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Before airplanes, scows and steamers would resupply trading posts in spring once the ice broke. Northerners would barter for goods, planning for the next trapping season or just the long winter ahead, and then set out into the bush. Mail—or any word from outside—arrived by dogsled courier and it could take months or longer for a letter to get out and for a response to come back. Long-distance travel was undertaken by ship, or by dogsled, canoe or kayak. Many of these journeys were limited by a voyager's physical endurance. Two decades into the 20th century, to outsiders, much of the endless expanse of land east of the Mackenzie River was terra incognita—the bush, rock and water proving too overwhelming a challenge to investigate.

And then it all changed very quickly.

“Everybody was standing there. We see something. Everybody said ‘devil.’” That was 1931, on Ptarmigan Point, and Michel Paper, then 17, and his community were seeing their first airplane overhead. Across the North, flying machines arrived and they were often greeted with unbelieving crowds. Inuit accounts of the first arrivals would look upon the new flying machines—tingmisuuq, or “which usually flies”—with equal parts reverence and mistrust. That would prove to be for good reason.

To much of the North and its people today, the airplane is still the only year-round link to the outside world. It’s a lifeline, grocery store, ambulance. It also irrevocably altered a way of life by accelerating development and bringing in settlers. Though many of the first aviation pioneers came up after the great wars, we now nurture our own pilots and we own our own major airlines. But the magic is still there, and we still look up when we hear engines roar overhead.

Up Here's special Aviation Issue will be on newsstands August and September. Pick up a copy or buy a subscription