I was offered a position at Jimmy Sandy School in Schefferville, Quebec and I owed thousands of dollars in student loans. I thought a position in the north would provide the financial support that I desperately needed and the teaching experience that I desperately desired.
The school board faxed my flight itinerary and I read it carefully. I was flying from Sydney to Halifax, Halifax to Quebec City, Quebec City to Montreal, Montreal to Seven Islands, and Seven Islands to Schefferville. It sounded like a lot of flights to travel two provinces, but I thought it would be an adventure.
The first two flights were quick and I didn’t have any difficulties. It wasn’t until I arrived in Quebec City that I experienced my first setback. I boarded the plane and sat quietly in my seat. The flight attendants began to make an announcement in French and the expressions on people’s faces made me worry. I heard some people gasp and others talk frantically with their companions. I attempted to ask the man next to me what was happening but he did not speak a word of English; either that, or he just didn’t want to speak to me. I started to panic and I jumped from my seat to talk to an attendant.
“Excuse me. Is there a problem?” I asked the first attendant that I saw.
“We are experiencing difficulty with the air pressure on the plane. We are going to move the passengers to another plane just as a precaution.” She placed her arm on my shoulder as she spoke and her voice was calm. I felt reassured and comforted.
After 45-minutes of waiting, we were led onto another plane and I was back in my seat. I was officially going to miss my connecting flight, which meant that I missed all of my other flights that day.
Connecting flights were arranged until I arrived in Seven Islands, but making my flight was the last of my worries when I arrived there. My flight number was announced and I approached the gate for Air Inuit. There were only three other people waiting at the gate and I worried about the size of the plane. The doors opened and I stepped outside.
I felt like I was walking death row as I approached the plane. It was -51° C outside and the plane looked like it was used for cargo. There were a total of eight passenger seats and only three of them were filled. The five windows on the plane would provide a perfect view if the plane were to crash, which was all that was on my mind. I was starting to think that Schefferville was neither a top tourist destination nor a stopping point for any sane person.
The spits and sputters of the plane were nerve racking, but they distracted me from thinking about just how far north I was traveling. I managed to focus long enough to glimpse out the window and I witnessed the northern lights. The brightly colored rays danced like beautiful ballerinas in the sky. I enjoyed nature’s free show and my body and mind began to relax. The colors and shapes created a new story like one I’ve never seen before. My time was consumed by the weaving and dancing of the lights and the plane ride quickly flashed before my eyes. I was traveling to a place beyond the northern lights and beyond my wildest imagination.
The plane approached the airport at 10:20pm. I was so wrapped up in the northern lights that I had no idea that we were almost there. As the plane began its descent, the pilot made a short announcement. “There seems to be a caribou on the runway and we are going to have to circle around the airport until it moves away from the landing area. We have lots of fuel and there is no need to worry.”
This has to be a joke! This can’t really be happening. Is he serious? A caribou on the runway! Where am I going?
“Do you want to see it?” The man next to me asked.
“The caribou? Can you see it?” I foolishly replied.
“Yeah, I can see it from my window.”
I leaned over and there it was. The caribou looked larger than the airport. Its long legs were stumps compared to its massive body.
So we can’t land because there is a large caribou blocking the runway. It’s official; I am in the middle of nowhere.
“Okay, it looks like we are clear to land,” the pilot announced happily.
The plane landed about 50 feet from the airport and the door was pushed open by the pilot. The crisp, cold air filled my lungs and I coughed uncontrollably.
“Thank you for flying Air Inuit. You might want to button up your jackets. It’s -56° C outside.”
I was the first passenger to step off of the plane and my head instantly ached with the cold. I tried to hurry into the airport, but the temperature was taking my breath away.
The school principal and vice-principal were both at the airport to greet me. I felt welcomed as they grabbed my bags and handed me a warmer jacket.
“Nice to meet you,” the principal said as he took my bag.
The vice-principal chimed in, “I hope your flights weren’t too bad.”
“I will be taking you and John will be taking your bags,” the principal said without giving me any time to reply.
“No, that’s fine.” I said. “I can carry my own bags.”
“I don’t think you understand,” replied the principal as he headed towards the door.
I couldn’t take my own bags because they were there to pick me up on ski-doos. The drive to my house was a short 4km, but it seemed endless. The cold air burned my face and I had to keep moving my fingers just to make sure they were still there. The open land was dotted with a house here and there, but mostly I just saw snow and more snow. I couldn’t see a road beneath the snow, but they seemed to know where they were going.
We arrived at my house and both men walked me to the door.
“If you need anything, here’s my number. You have a phone right?” The principal was talking to me and I was trying hard to listen, but there was so much to take in all at once.
“Yes, I have a phone. I called to get in hooked up and the agent said that it would be done this morning.”
“The bus will be here to pick you up at 6:00am. It will stop outside of your door. Good night.”
“Thank you for everything,” I said as I stepped my new home.
Before they were able to close the door, I dropped my bag to the floor and frantically searched for my phone. I hadn’t talked to my mother since I left and I needed to hear her voice. This was the most adventurous thing that I had ever done and I was, quite frankly, scared out of my mind.
I unzipped the bag and haphazardly threw everything onto the floor. I found the phone at the bottom of the bag and I couldn’t pull it out fast enough. I crawled on my hands and knees searching for the phone jack. I finally found it and breathed a sigh of relief. I plugged the phone into the jack and waited for a dial tone that never came. My phone had not been hooked up.
My hand began to tremble and tears formed in my eyes as I sat on the floor with the phone still in my hand. I was scared and alone and I couldn’t even talk to my mother. I began to feel cold and I thought it was just because I was so upset, but I quickly realized there was no heat in my house. Panic sunk in my chest and my breathing quickened. I hunted for the thermostat and turned it full blast. Kneeling by the radiator, I rubbed my hands together waiting for the heat, but it was useless and to no avail.
Oh no! What am I going to do? My closest neighbour is 2km away and it is more than -50°C outside. Even if I did walk to a neighbour’s house, they speak Naskapi then French then English. I am going to freeze to death! This is crazy.
Okay, I can do this! Just go into the bathroom and turn on the hot water. I can sleep on the floor in there if it is warm.
In the bathroom, I closed the door to keep the heat inside. I turned the hot water on full blast and I waited for the heat. Once again, I rubbed my hands together and once again it was useless. I should have realized that if there was no heat there was no hot water, but I was in a state of panic.
Finally, I tried the oven and it worked. The heat waves engulfed my fingers and they ached. I opened the oven and lay on the floor. That is where I spent the rest of my night. If anyone had of walked in, I am sure they would have thought I was trying to kill myself.
My alarm clock went off at 5:30am. I had to change my clothes and clean myself up, but it was still cold and I still didn’t have hot water. As I warmed water on the stove, I felt like I stepped back in time. I quickly washed my face and brushed my teeth. The hot water felt sickening in my mouth and I resembled a pale comparison of myself when I looked in the mirror.
“That would be me,” the bus driver replied. “I will have a look at it before you get home today.”
“But you are the bus driver,” I said rather rudely.
“And I am the maintenance worker and I work at the school,” he said blatantly. “I’ll have a look at it later today.”
The principal was at the door to greet the staff and students when I arrived. “Good morning,” he said as I walked into the building.
I tried to keep it together as I said, “Good morning. I don’t mean to bother you, but I still don’t have a phone at my house. Do you think I could call my family to tell them I am okay?”
“Sure. You can call from my office,” he replied.
I walked into his office and picked up the phone. I could not manage to dial the number even though I had the same number for six years. After three attempts, I finally managed to hit the numbers in the right sequence.
My step-father answered the phone with a jolly “hello.”
“Hi. Is Mom there?”
“Oh, Lesley. How was your trip? How is everything going?”
“Um… can you just put Mom on the phone?”
I was trying to avoid crying in the principal’s office on my first day of school. I just wanted to talk to my mother and tell her about everything that had happened to me. If I could just hear her comforting voice, I could make it through the day.
“Your mother is not home right now.”
“Oh… Ok….” my voice began to tremble.
I burst into tears and began wailing into the phone. I’m sure my father thought I was being attacked by a wild animal because of the loud, piercing noises that I was making, but I could not muster up the words to explain the situation to him. I eventually resolved to hang up the phone. My face was red and wet from all of the tears. Other teachers walked by the office, but they didn’t say anything. They were all too familiar with the first day in Schefferville and they understood my anguish.
I taught my classes that day to the best of my ability. I attempted to connect with the students by learning some Naskapi, but I only succeeded in learning curse words that I then proceeded to use on other teachers.
At the end of the day, I was glad that it was time to go home. I honestly couldn’t handle anything else that day. I had reached my limit and was on the verge of breaking down. As I was walking out of my classroom door, a loud alarm began to sound throughout the halls. As first, I thought it might be a fire alarm. I asked the nearest teacher what was happening and she said that it was a “lock down alarm.”
“What is a lock down alarm?” I asked cautiously.
“Well, let me show you,” she replied.
She took me to a window at the back of the school and then to a window at the front of the school. Finally, she said, “Look out this window.”
I looked out the front window only to see a pack of wild wolves. The students and the staff had to wait in the building until the wolves dispersed. That was my breaking point. I realized that the school and the community were not for me.
The principal was standing at the main doors once again. I approached him with apprehension and anxiety. “Sir, can I talk to you in your office?”
I told the principal about everything that had happened to me over the last two days. “I’m sorry, but I can’t do this. I hope that I don’t lose my teaching licence or have to pay for my flights, but I’m going to resign from my position.”
“That’s understandable, but the next flight out of here is not for ten days. You will have to stay here until then. You might as well teach and make some money while you’re here.”
I stayed for the next 10 days and things did get better, but when the plane hit the runway, I felt better than if I won the lotto. Schefferville changed my outlook on life. Even when I am in the most remote situations in Nova Scotia, I will never feel as isolated or as alone as I felt that first night in Schefferville.