I will have to admit that the colder winter months of January and February were difficult for me. Now I understand why people around here fly out to warmer climates in order to escape the dark and cold months of winter. It didn’t help that we were also constantly sick during those months. We seemed to catch all the bugs that were going around town. Maybe we just aren’t immune yet to the arctic germs and viruses.
It couldn’t have come at a better time when my sister, Rachel, told me she was coming for a visit at the end of February. Since my mother would never have made the long journey here on her own, she took this opportunity to travel to Inuvik with my sister. I was hoping to show my mother and sister a good time. Our neighbour is my mother’s age and has lived here practically her whole life. Therefore, this made her the best tour guide you could ever ask for, especially since she’s such a great storyteller. She made sure that they had cultural experiences during their time in the North. Food wise, they were treated to freshly caught local fish and moose meat. My mom’s favourite part was definitely seeing the grandkids. However, culturally, she most enjoyed it when Ruth took us down to the Gwich’in Tribal Council to view a traditional garment. Ruth was one of the 40 seamstresses that worked on a three year project called the “Gwich’in Traditional Caribou Skin Project”. These women worked to replicate a traditional Gwich’in caribou skin summer outfit from the 19th century. In order to rediscover the lost art of making these outfits, she needed to travel to the Smithsonian as well as the Museum of Civilization to study the original techniques and materials behind a preserved original garment. She is a great story teller and it was captivating to hear her recount the whole story about all the intricate details that were involved in sewing this outfit together.
My mother wanted to spend some one on one time with her grandkids, so André, Rachel and myself went on a two day winter camping trip, along with an EA from the school, named Alex. The plan was to snowmobile to our site, located in the scenic Gwich’in park. Once there, our plan was to sleep in a traditional McPherson tent, cook over a wood stove, and spend our days ice fishing. We left with a plan in place, but I’d say that the real adventure began when our plans started to fall apart. Early the first morning, André set out with a buddy to blaze a trail, and find a good location to set up camp. Things always take more time out here, and so, Rachel, Alex and I patiently waited for most of the day for the boys to come back. We kept busy that day by beading and embroidering to help pass the time. Finally, André showed up in the late afternoon, so we left in a flurry of excitement, and rushed in order to get to camp before sunset.
I had the opportunity to ride a snowmobile for the first time. I really enjoyed speeding down the smooth and flat ice road at 80km, with a loaded boggan full of supplies swaying back and forth behind me. We eventually turned off the ice road and followed a path that made its way through creeks, lakes, and wooded hills. However, just as we got to the summit of a large hill overlooking the whole delta, the belt on André’s snowmobile blew. We now had the problem of having 2 boggans, 4 people, and only 1 working snowmobile. The sun was setting, and we had to come up with a game plan. We decided that André would drive Alex to our destination so that she could begin to set up camp. Meanwhile, Rachel and I would stay with the broken down snowmobile, and wait for André to come back for us. We were grateful for the warm -5C weather and the beautiful scenery before us on top of the hill. About an hour later we heard the sound of André’s snowmobile coming back for us. We squished 3 adults on a 2-person snowmobile, and headed to our camp. On the way, we stopped to fell and buck a few trees for firewood. What a quaint sight it was when we arrived at camp. The McPherson tent was hung up on a makeshift white spruce frame, right off the bank of Campbell lake. Alex was busy collecting spruce boughs to insulate and cushion the floor of our tent. Let me tell you, the aroma of spruce boughs smelt wonderful! Seeing as it was February, we were losing daylight fast. Therefore, we worked together to set up the wood stove and start a fire to warm up our tent. For supper, we feasted on a well deserved meal of chilli and eskimo donuts.
That evening, while we played card games, we began to wonder about the wood stove. We had set it inside the tent on a bed of spruce boughs. It had started to smell smokey, and we realized that the stove was sinking deeper and deeper into the melting snow. It was also heating up the spruce boughs. Being the green and inexperienced bunch that we were, we put on our work gloves, and attempted to quickly disconnect the pipe from the stove in order to reconfigure the setup. However, we were smoked out of the tent within seconds. Staying low to the ground to avoid a lung full of smoke, we quickly assembled some logs and placed them underneath the stove in order to elevate it. Once that problem was taken care of, we reattached the pipe, and were back to business. After a long, eventful day, we finally settled for the night. We didn’t have the best sleep as we kept waking up every time André had to throw wood in the stove. We also neglected to place enough spruce boughs on the floor. All night, the lack of separation between our sleeping bags and the snow beneath made it cold. Add to this, the branches that kept jabbing into our backs and sides every time we tossed and turned in order to find a comfy position. Despite all this, we still managed to sleep in until 9am, something that I rarely get to do because of the kids.
The next morning, André and I left camp on to meet up with his buddy who was coming to drop off a belt to repair the broken down snowmobile. Luckily, the broken snowmobile had just enough juice to make it to the ice road so that we wouldn’t have to tow it down the hill. André’s co-worker had just finished checking his trap lines before meeting up with us. Once the belt was replaced, he brought us to the back of his trailer to show us his frozen furry friends. I almost had to laugh when he grabbed a frozen fox by its hind leg and lifted it up to show us. Frozen foxes are not a sight you get to see too often. He had also caught a minx, which was also frozen in mid-stride. He helps an elder with his trap line and they sell the furs in town. We parted ways and rode both snowmobiles back to camp, arriving just in time for Rachel and Alex’s bacon and egg breakfast.
As we ate, it was so peaceful to sit in the quietness and stillness of the frozen north. Soon enough, however, we started to hear the faint sound of snowmobiles coming up over the distant hills. Two of André’s co-workers were coming to join us to do some ice fishing on the lake. We welcomed them warmly with hot coffee, and headed out on to the lake to drill some holes. With the snowmobiles positioned to shelter us from the wind, we put together our “jiggling” sticks. These simple fishing rods are made of a stick, a long piece of string, and a spoon. We dropped our lines in the hole and just like it’s name…we started “jiggling”. I’ve gone ice fishing with André’s family in northern Saskatchewan before, and all I’ve ever caught was frostbite. You can say that I wasn’t too optimistic this time either. Just as I began to lay down on the snow packed ice, and announce that I was doubtful I’d catch anything, I felt a tug on my line. I quickly jumped to my feet and yelled, “I’ve got a bite! What do I do? What do I do?” At the same time, one of the other teachers caught a fish as well. There was much excitement as everyone dropped their lines, and came to see our catch. We both pulled out small “jacks”, aka Nothern Pike. The locals aren’t too fond of jacks because they have too many bones. But I didn’t care, it was a fish! Unfortunately, that was the only catch of the day. When we began to see that the wind was picking up, and there was likely a storm brewing, we took down our camp, and made the long snowmobile trek back to Inuvik. This was my first time “on the land” and I was so grateful for it. On our journey back, I was amazed by the beauty of the land highlighted by the sun set behind the horizon. I keep having to pinch myself every now and then when I consider that I live in a place that is largely untamed and untouched by man. There was something satisfying about living outdoors and having to work in order to survive for two days out in the winter cold. It was truly an adventure, especially because, as my sister put it, it felt slightly reckless and unsafe at times.
That evening, shortly after our return, the worst windstorm I have ever seen hit Inuvik. I was very grateful for not having been stuck out there. It was a good idea to take down the camp as soon as we did. There are usually a couple of wicked windstorms that hit during the year in Inuvik. That night, back in the safety of our home, we were all awakened by howling winds. The hurricane force winds were so severe that they were making our house shake. In the past, these windstorms have lifted homes off their stilts. I was really hoping that ours would hold up, and it did. In the morning, all the planes were grounded as the storm moved south. I was secretly hoping that my mom and sister’s flights would be canceled so they’d be able to stay a little longer. As we walked around town and talked to people in the community, we began to hear about the damage the wind storm left behind. Some utilitdores had been damaged, but the worst happened to the brand new daycare facility. The roof could not withstand the pounding of the wind, and the whole roof collapsed. Later, my mom told me that though it was scary to witness, she was glad to experience what it was like living in the North during her short stay here. We have definitely been spoiled this year to receive visit from family during the winter months. It has been refreshing to see them and fun to experience new arctic adventures with them. Despite the long winter days, there is inexpressible richness in the experiences we get to have out here. Winter has never been so enjoyable.