A time there was, 40 years ago, when two-way radio was the only way to communicate in remote places. Life in mineral and geotechnical exploration bush camps – fancy with wood floors/canned oysters for snacks/carpentered loos; or more commonly: primitive with pine-top carpets/PBJ for supper/bough over a pit privy – depended on battery-operated radios. Grocery orders, helicopter spare parts, project progress reports, gossip, arguments: words poured into mics and transmitted radially from wire anatennaes strung between trees like washing lines. Staccato, scratchy radio traffic was seasoned with catchy jargon that allowed a London city dude like me to sound like an expert woodsman: “Come in, Rabbit Lake”, “Roger that, Moose Camp”; “I copy you, Fly 3”. I learned how to twiddle the Gain knob for volume and adjust the Squelch knob to reduce static and at the same time remember to release the mic button with “Over”, or the powerful, bossy last words: “Over and out”.
There was little chance that radio chatter could be private because anybody could dial into your frequency; and you theirs. Confidential matters had to be dealt with by letters, or if urgent, personal visits by bush planes and helicopters.
The ether was not a dependable medium. In winter, the aurora borealis, the northern lights – cascading purple and green stains on curtains of shimmering, sable nightskies – caused magnetic storms and radio crackling, swooshing, whispering. In summer, there were radio traffic jams where it could be difficult to get your message across, or even a word in edgewise. Too: there were incomprehensible accents; or strangers buccaneered your frequency with disjointed traffic, like unwanted ads; or your radio was puny, your antenna misaligned; or the damn battery was running out because somebody had forgotten to recharge it. Or, or, or. So much could go wrong with radio. Anyway, there were often more distracting problems; so to hell with the radio call tonight. Let’s have radio silence for a while. Over and out.
Radio silence did not mean there was silence silence; there was ear candy: the chatter of chipmunks, and the splasher of jumping fish, and the rustler of wind in the tent fly sheets, and the faint whine-chop-chopper of the Jet Ranger coming home.
In the bush life was a lot slower; and certainly quieter. One learned to do without headlines. Maybe now and again you could pick up the BBC on Shortwave. But more likely it would be Russia. Or some thumping Oklahoma Bible station. There were no Internet sugar rushes, or Status Update compulsions, or email shackles.
On field traverses we rarely had portable radios. Walkie-talkies we called them. We often went out in pairs; sometimes I traversed alone. I loved silence every now and again. It is hard to be silent though. Even walking in hushed woods, I could hear the hush only if I stopped for a moment to mute the creak of rucksack canvas against my pack frame. Some of us carried revolvers; the ugly extra weight that reassured “in case of bears”. But I never carried a gun; preferring the jingling-tinkling bells on my pack to serenade skittish bears “I’m coming/I’m coming/run away/away, not to…” Perhaps every now and again, when nervous, I may have sung loudly. I often whistled or played my harmonica. I could not hear well the music I made, because I did not wear my hearing aids in the field – hearing aids do not last long in the company of sweat, plucking twigs, rain, bug spray. But the idea was to let the bears know to scamper away, not to entertain them.
I recall long weeks without radio contact at all when I was a claim staker. One fortnight was a long time indeed for my partner Esa H~ who had depended on me to shop for our groceries before we flew out to camp. But I forgot to buy the salt, Esa’s drug of choice; and we had no radio; and and our boss would not fly in for two more weeks. I could have learned colloquial, blasphemous Finn when we ate our saltless meals.
Nowadays I cannot recall now how I thought, or my supervisors thought, we would manage without radios on traverse. Perhaps I was lucky. I got lost in the woods wandering for hours in right-hand-turn circles, trying to find my camp and cursing Finn friend. I walked on Yukon ridge tops dawn to dusk hunting shiny rocks, or collecting soil and sediment samples, meeting many a bear. I fell down slopes, or tumbled into streams, banging my knees, scraping my elbows; and floundered in sloshy muskeg or stinking bogs. I was once stranded with my crew for days, incommunicado. One cold, late afternoon I ski-dooed brashly into a snow-covered lurking grey slush in the middle of a 5-mile wide, otherwise fully-frozen lake, – skidoo and me, together but alone, slowly capsizing. That was scary.
Even scarier for me was sliding down a rock face in pouring rain; concussed; broken ribs; pounded backbone; and hours of traumatized walk to a geologist client with a radio; airplane emergency pick up; and eventual salvation to a small country hospital for two weeks residence in the Ladies Ward.
All these and more small mishaps were to me adventures because I had to make do. I could not call for help because I did not have a radio. Or if I did have one, nobody was listening. I suppose now I could say that such risky experiences made a man of me, but I would be exaggerating. Instead, they inoculated me with the lifelong itchy virus for boyish adventure; and a love of occasional quiet time, of precious radio silence.
Over and out.