Author Compiling a History of Northern Aviation

By Dan Davidson

Many Berton House writers-in-residence use most of their time to work directly on the actual writing of a project.

Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, however, says she made the place her base camp for research excursions that took her to Old Crow, Inuvik, Haines Junction, Watson Lake and Whitehorse during the first part of her residency.

“It’s kind of how I thought about it,” she said during a kitchen interview during her last few days in Dawson. “You [Dan Davidson] would drive me out to the airport. I’d go off on my adventures and I’d come back here to grab a fresh notebook, unload my photos, regroup and then head back out again. I think I ended up spending about half my time in Dawson.”

Metcalfe-Chenail, who lives in Edmonton, is working on a hsitory of aviation in the North. She was thrilled to have been selected for a residency at Berton House, and credit’s Berton’s how-to memoir, The Joy of Writing, with having set her on her path as a journalist/historian.

Her first book, For the Love of Flying: the Story of Laurentian Air Services (Robin Brass Studio), came about as a result of her father-in-law’s suggestion that she do an oral history with a family member who had worked for Laurentian.

Though she doesn’t yet have a publisher for the new book, she’s not worried about it.

“The North is a very sexy topic these days,” she says. “No one has done a history of aviation in the North before. There have been these memoirs and anecdotal accounts, but no one’s stiched them together, at least nobody with a background in historical research, a geek like me.”

There are differences between the North and the area of rural Quebec she had researched previously. Metcalfe-Chenail has been hearing a lot of stories about people landing on straight stretches of highways, and a lot more accounts of helicopters than she’s heard before.

“At least around Dawson, there aren’t as many lakes for float planes to land on and there aren’t as many spots for emergency landing strips in the mountains, so helicopters are much more widely used here,” she says.

Given the amount of information she’s been able to glean in Dawson alone, she expects the Klondike will have a fairly substantial chapter in her book. “I’m actually probably going to be going right back to 1899 and the first hot air balloon ascent in Dawson. I found a picture of that at the archives (recently).”

Joyce Cayley told her a story about flying into Dawson for the first time in 1956 when she moved here. John Gould recalled the first airplane he saw land in Dawson in 1926. And then there are the many, many tales about crashes.

“Planes and pilots have to be pretty hardy in the Yukon,” says Metcalfe-Chenail. “That’s a big message I’m getting.”

The book is a ways from being written, as she expects the research will take her until the end of 2011. Her plan is to see publication in 2012 or 2013.

In terms of work completed, she has draft versions of some of the material for the history book, a bit of work done on a novel she’s also writing, two dozen blog entries, six poems, two notebooks filled, a dozen or more hours of recorded interviews.

“I found a lot of being here was becoming one big sponge,” Metcalfe-Chenail says.

She was also able to participate via a Skype computer link – in the Berton House fund-raising gala held in Toronto on Nov. 30. On her blog she recalled the odd feeling of knowing her face was on a five-metre screen in front of hundreds of people at that event, which raises money to support the residency program.

“Apparently I came in loud and clear to the host, (former radio broadcaster) Vick Gabereau, and the 200-odd attendees. And I could hear Vicki great too, but it was really eerie not being able to see anyone while I was up there on the big screen…” says Metcalfe-Chenail.

Another blog entry includes a top 10 list of things she recalls about her time in and out of Dawson, compiled as a year-end excercise on Dec. 28, back in Edmonton. (Click here to read).

Perhaps the biggest challenge (aside from dealing wtih the bathtub when the pipes froze during a cold snap) was that hte Writers’ Trust of Canada, which oversees the Berton House Retreat Program, has no definite rules about what to do while a writer here. Apart from doing readings in both Dawson and Whitehorse, the writer’s time is his or her own, to use as he or she sees fit.

“That is one of the most liberating things, but it’s also one of the scariest. Pierre Berton set it up to be whatever a writer needed it to be. Earlier, I needed it to be a kind of home base for all this research, but later it became a place where I could settle in and absorb and experience this part of the North.”

© 2011 Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail. All Rights Reserved.