Saturday, November 26, 2022

“What a City Girl Learned About Life North of Sixty” by Jo Anne Wilson



I had been in Yellowknife, in the northernmost part of Canada, for a little over two months and was slowly getting used to the cold and the darkness.

When I talked to my Toronto friends, they said, “But it’s dry cold.” Let me tell you, when it is 35 or 40 degrees below zero Celsius, cold is friggin’ cold! And everyone was so covered that if you didn’t know their particular parka or scarf you had no idea who you were passing on the street.

My colleagues were mostly welcoming, although I was conscious that they were wary of the Torontonian that had landed in their midst, a painted city lady with fancy clothes. I think they worried that there would also be fancy ideas that would antagonize the local tourism businesses I was now working with. What they didn’t know about me was that I love to listen to what life, my surroundings and other people can teach me. Perhaps because I moved so much when I was young, I am almost instantly attuned to the rhythms of life in a new place. And Yellowknife was no different.

Finding my rhythm in Yellowknife

Wrapping every part of myself in warm clothes, socks, boots, scarves, parka, hat and mitts; marvelling at the northern lights that I could see from my balcony some nights; not seeing the sun until 10 or so in the morning and then saying goodbye to it again at 2; watching foxes walking through the city...

Plus, paying an obscene amount of money for groceries or a bottle of wine; seeing more stars in the sky than I’d ever imagined; going to the Legion with my new friends for “meat night.” I thought it was “meet” night, but quickly learned that it referred to the raffle for a side of caribou – sadly showing my “city-girlness.”

One Saturday afternoon, my colleague Pete, called and asked if I would like to drive up the ice road with him the following day. You bet I would! “Dress warmly. See you at 9.” A few minutes later, Eric, another colleague, called and asked if I wanted to join a couple of workmates at the firing range the next day. Such exotic invitations for someone used to museum dates or eating out with friends after a movie on a weekend. I told Eric of my planned trip with Peter, asked for a rain check and said I would see him on Monday at the office.

An unexpected adventure begins

Sunday morning, I was bundled like the Michelin snow tire man and waiting in the lobby of my apartment building for Peter, who pulled up promptly at 9 am in his ancient Dodge Ram truck. We headed into the frigid, still dark morning toward the Ingraham Trail (pronounced “Ingram”). The Trail crosses the Yellowknife River then wanders for about 70 kilometres through jack-pine and spruce-lined trout-filled lakes – Prosperous, Madeline and Pontoon, Prelude, Reid and finally, after crossing the Cameron River with its enchanting waterfall, reaches Tibbitt Lake.

Peter gave me all the details of the pre-Cambrian terrain we were traversing. Over the next few years, I would return to parts of the Trail to stay with friends who lived or cottaged on one of the lakes to hike alongside the Cameron River, to kayak on Reid Lake and to go on a caribou hunt in the winter in the bush that hugged the Trail.

Peter also filled me in on all the safety gear he had in the back of the truck – an ax, candles, matches, tin cans, rope, hunting knife, rifle, space blankets, candy bars, extra socks and mitts, toilet paper, large plastic garbage bags, first aid kit, etc. etc. All I had with me was a large thermos of tea, my camera, some sandwiches and extra mitts.

Out in the wilderness in 30 below cold

After an hour on the road, the sun finally climbed above the horizon and we reached the very frozen and expansive Tibbitt Lake. Peter suggested we drive to the middle, stop, have some tea and walk around for a bit. I had walked on frozen lakes before in Muskoka but this was something new. The ice here gets between 50 and 130 centimetres thick and can bear trucks carrying up to 42 tons travelling the road daily from freeze up to thaw, taking supplies to the Lupin Mines 550 kilometres from Yellowknife.

Yet in all this harshness, there was beauty – the colour of the sky, a blinding bright blue so clear that it can only been seen where the soot of a city is not embedded in the air, and tender shoots of shore grass, trapped in clear bubbles of ice at the edge of a couple of small, low islands in the middle of the lake.

For those who have never seen true wilderness, it must be hard to imagine – no hydro wires or communications towers, no roads, no buildings, no other humans, no sound. Pure heaven! Both frightening and familiar at the same time. At one with nature, yet at its mercy.

Far from help, close to nature

After our break, we continued to the end of Tibbitt Lake and started to follow the ice road a bit further, when the truck started to make a growling sound and Peter said we should turn around and head back.

Shortly after the U-turn we started to see caribou and, Peter, a serious hunter, was frustrated. Minutes later, the truck came to a stop and would go no further. Peter swore, got out, popped the hood, tinkered around a bit and concluded it was a problem with the transmission.

So – I will set our new scene.

We were about 75 kilometres from Yellowknife, there was no means of communication with civilization; it was about 30 below and the sun was about to set. However, the North had some glory to show me even at this moment.

Sundogs appeared on either side of the setting sun. Sundogs are hexagonal ice crystals that form on either side of the sun like a halo when it’s too cold for clouds. They refract sunlight like a rainbow does; some people call them an "icebow."

A herd of about 40 caribou came to see what was up. The caribou knew they were in no danger and circled us. They even turned their rumps toward us in what Peter took as the ultimate insult to a now impotent hunter. But there was little time for loitering. We needed to make sure we were protected for the night and we needed to do it before the last streaks of the daylight disappeared.

Preparing for the worst

Peter and I dug a trench in the snow, lined it with boughs cut from the few spruce trees around us, covered them with the space blankets and covered the entire trench with a tarp anchored into the snow with rope and more spruce boughs. We were each alone with our thoughts – thoughts we only shared with each other days later.

Peter: She comes from the city. Any time now she is going to start panicking. I can’t stand weepy women. I hope I can calm her until help arrives. Goddamn truck!

Me: Okay – this is going to be a scary adventure. I think we’ll be okay. I wonder how many stories and campfire songs I can think of to get us through when we have nothing left to talk about and can’t sleep. Glad I’ve done a lot of camping. Damn, I hate being cold.

Peter said that we would have to rely on getting rescued by hunters going by or by a truck going to or from the mines since no one knew where we were and there was no way to contact anyone. (Remember I said no communications towers, therefore, no cell phones!!)

“Not true,” I said to Peter. I told him that Eric had called the day before and I had let him know that Peter and I were driving to Tibbitt Lake. When neither of us showed for work on Monday, someone would come and look for us. Whew – it would be a long night but help would arrive eventually.

Saved just in time

We sat in the truck, watched the caribou and waited for the last light to fade. About a half hour later we saw headlights coming up behind us. Hallelujah! It was three hunters in a truck, the back of which was filled with partly butchered caribou. We crammed into the two rows of seats in the cab of the truck amongst the guns and other equipment. The cab was filled with the metallic smell of freshly spilled blood, but we were safe now and comfort didn’t matter. The driver informed us that they were headed back to Yellowknife but had two stops to make first.

First, we stopped at a small gold mine that was operating on the east side of the lake. The hunters were delivering some of their hunt meat to the miners. We sat in a canvas tent beside a wood stove, drank tea, talked of our adventure and our rescuers’ hunt, and traded stories of where we all came from originally – not one of the 11 people was from the Northwest Territories. I recall that there were two of us from Ontario, three from Newfoundland, two from Germany, two from Quebec, one from Alberta and one from Scotland – a not atypical mix for the North.

Our second stop was at an old game warden’s cabin at the south end of the lake just as it joins the Trail back to Yellowknife.

Think of all the stories or cartoons or films you have seen of prospectors’ cabins or of what you imagine from the Robert Service poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee and you are now with us. Rough-hewn wood walls and roof. Small slits of windows high up in the walls, a hard wood platform that would have been a bed, a small table and a couple of rickety chairs.

But what dominated the small room was the stove in the corner, now burning so hot that the chimney pipe was glowing red halfway up to the roof. The hunters pulled out flasks of whisky and some caribou sausage from a previous hunt. The meat was skewered on a stick and thrust into the fire for a couple of minutes. We ate and drank, alternating bites of hot sausage with swallows of whisky from two shared flasks. And, yes, true to the setting, we each wiped the mouth of the flask on our sleeves before taking a sip.

Part of me was savouring all this adventure, part of me was worried that the stove would set the cabin on fire, part of me was trying to recite The Cremation of Sam Magee in my head from memory:

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;

Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher

The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see

And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

A grateful return to civilization

Finally, we were ready to head home. Fed and slightly tipsy, I was grateful to know that I would soon be able to soak in a hot bath and climb into my own mattressed and duvet-covered bed. But the North had one more marvel for me.

As we approached Yellowknife, the skies started to dance with a spectacular display of Aurora Borealis. Licks of green and pink and white twisted and turned and gyrated across the open skies and kept up their merriment for at least half an hour. Eleven hours in the wilderness, a day overflowing with Northern experiences – my senses were overwhelmed. Finally, at about 8 at night, we saw the glow of Yellowknife’s city lights on the horizon – civilization once more.

When I told the story to friends “south of sixty” (south of the 60th parallel) I said I thought Mother Nature threw all these quintessentially northern experiences at me to test me and see if I could stay. I’m glad I passed and neither had to leave nor had to meet an end like that of Sam McGee. The North, like so many other places I have lived in or visited, reached deep into my being and has remained a colourful thread woven into the tapestry that is my life.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights

But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

I cremated Sam McGee.


Jo Anne Wilson was Director of Marketing for Tourism for three years in the early 1990s, working for the Government of The Northwest Territories (at the time, Nunavut had not been established as a separate territory). She and her staff promoted tourism to the NWT throughout North America, Europe and Japan and assisted local tourism businesses with their marketing. She is now a retired college professor who enjoys theatre, art exhibits, travel and writing. 

“What a City Girl Learned About Life North of Sixty” was previously published in Journey Woman magazine. 

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