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  Brad's Teacher Writing: Personal Narrative Essay

January 23, 2006

An essay written as a demonstration of the personal narrative form by Brad Hyde, English 11 teacher at the Pearson ALC.

If you'd like to see earlier drafts, view them at the Pearson ALC Students' Blog.

A Northern Summer

Nearly everyone has experienced one extraordinary summer. I know I have.

Just turned 18, I peered out of the window of a Twin Otter plane. Out in an expanse of snow was a herd of caribou, streaming across the tundra. I squinted into the intense 24-hour sunlight of Canada’s north, just a few miles (and they were miles in those days) from the Arctic Circle.

Soon, we were on wheel skis, sliding along an ice-covered lake. An old DC3 cargo plane landed soon after. It carried supplies and, most importantly, the fuel we’d use for heating and operating the helicopter. With amazing speed, the other men had unloaded the planes. Soon, the plane’s engines roared to life again. Snow crystals whipped into our faces, forcing us to turn away from the biting wind. The buzzing roar faded away in the distance.

What had I done?

The summer of 1974 would be unlike any other in my life—in a good way— and was a season of firsts for a young man, barely out of high school and only recently completed his first year at UBC.

I thought back to the interview in a tower office overlooking Coal Harbour. Believe it or not, I’d applied to be a “fly camp cook,” someone responsible for all the cooking in a small camp in the middle of the nowhere.

“You’re a bit young and inexperienced,” the boss had said. My heart sank at his words. “But, we do need a 'bull cook' this summer. Interested?”

“Sure,” I answered, having no idea what a bull cook was, exactly, other than I’d be doing the odd jobs in camp and helping the cook in the kitchen.

“Thirteen days on. One day off,” he added. “You’ll get 600 dollars a month.”

Big bucks and easily enough to pay for my UBC fees in a month. I had had my eye on a custom built bike for my ride to Halifax the following summer. The second month would pay for it. Another month and I was laughing. Without hesitating, I agreed to report, by taxi, for an hour’s flight to Edmonton, then two more to Yellowknife, followed by a six hour ride in the noisy Twin Otter.

And so I arrived—about as green as you’d expect of a boy who’d never lived away from home before. I’d be sharing a tent with Don the cook, a gruff, middle-aged man. A reformed alcoholic, he was an unrepentant smoker. By day, he rolled his own Export A’s, inhaling about a third in a single draw. At night, his spasmodic cough kept me awake until he woke to smoke one of his ready-mades, always kept to the right of his big, old-fashioned, alarm clock.

Man, I hated that clock!

Back then, I could still hear the smallest sounds. But Don’s clock wasn’t a small sound; it was made of metal with big bells mounted on top. It ticked loudly, getting inside my head as I tried to sleep my first nights in camp.

Reluctantly, he’d covered it with a t shirt. With Kleenex stuffed in my ears, I learned that I could sleep, anywhere, anytime, alarm clock notwithstanding. Besides, Don didn’t have much sympathy for a raw kid like me.

“Where’re ya going?” Don demanded one morning the first week in camp.

“Back to the tent,” I replied, without a clue why he might be angry.

“Ya need to sweep the floor and I got some potatoes that need peeling.”

I’d been absorbed in reading the first book of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and had the habit of slipping off whenever I could.

“Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“You shouldn’t need to be told,” was all he’d said. From then on, I stayed around and asked what needed doing. I still had lots of time to read. Learning not to cross the cook was a new skill well worth learning.

But it wasn’t only the cook who would get mad at me that summer.

One of the odd jobs I had was taking care of the showers. I had to go down to the lake and run a powerful pump to fill a tank suspended in the rafters of the sturdy shack. The hot water tank, running on a 100-pound propane cylinder, needed to be taken care of, too. That size cylinder runs a long time, but I got lazy one morning and forgot to check it.

Two other young men lived in camp: geology students from the University of British Columbia. All day they trudged across the tundra, faces full of black flies, in the intense sun of the Arctic summer.

The propane had run out sometime that morning. By the time the guys had returned from their daily “traverse,” they were dying for a shower. The water ran cold. I could hear their yells from clear across the camp.

No apology would be enough, not right then—their dreamed of shower had chilled them to the bone. Sometimes, I learned, my mistakes could hurt. I had begun to learn that feeling sorry wouldn’t always ease another’s anger.

A lot to learn in one summer. But, it wasn’t all bad, far from it. I wouldn’t trade the time I listened, rapt, to the snorts of a musk ox standing directly across the lake. Or when I watched a wolverine drag a twenty-pound roast of beef down the hill after a raid on our freezer. I even dug an outhouse hole, I’m still proud to say.

When a magnetic storm in space prevented radio communications with the outside world for ten days, I finally began to understand how alone we all are, and how dependent on each other.

It was an extraordinary northern summer.

—Second revision by Brad Hyde: edited many sentences; added an ending. Still not quite finished, however. Currently at 960 words, including the title.




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