Spontoon Island
home - contact - credits - new - links - history - maps - art - story
comic strips - editorial - souvenirs - Yahoo forum
Upload 10 March 2012

Extracts from a diary:

by Simon Barber

Amelia, Lady Allworthy (neé Amelia Bourne-Phipps) & her friends
(educated adventuresses all, and warrior priestesses, some)
encounter the world after Songmark Academy -- beginning July 1937.

Storm Birds
by Simon Barber

Saturday July 24th, 1937

Quite a welcome change in the weather! I woke to bright sunshine streaming in at four; though it is a month past the Solstice this far North the Summer nights are very short. It was just as well I got my head down early or I would not have had much sleep at all. Helen was preparing the Sunrise Song just as I splashed ashore, having been woken earlier in the tent. Technically we are late with our song, the sun rising at three, but near the North Pole this time of year there would be neither Sunrise nor Sunset, and that is hardly a worry of any Spontoonie Priestess that turns up there. Possibly fatigued Priestesses could go there for a rest, not having to sing either song for two months.

Had things been a little different we would have passed that way already, the classic Caproni “Noviplano” touching down on their skids by the refueling base on the Magnetic Pole. That would have been a spectacular way to get to Europe and one we cannot copy in the Storm Bird, not having ice skids like a CA.60 or anything like enough range. Still, this route looks to have its share of spectacle. Furthermore, we now have our own aircraft which is a far happier state for a Songmark girl than being herded in with the rest of the airline passengers.

A hurried breakfast and a painstaking check of the engines had us ready to start again by six. There was very little wind and the waters of the lake were glassy smooth at the deep end where they ran over a steep rock shelf. Getting off in calm waters is often troublesome; some minor waves help the hull to “unstick” and on some international airports they actually have speedboats roaring up and down the takeoff ways on still days to raise the necessary waves. According to the newsreels, the new Heathrow airport now in service sponsors a motor-boat racing club to keep a staff of volunteers at paw for unscheduled flights on the big converted gravel pits being developed west of London.

Still – we are lighter by nine hundred and twenty pounds than we were at Sealth City, and the engines sounded very healthy when I started them. Helen had the idea of tying the aft painter to a length of thinner cord lashed securely to the rocky sill at the deep end, holding us back. We saw the idea at once, and deed followed word in short order. So we ran up the engines as if we were held clamped on an aircraft carrier’s catapult – at a few hundred pounds of strain the expendable cord snapped and the Storm Bird surged forwards, without wasting a yard of precious water. Even so it was a close thing and by the time we were airborne the water under the keel could hardly have been knee-deep! Not a good moment for an engine to start mis-firing, but happily they all pulled splendidly.

It was certainly more like our idea of flying today – cold but clear blue skies, straight on a compass bearing at five thousand feet with the highest ridges passing by a thousand feet beneath our wingtips. We pulled back on course heading east-south-east, and with the engines set to full lean for economy cruise settled in for the flight. Still, battling turbulence and full-throttle runs at passes yesterday had used more fuel than we had planned for. With bluff radial engines and props that do not feather, turning off the central engine would not particularly save us any fuel considering the drag it causes regardless of whether or not it is running. A smoothly cowled inline like a Schneider Trophy racer would put twenty knots on our top speed, but we would be hauling the weight and complex plumbing of water cooling. With air cooling there is one system less to worry about.

For three hours it was plain flying, just keeping on our heading and monitoring the instruments. I handed Miss Cabot the stick and went back to the fuselage where Maria and Helen had the mattress rolled up and secured with the rings and cargo straps provided. I sincerely hope they were for the uses we put them to, but the more I hear of Lord Leon Allworthy the more I have to doubt it. His sister was just as bad. I remember her “wedding present” of a sack and a bucket.

Miss Cabot had asked, and she is not the first, just why I so want to dispose of the Allworthy inheritance considering it can do so much for me. This very aircraft is indeed a legacy of that estate. Having time to relax last night I could put it to her in clear words, if not quite as well ordered as the Meeting Island debating team would wish.

Certainly, the money and status is no bad thing – I am no Liberty Morgenstern to turn my nose up at a title for the sake of it. The responsibility of looking after Barrow-in-Furryness and its workers is not what puts me off. Indeed, Songmark training would do very nicely as preparation for running that kind of business. The Allworthy name is currently down along with Crippin and the Kaiser, and raising its reputation would be a good deed (and not too hard; I can hardly lower it. I doubt Beryl could if you paid her.) Further, there are no clear rival claimants so it is not as if I am doing some honest cousin out of their rightful inheritance. From what I heard of the Allworthy family, none of them could have been called honest.

On the other side of things, though I am certainly keeping Lin Chung’s kitten and other souvenirs of my stay on Kuo Han, I am scarcely going to be advertising that lifestyle as a good thing. I plan to make use of my purchased status in my legal battle when I get to England, but as they say, when life hands you guano, make compost. Good and useful things can be made out of bad. Spontoon has two power stations proving it daily.

Being Lady Allworthy, as such, is not a bad thing. What really gets my claws extended is thinking of how I got landed with it. If Lord Leon had actually been the nice old gentleman he presented himself as, that would have been one thing. I would not refuse anything a genuine one such as Judge Poynter bequeathed to me. But discovering he had married me without even asking me about it (“by common usage under the rules of the sovereign territory” as that lawyer in Singapore put it, and indeed in Krupmark there are no formal ceremonies except perhaps at that dark Church, and those I am better off without) is something I am absolutely not going to live with for a minute longer. I will be Amelia Bourne-Phipps again, and hopefully Amelia Hoele’toemi not long afterwards. Indeed, that is another side of it – I can hardly ask Jirry to move over to England and take up a country squire’s life. It did not end too happily for Lord Greystoke who was brought up in the forests of Africa, and the jungles of Spontoon are about the same in the minds of the average English fur.

Miss Cabot had mused awhile and wondered if there was a word that was the opposite of “gold-digger”. I imagine most gold-diggers would say the word was “insane” but they are hardly a crowd whose opinions I would give much weight to.

Lunch in the air! The Storm Bird’s little spirit stove is modeled on a ship’s design with weighted gimbals keeping it upright no matter what manoeuvres we make. Having naked flames onboard is not usually recommended in an aircraft, and if we were carrying fuel in the fuselage we should certainly not be using it. But the design is cleverly thought out with a sort of duct leading to a small ventilator in the fuselage – any cooking scent plus smoke is pulled straight out and fumes from inside the aircraft are less likely to ignite.

Though we have gone weeks at times without hot food, it is certainly cheering in the chilly air a mile above the Canadian North. Fish soup, tea and coffee went down very well and helped keep us all alert.

At five thousand feet with time on our paws, I streamed the radio aerial and we put our headphones on to see what this part of the world can receive. Not a great deal, evidently – we picked up a BBC short-wave broadcast from Ottawa and a very garbled transmission from Pierre, South Dakota. Apart from that, the mountains and the distances left the dial a wilderness of static and distant Morse.

By two o’clock we were looking down at the first of the So-So Lakes, matching their shapes on the map to confirm our dead-reckoning navigation. There are no radio beacons out here. Lake Minnehaweetonka showed up on the horizon twenty minutes later, with the distinctive group of islands on its northern side. Just as well, as we had less than an hour’s fuel remaining.

The smoke of Three Claws settlement pointed us in the direction of our landing run, and as Miss Cabot circled us lower and I reeled the radio aerial back in, we saw the jetty on the lake with two floatplanes moored to it. Always a welcome sight – the world changes faster than the maps get printed, and arriving to find only the air station closed and only boat diesel available would be a problem.

At 14:55 we touched down, onto calm waters under brilliantly clear skies. Certainly a postcard moment. The Storm Bird had carried us flawlessly without a mis-fire on any engine; 72 spark plugs all working just as Alfa-Romeo could have wished.

There was nobody on the jetty, which seemed odd – this not being the kind of place one associates with long siestas. Tying up to the high jetty proved a challenge, as usually there is someone on it to help. Miss Cabot shut off the nose engine, and opening the cabin door I clambered out onto the nose with the painter while she brought us slowly into the rough but sturdy log structure. A minute’s work tying up and pulling the Storm Bird closer got us near enough to all step ashore dry-pawed without needing to get the inflatable boat out.

Three Claws is a collection of about a hundred log houses at the edge of the lake, where the valley narrows considerably and two long rocky spurs run down from the distant mountains. The lake is surrounded by tall spruce and larch, except for a cleared patch around the town (it would be a village in most places) where I could see vegetable gardens already green with shoulder-high maize and beans clambering up them. From the air we could see that the lake ends in a spectacular quarter mile of rapids, so anyone canoeing up from downstream would have to stop there anyway. In other words, just the place to build a trading post. The jetty is some way from a sandy beach where half a dozen boats were pulled up, but there is a substantial rock in front of that which is easier to steer a canoe than a flying boat around.

From the map there are no motor roads in the area, so the lack of any traffic was no great surprise. Still, it seemed oddly quiet. The arrival of an aircraft is hardly quiet and here it ought to attract attention if only from the younger kits and cubs, but five minutes after arriving there was no sign of life apart from the smoke from a few chimneys. Most odd. Helen felt so too; she went back into the Storm Bird and sounded the foghorn; two minutes later with still nobody in sight she came back with a pair of binoculars and our pistols.

It felt odd to strap on our pistols and prepare to advance when there could be a hundred innocent explanations, such as everyone being off into the woods for the afternoon picnicking to celebrate some local patron saint of lumberjacks – but we have seen too much to stroll blithely into unexplained situations. First, I took a look at the two moored aircraft, both with Canadian registrations. One was an old American “Jenny” on floats, the other a natty Avro monoplane design. By the scent of the engines, neither had been running in days. Their fuel tanks were more than half full, which cuts down one reason for their not being used.

Before we stepped off the jetty, Helen and I stepped forwards and took a minute concentrating while Maria and Miss Cabot covered us. I certainly picked up a sense of unease from the earth, but could get nothing definite. Helen agreed, and said she was fairly sure there was nothing nearby that would spot us the minute our paws touched actual earth. Saimmi has told us of various things that could do that, but assured us there were none around Spontoon. Still, we are out of the mountains now and on the Canadian Shield which is a place surviving from the most ancient of days, and geologists still argue as to exactly how old. The more radical of them are more likely to be right, from what I could feel, and I remembered the excessively old feel of that particular half of Cranium Island.

Going into someone’s village with guns drawn would be jolly unfriendly, not to mention embarrassing if we discovered the whole town was founded as a local version of New South Zion (the one in Australia not the one I helped Mr. Johnston found last year) and if being Saturday everyone was busy at the synagogue! On the other paw, something was certainly up so we circled round the town through the garden areas, using the binoculars but still seeing nothing moving but laundry on the washing lines. Indeed, as we took our time one of the chimneys that had been smoking gradually stopped. Our holsters were unlatched, but one sees serving officers carry their sidearms in good Casino Island hotels, and not just to intimidate waiters with.

Helen is probably the best of us as a Warrior Priestess, so while we went into cover behind a maize patch she used her skills for ten minutes. This would not spot inanimate traps such as Father told me the German Army scattered throughout Belgian towns when forced to give them up* , but if there are a dozen snipers watching us from loopholes in the log houses, she should be able to spot them. But she finished and shook her head – there was a heavy, brooding feeling over everything but no sense of anything or anyone waiting for us.

After another ten minutes, I waved us all forwards. I went in along a garden path through the corn towards the nearest hut, with Helen and Maria ten paces behind and to each side and Miss Cabot watching our backs ten paces behind them. It is closer together than we have seen the RINS doing this on manoeuvres, but they have rifles and tend to move in more than fours.

At the first log cabin I peered in through the window, but other than a table with a red checked cloth I could see nothing in particular. Knocking and calling gave no response, so with a length of timber I pushed the unlocked door open while keeping off to one side. No tripwires with unpleasant surprises turned up, so with a deep breath I went in.

It was something of a disappointment. There was nobody there, and no sign of anything out of the ordinary. By the scent, it was well lived-in but there was nothing very recent; no scent of blood or anything of the sort. I closed the door and went onto the next house.

In half an hour I had looked through a dozen – some of them had signs of rapid exits such as chairs knocked over or in one case a meal left half-eaten on the table. Definitely “Marie Celeste” territory. For the first time I wished we had someone like Crusader Dorm with us, as though they were usually annoying to most furs they are keen and fairly competent sleuths.

If there was anyone around they were staying in hiding and we did not feel up to searching under every bed and digging into every root cellar. The most chilling evidence I found was a house with a large puddle outside the front door. To judge from the tracks in the mud, someone (a canine I think) ran out bare-pawed leaving their shoes behind. One boot was lying half-way across the entrance room, mute testimony that someone was in an awful hurry. The smoke we saw was from large stoves that had evidently been closed down overnight, and would keep their fire going a day or more that way. For half the year stoves are a big part of life this far North and many were of quite excellent and expensive manufacture; far the dearest objects in the houses.

There seemed little point searching the rest of the village; whatever happened here seemed to have been fairly comprehensive. Looking at the state of the half-eaten breakfast in one hut and considering the weather we judged that something had happened yesterday morning. The next question was what to do next. Poking around for the rest of the day and seeing if it happened tomorrow morning to us seemed a bad idea.

That decided, our plan reverted oddly enough to the original one – get refueled and get out of town. We found the fuel shed near the lakeside where we expected it, and were soon rolling barrels of seventy-five octane petrol (Helen still calls it “gas” even after all these years of me pointing out that is what you inflate zeppelins with) and a hand-pump. Naturally we left more than sufficient Canadian dollars in the shed to cover it and the cost of replacing the lock after Miss Cabot put her folding jemmy to sanctioned use. I also left a note “to whom it may concern” sketching the basics of who we were, when we arrived and what we found.

Taking five minute turns each for half an hour of vigorous pumping filled the Storm Bird’s tanks and without more ceremony we were off again, still with three hours of daylight remaining. One final circuit around the deserted village failed to draw out anyone running out of the woods waving, so with a collective lump in our throats we set course for Lapowata Station, the next listed fuelling stop two hundred and ten miles East-North-East. Our aeronautical map does not list Police Stations handy to summon the Mounties from, but that seemed our best bet.

As we left I felt a most disturbing sensation, as if I had been brushed by the wing of something dark. From her expression Helen felt it too. Most alarming.

A hundred and ten minutes of uneventful navigating across decreasingly rocky terrain and denser forests brought us to Lake Ogepalooka, where we could again spot the haze of rising smoke from a town. This was much larger, and as we landed we were relieved to see fishing boats moving on the lake and furs standing waving on the dock.

Docking and such took barely ten minutes, and in another five we were standing at the Lapowata Police station; local home of the famous Royal Canadian Mounted Police. There was only one Sergeant there; the roster on the wall had a dozen Mounties listed but their “beat” is a huge one and they are famously out for days or weeks at a time. There was only one in residence, a Sergeant Mackenzie, he being a grizzled stoat (one would expect a bear or a mastiff from the films) who took our statements and then spent ten minutes trying to radio Three Claws. We had noticed two buildings with long radio aerials stretching out along the gardens. Telephone lines have not yet reached Three Claws. Having raised no reply, he was more inclined to take us seriously.

If he got on his riding horse and headed out to investigate in the traditional manner it would be three or four days hard travel till he even got there, so naturally I volunteered our air taxi services and we left him telephoning headquarters to pass the message on and arrange someone to “hold the fort” here. Checking over and refueling the Storm Bird would take time though, and it would be dark before we could return. So we fixed our “date” with the Sergeant for dawn, and we relaxed to see what Lapowata could offer us for entertainment for the evening.

I would guess the town as a population of about a thousand, but it is the “capital” of an area the size of an English Shire and has the facilities to match. That meaning, it has two whole streets of shops and businesses, mostly basic stores providing the necessities of life for trappers, prospectors and lumberjacks. The furs we reckoned to be lumberjacks wore far plainer outfits than we saw in Sealth City with less lingerie on show, and I thought them far more appropriate. Especially on the gentlemen.

Having the Storm Bird as a floating hotel (it is more than a tent, having indeed a stove, a shower and a toilet) we will strictly speaking be in no need of town accommodation this trip. Helen looked around and said they would call the place dull in Texas. She is used to wild oilfield boom towns and presumably finds walking down a street with nobody being thrown through a window exceedingly tame.

I reminded her we are in Canada now, and even if it is a backwoods town we are in the British Empire (shockingly enough, it is Helen’s first visit apart from touching down briefly at New Zealand on our Antarctic trip). Not that there is much Law and Order on conspicuous display – this is not Vostok after all – but we do have the idea even if not all furs live up to it. The place seemed quite lively enough to me, with dance music from gramophones in dance-halls and pubs reminding us that it is Saturday night in the only “bright lights” in a very large area. Most of the lamps are oil-lamps still – there are electric generators in town but not for everyone.

In our flight suits we have always felt perfectly well dressed on Spontoon, but we turned a few heads when entering “Pierre’s Place” attracted by the tempting scents of the food. It felt odd being the only ladies not wearing skirts – and not grass ones either. Still, we can hardly be the first aviators they have seen that week and not all of them change into evening wear. This is not the Ritz.

Certainly, the menu is not Spontoon either. Ham and eggs on Main Island is generally minus the ham but carnivores are in for a treat here. We have no shortage of local currency funds, and both Helen and I had a huge mixed grill while Maria and Miss Cabot tried a local Canadian dish made with cheese and potatoes. There was about as much meat in my meal as Songmark would serve in a week or more. No Poi though.

As we have left the Three Claws mystery with the Mounties, casually chatting about it would be a bad idea. Possibly there are furs here with friends and relations there and there is no point in spreading alarm till we know more. So we had a relaxing meal surrounded by lively company and music (albeit from a gramophone) and we could relax for a few hours. Then, back to the Storm Bird and toss a Spontoonie 1-cowry piece as who gets the bed and who slings the hammocks across the fuselage!

  • (Editor’s note: Amelia has mentioned her Father is a General in the Royal Engineers. She no doubt grew up overhearing cautionary tales of what to look out for in presumably abandoned buildings. That conveniently abandoned bottle of whiskey on the table was all too likely to carry more of a kick than even the label promised.)


              Back to Storm Birds
                Back to Extracts from a Diary (Songmark Academy)