Sometimes Good Things Come Back
A few weeks ago we arrived in Churchill to carry out a field project, staying at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre as we always do. We were a big group of scientists for the first week, and CNSC assigned us two Suburbans from their fleet. The older was a rather beaten 1976 version, tarnished and burnished by decades of wind-driven salt (it may be aged, but it is a “Custom Deluxe”; on one side this moniker has been abbreviated to a more appropriate “Cus”). The newer of the two was ex-University of Manitoba, as demonstrated by the U of M logo still in the process of being peeled from its doors by Churchill’s -40 winters. It also carried U of M number 82, and my colleague Nancy Chow commented that she thought she had used it in the distant past.
Later on, going through my digital photo collection I discovered that I had also used number 82, but quite some time ago. In spring of 2005 it had been our field vehicle in the Grand Rapids Uplands of central Manitoba. It was a fine truck for that work: reasonably comfortable seats, plenty of ground clearance, good power, and immense space for hauling colleagues, students, gear, and geological samples. The only downside, as I recall, was its voracious appetite for fuel.
Now here it was again, its paint somewhat faded, some fresh dents added, and the suspension and seats are definitely more worn, but still an excellent truck. Churchill is only about 1000 kilometres from Winnipeg, but since there is no road connection it is not an easy drive between the two. To get number 82 to Churchill, someone had to drive it to a loading point somewhere along the Hudson Bay Railway (probably at Thompson), load it onto a flatcar, and chain it down for the long, slow, swaying trip across muskeg and tundra.
Now that it is in Churchill, the truck seems to have found its true milieu. Number 82 still has plenty of space for everything we might want to haul, and since CNSC is only about 25 km from town (and it is hard to find roads that go much farther than that), fuel is much less of an issue than on the long highways of southern and central Manitoba. The long wheelbase, good ground clearance, and forgiving suspension make it a natural for Churchill’s gravel roads and even for most of the tracks across cobbles and beach ridges, though the absence of 4×4 meant that we would not chance the mudhole by Halfway Point, or the soft sands of Polar Bear Alley.
Number 82 is certainly showing signs of wear, or perhaps signs that it is developing more of a personality. It produces a remarkable repertoire of noises, more than I have ever heard made by any other single vehicle. Sometimes the sources of these are obvious: a squeaking from the rear springs, a continuous groan from the power steering at full lock, a whirring from a belt or the water pump, and the rrrr-rrr-rrr of the engine surging wildly at idle. Other times, the truck just sighs or moans strangely, without any obvious source or reason. Maybe it is just a bit weary, but it is fascinating how the noises come and go; sometimes we heard a particular sound for just a brief interval before it vanished, to be replaced by something different a few minutes later.
I can imagine number 82 slowly developing yet more of a personality, gaining a deeper patina of iron oxide and limestone dust as it continues to serve CNSC over the coming years or decades. Maybe at some point it will be a truly historic artifact; from a paleontological perspective it has already transported some very significant fossils, and no doubt it has contributed to research in many other areas. Perhaps we should give better recognition to our field vehicles, and to the many other humble but essential tools that allow scientific research to take place. Some of them are true treasures.
© Graham Young, 2015