Cord Cross Canada: Adventures in the Northern wild

In the wild

On my last morning in Inuvik I walked the 15 minutes from the Arctic Chalet to Grassy Lake. I didn’t have bear spray, but I did have a canoe paddle I could wave around or strike with – it was enough to keep the bears away, apparently. I also had a mosquito hat, but I lucked out and didn’t need that either.

No grizzlies and no mosquitos; just me, the canoe and the birds. A car occasionally whizzed by on the only road into town, but otherwise it was quiet. I paddled around the lake, trying to perfect solitary canoeing, occasionally snapping a photo of the shrubs and spruce trees.

I only had an hour to enjoy the solitude before I had to head to the airport to depart for Yellowknife, Edmonton, Toronto and finally Waterloo; I was a long way from home, and I was alone in the wild.

Northern geography

When I’d arrived in the Northwest Territories a week earlier, it didn’t seem very wild. I was there for the Young Leaders’ Summit on Northern Climate Change, and I was accompanied by other delegates who had never been north of the 53rd parallel. Yet here we were at the 68th, two degrees into the interior of the Arctic Circle.

In a town almost six times larger than the one I grew up in, I was happy I could use my geography background to help me notice what made this region unique.

First, there was the fact that all infrastructure was above ground. Building foundations and pipelines for gas and water were all in plain view because the permafrost is difficult to build on.

I could thank my cultural geography class for helping me understand the significance of a residential school still standing in the centre of town, used now as an elementary school. I also learned a lot from various conference participants about the demographics of Inuvik; the town is largely composed of two different Indigenous groups, Inuvialuit and Gwich’in, and they didn’t always get along.

Inuvik has two landmark buildings. The Igloo Church, that is, a church in the shape of an igloo (though made of regular building materials, not snow), is quite the sight, and I was glad for the chance to tour it. However, churches make me uneasy, and I felt much more comfortable in the Inuvik community greenhouse.

Gardening in the north isn’t easy, and the greenhouse is a fantastic initiative in a place where fruits and vegetables cost about four times more than they do in the rest of Canada. I was lucky that most of my food was provided for at the conference, but after a bad experience with the first red meat I consumed in two years, I was glad to have a carrot fresh from the ground.

Besides tours of the church and the greenhouse, visitors to Inuvik have to make their own fun. Of course, with 70 other newcomers to the town, fun was everywhere when the conference activities ended every day.

Of people and pinkies

One evening, I went for a walk with several other girls only to end up at the local fire hall which also happens to have a bar hidden behind all the fire engines. It was there that many of us joined the Stinky Pinky Club; all you have to do to join is drink a shot with a detached pinky finger in it!

Not only is the shot free, but you also get a certificate stating your new and official membership to the club.

On a less disgusting note, we got to hear from Marcelo Da Luz, who had driven his solar-powered car from Ontario to Inuvik. A former flight attendant with no engineering background, he was the brainchild behind his space-age looking car that is occasionally mistaken for a UFO.

Marcelo is originally from Brazil and now lives in Toronto, and while I was glad to hear his story, Joe was even more enthused. Joe is an Inuit hunter and Canadian Ranger who has only twice been south of the territories, and he was one of the many amazing people that I met from all across Canada.

On the last night, a group of these amazing people got together for a bonfire at the campground, drinking until the sun started to go down at 11 p.m., and finally heading to the Mad Trapper, the only bar in town. There we danced our hearts out then watched as Marcelo started a limbo contest, prompting everyone in the bar to join in the revelry.

When we left at 2 a.m. it was surprisingly dark, and we headed to the hotel for passionate conversations that I wish I could remember.

Last looks

Two days later the conference was over, but I again experienced a fantastic sunset at 11 p.m.; Marcelo and I were kayaking on the mighty Mackenzie River. Most of the delegates had left, and I was extremely glad that I did not yet have to return home, as there was a lot of Inuvik and the surrounding area that I had not seen.

Marcelo had access to kayaks through the former mayor of Inuvik; we dragged them down a hill, paddled across a lake and a stream and finally arrived at the Mackenzie. It was incredibly still, but we didn’t get very far upstream as we kept stopping to take pictures or share stories.

We had conversations that I definitely do remember; discussing perhaps cliché topics as fate and spirituality, but what else is there to talk about in such a picturesque setting?

The constant feeling of sunrise or sunset leads to beautiful lighting at almost all hours of the day.

At the chalet I stayed at for the last few days, I was allowed to take six white huskies for a walk in the morning; it was just the seven of us and no leashes, with me holding my camera up above their prancing paws.

At the beginning of the hike, they alternated between jumping all over my white Laurier sweater and running ahead of me, making me nervous that they would startle a grizzly, but by the end we were all comfortable together and the animal therapy lasted me until I was able to see my own dog again.

Others at the conference often stated that they were glad to do certain activities as they would likely never be back that far north. While I might not be back to Inuvik for awhile, I definitely plan to return to the Arctic, or at least the subarctic. Most people I know who spend longer periods in the north are there for the wilderness or to research. Both could be in my future.

Laurier sponsored me on my journey, and I’m grateful as there may be northern research opportunities through the school either as an undergraduate or a graduate student.

There is a lot to learn about northern ecology, community resource management, traditional ecological knowledge, sustainable living, planning and policy and more.

I experienced a very mild wilderness, canoeing alone on a very shallow lake and hiking the ski paths outside of the town.

It was remote enough that had I been mauled by a grizzly, it’s possible that no one would have found me for days. Even if I don’t return to do research, I at least have to experience a northern winter; hopefully, I’ll get to return and join my new husky friends for a dogsled adventure.

For now I’ll have to be content with closing my eyes and dreaming of the cool Arctic wind and the warmth of the midnight sun.