“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Winter in the North. Cartwright Labrador.

It is winter in the North, twenty six tonight. I love cold quiet nights. One in particular stands in my memory.

The fishing village of Cartwright is on the Atlantic coast of Labrador in Canada. Up through the 1960s it defined the word isolated. The nearest town of consequence was one hundred fifty miles to the west across mountains and lakes. No road connected Cartwright to anything. Access was by helicopter and during summer by ferry and tanker and fishing boat trawler.

The village had four hundred and fifty residents, no electricity and "no" a lot of other things. A dirt and gravel road connected a small dock and warehouse, up through the village to the top of a hill, three miles and change, to a US Air Force radar station. The 922nd Aircraft Control & Warning Squadron dominated the local economy, social life and connection to the outside world. To the GIs on site, everything outside of Cartwright was “the world.” During the day, mostly summer and spring, you could walk to the village, check in at The Hudson Bay General Store and walk back. There was an occasional air force bus that took local workers back and forth to the site at shift changes. During the winter, most of the year, a tracked vehicle called a trackmaster did duty going up and down the snow covered road. The last trip up was at 22:45.

I looked at my watch. It was 22:47.

I had fallen asleep on my girl friends couch, intoxicated by the warmth of a large dinner, a log fire and some old fashioned cadoodling. No excuse. I had to be at work in one hour and fifteen minutes. It was late January and thirty five degrees below zero. That meant mukluks over felt socks, snow pants and bib over thermals, and a wolf skin trimmed parka, zipped to what we called a periscope opening. It was too cold for gloves, you needed mitts. I harnessed a rifle over my shoulder, protection against free running pack dogs, and made my own free run over hard packed snow.

I could make it back doing double time. I set up a pace and rhythm recalling marching to the “heel, heel, heel” of a basic training drill instructor, except it was more of a “hayowl, hayowl, hayowl” that can only be done by a staff sergeant from the South. Yankees could not “hayoul, hayowl, hayowl,” like Southerners, but I could hear it in my head.

At temperatures below zero, snow crunches and squeaks under canvas mukluks. As I left the village, the last sounds of barking sled dogs and single lung generators were behind me. There really is a sound of silence. Really. No mechanical sounds and at that place no artificial light. I was making good time and well warmed from the pace. I had time and stopped. Peace. Silence.

It was hard to imagine the fitting of another star in that intense black sky. They lit the blue white ice and snow covered mountains to the west. The bay was frozen over as far into the Atlantic as you could see. It was all stars and ice, black and silver blue.

Wave after wave of electric blue northern lights rippled across the sky. The light traveled from horizon to horizon like a breeze through sheets hung on outside lines. No air moved. Quiet. Silence.

You could feel the northern lights and the silent clinking of the shimmering stars. Then there was a sound, the long slow deep muffled groan of sea ice shifting. Somehow you wanted to save it all to share with others but that was not possible. The moment passed and work had to be done.

Soon it will be dawn and it will be back to the “hayowl hayowl hayowl,”work of modern life.


  1. Those days in your life gave the "Cold War" a very special meaning.
    Thank you Sir for pulling duty where few would have the moxie to withstand the isolation and the elements.

  2. gave me cold chills just reading it. Reminded me of a few winters in the High Rockies, the world of ice and snow. So alien down hyar in de deep souf.

  3. I read of duece's cold weather adventure, just as the story of the Kim family made it's turn in the rotation.
    Mom and children, found after 9 days, having stayed with the vehicle. Dad has been in the woods, for 10 days, now. Most likely dead of hypothermia, not having mittens and mucklucs.
    His "extra" pair of pants found last night, on the his trail, which was no trail all.

    An urban family the pushed the wilderness sightseeing envelope and lost.

  4. Desert Rat said, "An urban family the pushed the wilderness sightseeing envelope and lost."

    The missing man is a senior editor at, and he was sort of a techno-geek with the latest nav 'puter in his rig. The artificial intelligence told him to go ahead and turn on this or that road, and it would connect him to where he was going, but the road was a little country road at 3,000 feet in the Siskyous that doesn't get plowed and should have been closed. Shows how far HAL needs to go before he has the cracker-barrel folksy common sense of a girl scout, even.

  5. Nice piece of writing, Deuce. I'm reminded of another word picture of men in service to our nation. Let's take your post as an opportunity to remember those in the 1st Cavalry Division and other units currently in harms way in defense of freedom.

    Cavalry Crossing a Ford

    A LINE in long array, where they wind betwixt green islands;
    They take a serpentine course—their arms flash in the sun—Hark to the musical clank;
    Behold the silvery river—in it the splashing horses, loitering, stop to drink;
    Behold the brown-faced men—each group, each person, a picture—the negligent rest on the saddles;
    Some emerge on the opposite bank—others are just entering the ford—while,
    Scarlet, and blue, and snowy white,
    The guidon flags flutter gaily in the wind

    Walt Whitman

  6. Old Walt could write out a picture with words as clear as John Ford could with film.

  7. So, you think that's bad?