The Pilot Car


The ‘frontier’ was once a geographical classification: a desert, a mountain range, an axis of special representation. Metaphors such as ‘virgin land’ were coined to locate this as the place of the Other.  And still a kaleidoscope of images wrestle within the concept of frontier as it becomes more vector than ever moving limitless horizon. It can challenge those who recognize the margin it reveals as they come face to face with Thoreau’s proposal, or watch while the Turner Thesis and Manifest Destiny dance about its platform delivering lines of social analysis. If it is regarded as simply a boundary then look beyond to an aporia: empty, uncivilized, unmapped and without a title; but perhaps that’s a place where you have a license to do things you can’t do at home.

In the North West Territories of Canada, the bison ranch’s nearest settlement is Tsiigehtchic, a small community which even after all the boom periods is home to only 140 people. Located at the junction of the Mackenzie and Arctic Red rivers, the latter also known by its Gwich’in name Tsligehnjik, this area has a long history of use for hunting, fishing and trapping. There are many rivers in the region and such geography can cause a fatal confusion if the waterway system is being used for travel. On March 22nd 1911, Corporal W.J.D. Dempster, Canadian Royal North West Mounted Police (‘Mounties’), made the gruesome discovery of four frozen bodies, men overdue by one month from their patrol between Fort McPherson and Dawson; they were only 26 miles from where they had started but their diary entries reveal that they had been walking in circles for weeks. Lack of knowledge of the trail had doomed the trip: “my last hope is gone … we have been a week looking for a river to take us over the divide, but there are dozens of rivers, and I am at a loss” wrote trooper Francis Fitzgerald.

Back in the summer of 1953 when Judy was born in Tsiigehtchic, the chain haul punt across the Mackenzie completed the vehicle access to the Dempster Highway leading to the relative civilization of Fort McPherson, but just like it is today the warning was posted:  No crossing possible during freezeup and breakup. Thus her small family was isolated from late October to early June. And if it wasn’t the climate that thwarted movement then it was the light, with a sun setting on December 6th that did not rise again until exactly a month later. So it was that living on the frontier became the norm for this young girl, home-schooled by a softly spoken mother and drilled in the ways of arctic survival by a resourceful bison rearing father. Visitors were not just rare, they were unheard of and that was how the three were happiest for the next 17 years.

Judy looked out on the flood plain covered in muskeg with a border at the valley edge formed by scrubby alder and stunted black spruce knowing that if she did not leave in the next few days the weather cycle would close the door for another year. So in September 1970 her father and mother made the tricky crossing of Frog Creek very nearly losing one wheel of their pick-up on an unexpectedly slippery clay surface which had been eroded by heavy vehicle traffic to a series of corrugated pits with their edges continuously refrozen, sharpening the lips of each gash to a razor’s edge. The closer they got to Fort McPherson the nearer they came to the bond breaking moment when Judy would head further south alone, crossing the Arctic Circle just before Eagle Plains. Physically the journey would ease up as the road from there to Dawson City became mostly gravel; it would not be until 1978 that the Dempster Highway became complete despite its construction commencing a decade before Judy set off. She continued on from that city in the small converted van being trialled as a people mover by a newly established bus company.

Emotionally this trip also had a tricky landscape to negotiate. Vancouver may just as well have been another planet but that was the destination. Judy was in alien territory, perched in the stand of the Queen’s Park ice rink listening to George Wootton, principal of a still very young Douglas College, as he spoke from center of the arena to the college’s first cohort of students. He explained the three campus sites: a remodeled warehouse on Minoru Boulevard near the Westminster Highway in Richmond, thirteen demountable units at McBride and Eighth Avenue in New Westminster, and finally ten portable buildings at 92nd Avenue and 140th Street in Surrey. These inherently rootless meeting rooms were a confluence of transience and placefulness that earned Douglas College the name “trailer park university”. The shortest option was a twelve month secretarial course offered by the Surrey location within the vocational training sector curriculum, fulfilling the college’s obligation to community oriented non-academic schemes.  Judy set her sights on this most quickly reached branch of the education tree and accordingly made her nest nearby in conveniently located White Rock.

Down on the ocean front or to be precise in a laneway behind the beachside commercial zone, were several old clapboard cottages with share accommodation or rooms to rent. This provided a great opportunity to live almost on top of a part time job in the fish and chip shop, a role which could just about financially support Judy’s lifestyle. The route up 140th Street led eventually but directly in a geometric sense to the campus, and the steep climb ensured that she maintained the fitness that a lifetime of wilderness trekking had implanted in the muscles and organs of her compact frame. She soon found as an alternative that the ravine at the northwestern end of the beach had a rough trail of steps cut into the cliff which led vertically to the woods of Centennial Park and provided a far more familiar styled pathway when compared with the concrete sidewalk of the more conventional road to her place of learning. The locale of Surrey BC is still blessed with huge swathes of parkland, forests of the evergreen and deciduous, small lakes and marshy areas, grassland, creeks and rivers but even in Judy’s short flirtation with its delights back during the early 70’s this natural environment did not fill the void in her heart which was aching, homesick for the untouched vistas of the Northwest Territories.

Housemates Lisa and Eric were a ‘couple’ and enjoying the freedom of the Age of Aquarius with its typical benefits: the wild opening of the Pacific Coliseum hosting the Rolling Stones; a blossoming hippy culture; free love. They supported a brand spanking new Vancouver Canucks in the team’s first foray onto the ice, opening the regular season of the National Hockey League with a disappointing game – Eric came back with the bad news:  “they came out at the wrong end of a 3-1 score, even Barry Wilkins was nervous, he only scored the one. It’s lucky I settled on the $3.50 seat”.  Eric was a thrifty guy and didn’t spend his mechanics wages from the Canadian Tire up in North Surrey without an economic rationalism anticipatory for his time.  In fact his endeavors to save justified his frequent hunting trips, whatever the season there was always some wild thing to shoot and turn into free salami. During that first autumn, each weekend Judy watched from her bedroom window, a view into the long but narrow and steeply terraced yard where the young dog undertook Eric’s own version of home schooling as he attempted to mold her into the retriever that Labrador bloodlines promised.  A hard bristled scrubbing brush with a duck carcass (feathers and all) wired firmly to the wooden base waited Monday to Friday in the freezer. It lay patiently alongside the ice cube tray until it was time to be hurled skyward toward the back fence immediately following the crack of Eric’s starter pistol. The dog was a frenetic participant, needing to be held back until the gunshot as she anticipated the best part of this game: leaping through the weeds and soft earth up the hill to where she had seen the bird land. She quickly learned to hold the prize with utmost care or risk a spiky assault on the soft pink folds of her young mouth and gums, she ran back to her master for loud praise and a good strong rub just where she liked it at the base of the spine.

The dark cold winter although severe for this west coast land of lotus eaters was mild in comparison to the minus forty C bone chilling cold Judy was accustomed to, therefore it was without trepidation that she accepted Eric’s invitation to go for a duck shoot at 6am on the first day of the season. He was by now aware of the stark difference between her tomboyish capabilities and Lisa’s more traditionally feminine pursuits, although Judy didn’t talk much she clearly was an outdoor type, appreciative of the natural beauty of the pre-dawn as it threatened to light the farmland east of the metropolis. These open fields were knee deep in icy water at this time of year, long wide canals with grassy reeds growing up their banks, criss-crossed with thin dirt roads. Eric had laid a clutch of decoy ducks among the shallow water weeds at one corner of the nearest field and then the three of them lay in semi darkness, even the dog crouched tense with anticipation on the slope of the low dyke.

A distant honk breaking from a low note to a higher tone signaled the first arrivals but Eric remained still … “they’re shit ducks” he murmured, “taste like shit ‘cos they eat weed”. He continued to identify birds from afar by their varied calls as it was still too dark to see them clearly at this range. Then suddenly he focused the sights of the Remington12 gauge on an approaching spot in the pale sky, the dog instantly recognizing the body language simultaneously responded to the series of familiar signals and as the shot was fired she instinctively leapt forward. It was a much longer track to the projectile and the resistance of the water, let alone its temperature, should have at least made her pause to acclimatize to the unknown terrain. But with an energy and impetus that shocked them both she raced to the target, collected it gingerly into almost the caress of her jaws, and proudly trotted back in unhurried gait to receive the expected massage of her now wet muddy coat. Judy looked into Eric’s tear filled eyes “ain’t genetics a beautiful thing” he choked.

Even though there were moments of pleasure like this and reasonable success with the secretarial course, Judy was a fish out of water in such a busy place. Too many people, too much noise, and most unsettling was the pace of decision making based often on unfamiliar urban social cues which tested her lack of relevant life experience. White Rock had a spectacular panoramic view which included majestic mountains, the ocean out to the horizon and a long jetty. Down the laneway in front of the house was the sea front road dividing the shops from a railway track running along the edge of the beach. At low tide a huge area of sand became exposed. One Friday during the short but tropical August summer there was a typed page in the letterbox urging neighbours to come to a party to be held next door but one – “the house with the chicken out front” – a little statuette decorating the fence. The writer described a live band.

To ensure successful social blending, he had a bar set up in each room. This he used as a fashion accessory and just like epaulettes, you instantly knew who was in charge. He was always positioned behind one, mixing. Only a love of curries could prepare a palate for the “vodka infernos” that exploded from his pulpit. The stage-prop doubled as a lectern assuring the host of the undivided attention of all present, a very diverse and “arty” crowd who appreciated the paintings hanging everywhere, even from the ceiling. Judy felt she had to be ready to make friends and even reinvent herself to do so. This was far removed from what made up her regular orbit of life back home. Just the setting transformed the ordinary folk of this social scene into quasi movie stars. They drank the cocktails and morphed into cast members with supporting roles that they slid into as though previous lives had been a mere rehearsal for just this moment in time. Even though she had never before been in the same room as marijuana Judy recognised and responded to the characteristic gesture of sharing cigarettes; what had started out as entertaining or even glamorous became confused. The floor boards undulated like the waves she watched from open windows which marked the edge of the wooden balcony.

She felt the cold harsh grains of sand under her shoulder blades and the hot acrid vomit almost choked in her windpipe as she struggled to make some form of protest. His face was a blur in the salt mist air as she drifted in and out of consciousness, but she could clearly feel the rest of his body pinning her to the slope of the beach. There was no sense of recognition, his identity was a mystery and who was she? Some inner self was asserting a voice into the darkness. “How did I find myself here?” Nothing had prepared her for this. She faked blacking out; it wasn’t far from the truth anyway. This ploy worked and soon alone she was able to limp back across the railway track, through the small park and up the laneway to her own door. The noise of the band was still floating from the neighbouring party house even as it glimpsed the dawn.

It was emotionally draining to live surrounded by the unfamiliar. As soon as the Douglas College handed out certificates of graduation it was time to head north but she knew the expectation was for her to use what she had learned, benefit from the experience and not to fall back into the hermit styled existence of her parents. There was a lurking guilt they harbored which fed a deep seated wish that she could step onto a rung of the ladder that had been a stretch too far for them. And the Yukon was not a random choice, there were several of what you could call cosmic pointers or coincidences that led Judy to justify feeling called to work in Whitehorse, not least that it had been recognized as the Yukon capitol in her own year of birth and perhaps even more so that recently the roads were being laid out like arteries from the small but growing town to a hidden Gwich’in valley where her heart lay nuzzled. Recently a discovery of huge reserves of oil and gas at Prudhoe Bay in Alaska had threatened the Canadian claims to mineral riches on outlying Arctic islands in the Beaufort Sea, billions of dollars were at stake, and political fortunes now hung in the balance on both sides of the border. The Canadian government was afraid that the United States would develop the massive oil field with no consultation, no consideration and no benefits to its next-door neighbour. A century ago Turner’s thesis had proposed that the American identity was forged precisely at this point, the juncture between civilized settlement and the savagery of wilderness. Canada wanted to assert control over access to the site for America, the mother nation which was in reality cut off from its Alaskan child.  The trump card was road building.

Highways would give Judy an easier track back and forth between the parental home and her new life than had ever been imaginable in the past, especially as much of the new construction followed a familiar old dog sled trail she had run many times with her father in the old days. They had always kept the dog kennels in a clearing circled by thick dark pine forest behind their farm sheds. The strong wooden packing cases were placed in a line, each separated by a good twelve feet to keep the occupants apart as even a working pair within the team could let that strong aggressive streak surface with little provocation and a fight would erupt which left both participants worse for wear. Heavy chain attached to a tree stump enforced the individual at the end of the links to respect the boundary, with the dog unable to reach its neighbour, not only preventing arguments but also runaways. The husky breed used for this demanding outdoor work got its stamina from wild wolf relatives but that came hand in hand with a wander lust, even though she did remember one of the pack wriggling out of bondage only to hang around just beyond the tree line, often visible to Judy in the evening as she fed the others a chunk of pemmican, their brick of frozen fish and fat. Carefully harnessing them up, the ropes would be handled much like an abseiler’s fastenings, always one cord swapped carefully for the next, check every rope you intend to rely on. A tent spike into the hard packed snow would tether the lead dog, the bitch was best, and then the three male pairs would be trussed up and clipped taut, hooked to the tug lines, in turn to the sled with its brake securely applied and a snow anchor in place.

There was nothing that could compare to the thrill of the sled, its speed, the silence, the balancing of your feet on the narrow wooden spars, the pressure on your arms as the force of the cornering strained the muscles all working to avoid using the twenty foot line dragging along through the ice and snow behind the hurtling slab. It was a mark of shame in Judy’s reckoning to have to admit using the ‘last hope rope’ as it had been jokingly dubbed, but if you did fall off you were only too glad that it was part of the equipment, curling snake like behind the rig, as without it the dogs would race on until they were lured off the track by a Ptarmigan or the scent of an Arctic Fox.  Then the result: a tangle round a tree. At least with a hold on the rope you could soon haul yourself to the brake or call an instruction to halt, praying they were listening.

In the mid-winter many feet of snow covered the boxes and the dogs had to keep a tunnel open to each door by digging in or out, morning and night. A litter of pups born in February would be snug in the underground igloo until they ventured out when the weather cleared and finally the canine family would be introduced all round, much to the delight of Judy who as a lonely child had few events more enthralling in her yearly calendar. There was quite a market for these hardy offspring, the annual Iditarod Race an inspiration for many other amateur meets at this latitude. Now whether the government building program resulted in construction of ice covered pavement or a sodden combination of dirt and gravel, long stretches linked by cantilevered truss-type wooden bridges would trace the old dog path through the valleys, awesome mountains reflected in the lakes by the road’s edge. Driving a new red ChevyC-10Stepsideshort bed pickup truck Judy would recognise every twist and turn as she made her way home on infrequent visits after the fall of 1971. She had settled into the trailer park at Whitehorse and a Girl Friday job at the trucking company office a few blocks closer to the Schwatka Lake.

A link to the south and a vision for the north was what had fed Roy’s ambition for starting a small ground transport concern haulin’ mail with one truck in the Mackenzie River Valley. Historic decisions to build roads through the Arctic wilderness as oil and gas exploration boomed were backed by business and political circles, buzzing with talk of an oil pipeline that would run parallel to the roads. When the oil industry started moving north, so did Roy’s business both economically and physically, “you can’t hang your hat on just one pole” he drawled. Soon they were busier than ever with low bed trailers carrying huge pieces of earth moving machinery and heavy equipment components for the off shore rigs. Specialist drivers were kept on the books year round, over-sized loads required pilot car assistance from those with the best local knowledge of the conditions and the routes. By the 1980’s Judy had established her reputation as the finest example of a truckers’ guide in the industry and it was her dream job; finally she could live continually in the wilderness again but striking her own trail rather than perpetuating the generational fortunes of a pioneering farming family.

Her converted work vehicle had a tray in the back for the 44 gallon drum of diesel, chain and rope, shovels and spare parts – the tools of trade for any of the men – for she was uniquely a woman in a man’s world. The dash had a collection of CB radio gadgets and by the millennium to this had been added the satellite phone, GPS and tracking systems which were used to communicate road conditions back to the drivers in the convoy of Kenworth trucks she would shepherd from Whitehorse along the commercial ‘haul’ road that has been described as the most treacherous place on earth in winter. From Fairbanks to Deadhorse on the 415 mile Dalton Highway she knew every adverse camber from milepost 0 to 414 even when snow depth concealed the infrequent signs, or white-outs cut any view of the pipeline, so often a comforting confirmation of good navigation when the highway became invisible. The only surprise, catching her off guard, would be a cloud of Ptarmigan when they lifted from the road immediately in front of her transporters thus narrowly avoiding the crush of the twenty two wheel giants. Until then the flock had looked part of the ice road cut high into the Attigun Pass well north of the Arctic Circle, her pathway to the Prudhoe Bay oilfields of Alaska. You don’t see these hide and seek snow quail until they lift, exposing one tell-tale black spot where their feet tuck up: white on white, flying in long skipping glides like a flat stone tossed across the water, sumi strokes on rice paper. In bad weather and above the treeline in this high county, once startled to frantic flight they burrowed into the icey bank for protection, plummeting into the snow wall in mid-flight like a snowball, leaving no trail for a predator to follow. A disappearing act so successful that it felt secure, unafraid, courageous but foolish.

Embracing the void of wilderness, she enjoyed a return to those periods of solitude which were a signature of her childhood. Her bed was the converted rear bench seat of the king-cab and she had a range of camping equipment to heat meals and light up the cosy interior of the truck that she now used more often for her accommodation than the trailer back in Whitehorse, where the RV Park had been plagued for years by water-main breaks, raw sewage spills and acrimony between the owner and tenants. In contrast, at night in the parking lot of remote truck stops such as Coldfoot, half way along the haul road, or on an isolated road shoulder in a short line of resting vehicles Judy would lie alone in her sleeping bag watching with a never diminishing wonder the green and turquoise display of search light beams emanating from a small area on the horizon and illuminating half of the sky, leaving the other a dark blanket with pinpricks of star light twinkling. Drowsy consciousness would remind her that the Aurora Borealis is a natural display of light sixty miles above the earth associated with a solar wind, a continuous flow of electrically charged particles from the sun trapped by the polar magnetic field.

Now at the age of 47 she could sometimes dream again of Teshekpuk Lake on the Colville River where Roy had taken her on a ‘driving test’ when she had insisted on transforming her desk job into something more adventurous, back about twenty years, with the business expanded in the oil boom. She was careful around him at first; he seemed to be a tough guy with a raucous sense of humour and a quick temper. But his voice was mesmerizing when he almost talked to himself as he drove them through the darkness. Stories about wolves and moose. He said if you whistle softly at the Northern Lights they emit an audible hum … she had to pretend to hear it. Then he gave the more romantic Inuit tale of spirits guiding the migrating flocks of Tern, Snowgeese, Raven, Snowy Owl and Ptarmigan.  The season was winter and the weather clear, the temperature went so low that it would freeze any droplets of moisture and turn them into a visible airborne glitter, technically this was an ice crystal cloud forming at ground level and catching the delicate rays of sun. With daylight only lasting two hours, it is a short lived display. He called that phenomenon ‘diamond dust’ in an illusory poetic metaphor and from then on, however she looked at nature’s fireworks, the effect was spellbinding, just like being in love.

Her defences were down as she crossed the frontier he represented; it was like an hallucination, seeing herself in a new way, feeling her skin heat up with anticipation when he reached out. For a few weeks they migrated into a new region and lost themselves in each other. Sometimes the road narrowed and filled with truck traffic, road conditions varied depending on weather, most of the road was gravel and subject to potholes and washboard. There were several steep grades.

The increased traffic on the highway interferes with animals, spooking them, the wolverine can be scared from its den up on the Ikpikpuk River, the wildlife gets displaced and “you don’t see it no more” Roy noticed. The trip finished when the convoy split, the trucks heading back rattling and empty, tail lights glinting through the drizzle of a dark night. They touched lightly, her lips brushed his cheek, and they went back to how it was before, or nearly. The remote environment of the far north is more delicate than that of the south, even small plants can take decades to produce their first flowers. In the polar night sky the Bear shone clear and high, alone Judy pulled up the sleeping bag, able to smile at her memories, face to face with the aurora.

About clareseligman

A flash fiction/short story writer with an interest in the themes of cultural studies, travel, music, teaching, sailing and snow skiing.
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2 Responses to The Pilot Car

  1. Fred Dickinson says:

    Read your Pilot Car story, liked the photo. Obviously you’ve been, or talked to a pilot car driver. I’m one, based in California. Spent one year in Air Force, Ft. Yukon, seen the Northern Lights from underneath, like curtains blowing in the wind. Of course I couldn’t expect to run the Ice Road, not sure I’d want to, but the other part of Pilot car life is great overnight on the side of the road, or in a restarea…Good story, liked it. Bravo!

    • So pleased you enjoyed the story, which as you guessed is based on my own trips from Vancouver to Deadhorse. If you read the other story, “the Inventor” you can get an idea of what we were delivering

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