High Arctic Promise
We were all sworn to secrecy, twelve hundred feet above the tundra of the frigid Canadian High Arctic. I was coming back from a repair mission to a very northern community called Eureka. The small settlement at Eureka is reported as zero permanent population and a minimum of eight staffers on a regular basis. At that time there could sometimes be anywhere from ten to twenty people or more, because it was a research station as well as a weather station operated by Environment Canada. I was asked along on the trip as a carpenter’s helper, because it was my day off, and I really wanted to go. The guy who was supposed to go got my day off instead, and he was happy to give up his seat. I was also going to inspect the plumbing facilities while I was there as well, as that was my trade. Our mission was to repair a broken spring on one of the large roll top garage doors. The door was damaged and jammed open, and in the Arctic that is a big problem. We replaced the spring, had a bite to eat and a short break before heading back to base. It would be a trip of many firsts for me. It was the first time I had helped replace an overhead door spring, and it was the first time I had ever helped fuel the plane I was about to fly in. In fact we used some of the fuel we had as cargo when we landed in Eureka, so that was strange in itself, having thousands of litres of fuel strapped in behind your seat. Needless to say upon arrival, when the fuel was safely stowed, we all lit up on the short drive to camp.
Now with the fuel having been pumped into the tanks on the wings as well as loading mail and a couple of people going out for a much needed vacation we took off and headed south towards civilization. Civilization was a small Community of three hundred souls give or take, at any one time. For the two guys and one girl who had just spent three months in close quarters, away from home in the real south, cities like Winnipeg or Edmonton, three hundred faces probably seemed very much like civilization.
We were coming into the dark season in the Arctic, when residents of this harsh Canadian environment will experience no sunlight from mid October until late February. That day had been bright with sunshine, but by the time we had been airborne for twenty minutes or so it was starting to turn into dusk when the Pilot spoke up with alarm in his voice.
“What in the heck is that?”
I was directly behind the pilot and co-pilot, and they were craning their necks looking out of the pilot’s window. Of course my eyes shot to the landscape below. There in the middle of nothing but white for miles and miles was a small circle full of color.
“Have we got enough fuel to go around again, Tom?”
The co-pilot was tapping the gauges on the consol. “We are topped upped both sides boss. We could circle it five times but check out your heading bud.”
When Tom said that all three of us looked at the Compass he was tapping; The S was sinking to the bottom, and we were actually heading true North. By now the colorful spot in the snow was well out of my view as we flew on past it.
“How in the world…that compass was not stuck. No way. I checked the compass reading with the station GPS before we left and we were heading due south when we went nose up.”
We called the flying team Tom and Jerry after the famous cartoon cat and mouse, but Jerry’s real name was Gary, and as Tom called out coordinates Gary was making a shallow bank and we started flying back towards Civilization, for the second time today, which was also a first for me. They claimed they were soul brothers, but they couldn’t be topped as Arctic pilots went, and they made a great business team, with each other trading off the captain’s hat on each mission, as they called their flights. In less than a minute the small distinct circle of brightly lit buildings came into view. I wrestled my camera out of my knapsack, and started shooting pictures as we looped slowly around this amazing place. Of all the pictures I took that day, eleven didn’t turn out, and all eleven were of the secret northern village. Only one picture out of the dozen I took actually turned out.
As we slowly circled the tiny colorful village there was not a runway in sight, and we all started talking at once as we came around for one more look before heading back to base. Before any of us realized what we were looking at, it dawned on both pilots at the same time as they said in unison, whiteout. The brightly lit village was gone. In its place was a whiteout that stretched just 100 feet above the surface of the tundra and as far as the eye could see.
Tom was looking at Jerry with his mouth hanging open. “That was Grise Fiord down there in that whiteout, right?”
Jerry was looking straight ahead as he softly replied, “You know as well as I do that Grise is way further south than we are right now. I’ve seen every map there is of this area and there is no darn village North of Eureka, except Forces Base Alert, and that sure as heck was not CFB Alert.” and then he told Tom to take the yoke controls. He turned in his seat, and addressing us. He cleared his throat, excused himself and began.
“Listen everyone; I want you to forget those numbers we just rattled off. I need everyone to swear. Swear on your Mothers and your future children you will not disclose those coordinates.”
We all swore to secrecy but most of us had completely forgotten the coordinates Tom had given. Jerry turned around and resumed his duties as captain. Everyone was talking in hushed tones, with murmured questions, including the pilots. This was not the time to be polite, so I listened in on their muted conversation.
“I’m telling you Tom, there is nothing between here and Alert, and you know that.”
“Okay, I’ll give you that, but ten people saw what they saw.” Tom was pointing with his thumb over his shoulder to all of us. “What do you think we just saw Gary?”
I had never heard Tom call Gary by his real name, not ever. He would always say Jerry, because Tom was the one who started the play on words in the first place. Gary was gently nudging the controls, and checking the heading again and again when he quietly replied.
“Dude, the whole friggin town was decorated like Christmas. Only one place is decorated like that all the time man. That was Santa’s Village.”
When Gary said those two words a fog of silence enveloped the entire aircraft. Even the drone of the engines seemed to be muffled as we all sat there in awed silence. The girls were sniffling and I knew they had to be crying. It was an emotional time for everyone on board. I can’t speak for the others, but I found myself thinking back, to a time of feet pajamas and hot chocolate, and I swear the smell of Christmas spices and fir trees filled the cabin.