Buffalo Narrows. The shithead capitol of Northern Saskatchewan. The clean morning light couldn’t put a happier face on this litter strewn, rag bag of a mostly Indian town. Garbage, ravens and an ATV- sans-muffler, to get my morning started.
“Rick, do you feel as bad as you look?” I asked my engineer.
“If I look like my head is about to explode then, yes.” he answered. “Just a couple of beers,” I laughed.
“Not so loud”, Rick winced and pushed his palms to his temples.
“We could try and wake our former crew to help load this crap in the helicopter: except I believe you threatened to beat the shit out of that big Indian, whats- his- name, Isaac?”
“No, I was talking to his girlfriend,” Rick said. “She kept grabbing me under the table”.
“How, have you managed to live this long Rick? You noticed that I did not hang around long last night? I have seen these end of forest fire parties before. I buy some rounds for the tables, chug my beer before the natives get restless, shake some hands and then I back out the door smiling. You’ll live longer that way.”
“I’ll try and remember that Keith, now give me a hand with this Bambi bucket”.
Forest fire season had began with multiple starts after a huge storm had marched through this part of the country. We would be following the smoke Northwest to another fire and basing at an Indian Village. A dry town, (no alcohol) the Provincial dispatcher had advised me. Some recovery time for Rick if his head didn’t explode en-route, I thought.
Flying overhead the town a couple of hours later I had no trouble identifying it as a dry village. The houses had doors and windows, no garbage insight, boats in good shape, snowmobiles on trailers and no wrecked trucks to be seen. The Forestry compound was going to be a dusty landing with our big bird, but that could not be helped.
Climbing down from the Sikorsky S-58 , the district ranger commented that he heard us coming before we radioed the base. “Its a noisy beast” I replied. “We flew by your fire” I added:, “no other aircraft working it, right?”
“No sir, you are it”
We would be unloading about half our gear according to the Ranger and his fire crew would help us. Rick looked very relieved. Introductions all around as the firefighters walked up and shook hands. Abel, Jonah, Zeke, Peter and so on. Eight biblical names. Clear eyed, strong looking Cree Indians. All products of the Catholic missionary school system I guessed.
Edward Abbey, author and all around trouble maker of the best kind, once wrote, “The missionaries brought Christianity to the natives; as if they weren’t dangerous enough already”. These healthy looking young men were so different from the native crews on the previous fire. It confirmed what I had told Rick this morning as we flew over here. Some cultures shouldn’t consume alcohol. Rick had responded by saying that his Mother was Ojibway and his father was Irish. Good combo I chuckled to myself. A rye whiskey heritage and no ability to handle it.
With the helicopter loaded and our plan in place we were roaring up and out of the compound with half our crew and the usual initial attack gear. Chain saws, pulaskis (a kind of hoe, ax head tool), shovels, fuel cans, nets, lines, axes, hammer/hatchets, our water buckets and some over night gear. The task was to locate a safe staging area and either land there or place the sawyers where they could walk in and cut and build a helipad. The fire was running on a hillside between two big lakes and over the intercom I sized up the situation with Abel the crew boss who sat below and behind me. Abel’s legs hung out out the door and he looked at the places I had in mind for staging as we orbited the fire. I could just make out Abel’s face as he nodded approval of my ideas. My choice for placing fire pumps on a section of lake shore met with a puckering of lips, a Cree sign for bad idea. “Ok, so where would you like me to put the pumps Abel?” I asked. Abel pushed his chin towards a little creek that ran between the lakes. It was a better spot, that I had not seen.
Crees don’t like to talk much. They are very economical in their use of our language. There were two hand held radios for the crew but I didn’t expect to hear much on that frequency. I could tell that these guys knew what they were doing when I set them on a rock outcrop by the lakes edge. The gear was off fast, heavy items on top and men on top of the gear. Abel gave me the thumbs up and I was off and returning to the compound for more men and gear. Over the radio I told Abel what I would be doing with men and gear placement on return. No response, so I added the remark, “if that works for you Abel.”
“Yeah” came the radio response. Well, confirmation and communication check complete I thought. I was going to enjoy working the fire with these guys. Men who got the job done wihout a lot of yacking.