I was well into the story of the unfortunate orphan girl—the protagonist of Heart Like a Wing—back in the summer of 2010 when I set out from the west coast in my van to look for the places where she grew up. So far, all my research had been done on the internet and at the B.C. Aviation Museum in Sidney. There was an orphanage in Indian Head, a little east of Regina in the beautiful Qu’Appelle Valley. It had been opened by the Orange Benevolent Society in 1923 and closed down in 2003. Most Canadians probably know of Indian Head as the location for a popular TV series, Little Mosque on the Prairie. But to me it was the first home of my young heroine.
Would it still be standing? I meant to find out. It should be near a big field and a grain elevator beside a railway track. And so it was. I found it on the east side of town on Mackay St. beside the Patterson Grain elevator.
The CPR mainline ran right behind the old school and orphanage building. It stood empty, paint peeling from its three tired-looking storeys. I parked and walked out into the wide field where I imagined the stunted, withdrawn child playing with her only friend, Peter. It felt eerie—at any moment a soccer ball might bounce past me and shouts from school kids would ring out. I had to keep reminding myself that I had made all this up.
I stopped at Regina long enough to visit the RCMP Museum where I checked out the “Mad Trapper of Rat River.” A grisly saga leaving him and one Mountie dead. I turned north for Prince Albert, as Briony had done with her new parents Moll and Dagget Enger. Yellow canola fields, little towns boasting tall grain towers, railroad tracks and now blue fields that must be flax. After Prince Albert, across the North Saskatchewan River, the land changed from field to forest: an endless black spruce cocoon with a single road bisecting it all the way to La Ronge, 237 kilometres. I camped there for three nights on the lake battling mosquitoes. But I decided that this would be Briony’s new home. I eventually renamed it “Crowsbeak.”
My plan was to find a local pilot who would take me flying over this huge water body dotted with islands, maybe to a few others hidden in the vast spruce forest as well. Asking around town, the name Doug Chisholm came up. I got his cell number and left a message explaining my quest. To my delight, he called me back and invited me to meet him at his home near the lake. It turned out he owned a Cessna 180—the very same float plane that on old buddy of mine had flown out of Pelican Narrows one winter delivering frozen fish for the Native band there. It was in the logbook.
Besides working for the local Forest Service during fire season and doing aerial photography, Doug had a unique side-business going. He erected plaques on rocky lakeshores all over northern Saskatchewan on behalf of those who lost a family member in the Second World War. Most Canadians, including myself, probably never knew that the federal government named these myriad remote lakes and islands after fallen soldiers and airmen. Thousands of them. Doug began methodically researching these names, then discretely contacted a surviving relative. Would they like a bronze commemorative plaque bolted to a rock beside the lake, with their loved one’s name and brief history inscribed on it? All he asked was enough to cover the cost of the plaque and fuel for his airplane. He showed me a stack of them that he hadn’t had time to place. He couldn’t keep up with demand.
Doug was a busy guy. He didn’t know when he could get away for a flight in his Cessna, which he kept docked right in front of his house on Lac La Ronge. But I waited, getting to know the town by day and swatting mosquitoes in my van all night. Two days later my cellphone rang and it was Doug. Be at the plane at five. He had a brief window after work. An evening flight. Perfect. I arrived excited to get a good look at this place from the air. We dumped two jerry cans of av gas into his wing tanks and took off. I was no stranger to small planes, so I didn’t have the kind of reaction that twelve-year-old Briony did when Dag took her up for her first flight. Nonetheless, I felt thrilled to be experiencing a crow’s-eye-view of this northern bush country.
We flew roughly west to a small lake where Doug had built a cabin and a dock. He showed me inside, referring to it as his “retirement home.” Then we flew on to another lake where he had bolted one of his plaques. We landed, nosing the pontoons in gently to the rocky shore. Tying the plane to a tree, we bushwhacked inland for a ways before emerging onto a clear spot where Doug found the plaque. He knelt beside it with his book.
He had recorded every serviceman whose name had been given to a lake or island in Saskatchewan. Sombrely, he read the account of Sgt. Gordon Kenneth McKee of the Seaforth Highlanders who had been killed in the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943. We stayed silently with the bronze plaque for awhile, gazing over the water. Calm, now tinged with the first colours of dusk. We both agreed this was a place where the sergeant would be at peace. I reflected on my character, Dagget, an RCAF fighter pilot who survived the war to become a bush pilot back home. It was these men who opened the wild northern expanse of our country and provided a vital link.
The short flight home with the sun setting off our wing capped off a magical trip in Doug’s floatplane. It left an indelible impression on me. Now, I just had to find a way to capture the wild beauty of this place in words. And try to imagine how a young prairie girl who already felt deeply rejected might find her life here and grow into a woman. I left La Ronge in the morning. All the way home, for the next three days, I pondered how I would do it.