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Close Encounters with Science: Picks

Fallout by Patricia Hamilton

My son was born and raised in the 70’s in a one-room log cabin on a trapline east of Yellowknife. I hauled water from the lake to bathe him and wash his diapers. When he was nine months we headed out on a 1,000 kilometre boat trip with my in laws to Great Bear Lake. To wash the cloth diapers I tied them together and strung them behind the boat and let the Mackenzie River whirlpool them clean.  Drying the wet cotton was more difficult because it was an unusually wet summer. In Fort Providence near the mouth of the Mackenzie River the nurse told me about disposable diapers and she offered me a box. I thought this great invention had solved my problem until a week later in a remote area of Bear River my baby’s bottom was red and sore. His skin was reacting to the unfamiliar perfume and chemicals in the paper. His grandma suggested a traditional discovery of her people. She took me for a long hike in the forest and found the soft, red moss her resourceful ancestors had used. When it got wet or soiled I’d shake it out and replace it with dry moss. In that case traditional science trumped contemporary invention.

In January 1978 we had a very different encounter with modern science in the skies over our trap line. As a young mom I was outside heading to the outhouse just after 4 in the morning. I looked up amazed as what looked like fallout, a ball of fire soared over my head. I was used to spectacular light shows of Aurora but this was unlike anything I’d seen. Later that day large military aircraft flew back and forth in a pattern over the area. Radio was our only source of news but reception was bad and we couldn’t make out what was being announced over the static.  The flights continued for days and we assumed it was a search for someone who was missing until a week later a bush plane landed at our camp and several people in space type suits got out onto the ice and with little explanation walked a grid around our cabin. When they finally flew off we tinkered with the radio antenna and tuned into a newscast. On January 24th Russian satellite Cosmos 954 had tumbled to earth scattering radioactive debris across 124,000 square kilometres from Great Slave Lake to Baker Lake. The flight path was right over our heads.

Since that day those of us who were living a traditional life on the land worry about the fallout from our encounter with a space age failure.


Patricia Hamilton is from Fort Smith, NWT



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