I recall my early infatuation with “kah-mee-nah-mee-kok”, literally translated from Cree as “the thing that flies” or in modern English as “airplanes”. Every day after school in the autumn my friends and I ran from our dusty gravel playground to the airport at the north end of the community. We cut across muddy overgrown yards, low bushes and snaked our way across a swampy path that led to a small white airport terminal building. Usually, we would be in time to catch a departing Austin Airways flight as its turboprop engines slowly roared to life.
Back then there was no fence to separate the public from the gravel runway so we were free to venture as close as possible to an airplane. I remember so many Hawker Siddeley aircraft with great broad wings, two large turbo prop engines and a plain cylindrical body. These aircraft were eye-catching, painted a distinctive pale yellow, streaked by a stylized black line and red highlight that ran the length of the aircraft.
The roar of those engines always drew us to the airport. There is nothing like the thunderous sound of two Rolls Royce engines as they powered an aircraft forward. We were caught up in the moment and part of the excitement was the game of sneaking past the adults to get closer to the airplane.
We ran as fast as we could into the dust cloud raised by the black-and-white-coloured propellers. We knew the adults wouldn’t follow us into the noisy cloud. We stood with hands covering our faces in the temporary storm and we felt the sand blasting our skin and pebbles pelting our clothes. When we opened our eyes, the cloud dissipated in the afternoon light and we stood like dusty sand people under the blue sky.
There was a moment’s silence when the aircraft turned around at the far end of the runway and then the powerful engines came to life again and we watched the grand finale of the afternoon show. The engines roared to full speed with a high-pitched whine as the aircraft raced forward. We watched it speed by and then we stood in awe as it soared over the northern wilderness, almost touching the treetops.
In a way it was very familiar for us to see this huge bird fly off into the sky because a Hawker Siddeley was very much like Niska (goose). The aircraft’s strong broad wings stretched out on both sides and its long body resembled a goose’s outstretched neck and head in flight.
After take off, everyone disappeared but for us. My friends and I would stand on the runway for a short time watching the plane as it drifted higher and turned into a tiny speck heading south to the greater outside world. We wondered to ourselves for a very brief moment if we would ever have the chance to leave on a flight away from our remote community. We knew this was a far-off dream and we quickly put the thought out of our minds. After the excitement of the afternoon flight, we headed back to our lives in the community.
In a few years time, after we had graduated from elementary school, our dreams finally came true as we all boarded a flight together for the annual class trip to Toronto. Suddenly we realized that the ups and downs of aircraft travel could actually make you sick. But soon we were flight veterans because we had to endure so many take offs and landings on our way to secondary school to Timmins and North Bay.
As an adult, I continued to dream of flying further away. I was fortunate to be able to fulfill that dream on my first overseas trip over 16 years ago. I traveled to Asia and I was amazed seeing Alaska under me as I flew from Chicago to Tokyo on a 12-hour flight. It felt surreal to head into the sky and cross the Pacific Ocean at 32,000 feet with a speed of several hundred miles an hour.
There was also a sense of freedom in seeing so many people moving about the world over such great distances. Flights are only getting bigger and better these days. Just a short time ago, a group of friends of mine told me about their flight to Dubai aboard the world’s largest aircraft, an Airbus A380. This double-decker behemoth carried 500 passengers and flew them from New York City to Dubai in 12 hours.
I wonder at times if the young boys back home are still awed by the aircraft that land and take off at our small airport. I imagine they gaze at the departing airplanes wondering if ever they might be flying south. I hope that they will have the opportunity to find wings to discover other cultures and ways of thinking. The Niska have been doing it for generations.