In early July 1993 we rolled into Polar River, just north of the Sixty-sixth parallel in the North West Territories. We had been driving for several hot and dusty days on the road across Canada, from Newfoundland to Alberta and then straight North. We passed through Whitehorse and Dawson City, Yukon and then a full day up the gravel Dempster Highway, two hours beyond the Arctic Circle. We had driven in tandem for a week, driving ‘Betsy’ our ’76 VW Van and our tiny Chevrolet Sprint we fondly called ‘Puny’. Unfortunately, Betsy didn’t survive the trip. Her engine blew in Whitehorse and, on a deadline to get to the job, we sold her body to a small Franco mechanic with the longest, most gorgeous ringlet hair we had ever seen. His hair was way down his back and pure ringlets. He saw me admiring it and said with a lop-sided grin: ‘the ladees, estee, they love my hairs, they are curly, non?’ I just wanted to touch it to verify that it was real. While in Whitehorse, we ate at a restaurant that is still there today: Sam N Andy’s. Interestingly and coincidentally, there is a very real chance we were served by my very good friend, Daisy, who lives and works in our current Nova Scotia town. One day, decades later, Daisy and I came upon this nugget of truth while reminiscing about our Northern days.
Anyway, Dean had accepted a one-year contract position as Recreation Director for a tiny northern community of 150 First Nations Gwich’in people and roughly ten whites living in about 25 houses built on pilings that were anchored into the permafrost. There was a general store, an all levels school, a gym, two churches, a health centre and a community office on a hill overlooking the confluence of two icy rivers. The setting was incredibly beautiful. It felt like the final frontier.
The first thing we did was attend a community feast. But, to call it a feast was a bit of a stretch. It was simply hot dogs, pop and chips, but, we were so pleased to finally be there and soon to be on a payroll again, after more than a year, that we were all smiles and best intentions. The local children took our hands and tugged us along. ‘How long will you be here?’ Charlie asked. They don’t mince words, I thought. They also were intrigued with our little black lab puppy, ‘Dempster’ whom we had on a bright blue leash and matching collar. Full of questions: ‘Why is he on leash? Does he bite? Why does he have a name? Do you feed him fish? Will he be chained outside?’ And, of course questions directed at me like: ‘Is there a baby in your belly? Where are your children?’ These questions were telling.
At the feast, we met Allie, the daughter of the former old Chief Henry. Allie was quite articulate and confident. She told us of her recent huge adventure, trekking in Nepal. Little did we know then that we would be trekking in Nepal the following year, thanks to the seed planted by Allie at this little feast.
The Chief of Polar River, Gwen, was dysfunctional, mostly ineffective, extremely high maintenance and neurotic. She expected Dean to be at the gym facility seven days a week, twenty-four hours per day. He was hired to do a job and she wanted him working non-stop. Poor Dean, who is overly kind, was exhausted by her neediness in a couple of weeks. The gym, thankfully, was a very nice facility, a couple of minutes walk from our apartment, and was perched on the edge of the forest which was millions of acres of wilderness. It was a state of the art building with a huge gym and fully stocked kitchen as well as Dean’s new office. Equipment galore: new, mats, rackets, nets. New cross-country skis and new canoes came later when Dean applied for and received a grant for them, as well as money to hire an instructor to come up and teach canoeing. The instructor was this funny young guy from Manitoba. He would exclaim, ‘I can’t believe I am being paid to teach the natives how to canoe’.
One of the main weekly events at the gym was the Wednesday night BINGO. Here was my husband with over seven years higher education and a former Army Captain, calling BINGO once per week. It was comical, if a little sad. It was a big event and it came with big winnings. Hundreds of dollars were won each week. I hung out in the kitchen, offering burgers and pop for sale, the proceeds going into the gym coffers. Dean was mandated to teach one of the local women how to run the gym facility and how to manage the budget and maintenance. This young woman had four young children and a husband who played around on her. Consequently, she wasn’t fully available. Life in Polar River was both gritty and frustrating. Like the day when one of the young kids who were always at the gym (free babysitting) told Dean, ‘I don’t have to listen to YOU, White Man’. That child was about seven years old.
The first tragic thing to happen to us that year occurred on a gorgeous evening a month after we arrived. I had been walking our lab puppy Dempster who was scampering ahead of me over the beaten-earth pathways. I was just skipping along and watching bemusedly as he chased a rodent under a house. That was the last time I saw him alive. He didn’t come out from under the house… that I knew of. I was calling and whistling. Nothing. Then, a dirty blue pick-up drove up. A young Gwich’in man, Billy, rolled down his window and with a smoke in his mouth said, ‘Your dog’s dead’. And drove off. I ran down to the gravel road beneath the hill where I was standing, hoping it was a cruel joke, and this is what I saw: My precious black lab puppy lying on his side with a growing pool of blood around his puppy head. I began to cry bitterly, hugging myself and bending at the waist in my grief, one hand over my mouth. Suddenly, I was feeling overwhelmingly betrayed by this new place. How could this happen to me? How could he be so cruel? Looking back a quarter of century, I realize that I was dealing with culture shock and home-sickness, being so new in a very foreign place, albeit still in Canada. The killing of our puppy didn’t mean much to young Billy because in his culture, they didn’t keep dogs as pets the way we do in the South. Someone went and fetched Dean and he came and wrapped his strong arms around me consoling me. Someone picked up Dempster in an old blanket and we drove down the Water Lake Road and Dean buried him while I sat in the car, still too upset to move, still in mild shock. A few days later, on a sunny afternoon, a nice local man brought us a very cute puppy from his new litter. Our new puppy had pointy ears and muzzle. He was fuzzy black and white, wolfish looking and stunk of fish – the only kind of food he knew. We called him Delta, after the River Delta where he was born.
Dean worked away at his position and I picked up some work, just finding odd things to do that no one else would. I made pots of soup and trays of sandwiches for Band Meetings. I took people to the big town of Inuvik for shopping and medical appointments. I typed minutes to various meetings. Then I was offered a full-time position in the Community Office doing payroll, payables and receivables. Later, I picked up the part-time position of Medical Centre Coordinator. There was this beautiful Medical Centre equipped with two examination rooms, incredible instruments and medications and a locked cupboard of narcotics. There was also a small apartment meant for a visiting doctor or nurse.
One day, I was out walking when someone ran up to me saying that little Suzy had been mauled by a dog. This was the second tragic thing to go down. I ran as fast I could to find her laying just out of reach of a big, mean Husky that was chained in the backyard of someone’s house. She was bleeding profusely from the many open wounds in her legs. I screamed at anyone to go get Dean and to call an ambulance to come from the neighbouring larger community, Pierson, which was an hour away. I prayed, spoke calmly to her and pressed rags on her wounds until Dean rolled up in our vehicle. To this day, I do not know where her parents, friends or relatives were even though we were in the middle of town. She was eight. We drove as fast as we could toward the Pierson Health Centre and the ambulance met us halfway. We transferred little Suzy into the ambulance and then followed it. She was put on the medical table and her ripped clothing was removed and as I watched the doctor poured hydrogen peroxide into her open wounds. She was laying on her belly repeating, ‘Owieeeee! Owieeeee!’ It occurred to me that this little girl was no stranger to pain. She received several hundred stitches to close her wounds. A year later, after returning from Nepal, I would find myself managing the medical clinic in Inuvik and working for that same doctor that stitched her wounds.
As Recreation Director, Dean had a major event to plan and carry out: the Spring Carnival which included many different competitions including snowmobile races and dogsled races. He spent days planning and coordinating this major event which would attract many visitors from out of town, and which had several thousand dollars in prize money. Very early on the day of the big event, we were still in bed sleeping when the phone rang. I picked it up: ‘Hello?’
‘Jordy’s dead’, said a voice.
Holy shit. ‘Dean!’ I screamed, ‘Get up! Jordy’s dead.’ We spent the next several hours sorting out Jordy’s body at his house. The RCMP came from Pierson and asked me all manner of lame questions. It was pretty obvious, if you had a nose, to detect how he died. The poor tortured soul smelled like a distillery mixed with a chemical waste plant. He died sitting up on his couch. Next, we took his body by truck to the medical centre and laid it out on one of the beds. I had to stay at the medical centre until the coffin guy from Inuvik showed up. Also, two of Jordy’s female relatives came in to clean up his body in preparation for burial. Despite the tragedy, it was an astoundingly beautiful sunny spring day and snow was melting rapidly. I was happy that Dean would have a successful carnival because of it, but the warmth wasn’t doing anything for Jordy’s body odor issue. For a while I talked to the coffin guy and his wife on the deck at the medical centre (there was no being inside with good ole Jordy). The funny thing about the entrepreneurial coffin guy was that he was an ER nurse.
When we finally left Polar River in July of 1994, we were happy to go – we had big plans to go travelling, but, we had many mixed feelings about the North. Yes, the Gwich’in of Polar River had hired us, but, did we really have any business nosing our way into a tiny First Nations community, for a year? Did we do any good at all, or did we just cause surreptitious upset, undermining and questioning of the old ways? I really don’t know for sure but, I think that the people of Polar River could most likely run their own gym (especially now that Dean had taught his protege), their own BINGO nights, their own health centre and do their own payroll, if push came to shove. I think that maybe they had this idea that we Southerners knew more and could organize better but, we were left feeling that it would be best for them to leave our Southern ways and instead, get back to a more traditional way of life. We had spent some time with the Old Chief Henry. He would come to our apartment door and want a cup of tea. He told us many stories of the old days and spending time on the trap line, drying fish and getting caribou for the whole community, going by dog sled over the snow. The traditional jobs that would be carried out by the women and the young men. How the children would play, tumbling and were cherished and spoiled by their Elders. Traditional feasts and celebrations. His eyes would glisten with the memories behind them. I was in awe of this man who had lead his people for over three decades. If I had a wish for the Northern Peoples it would be to go back to those ways and to embrace them once again, even if just little by little.
Perhaps that is impossible, but, I’m gonna wish it anyway.