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Jun24WedIn the Northwest Territories, “roadside assistance” takes on a different meaning when a plane is about to land on top of your van. June 24, 2015 by Ian Gillingham
"Ian! The plane! It's going to land right on top of us!” In any other part of the country, this is the last thing you'd expect to hear on your morning commute. (It actually sounds like dialogue from an old TV show I used to watch!) But as a Salvation Army pastor living and working in the Northwest Territories, you take such unexpected announcements in stride. It's all part of the job description.
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Last October, six of us—me, four teens and a chaperone—were on our way from Yellowknife to a youth conference at The Salvation Army's Pine Lake Camp in central Alberta. We were on the first leg of an 18-hour journey, a two-day drive each way. Whereas down south, most excursions are day trips at best, five- and six-day round trips here are taken in stride.
Fortunately, while there was snow on the ground, the roads were in great shape with only a little freezing rain in the overcast air. At -5 C, it was balmy for us northerners—Fleece Weather we like to call it.
But we never take road conditions and temperatures for granted. After we were posted as pastors to The Salvation Army's church in Yellowknife, my wife, Ruth, and I learned early on to expect the unexpected.
The winter before, for example, we'd been on our way to Vancouver. It was a terrible day for driving in northern Alberta. The vehicle in front of us a hit a nasty patch of ice and went off the road. We immediately stopped and helped get them out. Not 10 minutes later, our own vehicle slid off the road. Just as the front end was buried in a snowdrift, a couple of pickups stopped to help us. One man pulled out a chain and a heavy-duty tie-down strap, placed it around our axle and pulled us back onto the highway.
During our first Boxing Day here in 2012, we passed four gas stations in the span of five hours. Every single one of them was closed due to the holiday—and it was -34 C! Luckily, we had left with a full tank, but it was only then that we realized how woefully unprepared we were. Our van had no candles or emergency rations, we were without sleeping bags and we had no way of making a fire. What if we were trapped on a deserted road hundreds of kilometres from civilization?
When we returned home, we made sure our van was supplied with food, warm blankets and emergency gasoline. But this wasn't the kind of thing they taught us at the Salvation Army training college!
Now, three hours into our journey to the camp, we were travelling along the highway when Mike Forsey, the chaperone, announced, “Ian, there's a plane trying to land.”
After a couple of years living in the Northwest Territories, this did not rattle me and I held to the road. I had no intention of pulling onto the shoulder, just to get stuck. The two vehicles in front of us stayed on the road, too. I looked up: The plane was barely 50 feet above us! That was different. I felt as if I was in a war movie and an enemy plane was coming in. We pulled off just as the plane roared over us to make a three-point landing farther down the road.
We later found out that the pilot was on his way to Yellowknife when the plane's air intake froze up. Kilometres from an airfield with nowhere else to land, the pilot had no choice but to try his luck on the highway. All things considered, it was a pretty fair bit of flying.
As soon as the plane landed, our vehicle and one of the others converged to make sure the pilot was OK, but once the other car saw the Salvation Army shield on the van, it continued on, knowing he was in good hands. Mike called the RCMP, who, along with the highways department, responded soon after.
They cleared a space ahead and behind the plane and, air intake now clear, the pilot taxied off and continued on his way.
Walking the Walk
Incidents such as these epitomize the fellowship up north. People look out for each other. When you're a couple of hundred kilometres from a settlement, you chuckle at phrases such as “roadside assistance.” If you don't help, who will?
Living up north has its own set of challenges, but it has its own set of rewards, too. Whether people realize it or not, they live their lives by the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). Truly, it is aboriginal culture at its best. There are no agendas here. People take you at your word and judge you by what you do or don't do.
As for me and Ruth, our actions make us stand out even more than they did before we were posted to Yellowknife. We wear our uniforms with pride, but when we are wearing thick parkas and tuques, we have to live our faith without people necessarily realizing who we are. It makes what we do and say even more important and more authentic.
When all is said and done, moving close to the top of the world brought us closer to God. “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing” (Psalm 23:1) is as true for us today as it ever was.
When assistance of any kind can be days away, we need to rely on our faith and God's promises to get through. And that's not such a bad thing.