More than fifty years later, Dominique Prinet remembers his first trip to Borden Island like it was yesterday. He spent eight days in the middle of a polar night at -67°F. It was “the most atrocious flight” of his career. The French oil company Elf had just obtained a permit to explore an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean and a group of surveyors had to be flown in. The pilot and his three passengers wrapped up in their sleeping bags set the course for 360°: due north. Beneath the skis of their DHC-3 Otter, the landscape appeared uniform as they flew past. The snow covering the frozen lakes and rivers deprived Prinet of his bearings.
“Everything was flat and white,” the Frenchman explained. “All I could see was an immense field of snow. I couldn’t tell the difference between land and ice.” On that day, the flight lasted 11 hours. There was only one refueling station on the way – some barrels hidden under the snow. So, to save fuel, the cabin was not heated. It was so cold on board that the prospectors’ bottle of whiskey froze. And that’s not all: The cold had stiffened the controls, and the North Pole’s magnetic field had rendered the compass useless. To find his way, the pilot had to rely on the stars… and the sun when it appeared on the horizon for a few minutes at noon. “This flight terrified me,” he recalls. “But in this line of work, you have to know how to stay calm and smile at the passengers even when you are frightened out of your mind.”
Prinet was 25 when he arrived in Canada. The eldest in an old, traditional French family, he failed the entrance exam to the Ecole Normale Supérieure and ended up studying electronic engineering, which he found boring. Overshadowed by the success of those in his inner circle – several PhD-holders, a renowned painter, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, the president of the National Academy of Medicine, a chief curator at the French National Library, a doctor to both the British royal family and the last Russian czar – the young man despaired. “I could either jump off a bridge and be done with it,” he explained, “or I could turn my back on the only world I had ever known. He chose the latter.
Filled with shame and convinced he was “the family idiot,” he fled to Vancouver where he arrived in January 1965 with 200 dollars in his pocket. He could already imagine himself working as a lumberjack like a character from a Jack London novel. But logging camps were closed for the winter, and Prinet managed to find a job as a flying instructor instead. Indeed, he had been flying since he was 16 years old and had met President Eisenhower during an exchange program for Air Cadets in the United States. He had also paid for school by giving flying lessons at a club near Paris. Thanks to a Canadian civil servant, who took him under his wing, he quickly obtained the Canadian equivalent of his French certifications.
One day when flying passengers over the Rocky Mountains, he was offered a job as a bush pilot in the Northwest Territories. This vast region in northern Canada was just opening up to exploration, and airlines needed labor. Planes with wheels, skis or floats, depending on the season, were often the only way to reach prospecting locations, mines, oil fields, uranium sources, and natural gas reserves. This is how Prinet ended up in Yellowknife, a town with a population of 3,500, 900 miles north of Edmonton at the end of a gravel road, and the “last stop before the Arctic.”
The Frenchman spent four seasons there. Employed by Gateway Aviation, he was paid between 3 and 6 cents per mile and flew seven days a week, worked night and day, and cumulated up to 200 flight hours per month. This arduous schedule helped him find his way back to school in Montreal. “In three months over the summer, I was earning enough to pay for travel, college tuition, rent and food,” he says. “I finished college and grad school to get my family off my back and then I became a bush pilot. I rolled 50-gallon barrels of fuel to my plane, filled up the tank with a hand pump, loaded and unloaded equipment used to drill holes in the Arctic. I was in heaven.”
“My Excursions Far from Civilization”
This was before GPS and navigation software on iPads. Maps of the Great North were not precise. Pilots flew based on sight and relied on canyons, rivers, and other features of the landscape to know where they were. Prinet took off from a paved runway in Yellowknife or from the Great Slave Lake in his seaplane, which was filled to the brim with equipment, including foraging tools, inflatable boats, pumps, wooden slabs, dynamite cases, seal or beaver skin, and bags of gold. His clients? Geologists, hydrologists, ornithologists, prospectors, trappers, or American tourists who wanted to fish for Arctic char, a variety of salmon that swims upstream at the end of the summer. He also carried additional tanks of fuel, food supplies, a sleeping bag, and a Lee-Enfield rifle from World War II capable of withstanding polar temperatures. Just in case.
In this gigantic region where the mail can take a month to reach remote settlements, the pilot was also an explorer, a mechanic, a medic, and a fireman. The priest who lived in villages, often from Brittany or Normandy, had a high-frequency radio. He relayed messages and sent out alerts. Planes transported the wounded, dumped water on forest fires, and herded cattle, as in 1966 when over 2,000 bison had to be vaccinated against anthrax! Bush pilots also took students to and from school. At the end of the summer, airlines were requisitioned by the government to fly to Indigenous villages and take children to boarding schools located further south. A dark page in North American history that has since been condemned for its cruelty.
“It was only much later that I understood the tragedy that destroyed Indigenous cultures,” Prinet says. “When children returned to their villages [at the end of the school year], after having slept in beds and eaten from plates at tables, they were no longer comfortable where they grew up – a place they now regarded as backwards. When I look back at this time, I feel terrible about what I did.” His throat tightens in a similar way when remembering the day he and his wife almost froze to death, in November 1971. They had flown to survey the surface of a frozen lake not far from Fort Reliance, east of Yellowknife, when their Cessna 180 fell through the ice.
Everything around them was grey. In the cockpit, a deathly silence reigned as water swallowed the plane in big gulps. Despite their heavy, wet gear, the couple managed to escape and reach the shore. It was -22°F. Without a fire, they had no chance of surviving more than 20 minutes. Their coats and fur-lined boots were already frozen. “My wife started to slow down. I told her to keep going without stopping – without ever stopping.” In the meantime, Prinet managed to break into an abandoned cabin. Still, he struggled to move and think. His fingers were knotted and stiff from the cold. He could barely use them when he found matches and was finally able to light a fire in a stove. The couple survived. A month before, two young Indigenous people froze to death after their canoe capsized in a lake not far away.
The End of the Arctic Dream
At these latitudes, death is a part of life. In May 1959, two pilots discovered a group of trappers who had left Yellowknife ten months earlier. Near their bodies, branches from pine trees spelled out “S.O.S.” Next to this makeshift sign laid two men “in a skeletal state,” including one who was “completely traumatized.” Two others died trying to reach civilization on foot. The fifth one preferred “to blow himself up with dynamite.” On a rocky point overlooking the city, a stone monument pays homage to the lost fliers and to the explorers who “broke the silence of the North […] and played a crucial role in the development of the Northern economy.”
Prinet left Gateway Aviation in December 1971. After working as an economist to measure the impact of gas pipelines in the Northwest Territories, he became vice-president of Nordair and then Canadian Airlines before putting Air Tanzania back on its feet in Africa and returning to Vancouver to teach sailing and celestial navigation (he went on to publish four books on the topic). He is now 83 and has not flown for a long time. “We must consume less oil,” he blurts out, conscious of the role he played in exploiting the Arctic’s natural resources. His hair is now white and he is sad to see that his old “playground” has been transformed into an open-air factory.
His last visit to Yellowknife was a disappointment. The small frontier town became the capital of the Northwest Territories in 1967 and now has a population of 20,000. It is “very civilized, full of civil servants, concrete and traffic lights. It looks like an American suburb!” As for the Indigenous villages, they have been contaminated “by foraging machinery, diesel motors, smoke, plastic, and piles of garbage.” Today, these communities are too big to live off the land as they had been able to do before. “Canada saved me,” Prinet says, “but I am terribly sorry to see how the First Nations are treated. We have imposed a way of life on them that does not suit them at all.”
In 2015, American journalist and illustrator Joe Sacco traveled to the Northwest Territories to meet the Dene people whose land has been ravaged by fracking companies. He tells their story of survival and resistance in the edifying graphic novel Paying the Land, published by Metropolitan Books in 2020.