Friday flight

Fly with columnist Rob Brown from Vancouver to Prince George

Outside, planes taxi, take off and land in the morning sun. Men in covered in blue coveralls, wearing headphone style ear protectors ride about on tow tractors, fuel transfer vehicles, waste trucks, and small vehicles that look like fork lifts without forks. Others push luggage containers, others dollies, while others guide aircraft or walk about purposefully on missions mysterious to me. The activity borders on frenetic, must be enveloped in noise, yet through the thick glass wall at the west end of YVR watching it is like watching a silent movie. A grey haired, grey bearded gentleman with a professorial look sits, long legs outstretched reading a book on the row of soft seats located on the far side of the potted palm next to where I’m sitting. Behind us, in the distance, people sit awaiting the call to board planes bound for the interior and the Island.

The gates at the extremities of the Vancouver International are oases of peace and quiet. There isn’t even any insipid canned music. I unzip its travel bag and slide my little inexpensive French Canadian made guitar from its case, get the blood flowing to my hands with a few pentatonic scales, read through a folio of short pieces, then start in on some Sambas I’ve been working on recently, thinking that because I’m purposely playing sotto voce, the sound won’t carry far. I look up at one point to see a young woman with her phone aimed at me making a video.

Do you mind if I send it to a friend? she asks.

I tell her no I don’t. She presses her phone and thanks me.

A glance at my wristwatch confirms the plane to Prince George will be leaving soon. I slide the guitar back into its bag. As I am, the professor walks over and thanks me for playing.

It was so nice and tranquil, he says.

I tell him that I’m glad he enjoyed it and that I am surprised he could hear it.

He tells me it really carries.

The last call for the flight to PG comes, and I’m shocked I missed the first two. As I gather my stuff and shoulder my back pack and am about to scramble off to Gate 4, an elegant, tall, grey haired woman appears and thanks me for the impromptu concert.

Got to be off, I say, but thank you so much.

I’m last aboard.

No Sky Check? I ask the flight attendant.

We have large overhead compartments, she says, taking my guitar and slipping it neatly into the one over my seat.

Window seat. Bonus, I think.

I’ve never flown on Friday the 13th, I say to the woman next to me. I hope we make it.

The look of alarm on her face reveals it hasn’t occurred to her that today is the 13th. She manages a faint, unconvincing laugh.

Soon we’re airborne. It’s a beautiful cloudless day. Cars are lined up for ferries at Horseshoe Bay. The plane parallels the murderous Sea to Sky Highway past Lions Bay, past Porteau, past the Britannia. I spot the Chief and remember as a boy watching the men who first successfully climbed the face. We approach the city of Squamish. I try to pick out the rivers. The Squamish is obvious. A tributary I think is the Stawamus, then what I believe is the Mamquam. After that the Checkamus and the Cheekeye, and then, far up the valley, what must be the Ashlu and the Elaho. There is Daisy Lake then Whistler, the ski runs are clearly visible. After that I lose my bearings over top ice fields and snow covered peaks.

The engines hum. There is the riffle of card shuffling, the counting of cribbage hands, and conversation behind me. The flight attendants pour drinks and dole out pretzels made of food product and salt as we make our way over a rugged mountainous landscape punctuated with frozen lakes for a good ten minutes.

I look away from the window for a few seconds. When I look back there is a visual gut punch. Below us now is a massive crazy quilt of clear cuts, each patch defined by a logging road seam, extending to the horizon. The mosaic is awesome in the true terrifying sense of the word. I scan the 180 degrees available to me; the nuances are different, but the view is essentially the same. Here, spread out below me, is the sum total of annual allowable cuts and the egregious over cutting, euphemistically called over harvest, justified and excused under the pretext of obliterating bugs. Here then is contiguous clearcutting that can be seen from the space shuttles, apparently. I speculate on the environmental wallop that must have attended this undertaking and its downstream impact as we pass over it for what seems a preposterously long time.

Prince George becomes visible in the distance, framed by the Fraser and Nechako rivers and marked by the plume of effluent – the shape of the balloons on Google Earth, but white not red – spewing from the Canfor Pulp Mill that contaminates the PG airshed.

We land.

We made it, says the lady next to me, smiling faintly.

Maybe, I reply. Maybe not.