BY ANNA MAXYMIW
“DHC-2 Beavers stopped being produced in 1967, you know,” the pilot tells me with a shit-wild grin. I can’t see his eyes behind his huge sunglasses, but I know that he’s hungover from the way he speaks, and the way he slings himself into the front seat of the plane. By that logic, the de Havilland floatplane I’m currently sitting in is just about 50 years old, and it looks like it—worn brown leather seats, ancient controls, a smeared windshield.
I clench, immediately regretting all the decisions I had made that led me to this point. Deciding to spend a summer in remote Northern Canada was all well and good when I was still back home in Toronto in the big city, but now that I’m here, sitting on the very moment when we’ll start to move from what others call “civilization” into the true wilderness, I start to panic. Nothing about this— the pilot, the plane, my surroundings—is reassuring. This is what happens when city girls dream of a summer away in the big wilderness, a summer away from the internet and transit and trips to the grocery store. Why did I do this? Even now, sitting here, buckled in and about to take off, I’m not sure. I don’t quite know. I feel my thighs start to sweat, my skin sticking to the plane seat and the skin of the two girls who are wedged in on either side of me.
“If you need to puke,” he continues, “there are barf bags in the backs of the seats in front of you.” When I reach into the pockets he’s referring to, I pull out flimsy plastic shopping bags, which are full of holes. Behind me, the plane reverberates with a dull thunk as the airbase staff members throw my duffel bag into the boot, slamming the door. My palms are damp and my mouth is dry; I try not to move my hands around too much, because then the others might notice that I’m shaking. It’s not too late, I tell myself, to get the hell out of here. It’s not too late to unbuckle my seatbelt and wriggle out from between this sweaty female flesh, climb over thighs and torsos and fling myself out of the plane and back onto dry land. I could tear my duffel bag out of the back. I could leave and spend my summer in a safer place, where I won’t run into black bears, where I won’t have to spend eight weeks cleaning up after middle-aged men, where I can step outside and blackflies won’t gather on my eyebrows and temples. It would be the easy choice, because nothing about where I’m about to go is going to be easy, and I know that, and I’m scared.
And then the propeller starts with a thunderous moan, and I jump. The sound fills the tiny plane body, suddenly all-consuming; it vibrates into my bones, all the way up to my teeth, the purr of a huge, rusty cat; it crowds me so much that all of a sudden there isn’t space for doubt. There’s only space for momentum, for self-preservation, so I quickly pull the padded headset over my ears, make sure my seatbelt is still buckled, and curl my fingers under the lip of the seat. Think about what I’m about to fly into, what lies ahead. There’s nowhere to go but forward, I tell myself. There’s nothing to do but take off.
Three other planes had already headed up before us, carrying cargo and the rest of my coworkers. We are the last to be delivered of 13 young adults—from different towns all around the province, mostly strangers to one another, all of us running on empty stomachs and a bad night’s sleep at the airbase’s piece-of-shit bunkhouse—about to spend 67 days together working at a fishing lodge in the remote Northern Ontario bush.
Northern Canada: “The land of little sticks.” It’s a part of the country that evokes divisive emotions in those who have seen it or live on it—or have tried to live on it—and now it’s going to be my home for the summer. “The earth’s evergreen crown,” according to Canadian ecologist J. David Henry. “The land that god gave Cain,” Samuel de Champlain, explorer and founder of New France, wrote back to his king when describing the northern forests of Quebec. In fact, Northern Canada was deemed so worthless that in 1670 Britain’s King Charles II just gave the land away—7.7 million square kilometres of it—to the Hudson’s Bay Company, which, it might be said, turned a good profit off of it. And so Northern Canada, this mythological tangle of granite, black spruce, and ghost stories, is known as many things: the bush, the North, a wasteland, a place of infinite and strange beauty.
You can’t drive to where we are going. Apparently, roads end as if you’re about to go off the end of the Earth. Apparently, the snarl of trees and water stops you in your tracks. Kesagami Wilderness Lodge sits just 100 kilometres south of James Bay, near the Quebec border. It’s right in the middle of Kesagami Provincial Park, on the eastern side of Lake Kesagami—a big body of water, about 32 kilometres long and 12 kilometres at its widest, with about 290 kilometres of shoreline, which means many pockets of weeds and lots of gorgeous sand spits: Kesagami means “big water” in Cree, and the name is fitting. Big water, big land, big fish, big possibility.
Our plane suddenly lurches alive. I grab my elbows and brace my body as the Beaver’s prop revs up to full tilt, and the plane fills with a roar that makes it immediately impossible to yell at one another, let alone talk. We jerk forward, and then turn, heading toward the end of the lake, readying for take off. I’d ask the pilot a million questions—about safety, about speed, about how long he has to decide when to lift the plane up into flight before running out of lake—but no one could hear me even if I screamed. I can’t even close my eyes as we accelerate, faster and faster, the pontoons carving out a wake, and then we are hovering over the surface of the water, dragging out a spray, before the whole machine scuds inelegantly up, up, up, and we’re in the air, and there’s no turning back.
At first, I close my eyes and try not to think about the many small-plane crashes I’ve read about in the news. My ears pop and my palms sweat, and I sit as ramrod straight as I can, trying not to give in to the curiosity. But as we climb higher and higher, I couldn’t help myself. I open one eye, then the other, turn my head to peep out the window over someone else’s shoulder, and I am already blown away. Just a few minutes into the flight and we are already coming up to the boundary of where the Canadian wild really, truly begins. There aren’t words to describe the vastness of the land below us—the green depths of the forest that stretches farther than the horizon, the occasional ribbon of brown where a long-forgotten logging road braids through the wilderness. This is officially Northern Ontario, and the sight of it makes me feel as if all of the air has been struck out of my lungs.
The plane tilts to one side, putting the windows into a direct angle with the morning sun. An overpowering light slants through the smeary windshield and laces into our hair and across our faces. The sun creates a circuit: it prisms across the clean sky, scatters across the bodies of water below us, and then bounces up into our plane, filling it and filling us, and all of a sudden our palms and eyes are saturated with what feels and looks like glitter. Every surface of every lake is lit up, everything gold, almost painfully gold, and it seems as if we’re flying into the sun and beyond.
As we go farther north, the forest dimples and tatters, and the trees start to give way to swampy ground, a terrain I’ve never seen before: lime-green and brown and gnarled, braided with intricate, myriad bodies of water; hundreds and hundreds of lakes, lakes of varying sizes, lakes I never knew existed. These are the Hudson Bay Lowlands, a geological region defined by peat bog and wide, slow-moving rivers; an area formed by the ebb and flow of ancient seas and the rise and fall of ancient mountains; a place so uninhabitable that not all of the Lowlands have been totally explored. Who knows what lives below our pontoons? I feel that we’re tracing the footsteps of giants, travelling back in time. It feels silly to even think, let alone say out loud, and I’m glad that the prop rumble is so loud that I wouldn’t be able to voice my thoughts even if I wanted to. But I have a feeling, deep in the untapped part of me, that the forests below us hold secrets that not even the most experienced of us can manage to whisper. That monsters and gods exist below the wings. That agreeing to work at this lodge is the smartest or stupidest thing I’ve ever done.
As the plane nears our destination, my coworker-to-be Megan presses her face to the window, and I follow suit, slotting my damp torso against hers. If she minds, she doesn’t say anything. Something about a fist-clenched plane ride and being in close quarters has immediately set us at ease; our bodies are already comfortable around each other, even if our minds haven’t caught up yet. Below us, the colours of the land expand into mottled, rich browns and taupes, rust reds and middling greens. The earth has plaited itself into the water, and even in places where it looks like soil, I somehow instinctively know that there is water there, too, lurking below the surface. The lakes that looked like footsteps have now given way to footstep greenery, the land no longer the dominant force at work below us.
A saucer of thick water appears on the horizon. It expands in the windshield of the plane, broadening like a swath of brown velvet unfolded. My heart thumps. The lake grows and grows in front of us as we get closer and closer, and the sun hits its surface, the morning light dancing up in hues of black and silver and white and brown. And then the plane is tilting down, down, down, and I watch as we hover over the water for what seems like minutes, and then there is a great wake, a lurch and a hum, the propeller slowing its drumbeat as the plane sputters up to the dock, my pulse taking over. The smell of not-city forces its way past the windows and into the plane, curling its hands around our necks and stroking our lips with its fingers—it’s the smell of diesel, and algae, and lake water, and something else, something that I can’t put words to and something I don’t understand.
We pull up to the dock, fall out of the plane to lots of laughter. I can see figures on the shore that I don’t recognize, hear a chorus of male snickering. The light is too bright, the interlock dock beneath me too wavy, and I feel like an animal in a zoo. I squint and look up at the silhouettes: the sun’s so strong that I can’t see anyone’s faces, only the outlines of their ears and jaws and ballcaps. As I stare, one of the figures tilts a head. Charlie, the lodge manager, walks toward us, saluting us, chores already on his lips. We’re here.
“你知道，DHC-2比弗斯飛機從1967年後就不生產了，”飛行員咧嘴大笑著說。我看不清他巨大太陽鏡後的眼睛，但能從他說話的語氣、滑向駕駛座的樣子感覺出他昨晚喝多了。照這麼說，我們乘坐的這架 de Havilland 滑翔機已經快50歲了。破舊的棕色皮座，上古的操作器，以及被塗抹的擋風玻璃——看起來也是有這個年頭了。
我攥緊了拳頭，當即後悔起來，後悔所有致我走到如今這步的決定。還在大城市多倫多的家中時，這個 “來偏遠的加拿大北部度過夏天” 的決定看起來沒什麼問題，但現在，將要啟程從 “文明世界” 前往荒野的這個當下，我開始慌了。飛行員、飛機、周圍的物事——沒有一件令人安心。這就是當一個城市女孩做戶外夢時發生的事，夢想在野外度過一個沒有互聯網、沒有交通、不用去食雜店的夏天。我為什麼要這麼做？哪怕現在，坐在這兒，系好了安全帶，馬上就要起飛了，我還是不確定，不明白。大腿開始出汗，我感覺皮膚黏在座椅和後來塞進來的兩個坐在我兩側的女孩皮膚上。
加拿大北部：“小樹林之地。”它是這個國家中特別的一部分，能激發出曾見過這片土地的、想在或已經在此居住的人心中不同的情感。而現在，這裏將成為我今夏的家。加拿大生態學家 J. David Henry 稱之為“地球的常青之冠。” “上帝賜給該隱的土地。”新法蘭西的發現者與創立者 Samuel de Champlain 在給國王的回信中這樣描述這片魁北克北部的森林。事實上，加拿大北部地區曾被判作毫無價值，1670年大不列顛國王理查二世就把770萬平方公裏的土地送給了 Hudson’ Bay 公司，而後者，可以說靠這塊地大掙了一筆。從此，北加拿大，這片混雜了花崗巖、黑雲杉、鬼故事的神秘土地，也有了很多代名詞：草叢、北疆、廢土、無限與奇美之域。
我們無法驅車到達目的地，道路終止了，看起來好似要走到世界盡頭一般。樹林和激流咆哮著阻斷前行的道路。Kesagami 野生園區坐落在詹姆斯灣以南100公裏的地方，靠近魁北克邊界。它在Kesagami省公園的正中央，Kesagami 湖的東邊。Kesagam i湖是一片大約32公裏長，最寬處達12公裏的水域，水岸線有290公裏長——這意味著大量的野草和美麗的沙灘。Kesagami 在克裏語中是“大水”的意思，這個名字恰如其分：大水，大地，大魚，大可能性。
Anna Maxymiw lives in Toronto, Canada.
Her first book, a memoir about working at a fishing lodge, will be published with McClelland & Stewart in 2019.
Anna Maxymiw 住在加拿大多倫多。
她的第一本書，關於在一家垂釣民宿的工作回憶，將在2019年由 McClelland & Stewart 發行。