Sunday, Sep 18, 2005
We have a bit of a panic in Ottawa. Seems that the group we'd booked our adventure through (GAP Adventures—which is not the same as the clothing people, so we don't get free hats) said we needed to be at the Ottawa airport at 8:00 am to catch a 9:30 flight.
They didn't tell us what airline or gate.
Laura is frantically calling the "emergency" number, which turns out not to be so much for "emergencies" per se, but more for "inconveniences that occur during office hours." Nobody answers and she leaves messages.
Since we DO know we have to be at the airport, we catch a cab out there.
Once there, Robert looks around and says, "See that group there, eh? They look like adventurous people, I'll bet that's us. Eh?"
Sure enough, it was.
Which means we now enter the "cattle" phase of the trip, wherein the tour guides act like cowboys, herding us all in the same direction. Our job is to say, "Moo" every so often to let them know we're paying attention, and by gummy, we're good at it!
We are on a chartered First Air plane. The reason neither your nor we have ever heard of them is that they are "first in the air." This means that areas they serve are so far north that geographically speaking, they are constantly buzzing Santa.
The plane is an old Boeing 727, and we try not to think of all the innovations in aviation that have been introduced in the forty years since it was first used.
The inflight magazines take the whole language thing one step further. There is English, then French, then Space Alien. Or it looks like space alien, anyway. We can recognize most of the alphabets in the world and this isn't one of them.
We can't decide if it's a good thing that First Air is on speaking terms with space aliens ("Heya boys! It's just us, no need for anal probes here!") or a bad thing ("Heya boys! We got another batch for you to probe!").
[Later on, we find out that this is an Inuit alphabet. Most of the time, their language is transliterated using the latin (normal) alphabet. But sometimes, when time hangs heavily on somebody's hands, they use the Inuit alphabet. Of course, it's entirely possible that the Inuit are on a first-name basis with space aliens.]
We are now four hours ahead of Pacific Time, we think. Somewhere around here there's a half-hour time zone, where we will be four and one-half hours ahead of Pacific Time. (Sometimes we get the feeling that the Canadians are making this stuff up, just to see how much they can get the gullible Americans to swallow.)
We have landed at "Goose Bay," which is a relatively huge city in this part of the world, although it probably doesn't show up on any maps that you own. We're pretty much as far northeast as you can get in Canada.
The main industry in Goose Bay is "Military." There's an airbase here that used to be used by the Canadians, Dutch, Germans, Italians and Americans.
The Italians thought the espressos sucked, so they pulled out. The Americans decided that they didn't like staying any place the Italians couldn't stand, so they pulled out.
The Germans are due to move out next year, leaving the friendly, easy-going Dutch and the cheerful Canadians.
The military especially like to use this area to practice low-level flying. After five minutes you realize why: It's totally flat, so you don't have to worry about flying into mountains.
Also, you could crash just about anywhere and not hit anything. No people or houses or lawyers.
In the drive through "town," we notice that they have a Subway sandwich shop. This follows Laura's rule that Every Small Town Shall Have a Subway.
We are now on the cattle bus, which will drive us around while they get the boat ready for embarkation. We have two local tour ladies who have memorized all the facts about Goose Bay and North West River (granted, it didn't take too long, but still).
They have a "local" accent, which is a mixture of Irish, Canadian, South African, Australian, with a bit of Minnesota lilt tossed in.
We're going to drive from Goose Bay to North West River, which is 30 kilometers, or about "a bit."
"It's very scenic if you like trees," says the Tour Guide lady.
This year, they are celebrating the centennial of Mina Hubbard. Who? You may well ask. Well...
Seems that Mina was the first woman explorer to actually make it all the way here. It took her six months to get here and that, my friend, is what they celebrate in the Goose Bay area.
(Her husband died trying to get to Goose Bay because he wouldn't stop and ask for directions so he got lost and starved to death. Really. He thought he knew better than the natives and refused to listen to them. Mina, on the other hand, *hired* the locals as guides and made it successfully.)
Some random facts about the area:
We visit the Labrador Interpretive Center, which isn't finished, but will be Real Soon Now. We learn that there are four groups in the area:
It's sorta funny to see a museum document how white people used to live right next to traditional native dwellings and customs. (The white children were ice fishing in the diorama.)
We visit the Hudson Bay museum, which is a museum of the Hudson Bay company. Or just "the company," since they pretty much ran everything in this area for a long time.
In the museum, we notice they have: a typrewriter, a mimeograph machines, and a dial phone.
We have used all of these items. New. In our lives.
We feel very old and start speaking wistfully of the good old days and doing our homework on the back of a shovel using coal.
We arrive back at the boat, which is specially designed for "Expedition Touring." Apparently, some guy got tired of chartering boats that weren't quite right for the purpose so he had the M/S Explorer built to suit--shallow draft with ice-breaking hull and excellent interior appointments--it can take eco-tourists just about everywhere.
We read through the docs in our cabin and discover that we have a sensitive toilet. Actually a "quite sensitive" toilet, so we have to be careful not to make disparaging remarks near it, and to praise it every time we use it. ("Good flushing, eh?")
The Captain makes an announcement welcoming us to the boat. He sounds exactly like a (depressed) Jacques Cousteau, so it makes the whole thing seem way more adventurous.
"Welcum to zee boat, we lake to call, zee leetle red sheep."
Little red sheep? What the hell? Oh, "ship"!
Immediately after he makes his announcement he comes on the PA system again and repeats the exact same announcement (word for word). Again in English. The only thing we can think is that he thought he was speaking in French the second time...
We assemble in the lecture hall for the manadatory life jacket drill (every boat we've ever been on has one of these to inspire passenger confidence).
This is lead by the Polish Safety Officer. No, it's not a joke. We have a Polish Safety Officer and he talks to us about all the horrible things that can go wrong--fire, smoke, sinking, drowning, freezing, and closes it with "Have nice day!"
Once again in the lecture hall. This time so they can introduce each and every friggin' person who didn't have to pay to ride the boat. While it's cool that they have so many experts, by the time we get down to "the person who books all our travel," we begin to wonder whether this is really necessary...
Dinner! Surprisingly, the food is pretty good (we both had Pepper Pot Roast; Robert had a poached pear for dessert). We're at a table with two of the younger crew folks (one from Portugal, one from New Zealand) and Niko, the second youngest person on board (he's 11, but there's also a baby on board).
Niko casually talks about swimming with some sharks in the South Pacific, and how much he hates Toronto airport. He remembers being chased by barracudas one time, but can't remember what country it was in (we narrow it down to the Carribean, because us old folks know where the barracuda habitat is.
They want us to return to the lecture hall for more "orienting." We're pretty tired, so we get the Reader's Digest version from the two crew we're with. Most of what will be covered is in the docs (which we already read).
So, we don't feel bad about blowing it off and hitting the sack.
Aboard and afloat,
Robert and Laura