At the Lakehouse, Okanagan, BC, Canada
I’m back home at the lakehouse and life is good. I finished off my stint in Fiji with some adventure around the big island – with shark-diving (no cage), waterfall jumping, barefoot jungle hiking and a 3 day farewell extravaganza. I miss my friends, the paddling, the scenery, running through swamps, snorkelling with Nemo and the barking of Beaver the dog, but the beer and my job are way better here in Canada.
I got home just before Easter and miraculously lined up a job a week later – without even a road-trip. I got hired on by Valhalla Helicopters which is literally the closest helicopter company to my house (22 minute drive). I never dreamed I’d be working so close to home this early in my career with endless Kenai and Mistaya cuddling opportunities. Valhalla has traditionally been a work-horse of a company with lots of fire and logging contracts but this year they started a tour wing focusing on Heli-Wine Tours– which is why I originally got hired on. I’ve also been doing lots of work on our new website that will hopefully be launched next week.
It is fantastic to work for someone who has whole-heartedly invested in me. Blair got me trained up swiftly and we were finishing off a mountain course when we got a call to go fly the jetranger on a fire. We loaded up the helicopter and I flew me and Stew (our Forest technician / thermographer) through the Rockies and over some of the flatlands up North of Fort McMurray into the Oil Sands of Northern Alberta. The refineries and their hideous tailings ponds make it some of the most awful scenery that I’ve ever flown over. But when the stacks are out of sight, we found caribou, moose, cranes, beavers and bear in and around the forest, dunes, streams and lakes of the burn.
For about 12 days I woke up at 3:15am to take-off a half hour before dawn to fly the 206 as Stew scanned the fire with an infrared camera. It was a steep learning curve but exciting too because a lot of the low-level flying , precision high-hovering and gross weight skills I had to use will translate well into the long-lining and bucketing that I want to do one day. After about 9 or 10am (depending on the smoke and the overcast) the sun usually made the ground too hot to make out the hot spots of the fire so I’d drop Stew off at the fire base and then spend the rest of the day flying around Fire Behaviour analysts or mapping the perimeter of the fire with G.I.S. guys. The fire was comprised of several fires, and one huge one - about 100 miles long and about 30 wide. For any Canadians reading, it was about the size of Prince Edward Island. It is considered as ‘being held’ now, though it was ‘out of control’ when I arrived but I will hopefully go back in a couple of weeks for a couple of weeks after the other jetranger guy gets a little time in.
I flew my tail off and had a blast doing it. It was an exquisite feeling to feel so in tune with the helicopter. Dad makes fun of my ‘Avatar’ comparison but it is an otherwise almost indescribable feeling. I wasn’t sure what to expect on the fire (but I knew I wouldn’t be slow-dancing to ‘Smoke gets in your eyes’ like in the movie ‘Always’) but I was pleasantly surprised at how supportive and friendly everyone was – from the folks in command, the camp staff to the other pilots. In fact, when I think about it, only the white male firefighters seemed to have an attitude – unless (or until) they figured out I was a pilot and not a radio operator or cleaner. In contrast, so many of the ladies – whether they were cooks, cleaners, fire-fighters, command, paramedics or laundry attendants – came up to me to ask about flying or just to tell me how impressed they were that I was woman pilot. It was so heartening and humbling to witness their genuine smiles and pride. It bears mentioning too that I will finally get a great paycheck from all my flight-pay on the fire and realize that paying off my flight school debt may not be as unattainable as it has seemed for the past few years.
I am back at home for a little bit and it is perfect timing since my cousin Tink and Auntie Jenny from England have arrived for a visit. Hoping the weather will become a bit summerier and I might get a dip in the lake, a bike-ride, a kayak or perhaps finally get a longboard and go for a ride on the waterfront. Also looking forward to meeting my nephew Faramir when Jeremy and Tepita come visit in July for cousin Dougal and Lori’s wedding.
I wish you all a wonderful summer (or winter if you are that far south)!