully Hyderized.
I remained in the north for two years with similar experiences and many lessons learned. It would seem life above the 55th Parallel attracts a certain population with a lifestyle very likely evolved in response to the environment they inhabit. It became apparent that size is not the only aspect of greatness in the Great White North.