Excerpts

Here are some excerpts from two of my favorite books: There is a Seal in my Sleeping Bag & Winging It in the North. I read these as a guest speaker to the BC Federation of Writers AGM. I called this speech, What Is an Ideal Woman for the Ideal Man? I called my first book I Married the Ideal Man but fortunately the publisher changed the title to There’s a Seal in my Sleeping Bag, a book which has been in print now for more than 40 years though the marriage lasted only one of those four decades. Perhaps the Ideal Man was looking for the Ideal Woman.

What Is an Ideal Woman for the Ideal Man?

My first book was the story of my attempts trying to be the Ideal Woman for my first husband, David. The blurb on the jacket of There’s a Seal in my Sleeping Bag read This book proves that marriage can be a bed of roses when all too often it is on a bed of rocks. Home was an old beach house without heat, insulation, water or a shower, and a bed I shared with a seal, four cougars, a hyrax, and sometimes one husband. My jobs as a wife included sitting for nine hours in nests on top of 150-foot-high trees with eagles on my knees, pulling swimming eagles out of the water, climbing cliffs on precipitous islands to pull seabirds out of the air, rowing dinghies ashore in the surf to land cargo and passengers, smuggling birds and apes on airplanes, hatching murres and puffins and baby-sitting killer whales.

Getting my Ideal Man was easy. It happened on the eve of my departure back to Western Australia after years of traveling around the world looking for one.

Winging it in the North & There’s a Seal in my Sleeping Bag

I had no particular reason for going to Canada except to earn money for a trip by ship back to Perth. I planned to embark in Vancouver and after a six-week voyage across the Pacific, arrive home at 5.00 P.M. on Christmas Eve. I had signed a contract to teach speech which meant an attempt to eradicate the Aussie accent from all students living in one third of the Australian continent. However, on the eve of my departure, while I was working as a waitress in a coffeeshop close to the University of British Columbia, graduate student David Hancock asked me out on a date.

“Sorry,” I said cockily. “This is my last weekend in Canada and I’m flying to an island in a friend’s float plane.” In those years – the early 1960s – I had never even seen a float plane, let alone been up in one. And I had never before known anyone who owned a whole island. My rejection didn’t faze David. He replied, “How would you like to come in my float plane to my island – and count eagles?”

I didn’t believe him for a moment. Still, the idea seemed intriguing for what would probably be the final adventure of my life.

We took off on the plane trip from Victoria to Barclay Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island – in winter. It was a nightmare. We flew just high enough to clear the tree tops, so that David could see into the eagles’ nests. At so low an elevation the strong winds severely buffeted the aircraft. Captive of the wind, the plane rolled, yawed, and pitched. My stomach never quite caught up as the plane dropped altitude with every downdraft. One moment the plane stood on one wing tip, the next moment on the other. Rain and sleet pelting against the fabric of the plane lessened visibility. It didn’t make me feel much better when David commented that never had he been up in worse weather conditions.

The constant change of focus between the horizon and the map on my knee, as well as the turbulent air conditions, were doing dreadful things to my queasy stomach. And then at a particularly bumpy moment I couldn’t believe my ears: over the roar of the engine, David was saying, “You’re the first girl I know who hasn’t got air sick. How would you like to be Mrs. Hancock? You could cancel that boat back to Australia on Monday and marry me instead.”

His surprise proposal on my first date sounded more exciting than my alternative plan to teach speech down under and probably live with a parrot in an attic for the rest of my life so I accepted. Somewhere in the next hectic days I sent a telegram to my parents “Flying home. Met the Ideal Man. His name is David Hancock. Please prepare a wedding.” My first wedding present was a wedge-tailed eagle delivered to the church in Fremantle, Australia and my first child was a sea lion named Sam delivered a month later to a no-pet apartment in Vancouver, Canada.

Meeting my Ideal Man was easier than keeping him. I had to overcome several challenges. My first was my fear of fish. Here are a few excerpts from There’s a Seal in my Sleeping Bag.

Sam was almost dead, and too lethargic to eat on his own. Feeding became a fight. But, before we left Victoria to return home to Vancouver, David’s mother, who had lived through several of David’s seals, initiated me into the mysteries of force-feeding seals with a mixture of liquefied fish and antibiotics pureed in a blender. Three times a day for a month, David, protected by two coats and two pairs of gloves, wedged the snarling, squirming furry beast between his legs. While he kept the seal’s jaws apart, I squirted a plastic bag of the fishy viscous mess through a thin rubber hose and down into his stomach.

Many a time the contents of that plastic bag squirted all over me before I perfected the technique. My mother had always despaired of my ever becoming the perfect housewife, but by wielding mops and brooms after Sam three times a day, I soon acquired proficiency. At that time I was working as a substitute teacher in various schools and we were living in a four-room basement apartment. Every day and night, David had to carry me out and in through the cement stairwell, our sole exit, for fear of Sam shredding my legs.

Force-feeding Sam with the plastic bag was simple compared to feeding him whole fish. All my life I had detested the sight or feel of fish.

I remember vividly the trauma of the day I arrived home early from school, warded off Sam with my large handbag, and then bounced into the kitchen to be confronted with a roomful of fish. Herring covered everything – sink, table, floor. Scales clung tenaciously to wall, knives ands blender. Whole fish, strips of fish, heads of fish lay all over my kitchen in a malodorous array.

Picturing a whole army of fish on the attack, I screamed and ran down the street. Although David later swore he had been called away in a hurry before he could clean up, I swear he tried to conquer my aversion with what psychologists call shock tactics.

For a couple of weeks I conned various teachers into giving me a lift home. At the door I’d casually say, “You wouldn’t like to come in for a cup of coffee and, er, help me shove a few herring down my sea lion’s gullet?”

I knew I had to do something to cure my antipathy before I ran out of friends. So, while Dave was away at university, I’d gingerly unroll a newspaper package full of herring and force myself to stare at those goggling, cold, fishy eyes. Next I’d stretch forward a hand to touch the fish, first with a knife and then with the tip of my finger. At each touch I’d suppress a scream and instinctively my hand would shrink back. Trying to clear all aversion from my mind, I’d close my hands on the slippery-scaled body and pick it up, reflecting meantime what women will endure for love of a man.

My second challenge was my fear of heights. My home away from home was often a piece of plastic on top of a snow-covered mountain peak, a tarp on top of a fog-ridden cliff, or a nest on top of a rainswept tree.

I don’t know what was worse, trying to find crevices for toe and finger holds on the crumbling cliff face or listening to the thunder of the swells as they crashed in at our feet. Hovering between crevices, testing the shale which crumbled at the touch, trying to match David’s stride, thinking how many bones I’d break if I fell, and wonderingly fleetingly why I was there, I climbed slowly and painfully up the ledges where hundreds of cormorants had balanced their mound nests. The fat, hollow-stemmed plants pulled away at a touch, as did most of the rock face, but some security was achieved by hoisting oneself up on the long, wavy grass. From a distance through the clearing fog the hillside looked like a green, grassy golf course. In reality it housed innumerable burrows and tunnels of millions of seabirds. I pushed and pulled in a traverse across the steep hill, often falling into a deep hole – the entrance to a burrow out of sight in the shoulder-high grass.

“Just stuff your arm in as far as it’ll go,” David instructed. “If there’s an adult in the burrow try to get it to bite your glove – but not your fingers inside it.”

I lay down in front of an excreta-moistened burrow and boldly shoved my arm into the hole right up to the shoulder.

“Ouch!” I lurched backward. Beginner’s luck again! Hanging onto my fingers through the glove was an indignant and pugnacious puffin, gripping with a massive orange beak as powerful as a vise. The pain of my first puffin.

“That’s the idea. You can now see what a puffin looks like in close-up. Bring it over here to the sun and I’ll take a picture.”

As I stumbled through the grass to my husband the puffin momentarily relinquished his hold on my glove. I used that instant to slip my fingers inside the glove out of range of his beak. “Hold him against the sun” was David’s next instruction. While I was pondering my best profile for the picture, the puffin changed position; this time it clamped down on the fingers of my ungloved hand, not with the straight rapier of the side beak but with the deep cutting pincer of the front tip. Blood spurted out freely as the beak clamped again in a new position.

“Dave, lever his beak up,” I screamed. Just as I managed to loosen his beak he raked me with his flashing three-pointed webbed feet. “Great footage,” David commented still filming. “Red blood looks good in Kodachrome.”

My last test as a wife came in year nine of the marriage. “How would you like to have a baby in a rubber boat while trying to cross the Northwest Passage?” David asked in bed one morning after dreaming of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition. I thought it was a good way to die but I followed dutifully. However, midway across the Arctic Ocean, David aborted the expedition and returned home to marry someone else.

Except for a short affair with a raccoon with whom I lived during my most productive writing years, my next Ideal Man was Frank (One). Mind you, I had to go to the end of the world to find him. Whereas I got engaged to David on my first date atop an eagle nest on the west side of Vancouver Island, I got engaged to Frank (One) in a semi-subterranean sod hut on the east side of Baffin Island. We lived in a tiny trailer on the bank of the Mackenzie River not far from the Arctic Circle. The only animals in our house, apart from a cat and dog, were wild and they stayed in the wild except for a bear that rampaged from window to window keeping us indoors for one long exciting night.

I tried to be the Ideal Woman, adventurous but also domestic. I have always followed sudden impulses in the pursuit of romance – getting engaged in a floatplane above an eagle’s nest, marrying a couple of weeks later on the other side of the world, flying across the roof of Canada in a teddy (under my parka), spending Christmas in a negligee under caribou furs in a semi-subterranean sod hut in an Inuit village, draping Christmas lights on an iceberg, kidnapping a husband by float plane for a tryst at a lonely lake in the wilderness. Women’s magazines call it adding spice to a relationship or bringing magic to a marriage. Here is an excerpt from Winging it in the North.

So it was entirely in character on the morning of March 1, 1995 that I made a sudden decision to fly from Fort Simpson to Yellowknife to shop, and the next day to fly from Yellowknife to Resolute to surprise my husband for his fiftieth birthday. Frank had been living there for six months, working around the clock in temperatures that got to 60 below during the long arctic night and baching in a bunkhouse with the construction crew of the complex he was building. He didn’t know I was coming.

I even had the blessing of the Church. “It’s a wonderful idea,” laughed Blanche, the wife of the Anglican Bishop of the Arctic, when she picked me up to shop for goodies not found in Resolute. I filled my cart with such delicacies as imported cheeses, gourmet sausages, fancy breads, exotic fresh fruits, nuts, chocolates, oysters, candles, wine – and a giant, luscious-looking, personally inscribed Black Forest birthday cake.

Even the First Air flight attendants grinned as they turned a blind eye to the scales at the check-out counter and helped stash my stuff – pizzas under this passenger, muffins under that one, daffodils in the overhead bin, Black Forest cake in the galley.

The first thing I saw after landing in Resolute was the sign STAFFHOUSE peeking through the snow banked to the rooftops of buildings by Resolute’s most recent blizzard.

I hurried into the terminal to meet Frank’s boss.

“Frank still doesn’t know you are coming,” Aziz greeted me with a wink. ‘I’ve arranged for you to spend the next few days in a house in tosn where the Queen once stayed. It’ll be a change for Frank to get out of the bunkhouse and you’ll have more privacy. But stay inside. Don’t let anybody see you till I get Frank to the house to meet you so you can surprise him. We told him to pick up some machinery from there today. Wayne will try to hurry him up.”

I was grateful for Aziz’s kindness but it must have been a long time ago that the Queen overnighted in his thinly insulated aluminum-sided house, a bungalow that had once been at the Base. I guess the Queen must have been winging it, too. Although drifting snow obscured the view from the kitchen, wooden tulips in a vase on the table by the window stimulated thoughts of spring. A southern spring, I thought ruefully, as I prepared the appetizers, marinated the steaks, and pulled on an extra sweater. The house hadn’t been heated since Christmas when Aziz and his family moved in temporarily after their own house froze.

Suddenly I heard a truck pulling up at the door and then footsteps crunching on the snow. Time to put the rest of my plan into action. I slipped quickly into a long black negligee, turned on a tape of “Waltzing Matilda” to give my husband a hint to my identity, and slinked to the door with a goblet of snow. “Happy birthday,” I breathed, trying to sound sexy.

But it wasn’t Frank.

It was Wayne come to tell me that my workaholic husband insisted on drywalling the hamlet office before he responded to Aziz’s request to pick up the generator from the Queen’s house. My peculiar sense of humour overcame my sense of embarrassment, but I can’t say the same for Wayne. He left, red-faced, promising to think of another excuse to entice to the house.

My enthusiasm for playing the vamp waned a little during the rest of the afternoon. Three times someone came to the door and three times I started into my seduction scene before realizing it was for the wrong person. The idea of Frank’s wife flying from Fort Simpson to surprise him for his birthday appealed to the construction crew, and they were making mighty efforts to keep me informed.

It was seven o’clock before Aziz finally succeeded in bringing Frank to the door. By that time, Matilda was no longer waltzing. She was huddled on the sofa in a parka trying to keep her negligee warm. Her husband, however, made a grand entrance – he was unrecognizable in a skidoo suit, with an old towel wrapped around his neck as a balaclava, goggles, mitts, and covered from head to toe in whitewash and paint.

Next day, Frank was late for work.

When keeping house at home and at the job site eventually palled, I went for walks.

Resolute in March is not the place for a casual stroll. Wind often determined where you will go. You don’t walk around as much as blow around. A notice on the Hamlet Office warned EXTREME WIND CHILLS. 40 KMH. MINUS 44 CELSIUS.YOU CAN GET FROST BITE IN LESS THAN A MINUTE. So when I wanted to jaw with the pilots at the Base I had to hitch a ride on a truck or snowmobile.

One day I blew into my neighbours – High Arctic International Tourist Home – marked by a signpost pointing to the North Pole which wasn’t far away. I soon started a conversation with two strangers.

“Where do you come from?” I asked brashly, oblivious to the fact they might not speak English – and they didn’t.

“From Poland,” the taller of the two said after my question surfaced through filters of French, English and Polish.

“And where are you going?” I pressed on with my shameless interrogation.

“To the Pole,” answered the other.

WITH TWO POLES TO THE POLE. The headline jumped immediately to my mind. I just couldn’t resist. “Can I come with you?” was my knee-jerk reaction.

“Sure,” I think somebody said.

He didn’t mean all the way by pulling a sled but he did mean flying part of the way to reconnoiter the route. Still, I was thrilled. Going nearly to the North Pole was good enough. “I’ll be back in a day,” I said blithely to my husband – who was not amused. He was less amused four days later when I returned to Resolute after blizzards forced us to land at Eureka.

“Only a fool would go out in this weather,” said Frank, grumpily. “Why don’t you be a real woman, stay home and be domestic!”

Believe me, you don’t have to go all the way to the Pole for adventure, you can find it on a domestic day in Resolute. As the front and only door of our house opened right into the face of the blizzard, I couldn’t venture in and out without help, even had I wanted to. So I had to try a day at home.

To keep the door shut against the face of the wind, I wedged a broom between it and the furnace which was the first object inside the house. Outside, Frank roped it to the porch railing. But what to do about the snow that kept coming in through the cracks, snow that was piled knee-high by afternoon? “Shovel it into the bathtub and melt it under the hot water tap,” Frank suggested by phone from the job site.

In between shoveling snow to the bathroom, I put a load of clothes into the washing machine and turned it on. It roared into action with a life of its own and thundered through the cycles as if it was about to blow up. Suddenly, it did. As the machine erupted, water gushed onto the cold porch floor and turned instantly to ice. I had my own skating rink. I wrung out the clothes by hand and threw them into the adjacent dryer. When I returned much later to take them out, the machine had stopped and the clothes were as hard as bricks.

I couldn’t wait to compare notes with the Queen.