Pukatawagan Hollywood Sign
PUKATAWALKIN' BLUES

by
Bill Hillman
Brandon University Professor Profiles
Travellin’ Professor
Is what they call me now
Travellin’ Professor
Means you’re never sittin’ down

CHORUS
I keep a walking…
Walkin’ to the Northern Store
I got the Pukatawalkin
Pukatawalkin Blues

My luggage flew to Churchill
No socks for my feet
My grub’s up with the polar bears
And I’m getting awful weak

Hey, Hey buddy
Tell me where’s the store
Ya justa keepa sloggin’
Only five miles or more

Waitin’ for the phone man
Bout a month or more
Says I’d like to help you
But I been that way before

Winter roads are scary
Ice is breakin’ up at Puk
Roll your windows down
You’ll catch some fish with any luck

Water lines all froze up
Not a drop for tea
Doin' my flushin' and my washin'
Down by the Missinippi

My neighbours all got TV
I got NCI
Neighbours cook with microwaves
I’m eatin’ old cold pie

Walkin’ to the airport
The plane won’t go
Man sez don’t ya know
It’s 44 below


A few years ago one of my job assignments as a professor at Brandon University was to spend four months teaching computers and journalism in the BU classroom at Pukatawagan -- a remote First Nations community in northern Manitoba. There is not much entertainment in Puk in the middle of winter, but I had my guitar with me. There is something about the isolation of Puk that lends itself to singin' the Blues. Pukatawalkin' Blues is the result of that experience.
Travellin’ Professor
Is what they call me now
Travellin’ Professor
Means you’re never sittin’ down

CHORUS
I keep a walking…
Walkin’ to the Northern Store
I got the Pukatawalkin
Pukatawalkin Blues

Before I was given a regular, on-campus job as a professor at Brandon University one of my "payin' your dues" assignments involved working as a "Travelling Professor" and flying into remote northern classrooms to present courses to students enrolled in the Brandon University Northern Teacher Education Program (BUNTEP). My first assignment was to teach a Communications course to 30 adult students in Pukatawagan. "Puk" is located about 250 km north of The Pas, as the crow flies. Although there is a slow, slow train ("The Bullet") connecting the community to the south -- it takes a torturous route around countless lakes, swamps, muskeg and rock outcrops -- there are no traditional roads making the connection. This gives the community an isolated "island" feel throughout three seasons of the year. Most people in Puk look forward to winter freeze-up because this means that the "winter road" will soon open an artery to The Pas in the south. Winter roads take advantage of  the extreme sub-zero Manitoba temperatures that convert the surface incredible maze of lakes and streams into a patchwork of endless ice surfaces. When the ice is deemed thick enough to support traffic, a road is opened by snowplows. Where tree-covered land masses get in the way, a route is carved out of the rock and forest. Most of the route is marked by reflective markers to guide intrepid northern travellers through all the hazards along the way: long hours of winter darkness, animal crossings, thin ice, rocky outcrops, fog, snow storms,  drifting snow . .  and blizzards. The only other way in to Puk is by air -- the travel mode taken by BU profs and in some ways, safer and more reliable, but certainly not without its own set of annoyances and dangers, as I was to find out over the coming months.

My stint in Puk involved flying in for a two week block of teaching and then home for about a week of R&R&R (Rest, Recreation and Research). A typical trip in was done in a series of steps: Sue-On would drive me to Winnipeg Airport where I would check my luggage: a huge four-foot-high duffel back full of books and enough food to last me for two weeks, and a guitar case with a Yamaha electric/acoustic. For each trip she prepared a gigantic trove of baking, baggies of frozen Chinese dishes, fruit, powdered milk, juice, nuts, chocolate. . . always keeping in mind my sub-novice skills in the kitchen. This was a unique adventure for both of us -- in the 35 years we had been married we had never been separated for more than a day or two. A travel trick I'd learned from our numerous overseas music tours was to pack most of the heavy stuff into carry-on bags and to wear as many items of clothing in layers rather than to pack them. This lightened the load of the checked baggage and also give me many pockets in which to carry even more heavy stuff. Despite this ruse I still had to extricate my radio/CD player from the checked baggage to get down to permissible weight.

Clandestine photo of Winnipeg Airport security check
The next stage, after a hug and a good bye kiss, was to join the queue at the Airport Security check. Most of the world travellers were headed to warmer climes -- I was one of the few headed north to an even colder climate via an Air Canada subsidiary -- Calm Air. It was quite an experience: taking off layers of clothes with pockets jammed with books, tapes and teaching supplies. Even the serious, "seen-it-all" security personnel were a bit incredulous over my bumbling scramble to turn on my mountain of carry-on electronic devices: digital camera, laptop computer, computer projector, overhead palette, clock radio, small reading lamp, and electric rice cooker. Everyone seemed relieved when this suspicious northern greenhorn under his mountain of clothes, books and technobobble passed bomb inspection and lumbered toward the boarding gate. Well... they were almost through with him. I have a habit of documenting my trips. In my rush to get through security I hadn't packed and zipped my Sony digital camera back into its case. So. . . I dug it out, aimed and flashed. . . flashed!?! Security, as part of their inspection had turned on my camera's flash! I had meant to take a quick clandestine shot, but instead I lit up the whole restricted area and was soon surrounded by uniformed guards who wanted to know what terrorist group I was working for. I pleaded ignorance -- I had just wanted to take a picture for my friends in Pukatawagan. They let me go.
Part of Calm Air's Northern Fleet of SAABsStewardess in her practical uniform opening the hatchA shaky ride into a headwind
With a sense of relief I finally found myself crossing the tarmac to the waiting Calm Air SAAB aircraft (no terminal boarding chutes for travellers to Puk). My knees were starting to buckle under the dead weight of my carry-on load as I approached the boarding ladder. The stewardess and flight crew, all in matching fur-trimmed parkas, greeted me inside the plane and stood in awe as I squeezed my carry-on bulk down the narrow aisle to my window seat. I, and the 25 other passengers, shivered in our seats as we waited for the stewardess in Inuit garb to finally close the hatch and to go into her safety procedures spiel. I was startled to learn that our destination was Flin Flon but was assured that we would backtrack to The Pas where I would change over to the smaller Puk Cessna commuter plane. After a day's travel I landed at Pukatawagan Airport after dark -- in a snow storm. I deplaned and plowed through snowdrifts to the somewhat rustic Puk passenger terminal where I awaited my BUNTEP contact. . . and my luggage.
5:30 sunset during 45 minute flight north to Pukatawagan
6:20 landing at Pukatawagan Airport
Puk Terminal: pilots left ~ Gordon Caribou at desk ~ passengers to Thompson
My luggage flew to Churchill
No socks for my feet
My grub’s up with the polar bears
And I’m getting awful weak
While waiting for the pilot to bring in my gear, I struck up a conversation with the only other person in the building: the terminal manager/airline rep/ticketman/security guard, etc. He was also the manager of the local radio station. A working man in Puk wears many hats. I tried all the BUNTEP contact phone numbers that had been given me but there was no answer at any of them. The pilot brought in the last of the cargo from the plane -- my gear was nowhere in sight. We started some tracing phone calls but the Calm Air calls were all directed to Air Canada in Toronto.  I asked the manager how far I'd have to walk to get to Puk -- "Quite a few miles." Since he was closing up -- this week's plane had come and gone -- he offered to drive me in to search for my contact.

I finally procured a key to the BU house trailer that would be my home for the next four months -- but there was no food in sight, and I hadn't eaten all day. Checking my carry-on bag I found a few packets of herbal tea, three apples and a small fruit cake left over from Christmas. Little did I now that this would be just about my only source of nourishment for the next three days.

Sakastiw School Entrance
Foyer of the Sakastiw Aboriginal Education Complex
BUNTEP Classroom
I arose early next morning to make the one mile trek, in what I hoped was the direction of the school, carrying books and electronic gear. The university classroom is housed in the new and very modern Sakastiw Aboriginal Education Complex. Here I met my 30 students. Most were single parents and many brought their young children to class some of the time. The class was a joy to work with -- receptive, attentive, polite and hard-working. The day went quickly. I had access to all the school's facilities, including their two computer labs, each equipped with about 25 new I-MAC computers connected to Internet via satellite. With all these computers at hand I started planning ways to adapt my course to fully integrate computer technologies.

By the time I finished work, darkness had fallen and, as far as I knew, what stores there were in the settlement would be closed. As far as I could ascertain the main stores were a few miles away. I walked back to my new home-away-from-home to resume my phone battle with Calm Air. Once again my calls were rerouted to Toronto. After finally convincing the big city Air Canada phone rep that there really was such a company as Calm Air in the Air Canada empire, the phone girl assured me that they would probably find my luggage and send it in on the next flight or send it by special courier. She wanted to know the address of Puk hotel I wanted my luggage delivered to. My response was that the next flight wouldn't be for days, traffic on the winter road was still hazardous due to the mild winter (vehicles were falling through the ice) and there were no hotels in Puk. My address was the second mobile home (the only one without a dish antennae, with an orange garbage bag on the roof) in the first bush clearing, on the gravel road three miles from Pukatawagan International Airport.

A few hours later Calm Air phoned back. They'd found my luggage! It was in the port of Churchill up on Hudson Bay -- but they could get it delivered to me within a few days. My not-so-calm response was to suggest that at least they should put my giant duffel bag in a cool place -- out of reach of polar bears -- as it was full of frozen Chinese food. I also requested that my guitar be put in a warm place, after which I went on to relay a full description of the two luggage pieces so that they would know which one contained the guitar and which contained the food -- just so there would be no misunderstanding my directive.

Hey, Hey buddy
Tell me where’s the store
Ya justa keepa sloggin’
Only five miles or more

Over the next few days I put in long hours after work adapting the course curriculum to local requirements. My entertainment was provided by my little clock radio that picked up the local radio station -- a station manned by volunteers -- their year's budget had been blown on a recording project featuring winners of a local talent contest. Although the disc received constant airplay on the province wide Native radio station out of Winnipeg -- NCI -- they were nowhere near recouping their expenses on the project. Programming on the local station seemed to draw mainly from personal music collections of the volunteer programmers and provided many nostalgic listening trips down the memory lane featuring classic C & W: George Jones, Hag, Buck Owens, Hank Williams, etc. My communication with the outside world was via Sue-On's nightly phone chats... and satellite Internet on the PC laptop assigned to me by the university. Unfortunately the classroom lab computers were all incompatible Macs. I got around this by designing each day's course work and lesson notes on Web pages which I uploaded to a free server on the Internet each night (I didn't have access to any of the BU servers). The next day I projected my Web page notes for my lectures and the students would access their assignments at their own workstations.
Each day I walked to work in the dark and returned in the dark, hoping on my return that my bag of provisions would magically appear. Queries I made during these hikes as to the whereabouts of a cafe or store where I could get food were answered with vague responses "Ain't no cafe in Puk." ~ "Store's just down the road a few miles" ~ obviously the ignorant redheaded stranger was still considered somewhat of a curiosity among the locals. Driven by my own stubborn self pride, I resigned myself to an enforced fast and I looked forward to each night's ration of pots of herbal tea, a slice of fruit cake and an apple. After a few days of this routine my students noticed my wane and haggard appearance and started to share their lunches with me -- starting with a Pizza Pop and an orange.

Thursday evening, the day before my birthday, my luggage finally arrived. Celebration. Gluttony. The frozen food was all thawed but the curry chicken, ginger beef, and stews still smelled OK. Sue-On suggested that I cook everything right away and freeze it to eat later. The food packets had been prepared to be cooked with rice in my rice cooker so, while I prepared next day's lessons, my cooker worked non-stop into the wee hours.

The BU Puk SuiteGarbage secure from packs of dogs
At last . . . the good life: course development and students were great, the school staff was friendly and cooperative, the weather was still mild, I looked forward to hour-long calls from home each night, with the weekend approaching I would have free time to walk around the reserve and find the store,  I could communicate with my classroom and the outside world through the Internet... and, I had FOOD!
Waitin’ for the phone man
Bout a month or more
Says I’d like to help you
But I been that way before
Birthday photo outside in 44 degrees below weather
The next day, for my January 11th birthday, my students prepared a surprise noon hour banquet: fresh pickerel -- from a morning ice fishing catch, moose meat balls, stir fry, hot bannock, native dishes, deserts galore -- a feast. Students brought in fiddles and guitars. Another musician, Robert Castel, brought his Cree language class from across the hall to join the festivities. Robert and BU professor David Westfall are co-authors of the amazing reference book and CD-ROM: The English-Cree Dictionary. It was a memorable birthday. I couldn't wait to get back to my quarters to share the excitement of the day with Sue-On via e-mail.
Robert Castel performing for some of his grade 8 Cree classProfessor David Westfall: Faculty of Education ~ Brandon University

The walk back was a cold one. The weather had turned very cold -- 44 degrees below . . .
. . . and I was in for another shock:
Dead Internet. Dead Phone.

In a panic I tore open the phone jack for inspection and explored the wire network in the crawl space under my trailer. Everything seemed OK. It just didn't work. My nearest neighbour, Sidney Castel, the singer, lived in a trailer a short distance away. I phoned MTS Telephone service from his unlisted phone. They thought it was probably a problem with one of the satellite relays and the service man would look at it during his next visit to Puk... in two weeks! Happy birthday -- no phone -- no Internet -- no contact with my classroom, with the outside world... or with Sue-On. I couldn't even walk over to use the phone and Internet in my office over at the school because I hadn't been issued the alarm system code for the school. A complete change of fortunes. Overcome with frustration, fatigue and depression I went to bed.

Saturday morning I walked to the school hoping that someone had opened the building. I reached my office and phoned Sue-On but the line was busy. I was in the process of getting onto the Web when an RCMP officer knocked at the door and asked if I was Professor Hillman. My wife was in a panic and had been phoning every number she could phone for BUNTEP and Puk. Every call she had made to my number through the night and morning had been met with a busy signal.

FOOD POISONING. It must have been the thawed out meat from Churchill that he had cooked up. He can't be on the phone all this time, even using the Net. PANIC. He's been poisoned and passed out... knocking the phone off the hook! Must get help!

I assured the officer that I was still alive and finally got through to my frantic wife. I used the rest of the daylight hours to walk along the river and explore the settlement. I finally found the elusive Northern Store, chatted with students along the way, visited the radio station and marveled at the rugged beauty of this part of Manitoba's northland.

Northern Store
Aerial view of central Pukatawagan Arena with Radio Station in the background
Winter roads are scary
Ice is breakin’ up at Puk
Roll your windows down
You’ll catch some fish with any luck

Student James Caribou and his prize-winning dog team

My students seemed quite relieved that the weather had turned cold. Many people in the north look forward to the winter season and the activities it provides: ease of travel over the ice, dog sledding, hunting, trapping, ice fishing, and the opening of the winter road which gave access to the supplies and amenities of the south land. Most owners of motor vehicles park them at The Pas for the summer as there is really no place to drive to once the spring thaw hits. Air travel in the north is quite expensive. The cost of each trip I took to Puk every two weeks would have easily taken me to any destination in North America or Europe if I had gone in a different direction.
Outdoor skating ice on the river - winter road in background
On the Winter Road
Travelling Prof led away by the customs inspector
The unusually mild temperatures through the first months of winter had made for hazardous winter road travel. Before I arrived, a truck carrying some of my students had actually broken through the ice. They were able to escape through the cab windows before the vehicle took its final plunge to the bottom, but it had been a close call. One of the highlights of my stay in the north was the trip some of my students planned for me along this road. We passed throngs of kids skating, playing hockey and snowmobiling on the river ice. Ramsey, my driver, was able to drive the truck over the smooth ice surface at pretty much normal highway speeds. Travel slowed down a bit, however, over the cleared land portages. We went as far as "the Customs Inspector" -- a tall tree stump that someone had decorated with hat, coat and accouterments. Our first sign of Puk on our return trip was the huge PUKATAWAGAN sign that two industrious citizens from a few years back had painted, a few years back, on the rock escarpment that overlooks the settlement. We made our way back to solid ground without breaking through the ice and then made a quick visit to the historic train station a few miles out of town.
The Pukatawagan Hollywood Sign
Water lines all froze up
Not a drop for tea
Doin' my flushin' and my washin'
Down by the Missinippi
The arrival of more normal January 40-below temperatures brought a few more annoyances to overcome.  The plane service used by the phone company refused to fly in the extreme cold. So the promised phone repair was put back another week, and then another. The Cessna leg of Calm Air's regular flight on my first scheduled R&R&R visit back to Brandon was also in doubt but to my relief, experienced pilot Wendy in her better equipped plane got me to my connecting flight in The Pas.

I returned the next week to a trailer with no water as the water pipes had frozen during my absence. Water jugs borrowed from my neighbours became my only source of water for the rest of my stay. Weekends brought some respite as I could carry my gear a few miles over to the Nurses' Residence at the Health Centre while nurses were on leave to the south. Good hot running water, a bath, flush toilet, microwave oven, telephone, Internet and that ubiquitous luxury in most reserve residences: satellite television service.

My neighbours all got TV
I got NCI
Neighbours cook with microwaves
I’m eatin’ old cold pie
Meanwhile, back at the frozen trailer: The guys and gals back in the BUNTEP office at the university worked diligently to rush teaching supplies up to me and to try to find long distance solutions to alleviate some of the annoyances I was experiencing. Eventually they were able to send a microwave oven and TV with rabbit ears that picked up CBC North. These newly-arrived luxuries prompted a great change in lifestyle. Prior to receiving the microwave, my first experience with the traditional oven in my trailer was an attempt to bake a loaf of bread from frozen dough mix. The aroma of fresh-baked bread filled my kitchen as I smugly observed the loaf rise to a golden brown. I triumphantly cut into this very first experience at baking and withdrew a knife covered in gooey uncooked dough. My oven had no bottom element so only the top half was cooked. Ever resourceful, I turned over the loaf and put it back to cook the bottom half. It was worth the wait.

Before access to CBC North my main contact with broadcast media was the local station and the simulcast NCI radio network. It was through this network that I learned that my next-door neighbour, Sidney Castel, was a celebrity. NCI played his single, The Pukatawagan Song, in constant rotation. By this time I was spending much of my time researching Puk history and scanning vintage photographs of Indian life in the North that my students brought in from their personal collections. An extension of the Communication course was to have them put their writing anecdotes about life in the North on personal Web pages. They then illustrated their stories with the photos I had scanned.

Pukatawagan in the early days
To stoke their imaginations for their writing projects I had each student do a presentation on a topic related to northern living and I also brought in a series of Elders as guests. It was natural then that I invite Sidney Castel to my class. We took over the unused school amphitheatre and turned it into a bear pit. Sidney, in his late 60s, related his life experiences and answered questions about his stage and recording experiences. The session ended in a "guitar pull" singing session where my guitar was passed back and forth between us. Sidney didn't own a guitar at the time. He related his string of misfortunes concerning guitars. His wife in a jealous tiff had kabonged him over the head with one when she thought he was paying too much attention to some of the ladies during one of his bar performances. Recently his latest guitar had been stolen after a performance he had given at the school.  It was during this session with Sidney that I sang my newly written Pukatawalkin' Blues for the first time. Sadly, Sidney died a year later, but I'm sure that the memories of this event touched everyone involved.
Walkin’ to the airport
The plane won’t go
Man sez don’t ya know
It’s 44 below
The BU Communications course went well . . . so well that I was asked to stay on to teach another course: "Internet and Computer Technology For Educators". . .  and then another: "Journalism I: Introduction Print Media." The courses were disrupted by numerous blizzards and an seemingly endless string of wakes and funerals, but we managed to get through them.

As I became more visible in the community I was invited to participate in a number of local events. My students prepared a university float for the Puk Winter Carnival parade and former chief Ralph Caribou, who drove the float,  lent me his ornate buckskin jacket to wear during the parade. Later I was invited to perform some CCR material and the Pukatawagan Blues at a community concert and social. Fun times.

Puk Concert and SocialAward-Winning BUNTEP FLOAT: Marlene Bighetty ~ Adolph Bighetty ~ Bill Hillman

At the end of the last course -- after four months away from home -- I was anxious to get home for spring. My students, realizing that things were winding down, surprised me in the last week with gifts of original art by Raymond Castel and a box lot of the notorious Puk shirts with the logo: PUK U ~ UNIVERSITY OF PUKATAWAGAN. For some reason these shirts have never been endorsed by BU.

Raymond Castel art from the Hillman Collection
During my stint in the North, old friend Bobby Curtola, the legendary Canadian rock 'n' roller with whom I had toured back in the '60s, had planned that we appear with him for a giant spring Sock Hop Reunion in Brandon. The day after I was scheduled to return home, Bobby and I were to do a promotional interview on Bill Turner's CKLQ Radio morning show.

I walked to the last day of classes in a raging blizzard and learned that all Calm Air flights had been canceled. Through many frantic phone calls I managed to get on the waiting list for the few planes that were braving the elements. I was passenger number 14 on waiting list for a daredevil flight out of Puk... luckily most passengers chickened out because of the blizzard conditions and they squeezed me on board. We arrived late in The Pas and my connecting flight to Winnipeg was leaving in 10 minutes from the airport way on the other side of the city -- they would not hold the flight for my arrival. I jumped into the only cab waiting at the airport -- an big older model car -- and the obliging cabbie said he would try to make it through the blizzard and ice roads in time to catch my flight. We hurtled at plus 80 mph speeds and screeched to a stop at the terminal just as the car's radiator hose blew, sending up a cloud of steam that engulfed the whole parking area. Feeling a mix remorse over his plight and joy over having made my connection I handed him a personal cheque and ran for the plane revving up on the tarmac. I made the flight -- I got home -- I made the next-morning's interview -- I shaved off my northern woodsman beard -- and Sue-On and I played the sock hop.

Bill Hillman at Bobby Curtola Sock Hop Reunion: Keystone CentreDoug ~ Bill ~ Warren ~ John ~ Sue-On : Bobby Curtola Sock Hop ReunionSue-On Hillman  at Bobby Curtola Sock Hop Reunion: Keystone Centre

My students had learned via an NCI radio advertising blitz that we were performing on the Bobby Curtola Show. So, for weeks ahead of time they had held ice fishing derbies, bake sales, and all sorts of other fundraising events to earn enough money for the entire class to travel to Brandon to see the show. When I mentioned this to Bobby he had given me complimentary tickets to present to everyone in the class. They made the trip by train and van and were welcome guests at the huge shindig that filled the Manitoba Room of the Keystone Centre.

Bobby ~ Bill ~ Warren ~ John ~ Sue-On

I’m payin’ my Pukatawagan
Pukatawagan dues
Two months later I was recruited as a full-time professor to teach in the Faculty of Education on the BU campus, but my unforgettable experiences in the North live on in a blues song I still like to sing:
The Pukatawagan Blues
Thanks Puk.

Many more photos of Pukatawagan
are featured in the photo montage pages at my
Pukatawagan Web Site

Bill Hillman
BILL AND SUE-ON HILLMAN ECLECTIC STUDIO
Copyright 2004/2010