New to Canada in 1965, Dominique Prinet planned to “get lost with an axe and trees and disappear from the world in great embarrassment” after failing entrance exams for France’s top physics school.
Prinet, from “a very old and traditional conservative family,” decided he would become a logger to escape the shame.
“I felt I was the family idiot,” he remembers.
Unable to find work in logging, Prinet instead spent the next year becoming a licensed pilot. By 1966, he was working for the now-defunct Gateway Aviation in Yellowknife.
The next seven years of Prinet’s life are captured in his new book, Flying to Extremes: Memories of a Northern Bush Pilot.
Released this month, the book collects articles he wrote for French aviation magazine Aviasport.
“In the beginning, I was scared,” Prinet says, laughing, when asked about flying in the North at the time.
Compasses tended to be less reliable in the North, he said, and the flat landscape and multitude of lakes made landmarks hard to find.
Overcast days and snowstorms completed what Prinet calls “a nightmare.”
“I was sick in the belly for years when I was flying in the North,” he said, “worrying all the time and stressed because of the weather.”
The book shares Prinet’s memories of going through the ice on Great Slave Lake, sinking in a plane along the Arctic coast, and falling from the sky on a flight to Great Bear lake.
Almost as wild as Prinet’s stories from the sky are his recollections of Yellowknife in the 1960s.
“It was quite extraordinary,” he said.
A staple of Prinet’s time in the city was the Gold Range Bar. Pilots and miners would pile into the Range and the evening would almost always end with a fight.
“I had humongous eyes, I was so baffled,” Prinet said of living in Yellowknife. “It was absolutely fascinating, what was happening in town.”
Prinet’s favourite memories are of the communities he visited and the people he met.
“The whole community came out to meet the airplane and find out who is there, who is flying, and who is coming to visit or who has returned from the south,” Prinet said.
“The men first in their parkas and boots, then the women … and the kids trying to sneak in between their fathers to see what was what.
“People would come and ask me if I could bring them something that was important to them – a pair of scissors, some thread, a bit of wool, a piece of fabric, some shelves.”
Prinet’s favourite community to visit was Ulukhaktok, known at the time as Holman, “because of the artwork over there and the Co-op.”
“They made some beautiful drawings and paintings,” he said. “They were carvers, and they were manufacturing parkas also. It was all very well done and very clever.”
Prinet went on to work for the Mackenzie Pipeline after being laid off by Gateway Aviation in 1971. He now lives in Vancouver with his wife. With his daughter living in Yellowknife, he still gets to visit the NWT.
Compiling the book has been a “thrilling experience,” Prinet said. It’s available at the Yellowknife Book Cellar.
“I’d like to pass on my enthusiasm about the North and the people to others,” he said. “It’s a very special place.”