by Caroline McCullagh
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Excerpt where Anne flies into the Inuit Village
“I’m looking for L.G. Chandler.”
“You must be Mrs. O’Malley. I’m L.G. Chandler, but please, call me Laura.” The petite, neatly dressed woman who greeted me didn’t fit my notions of what the employee of a bush airline would look like. I’d guess she was in her early forties. She had large brown eyes and short curly brown hair. I asked her later, and she said the curl was natural. She wore a sort of dress-for-success blue pantsuit and a white blouse. She had no makeup on, but she did wear rings on just about every finger and big gold hoop earrings.
Laura directed me to my hotel—arranged by René—and asked me to be back no later than seven o’clock the next morning.
* * *
I didn’t have a good night. Northern Air’s web site had shown that the plane to Ungavaq was a four-seater. I’ve never flown in a small plane. When I tried to imagine the trip, I just thought about throwing up inside the plane as it swooped up and down through the sky.
I went from breakfast to an all-night drugstore Laura had recommended. She’d advised me to get sunscreen and bug repellent. I decided to get some motion sickness pills too.
The temperature was in the low forties, the air crisp. I’d had to do some shopping at clearance sales in Ottawa to get warm clothes. I hadn’t brought any from San Diego. I wore maroon wool slacks, a pink turtle neck shirt, a cardigan sweater, a warm jacket, and sturdy walking shoes. I felt warm enough, but not too warm.
I arrived at the Northern Air counter with my overnight bag in hand. I didn’t plan on staying overnight, but René told me that, even at the best of times, the weather was uncertain, and I should be prepared for a change of plans.
Laura waited for me, more casually dressed this morning in jeans, a bulky yellow pullover sweater, and boots. The extravagant jewelry of the day before had disappeared. She put on a leather jacket and a wool cap and led me through a door to the tarmac. I didn’t see a plane. She took me to a small panel truck and said, “Get in.” We drove about five minutes to a river where a number of floatplanes were tied up like boats in a marina. We walked to a small but solid-looking red and white plane—one of two sitting there. She stepped out onto the pontoon and gestured to me to follow. I stepped next to her and she showed me where to put my hands on the short ladder built into the plane’s structure. “Go ahead, climb up.”
“Will the pilot be along soon?”
“That’s me. I’m the pilot. Go ahead, get in, and we’ll get going. I’ve just been waiting for you.”
I wondered if this petite, pretty woman was competent to fly a plane into the Canadian wilderness. I hesitated for a moment, then started climbing. I wasn’t backing out now.
I watched her as she moved all the way around the plane, balancing on the pontoons and inspecting. She untied the lines that held the plane to the dock, coiled them, and climbed into her seat, stowing the coils under the seat as she sat. She went over a checklist on a clipboard, then taxied the plane away from the dock.
I’d thought I wouldn’t mind the takeoff, but the faster the plane went, the more nervous I got. My hands were clammy, and I broke out in a cold sweat. Riding in the front of the plane and looking out the window at the water speeding by is very different from looking at the seat back in front of you.
When the pontoons came off the water, I began to think I couldn’t handle the wave of fear building in me.
Laura banked the plane to the right and crossed the river’s edge.
I looked out the side window at the ground receding below me, and I was terrified. This certainly didn’t feel like the big planes.
When we finally leveled out, though, I managed to get myself under control.
Laura had been concentrating on the takeoff, so I didn’t think she’d seen how white my knuckles were. I didn’t tell her. I certainly didn’t want to tell a woman—and a younger one at that—I couldn’t manage something she could. I just hoped the worst was over.
The rest of the flight turned out to be uneventful—no swooping and no throwing up. At times, Laura concentrated on the plane. At other times, we talked.
She started the conversation by saying, “I guess the takeoff made you a little tense.”
Ah, she had seen.
“Lots of people feel that way if they haven’t been in a small plane before,” she said. “You’ll get over it.”
“You’re right. I’ve never been in a small plane before.”
“Well, this old plane and I’ll take care of you.”
“The plane’s old, or are you kidding?”
“This is a Cessna 185 Skywagon built in 1981, one of the last off the line.”
“Isn’t that awfully old?”
“No, this plane’s going to fly forever. It was my dad’s. It’s the one he started the business with. Now I take good care of it, and it takes good care of me.”
“You do the maintenance?”
“How fast are we going?”
“A little over 240.”
“Kilometers or miles per hour?”
“Kilometers. That’s about 150 miles per hour. We’re up to cruising speed. I’ll keep it here for the rest of the trip.”
“Don’t you get bored doing the same trip week after week?”
“Never. It’s always different. And I get to meet so many people, like you. Why are you going to Ungavaq?”
“I’m researching my father-in-law’s life. It looks like he might have gone there around 1915.” I told her about my project.
She’d never thought about tracing the genealogy of her family, so we talked a while about how she might get started.
“My parents came to Blackwell during a boom time and stayed on to start Northern Air. They saw Québec as a paradise for hunters and fishermen and knew there was money to be made transporting them. I grew up in the business. Don’t tell anyone, but I flew this plane the first time when I was eleven. I’ve been flying solo since I was a teenager. I never thought of doing anything else. Now my father’s retired. He turned the business over to me. He still comes in to help when things get extra busy.”
Our conversation was strange at times. At one point, Laura said, “You certainly didn’t bring much luggage, eh? I flew Jack back last week. He practically filled the plane with his stuff.”
Jack who? I wondered. “No, only an overnight bag.”
“You realize I come to Ungavaq only once a week.”
“Yes,” I said, not seeing the connection. “Every Friday.”
“Do they have a little airport there?”
“Where do we land?”
“On the bay. That’s what the pontoons are for.”
I intended to ask Laura who Jack was, but the tower at Blackwell called with an updated weather report, and she switched her attention to the radio. What they said was technical, but I took it to mean clear skies all the way. I forgot to ask my question.
As she handled more radio traffic, I gazed out the window. We flew much lower than the commercial flight to Blackwell over tundra like an exotic grey and green oriental carpet. Streams and one large river cut across it. Laura told me that they ultimately flowed into the bay.
Finally, in the distance ahead, I saw it—Ungava Bay. It stretched ahead and to the right as far as I could see—the icy home of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales, and uncounted millions of sea birds and fish.
We followed the shoreline north, and passed over what I was surprised to see was a big herd of caribou traveling the same direction we were. Less than a half-hour later, I saw a cluster of fifty or more low buildings adjacent to a protected inlet—Ungavaq!
As we approached, I could see one- and two-story wood buildings—some raw and unfinished looking, others painted in earth tones, and some even red or blue.
Barrels of fuel oil sat next to each building. Almost all the houses also had racks where, Laura told me, fish hung drying. Small boats bobbed at their moorings at a short dock. A path led from the dock to the nearest house and then through the village. I didn’t see any cars or anything that looked like a road.
We flew over people, including a group of children playing. Many waved. Laura waggled the wings in response.
Dogs tied near the houses looked up. I could tell they were howling.
We headed out over the inlet.
“Here we go,” Laura said. “Don’t get nervous. Landing’s a little tricky here because it’s always windy, but I’ve been doing it for so many years I could do it with my eyes closed.” She headed the plane toward the water in what seemed like a nose-dive.
I sure hoped her eyes were open. I’d been blasé about the idea of a water landing when Laura first mentioned it, but not anymore. At the last minute, she executed a steep banking turn, and landed with a solid thump not too far from the dock.
I managed to get my fingers unclenched before she looked at me.
“You must really be glad to get here, eh?”
I assumed she thought I was glad to get on the ground, or water, to be exact. “Oh, yes.” I said, with more enthusiasm than I meant to show.
As she taxied toward an open space at the end of the rows of boats, she pointed out two kayaks and an umiak, the traditional women’s boat. They bobbed next to outboard motor boats of various sizes and vintages.
She turned off the engine and undid her seatbelt. “I’ll be here for a while. We’ll offload the plane, have some tea and chitchat, and then I’ll head to Seal Haven. Are you going back next week or do you plan to stay longer.”
“Oh, no. I thought you’d pick me up on your way back from Seal Haven today.”
“You mean you don’t want to visit a while? They’ll expect you to stay a week at least.”
“Why, all your relatives.”
“All your relatives here in Ungavaq.”
With that, she opened her door. “Hi. I brought you a visitor,” she said to the man who’d walked down to the dock from the nearby house as we taxied in. Laura picked up the two coils of rope from under her seat. She put one heel on the ladder, grabbed the edge of the door, and swung herself down onto the left pontoon. She tied the end of one of the ropes to a bracket on the fuselage and tossed the other end to the man. He tied it to a cleat on the dock. They did the same at the back before he gave her a hand onto the wooden platform.
I sat in total confusion. Had I said something to Laura to make her think I had relatives here? I couldn’t remember anything. Well, maybe René had in his email, or maybe she’d misinterpreted our talk about genealogy.
I undid my seatbelt and clambered out over her seat. The plane rocked gently in the swell, so I didn’t try to copy her acrobatics. I turned to face the ladder and climbed carefully down. When I’d just set my feet on the pontoon I felt a pair of strong hands lift me and set me down gently on the dock. I turned and found myself face to face with the man who’d greeted Laura.
He was a broad-shouldered Inuit dressed in a green plaid wool jacket, Levi’s, and heavy boots. He stood only three inches or so taller than my five-feet-five, but his big work-hardened hands dwarfed mine. His thick black hair, touched with gray at the temples, was combed straight back almost to his collar. The lines on his clean-shaven face showed he spent a lot of time outdoors. I wouldn’t call him handsome, but his strong, pleasant face had a ready smile. That smile kept me from noticing immediately that he had tattoos, two parallel lines that went the full width of his face across his nose.
I started to thank him, but stopped, perplexed. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t think where I might’ve seen him before.
Now, Laura looked confused. Then, she laughed. “Oh, it didn’t occur to me the two of you might not have met before. Anne, this is Jack.”
We both said, “Hi.”
There was another awkward pause.
Laura tried again. “Anne O’Malley, this is Jack O’Malley. I guess he’s your cousin or something, eh?”
A look of surprise came over Jack’s face. I don’t know what my face looked like, but suddenly I realized why he looked familiar. In that broad Inuit face, I looked into Robby’s hazel eyes. I finally registered what Laura had said and realized there could be no doubt—he was some kind of relative
Reviews and Bio
Is it a love story? Or is it an adventure story? Or is it a commentary on the tragedy of war? It is all of these, and more. Caroline McCullagh weaves a thrilling and dynamic story around Anne O’Malley’s genealogical search for the story of her late husband’s father that takes her to the far North of Canada to find new relatives among the Inuit culture, to Europe behind the lines in World War I, and back to the small Inuit village where she finds romance. The Ivory Caribou won Best Unpublished Novel in the San Diego Book Awards.
In The Ivory Caribou, Caroline McCullagh has created an enduring love story between a sixty-year-old woman and a man of unusual ethnicity. The author’s real love, though, is of anthropology, history, and language. She is a luminous storyteller and wordsmith of the highest order.
Richard Lederer, author of Anguished English and Amazing Words
I haven’t had this much fun reading prose in a while. The story moves well, the characters are deftly drawn and the plots are so easily interwoven you won’t believe your mind.
Jim Bennett, Poet and Kindle Book Reviewer
Best Book I’ve Read in a Long Time! I decided to read the first few pages over lunch, yesterday, and now I know what people mean when they say “I couldn’t put it down!” The time I spent immersed in this book was WELL WORTH IT
Lynette M. Smith, All My Best Copyediting and Heartfelt Publishing
Interview with Caroline on The Rick Lakin Podcast
Caroline McCullagh, award-winning author of The Ivory Caribou, coauthor of American Trivia & American Trivia Quiz Book with Richard Lederer, earned a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of California, San Diego. Her diverse writing projects include five novels, a cookbook, a memoir, a student opera (under the auspices of San Diego Opera), fourteen years of monthly book reviews for the San Diego Horticultural Society, and one year as Books Editor for The American Mensa Bulletin. For the past three years, Caroline has written a weekly column for the San Diego Union-Tribune with Richard Lederer. As a professional editor, she teaches creative writing two days a week. The Ivory Caribou, then titled Fire and Ice, was a past Winner at the San Diego Book Awards as Best Unpublished Novel. Caroline has won twice and has been a finalist once.