Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ghosts of Christmas Past
The "Chibougabus"

In the 1987 I accepted the post as the Incumbent of Christ Church Chibougamau in the Diocese of Moosonee. It was my first parish.

My new bishop, Caleb Lawrence, gave me a couple of pieces of advice: First of all, he said, you'll need a decent vehicle. You've got a total of 266 kilometres a Sunday to drive in all sorts of weather in order to lead services in two communities (Chibougamau and Waswanipi River in northern Quebec). Secondly, you need to learn to play an instrument because, in addition, you'll be responsible for a number of small outlying native settlements in the region - collections of plywood shacks dotted about here and there - and there'll be no other music there.

So I quickly learned a dozen chords on the mandolin (Caleb's other suggestion had been the accordon!) since one of my chums in the congregation in Victoria, where I was curate, was willing, not only to teach me the mandolin, but to let me help him lead music at the beginning of the service at St Philip's during the few months that remained before I left for the north. I built up a tidy repertoire of simple hymns and choruses.

The Chibougabus was a 1984 Toyota Landcruiser with a long wheelbase. It had interior heaters back and front, four-wheel-drive (obviously) and could fire itself through a deep snow-drift on a lonely road like a tank.

The problem was starting it in intense cold - minus fifty (celsius) in Chibougamau on one morning in 1988 - because diesel, even the winterized diesel available in Canada, tends to thicken up in the cold. It was necessary to plug the Chibougabus into the mains overnight at three points: The vehicle had a standark block heater to warm the engine block. It had an oil-pan heater to keep the engine oil from turning into tar and it had a battery heater which warmed the two batteries. All being well and the electric load not being high enough to blow the fuse on the outdoor electric socket, you could start your vehicle in the morning without too much noise and banging about.

One of the tricks to start a cranky vehicle in the cold is to open the hood, shoot a little ether from a spray can into the air filter, run around to the drivers side and turn the key. This helped on many a morning.

Safety equipment - tons of the stuff: I carried a pair of snow shoes, a length of rope, a shovel, an axe and two arctic sleeping bags with extra blankets. I also carried about a dozen bricks and a box of 8 hour emergency candles.

One of the tricks of pilots who were ferrying bombers over Greenland during the Second World War was to carry bricks and candles with them in case they had to ditch in some frozen waste along the way. You can build a little oven made of bricks with a few air spaces between them and light a candle inside it. The candle warms the bricks. If you manage to isolate yourself in some tiny part of the plane (or in some part of the Chibougabus with your artic sleeping bag around you and blankets blocking off the rest of the vehicle), you can keep your section liveably warm almost indefinitely.

I was set.

Our regional Dean at the time, the Rector of Val d'Or was, shall we say, a character. He was from south Florida and was a bit crusty. At some point during my last winter in Chibougamau, Sam came over for a visit. He knocked on the door. I let him in and put the coffee on. We sat at the table.

Sam says to me in his raspy voice,

"Rob, I've just looked in the back of your truck and what do I see there? I see ropes. I see a can of ether. I see an axe.

It is no mystery to me that you never get a date."