Stuck here on the ground

It’s not easy getting to northern Ontario. Kenora was my destination when I left home last week; Kenora via Union Station, Pearson Airport, Thunder Bay and Fort Frances. I was ready, or so I thought, for whatever might lie ahead: I had my new winter boots, just in case there was a bit of snow; scarves and gloves in case it was chilly; lots of work, and a few books on my tablet..

I got to Thunder Bay without incident, other than finding the crowds in Pearson Airport overwhelming. The airport in Thunder Bay is one of my favourites. I have flown in and out of it countless times in the past couple of decades. It’s small, baggage collection is easy from the one luggage carousel, there’s a small bar overlooking the runway, a little food court and what I think is the best gift shop in any airport I have visited. You can even see the Sleeping Giant.

I was looking forward to my hour plus layover before my flight to Kenora: just enough time for a slice of pizza and a look through the gift shop. I was also keenly anticipating the final leg of my trip aboard Bearskin Airlines. Nicknamed Scareskin, I have had only happy experiences with the airline. The staff are friendly, and there is a relaxed atmosphere that is missing when dealing with large airlines.

On one of my first Bearskin flights, as the pilot was assisting me down the stairs from the plane, he said: “You’re Pam, right? Your friend asked me to tell you that she is running a few minutes late, so you should just wait for her in the terminal.” Hard to imagine such personal service on Air Canada.

Hear the mighty engines roar

However, because of a severe winter storm, I never got farther north than the Thunder Bay Airport. The first day, against the background sound of other people’s flights taking off and landing, I waited patiently from 10:30 a.m. till 4:30 p.m., ever hopeful that my repeatedly delayed flight would eventually take off and get me to my destination. The flight was finally cancelled altogether, and I was told to come back the next morning for an 11:30 a.m. flight. I collected my checked bag, booked a hotel room, and headed off for the night.

I returned the next morning for more of the wait and see game. By 2:00 p.m., my flight had been delayed three times, so I decided to throw in the towel and get a flight back to Toronto before even that option disappeared.

All told, I spent 12.5 of the 29.5 hours I was in Thunder Bay in the airport. It felt much longer.

I spent considerable time and almost $500 in the gift shop, becoming fast friends with the woman running it, who had been lacking in both company and business since March 2020. In addition to the usual junk to be found in airport gift shops, this one boasts locally made goods and Indigenous art and jewellery. I took advantage of this shopping opportunity, and now my gift shelf at home is well stocked once again.

Eating was less interesting. The bar was closed, thanks to the pandemic. The pizza slice operation that I remembered fondly is no more; no doubt also a victim of the pandemic. It’s been replaced by a not very interesting food counter with five kinds of pre-made sandwiches, chips, muffins, coffee and pop on offer. After two days, the appeal wore pretty thin.

I couldn’t help but remember a 2016 stopover in this airport, when I ran into my friend Renu Mandhane, then Ontario’s Chief Commissioner of Human Rights, who had just finished her soon-to-be well known tour of the Thunder Bay jail. We never seemed to find time to get together in Toronto, but we enjoyed a leisurely visit while munching on pizza and waiting for our flights.

This old airport’s got me down

It was a long couple of days; interesting in some respects, but ultimately boring. There are only so many spots to sit in a small airport; only so many times the gift shop can be visited; only so many sandwiches to be eaten. Eventually, I think I had sat in every seating area, each of them as uncomfortable as the previous one (my neck and shoulders were still complaining three days later).

Sadly, I did not run into any acquaintances or friends with whom I could pass some time last week. On the other hand, I got to know my would-be fellow passengers, and I came to appreciate the complexities of living somewhere that is so defined by the weather.

I texted voraciously, grateful for those on the other end who . I read a whole book (The Survivors, by Jane Harper, which I highly recommend) and started another. I met no one who wasn’t friendly and eager to help me sort out my travels.

I’m not someone who easily enters the zone of living in the moment– almost no matter what I am doing, my mind races ahead to the next activity — but my 12.5 hours of unplanned airport time forced me to do so, and I was largely successful.

From time to time, I thought with admiration about Edward Snowden who, in 2013, spent more than a month in the transit zone in Moscow’s international airport. His were undeniably more interesting (not to mention difficult) circumstances, but I suspect that he had times when, like me, he just wanted to go home.

Unlike Snowden, I was able to go home, with no real harm done. That said, while I may be well supplied with gifts for the next several months and a slightly improved ability to stay in the moment, it’s not an experience I am looking to repeat any time soon.

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