Working North

by Rick Ranson
ISBN: 1896300731

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A Review of: Working North: DEW Line to Drill Ship
by M. Wayne Cunningham

Most authors who have written about the Canadian Arctic have been explorers or explorers' biographers or anthropologists or activists and environmentalists justifiably concerned about the exploitation of northern resources and native peoples. Winnipeg author, Rick Ranson, however, provides another perspective on the frozen north. As a blue collar working stiff-a boilermaker and welder-turned-writer-he has turned out this unique two-part collection of sixteen true tales about daily working life as a labourer on the DEW Line and in the oil drilling ships in northern Canada.
Ranson's accounts spring from the letters he wrote during his eight years in the 1980s at sites from Cape Dyer on Baffin Island across to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. These resulting insightful stories are as seamless and polished as the thousands of welds he crafted on the equipment and facilities at the radar camps and on the decks and hulls of the ships and barges where he worked, often in great peril and usually under extreme conditions.
Ranson conveys a strong sense of the Arctic's icy cold and its unforgiving pristine beauty. He focuses on the working conditions he experienced: the basic but plentiful food in the DEW Line camps; the pay that left some well off but which others somehow squandered; the stagnant air of tightly enclosed living quarters; and above all the jokes and stories that relieved the mind-numbing "cancer of tedium that spread over and suffocated the unwary." He describes various episodes: A polar bear chasing a would-be-photographer who ventured too close for his close-up; a worker finding a baby seal in his shower; and a sorry-assed tinsmith inadvertently pooping in the hood of his parka. Canadian-American tensions are playfully relived in a "war" to see which group of nationalistic DEW Liners can fly the largest flag. Tensions between man and beast are recounted in the battles with the bears and the skirmishes with rabid foxes. Major diversion comes from a couple of dog-sledding adventurers on their way around Baffin Island. The intransigence of the Arctic is indelibly etched in the story of George the Inuit guarding his inscrutable knowledge about the Franklin expedition's sojourn to Jenny Lind Island. And the mysterious-with perhaps a touch of the otherworldy-occurs in the eerie tale of the phantom ship that after years of being grounded on a sand bar launches herself to a watery grave at sea.
The military who ran the DEW Line sites, as Ranson points out, had solutions other than jokes and stories to counteract the common problems of madness and depression. It was, he says, "Work. Keep them occupied. .... Work, work, woooork!"
In many respects life on the drilling ships was similar to that on the DEW Line. Here, Ranson, complains he did as much work as three welders and his stories reflect a greater degree of danger. Once when he was welding beside a fuel tank of aviation gas, another time on the inside of a ship's hull where the only protection from floating icebergs was a thin patch of hemp rope, steel wool, silicone and grease; and a third time lucky in a fourteen-hundred-degree diesel fire that shrivelled his leather gloves, set fire to his welder's cap and singed a couple of layers of skin from his nose and ears.
And there were bad apples to deal with too. A bigot who wouldn't work with "ski-mos" but had ruined the life of a young female Inuit; a lead hand without the respect of his crew; a ramrod without respect for his crew; and an alcoholic whose best days as a welder were well behind him. On the other hand there was the working man's pride in a job well done, the camaraderie of men you could depend on, the journeyman's passing on of his skills to an Inuit apprentice, the rough justice meted out by an elderly boxer's fists on behalf of an Inuit maiden, and the familiarity of working on engines named Sleepy, Dopey, Doc, Sneezy, Grumpy, Bashful and Happy. And finally, there was "the happiest day in the rotation"-plane day, the day for going home.
"Years after moving south," Ranson says, "I still think of the Arctic with affection and longing....I'd go back in a heartbeat." And Working North does an excellent job of telling us why.

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