Buckled in and behind the controls of a six-person hovercraft on Great Slave Lake, I looked back at the pilot who’d invited me to take it for a spin and assured him I’d done this before. I know how to drive.
The rubber skirt of the hovercraft kicked up like Marilyn Monroe’s white dress as a forceful gust pushed at the snow-covered ice below us. We lifted, only a foot or so up and another jet forced air to the back, propelling us forward. We hobbled to the right and I overcorrected. We hobbled to the left and I overcorrected. I couldn’t forge the straight line my teacher had shown me, but it didn’t really matter. We were on a wide-open stretch of Yellowknife Bay. There were no guardrails to hit, no other vehicles to be concerned about. We heaved forward.
This was no training vehicle. Most hovercraft pilots, at least those I’ve met, have years of operating aircraft behind them. Hovercrafts don’t include brake pedals for the instructor—they actually don’t have brake pedals at all.
When I was 16 years old I learned to drive a car. Once a week, an instructor would take over a classroom at my high school to impart the theory of vehicle operation. After the in-class section, another instructor would pull up to take us out in his silver Honda Civic. It had a passenger-side brake pedal. Sh-sh-sh he’d yell-whisper as I cruised toward the rear-end of the car in front of us without slowing. That passenger-side brake pedal didn’t collect any dust.
Unlike cars, to gain more control over a hovercraft, you need to give it power. As we cruised from the still-frozen lake and onto the thawing Yellowknife River, I was sure we’d hit the underside of the Ingraham Trail bridge, or at least bounce off its pillars like a gutter ball. But the pilot—at the helm at this point—pumped up the thrust, lowered our elevation and plunged us straight across the ice and onto the opening waters of the river. If you need to make a sharp turn or keep a straight line, I learned, you need thrust. It’s very counterintuitive. It’s also why learning in a wide-open area is probably best.
When I was 24, I met a friend in a parking lot in downtown Toronto and learned to drive a bus. We cruised narrow streets in the cumbersome vehicle and I learned to account for its bloated proportions. We practised parking in the emptiest lots we could find and I made overly-wide right hand turns onto busy streets. I didn’t hit anything.
The bus-driving test also ended in a mostly empty parking lot—save the tester’s sedan. I’d already merged onto the highway, done a left-hand turn at a traffic light and performed a circle check. In the lot, I pulled back the bar that folds the door open to let the tester out. He watched from beside the bus—in the very, very large blind spot that comes with a 45-foot vehicle. I shifted into reverse and eased toward the brick wall that backed the parking spot. “Where are you going?” He appeared beside the door, his glance shifting nervously back to the sedan that was right in my path. I corrected, and fitted the bus into place next to it. He passed me—probably knowing I would only ever operate a bus full of treeplanters on northern bush roads.
The hovercraft pilot handed me back the reins once we reached Yellowknife Bay, knowing it was mostly void of other life, save below the ice. As I cruised along, hard to the right and then hard to the left, I thought, “Maybe this is the perfect vehicle for Yellowknife”—a city of open water and frozen lake. Imagine a hovercraft taxi service to ferry houseboaters across the bay every morning as the ice forms and melts, rather than having them continue their well-practiced and necessary canoe-shuffle. Think how it might extend the fishing season that prevents both vehicle and boat transit during our two in-between seasons. I absently skidded farther to the right than I could even correct for—nearing a snowdrift that could easily catch our skirt and hang us up. The pilot gently asked if he should drive again. Yes, I’d had enough.
He steered us back to land and, despite the lack of brakes, skillfully pulled up to the large snowdrift that was his parking spot. He killed the power and took off his bulky earmuff headphones. “I thought you said you’d done this before?”