My seven days in the arctic during the spring of 2009, seeing Yellowknife and Inuvik, driving the ice road over the Mackenzie River and standing at the edge of the North American continent in Tuktoyaktuk now seem surreal.
In the past, getting around Canada, one of the world’s most gigantic countries, required almost limitless courage, great resourcefulness, hard-to-get provisions and often a crazy optimism. Now, you simply plunk your gear onto the baggage belt, walk up a ramp and squeeze yourself into a seat on a small jet.
No matter where in this vast land we live, most Canadians now are like me- accustomed to a soft life. Whatever culture they belong to, the young people of Inuvik, far above the Arctic Circle, listen to I-Pods and watch television just like the temperate zone kids do. Some of their elders are worried. It bothers one of them who spoke to me that if the power went off in Inuvik, those who know how to work with the land and the cold will get along just fine, but few of the young people will be among them.
I suspect that, other than a handful of hunters and ‘bush rats’, most people here in the lower latitudes have no outdoor survival skills at all. However, conditions in the temperate zone aren’t quite as challenging.
April in Inuvik is a world of metre-deep snow and a balmy minus nine degrees Celsius in the sunshine. At night, or when the wind returns, temperatures can drop sharply again into the minus twenties or lower. In April, most people are still wearing parkas with fur-trimmed hoods.
The world of internet and gizmos has arrived in the arctic, and just like kids here, the young people take for granted heat, light and electronic toys that are perpetually ready with a click. They eat chips and candy along with the ‘country food’ that includes moose and caribou and fish, and instead of ATV’s and dirt bikes, the young men often roar around on huge and powerful snow machines. Those machines are the sex and status symbols, but also the work horses, of the North.
If you’re sensitive about fur-bearing animals, you’d better avoid visiting the land in which modern-day comfort, even out-for-the-day survival, can still depend upon the fur that’s harvested from almost every animal that moves across the arctic. Over the centuries, fur-bearing animals have kept human beings warm, fed and alive. Today, the animals continue to be important. Not everyone in the north eats ‘country food’, but almost every resident you’ll meet has garments made from or trimmed in fur. For certain situations and uses, humans have not yet invented materials as functionally perfect as fur.
Moose hide is tough enough, when properly processed, to make footwear. Cariboo hide can be soft enough for clothes. Wolf fur, turned so that the wind runs with the hair, is perfect for heavy mitts to protect the hands on the handlebars of both dog sleds and snowmobiles from freezing and becoming useless. Muskrat is fluffy and keeps the wind out of the cuffs of smoother mitts, made from the wind and water-resistant fur of seals. Snowshoe hares provide soft, fine fur, and the woolly undercoat of musk ox is great for lining the inside of mitts and clothing.
I’m glad I didn’t wait until summer months to visit the north.
I would have missed the chance to drive on the ice road that’s been scraped across the mighty Mackenzie River, all the way from Inuvik to remote Tuktoyaktuk - affectionately known as 'Tuk" on
the edge of the Beaufort Sea.
the edge of the Beaufort Sea.
I would have missed the sun shining through a snowstorm, and the arrival of the North's long days of light that stretched far into the pink and gold evening. I would have missed the experience of driving a team of dogs over the fingers and bays of a frozen lake and into the snowy forest on the delta. If I’d been there in warm months, I’d be walking, and wearing a bug jacket.
The arctic in April was sunny much of the time, often with gently blowing snow. People of all cultures were smiling and friendly. Now and then the wind blew down from the frozen Beaufort Sea and bit hard, reminding me of how small, weak and unskilled I am. Yet, when I stood on a set of sled runners and drove a jubilant dog team over a frozen river, across a snowy meadow and into the forest, I felt, however briefly, as though I belonged.