the miracle of off grid communication

'Happy birthday, you old fart, happy birthday to you." Sam and I finished up the song and leaned closer to the laptop, expectantly holding our breath. Silence.

‘Happy birthday, you old fart, happy birthday to you.” Sam and I finished up the song and leaned closer to the laptop, expectantly holding our breath. Silence. Eventually, a tinny “Hello? Is anyone there?” came from the speakers. We yelled “It’s us, Sam and Lisa – happy birthday!”, but to no avail. Our friend muttered something about not being able to hear anything and hung up.

Annoyed, we turned off the computer. We’re suffering through yet another bout of excruciatingly bad telephone connections, something that is the norm rather than an exception with our phone line that runs over satellite internet. After a few months of favourable up-load speeds that allowed the other party to actually understand what we were saying, we became used to being able to carry on a real conversation, using Skype. It was even possible to check and pay our credit card balance without being booted out of the telebanking system or being put through to an operator who usually suggested calling back from a different phone before just hanging up. Not very funny, when you’re sitting out in the bush and there is no other phone.

We had originally started out with another internet telephone company. In retrospect, it worked no better or worse than Skype, except that it was more expensive and saddled with an amazingly rude customer service. The call quality was the same as now. Usually, there is a lengthy delay as our voices wind their way through the computer, modem and satellite dish, hurl themselves up into space, bounce off the satellite down to Earth again and enter the regular phone system to emerge slightly slurred and distorted in the ears of friends and family.

Loved ones and perfect strangers alike are forced to communicate with us as one does with ESL speakers who have so far only mastered the very basics of the language. They will pick up a comprehensible word here and there, correlate it to the topic we are talking about, use their intuition to guess at the possible meaning and then reply slowly and loudly, asking simple questions that require only “yes” and “no” as an answer. Sam and I inevitably find ourselves shouting into the microphone, as if mere volume can overcome the problems of calling over cyberspace.

A frustrating experience that is best dealt with by avoiding phone calls, I figure. I have a hard time with phone calls anyway. In a life that is largely devoid of people and a world equally devoid of people who can relate to a wilderness lifestyle, it feels bizarre to sit in a little log cabin, hunched over the keyboard of an electronic gadget while outside a lynx or moose wanders by and carry on a meaningful conversation with somebody in a carpeted room in some far-away city.

“…and watched a wolf lope along the snowmobile trail. Other than that, not much is new here. The water hole has grown in quite a bit, I hope it still lasts until breakup.” I might say to an old friend, already feeling out of sync because of the content of my “news”.

“Hmm,” she says, trying to sound interested. “Yeah. And here … our little one is so fascinated by everything, it’s really neat. Yesterday, I just sat and watched a piece of fluff with him. He really makes you notice the small things in life.”

“Hmm,” I say, trying to work up interest. “Oh yeah? Wow. Maybe let’s talk some other time, when the connection is better.”

But of course, there are the calls you really want to make – to sing a birthday song; and also the calls you have to make – the horror of trying to get a bureaucrat or bank clerk to stay on the line and deal with a problem despite the terrible phone connection. That’s when we’re grinding our teeth, digging in our nails and shouting a bit louder into the microphone.

I know, it’s all a miracle of technology that nowadays you can sit somewhere out in the boonies, surf the net and use your computer as a phone. But it is the days where through some glitch or grace of god our connection suddenly improves wildly and the phone allows a real conversation are the greatest miracle of all.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.